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Pasta Seed Pillows Give Native Plants A Boost

Matt Madsen watches as a commercial kitchen mixer churns in the center of his lab. Inside the stainless steel bowl is a thick, chunky brown mixture. This is no ordinary dough.

“Diatomaceous earth, bentonite clay, compost, worm castings,” said Madsen, an ecologist at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, ticking the ingredients off on his fingers.

The earthy mixture is used to create “seed pillows.” The nickel-sized pods contain a special mix of plant food and starches that absorb water and help seeds survive.

"We can take those pods and pellets and plant them," said Madsen. "And because that seed has been primed it can germinate faster and potentially get a plant up that’s big enough that can survive."

Madsen developed the seed pillow concept to give native grasses an edge over invasive species, like cheat grass. Threatened sage grouse rely on native grasses for food. But their desert habitat is often overtaken by invasive plants.

After a wildfire burns through the desert, native grasses take a long time to come back. In the meantime, invasive grasses push in.

"Those exotic annual plants are so well adapted that they basically out-compete a lot of native plants, especially our native plant seedlings," said Jay Kerby, project manager with The Nature Conservancy.

Once Madsen figured out which ingredients to include in the pods, he also had to figure out how to form the seeds pods. And that part of the experiment is why Madsen’s workspace looks more like a commercial kitchen than a science lab.

A Lab With Pasta Machines

"As you can see the country of Italy does run throughout this lab," says Madsen. "We went to the food industry and looked and pasta machines and mixers."

That’s right. Madsen uses commercial pasta makers to form the seed pillows.

They’re experimenting with different pasta forms to see whether linguine, ravioli, or spaghetti creates the best seed pillow. They also have a doughnut maker in the lab.

Project coordinator Vanessa Schroeder dumps the "dough" into the top of a spaghetti machine.

"So I’m just going to go ahead and fire it up," Schroeder said.

She pushes the machine’s "on" button which is, not coincidentally, green, white and red -- like the Italian flag. The brown dough squeezes out through circular holes. Then, a rotating blade slices the earthy spaghetti into pellets.

Schroeder measures the pellets as they're cut by the blade. "These are a little big," she said, adjusting the pellet size.

Video credit:Vince Patton and Todd Sonflieth, Oregon Field Guide

The seed pillow technique might provide the native grasses enough of a boost that they can take root before invasives take over.

Traditional Restoration: High Cost, Low Success Rate

The Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center formed a unique partnership with The Nature Conservancy to work on this project. Tony Svecar, head of the research center, estimates that the project budget runs at about $700,000 each year.

But that's nothing compared to the federal dollars spent on reseeding. According to Svecar, desert reseeding efforts typically cost between $100 and $250 per acre for traditional restoration methods.

Since 2010, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has spent nearly $52 million on reseeding projects after major wildfires in Oregon. Often, those projects are unsuccessful because the native seeds die when planted using traditional methods, or they're squeezed out by invasive species. More than 90 percent of native seeds planted that way in the desert don’t survive.

"We spend so much on reseeding, after fires in particular," said Svecar. “We just felt like it’s really important to get the success rates up. We can’t just keep losing ground to cheat grass and Medusahead. A lot of us really like this native range land and we don’t want to see it turned over to these invasives."

Seed Pillows In The Field

The scientists plant the pillows on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) land about an hour outside of Burns, in study plots that researchers burned last year. The plots are in remote, high desert country. A few cows dot the horizon.

Jay Kerby lies on the ground to get eye level with one of the test sites. In the blackened soil he points to a tiny, green frond.

"These are bluebunch wheatgrass seedlings that we planted," Kerby said.

Kerby picks up a handful of hard, chunky earth. "If you were a seedling underneath that, you might have a very difficult time surviving," Kerby said.

After fire, desert soils can form a thick crust. Sometimes, it’s hard for seeds to break through. But two or three seedlings in a pillow can multiply their strength and bust the crust.

