Stewardship Volunteers

Working Outdoors where Leopold Formed his Land Ethic

It was cool and the air was laden with the humidity that bespoke an uncertain shower. As I pulled up in the parking lot at the Aldo Leopold Reserve, there was already a buzz of activity on the landing in front of the shop. Arik Duhr, head land management boss guy, was busy hooking up a stump grinder to the skid steer while land steward Mitch Groenhof was giving intern Max Sorenson his assignment for the morning. The scene had the distinct impression of a huddle breaking just as I arrived.

Arik started attaching the stump grinder to the skid steer while Max prepared to haul equipment across the river for an upcoming project.

Mitch and I headed into the shop to prepare the seed mixes we would use to over-seed two recently planted sites. The first would be an upland oak savanna immediately behind the shop and classroom building.

The remaining seed would find its way to a wetter area that had been forestry mowed the previous year. I was familiar with this site as myself and three other  volunteers had helped pile woody debris there last fall, in preparation for the initial restoration seeding.

Preparing seed mixes is one of the more satisfying restoration tasks. Several legume wildflowers require inoculation with beneficial bacteria specific to that species. The inoculant improves seed germination making it easier for the young seedlings to fix nitrogen on their roots.

A handful of uncleaned prairie dropseed and little bluestem

A handful of uncleaned prairie dropseed and little bluestem

With the seed mixes complete it was time to head out into the field. Spreading native seed is not like broadcasting oats or wheat. The image of enthusiastically casting large handfuls of seed across broad expanses of open soil just does not jibe with the realist of hand over-seeding.

Wildflower seed is exceptionally expensive and because there is a mix of dozen of more species with differing sizes and shapes, getting them thoroughly mixed and keeping that that way throughout the morning makes seeding more complex. The seeds poured into a bag which must be vigorously shaken to evenly mix the seeds together. Then as seed pulled out the bag must be regularly agitated to keep small seeds from settling to the bottom of the bag.

Mitch and I stood about ten feet apart and began walking a grid back and forth across each of the plantings. As we reached the end of each pass we would turn around and shift over to create two new lanes ten feet apart. In this way we covered the hillside planting site in something over twenty minutes.

The lower area was larger. It contained several small rivulets as well as an ephemeral puddle. Mosquitoes also made an appearance reminding us both why they are referred to as Wisconsin’s unofficial state bird.

Seed is removed from the bag in small measures between the thumb and three finger tips. A slow sweeping motion while rolling the thumb across the fingertips ensures seed rolls out in a fine motion landing in a surprisingly even pattern across the soil.

Our seed did not quite cover the entirety of both units, but it was remarkably close. Getting such good coverage felt great. There is real satisfaction knowing that a couple hours of effort will, in three or four years, transform that blank soil canvass into a brilliant tapestry of floral abundance.

Whether planting native seed, cutting brush, staking lumber or working on a prescribed fire crew, I always enjoy volunteering with at the Aldo Leopold Reserve. The staff and other volunteers have become something of a second family. I cannot think of a better way to spend the day working outdoors on the same land where Leopold formed his land ethic. Neither can I imaging working with a better bunch of folks.

Interested in volunteering with the Land Stewardship team at the Aldo Leopold Foundation?

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