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Life as a Seed: Harvest, Plant, Grow, Repeat

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Seeds used in habitat restoration on much of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks are set up for success by using a “go local” approach.

Landscape-scale habitat restoration over hundreds of acres starts small-scale, with the seed. One seed planted will hopefully become a mature plant producing many more seeds, in turn becoming many more healthy plants. Active habitat restoration is all about making that first seed as successful as possible, and Irvine Ranch Conservancy scientists have developed a strategy to give as many successful seeds as possible back to the land. Their success weighs in at more than 600 pounds of farmed seed each year.

The process begins when Conservancy restoration ecologists create a “seed forecast” by assessing current and future habitat restoration needs. The Conservancy uses its Native Seed Farm in Irvine to cultivate plants and harvest seeds locally, collected from and grown in an environment with similar conditions to restoration areas.  As seeds are collected, planted and grown, carefully-researched methods are used to produce healthy, locally-sourced seed for successful habitat restoration.

Most of the initial seed used at the farm comes from plants grown naturally, in the wild. This method means that by harvesting just a tiny amount of seed from wild plants, the Conservancy can create the high volume of seed to fulfill habitat restoration needs. Staff ecologists first indentify wild sites where the desired species are thriving in order to know where they might harvest seed. Then they monitor specific, individual plants on a regular basis to know just when the seeds can be harvested from the wild.

This is a “go-local” approach that results in successful seed germination and growth. For instance, a plant from Northern California would be conditioned to grow in very different soil and climate than a plant from here in Orange County. So starting with seed grown near the restoration site helps the seed potentially be more successful, since it is adapted to local climate and soil conditions. Only 5-10 percent of seed from an individual plant is collected, and only for the purpose of producing more plants at the farm.

“What was just a handful of seed that we collected from the open space can become pounds and pounds of seeds that can be used for habitat restoration,” explained Matthew Garrambone, Plant Materials Coordinator for the Irvine Ranch Conservancy.

From the wild plant, the seeds travel back to the Native Seed Farm. This is when Conservancy ecologists utilize tailored techniques to nurture each specific plant species to produce the most seed. The seed farm has become an integral part of the habitat restoration work the Conservancy performs in partnership with landowners such as OC Parks, the City of Irvine and the City of Newport Beach. Growing and harvesting seeds in this more controlled environment is an efficient way of producing native plant seed that would otherwise be unaffordable or unavailable. The Native Seed Farm not only produces seed in a cost-effective way, but ensures the availability of species that are in short supply in the wild.

The farm is divided into large plots for annuals (plants that go through their entire life cycle in one season), and perennials (plants that grow and regrow season after season). Seeds from perennial plants, which include the dominant shrubs of the local coastal sage scrub habitat, are first grown over the summer in a plant nursery. Growing them in small pots until they are healthy young plants increases their chance of success once planted in the ground. Seeds from the annual plants, which include most of the wildflowers that grow in the open space, are placed directly into the ground at the farm.

These seeds and seedlings then grow and germinate at the Native Seed Farm through the winter months and into the spring, when they start to flower. After flowering through the spring and into the summer months, the seeds are harvested by staff and volunteers.

Seeds collected at the farm in the summer are put into various seed mixes based on restoration needs for specific projects. For each restoration project, there is a list of plant species that will be used in that area, and that list makes up the seed mix. The balance of the seed mix also reflects the dominant or naturally-prevalent plants that should be in that habitat, and more of that seed is included. Harvesting a few seeds from an uncommon plant and turning that into more seeds means that sometimes a plant that has mostly died out can be reintroduced to the land.

Seeds harvested at the Native Seed Farm in the summer are then spread back out on the land in habitat restoration project areas. Some seeds are also harvested and stored for use in future restoration projects, and some are held back and replanted at the farm. “The farm allows us to build an inventory of seeds, making this a reliable, cost-efficient way to restore habitats,” said Garrambone.

The rains that usually come in fall and early winter are critical to completing the growth cycle of the plant – the last few years have been a tough time for habitat restoration. The extensive research and testing done by the Conservancy to ensure the most successful seed production has meant that restoration projects still made progress during a record drought.

You can be a part of this fascinating seed life cycle by volunteering at the Native Seed Farm.  Weekly programs are led by Conservancy staff on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and kids 8 and over are welcome to volunteer along with their parent or guardian. While the farm projects change from season to season, the social nature of working side-by-side along the rows of native plants makes this a perfect volunteer opportunity for small groups and families. The program is also great for those interested in learning more about native plant gardening. For more information or to register, visit www.LetsGoOutside.org/activities, or Click Here for a list of upcoming volunteer opportunities at the Native Seed Farm.