How to Build a Prairie

Needless to say, the great plains of Kansas did not look like the cities that exist there now. However, a restoration and conservation movement is on the rise, which can be seen at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hess

ton as well as the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine. After a lovely conversation with former science teacher and prairie guru Mike Martin, I have taken his research, findings, and life experiences and compiled a list of helpful hints, dos-and-don’ts, and more for all your prairie restoration needs. If you want to build a prairie in your backyard, convert some acreage, or have a curious mind like me–read on!

First things first, let’s learn a little bit about prairies and how vital they are to our ecosystem. Currently, less than 3% of original tallgrass prairies still exist largely due to the fact that prairies, once destroyed, will not come back without rehabilitation. Within a prairie, insect and animal life is abundant due to large amounts of plant material. In fact, “Prairie soils contain as much as 120 tons of organic matter per acre, compared to 70 tons per acre for forest soil,” according to Martin. Their roots extend beyond our imagination–a maximum of 65% of biomass of tallgrass prairies lives underground. 

With that in mind, think about the space you wish to plant a prairie in. How big is it? Are there trees next to it or other vegetation that could influence it in any way? What’s the soil like (wet, dry, silty)? Is there a slope? These are important things to remember when either rehabilitating or restoring a prairie. 

Luckily, prairies tend to establish fairly well on nutrient-poor soils. So, fertilizer or additional organic matter is usually not necessary. But it’s still important to match all your grasses and forbs (wildflowers and other non-grass native plants) to the moisture level in your soil. 

There are two pathways to restoring a prairie: 

  1. Interseeding method
  2. Weed-free seedbed method

 

Interseeding means scattering seeds over existing vegetation, usually after burning the site, but without any extra cultivation or care. Weed-free seedbed means cultivating or herbiciding a bed until it’s clear, then planting your prairie there. If you have desirable, native species in your chosen area, you will probably choose the interseeding method. If not, weed-free might be the right option for you. Either way, it is best to remove perennial weeds and keep an eye on them as time goes on. 

Buying seed may seem like a lot, but it is actually far less expensive than putting in and maintaining a lawn. It is approximately $30 to $50 per 1000 square feet or $1000 to $1500 per acre. Make sure to have a balance between forbs and grasses. The recommended ratio is equal parts by weight of each type of seed (grass or forb). Once purchased, sow your seeds in fall or in early spring. 

Looking ahead, your new prairie will need to be maintained. This could include removing perennial weeds, possibly burning the site every year, or mowing the site and removing all dead material after. 

Prairie Burn at Bartlett Arboretum

 

Here is a step-by-step method to building your own prairie: 

  1. Choose a site. 
  2. Analyze soil, shade level, current vegetation (native or nonnative), etc. 
  3. Prepare site for planting (remove perennial weeds, possibly burn, herbicide, or weed completely depending on method)
  4. Buy your seed! We recommend Prairie Moon Nursery
  5. Plant. 
  6. Manage. 

 

Finally, I want to leave you with this quote from our resident prairie expert Mike Martin. 

“If even 1/10th of the lawns in a community were replaced by prairie plantings, there would be a sizable reduction in the use of water, fertilizers, and chemical pesticides as well as in the fuel consumption, noise, and air-pollution associated with power mowers. In addition, deep prairie roots condition the soil and improve rainwater penetration, reducing runoff and recharging the water table.” 


Get planting!

1 Comment
  • Deb Daniels
    Posted at 20:23h, 30 April Reply

    We just ordered some seed from Prairie Moon – and bought some plants from Dyck Arboretum! This video inspired me to focus on native plants, grasses and trees from now on!

    https://youtu.be/WXZfW2b8LKY

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