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."
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