Native seed harvesting at Shaker Trace Nursery brings back SW Ohio’s prairie and wetlands

Surrounded by rural land in Harrison, Ohio, the Shaker Trace Seed Nursery in Miami Whitewater Forest produces native plants for prairie and wetland restoration efforts throughout Hamilton County’s Great Parks. The nursery boasts 51 acres, 177 beds, aquaculture ponds, and several structures including a drying barn, seed storage and the greenhouse.

Shaker Trace began official operation in spring 1992. Seasoned plantsman and nursery technician, Tim Osborne, runs the nursery with the help of volunteers. Osborne manages seed purchases, planting, cultivation, weed management, seed harvesting, processing and storing.

Shaker Trace Seed Nursery GreenhouseThe greenhouse acts as an incubator for seeds. Newly sprouted plants establish foliage and a healthy root system before their transplant to the outdoor beds. This head start gives the plants a better chance in the ground. Once seedlings are planted, they are left outside to grow and flower. As natives, they are well adapted to this climate and consequently require little maintenance once planted.

The drying barn was originally purposed to dry hops or barley in the 1880s.When the park needs more seeds, and the time is right, Osborne and a team of volunteers, harvest by hand. This happens after the plant has flowered and produced seeds. When the flowers pass their peak, the seeds may be harvested and sent to the drying barn.

Originally purposed to dry hops or barley in the 1880s, the steel reinforced drying barn stands regally housing recently harvested seeds to dry before processing.

Next, the plants progress through a mulcher before getting sifted. The sifting separates the seeds from the excess plant matter. Seeds are then collected, weighed, and documented before going into the climate-controlled storage room which maintains moderate temperatures and low humidity year-round.

“The seeds we use are of local ecotype” meaning they are sourced from under a 100-mile radius of the nursery. Osborne explains, “It’s important for survival.” The plants will be better adapted to this specific climate of southwestern Ohio.

Eastern Prickly PearThe plants range from common native forbs or flowers seen in backyards and parking lots such as little blue stem, thistle, and spiderwort, to rarer and more interesting plants like indigo and its unique purple-blue flowers; compass plant an almost tropical looking perennial with oddly shaped leaves; and Eastern prickly pear—a cactus that produces surprisingly bright yellow flowers.

Why are natives so important? For one, they provide crucial food and shelter for pollinators: many which have declined in recent years. They also provide habitats for dozens of native species from butterflies to birds, from snakes to foxes.

Zurijanne Carter, who works as a conservation biologist for Great Parks explains the importance of the nursery. It’s vital to the “large scale effort to restore prairie.”

Great Parks manages prairie restoration areas with controlled fires in late winter to early spring and late fall to early winter. The prairies provide crucial habitat for birds, small mammals, insects, and some reptiles.

Some species depend on prairies and don’t like large trees or thick shrubs, such as the Kirtland’s snake, Eastern blue birds and the lark sparrow—a striking little bird that prefers the forest’s edge. For animals like the red-tail hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and the red fox, prairies provide important hunting grounds.

Carter discusses Great Parks’ method of initiating a prairie restoration by, “Identifying parts of the park that are early successional and don’t require a lot of maintenance to start.” This means areas with little to no trees or shrubs that would require removal. Early successional refers to younger ecosystems with mostly sun-loving perennials and wildflowers that will eventually mature into forests with greater diversity and include trees, shrubs, and shade tolerant plants.

One season later after being drained, a blue gill pond gone fallow fertilized by fish nutrientsThe native plants also contribute to wetland restoration projects. Wetlands, the most productive ecosystem in North America, are also one of the most endangered. Today, they have declined roughly 95% in Ohio. The native seed nursery initiates the effort to “strengthen biodiversity,” throughout the parks, says Carter.

“Because of the monarch [butterfly] decline, people are becoming more aware,” of the importance of native plants, explains Osborne.

Hamilton County residents are gaining interest in native plants. Osborn assures anyone can plant a native garden at home. “You don’t need a lot; you could plant them on a stamp if you had to. You’ll see the pollinators.”

Although Shaker Trace Seed Nursery is closed to the public, they host an annual open house at their 8749 New Haven Road location in Harrison. This year, it will be held on August 4th, from 10:00am until 2:00pm. For more information about the open house, visit Great Parks here


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Emily Dillingham is a Cincinnati native and University of Cincinnati graduate with degrees in English and Geology. She writes full-time for a local material science company and lives in Brighton with her husband and pack of dogs. Follow her on Instagram @keeperoftheplants