Prairie Renaissance Part Five

Learning from the Prairie

 Wow. It’s August! We recently completed a management step on the prairie planted in early June. Weeds were outgrowing infant prairie plants that need sunshine. We buzzed off the weeds at the highest setting possible on our battery-powered cordless EGO mower.

We bought this mower because its battery powers a powerful electric mower that easily cuts tough grass while producing less emissions than a gas mower. And, it’s easy to use. No cord pulling to start it. Also, the mow height is simple to set and allows us a high setting that helps with prairie management.

Afternoon Delight

We planted a prairie in front of the house nine years ago and now spend hours sitting on the front porch reading and talking but always watching the prairie. Here are observations that make us delighted we converted a lawn to the prairie:

  1.  Stunning beauty. We enjoy a changing array of colorful flowers and grasses that dance in the breeze. Coneflowers have been in bloom for a while. Milkweed blooms have faded. And, cupplants are just now coming into their midsummer glory.
  2. Insects. Monarchs and swallowtails cavort over the prairie on sunny days while stopping to sip nectar. Each evening the air over our prairie swarms with delightful lightning bugs. They are absent over the nearby lawn.
  3. Wrens, bluebirds, and goldfinches. A pair of wrens nested in a box just above our porch chairs. We love watching these industrious parents make trip after trip foraging for insects to feed the youngsters. They hunt in the prairie and nearby woods edge but not in the lawn. Our prairie enables our yard to support at least four pairs of nesting wrens and one pair of bluebirds. If the entire yard were mowed, we’d be lucky to have one wren couple to enjoy. In mid-summer goldfinches work the prairie.
  4. Garter and brown snakes. We’ve noticed an increase in garter and brown snakes, both harmless species as beautiful and interesting as goldfinches or cardinals.

Phoenix Harmony Labyrinth Prairie

Marion crafted a labyrinth through our oldest prairie on the front yard. She welcomes anyone to walk its circular path. Contact us before you come. The labyrinth is a peaceful way to access the prairie and contemplate the beauty of our earth while walking along its path.

Make Like a Buffalo

When Sustainable Landscape Solutions did ground preparation for our new prairie, I asked Sean Pearl if he’d create two “artificial gopher mounds” in an older prairie in our backyard. He said “Sure.”  A while back, we had planted this prairie with just grass seed. It has few flowers, and the roots of the big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass are tough and dense.  Prairie needs disturbance. Once bison wallowed and gophers dug to create bare earth.  Many prairie grasses need this bare earth to reseed. We had neither bison nor gophers so used a machine to create bare soil.

Sean’s machine chopped through the grasses. We followed up by planting 82 flower species seeds. Flowers add diversity, color, and attract pollinating insects. Looks like it’s working. Lots of new prairie wildflowers are growing in these two places in the midst of towering grasses.

Our next Prairie Renaissance blog will come in early fall.

Prairie Renaissance continued

Moving Forward

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.

Requirements

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.

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.   

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.)

FIREFLIES RETURN TO DELIGHT FAMILY

“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.

Creating Habitat

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.”