Prairie Renaissance Tools of the Trade

Prairie Seedlings

Tuesday, June 2nd was an exciting day. We walked to our 3,000 square foot patch of dirt that, until recently had been a lawn, and spotted bits of feathery green poking through the dirt. They were baby partridge peas, scattered somewhat evenly through the patch.

Last winter we decided to extend our long-term effort of transforming mowed lawn into the native prairie. In our first blogs, called Prairie Renaissance, we shared why we are doing this, early planning, and ground preparation, and seeding. You can view these on This blog tells how we manage our newly planted prairies and some of the tools we use.

Tools for Prairie Management*

*Most tools we bought ourselves.  The EGO trimmer we received for testing

By far the most important “tool” for establishing a prairie is Patience. Seed a conventional lawn in the spring and it’s well established that same year. Roll out the sod and the lawn is immediate. Not so with the prairie.  It needs time.

When we planted one of our first prairies in the 1980s at the Indian Creek Nature Center Jock Ingels was our mentor. His words ring true. Here’s what he said after advising us to scatter prairie seed on existing bromegrass”Plant those seeds and early next spring burn the grass. Then look carefully. You won’t see any prairie plants and think you wasted your time. Don’t give up. Burn off the grass that autumn or the next spring and watch again. You might see just a few prairie plants that year but still think you’ve wasted your time.  But by the third year, the miracle starts. You’ll see more prairie plants, and it will keep getting better and better each year after.”

He was right. Planting a prairie on the existing brome is an exercise in patience. We did it because we had no money for herbicides or ground preparation. For our new prairie at Winding Pathways, we wanted to speed up the process by killing the existing lawn and baring the soil. It’s a “fast” way to start a prairie, but that’s relative.  It still takes patience.

Partridge pea is a prairie sprinter. It’s an annual that shows up the first year with its pretty legume yellow bloom. Ours will bloom this summer and, if all goes well, we’ll also have Coreopsis and Black-Eyed Susans soon welcoming bees and butterflies. Newly planted prairies usually bloom with yellow flowers the first few years, while blue and red-toned flowers take longer to establish. So, we expect “yellow” in 2020 and gradually more color and species diversity as the years progress.

Planting a prairie is a little more like planting a tree than a vegetable or conventional flower garden. Patience helps.

Hands-on Tools to Help Manage Our Prairies

  • Hand and battery-powered clippers to remove fast-growing weeds.
  • We bought a self-propelled power lawnmower – EGO Mower. It’s quiet, effective, and inexpensive to operate.
  • A battery-powered string trimmer. This allows cutting weeds higher than most lawnmowers.
  • Plant identification books, especially those that have photos of seedlings and butterflies. Many books and websites help identify both prairie plants and weeds as well as insects and spiders. We recently have begun using an app called SEEK, produced by the National Geographic Society and the World Wildlife Fund. It’s free. You snap a photo of the plant, bird, insect, or fungus you want to identify and, presto, most of the time it immediately tells what it is. Many books and online resources help identify mature and blooming plants but seedlings are challenging. An outstanding guide for identifying prairie seedlings is PRAIRIE SEEDLING AND SEEDING EVALUATION GUIDE, which is available by PDF by simply Googling the publication’s name.

First Year Prairie Management

Transforming a lawn to a prairie doesn’t eliminate maintenance but it does reduce it. In its first year, a prairie needs special attention. Broadcast prairie seeds on bare ground and soon weeds march right in. In their establishment state prairie plants prioritize root growth over leaves. A rank growth of weeds can snuff them out. Young prairie plants are difficult to identify but generally hug the ground while weeds reach for the sky.

So, for the first two years, we will mow our prairie at the highest height our mower can be set at. This buzzes off the interloping weeds and lets the shorter prairie have sunlight. We’ll mow it three or four times the first year, one or two the second, and then quit mowing altogether once the prairie is established. Sometimes we use our battery-powered string trimmer to cut weeds higher than our lawnmower allows or in places where the ground is rough and the mower doesn’t work well.  Future maintenance will involve burning and occasionally clipping out weeds.

Fertilizer and Water

Weeds love fertilizer. Prairie plants don’t need it. There is an irony. Over thousands of years dying prairie plants, especially their roots, created the wonderful topsoil of today’s Corn Belt, yet they do well in poor soil. We never fertilize our prairies. They just don’t need it, and if we did sprinkle some on our plantings the weeds would appreciate it and grow even faster.

The same for water. Prairies are drought tolerant. Their roots penetrate upwards of 15 feet down, drawing water from the subsoil. Watering a prairie mostly helps shallow-rooted weeds. We also completely avoid pesticides and herbicides, with the exception of killing the sod before our initial planting.

A perfect lawn needs infusions of water, fertilizer, and chemicals that stimulate so much growth that frequent mowing is needed. In contrast, a prairie doesn’t need them and, once established, needs little to no mowing.

An Excellent Resource

The Monarch Research Project is doing amazingly good work encouraging people to plant native species that make our world more beautiful and boost populations of beneficial wildlife, especially monarch butterflies. Their website is a host of information and has outstanding webinars on why and how landowners can make our earth a healthier place.

