Garden cleaning pays off


Black spruce cones in perfect condition for picking.

By Gabrielle Ahlborn

Short of money? The answer could be waiting in your garden.

In some states, the Department of Natural Resources offers an annual seed collection program. Anyone with a dry container can collect pine cones and tree seeds and exchange them for money at listed nurseries.

The program is available in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Collection requirements vary by state and species, but all seeds must be collected from naturally occurring trees, not planted.

“The source of feed is really important in this type of work,” said Mike Reinikainen, silviculture program coordinator for Minnesota DNR. “You have to know that the seed is adapted to the local climate.”

Seeds from planted trees are less likely to survive because they are often shipped from areas where soil nutrients and air humidity differ.

The program has been available in Minnesota for over 75 years. Reinkainen said many people collect cones and seeds as a family activity.

“You have like three generations of people who would do that,” Reinikainen said. “So you have this transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next.”

Black spruce cones pruned by an MRN official for collection in the nursery.

Most species are harvested in the fall, but some can be harvested as early as June, such as silver maple, or as late as January, such as green ash. During the 2020-21 season, Minnesota purchased 2,460 bushels of cones and seeds statewide.

Besides being a fun outdoor activity, collectors can receive anywhere from $5 to $300 per bushel, or just over nine gallons of seed.

“It’s basically a hard-to-find thing,” said Roger Bohringer, manager of Wilson Nursery in Boscobel, Wisconsin. “If it’s harder to find, we pay more.”

The Wilson Nursery is one of several places in Wisconsin that raises sapling collected cones and seeds.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources loads bushels of acorns and cones from the Wyman Nursery.

“Typically, we grow them for one to three years depending on the species,” Bohringer said.

Purchase prices are also affected by the demand for young cultivated trees.

“During my last few years, black spruce was at the top of the list,” Reinikainen said. “He’s still in demand for projects on state and county lands, so there’s a shortage.”

Black spruce cones can be purchased for $85 a bushel in Minnesota and $200 a bushel in Wisconsin.

If you are interested in collecting seeds and cones, follow these DNR guidelines.

  • Choose the right species. Check that the DNR species description matches what you are picking or use a plant identification app.
  • Pick up the tree. All cones and seeds should be picked directly from naturally occurring trees. Fallen cones and seeds are probably not viable.
  • The cones must be closed. Pine cones store their seeds in the cone, so any open cones are likely to have lost their seeds.
  • Cleaning. Some species require special attention. Acorns should sink in water and black walnuts should have the shells attached. Other debris must be removed.
  • Store in a cool, dry place until drop off. Containers should be breathable to prevent mold. Bring the cones and seeds to a nursery as soon as possible.

For more information about the program, visit your state’s DNR website or call a state nursery.

Minnesota DNR Seed Collection Program Information

Wisconsin DNR Seed Collection Program Information

Indiana DNR Seed Collection Program Information

Michigan DNR Seed Collection Program Information


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