Germination Testing to Improve the Quality of Ecotypic Native Seed in the Northeast

Final report for FNE22-005

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $29,299.00
Projected End Date: 03/01/2024
Grant Recipient: The Hickories, LLC
Region: Northeast
State: Connecticut
Project Leader:
Dina Brewster
The Hickories, LLC
Expand All

Project Information


The purpose of this SARE FNE22-005 was to add quantitative data and qualitative collaboration to the Ecotype Project's efforts to grow seed crops of ecotypic plants for the Northeast ecoregions.  To do this, we developed a network of farmer collaborators to share both germination test results and growing strategies in an effort to produce high quality crops of ecotypic seed for ecological restoration efforts in our regions.  We compared the date of harvest with the percent of viable seed in the harvest (Pure Live Seed as measured by a germination test.)  We compared seasonal growing conditions and cultivation techniques to the resultant viability of the seed crop.  The results of the germination tests are now published on The Ecotype Project SARE website.  More broadly and deeply than these germination test results, however, is the fact that the efforts of our outreach have catalyzed the formation of the Northeast Seed Network in collaboration with The Native Plant Trust in Massachusetts.  The Ecotpye Project and this SARE project have helped to deepen the connection that Northeastern farmers have to their regions ecotypic plant material.  The publications, articles, and interviews that sprang from the engagement engendered by this SARE project have been able to reach thousands nationwide.  

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to generate data around seed quality as it relates to the timing of the harvest for six ecotypic seed crops.  For each species in production, farmers will collect three different samplings - an early, mid and late season harvest -  and compare the germination test results from their three collections.  This comparison of Percentage of Pure Live Seed (PLS%) will begin to set standards for seed quality among ecotypic seed production in the Northeast.  Over time, we will be able to measure our variable PLS% against these original metrics.  The result will be increased fluency and transparency among producers and end users about ecotypic seed quality and its application in restoration projects.

Objective 1: Gather PLS% over three different harvest windows for six different species of ecotypic plants.

Objective 2: Create a freely-available database for native seed farmers in the Northeast to view and discuss this data set to  determine optimal harvest times for their seed crops.

  • Activity 1:  Quarterly farmer calls to discuss collection, findings, and decision making around the seed harvest.
  • Activity 2: Dissemination of results to native seed stakeholders in the Northeast through our joint technical advisor partnerships with CTNOFA (Levin) and UCONN (Campanelli).

     Research has found that wild native pollinators, such as bumblebees, provide more effective pollination than managed nonnative honeybees to blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash and pumpkins.(2) Unfortunately, wild pollinator and beneficial insect populations have experienced significant declines, up to 74% decline in insect abundance since the 1960s, because of the loss of native plant populations with which insects have co-evolved and on which insects depend for specific host plants for shelter, forage, and nesting sites.(3)

     Since the farmers in the Eco59 seed collective are primarily fruit and vegetable growers, nearly all of their revenue depends on insect pollinator services.  Crops that benefit from insect pollination constitute significant portions of Northeastern agricultural production. In Maine alone, lowbush wild blueberries occupy 40,000 acres, producing annual crops worth $75 million, equaling approximately 25% of all blueberries in North America, and making Maine America’s largest blueberry producer (4). Cranberries are New England’s second leading high-value bee pollinated crop.  Massachusetts leads the region with 13,000 acres distributed among approximately 400 farms, making cranberries the state’s number one agricultural commodity and Massachusetts the second largest producer in the U.S.(5).  The restoration of pollinator habitat, therefore, has real implications for crop yields and community food security.

     When restoring pollinator habitat, sound conservation practices recommend locally sourced, geographically appropriate plant material to protect the genetics of local native plant populations. Use of large-scale non-local genotypes of a given native species should be avoided because these strains are likely to interbreed with the local ecotypes, disrupting the gene complexes of species adapted to a specific area. Unfortunately, few entities in the Northeast currently produce ecotypic native seed (6). In addition, their selection is limited, quantities are insufficient, and high prices prohibit their use for large-scale restoration projects, for which demand remains high for conservation organizations as well as environmental and transportation government agencies (7).

