The tallgrass prairie once covering 250 million acres of land from Texas north to Canada and from Ohio west to Kansas – was the largest ecosystem or natural area in the country. Today, only about one million acres remain, making the tallgrass prairie one of our most threatened natural areas. Only Oklahoma’s Osage Hills and the rocky Flint Hills of Kansas still retain significant examples of the continent’s original tallgrass prairie.
As increasing numbers of settlers moved west in the late 1800s, they turned the land into farms, transforming the tallgrass prairie into what is now known as “America’s bread basket.” The few sites that remain are a part of our heritage that is quickly diminishing. We must now protect, manage, and learn from the last few prairie remnants, and incorporate prairie plants in future restoration projects and landscape designs.
The prairie landscape is a unique complex of associations so subtle they are easily overlooked. To the untrained eye, a native prairie may look like just another domestic pasture, but in reality it is an amazingly diverse plant community that may contain 200 to 300 different species of grasses and forbs.
Beginning with prairie restoration efforts at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in the 1930s and the re-establishment of native pastures following the Dust Bowl, the restoration movement has spread to commercial, government, and private properties throughout North America’s prairie biome. The early efforts at Wisconsin and in the Great Plains proved that planting vegetation resembling the native prairies was possible. Ecologically, however, creating a prairie may be impossible. Because most prairies were not studied until they had been greatly altered or eradicated, it is difficult to know what all the components were, much less to try to re-create them. In addition, prairies soil structure and composition may have been irreversibly changed by the development, preventing the creation of a totally restored prairie community. Because it is unrealistic to expect that such a complex ecosystem can be totally reinstated on dramatically altered sites, prairie restorations will almost always have fewer species present than natural prairies would have. This exemplifies why restoration is never a substitute for conservation, but rather a process that complements it.
Reasons for starting a prairie restoration project are varied. The benefits of landscaping with prairie plants include the natural beauty of grasses and forbs, attracting wildlife, the relatively low maintenance required after plants have established themselves, and the personal satisfaction of encouraging an ecologically-supportive landscape.
Before trying a restoration project, look at relict prairie sites and read case studies. Because no single procedure for re-creating a prairies exists, observing and reading about natural prairie communities is important. Only a few of the relict prairie areas acquired for preservation are in a pristine or truly native condition. After 150 years of farming and westward expansion in North America, little natural prairie remains. Rocky soils, steep hillsides, pioneer cemeteries, wet meadows and railroad/roadside embankments comprise most of the areas that have not been plowed. Remnant prairie sites providing the best examples of natural prairies have experienced a relatively small amount of mowing or domestic grazing and only periodic burns, further adding to the decreasing number of pristine sites for scientific study.
Plant diversity in a restoration project initially will be less than in a natural prairie, but should increase during the following five to 10 years. Many plantings will give the outward appearance of a prairie, but may contain only 10 or so prevalent species. Of course, the more diversity the better the restoration project, and if those sites can be supplemented with and additional 10 to 15 species, so much the better. Native grasses are the framework of the prairie, and as much as 50 to 95 percent of the vegetation is grasses. Forbs or broadleaved herbaceous plants are seasonally co-dominant features of the plant community, providing the majority of the species diversity.
Grasses perform many functions, including providing support and protection for tall flowers; forming a dense cover that resists penetration by weeds; lending color and texture to the landscape, especially in the fall when they change color; and preventing soil erosion.
Unlike forbs, the types of grasses in a tallgrass prairie vary little from region.The dominant tallgrass prairie species and their characteristics are:
Andropogon gerardii (big bluestem): Grows robustly, up to six feet tall where moisture is plentiful. Dense root system extends six to seven feet underground. Attractive turkey-foot shaped inflorescence makes the species easy to identify. Found in dry, mesic or wet prairies.
Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama): Attractive clump grass that grows three to four feet high. Inflorescence typically large with numerous spikelets. Spikelet color ranges from bronze to yellow and the anthers are usually orange. Found in dry prairies.
Elymus canadensis (Canada wildrye): A two-to-four-foot tall bunchgrass wit wide leaf blades and seedheads resembling wheat. Seedheads drop or nod when mature. Found in mesic prairies.
Koeleria pyramidata (Junegrass): A short attractive plant with a dense, fluffy seedhead. Immature seedhead is silvery green and turns fluffy at maturity. Found in dry prairies.
Panicum virgatum (switchgrass): A three-to-eight foot tall clump grass. Large, robust plants with bluish leaf blades. Inflorescence is pyramid-shaped with purplish spikelets. Found in mesic prairies.
Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem): At one time, it was the most abundant grass in mid-America. Very attractive clumps cast a reddish color in the fall, topped with fluffy seeds. Found in dry or mesic prairies.
Sorghastrum nutans (Indiangrass): A three-to-eight foot clump grass with wide leaf blades and large inflorescence. Turns a handsome bronze to yellowish color in fall. Found in dry or mesic prairies.
Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed): A one-to-two-foot tall graceful and fine-textured grass that grows into fountainhead clumps. Found in dry or mesic prairies.
The amount of moisture in the soil determines which grassland species will grow best. Botanists often classify prairies into the following five types: dry (xeric); dry-mesic; mesic; wet-mesic; and wet (hydric). Soil factors such as pH level, type, and moisture determine what the dominant species are, as well as their proportions and distribution patterns. Generally, dry prairies have shallow, sandy, gravelly, or limestone soil and cover hilltops and slopes; dry-mesic prairies develop on moderate slopes with deep mineral soil; mesic prairies are found on flat, well-drained silt-loam soil with a deep organic layer; wet-mesic-mesic and wet prairies occur on low, flat land near rivers and marshes and are often flooded in the spring.
Haphazard placement of prairie grasses and forbs into the landscape is ineffective. Plan carefully to match species to types of soil conditions – this is an important step. One approach to planting a prairie is to plant a homogeneous seed mix of appropriate native species on a site, and allow a natural sorting to occur over time. A more scientific approach is to analyze the site’s soil and microhabitats to determine the natural distribution patterns and match the site with appropriate groups of species for each microhabitat.
It is a good idea to start small when you begin a prairie restoration project. Working on a modest scale gives you an opportunity to learn about prairie plants and how they will adapt to your site. Remember that larger restorations will require a considerable amount of labor during site preparation, planting. And initial maintenance. If you do not have the time, money, and machinery to establish and maintain a large tract, establishing a smaller, more manageable plot is more feasible.
Preparing the seedbed is one of the most important steps in re-creating a prairie. Proper preparation will reduce weeds, facilitate planting, and provide a suitable seedbed.
A year’s lead-time is sometimes necessary for weed-controlling measures. The seeds, roots, and rhizomes of weeds are frequently present in large numbers and quickly germinate after plowing. Because prairie species grow slowly above ground the first year, usually starting in spring, cool-season grasses and weeds have a distinct advantage the first two years, and will readily choke out young plants. After two to three years, prairie plants will be able to out-compete most invading weeds.
Several options exist for preparing the ground for planting, including:
Upper Midwest: Last half of May until June 15 (or about the same time corn is planted).
Midwest: May (or about the same time corn is planted).
Southern Plains: Late February and March
Planting at these designated times allows for the removal of cool-season weeds. If weeds are not an extreme problem, an early spring or late fall planting (late enough so seeds will remain dormant during winter) provides for more natural stratification (chilling) of seeds.
Seeding later than these optimal spring planting dates increases the chance of inadequate rainfall. Like any other seeds, prairie species’ seeds require adequate water to germinate. It is important that seeds are not allowed to dry out once they start taking in water.
Although it is more labor-intensive, transplanting can accelerate the establishment process. Never remove plants from an area unless it’s undergoing development! Always get permission from the property owner before digging up any plants. Transplants can be obtained from several sources. Keep an eye out for local prairie remnants threatened by highway or building construction, improper maintenance, or farming. Seedlings from wild-collected or commercial seeds can be raised in greenhouses and transplanted to the field. If they are raised in greenhouses, they can be introduced in the fall or in early spring before lush growth appears. Many prairie plants are available through commercial sources.
Prairie transplants should be watered regularly until they are well-established. Transplant only when plants are dormant, either in late fall or early spring, and extricate as much of the root system as you can when digging them up. Shake soil clumps from the root system, and immediately place the roots in a moist, protected environment. Some people fold transplants into dampened burlap, other put them in restaurant bus pans slightly filled with water. Sort the plants, divide, and root prune in a shady, protected place. All plants must be kept moist and protected from the sun; a cloudy, calm day is ideal for transplanting. Relocate transplants as soon after digging as possible.
There are several basic seeding techniques: hand broadcasting, cultipacking, and drill seeding. All have advantages and disadvantages.
You can hand-broadcast seeds into a prepared seedbed, rake the seeds into the soil, and then compact with a cultipacker or other roller to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. The advantages of this method include small equipment investment, and the seed are not distributed in rows. However, it is difficult to achieve uniform distribution of seeds.
