Planning a prairie

In pioneer days, native prairies grew in the middle of the United States as far as the eye could see. Today, only a fraction-of-a-percent of those original prairies exist, but there is interest in restoring the prairie ecosystem.

Laura Jackson is the director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. She says to learn as much as you can about the site you’ve chosen for your planting. Prairies grow in many types of soils, so before you buy a seed mix, it’s important to know the soil characteristics of your land.

"The kind of soil that you’re growing on is going to affect your moisture, how tall the plants will get. It’s going to affect the species of plants that you choose quite dramatically because there are a lot of plants that can’t tolerate super wet soils, there’s a lot of plants that can’t tolerate super dry soils," says Jackson. "So, you use the seed mix to cope with that."

This won’t be a plant-it-and-forget-it endeavor. It takes at least three years for a prairie to take hold. Jackson says the first year is especially critical because the annual weeds will pop up like toast and the prairie plants will be short.

Plan on spending some time on the mower to keep the weeds under control, and so light can penetrate to the prairie seedlings.

"That first year it’s super important to keep it mowed back. You say, what if I mow off my prairie plants? You won’t. They’re too short. You could mow it 6”-8” and they’re going to be below that, they’re going to be around 4” tall or less," she says. "Keep them mowed, mow, mow, mow, learn to identify your prairie seedlings so you can see that you’re having success."

Long-term management includes mowing or burning every few years to stimulate growth, and to stay ahead of invasive perennial weeds.