Pondering Dormancy: Notes on Fall Seeding

Winter is fast approaching, I know this to be true, it was 19 degrees at my house this morning – burrrr! Time to get the wood stove started! Are we ready to be Dormant? When I think of the term dormant, visions of the grey skeletal branches of trees in winter come to mind, the ghostly crooked stalks of this summer’s prairie flowers and grasses beneath grey skies and snowy landscapes during our long Wisconsin winters.

Prairie Nursery, Westfield, WI

Dormancy is defined as “A state of quiescence during the development of many plants characterized by their inability to grow, though continuing their morphological and physiological activities.” The pause in physical growth patterns, a time of rest after a long season of growth … bears hibernating in caves, latent, sleeping awaiting the emergence of spring. Yes, this is an apt description of all of us lounging all winter long, the short days and long dark nights, resting yet longing for colorful first of spring flowers and longer days of summer.

Spring is often thought to be the traditional time to plant seed, but when undertaking a native prairie seeding, fall has the advantage. When we seed in fall, the seeding is dormant, and the seed will remain in the soil all winter long to germinate in spring. The seed’s exposure to cold and snow (or rain) in winter softens and stratifies the seed. This process works to break down seed germination inhibitors and “tricks” the seed into germinating in spring. Studies have shown that fall seeding will result in increased germination of most wildflowers. Warm season grasses, such as Little Bluestem and Indian Grass, tend to show a decrease in germination when seeded in the fall.

A fall installation takes advantage of cold, moist winter conditions, breaking seed dormancies and promoting earlier germination and faster seedling establishment the following spring. This early seedling establishment is especially critical on sand, which heats up and dries out quickly in spring and on clay, which gets rock-hard when it dries out and restricts root development. Wet clay soils are also difficult to work and plant during moist spring conditions.

Fall Seeding Advantages

— Seed overwinters as it would in nature and comes up in spring on its own schedule when conditions are right. This breaks most seed dormancies naturally over winter.

— Flowers generally exhibit increased spring germination with a fall seeding.

— Recommended for droughty, sandy soils because seed germinates earlier in the season, when moisture levels are optimal, and before summer heat.

— Recommended for clay and wet soils. Clay and wet soils are easier to work in the fall than in spring, and seeds will germinate earlier in the season. Clay soils often remain wet well into spring, and by the time they can safely be worked, the heat and drought of summer are often right around the corner, which can reduce the success of seedling survival. Fall seeding on clay and wet soils encourages earlier germination and better root development prior to the onset of summer.

— Fall seedings do not require watering, as the seeding is dormant.

Fall Seeding Disadvantages

— Warm season grass seed typically exhibits reduced germination.

— There is no opportunity for early spring weed control by cultivation or herbiciding.

— Be careful on erosion prone sites. It’s best to include a nurse crop of annual rye when seeding erosion prone sites in the fall.

In some cases, a fall seeding may be done using a “No Till” seeding method. This technique works only on sites where all weeds have been eliminated by smothering, or herbicide use. If the result of either of these elimination techniques reveals dead vegetation which is very sparse with a good deal of mineral soil present below the dead vegetation, you can seed right into this vegetation. First, cut down any vegetation with a lawnmower and rake it off, as the cut vegetation may impede the seed to soil contact. The seed will work its way down into the soil through the freeze and thaw process throughout winter. This method can only be accomplished in the fall. This method will not work in spring as the seed will not be worked into the soil without ground freeze and thaw. It is important to roll the seeded area so the seed is impacted into the soil.

No worries about seed germinating in the fall. Many native species require a soil temperature of 70 degrees for the seed to germinate, and in most areas, germination will not occur during the early to mid fall seeding. In our region (Upper Midwest, Northeast,Great Lakes and Lower Midwest/Plains states), the time for a fall seeding is from mid September until soil freeze up. In fact, we can plant on partially frozen soil as long as the seed makes good contact with the soil at the time of planting.


One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost has his own words of dormancy… A Winter Eden:

A winter garden in an alder swamp,
Where conies now come out to sun and romp,
As near a paradise as it can be
And not melt snow or start a dormant tree.

It lifts existence on a plane of snow
One level higher than the earth below,
One level nearer heaven overhead,
And last year’s berries shining scarlet red.

It lifts a gaunt luxuriating beast
Where he can stretch and hold his highest feat
On some wild apple tree’s young tender bark,
What well may prove the year’s high girdle mark.

So near to paradise all pairing ends:
Here loveless birds now flock as winter friends,
Content with bud-inspecting. They presume
To say which buds are leaf and which are bloom.

A feather-hammer gives a double knock.
This Eden day is done at two o’clock.
An hour of winter day might seem too short
To make it worth life’s while to wake and sport.