Community science initiative The Seed Pile Project studies native seed growth in human-dominated environments


The project, which dispersed seeds by way of community participation, is led by Miridae Living Labs in collaboration with the UC Davis Department of Human Ecology

By SONORA SLATER — science@theaggie.org

 

Urban areas aren’t known for being kind to plants: herbicides, lawnmowers and landscape management teams often interfere with the germination of native, local seeds. But The Seed Pile Project, a citizen science initiative by Miridae Living Labs and the UC Davis Department of Human Ecology, is researching which species of plants are able to thrive in human-dominated environments, how they do it and why human disturbances might actually help some of these species establish themselves. 

Miridae Living Labs is a nonprofit shoot-off of the Miridae sustainable landscape architecture company. According to their website, they aim to “develop [the] best practices for the landscaping industry and [restore] native biodiversity in human-dominated areas.”

Billy Krimmel, one of the co-founders of Miridae and a leader of The Seed Pile Project, said that the idea for the project sprung out of his experience with native plant landscaping.

“One of the challenges I’ve always had is how to incorporate some of these seed-dispersed species that I really like,” Krimmel said. “Tarweed is my favorite plant, and it’s super important habitat-wise, but it’s too messy for a typical residential design. There’s a lot of super important habitat plants that are just difficult to integrate into design landscapes; they don’t stay put, or a lot of them are annuals and they die off every year.” 

According to Krimmel, he sees this project as an opportunity to “embrace establishing seed-dispersed species in urban areas.”

“Along Highway 50, you see tarweed growing along the side of the road, or there’s native sunflowers growing,” Krimmel said. “Some of these are really hard to even establish in a garden or in your backyard, but they’re great in these areas, so why does that happen? There’s a lot of questions about how we can embrace disturbance in cities as an opportunity.” 

For the first iteration of the project last year, Krimmel and Haven Kiers, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Ecology at UC Davis, dispersed the seeds themselves, kept track of their locations and monitored their germination and growth over time. 

This year, they scaled it up by inviting the public to participate in the seed dispersal. The first year, around 50 seed piles were monitored — this year, that number grew to 2,000.

One of the ways the seeds were distributed was by flyers posted around the Davis and Sacramento areas, along with plantable seed paper. 

“The seed starters are made with custom seed-mix,” the flyer reads. “Please take a sheet of Plantable seed paper and look for an overlook spot in your neighborhood, parking lot, empty lots or your garden and drop the paper with a little bit of water.” 

 

Caroline Larsen-Bircher, the second co-founder of Miridae, elaborated on how they collected community data..

“Participants get their free packet of native seeds, register online, dump their seed packet in an urban environment like an alley, sidewalk, bike path, along a highway, etc., then each month fill out a data form checking for how many of each type of plant is sprouting,” Larsen-Bircher said via email. “We’ve been blown away by the enthusiasm from different communities. Families with kids of all ages have used it as a [COVID-]friendly activity. Educators have used it as a science and data lesson for their classes.”

This year, the project utilized Google Forms to collect information, according to Krimmer. However, in the future they hope to develop an app to streamline and simplify the project. 

“Next year, we’re hoping to expand the project to a greater area in Sacramento, the Bay area, and the Los Angeles area,” Larsen-Bircher said. “We will be moving to a web-based community science platform with a mobile app, which we think will greatly improve the user experience both from a data entry and data management perspective.”

Larsen-Bircher said that they’re beginning to analyze the data from this year’s experience and talked about what they hope to learn.

“[We] are excited to learn about which types of native plants can survive and even thrive in extreme environments,” Larsen-Bircher said. “If we are able to identify native species that can help restore areas such as along highways in a low-cost, low-energy manner like passive seeding, we can greatly increase the overall proportion of native plant habitat for the other species that depend on them, such as insects and birds.” 

Krimmer said that many of the plants they’re studying do poorly in competition with other species, and in this way, urban disturbances can actually help them. 

“For example, turkey mullein germinates late in the season,” Krimmer said. “A lot of the city managers who are doing road control, they apply herbicides in the early spring so it kills a lot of their early-germinating competitors, and then turkey mullein is able to germinate.” 

He went on to describe what they’re hoping to learn in the long term. 

“We’re looking at this as a study that we’ll do every year, you know, forever,” Krimmer said. “The project is all about figuring out which of these species could be best suited for urban existence and then what human disturbances influence their existence.” 

Larsen-Bircher added that, in addition to their goal of research, the team is just as interested in the opportunity to use the project as a tool to engage the public.

“We love that the Seed Pile Project is fun, educational, and valuable research,” Larsen-Bircher said. “But [it’s] also a very low barrier entry point into learning about plants, biology, and the natural world around you. Anyone can participate regardless of age, education background, or where they live.”

Krimmel offered some final thoughts on the positive benefits of dispersing native seeds.

“Even if we don’t learn a thing,” Krimmer said, “we’re putting down 70 pounds of native, locally grown seeds in the area in places where they might otherwise not exist.” 

 

Written by: Sonora Slater — science@theaggie.org

 



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