Establishment and Evaluation of Founder Plots for Native Seed Production

Progress report for FNE22-009

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $29,854.00
Projected End Date: 03/15/2025
Grant Recipient: Native Plant Trust
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Alexis Doshas
Native Plant Trust
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

We developed study parameters for 5 seed plots, and are refining templates for data collection and seed collection techniques, including best practices for viable native seed production. In the 2022 field season, we identified and collected ripe seed from robust wild populations of our 5 target species: Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), Eupatorium perfoliatum (boneset), Eutrochium dubium (coastal Joe-Pye weed), Juncus tenuis (path rush), and Verbena hastata (Blue vervain). Our goal was to have genetic variation from a number of unique populations located within the Northeast for each species, to ensure a diverse locally adapted seed product. In 2023, we will propagate our wild seed-grown seedlings to landscape plugs and once rooted, install in the prepared founder plots. Throughout the growing season we will record growth, care practices, seed development, and other relevant parameters. In fall 2023, we will collect seed, taking care to make several collections over the course of the seed production cycle to determine best practices. Seed will be evaluated for viability and germination tests will be conducted for each collection date. Data collection and seed collection will be replicated in 2024. In winter 2024/25 we will analyze our data, disseminate and publish our results in a digestible format. Through our study we will contribute best practices for native seed production for many stakeholders, including local farmers, community organizations, and nonprofit entities. 


Plants grown from local ecotypic seed are genetically adapted to their environmental conditions, express resiliency in changing climates, and support a myriad of species that have coevolved in the landscape. To date, a number of native pollinators in the northeast U.S. have experienced dramatic population declines, including the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee, yellow banded bumble bee, monarch butterfly, and several cuckoo bees (Forister et al. 2019). The main driver of insect declines is habitat loss and degradation, along with pesticides, invasive species, and climate change (Deutsch et al., 2008; Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys, 2019). To halt and hopefully reverse observed declines, there is an urgent need to restore and enhance pollinator habitat (Hopwood 2008). Efforts cannot be limited to natural areas, but also need to include working lands, built landscapes, gardens, and roadsides.

Seed also offers genetic diversity as each plant grown from seed is genetically unique, buffering the resiliency of our gardens and landscapes. There are many native seed producers and programs throughout the country, but very few in the Northeast. Recent assessments of seed needs and the current status of the native seed market nationally (NASEM 2020), and in the northeast U.S. (Tangren & Toth 2020), solidify the need and successful growth potential of a native seed market in New England. 

The demand for local ecotypic seed and plants grown from local ecotypic seed in the Northeast is growing rapidly. From grassroots community groups to large scale restoration projects to urban municipalities, the attention has turned to supporting native pollinators and ecosystem services. More and more nurseries are forming to meet the demands but the bottleneck remains with sourcing ecotypic seed (UNH Cooperative Extension article). Collection from wild populations alone cannot meet demand, and more importantly, not without inflicting stress and damage to the wild population. Our wild populations cannot bear the overharvesting of seed for ecotypic plant production on a large scale. We must incorporate innovative practices to produce sustainable, diverse ecotypic seed. 

One elegant solution is the establishment of seed plots. Seed (or founder) plots are cultivated rows or blocks of single straight species of native plants, grown from a diverse collection of wild collected local seed, for bulk seed production. Using seed from multiple populations of a species is shown to contain greater genetic diversity and may be more resilient to and adaptive under rapid climate change, with minimal risk of outbreeding depression in abundant species.

We will take a sustainable approach to the installation of our seed plots, using smothering techniques so as not to disturb soil structure and soil life. Plants will be planted, tended to, and harvested as seed matures, making sure to collect several times to capture the diversity of ripening seed. Seed will then be cleaned and stored appropriately according to species requirements. Data will be recorded at key points throughout the growing season to create a blueprint of best data management practices and to preserve genuine lineage. 

We will explore production of several high demand herbaceous, perennial species such as Verbena hastata (blue vervain) and Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) to determine best practices for bulk seed production, cleaning, storage and distribution. Local, sustainably produced ecotypic seed will be made available for use in production of genetically diverse native plants.

We aim to build upon the work of other groups in the northeast to test, document, and disperse best practice protocols for founder plots to a wide variety of stakeholders, and create a standardized, easy to replicate model. Local farmers, land trusts, and other conservation or agricultural organizations will benefit from our research. Local farms can incorporate native seed founder plots as a commercial crop to diversify their offerings as well as support beneficial insects and pollinators on their land. Land trusts and other land based conservation organizations can incorporate native seed plots to enrich their biodiversity and support wildlife and ecosystem services on their properties. 