Ranchers usually use cultipackers to plant grasses and improve pastures. The machines are designed with a seed box that can be set at a specific seeding rate to plant wildflowers and native grasses. A roller bar on the cultipacker packs the seeds into the soil, ensuring good seed-to-soil contact. The machines are labor-efficient and provide even seeding rates and depths. But there is limited availability of equipment, and appropriate sizing to a tractor may be difficult.
Drill seeders are used to plant grass seeds (John Deere, Truax, and Tye are three well-known manufacturers). They cut furrows into the ground, and seeds are dropped at the recommended rate. Often the seeders drag a chain or a rubber-tire behind to work the seeds into the soil and tamp them down. Running the drill seeder in one direction, and then making a second pass over the same area but perpendicular to the first pass is effective. Drill seeders are labor-efficient and provide even seeding rates and depths; one drawback is that seeds are planted in rows. (More even coverage can be achieved by removing the double-disc opening and disconnecting the tube. The tube can be left hanging or removed.
Another planting method utilizes a spreader to plant seeds, followed by a spiked-tooth harrow to work seeds into the soil. A spiked–tooth harrow is a light-covering device that can be dragged behind a tractor or attached to another piece of equipment such as a drill seeder.
The recommended seeding depth is ¼ to ½ inch. Seeds should be covered by soil at a depth that is one to three times the diameter of one of the seeds. Small seeds should only be pressed into the soil surface.
Seeding rates vary depending on the species and the viability of that year’s seeds. Generally, 11 to 13 PLS (pure live seeds) per square foot is recommended. In critical areas where erosion control is concern, the standard seeding rate is generally doubled. The proportion should be no less than 60 percent grass seeds to 40 percent wildflower seeds.
The First Year
If you have included annuals in your mix, they will germinate the first year and visually dominate the site. Although many perennials also germinate the first year, their root growth comprises two to three times the biomass of above-ground vegetation during the first year. Usually grasses will not flower or set seed the first year, and probably will grow only two to three inches tall by the end of the growing season. Under favorable environmental conditions, Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem), for example, develops a two-to three-inch primary root system before an above-ground shoot appears.
If tall weeds are shading the prairie seedlings, mow above the seedlings several times the first year to help suppress annual weeds. A scythe or hand clipper will do the job if a mower is not available or mower blades cannot be set high enough. Most of the weeds will be annuals, and mowing before seeds set destroys the seed crop. Optimum mowing time and height varies with each site and may be necessary the second and third years. In many cases, hand weeding or spot applications of herbicide cannot be avoided, especially if aggressive species or perennial weeds dominate the site.
The Second Year
Most grass species will flower and produce seeds the second year with and average amount of moisture. Some biennial and perennial wildflower species also will bloom. If optimum conditions did not exist the first year, more seeds will continue to germinate.
The Third Year
By the third or fourth year, your prairie will benefit from a spring burn. Fire is a natural process within the prairie ecosystem and helps reduce woody plants and other invaders. Burning also stimulates prairie plants to produce above-ground vegetation the next growth season, and induces some dormant seeds to germinate. It is a tool that should be incorporated into prairie management practices every three or four years.
You may choose to re-seed or spot-transplant species to fill in bare spots or increase the diversity of vegetation in the prairie planting, especially in the second or third years after seeding.
Once established, a restored prairie is less expensive to manage and requires fewer resources to maintain than a traditional landscape. Because they have survived thousands of years, prairie plants are proven performers.
Many representative prairie samples remain. Goose Lake Prairie Nature Preserve, located in Grundy County southeast of Morris on Jugtown Road, has 1,500 acres, and is the largest of the Illinois remnants. Illinois Beach State Park at Zion protects 829 acres of prairie and has trails and an interpretative center. James Woodworth Prairie in suburban Glenview on the east side of Milwaukee Avenue, one-half mile north of Golf Road, is a 5-acre virgin prairie with trails and guides. For an extensive listings of prairies throughout the state, write: Illinois Department of Conservation, Natural Heritage Division, 524 S. 2nd Street, Springfield, Ill. 62706.
The 300-acre Hoosier Prairie is a national landmark and is located within an industrial area west of Griffith in Lake County. This is the last example of the Indiana sand prairie that covered the northwestern part of the state. For more information, contact: Division of Nature Preserves, Dept. of Natural Resources, 605-B State Office Building, Indianapolis, Indiana 46204.
