Posted by: Reena Ramos

  • 11/04/2020

Mimicking Succession

By Reena Ramos, ACRES Outreach Manager

ACRES protects more than natural areas. Working lands, such as agriculture fields in production, are also protected. ACRES currently protects about 500 acres of farmland, and some of this land will be restored to forest or wetland. This year, the ACRES Land Management team will use a different strategy to restore forest.

A farm field left to nature will begin to change over time. In the midwest, herbaceous plants, like grasses and wildflowers, are first to become established, and later, certain species of shrubs and tree saplings move in. Eventually, without disturbance, the field will become a forest of hardwood trees. This natural process of change over time is called forest succession.

“Historically, when ACRES took an agriculture field out of production, we planted native hardwood saplings right away. We often skipped over the natural steps of succession. We want to try adding those steps back in,” said ACRES Land Management Director Casey Jones.

The progress of forest succession from a field to mature forest; artwork by Julie Wall

This fall, a historically farmed ACRES property in Allen County will be taken out of production, allowing the land management crew to implement their new restoration strategy.

Jones explained: “Instead of jumping right into trees, we will restore native grasses and flowering plants first, following the same process nature would. The intent is to mimic succession.”

Giving a grassland time to become established allows essential nutrients and microbial communities to rebuild the impoverished top soil. Decomposing plants with deep root systems reestablish nutrient cycling, with the addition of carbon, nitrogen and other minerals. A forest planted after grassland may benefit from such restored soil communities.

Unfortunately, due to invasive species like autumn olive and bush honeysuckle, the ACRES Land Management team can never have a completely hands-off management strategy for any property. This restored Allen County farmland is no exception: it will need to be actively managed to keep invasives under control.

“Though it would be nice to let this property naturally go through succession, it’s just not possible. We have too many aggressive invasive species that would take over the empty field before natives could get established,” said Jones. “The once-existing native seed bank in the soil has also been depleted.”

The Land Management team plans to seed the field this winter with native grasses and other early-successional plants. Snow packs the seeds against the soil, while the ground freezing and thawing moves the seeds even deeper for better germination. These adapted native seeds will survive the winter and begin to grow next spring.

This project will take a large amount of seed. Because ACRES hopes to include native species growing in Allen County, the Land Management team is organizing a volunteer workday at an ACRES preserve for seed collection.

Thanks to a generous donation of seed-collection bags from Gardeners Supply Company, ACRES will invite 30 volunteers to a workday this fall. Volunteers will learn a simple harvesting technique, then collect seeds from native grasses at Fogwell Forest located in southwest Fort Wayne. Land management will use the seeds collected at this workday for their winter planting.*

“Harvesting gives volunteers an opportunity to get into the field directly, without needing to know plant identification or management techniques,” said Jones. “I see this becoming an annual fall workday, a meaningful (and fun!) opportunity for volunteers interested in restoration.”

*The first seed collection workday at Fogwell Forest in Allen County was successful! Volunteers learned about grass identification and harvesting techniques, then collected 50 pounds of Indiangrass seed. The retail price of Indiangrass seed is $16 per pound, so volunteers helped us collect about $800 worth of seeds for these restoration projects!

Thank you to the volunteers who participated in this workday. Your effort plays a huge role in helping ACRES restore natural areas.