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Extension Education: Planting for Success

Fall is a great time to be out enjoying what is left of the warm weather, as well as the vibrant autumn colors. 

Fall is also a good time to plant many of our cool season grasses. Whether it is a large reclamation project being conducted by an oil and gas company or a small scale restoration project that a landowner has undertaken, fall can be a great time to plant. 

Some plants have a thick or hard seed coat that requires the cold and moisture of the soil to break down the coat prior to germination. These seeds need to be planted in the fall, so they are ready to germinate the following spring. 

The trick is to plant late enough in the season, so the seed will not germinate until the next growing season. Here in Wyoming, this usually means planting after mid-October, or when soils consistently remain under 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If fall planting is not possible or the opportunity is missed, seeds can still be planted during a snow-free period in January or February if the soil surface thaws enough to get good seed placement. 

Indian ricegrass, beardless wildrye, green needlegrass and needle-and-thread are grasses that have a hard seed coat and benefit from dormant season or fall planting.

It certainly depends on the ecological system in which you are working, but below is information on a few grasses that are often included in seed mixes. 

To get a good understanding of the area that will be reclaimed, a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Ecological Site Description can be consulted. Alternatively, if there is an undisturbed native area around the disturbed area, a vegetation inventory can be conducted. Local NRCS or University of Wyoming Extension Educators can be contacted for more information.

Slender wheatgrass

Slender wheatgrass(Elymus trachycaulus) is a native, cool season grass species that is categorized as a short-lived perennial. It is a bunch grass that will grow on a wide range of sites – from saline clays to sandy, gravelly upland sites. It is often a pioneer on any disturbances from desert to foothills and mountains. 

Slender wheatgrass also displays a tolerance for salinity/sodicity and drought. Seeds usually mature in late summer. It is also an excellent forage for large animals.

Many of these characteristics make slender wheatgrass an excellent candidate for reclamation or restoration efforts. 

Slender wheatgrass is often used in native seed mixes due to its early establishment abilities, yet because it is short-lived it will die off in four or five years allowing longer-lived species to take over. It is often used on stripmines, roadsides, pipelines and after fire events. 

Russian wildrye

Russian wildrye (Psathyrostachys juncea) is an introduced, cool season perennial bunchgrass. Its origin is Russia, Mongolia and northern China. It is often found in arid rangeland pastures but does not readily escape from cultivated areas. 

Russian wildrye is tolerant of both drought and grazing.

Russian wildrye is often used in rangeland improvement and reclamation projects. It is often planted for fire rehabilitation, grass cover for highway right of ways and other disturbed areas. 

Once it is established, it competes well with grassy or broadleaf weeds and can be used in weed suppression and control. 

It provides excellent early spring and fall/winter forage for large animals and maintains good nutrient value after maturity. It is commonly seeded at six pounds per acre and planted during the dormant season in the fall or early spring. 

Indian ricegrass

Indian ricegrass(Achnatherum hymenoides) is a native, cool season, perennial bunchgrass that reaches across the western United States. Indian ricegrass is well suited to desert and semi-desert ecosystems because it favors dry, sandy or coarse soils. 

It is a good source of food for both range livestock and wildlife, providing forage in the spring, summer and winter and may actually decrease with extreme grazing pressure. During winter, the lower parts of the plant will remain somewhat green, making it an especially valuable component of winter range grazing. 

Indian ricegrass can grow up to three feet and is identified by an open inflorescence and wavy awns.

Indian ricegrass can be an excellent candidate to be used for restoring disturbed rangelands. It is tolerant to a wide range of soil textures and salinity and exhibits hardiness in drought situations. It is commonly used for reclaiming stripmines, roadsides and pipelines with a seeding rate of around five pounds per acre. 

Uniquely, Indian ricegrass is sought after for gluten-free flour in making bakery products for individuals with Celiac Disease. Native Americans would make porridge, or wei, from the seed.   

Thickspike wheatgrass

Another native, cool season perennial, Thickspike wheatgrass(Elymus lanceolatus), is a mildly rhizomatous grass that is seldom found in pure stands. 

Like many wheatgrass plants, Thickspike wheatgrass has leaf blades that are coarsely veined. 

Thickspike whatgrass can be commonly found on basins and foothills and open prairies with well-drained sites ranging from sandy gravels to clay-loam soils. 

This is a stable forage for large animals that seems to increase under extreme grazing.

Thickspike wheatgrass is drought tolerant and can persist in the presence of grazing and trampling, making it fairly desirable when used to reclaim appropriate areas that have been disturbed. The seeding rate is commonly around seven pounds per acre and can be planted either early spring or dormant fall. 

It is often used in reclamation of stripmines, roadsides, pipelines, wildfires and earthen dams. It is also good upland game bird and waterfowl nesting cover.

Reclamation

If a reclamation project is on your to do list this fall, consider including some of the grasses described above. 

Keep in mind, these are just a few seeds available to Wyoming landowners and managers, there are several other options to choose from. These grasses provide benefits for domestic livestock production, wildlife, and reclamation efforts. 

Ultimately, selecting an appropriate seed mix should incorporate considerations such as ecological and economic constraints, as well as management goals. 

While picking the seed mix is the start to successful seeding, do not forget the importance of other management decisions like site preparation and management throughout the growing season.   

Below are a few resources that provide more detailed information on these grasses and many others. 

Majerus, M. E. 2009. Forage and Reclamation Grasses of the Northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, Valley Printers, Bridger, MT.

Skinner, Q.D. 2010. A Field Guide to Wyoming Grasses, Education Resources Publishing.