Prairie Restoration

Why Establish a Prairie

  1. Conserve Water: According to the U.S. E.P.A. up to 30% of our drinking water is used to water lawns! Prairies don’t require any watering once established, conserving 300,000 gallons per acre per year compared to irrigated turf!
  2. Clean Water: Lawns use ten times as many chemicals per acre as industrial farmland. Some of these hazardous chemicals can make children and pets sick, and pollute our lakes, streams and groundwater. Prairies can help prevent water pollution by breaking down these chemicals before they can do any harm. Prairies actually capture rainwater as it falls, allowing it to slowly percolate into the ground.
  3. Wildlife Habitat: Thousands of species of beautiful and interesting insects such as butterflies, dragonflies and imperiled bees rely on prairie plants for their survival. These beneficial insects and other natural predators are important to control garden pests, mosquitoes and other harmful creatures, and also feed birds and other wildlife.
  4. Natural Beauty: With elegant grasses and dozens of species of cheery wildflowers, prairies are a sight to behold year-round. Natural settings are shown to reduce stress and promote happiness making them a good choice for your home or business. Show your commitment to the health of your community with a natural prairie planting.
  5. Natural Education: One study showed that children could identify 1000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants or animals native to their backyard. Has your child had the chance to watch a butterfly emerge from a cocoon or catch lightning bugs on a summer night? Do you have a place close to home where you and your family can enjoy nature? If not, why not your own back yard?
  6. Clean Air: According to the U.S. E.P.A. up to 33% of all air pollution in urban areas is from lawn care machinery. Since you don’t need to mow prairies, there is no air pollution from lawn equipment.
  7. Save Time and Money: Large properties can save 25%-67% on land management over a ten year period by converting lawn to prairie. And any home-owner can benefit by spending less time pushing the lawn mower around every week.

The Historic “Sea of Grass”

For ten thousand years the tallgrass prairie was the dominant ecosystem in the midwest. This landscape was sculpted by regular fires which were ignited by lightning and by Native Americans as a tool to aid in hunting, for warfare, or defense. These fires returned nutrients to the soil and suppressed woody plants that might invade the prairie, resulting in a rich and lush grassland. Prairies were home to hundreds of species of grasses and flowering plants. Large mammals such as bison, elk, moose, and bears were common as were a variety of songbirds endemic to vast grasslands. And one should not forget the tens of thousands of species of insects of the prairie, the “little creatures that run the world”.

When the first settlers arrived almost 200 years ago they found what could only be described as a “sea of grass”. There was no word for this sort of landscape in English, so the word “prairie” was taken from the French word for “meadow”. These settlers were industrious people who tilled the fertile prairie soil and planted crops to provide food and a better life for their children. But this conversion from grassland to grain fields eventually had a terrible impact; today less than 1% of the tallgrass prairie remains. The remaining scattered remnants are now the last refuge for the wild plants and animals that once roamed freely across the midwest.

Prairie Restoration: Conservation in Action

The potential extinction of our prairie plants and animals is a real threat, and the challenge of re-establishing an entire ecosystem is a daunting one. The large mammals have been lost from our landscape while many grassland dependent birds such as bobolinks, meadowlarks, prairie chickens and the Henslow’s sparrow tenuously hang on to survival. The science of prairie restoration began over 80 years ago with efforts by ecologists such as John Curtis and Aldo Leopold. Even after generations of prairie restoration efforts, it is still a challenge to create reconstructed prairies that look and function like the real thing. The staff of Good Oak Ecological Services is on the cutting edge of this ever-changing field. We have worked with and learned from some of the greatest minds
in ecological restoration. Now we are ready to use what we have learned to help you.

The Process of Establishing a Prairie

Site Preparation

Establishing a prairie can take several years. We aren’t just planting a garden but are actually establishing an ecosystem. Typically we see the prairie matrix develop within three to five years. Many property types can be converted to prairie, including agricultural fields, lawns, pastures or even a construction site. The first and most critical step in the process is thorough site preparation in order to remove grass or weeds that might compete with the native plants and side-track the establishment of the prairie.

Seeding

Next the native plants are reintroduced to the site, usually by seed. Different seed mixes are used for sites with different soils, moisture levels, slopes and light conditions to be sure we choose plants that are ideally suited for the site. We at Good Oak believe that prairie plantings should reflect the diversity of a natural prairie remnant. We promote seed mixes with over 50 species of prairie plants. Selecting these plants requires advanced ecological knowledge and careful planning The end result is a more stable, diverse and beautiful prairie that provides homes to many more plants and animals.

Stewardship

The final phase of the process is stewardship. This maintenance work is particularly intense early in the process when we need to control weed species that get established on the site, before they can take resources from our prairie species. After a few growing seasons the long-lived perennials of the prairie start to hit their stride and begin to dominate the site. At this point we can reintroduce fire into the system, further invigorating the natives and weakening
the weeds. Over time, maintenance is reduced to simply monitoring and controlling sporadic weeds and periodic burning to keep the prairie healthy. We also encourage adding new species by seed or by planting to increase the diversity, beauty and ecological stability of the site.

Books to Read

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Miracle Under the Oaks by William K. Stevens

The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook edited by Steven Packard and Cornelia F. Mutel