     With the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, we expect an acceleration of global efforts to produce sufficient amounts of ecoregional native seed to meet the growing demand for restoration projects (8). However,  The Society of Ecological Restoartion’s Special issue in 2020: Standards for Native Seeds in Ecological Restoration, states, “the success of restoration projects continues to be constrained by seed-related factors including limited seed availability, highly variable and often poor seed quality, inappropriate seed storage conditions, and low rates of seedling establishment in the field.” (9) Unlike working with “improved” agricultural seed that has been  modified by humans over generations for uniformity, the quality  of wild ecotypic seed lies in its genetic variability.  As a result, the more uniform standards that have been applied to agricultural seed have not yet been as fully developed for native seed.  Native seed requires standards unique to the region in which it is grown.  This is to say, standards of seed quality for ecotypic seed must be set by each ecoregion, or seed transfer zone.  What we know about PLS% (germination rates) of native seed grown in the Midwest does not translate to the same species grown in the NortheastThis SARE proposal seeks to work with the farmers in the Eco59 seed collective to  build a publically available data set for  seed quality standards for native seed production in the Northeast.

     In an effort to overcome these hurdles, the Eco59 farmer-led seed collective has worked with  specialty crop farmers to pilot the growing of local ecotypes of native flowering plants in  productive habitats on their farms.  These special plantings serve two crucial roles: first, for the mutual benefit of pollinators and crops on farms, and second, to produce seed for commercial sale.  The seed collected from these founder plots can be broadly used to plant more acreage of regionally appropriate pollinator habitat.  

     This project is a win-win-win. First, farmers increase pollinator plantings and raise their farms’ ecosystem health. Second, farmers can produce a higher quality niche crop to supplement their incomes. Third, they fill a much-needed gap in the emerging market of ecological restoration by providing appropriate plant material for conservation work as part of a larger  regional climate change adaptation strategy.  

     By focusing on germination testing, our goal is to generate quantifiable results and observe changes over time in native seed quality coming from the foundation plots across the farms in the Eco59 seed collective.  The higher our seed PLS%, the greater their worth both economically and ecologically. It is in everyone’s best interest, both supplier and end user, to articulate these standards as we move forward into this emerging market.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Sefra Levin (Educator)
  • John Campanelli (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Seed Testing for Project Samples 

The samples will be sent to The National Forest Service Seed Laboratory in Dry Branch, Georgia.  The seeds will be tested for:

  1. Purity
  2. Stratified Germination
  3. Full seed as determined by x-ray
  4. Tetrazolium test (dependent on findings of first three): *Victor Vankus is the lead seed scientist on the staff at this seed lab and will determine, upon completion of the above tests, if a tetrazolium test is required . 

     From these tests, the seed laboratory will determine and describe a PLS% (Pure Live Seed Percentage) for each sample.  The results of each test will be entered into a spreadsheet cumulatively and shared with participating farmers in quarterly calls. The data will then be shared with CT NOFA’s Ecotype Project Lead to be disseminated to any and all stakeholders in the native seed saving community.  This project aims to create a baseline data set for analyzing seed quality of Northeastern native seed crops.  Eco59, a farmer-led seed collective, will use extensive germination testing to determine optimal timing of the harvest of ecotypic native seed, an emerging market in the Northeast.

Seed Species Selection

     Germination of many native plant species lack uniformity. Many native plant species do not establish and set seed well in the initial year of planting.  This lack of uniform establishment patterns combined with low germination rates often leads to frustration among new practitioners who use native plant seed, such as landscapers or DOT employees, who expect the aggressive growth and flower proliferation commonly associated with improved agricultural crops. For these reasons, germination rates play an especially important role in effective native seed production. 

     In the selection of six species for germination testing, we will prioritize those species that preliminary test show have the lowest Percentages of Pure Live Seed (PLS%) and those that best meet what is commonly referred to as “workhorse species” status.  So, for example, our preliminary testing has found two species have exceedingly low but similar levels of germinations: Mimulus ringens (Allegheny monkeyflower) at 31% PLS and Penstemon digitalis (Foxglove Beardtongue) at 32% PLS. However, despite Mimulus ringens having a slightly lower PLS%, we would include Penstemon digitalis among those for further testing because it better fits the native plant field’s definition of a workhorse species. 