It’s early, but the field plots suggest that the seeds in pasta pillows tend to do better than seeds planted in the ground.

The hope is the seed pillows can help restore the desert after wildfires.

“What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Kerby said. “We’ve got to get creative.”

Greater sage-grouse habitat currently covers 165 million acres across 11 states in the West. If successful, the pasta pods could be a way to reseed sage grouse habitat across the Great Basin.

And what goes best with sagebrush linguini, according to Kerby? "Water is the best sauce."

<p>Vanessa Schroeder operates a pasta machine to make seed pellets. The dough squeezes through circular "spaghetti" holes and is then sliced into pellets with a rotating blade.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Vanessa Schroeder operates a pasta machine to make seed pellets. The dough squeezes through circular "spaghetti" holes and is then sliced into pellets with a rotating blade.

<p>To create the pillows, the science team mixes seeds with compost, minerals, and starches that absorb water. Matt Madsen has been experimenting with different ingredients for years to find the right mix.&nbsp;</p>

Amanda Peacher

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To create the pillows, the science team mixes seeds with compost, minerals, and starches that absorb water. Matt Madsen has been experimenting with different ingredients for years to find the right mix. 

<p>A commercial doughnut machine processes the seed "dough." Lab technicians cut the pillows to size once they earthy mixture is pressed and dusted.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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A commercial doughnut machine processes the seed "dough." Lab technicians cut the pillows to size once they earthy mixture is pressed and dusted.

<p>Sagebrush seedlings grow in the lab at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center near Burns.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Sagebrush seedlings grow in the lab at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center near Burns.

<p>A healthy sagebrush ecosystem provides habitat for sage grouse, antelope, burrowing owls, and more than 300 other species. Sage steppe habitat stretches across 11 states and spans more than four million acres in the American West.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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A healthy sagebrush ecosystem provides habitat for sage grouse, antelope, burrowing owls, and more than 300 other species. Sage steppe habitat stretches across 11 states and spans more than four million acres in the American West.

<p>Jay Kerby with the Nature Conservancy shows some healthy fronds of bluebunch wheatgrass. After fire, Oregon's native grasses are slower to re-establish in desert habitats. Kerby and his team are researching ways to improve seedling survival rates so invasive species don't push out desert grasses.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Jay Kerby with the Nature Conservancy shows some healthy fronds of bluebunch wheatgrass. After fire, Oregon's native grasses are slower to re-establish in desert habitats. Kerby and his team are researching ways to improve seedling survival rates so invasive species don't push out desert grasses.

<p>The science team burned test plots in the desert on USDA land to create the right conditions to test the pasta seed pillows. After fire, desert soils often form a thick crust that can be hard for a single seed to break through. Two or three seeds in a pillow stand a better chance of busting the crust.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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The science team burned test plots in the desert on USDA land to create the right conditions to test the pasta seed pillows. After fire, desert soils often form a thick crust that can be hard for a single seed to break through. Two or three seeds in a pillow stand a better chance of busting the crust.

<p>Tiny seedlings emerge from pasta seed pillows. The science team grows the pillows in the lab under a number of different conditions before trying them out in the field.</p>

Amanda Peacher

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Tiny seedlings emerge from pasta seed pillows. The science team grows the pillows in the lab under a number of different conditions before trying them out in the field.

<p>Jay Kerby with the Nature Conservancy shows some healthy fronds of bluebunch wheatgrass. After fire, Oregon's native grasses are slower to re-establish in desert habitats. Kerby and his team are researching ways to improve seedling survival rates so invasive species don't push out desert grasses.</p>

Amanda Peacher

/
/

Jay Kerby with the Nature Conservancy shows some healthy fronds of bluebunch wheatgrass. After fire, Oregon's native grasses are slower to re-establish in desert habitats. Kerby and his team are researching ways to improve seedling survival rates so invasive species don't push out desert grasses.

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Amanda Peacher