Iowa once had proportionally more tallgrass prairie than any other state. Currently, 17 prairie preserves exist totaling only 1,400 acres. Hayden Park is the largest preserve, with 240 acres. It is located 4 miles west and 5 miles north of the junction of Hwy 9 and Hwy 63 near Cresco. Cayler Prairie is located in Dickinson County, 3 miles ease and 3 miles south of Lake Park. Kalsow Prairie is in north-central Iowa near Fort Dodge, and has 160 acres with 240 types of plants. For more information contact: Bureau of Preserves & Ecological Services, Dept. of Natural Resources, Wallace State Office Bldg., Des Moines, IA 50319.
The rolling Flint Hills of eastern Kansas contains one of the large expanses of unplowed prairie. The Grassland Heritage Foundation, 5450 Buena Vista, Shawnee Mission, Kansas 66205 publishes a Flint Hills Scenic Route booklet, Knoza Prairie is owned by Kansas State University. This 8,600-acre area south of Manhattan is used for research purposes with access by permit only. Tuttle Creek Reservoir near Manhattan offers camping and prairie hikes. For more information contact: Kansas Natural Heritage Program, Kansas Biological Survey, Univ. of Kansas, Raymond Nichols Hall, 2291 Irving Hill Drive-Campus West, Lawrence, KS 66045-2969.
Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, northwest of Minneapolis, offers a diversity of plant and animal prairie species. Pipestone National Monument, near the South Dakota border, has 200 acres of restored prairie with trails. Blue Mounds, Buffalo River, and Glacial Lakes State Parks all manage areas of tallgrass prairie. For more information, contact: The Natural Heritage Program, Dept. of Natural Resources, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN, 55155.
Taberville Prairie in St. Claire county, 2 –1/2 miles north of Taberville, is the largest preserve in Missouri, with a total of 1,650 acres. Golden Prairie is 16 miles northeast of Carthage near Golden City. Tucker Prairie is in Callaway County, 7 miles northwest of Fulton. For more information, contact: Missouri Natural Heritage Inventory, Dept. of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, Mo. 65102.
NORTH and SOUTH DAKOTA:
Both states possess great expanses of grassland, although heavy grazing has reduced its quality. The Nature Conservancy manages the Samuel H. Ordway Jr. Memorial Prairie in McPherson County near the North and South Dakota boundary, 9 miles west of Leola, and is the second largest prairie preserve in the country. Its primary purpose is research, and field trips are available only by advance arrangements. Wind Cave National Park and the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, near the Montana-North Dakota border, have bison and antelope still grazing in the mixed-grass prairie. For more information, contact: N.D. Parks & Recreation Dept., 1424 W. Century Ave, Suite 202, Bismarck, ND 58501 or S.D. Dept. of Game, Fish & Parks, Wildlife Division, 445 E. Capitol Ave, Pierre, SD 57501-3185.
Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is 5 miles south of Red Cloud. It is a 610-acre site that includes the novelist’s historic home. The Nebraska National Forest preserves the grass-covered Sand Hills. Homestead National Monument, on the west edge of Beatrice on Route 4, has a 90-acre tract of restored prairie with trails and a visitor center. For more information, contact: Nebraska Natural Heritage Program, Game & Parks Commission, 2200 N. 33rd Street, Lincoln, NE 68503.
OKLAHOMA: Part of the largest remaining tract of original tallgrass prairie is found in the Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma. The nature Conservancy recently purchased 30,000 acres of that land for the beginning of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. For more information, contact: Natural Heritage Inventory, Oklahoma Biological Survey, Sutton Hall, Room 303, 635 Elm St., Norman, OK 73019.
The largest tract of tallgrass prairie in Texas is Clymer’s Meadow, a 114-acre tract in Hunt Co. Tridens Prairie, a 97 acre tract is located 8 miles west of Paris. One of the most recent acquisitions is Parkhill Prairie, a 51.2 –acre tract in Collin Co. For more information, contact: Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept., Natural Heritage Program, 4200 Smith School Rd., Austin, TX 78744.
One of the larger remnants, Avoca Prairie in Iowa County, can be reached off of Hwy 133, 1.5 miles east of Avoca. Hiking a quarter mile to reach this 900-acre National Natural Landmark is well worth the effort. Dewey Heights Prairie in Nelson Dewey State Park at Cassville is located along the banks of the Mississippi River. Brady’s Bluff Prairie near La Crosse, within Perrot State Park, is a 10 acre prairie. Of course, the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison has one of the finest examples of restored prairie in the country. For more information, contact: Wisconsin Natural heritage Program, Dept. of Natural Resources, 101 S. Webster Street, Box 7291, Madison, WI 53707.