Although the calendar says that we still have a few days of summer left, fall is definitely in the air. The days are shorter, the nights are cooler, the humidity is lower, there is a touch of fall color in the foliage and the stores are full of apples, pumpkins and other fall produce. It’s harvest time!

Here at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, we do quite a bit of harvesting at this time of year. For many years, our Science and Stewardship Department has been collecting, drying and saving seed of common native plant species that occur on our properties. We collect seed of numerous wildflower species that are easy to propagate, as well as common graminoids (grass-like herbaceous plants, including grasses, sedges and rushes).

Harvesting little bluestem seed at Tupancy Links (photo: NCF staff)

We use this local seed for a number of research and restoration projects (described below). But why not just buy the seed from a seed company, as many people do when they are starting their vegetable gardens in the spring? When it comes to native species that occur in natural areas, many of them (especially in an isolated place like Nantucket) are uniquely adapted to our unique growing environment and climate: soil type, wind, salt spray, temperature, annual precipitation, etc. These “local genotypes” may have slight but important genetic differences that allow them to thrive under such specific growing conditions. Because they are the most likely to survive and succeed without being pampered, these are the plants that we want for our restoration projects!

Collected little bluestem seed in the seed harvester (photo: NCF staff)

Within the next several weeks, you may see our staff out and about on properties such as Tupancy Links and Sanford Farm using a UTV to tow a seed harvester through our grasslands. This equipment is very effective at detaching the seed of native grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) using a large, rotating brush that catches the seed and deposits it into a hopper. We are careful to only harvest a small amount from each site, and to rotate sites used between years so that we do not deplete our seed sources.

Native, locally collected seed being sown in a grassland restoration research project (photo: NCF staff)

Little bluestem is one of our dominant, native sandplain grassland species – it thrives in nutrient poor, sandy, drought-prone soils in full sun. So, it is a perfect native choice for several sandplain grassland restoration projects we have underway or to re-vegetate eroded trail and road edges that have been worn down by over-use. Once we are further down the road with our Windswept Bog wetland restoration project, we will also be using locally-collected seed of this species to restore the upland edges surrounding the restored wetland with sandplain grassland associated plant species. Little bluestem can be directly seeded out on the landscape, or propagated in the Foundation’s native plant greenhouse and later out-planted as plugs.

Native grasses propagated in the Foundation’s greenhouse (photo: NCF staff)

At this time of year, our staff are also hand-collecting seed of many native wildflower species such as sickle-leaved golden aster (Pityopsis falcata), seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) and fragrant everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), as well as other graminoids including switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). This seed is also stored over the winter and propagated in our greenhouse for use in restoration projects and for adding to our growing native plant garden and pollinator meadow here at the Foundation’s office. We also directly sow this seed in areas where we have active restoration projects underway. For example, we will be hand collecting seed of common, native wetland plant species to re-vegetate the shoreline of NCF property on Long Pond, where we are currently managing a dense population of non-native, invasive common reed (Phragmites australis).

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed being hand collected (photo: Kelly Omand/NCF)

One of Nantucket’s high-profile harvest seasons is, of course, the cranberry harvest. As the owner and operator of the organically-certified Milestone Cranberry Bog, the Foundation has celebrated this annual event in the past by hosting its Cranberry Harvest Festival. Unfortunately (due to COVID-19 public safety concerns) the festival itself will not be happening this year, but the harvest of the cranberries will still take place and we are providing many opportunities for school groups, local chefs and visitors to learn about this long harvest tradition on Nantucket in smaller, safer gatherings. Sign-ups are currently open for Cranberry Harvest Tours that will begin in the second week of October.

This year, we are returning to a more historic method of harvesting our cranberry bogs- dry picking. Using this method, the fresh fruit is harvested with a machine that gently rakes the berries off the bog without the use of water and puts them in a box located behind the machine. This differs from wet picking, where the bogs are flooded and a harvester drives through the bogs to detach the naturally-buoyant fruit, which is corralled, loaded in a truck and sent off-island to be frozen for processing into juice and other products.

Dry picking cranberries at Milestone Bog (photo: Neil Foley)

Wet harvested fruit is very perishable and cannot be sold as fresh fruit – so if you want to sell fresh cranberries, they need to be dry picked. The Foundation is embarking on a “keep it local” approach to our cranberry harvest season this year. By dry picking all of our berries, we will be able to offer them for sale locally here on Nantucket to individuals, farms, the farmer’s market, restaurants and businesses that make cranberry products or want to feature local produce on their menus. Stay tuned for more information as the harvest season approaches in early October!

Beach plums (Prunus maritima) are currently ripe and ready for picking (photo: Neil Foley)

If you want to participate in the local harvest season bounty of Nantucket’s conservation lands, you can take a walk on our properties looking for populations of native fox grapes (Vitis labrusca) and beach plums (Prunus maritima), which are currently ripe and ready. Many locals enjoy harvesting these fruits and making them into jams, jellies and other delicious concoctions – but the locations of bountiful populations are usually closely guarded secrets!

If you are adventurous, harvest season is a good excuse to get out on and explore the Foundation’s 9,000+ acres of conservation land, which are open to the public from sunrise to sunset. When participating in the fall harvest season, just remember to make sure you are absolutely certain of the ID of what you are harvesting (as some native berries can be poisonous) and to not over-harvest. It is important to leave some late season fruit for the birds and other wildlife that share our conservation lands with us!

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now!