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

Progress 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

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.

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.

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.  

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

3 Consultations
3 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
3 Other educational activities

Participation Summary:

15 Farmers participated
6 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.  

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.  

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.