      Workhorse species are one of John Campanelli’s research areas:  he describes them as locally adapted native plants that: 1)  have broad ecological amplitude, 2) high abundance, and 3) are relatively easy to propagate. Ecological amplitudes are the limits of environmental conditions within which an organism can live and function. In other words, such species can thrive under a wider spectrum of climatic conditions. Penstemon digitalis, for example, can thrive under a wider range of moisture and light conditions than Mimulus ringens. In addition, John Campanelli found during his research from a SARE Graduate Student Grant that Penstemon digitalis attract a greater abundance of pollinators than Mimulus ringens. Since practitioners who use native plants frequently do so to increase pollinator and insect population health, those species that support insect activity receive higher priority.

Seed Sample Harvesting Methodology

     Farmers will sample the seeds by harvesting over three different time frames, evenly spaced over the period of seed ripeness.  The first collection will be roughly 25% of their seed lot harvest. the second collection will be 50% of the lot, and the third collection will come from the remaining 25% of their harvest.  

     From each collection, a sample of no less than 250 seeds will be removed and sent in separate special envelopes specifically designed for mailing seeds in the mail to Dina Brewster, lead farmer, to be cleaned and sent out for germination testing.  Each farmer will be compensated with a $50 per collection stipend for his or her time and loss of saleable crop that is constituted in these laboratory samples.  

Analyzing Variables Among Seed Lot Germination Rates

     Research has shown that microclimatic and production variables can impact germination rates of native seeds. If test results show significant differences among seed lots, John Campanelli will look for and analyze patterns among variables of such factors as differences in seasonal precipitation rates, soil quality, neighboring plant populations, nutrition of mother plants, composition of on-farm insect and seed predator populations, and stages of harvest.

Research results and discussion:

Our first year of data collection and farmer-to-farmer research has been an exciting one.  There is all enthusiasm of discovery- as if we are the first t explore uncharted waters.  In many ways this has proven to be true.  We are growing crops commercially that have not been in any real commercial production before in the New England, and the farmers who are participating are excited to be a part of such ground breaking work.  Like any group of innovators, though, we have uncovered and described as many new questions in addition to those we set out to explore in this proposal.  

Working with John Campanelli at UCONN, has been successful.  Over the course of 2022 we have, by conducting background research and through conversation with farmers participating in the network, selected 6 species on which to focus our research, as per our proposal. We prioritized those species that preliminary test show have the lowest Percentages of Pure Live Seed (PLS%) and those that best meet what is commonly referred to as “workhorse species” status. 

We have chosen: 1. lobelia cardinalis, 2. pycnanthemum muticum, 3. penstemon digitalis, 4. aquilegia canadensis, 5. monarda fistulosa, and 6. schnizachyrium scoparium.

In our first year, our  methods did not change from our proposal: farmers took three samples over the course of the harvest season, identified and dated their samples, and sent them in to Dina Brewster, project manager, for processing.  These samples were sent to the National Forest Service Seed Lab.  The seed samples are currently being tested for:  1. Purity, Stratified 2. Germination, and 3. Full seed as determined by x-ray.

In our second year, the result of our farmer and stakeholders meetings pushed us to expand the research we were doing and publish all germination data, not just that specific to the species of this project.  Since it was still within the scope of our research and just expanded the reach of our results, I decided to publish all germination data to our farmers.  Moreover, the SARE website, as part of the Ecotype Project website listed the full data as well as the species of specific concern.  Farmers and stakeholders are increasingly engaged with sharing all results and have taken to using the term "fierce transparency" to share out all positive and negative aspects of growing native seed and studying this new emerging market.