Our Next Prairie Renaissance blog will be in late summer when we’ll showcase both emerging prairie plants and some of the weeds that bedevil prairies.  Later in the fall, a blog will detail prairie prescribed burning.

Why Do You “Shoot” Birds?

She feeds ’em. I shoot ’em.

Guest Bloggers STB

Yes, this sounds like a love/hate relationship. But, it is truly pure enjoyment for my wife and me to witness the birds that visit our backyard feeder here in SE Minnesota.

Throughout the year a variety of birds comes from the woods to feast at my wife’s feeder. From late April to early May the orioles make their appearance. Baltimore Orioles have a vivid bright orange color and the Orchard Oriole has a noticeably darker burnt orange color. The recent reality of retirement has allowed us more time for photography and our birds have become a passion.

Capturing a static image of a perched bird is relatively easy but my goal has been to catch them in their interactions and flight. Shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second or faster are recommended and patience is mandatory but the results might get you hooked. Beware…

Who is Mistress Mary?

Another beautiful, blue-sky day. This early morning I am drinking tea and looking out the patio windows. As I enjoy the view of the freshly cut lawn and watch the birds flit about, a bit of busy-ness above the deck catches my attention.  A small, loose clump of grey moss trembles and jerks around. It seems suspended like a little tube sock from a maple branch.

A tiny head and two bright eyes appear. In a wink, she’s gone. Moments later, another flash, this time with a hint of yellow. More trembling and jerking around, on the branch.  And now I’m sure we have a nesting pair in our tree at the end of the deck.

Despite the yellow, her beak is too long and slender to be a goldfinch. A burst of warbling and I think it might be ‘Mistress Mary’, one of my favourite songbirds that keeps me company on long summer afternoons.

I can look forward to hours of entertainment.

Mistress Mary is just my name for a songbird whose phrases sound like an event organizer ordering people around: 

“Jay-jay, sorry,  Jo-Jo, sit here.”
“That’s your story?
“Bring it here.”
“Will you do it?”
“Where are you?”
“Do ya think?”  

She has quite a repertoire of a dozen or so phrases that she repeats faithfully. Fun to listen to. I first heard her about five years ago.

The Hermit thrush has also arrived in Eastern Canada for his summer stay. His ethereal song echoes in the woods.

Readers, scroll through the article in the New York Times to read an interesting article interspersed with bird sounds: Hear 13 Birds Flourishing in a Newly Quiet New York (City).

Scarlet Tanagers

We’re lucky. Scarlet tanagers nest near us. Winding Pathways abuts Faulkes Heritage Woods, a protected 110-acre forest of mostly monstrous oak trees. So, every May we’re delighted as this brilliant bird arrives and sets up home.

Male scarlet tanagers appear at our feeders in mid-May. Females come a few days later. The male’s amazingly brilliant red feathers and contrasting black wings make the bird unmistakable. For only a week or two they visit the orange-colored suet we set out and pick sunflower seeds from silo feeders. Then they disappear. We knew they abandoned our yard to nest near the tops of big oaks in the nearby woods, but they are very hard to spot there, even as they sally forth to catch insects from mid-air catching a meal. Their summer diet is mostly insects.

We wondered where they went after nesting and consulted our friend Jim Berry, retired executive director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York. Here’s what he wrote:

“Once the baby birds fledge, familial responsibilities end and the birds move away from forests to places where they can find food and molt. Often these are old fields and marshes, where they seem to disappear. This is called the post-season dispersal.

They soon replace their brilliant red feathers with duller-colored new ones that help them migrate.”


Jim told us we are lucky to have scarlet tanagers come to our feeders. They don’t where he lives in Western New York.

After they molt the birds fly all the way to northwestern South America for the winter. We won’t see them again until next May.

These are breathtakingly beautiful birds that brighten our yard for just a short while each year. We’re humbled to be able to host them.

Goose Daycare

We like geese. Yes, they leave piles of poop on trails and urban grassy areas. And, that is a pain. We’re not fond of running the gauntlet of goose dirt on the sidewalk. Still, we like geese. They recently made us laugh with an antic we found hysterical.

While driving on Shaver Road, NE, near Cedar Lake in Cedar Rapids we spotted dozens of fluffy baby geese on a nearby lawn. There were at least 50 fuzzy babies watched over by only nine adults. All streamed across the road as fast as their little legs would take them and sprinted across a parking lot. It was a herd of fluff balls moving in concert. We were laughing so hard photography was difficult. Another couple had also stopped to watch and catch a video of them.

We often walk around Cedar Lake and always see geese, but May is probably the best month to watch them. Geese mate for life, so we usually see a pair of adults with anywhere from two to a dozen babies.

Likable Geese

Here is why we like them. They’re attentive parents, teaching their babies how to find food and swim and keeping them safe. An adult goose is both formidable and a great bluffer. If we approach too closely they’ll open their bill and hiss. It’s clear communication that says, “Stay away from our babies.” We imagine that an enraged parent goose would drive off a hungry raccoon eyeing a baby for dinner. But, they don’t usually bother walkers beyond the hiss and evil eye routine.

