Editor’s note: hey readers, Brett Peto here. This month, guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, returns with the third part of her series about our research project to restore 180 acres of former farmland within Grant Woods Forest Preserve in Ingleside using a climate-adapted, regionally sourced native seed mix.
This past winter, we planted 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky in the project area. The goal was (and still is) to help us understand whether we should source native seeds from further south to make our future restoration projects more resilient to climate change.
Unfortunately, as you can probably tell from the photo below, even the best-laid plans can go awry. And so they did, when an unseasonable early drought struck. Pati will pick it up from here.
Guest post by Pati Vitt
Much of the United States is currently experiencing a drought. Drought conditions also extend into most of Canada; even parts of Alaska are considered abnormally dry right now. And Lake County has experienced drought conditions since this spring. It’s a sharp contrast to the last few springs, in which rainfall was higher than average, leading to record-high lake levels and rivers and streams routinely overflowing their banks.
Walking through the preserves, you might not notice the effects of a drought unless you pass by a lake or stream with visibly low water levels. However, many plants are smaller or shorter than they would be in a typical year. Some of our iconic native orchids, such as the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), have only a few individuals in flower this year—and those flowers are tiny compared to years past. If the drought continues, the orchids may not set any fruit or produce any seed. Providing some comfort is the fact that other, more drought-tolerant prairie species will likely continue to grow, flower and even set seed.
One place where the shockwave of the drought is more visible is the 180-acre site of our Growing Through Change research project at Grant Woods in Ingleside. (I’ve written about Growing Through Change twice before on the blog, here and here.) We seeded large tracts of the area over winter 2020-21, but today, there’s not much evidence of it. The drought has greatly reduced the successful growth of the seed. It likely did germinate, but the seedlings couldn’t flourish in the hot, dry conditions. One silver lining is that seeds sometimes fall into cracks in the soil and can even germinate in another year or two. But the seed is nowhere to be seen at the moment.
We also saw the effects of drought when we went to install plugs in a wetland pocket at Grant Woods. A group of young adults, working with the Forest Preserves as part of their training through Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), came out to plant native sedges and other wetland species. Normally, the wetland holds standing water, but the YCC crew found hard-packed clay soil that felt like digging into concrete. They had to break out the power augers, but in a few hours, they drilled and filled 1,000 holes with native plants.
The YCC program is a public-private partnership providing paid internships for young adults in Lake County. For eight weeks each summer, YCC participants work with staff to learn new skills, experience the outdoors and assist with all kinds of projects across the Forest Preserves. Among other tasks, they work on trail improvements—many of the boardwalks you see in the preserves were built with their help. They also work to remove invasive species and replace them with native plants. The crew at Grant Woods is usually found assisting at our Native Seed Nursery in Grayslake where they pull weeds, water plants and assist with planting workdays. Hopefully, their efforts at Grant Woods will be successful—if only it would rain!
Chicagoland is no stranger to droughts, to be sure. They historically tend to strike in late summer, meaning our native plant species are generally well-adapted to this type and timing of seasonal fluctuation. But early-season droughts—such as in 2021—are much less common in our region and are highly unpredictable. The life cycles of our native flora and fauna depend upon predictable seasons in order to thrive. This is one of the major concerns about climate change. Our typical or average weather patterns are becoming far more unpredictable, and curveballs such as this drought can significantly harm habitats.
So, just what is the difference between weather and climate? It’s a matter of time. Weather is the rainstorm that moved through the region this weekend and the 90-degree summer days we’ve been experiencing. It’s short-term patterns of precipitation and temperature that vary around an average, but can be high or low relative to that average. Climate describes these averages long-term—over decades, rather than days or weeks. I find this discussion from NASA on the differences between weather and climate to be worth a read.
We can’t say with any certainty that the failure of a restoration seeding is due to climate change. But we can say that seeding in a drought year is a huge challenge—one which our Growing Through Change project faces. We conceived this project as a demonstration of the establishment and growth of seed sourced both locally and from further south in Illinois and Kentucky. And we’d hoped this seed would prove to be climate-resilient, since Chicago’s climate is predicted to be more like Oklahoma by 2050.
But first, the seed needs to germinate and become established! That didn’t happen this year. The research project will soldier on, though. We plan on seeding the grass again this coming winter and have our fingers crossed that spring 2022 is a little more seasonable. By this time next year, I hope I can say, “What’s right with this picture?”
Editor’s note, part two: hey there, Brett again. We’ll invite Pati back for future posts and progress updates as Growing Through Change unfolds. In the meantime, learn more about this research project on our website.