Many people are surprised when we tell them we like to wait for fallen snow before seeding our prairies. “Won’t the seed blow away?” or “But birds will eat the seed since it’s on top of the snow” are common reactions to hearing about snow seeding. Rather than being a hindrance, snow seeding is actually very beneficial, not only for the seed, but for those who are seeding.
Before diving into the advantages of snow seeding, one must understand the what a seed goes through during winter. Most temperate species’ seeds require a stratification period before they will germinate. This is the process in which germination-inhibiting chemicals in the seed coat break down. These chemicals have evolved in temperate species primarily to prevent early germination in the winter and allow the seed to germinate in the better conditions in the spring. Most prairie seeds need a cool, dark and damp environment for stratification to occur. This is where snow seeding comes in.
Snow seeding, like it sounds, is sowing seeds over fallen snow. The sun then heats the seeds up causing them to melt through the snow. The snow provides the perfect environment for stratification: dark and damp. However, snow doesn’t last all winter. As the ground freezes and thaws, cracks and crevices are created, allowing the seed to fall in. This provides the same environment as the snow covering: dark and damp. Not only does the ground provide a good stratification environment, it also provides some seeds with the scarification they need. Scarification is the process in which the hard, outer shell of the seed is broken or ruptured, allowing for faster germination. As the seeds shift around with the ground, friction against the outside of the seed provides scarification. Without scarification, the seed will still germinate, however, it might take more than one stratification period.
Another advantage of snow seeding is coverage. During fall or spring seeding, seed is enveloped by the substrate below, making it very difficult to see where seed was thrown. Because of this, areas are easily over or under seeded. With snow on the ground, the seed is visible for a short period of time. This allows for even coverage. The seeder can see the seed that is being thrown on the ground and adjust accordingly allowing for a smaller chance of over or under seeding areas.
What about the birds? Because most seeds are dark, the sun warms them quickly causing them to melt through the snow. Within an hour or two, large seeds will have already begun to melt into the snow. After a couple hours of sun, the seeds will be under the snow, safe from birds!
Similarly, seeds won’t be affected by the wind. Even though it isn’t visible to the human eye, immediately after the seed hits the snow, it starts to melt. This moisture causes the seed to essentially stick to the snow. The seed then starts heating up in the sun and begins to melt into the snow, now no longer affected by wind!
Some things to keep in mind before snow seeding are the elevation of plot and the status of the land prior to seeding. If you plan on seeding on a hill, snow seeding is not advised. As the snow melts, it will wash the seed down the hill. Furthermore, the land must be prepared for seed prior to seeding. If the land is full of other mature species, the seeds will have a harder time growing due to the competition of larger plants.
While a lot of people dread the idea of snow, seeds love it! The next time it snows, think about all of the seeds enjoying the perfect stratification environment and, in the spring, when the snow melts away, dormancy will be broken and new growth will emerge!