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Planting Prairie

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

Lawn, lawn and more lawn-acres of lawn! A huge expanse of crewcut green is pretty in an uncluttered, minimalist kind of way, but it sure soaks up water and chemicals, not to mention hours and hours of your leisure time. "You grow it to mow it," as they say, but what else can you do with a yard?

Planting a small area with prairie plants on your property might be the answer. Once it is established, you never have to mow or water it. All year long it provides a changing tapestry of eye-pleasing color. As a bonus, a prairie also attracts and supports wildlife.

"Prairie" is a French word meaning "meadow." It's the name early French visitors used for the extensive grasslands of the central United States and Canada. Prairies lack trees and shrubs. The bulk of their biomass, or living weight, consists of a variety of hardy grasses. Prairies also contain multitudes of wildflowers.

Before European settlement, about one-third of Missouri-nearly 15 million acres-was prairie. Most of our prairie lands were in western and northern Missouri. However, scattered prairie openings were found in the Ozark and Bootheel regions. Our state's largest metropolitan areas, St. Louis and Kansas City, were each about 40 percent prairie.

Prairies contain some showstopping species, including big bluestem, tall blazing star, compass plant and pale purple coneflower. Though spectacular, these individual species are only a few of more than 800 species of prairie plants. This vast diversity provides wildlife with a storehouse of nectar, seeds and forage. The showy prairie wildflowers also attract a variety of equally showy butterflies.

The largest prairie animals-bison, elk and wolves-no longer run free in Missouri, and the prairie's avian poster child, the greater prairie chicken, is rare and declining. Still, there are many bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, and insect species that continue to use prairie habitats. These include dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, prairie kingsnakes, western chorus frogs, ornate box turtles, prairie voles, cottontail rabbits and white-tailed deer.

What to plant

Missouri's tallgrass prairies historically supported hundreds of species of plants. Any given acre of that natural flower bed may have contained 50 or more different kinds of plants.

The standard approach for establishing a prairie plot of any size is to plant seeds of various prairie grasses and wildflowers. We suggest using seed, but potted or bare-root plants, available from most native plant nurseries, offer a viable way to establish wildflowers in small plantings, or to add interesting species into a seeding.

Prairie planting seed is commercially available from a growing number of seed suppliers in Missouri and neighboring states. These suppliers also can help you select species and provide tips for successful planting. Seed can be expensive, but many suppliers will put together a mix (a little seed from several wildflowers) for a reasonable price.

Collecting your own seed requires some knowledge and effort, as well as a legal place to collect it. Seed collecting is not generally allowed on public lands, and you need a landowner's permission to collect it on private land.

Collecting your own seed will improve your plant identification skills, as well as your knowledge of the ecology and habitat requirements of the species. If you are having trouble identifying prairie plants or seeds, the natural history or wildlife biologist at your local Department of Conservation office can help you.

Where and when

Wherever you choose to plant, leave room for a surrounding wide buffer of mowed, cool-season turf grass. This will serve as an effective firebreak for prescribed burning, which is an important part of the long-term management of any prairie habitat.

Home associations and municipalities sometimes have "weed ordinances" that often define a weed as any plant over a given height regardless of whether the plant is a coneflower or ragweed. Check regulations ahead of time to prevent later headaches. If neighbors live close to the planting, let them know what you're doing so they don't think you've simply "let things go" in your yard.

Prairie plantings can be successfully established in spring or fall/winter. Most prairie restorationists recommend planting in fall or early winter because exposure to winter weather improves seed germination.

Preparing the site

Three basic elements are necessary to a successful planting: bare soil, a firm seed bed and weed control.

Site preparation largely depends on what is currently growing there. If the site is bare dirt, you'll have a lot less work to do than if it's fescue sod. If it's loaded with sericea lespedeza, Johnson grass or other problem exotics, you probably should delay planting until you're confident they have been eliminated. You might consider choosing another site.

If your planting site is currently in cool-season grass, whether rye grass or fescue, the first step is to kill the grass. Use a broad spectrum herbicide, one that kills both grasses and broadleaf plants. To kill tough grasses like fescue, you may need to spray the field twice. If you decide to plow instead, you'll have to smooth the field (disc and harrow) afterwards. After tilling you should wait before planting so you can spray new growth that will inevitably spring up.

The prairie grass and wildflower seeds you plant must be in contact with bare soil in order to take root and grow. If you're planting in a crop field, or you've plowed the site to eliminate existing sod, you've got this covered. A site where sod was sprayed to kill grass may or may not provide sufficient bare soil. Bare ground must be visible between the dead blades or stems. If dead vegetation is too thick, options include using a harrow, light discing or burning to expose more soil.

If planting in the spring, when winter's freezing and thawing won't assist you, or if the soil is particularly hard and compact, disturbing the soil surface is probably a good idea.

Disturbing the soil will very likely increase weed growth, but if you don't mind a little more mowing, it may be worth it. If you work the site with a disc or tiller, you may need to follow up with a harrow or other type of drag (a weighted section of chain-link fence will work) to level and smooth the site.

If you are planting into tilled ground, or if site preparation involved soil disturbance, rolling the site will improve the rooting medium for germinating plants. It also helps press the seed into the soil and reduces the likelihood of the seed (and soil) being moved off-site by wind or rain.

Rolling is especially important when broadcast seeding in the spring. If using a seed drill, roll the seedbed before planting. Large plantings are typically rolled with a culti-packer. A lawn roller, the tires of any number of vehicles from lawn tractors to a pickup, or even the stomping feet of neighborhood kids can compact the soil on modest-size plantings.

Planting

Plan on using from 10 to 15 pounds of seed per acre, split about equally between grasses and wildflowers. If the seed is from a commercial supplier, 10 pounds should be sufficient. Use closer to 15 pounds if you collected the seed.

For small plantings (less than an acre), broadcast the seed by hand or with a lawn fertilizer spreader. Mix the seed with an equal or slightly greater volume of moist sand, sawdust or similar material 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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