Snow Seeding at Coldwater Spring

By Neil Smarjesse, Biological Technician, National Park Service

Learning the intricacies of restoring prairie ecosystems can test ones patience at times, but with patience and the right strategies come results, sometimes in breathtaking fashion. One interesting prairie restoration method is snow seeding. 

Does anyone else think it’s crazy to take a bunch of super expensive flower seed, throw it over a snow covered prairie, and call it a day? Before I spent two summers under the tutelage of Private Lands Biologist Mike Malling with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I would have thought this was crazy too. This spring we snow seeded Coldwater Spring prairie in order to boost forb diversity and you’ll be happy to know, there’s more to snow seeding than just throwing expensive seed in the snow! 

The weather was perfect for snow seeding at Coldwater Springs.

Consider this question;

How does Mother Nature seed a prairie? Or rather, how does seed from prairie plants naturally disperse?

If you said “Into the snow,” you’re on the right track. But why?

Seeds naturally have a hard outer casing. This seed casing softens up, or stratifies, when the freezing and thawing of the spring melt occurs. The weathering action of this freezing and thawing increases germination rates for when the seed finally hits the soil in late spring. 

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. By seeding over the snow during late spring, we’re simply increasing the odds that more seeds will germinate and take root by emulating the conditions that some plants have evolved to take advantage of. 

Seeds were evenly distributed over the prairie by Jeff Stedman from Prairie Restoration.
The tractor went back and forth over the prairie many times to seed all of it.

Seeding at the right time of year is only part of the equation. The weather conditions need to be near perfect for a successful snow seed. The temperature should be right around freezing so when the seed hits the snow it doesn’t just blow away. It’s also good to have a nice sunny day, which allows the dark colored seeds to warm in the sunlight and sink down into the snow. If nighttime temperatures drop below freezing this cements the seed into place. This cementing, along with the tiny size of the flower seeds, will limit the chance of birds locating and eating everything that was just spread. Here you can barely see the tiny seeds already sinking into the snow after less than an hour of being spread. Hard to spot isn’t it? 

If you look carefully, you can seed the dark seeds on the white snow.

Before snow seeding at Coldwater Spring this March, we scheduled and rescheduled three times before conditions were sufficient. Thanks to the patience of Prairie Restorations who seeded for us, the conditions were prefect. It just so happened, that Mike Malling was snow seeding on the same day in south central Minnesota, and here’s what he said:

Please come to Coldwater this summer and enjoy the view! Remember to walk with care and stick to the trails, as newly planted prairies can be very delicate and even be home to ground nesting birds such as the grasshopper sparrow.