The 2023 growing season was extremely wet, and we believe that yields were lowered as a result of crops struggling to set seed.  Given the stresses of the season, two farmers dropped out of the study as they did not have viable seed crops.  Fortunately, a few more farmers joined in - and we were able to gather a diverse sample set with our new cohort.  I anticipate this reshuffling of farmers moving forward.  For many of us, interviews reported, the seed crops are the first to suffer as a result of extreme weather as farmers tend to turn to the more delicate and the more traditional crops when they are forced to choose.  And unanticipated benefit of this program is that growers were able to be funded for their research participation and efforts - and that was valuable to them as an alternative for the yield only or "paid by the pound" aspects of the rest of their farms.  

The publications that came as a result of this SARE project (written articles, interviews, websites, trifold pamphlets, etc) have dramatically increased the visibility of The Ecotype Project.  We are eager to continue to gain exposure and find new ways to educate farmers and consumers about the seed being grown.  The largest projected change as a result of being able to measure seed germination is that farmers have been motivated by the research to send in more seed, spend more time with their seed crops, and as a result of yields and engagement, they have been paid for their time and effort both in money from the seed company and increased pollination services on their farms.  The increased visibility of this project and the increased profits of participating farmers can be measured in how many more farmers as requesting to now join the Northeast Seed Collective/eco59.  In particular, farmers from other ecoregions throughout the Northeast have heard about the work and are eager to get involved.  We now have farmers in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut participating in our efforts.

Research conclusions:

We seek to develop a shared data set among farmers who are growing seed crops of ecotypic plants in the Northeast.  Our first season's harvest sampling sets for 5 species have been sent in to the National Forest Service seed lab and, though results often take up to 6 months, the first results have been returned.  

For example, with just 1 species returned, we already feel that we are beginning to answer the query set by our objective.  For lobelia cardinalis, a substantial difference in seed quality that corresponds to the date or harvest.  The germination rate from the first harvest was 30%, the second harvest date was 15% and the third harvest date was 0%.  These results remain preliminary as the National Seed Lab is still processing final counts on Pure Live Seed percentages.  Nevertheless, they suggest that the optimal time for harvesting lobelia cardinalis is early November - or perhaps more simply put, before the first frost.  John Campanelli, technical advisor to the project, has been clear that this is a by species inquiry.  That is, what is true for lobelia will not be true for he other 5 species we have chosen to study.  

The next step for our results will be to construct a database that is open and shared among farmers and published on our website and available through The Ecotype Project website and CT NOFA.  

YEAR 2:  In our second year the growing conditions were the opposite of the first year of our research.  2022 held record breaking drought while 2023 posted record breaking rainfall across much of the Northeast.  The research has shown that a great deal of the species were stress tested and had lower germination rates as a result of the challenging weather.  Our outreach coordinator and research coordinator Sefra Levin and John Campanelli took the results to similar groups around the country and with other groups in the Northeast and the resulting conversations proved valuable.  The "stress" that showed itself in seed viability rates (the germination test of the seed crops) can be viewed as a positive result for the  local native species as they adapt to the changes in our climate.  To stick with the same species of focus from year 1: that is, the 34% of seed that was viable in the lobelia crop, though low, is able to survive a never before seed level of drought and a never before seen level of rain/flooding.  The seed that is viable, when viewed optimistically, is very "smart" seed and valuable for eco regional restoration efforts.

It is worthy of note that there were interesting challenges that have emerged as part of our farmer round-tables and interviews in our second year.  One example of a challenge is that some of our crops are reported as reacting strangely to cultivation.  By that, I mean that we have pulled wild species into a traditional Anglo-Eurpopean farming model - and not every organism will thrive under cultivation.   Some of the plants have showed "fasciation" (deformity of flower or stem structure).  We have had the plants tested and can find no outward vectors for disease.  We were able to test the seed through this SARE project and found germination rates largely unaffected.  The botanists are positing that the fasciation could be a result of "fat" farm soils - nutrient densities that are higher than the native soils in these wild plants' ranges.  This remains an open question, but I am struck by the ways in which the farmers who are dealing with this issue are energized to engage if deeper research to understand the issue.  I naturally conclude that the experience they have had in being a part of this research study will make them more eager and willing to participate in further research.