One fascinating goose observation is that often several goose couples let their babies intermingle. It’s like a swarm of geese tended by many parents. Often the babies are of different sizes, so some must be older than others but the parents protect them all.

When we saw the 50 odd goslings with only four pairs of adults we wondered if they were operating a goose daycare, allowing other goose couples to have a few hours off from parenting duties.

Goose babies grow amazingly fast on a diet of mostly grass, and we’ll enjoy watching them mature as we do our regular walks around the lake.

Prairie Renaissance – A Review and Preview

What’s to Love About a Prairie?

Colorful prairie forbs

prairie forbs help pollinators

We love prairie. Prairie is color. Flowers yellow, red, blue, and every hue in between shine through tall grasses. Prairie beckons flying flowers……butterflies as well as birds, bunnies, and other interesting animals. Compared to a groomed July lawn, prairies are a joy to our eyes as grasses and flowers wave in the evening breeze.

When we moved to Winding Pathways in 2010, we inherited lawn.  Lots of lawn. Starting almost immediately we transformed two big sections into a prairie. But we still had lots of lawn left. So, in late 2019 we decided to whittle it down by about another 3,000 square feet. In-place would be a short profile prairie sporting at least 70 species of wildflowers.

Lawns Have Their Purpose

We’re not anti-lawn. They are great places to relax with friends and play. There’s just too much lawn in America and its environmental impact is huge.  Lawn watering annually consumes 3 trillion gallons of irrigation water, 200 million gallons of gas for mowing, and 70 million pounds of pesticides. There’s no need for that.

Ways to Ecologically Manage Lawns

  • Allow diverse plants to grow.
  • Avoid watering or spraying.
  • Mow on a high setting. We use a battery-powered EGO mower that’s recharged by our solar electric panels.

There are lots of ways to establish a prairie. None is perfect. Some yield fairly quick results, while other methods require patience. Through a series of blogs this year we will detail how we decided to plant prairie, explain its benefits, and detail a way to achieve fairly fast results. Ours is just a model of one way to do it. We encourage anyone who has a lawn to consider transforming it into prairie or other native vegetation even if it’s only a few square feet.

Why We Are Doing It: Decision…

There are lots of reasons for converting a lawn to a prairie. Here are a few of ours:

  • We’re individualists.  We find neighborhoods with rows of perfectly clipped, fertilized, and sprayed lawns boring.
  • We thrive on diversity. Every new bird, plant, and animal discovered in our yard is a thrill. Ecologists who have long said that diversity implies stability, are correct. Species change from year to year but always there’s change within the stability of a healthy habitat – our prairie.
  • We consider mowing a waste of time and resources.  Nationally, lawn mowing consumes millions of gallons of gas. Mowers spew out emissions that foul the air and contribute to climate change. Mowing is time-consuming.
  • With a few exceptions, we shun chemicals. We’ve never used any insecticides and only use a few herbicides to help our prairie compete with persistent introduced plants.
  • It’s all about beauty. As we sit on our summer porch colors dance in the wind from hundreds of blooming plants and butterflies hopscotch about. Prairie is a joy to the eye.
  • Water is precious. Perhaps the world’s most precious resource is clean water. Deep-rooted prairie, unlike lawns, never needs irrigation. Instead, it filters, cleanses, and sequesters rain that percolates down to the water table through zillions of interlocking roots.
  • Years ago, we restored one prairie. But on the other side of the drive is a swath of lawn that continually needed mowing.  Worse yet, it was on a slope, causing our creaking knees to work extra hard pushing the mower upslope. So, in late 2019 we decided to convert part of it to a prairie, leaving a margin of a mowed lawn around it.

…and Early Preparation

So, we began to plan our newest prairie. Unlike the existing ones we wanted it to establish as quickly as possible and we wanted great plant diversity and lots of color with only one exception. We wanted a short-grass/forb prairie, so chose the seeds carefully. We chose not to include Big Bluestem, Switch, and Indian Grasses in our mix.

We also had to determine these things:

  • Was it legal in our area?   Yup. We checked ordinances.
  • Would it bother the neighbors?  No. We informed them and learned they were fine with it.
  • Did we have the time and money to establish and maintain it?  Yup. We are frugal and energetic enough to maintain and nourish the prairie.


Just What Is Prairie?

Native prairie is an enormously complex and beautiful grassland that became established in the American middle after the glaciers receded and the climate warmed and dried. It stretched from Ohio to the Rocky Mountains. Eastern prairies lived where rainfall and humidity were fairly high. It was nearly plowed to extinction and was replaced by vast corn and soybean fields. Shortgrass prairie can be just ankle high and lives in the dry Great Plains with the mid-grass prairie in between. We live in the area once occupied by tallgrass prairie, a truly endangered ecosystem. Establishing prairie is appropriate in areas that were once prairie and it is ecologically wonderful to replace lawns with vegetation native to the site.

Winding Pathways is partnering the project with the Monarch Research ProjectLinn County RoadsidesSustainable Landscape Solutions, and Pheasants Forever.

Now on to the next phases of our Prairie Renaissance. (For earlier background on pollinator patches read our blog of February 20, 2020.)