We will help to usher in a new period in native seed production by leveraging our proven leadership in the procurement, production, and safeguarding of plant materials, with a special focus on the collection and retention of genetic diversity and adaptation to local environmental conditions. 


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  • Sefra Alexander - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

Study Plot Design

Five founder plots measuring 3’ wide by 80’ long will be installed at Nasami Farm in a prepared area southeast of the building, on a south to north axis. The founder plots will cover 1200 square feet total with each of the 5 beds holding ~ 200 plants per bed. Each 240 square foot founder plot will represent one taxa, which will allow for cross pollination and ensure a healthy seed set. The width of the bed takes into account the accessibility for maintenance and harvest by hand. Exact details and all work will be documented, including diagrams and maps.

Site Preparation

In early August 2022, we prepared  the site by removing invasive shrubs and mowing down existing vegetation. We covering the area with a combination of clear and opaque repurposed greenhouse poly to smother the vegetation without disturbing the soil structure or soil biota. We secured the poly with ground staples and cement blocks. In spring 2023 we will remove the plastic and inspect for further preparations. Once the vegetation is confirmed dead or removed, the plots will be demarcated and drip tape irrigation and landscape fabric will be installed. Drip tape irrigation will run in a matrix through each plot allowing for distinct watering regimes based on each taxa’s needs. Landscape fabric, a woven plastic fabric used to control weeds, will be laid over the irrigation tape and staked down with landscape staples. The total area will encompass 1200 square feet for the plots with 3’ paths and borders between and around plots.


Plug production

Wild seed of the five targeted taxa was collected from several robust populations throughout the northeast with the intent of capturing a large genetic diversity for each taxa. Data on seed has been recorded and tracked, including population size, location, date of collection, as well as seed viability, count, and weight. Each collection was assigned a unique code that will be used to track the seed throughout its lifecycle. Seed were processed and stored according to taxa by trained staff at Nasami Farm, using a combination of seed cleaning techniques such as sieves, microscopes, winnows, and small hand instruments. Seed cleaning and storage procedures were recorded for each taxa. In mid-December 2022, seed were sown in 9” x 12” x 3” molded plastic seed flats filled with Sungro super fine germination mix®  (SFGM), topped with a thin layer of SFGM and filtered sand. Seed flats were placed in an unheated greenhouse to undergo a cold stratification of >= 90 days to break dormancy. After this time, seed flats will be moved into a heated greenhouse and germination will be monitored. As seedlings size up (true leaves appear), they will be transplanted into Deep Sure Root ® 5” deep plug trays. Plants will receive regular care and maintenance which includes regular application of organic fertilizer (Neptune’s ®  fish fertilizer, 2-4-1) and beneficial insects as part of our Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan. No herbicides or pesticides are used in our production. Plugs will be well rooted within 6-8 weeks and ready for installation.

Installation & Maintenance

Seed-grown landscape plugs will be installed by torching a planting hole into the fabric and planted at a spacing of 1 sq.ft on center. Plugs will be watered in and monitored for health, establishment, and pollination. Dedicated staff will routinely weed and care for the plugs on a weekly basis. As seed sets, staff will monitor for ripeness and viability, using hand lens, cut tests, and microscope work. Multiple collections, early, mid and late,will be made to ensure physiological diversity. Qualitative and quantitative data will be recorded for each collection, and germination tests will be performed. Harvesting of seed will be done by hand, following established best practices. Seed will be cleaned, processed, and stored at Nasami in our climate controlled seed storage room.


Data collection

Data will be recorded throughout the collection, propagation, and installation processes to determine best practices and replicability. Variables such as germination rates, plant height, vigor, survivorship, planting date, and environmental conditions will be methodically recorded throughout the study. Recording this data in tabular form will allow for quantitative analysis, which will better inform our process as well as our ability to make recommendations for establishing successful native seed production using founder plots.

Research results and discussion:

Identifying and coordinating seed collection for a variety of population sites proved time consuming, coupled with poor seed set due to environmental conditions, such as drought. Thankfully, we were able to collaborate with several other native plant conservation groups, Wild Seed Project in Maine, and the Ecotype project in Connecticut to secure additional collections. 

The seed plot site preparation became a part of our 2022 intern Penelope Rose's project. She conducted research into our study and prepared the site by removing invasive and wood vegetation with a weed wrench, mowing and flagging the area, and with additional help from nursery staff, securing sheets of greenhouse poly to smother the vegetation without disturbing the soil. The site is in a highly visible location close to our retail shopping pad and garnered lots of questions and discussion- not only about seed plots, but no-till site preparation as well. 

site prep photos

Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research
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.