Lastly,  our second year, The Ecotype Project, Sefra Levin, John Campanelli, and myself Dina Brewster, joined as founding members of the Northeast Seed Network to create a regional conservation partnership out of this emerging work.  It is in no small part thanks to this SARE project and a similar SARE project hosted at Nasami farm - that the gathering, sharing of research, and "fierce transparency" of our group has catalyzed more collaborative work across conservation and agriculture sectors.  The Ecotype Project has realized its mission, through the sharing of these SARE research efforts, the table at which farmers, conservation partners, botanists, seed-keepers, and policy advocates can find common purpose.  


Participation Summary
8 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

3 Consultations
3 Journal articles
3 On-farm demonstrations
3 Online trainings
3 Published press articles, newsletters
6 Tours
4 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days
6 Other educational activities: Open seed cleaning days were hosted at The Hickories, our farm here in Ridgefield. Participating farmers were able to come and tour the seed farm here and help clean their own seed crops using our simple equipment here. These seed cleaning days were important opportunities to deepen engagement with the seed crops, many of which were first or second harvest for our participating farmers.

Participation Summary:

15 Farmers participated
12 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

3 Farm tours were not designed to be a part of this SARE project, but Sefra Levin of CT NOFA has been getting the word out about the work of participating farmers and there was interest in a visit, so she put them together.  Farmers have come to clean seed and talk about this emerging market of native seed production, in addition to these pre-scheduled tours.  

Quarterly calls with the farmers who are participating in the research study have helped to both answer questions about sample methodology and timing as well as generate new questions about how to best maximize quality in the crops we produce.  It seems there are so many factors that go into seed quality, that isolating just one, as we have done through this particular research methodology, is complicating.  

Sefra Levin and Dina Brewster were able to successfully report out to both the agricultural and the conservation communities.  Through regional newspapers like "The Natural Farmer" (a NOFA publication) to magazines with national reach (The Garden Club of American Magazine) and Barnraiser - the collaboration of farmers on behalf of ecosystem services is of great interest to consumers, conservationists, gardeners, and advocates.

As a result of the seed research efforts of this SARE project, Sefra and Dina and some of the farmer collaborators in this SARE project  have and will be presenting at The National Native Seed Conference (last February) and The Garden Club of American National Conference (April.)

  1. Ecotype Project Website: SARE
  2. Northeast Seed Network Website: Here
  3. CT NOFA: Gleanings - December 2022 
  4. Northeast Seed Network Newsletter: October 2023 
  5. Eco59 Newsletter: A Season for Seeds - December 2023 
  6. Natural History of Ecological Restoration Journal: The '23 National Native Seed Conference (May 1st 2023)
  7. Barn Raiser: Native Seed Network Takes Root in the Northeast (February 19th 2024)
  8. The Natural Farmer: printed in Spring edition - (copy attached)(March 2024)
  9. Northeast Seed Network Newsletter: March 2024 (attached)
  10. GARDENISTA: Where Do the Pros Go to Source Native Plants (March 27th 2024)
  11. Natural History of Ecological Restoration Journal: The Restorative Landscape Coalition  (March 29th 2024)
  12. Garden Club of America: To be published in Summer Bulletin

Learning Outcomes

3 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
3 Grants applied for that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Even with only 1 sample set data returned of the 6 species we are studying, and only one preliminary result - farmers realize that there may be some important outcomes of this SARE project.  Lobelia cardinalis is a species of importance and our sample set shows seed that is viable and of high quality and seed that is not-viable.  The difference corresponds to their harvest date - though we do not yet know for certain that harvest date is the cause of that distinction.    

Farmers are energized about this emerging market on my quarterly check-in calls.  The intricacies of these new crops and how little is known about their commercial production has already elevated their place from "marginal lands" and "fillers" to having a role to play on farmers beside and equal to other commercial crops.  

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

One change that was made immediately to our approach was that the quarterly calls with farmers were nearly impossible to schedule as a group. So, instead, Dina Brewster, project lead, schedules calls with small groups, individuals, or meetings in-person with farmers.  

Information Products

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.