Springtime on the Prairie
This spring we anxiously await the emergence of prairie flowers in an area that had been traditional lawn. This is a periodic continuing blog about the process of converting the lawn to a prairie. We’ll have a couple more updates this season. Here’s what we did to prepare for this year’s growth:
April and May 2020: Sustainable Landscape Solutions sprayed the lawn twice to kill existing grass plants, which were nearly entirely exotic species.
May 2020: Sustainable Landscape Solutions tilled the now dead turf.
May 2020: Rich and Marion broadcast a diverse array of seeds that included 82 wildflower species and a few lower-growing types of priaire grasses.
August 2020: A derecho felled three trees west of the site and a few to the east. This increases the sun on the new prairie. That’s good.
By mid-summer, a thick growth of annual crabgrass covered the site with only partridge pea obvious from our seeds.
November 2020: The crabgrass was dead and dry, so we burned it on the same day we burned our existing prairies. The fire was slow and low.
Winter 2020/21: Heavy snow covered the site for much of the winter. When it melted, we discovered mostly bare soil with few surviving exotic grasses present. This is perfect, as native seeds will respond to warm temperatures.
April 2021: Small prairie forbs are emerging. Among the many spring greens poking up, we can identify Black-Eyed Susans, Mountain Mint, and Partridge Pea. Only a few of the 82 species we cast out. Part of the fun of restoring prairie is learning what the emerging plants are.
Part of the fun of establishing prairies is learning what the plants are.
Possibly shooting star?
We’ll update with a Prairie Renaissance Blog as the natives get going.
Once we made the decision to convert about 3,000 square feet of our lawn to a prairie, we began active planning. We have 40 years of prairie establishment and management experience so it was easy for us, but we still needed help and sought partners.
We contacted many organizations and found support for our project from these people and groups:
Sustainable Landscape Solutions, a business based in Iowa City. We hired them to do ground preparation. Sean Pearl is the owner.
Monarch Research Project, an active Cedar Rapids-based group that encourages pollinator plantings.
Linn County Secondary Roads. Since our prairie is near a Linn County road we wanted their support.
Pheasants Forever. We received help from a biologist, Allie Rath, and bought an outstanding seed mix from Pheasants Forever. Matt O’Connor manages the seed store and encouraged us to buy a Leopold Mix that contains about 72 species of flowers. Our seeds were produced at the Allendan Seed Company in southern Iowa.
Good Neighbor Iowa. This organization encourages people to shun lawn chemicals and plant native vegetation. A key contact is Audrey Tranlam.
We wanted the prairie to be diverse in plant species, establish as rapidly as possible, and be “short profile”. Meaning we did not plant tall big bluestem, Indian grass, and Switchgrass.
We chose the Leopold mix because it has a diversity of flowering plants. And, Pheasants Forever kindly removed the tall-growing grasses from the mix for us.
Preparing and Seeding
Years ago when we began restoring prairies at Indian Creek Nature Center, it was impossible to buy seed, and little was known about how to establish a healthy native grassland. The Center had no money to invest in planting. Jock Ingels was a savvy restorationist based in Illinois. He gave us this advice, “If you don’t have any money but want a prairie, go pick some seeds and broadcast them into the existing lawn. Then burn it. Then wait. You’ll think you wasted your time because nothing will show after a year or even two years but burn it annually. By the third year, you’ll see prairie plants appear and it will get better each year after.” He was right. We gathered seed, planted at the Indian Creek Nature Center, and burned it annually.
At the Nature Center, we got a prairie at no cost and avoided herbicides and ground preparation but it had a limited diversity of species. The newly established prairie was far healthier ecologically than the bromegrass that was once there. For the prairie we wanted to establish at our home, we wanted a more diverse prairie and more quickly. So, we chose a faster method. Mind you, we are not keen on sprays but recognize they have a place.
Sustainable Landscape Staff sprayed our lawn with roundup in late April to kill the grass. They returned one week later and resprayed it to kill the remaining grass.
Caitlin carefully applies spray.
Tilling up the lawn.
Finishing the edge.
Three cooperators’ signs.
They returned a week later and rototilled the area to expose the soil. Spraying and tilling allows newly planted native seeds to grow with less competition from exotic lawn species. It emerges as a more diverse prairie faster than if spraying and tilling are avoided.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll show photos of us seeding the prairie and explain various other ways of establishing a prairie or pollinator meadow. But because lawns are now growing and people are mowing we’ll leave with this thought:
There’s a no-cost method of diversifying a lawn that reduces work. Simply mark off a section of the lawn and don’t mow it. It can be small. Many native plants have durable seeds that remain dormant in the soil for years or decades. They can’t succeed with constant mowing, so to increase plant diversity simply stop mowing a section of lawn and try to identify the new plants that emerge. You will help pollinators.
There’s a new phone app that we’re using to help identify plants we’re not familiar with. It’s called SEEK and is produced by the National Geographic Society, the California Academy of Science, and other groups. It’s free and can be accessed from the app store. You point the phone at a plant, insect, bird, or even a fungus, click a photo, and SEEK will identify it for you. It’s mostly accurate.
“It was amazing! Gorgeous! Fireflies danced over our prairie most of the summer, and they weren’t here when it was a mowed lawn,” said Katie Hill with much enthusiasm
She and her husband Tim are restoring an island of ecological health just three miles from downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa. First Avenue is one of the busiest urban streets in Iowa, constantly filled with cars, motorcycles, and trucks. A bald eagle flying over the road would look down at an urbanized landscape – except for five acres of verdant beauty just a few feet east of the Avenue. The oasis is nestled between suburban developments, a high-rise condominium, and a senior residence complex.
