By Aaron Kuehl, Director of Seed Operations
“… as any child can tell you, there is a certain magic that comes with the very first snow…. something wonderful is bound to happen.”
Some of us, especially those with children or grandchildren, might recognize that quote by the narrator kicking off the classic Christmas favorite, Frosty the Snowman. And it seems appropriate to use it to kick off the topic of frost seeding.
There are three primary seeding windows:
- Spring - When most gardens and fields are planted (April to June).
- Dormant - In the fall after soil temperatures drop below 50 degrees (November) so seed will not germinate but before freeze.
- Frost - After the soil freezes and before the onset of spring (usually December to March).
Frost seeding mimics the natural process. Every year, native grasses and wildflowers drop their seed onto the soil at the end of their growing season. When winter comes, the ground freezes, thaws and repeats. This cold and wet cycle, called cold-moist stratification, overcomes a seed’s natural inhibitions, weakens the seed coat and improves germination. Most seeds of native species have higher germination rates after cold-moist stratification.
In addition to breaking dormancy and improving germination rates, the freeze-thaw cycle works the dropped seed into the upper layer of the soil during the frost-heave process. Native grasses and wildflowers should be planted in the top ¼ inch of soil; winter does a good job putting the seed where it needs to be and decreasing the risk of burying the seed too deep, which can prevent germination.
There are more benefits to frost seeding. Seed is ready to break dormancy as soon as the soil warms, which maximizes the plant’s growing days and provides seasonal moisture to promote root development and establishment with less worry from drought.
Increased germination, ideal planting depth, timely growth … what more can a habitat manager ask for? How about a longer seeding window, not worrying about deep ruts or getting stuck, and other challenges of a wet field.
Frost seeding does have a few limitations though. Fall site prep resulting in bare soil and no weeds are musts, which can increase erosion on some sites. And only broadcast-type equipment can be used — drills don’t work well on frozen ground.
Ideally, broadcast seed when soils are frozen in the morning, thaw mid-day and freeze again at night. A light, fresh snow provides evidence to where you’ve been, but avoid blanketing (2-plus inches) snows, or an icy crust, both of which can delay seed-to-soil contact and increase loss to foraging birds and small mammals.
One final advantage of frost seeding: It encourages early ordering of your seed mix, which can mean increased availability on even difficult-to-secure species and faster turnaround on your orders. To find the best mix for your frost seeding project, visit us at PFHabitatStore.com
And remember: Think Habitat … even in winter. Something wonderful is bound to happen.
This story originally appeared in the 2023 Winter Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!