Volunteers plant thousands of seedlings at TWI project sites

Spring is the season for planting plugs (seedlings), an essential activity during the early years of a restoration to reintroduce native species. This year the Wetlands Initiative (TWI) had three projects at this early stage of restoration, and lots of volunteer help was needed to get all the plugs in the ground. Over the course of three volunteer days in early June—one at each of the projects—more than 90 volunteers helped TWI plant almost 8,000 plugs by hand.

The first of the volunteer days was June 3 at the new Hickory Hollow tract of TWI’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge; despite unusual spring heat, volunteers helped get 2,000 mesic prairie seedlings planted.

It was a bit cooler by June 8 when employees from the Dow Chemical Company, Ecolab, Harrah’s Joliet, and Waste Management of Illinois planted 2,430 plugs at Midewin’s Secret Ridge, a dry ridge between the arms of a large marsh where TWI just started restoring extremely rare gravel hill prairie in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

The temperature was back up by June 10 at Indian Ridge Marsh in Chicago’s Calumet region, where TWI, Audubon Great Lakes, and the Chicago Park District are partnering to restore the north end. With help from the Southeast Environmental Task Force, the group planted 3,400 seedlings in the prairie areas of the site—and then hoped for rain to keep them all growing!

Along with sowing native seed in the winter, TWI plants seedlings in the spring because they have a higher probability of establishing than the seed. (Photo by Dave Miller)

TWI Assistant Ecologist Anna Braum was essential to the success of the plug planting this year. Anna joined TWI in April 2017 after working as a research assistant at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program, where she monitored rare and listed plant species throughout the Chicago region. That expertise has been especially helpful in her new TWI position.

For each of the volunteer days Anna had to make decisions about which species would be planted in consultation with TWI Senior Ecologist Dr. Gary Sullivan. She explained, “We choose suites of plant species that are ecologically appropriate to each site, based on known plant community associates and physical factors such as the site’s hydrology and soil types.” So while all of this year’s planting was in prairie areas at the three projects, there were some differences in species from site to site based on specific factors.

There have been many plug-planting volunteer days at TWI’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in the past, but this year was only the second one at the new Hickory Hollow tract. Recently added to the Refuge, it’s being returned to a mosaic of upland habitats including mesic prairie and oak savanna; the plug planting was focused on the prairie areas. The first volunteer day in 2016 covered about 40 acres, and this year’s about 80 acres. With more than 30 people it was the largest group ever for a volunteer day at the Refuge.

Many of the native seedlings that were planted in 2016 at Hickory Hollow are in bloom this year, which is a good sign for the restoration. Rick Seibert, the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge site manager, has seen prairie violets, heart-leaf golden alexanders, and shooting stars, all of which were planted last year.

Planting at the Dixon Refuge’s Hickory Hollow tract was particularly laborious this year because the ground was very dry and hard. (Photo by Dave Miller)

This year volunteers planted mesic prairie species including pale purple coneflower, heavy sedge, wild strawberry, and pale-spiked lobelia. Though there were difficulties drilling holes for the plugs because the ground was so dry and packed, it didn’t stop the volunteers, who resourcefully used hand trowels to get the job done.

Secret Ridge at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is part of TWI’s new seven-year, 1,800-acre restoration project at this vast U.S. Forest Service site near Joliet, Illinois. The area was the focus this year for our “Prairie Champions”: the Dow Chemical Company, Ecolab, Harrah’s Joliet, and Waste Management of Illinois. TWI has recognized these four companies—all of which have locations near Midewin—for their ongoing support of our work there, through both financial contributions and employee participation in volunteer days.

This year we organized the Prairie Champions volunteer day a bit differently. Each company had its own section of Secret Ridge marked out and there was a friendly competition to see which one could plant the most plugs. Species planted included prairie violet, leadplant, yellow fox sedge, butterfly weed, and more. TWI will share photos and updates of each company’s area over the coming year so they can see how “their” piece of prairie develops.

Ecolab employees and their families planting plugs at Midewin’s Secret Ridge area. (Photo by Vera Leopold/TWI)

Later that week it was Indian Ridge Marsh’s turn for planting. A remnant wetland near the Calumet River on Chicago’s Southeast Side, it’s an oasis in an industrial landscape. Organized with Audubon Great Lakes, the Chicago Park District, and the Southeast Environmental Task Force, the volunteer day was the first plug planting at the north end since restoration there began in 2016. In the months prior to the planting, work included clearing invasive species like phragmites and undertaking a prescribed burn. There are drier prairie areas at the site adjacent to the marsh and that’s where the volunteers focused their efforts on that steamy June Saturday, planting native species like compass plant, rattlesnake master, purple prairie clover, and common ironweed. Later in the week restoration staff planted plugs in the wetter areas, including some aquatic species.

Plug planting is not easy work and we’re indebted to the many volunteers who helped get so many seedlings in the ground this past spring. Only once a diversity of native plants is again thriving will the birds, butterflies, and other wildlife return to these special places throughout northern Illinois.