Katie and Tim bought three and a half acres and a home about 15 years ago. It was convenient to his work at a law office a stone’s throw from their land. “We did the standard expected landscaping of mowing and spraying for about a decade,” she said.
Although the yard was large it lacked plant diversity and wildlife. Then came the change.
“We stopped spraying and I took delight when creeping Charlie and dandelions took hold. Many people don’t like them, but creeping Charlie has a gorgeous flower that bumblebees love, and it smells nice. Dandelions are beautiful, and bees love them,” she said. Then she broadcast prairie seed on a low area that had been lawn. After a couple of years big bluestem, Indian grass, and many native flowers appeared. Encouraged by their first prairie the Hill’s planted new ones in formerly mowed and sprayed lawns. They’ve been helped by David Novak, owner of a small company that helps people restore natural areas.
“We were delighted when lightning bugs appeared over the prairie. They don’t like mowed lawn but love taller plants. We watch them dance on summer evenings. These beautiful insects completely avoid the mowed lawns of our neighbors,” Tim and Katie remarked.
Early in 2018, the Hills bought about an acre and a half of land adjoining their property Years before several houses stood on the property but it had been purchased by a developer who planned to build two condominium towers. He razed the houses and built one condo tower but abandoned plans to build the second.
Restoring the Land
As we walked through the area Katie showed us her new prairie plantings in what had once been a lawn while Tim pointed out where the houses had stood. As the years go by the residents of the existing condominium tower will gaze downward during the day on wildflowers dancing in the breeze and butterflies sipping nectar from prairie blooms. As twilight approaches, they’ll enjoy fireflies blinking their tiny lights.
In addition to creating beauty and feeling the joy of making the earth healthier, the Hills are benefiting the community beyond their property. Prairie grasses absorb stormwater that once sheeted off their land and into storm sewers and eventually Cedar Lake. Their land nurtures wildlife as its beauty increases and diversifies.
“We feel good about what we are doing. We are helping nature restore itself in the heart of the city, but it also does one other thing. When we were mowing and spraying it was costing us about $600 a month to maintain the property. Now that’s dropped to about 90 bucks, so we’re saving money,” the Hills explained.
In the process of restoring their land, Tim and Katie Hill are also getting a fulfilling ecological education.
Win! Win! Win!
“It’s a win, win, win,” smiled Katie. “It’s a win for us saving money. It’s a win for us to have the time to be entertained by the wildlife diversity. And, most importantly, it’s a win for Mother Nature.”
New England Asters grace the prairie.
Butterflies have flocked to the Hill’s property.
One of their many cats relaxes on the patio.
A Monarch perches in the lee of a tree resting before leaving for the south.
Owners of an urban oasis.
A brilliant harbinger of summer with a long lasting biannual bloom.
Many years ago word came that a dear friend had tragically died in Utah, over a thousand miles from our Iowa home. With deep feelings of grief of the loss of a vibrant young woman I (Rich) felt the need to “do something for her.”
We were in the process of restoring prairie to a bare patch of ground on recently purchased piece of land at the Indian Creek Nature Center. A bag of prairie wildflowers perched against my office wall caught my eye. I grabbed the bag, walked to the meadow and scattered the seeds in the woman’s honor.
The seeds thrived. Now, a dozen years later they grace the prairie with color and restore memories of my friend. We shared this story with our friend’s husband who was moved. So, we decided to share our way of honoring and memorializing ones dear to us.
Planting flowers, shrubs, and trees in a yard or park is an outstanding way to reduce grief, maintain memories, honor someone, and make our world healthier and more vibrant.
What a stunner!
Purple Coneflowers add color to a prairie.
Periodically readers send lovely essays and observations of their Wondrous Yards. Below is a poetic piece by Katrina Garner.
“One of the benefits of creating and maintaining burn barriers around prairie areas is that the resulting “pathways” provide the perfect opportunity to observe the prairies from all sides. Every morning I head out with our Lab Schatzie for our long daily walk around the property, letting Schatzie choose our route. Sometimes she startles a deer, and sometimes a turkey blasts out of the grasses right in front of us. Schatzie holds on to the hope that one day she’ll actually catch one of the hundreds of rabbits who manage to stay just out of her reach. Always there’s a chorus of bird songs, blending together like a pastoral symphony, to remind me to focus on nature’s sounds.
Capturing the essence of prairie blooms.
“I have my phone handy in case I see the perfect view for a future landscape painting. One day this past week we were ending the walk along the path between our first prairie planting and the pollinator strip next to it. The house was above us beyond the prairie. Our farm is named “Himmelhof,” a phrase coined by a friend of ours as an approximate Austrian translation for “House in the Heavens.” Seen from many points on the property, the house does seem to “float” above the prairie, and I’m particularly fond of those views of the house. At this point in our walk, the coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans were plentiful and at their peak, so I took out my phone and framed my photo to capture the “floating house” with colorful flowers in the foreground.
“A few days later, going through the recent photos on a larger computer screen, I was startled to see what looked like a ballerina with her arms raised to the heavens and her face turned towards the sun. If I wished to be pragmatic, I would acknowledge the fact that “she” was a cup-plant (Silphium perfoliatum) just masquerading as a fairy ballerina. However, the romantic in me chooses to see my prairie ballerina fairy as a joyful, whimsical reminder that I should always keep my mind and heart open to the beauty of the nature around me.
Katrina Garner, July, 2016″
Keep sharing about your lovely spaces, folks! Thanks, Katrina.