Planting Prairie

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

to help "carry" it. If you use a mechanical spreader, be sure to set the opening so that larger or fluffier seeds will fit through, but not so wide that all the seed dumps in the first 100 feet. To properly distribute seed, spread the material very sparingly and try to cover the area twice. First, work back and forth in one direction, and then a second time perpendicular to the first.

A number of mechanical seeders are available for larger plantings. Two of the most commonly used planters are native seed drills and Brillion seeders. County USDA offices may have these seeders available for rent. Other methods include broadcast seeders, air seeders and commercial fertilizer spreaders. Again, use a "carrier." The folks that rent the equipment will be able to advise you on its proper use. If using a seed drill, set it to plant very shallow because most prairie seed needs to be planted on or very near the surface.

If a drill or seeder has been used for planting other than native species, be sure it is thoroughly cleaned before you use it so you don't inadvertently introduce unwanted seeds into your prairie.

Caring for your prairie

During the first growing season, your primary goal for the new planting should be to control weed growth. Allowing weeds and other competing plants to grow tall prevents the newly planted seeds from receiving the sunlight and moisture they need to germinate and grow.

Mow the planting whenever the weeds reach a height of 15 to 18 inches. On productive sites, this may require as many as three or more mowings. Cut to a height of four to six inches the first two or three times. In subsequent mowings, cut to a height of six to eight inches. Most of the new prairie plants should be lower than these mowing heights, but clipping off the top of the plants will not adversely affect their survival.

During the second year, an additional mowing or two, generally at a height of 12 or more inches, may be necessary if heavy weed growth persists.

At this time you should also assess the type of weeds in your planting. Plants like ragweed, lamb's quarter, dock, mare's tail, daisy fleabane, and Queen Anne's lace are not a long-term concern. Mowing and the continued development of prairie species should eliminate them in time.

However, perennial species such as fescue, smooth brome, reed canary grass, Johnson grass and sericea lespedeza are a more serious concern and deserve special attention. In a small planting, or with minor infestations, you may be able to eliminate these species by hand-pulling or spot herbicide treatment. If the plants are common throughout the planting, you may need to apply herbicide on a broader scale. For cool-season grasses, apply a grass-specific herbicide when cool-season grasses are active and the native prairie grasses are dormant (March or November). Knowing the species you want to eliminate, as well as those you want to keep, is critical to creating a viable prairie.

Once a planting becomes established and undesirable plants are eliminated or under control, some type of periodic disturbance (every 2-4 years) will maintain the health and vigor of the prairie species and to keep invading woody species in check. This disturbance can involve mowing or burning all or part of the planting. Remember that prairies evolved with fire and grazing, and they benefit from such activity.

Be patient! Expect your planting to look "weedy" in the early years. The rewards will come.

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