November 28, 2022

Collecting Seeds for the Future

MCF staff gather in a prairie field with large bags holding the seeds they collected

When the glaciers covering Wisconsin receded 14,000 years ago, they left behind a landscape that still defines Dane County – including our county’s lakes. Today, Lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa make up a watershed connected by the Yahara River. The Yahara watershed is home to roughly 370,000 people living in urban and rural/agricultural communities alike.

In late October, a group of MCF staff members spent an afternoon helping to protect those lakes and the watershed by volunteering with Clean Lakes Alliance and Dane County Parks. Our mission: to collect native prairie plant seeds.

Prairies and the Watershed

Wisconsin’s prairies protect the watershed in several ways. Their deep root systems help stabilize the soil and prevent erosion, keeping the silt and soil out of the lakes. That same root system also helps the soil absorb more water to prevent flooding and filters out impurities so that the water that does make its way into the watershed is cleaner.

This work doesn’t only protect the lakes and rivers we love. The increasing number of heavy rain events southern Wisconsin experiences makes Clean Lakes’ work to regreen the Yahara watershed important for everyone who lives in the area. MCF’s volunteer work was part of that effort.

Clean Lakes partners with Dane County Parks throughout the fall months to organize volunteers to collect prairie seeds. The County takes the seeds, cleans them, dries them and eventually distributes them to partner groups throughout the County. Last year, volunteers helped collect more than 4,000 pounds of seeds, which were worth $1.2 million. These seeds were instrumental in the efforts to expand the amount of prairie land in our area.

MCF staff was tasked with collecting showy goldenrod seed heads. (Each volunteer outing focuses on a single type of plant, sparing the County from having to separate tiny seeds.) After learning to distinguish the showy goldenrod from the other goldenrod varieties in the prairie, the team set out armed with clippers and large bags.

Building a Coalition to Protect the Lakes

MCF’s commitment to the Yahara watershed and its connection to Clean Lakes Alliance goes back to 2008, when MCF funded a joint project by Clean Wisconsin and Gathering Waters to identify the stakeholders in the Yahara watershed, bring them together, and forge a path to work together to protect the lakes.

The Yahara Lakes Legacy Project, as the project was known, identified nearly 100 stakeholders who produced 70 recommendations. Shortly after the work by the Yahara Lakes Legacy Project ended, representatives of the Mad-City Ski Team – including James Tye, current Executive Director for the Clean Lakes Alliance – prioritized the 70 recommendations that had been created and applied for a grant to accomplish the top three. They succeeded with their efforts, and MCF subsequently awarded them a grant to help create the Clean Lakes Alliance to carry their efforts forward.

The Fruits of Our Labors

The lakes play an important role in Madison’s and Dane County’s identity. As the community’s foundation, MCF is proud of our ongoing partnerships with the people and organizations that are working to protect them. The opportunity to get a hands-on view of that work was rewarding.

After two hours of seed collection, the MCF team regrouped and looked at the collected results of the day’s efforts – two giant bags of seedheads that will eventually be sown throughout the county to provide more habitat, beauty and, of course, protection for our lakes. If you’d like to learn more about Clean Lakes Alliance’s work, visit their website.

Madison Public Library Seed Library

Are you interested in starting or expanding a native garden at your home? Madison Public Library’s Seed Library can help. The Seed Library began as a part of the Dane County Seed Library in 2014, funded in part by a grant from an anonymous MCF fundholder.

Today, you can visit one of the four participating libraries (Goodman South, Lakeview, Meadowridge and Pinney) and “check out” free seeds. Starting this year, the Seed Libraries include several species of native plants collected by Dane County Parks volunteers – like MCF’s staff.

Using the Seed Library is easy:

  1. Visit participating libraries to pick up seeds.
  2. Grow your plants and enjoy the harvest.
  3. After harvest, collect and share seeds with neighbors if you'd like!

Prairie plants work best when sown over the winter, so it’s not too late to get your native garden started. You can learn more here.


Learn how to start a fund at MCF.