Planting Your Own Prairie

Published on Fri, 05/16/2014 - 12:41pm

Last month, AcreageLife covered the continuing disappearance of America’s prairies and grasslands and why it’s important to have these in our midst. Prairies provide essential habitat for hundreds if not thousands of animal species and are a crucial rest stop for migrating birds and insects.And over time, prairies build the deep, rich soil that helps farmers feed the world.

This month, we examine a solution to saving our dwindling grasslands: Growing your own prairie. Done properly, you eliminate invasive species and build soil condition for future generations. Even on just a few acres, you can provide a needed habitat as well as add a beautiful, lower-maintenance landscape feature to your property.

You might have to squint

“The first thing is to decide what you want, and why. That’s going to determine everything else from there,”says Chris Helzer, a prairie ecologist with The Nature Conservancy.“If you want to turn back the clock and make it look the way it did 200 years ago, you can’t. Partly because we don’t know what it was like 200 years ago, and partly because everything’s changed now—the soils on the site have been farmed for a long time and they’re very different, we have a different climate now, and we have invasive species now that we didn’t have then.”Still, Chris tells us, planting a prairie or grassland with many different species of grasses and forbs (or flowering plants) can produce a beautiful landscape. “If you squint your eyes you can say, ‘Yeah, this is what it was like.’ ”It’s a commitment of many years,but for those who pursue this route,the result is clearly worth it. Phillip Quast, a spokesman for The Native Prairies Association of Texas (NPAT),describes the reward you’ll get:“You would go out at the end of April or the beginning of May on a bright, sunny day with a little bit of wind so you could see grasses moving and waving in the wind. You want to go out when a lot of the plants are at their showiest, with flowers and greenery in full swing. That also brings out all the butterflies and birds and other animals that enjoy those plants for their food sources.”

Planning your prairie

Before doing anything, take a look around and decide what—eventually—you would like to see.Does your imagination show tall grasses waving in the wind, or shorter ground cover punctuated with seasonal flowers? Are there wet spots after it rains? Has it been farmed or grazed? All of these will impact how you go about re-building your prairie.Next, drive around and seek the consultation of neighbors who have already planted prairie grasses.

“Talk to someone who has done it in that area to find out what they have learned so you can adapt plans to your own needs,” Chris recommends.Look specifically for what worked and what didn’t.If you live in a prairie state,chances are their Extension Service can be a wonderful resource—and if they can’t guide you, it’s a sure bet they know people and organizations that can. Expect to be directed to state, county (or even city)conservation departments. Someone has to maintain parks and wide-open areas, and no doubt they have forged some level of expertise. If sorting through information and decision-making isn’t your strong point, you can always turn to companies that specialize in prairie restoration and reclamation. These are often staffed by ecologists,agronomists, and soil scientists who can arrange for everything on a turnkey basis. Best of all, they will stand by you for years to come.

What to grow

You want to create a native grassland habitat, and proper seed selection is crucial. Diversity is important, so it may be that you will have to buy several kinds of seed species to match your particular conditions.You will want a mix of grasses and forbs, which may require dealing with several seed vendors—although many assemble their own native prairieseed mixes that may, or may not, be appropriate for you.Do your best to find seed that originated within 200 miles of your land. Why? Plants that have genetically adapted to your area for thousands of years will be able to better withstand what nature throws at them. When ordering seeds or plants, “Ask hard questions about where the seed came from” Chris advises.appropriate for you.Do your best to find seed that
originated within 200 miles of your land. Why? Plants that have genetically adapted to your area for thousands of years will be able to better withstand what nature throws at them. When ordering seeds or plants, “Ask hard questions about where the seed came from” Chris advises.

Experts say it’s not a good idea to graze your prairie for the first three or four years. Annual mowing is encouraged, but keep the blades at least four inches high. Thereafter,you can graze your land, and every three to four years you can burn.Prescribed burning is actually good for your prairie.It’s a good idea to speak with experts about correct timing in the year for your land. Just be sure to check with authorities and inform them of your intentions, or get permission so fire trucks can be on hand just in case. More than one farmshed has met a fiery end by accident from this practice.Otherwise, enjoy your prairie and the wildlife that it will attract all year long. The NPAT’s Phillip reminds us of why this is worthwhile:“You would want to go out and just take in the beauty of the grasslands that are all around you.If you’re in an open enough place,you can see for miles and miles—just taking it in, the open space is beautiful in and of itself.“Turn downward toward the grasses and take in all the insects and butterflies that thrive there,the animals that live there, smaller
animals like voles and rabbits, the birds. Look for larger animals that frequent those areas because the smaller animals live there. They use them as a food source, just as the cattle would use the grasses.”