The Beauty of Native Grasses

February 25, 2020

Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, and Little Bluestem are three of the four tall grasses of the Great Plains. The fourth, not pictured, is Switchgrass.

Native grasses are the foundation of healthy vegetation. In addition to providing valuable forage and cover for livestock and wildlife, grasses cover the ground surface and enhance infiltration of water into the soil while improving the health of your soil. For these reasons, grasses are very effective at limiting erosion and runoff and increasing the water-holding capacity of your land. This means more water where you want it, when you want it!

Timing is one of the most critical factors in any seeding project. In the past, it was commonly recommended that seeding occur in the spring. However, due to shifting climate patterns and longer, drier summers, many range specialists now recommend planting between January and March, or between mid-August and early-September.

Before you Seed

Before investing in seed, first consider whether it is truly necessary or wise. In the area where you are proposing to seed, was brush recently removed, and are healthy stands of native grasses nearby? If so, the existing seed bank may be as good or better than any seed you could purchase. Has the area always been barren, for instance with thin rocky (i.e., caliche) soils and grasses spaced far apart? Soil organic matter, water-holding capacity, or porosity (drainage) may be critical limiting factors, rather than seed. If so, it may be that the limitations of those soils or that area just need to be accepted. Or, maybe adding organic material or bringing in livestock to “fertilize” and disturb the soil via hoof action might have a greater impact than adding seed. The lesson here is to first establish that shortcomings of the site are based on a lack of seed, rather than other factors.

If seed truly is a limiting factor, carefully consider your goals. Are you managing that area for livestock, wildlife, scenery, or all the above? If you are managing for wildlife, which wildlife? Managing for specific types of wildlife is beyond the scope of this article, but it bears mentioning that each has different requirements. However, they are not necessarily opposed. For instance, quail and dove are especially fond of feeding on “weeds” such as forbs, but also require bunchgrasses and brush for nesting and escape cover. Their needs are different from those of deer and turkey. Before selecting where to seed and what seed to use, determine the highest and best use(s) of that patch of land.

Selecting your Seed

Now, you are ready to select your seed. There are a number of good, local options for native seed produced in Texas. Among them are Native American Seed, Turner Seed Co, and Bamert Seed Co. Each of these vendors can make custom mixes for you.

Native American Seed is a great choice for mixes made up of a wide variety of local “ecotypes” native to a particular area. They are doing critical work to promote biodiversity and appreciation of our unique native flora and fauna. There are numerous choices to match most any objective and site.

Turner and Bamert each have some good, basic economic options. Keep in mind that some of their mixes contain non-native seed that may be at odds with your goals. Also, note that mixes labeled as “Texas” or “Texas wildlife” mixes are not necessarily made up of native and non-invasive seed. With those considerations in mind, both vendors can provide a great mix for your needs. Do your homework, and try to learn a bit about each species in the mix before you spend your hard-earned money.

Success in Seeding

Following are a few pointers on how to promote success with your seeding project. Inevitably, unless you have the benefit of irrigation you will be at the whims of the weather, but there are a few factors you can try to control. Among the most critical are getting your seed where you want it, and promoting seed-to-soil contact. To avoid having valuable seed blow away in the wind, mix it with a carrier or two. A mix of compost and sand can be very effective. Rice hulls also work well.

Once mixed, determine how to distribute your seed. For small areas hand broadcasting will suffice, but larger areas may require a hand-held or chest-mounted broadcaster, available at most feed stores. Ensure that the broadcaster will work for native grass seeds. If seeding is a regular practice, and you have a tractor or ATV, consider investing in a seed drill that is calibrated for native seed but, keep in mind that seed drills may not be a wise choice for especially rocky areas or areas with cut stumps left in the ground.

If you are not using a seed drill, you’ll need to first prepare the seedbed. This involves reducing standing vegetation to provide access to bare soil followed by preparation of a smooth seed bed. A light dicing can be useful for removing vegetation, while a drag-behind harrow has two sides, which when used in sequence, can accomplish both objectives. Once a smooth seedbed has been established, distribute seed and press the seed into the soil. A rake or the press of a foot works great for small areas but is impractical on larger areas. This is where lightweight equipment, such as an ATV, or a tractor, can come in handy. You may simply drive over the site repeatedly. Dragging spare tires, if done carefully, can accomplish the same goal. For a bit more money, roller packers and seed bed rollers, tailored to your site, work especially well for these purposes. You might be able to come up with a more creative solution.

Finally, because every seeding project involves some risk, hedge your bets. For example, you might determine a reasonable area you want to improve over, say, the next five years. Divide it up into ten areas, and seed one area each spring and one area late summer/early fall each year. This will prevent major losses when the rain doesn’t come. After five years, you are almost sure to have notable success. That is, unless the rains never come!

Hopefully, this article will help you with your efforts to improve your little patch of Hill Country Heaven. Please feel free to contact Hill Country Conservancy with questions on your range enhancement project. If we don’t have the answers, we will gladly direct you to someone who does. We’re your partners in caring for the land.

About the Author

Frank Davis

Frank Davis grew up in Texas and came to Austin in 1997, where he fell in love with the parks and natural areas of the Texas Hill Country. He is the Director of Land Conservation at Hill Country Conservancy and recently completed a six-year tenure as a board member for the Texas Land Trust Council. Frank has a Bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master’s in wildlife ecology from Texas State University, where his thesis work analyzed the effects of growing season fire on the exotic invasive grass, King Ranch Bluestem. Frank and his wife Jenny care for the water and wildlife at their family place in Mason County.