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Best Practices for Native Seed Establishment

Site preparation

Contact the native seed installers below for site and situationally specific advice:

CompanyContactCommercial or Residential
Eco Turf
919-548-1675, website
commercial
Local Ag. Extension
both
Sides Seeding
336-249-8300, website
both
Southern Garden
919-362-1050, website
commercial
The most important aspect of preparing a site for native seed is to eradicate pre-existing vegetation. There are several methods for weed control, but the main ones are listed below.
  • Herbicides (most often glyphosate): have a licensed spray technician treat your area starting in early spring
  • Solarization: stretch clear plastic over the site for a whole growing season
  • Repeat tillage: till the site frequently over the course of a few months

For detailed information on these methods (and more), see the external resource links at the bottom of this page.

Suggested further preparation:
  • Remove any dead vegetation to ensure good seed to soil contact
  • Mix decomposed organic matter (compost) into the soil
  • Consider adding lime (a soil test will tell you how much)
  • Avoid synthetic fertilizer (an N-P-K mix) as it tends to favor weeds

Timing

Pros: Cons:
Fall/Winter
  • seed has all winter to imbibe moisture
  • increased seed-to-soil contact
  • provides natural stratification
  • seed may be lost to wildlife
  • winter annuals could restrict growth
  • risk of early germination
Spring
  • less seed lost to wildlife
  • less danger of frost killing off new growth
  • irrigation is likely necessary
Summer
  • quick germination
  • irrigation is essential

application

We generally recommend an application rate of 20 pounds per acre (seed at a higher rate for slopes). Three main methods of spreading native seed are:
  • Hand broadcasting: needs only the seed, a bulking agent (clay-based kitty litter, dry sand, etc.), and a human to spread it. The goal is to scatter an even distribution of seed across the site, walking as you go.
  • Drill seeding: only works if you have a seed drill that can accommodate fluffy seeds. If you’re using equipment to seed your site, make sure it is appropriate for native mixes.
  • Hydroseeding: involves spraying a combination of water, seed, and fertilizer on a site. Hydroseeding requires a contractor with equipment and experience with native seed.

A light straw mulch can be used to prevent seed from washing away or being eaten, and to retain moisture.

Nurse crops

Native seed mixes establish differently than lawn/turf grasses: instead of germinating all at once, they come up gradually throughout the growing season (some even in the next year). We recommend adding a nurse crop (cover crop) to the mix. Quickly germinating nurse crops should hold soil and moisture in place and restrict weed growth.

Below is a table of nurse crops we have found to work well. We do not recommend Annual rye grass as a nurse crop because it outcompetes native seeds.

CommonSpeciesUse for planting in:MixNotes:
Hard fescueFestuca brevipilaFall, Winter
(any time)
3-5 lbs/a; 20%Weak competitors; do not interfere with native grasses. Shade tolerant.
Sheep fescueFestuca ovinaFall, Winter
(any time)
3-5 lbs/a; 20%
Cereal rye,
Winter rye
Secale cerealeEarly Spring or Fall30 lbs/a; 50%Grows 3-4′ tall, but weaker competitor than annual rye grass; better choice despite height. High salt tolerance.
Perennial ryeLolium perenneSpring – Summer5-50 lbs/a; 20-50%Shorter rye; lasts about 2 years, then dies out.
Millet (foxtail or German)Setaria italicaSpring – Summer5-50 lbs/a; 20-50%Good germination; dies off with frost; does not tolerate mowing.

Maintenance

Our native seed mixes are designed to be relatively hands-off once they’re established, but there are some practices to help them get there.
  • Regular mowing is recommended during the first year to keep weeds back while native plants establish. When your overall stand reaches a height of around two feet, cut it back to 8” tall. Do not go shorter than 8”. Do this anytime your stand gets to two feet tall and stop in mid-September. Leave dormant plant material up through winter.
  • In all subsequent years, it is good to mow the site down in early spring.
  • Keep an eye out for particularly bad invasive weeds and address them as soon as you notice.

It may be necessary to re-seed areas. Animal pressure, weather events like heavy rains, and droughts can all contribute to patchy establishment. In most circumstances, the best way to re-seed is through hand broadcasting.

External Resources

The Xerces Society: Mid-Atlantic Native MeadowsOrganic Site Preparation