Establishing a Prairie
When you think about a prairie, you envision huge open spaces made up of grass and a few wildflowers. If you are fortunate enough to be able to view that same prairie several times in a season, you will notice it changes from month to month and it is made up of several distinctively different types of grass and many wildflowers. Then, when you stand quietly for a few minutes, you begin to notice the butterflies and the birds. Prairies truly are communities that blend a wide variety of plants and wildlife, ever changing, adapting to what takes place around it.
Is it really possible to have a prairie like I see in magazines and on the seed packages?
Assuming you have a good site and soil, it is possible to have a gorgeous prairie. It is important to look at establishing a prairie as a long term project so you won't be disappointed. It will takes several seasons to establish the combination of various grasses and flowering plants. Within each season there is a progression of blooms, giving it a very different look month to month. And keep in mind that prairies change yearly; some plants will love your site and thrive, some will do great most seasons and not others, and a few varieties may not be strong enough to stay competitive over the years, being replaced by the strongest growers.
Are prairies low-maintenance?
Prairies are low-maintenance once established, but they do require preparation and routine maintenance the first few seasons. They can be a wonderful addition to your life, but don't go into it thinking you just have to spread some seed and it will care for itself.
What exactly is a prairie?
The word "prairie" means meadow and is usually applied to open areas with only an occasional tree. Prairies traditionally are predominately grasses with flowers.
Are there different types of prairie?
There are several types of prairie, based on the type of soil, rainfall and climate. Generally, tall grass prairies are divided into Wet, Mesic and Dry, each with plants typical to that particular setting.
Is there much of the original prairies left?
Where there was once almost a half-million square miles of prairie in the United States, there is now less than 10,000 square miles left. In Minnesota, prairie now covers less than 1% of our state.
How long will it take to establish a prairie?
Realistically, establishing a prairie is a three year project.
What kind of site is best for prairies?
First of all, it should be an open area and sun is the most important factor. There are prairie plants that will grow in almost any soil. If you have an unusual site, do a little research (or ask us) on what varieties of prairie plants best suit your conditions.
Are there any prairie plants that will grow in the shade?
Grass doesn't like the shade, nor do the vast majority of the flowers associated with prairies. With shade, you will need to choose varieties of plants that naturally grow in a woodland area. Woodland wildflower seed mixes suited to shade are available from specialty catalogs.
How big an area do I need to have a prairie planting?
No area is too small or too large. Just keep in mind the scale of the plants in the prairie mixtures. Even the Short Prairie mix is a collection of plants that average from 1-3 feet tall. Plants of this size are usually prettiest viewed from a distance. If you have limited space, you may prefer to make your own custom mix, selecting varieties that are shorter.
What do I need to do to prepare the site?
This will depend on what is already growing on the site. Ideally, you want the site to be clear of any vegetation. f you are starting with bare soil, simply rake to rough up the surface. If you need to clear existing vegetation, Roundup is an excellent way to go. It is an herbicide that has no carry over in the soil and kills the plants from the roots. Roundup needs to be applied to actively growing plants. When dead, the vegetation will need to be removed or mulched finely and incorporated, tilling the ground around 4 inches deep. Once the area has been tilled, rake it smooth and pack it lightly.
I thought you could just spread the seed over the grass?
Unfortunately, seed simply spread over the existing vegetation seldom succeeds. The plants already there have too much of an advantage over young seedlings.
Are there different types of seed mixtures for prairie?
Bachman's offers a Mesic Prairie Mixture that is suited to moist soils and a Short Prairie Mixture that grows well in drier soils. There are other mixes available from companies specializing in prairies.
Instead of a mixture, can I plant just the varieties of seed I like best?
You can create your own custom seed mixture, choosing the prairie plants you like best, being sure to include at least one type of prairie grass. A mixture is nature's way, providing a variety of plants that fill all the niches and attracting a wide variety of birds and butterflies.
When should I spread the prairie seed?
The seed can be put in during the spring or fall. In spring, spread the seed anytime after the spring thaw through mid-June. Seed can also be spread in fall (around Sept. 20 or later), but sometimes the birds will think you have put it out for them.
How should I spread the seed?
Hand broadcasting really works the best. Unfortunately, the variety of seed shapes and sizes tend to clog mechanical spreaders. Be careful to work slowly to make sure you spread it evenly. It may be a nuisance to have to go over an area more than once, but it's hard to take it back if you spread too much. Once the seed is spread, rake the seed lightly into the top 1/2 inch of soil to provide good contact. If it is practical, water the seeded areas lightly.
Do I need to mulch the area?
Mulching is not absolutely necessary or practical in larger areas. A very light layer of a clean mulch (such as oat straw) will help retain moisture and prevent erosion.
Should I fertilize?
Prairie plantings shouldn't be fertilized. They are highly adaptable plants that will grow their best when left to their own devices. Fertilizer will also encourage weeds and is expensive.
What kind of maintenance will the area need for the first growing season?
As with almost all perennials, the grasses and flowers will be concentrating on root growth the first season and usually will not flower until the second year. During this period of time there will be lots of open ground and weeds will want to move in. It is important that these weeds don't go to seed. To avoid this, you will need to mow or trim with a weed eater at a height from 5-8 inches. Mowing any shorter may damage the plants you want to encourage. Any aggressive weeds can be hand weeded and invasive woody plants may have to be spot treated with an herbicide.
What will I need to do the second season?
The second year will be easier. You should have a little more seed germination and some of the grasses and flowers will produce seed this season. Continue to watch for weeds trying to move into open spaces. You may have to mow once this season. Spot spray if necessary.
And the third season?
This is the year it gets good. Most of the grasses and flowers are now mature. Late in the season you may want to cut off the old vegetation. If your plants were especially tall or dense, mulch or rake off the excess materials.
Other than occasionally removing excessive dead plant material, you shouldn't have to do anything. Walk through it occasionally and check for woody saplings and cut them out. You still won't need to do any fertilizing. Sit back and enjoy it.
I've read about burning off your prairies. Is that advisable?
Periodic fires are nature's way of cleaning off excess dead plant material. Fire also plays a role in keeping out woody plants and triggers germination in some prairie seeds. For the homeowner, this isn't practical and in most areas it isn't legal. If you have a large prairie planting, you may want to check on local regulations regarding controlled burns and contact a company, such as Prairie Restorations, that has experience in this practice.
© Bachman's 2008