Restoring our native prairie has been one of the most exhausting and frustrating experiences. Read on to see what’s happened in the past 3 years and where we are headed next.
We chose to restore the 12 acres of tilled field to native prairie in order to restore the land. Our farm has been cropped since 1886 with photo evidence of cropping as early as 1931.
The tilled field is surrounded on three sides by man-made forest (planted in 1985). Soil erosion has dropped the field 1-2 feet below the level of the forested areas. There is no topsoil anywhere. Just sand. Well, 85% sand.
Restoring the land to prairie seemed like the best idea. For the first time in 133 years, the land would keep the biomass it created. Perhaps roots would stay in the soil for the first time? We had no illusion that we would recreate the 1-2 feet of soil that eroded away, or that we would magically replace the lost topsoil. We just wanted to stop the erosion, allow the land to regenerate, provide wildlife habitat, and support our honey bee colonies.
It Seemed So Simple……
Let’s review the facts from each year. Maybe it will help someone else embarking on their prairie restoration journey? Maybe you will spot something we’re missing? Please leave us a message and/or comment.
Year 1 – 2017: We prepared the ground by renting a tractor and scraping the ground free of any plant material. The seeds were planted with a tractor and native seed drill on May 27th. Total costs for seeds and tractor rentals $10650. Seed diversity: 48 species
Weather: The spring of 2017 was really wet up until planting. We planted on May 27th and it didn’t rain again until mid August. The summer was dry and hot. Fall was cool, moist, and long lasting. Winter was mild and dry – almost no snow.
What Grew: Horseweed (mare’s tail) grew throughout the majority of the prairie and was 3-5 feet tall. There were sporadic areas of white yarrow and large pockets of crab grass. In late July, there was 1 small black eyed susan flower blooming toward the edge of the prairie. I dubbed it the “$11,000 flower.” My humor was not appreciated.
Maintenance: We mowed the prairie twice to prevent the horseweed from forming seeds.
Want to read more about our first year?
Year 2 – 2018: Growth was slow and dominated by Black Eyed Susan. We overseeded in the fall with a dry prairie mix designed to cover 2 acres. Seeds were broadcast. Cost: $398 Total diversity of seed mix: 118 species (including the original 48 from 2017)
Weather: The 2018 winter was mild and dry. Almost no snow cover. The spring started early and was abnormally hot – 90F with low moisture. Early summer was wet and cool. Then we had extreme drought and heat until mid August. Fall was short and cool. Winter came early and was brutally cold. It was common to have weeks of -20F weather and we had a few days in the -40s. Toward the middle of winter, snowfall became heavy and the year ended with record precipitation.
What Grew: Nothing grew in early spring. By June, the field was full of hoary alyssum and hawkweed. Horseweed returned but was capped at 2 feet tall. There was minimal crabgrass, sheep sorrel, and some yarrow. Black Eyed Susan came out in early July and dominated the prairie for the rest of the season. Spotted bee balm appeared in a noticeable percentage. A few other forbs appeared in scattered numbers. By the end of August, the warm season grasses were identifiable and had reached heights of 3-5 feet. Half of the prairie (the most dry upland area) did not grow anything except for short horseweed. In all, 23 of the 48 species had at least one plant growing in the prairie.
Maintenance: We mowed in early spring to keep the horsetail short and again in the fall. We mowed in fall to remove tree species that were showing up (most notably siberian elm and boxelder), to spread the seeds that had developed, and to provide light for further seed germination in the spring. We overseeded with 2 acres worth of a diverse dry prairie mix. By this time, we were gun shy about spending money on “the best” mixes and bought a $200/acre mix as opposed to the $850/acre mix. We broadcast the seeds after the first frost.
Want to read more about our second year?
Year 3 – 2019: Growth followed the same pattern as 2018. Slow in spring, ramping up in June and constantly changing throughout the summer. New species appeared and some disappeared. Growth was dense in areas, sparse in others. 46 species are present.
Weather: The 2019 winter was wet and cold. We had record snowfall and that continued into the spring.Rain seemed to fall every single day until mid July. It was heavy rain and coupled with the snowpack, water was overflowing the rivers, streams, and ponds. With the rain, the temperature was cool. Things began to heat up in mid July and that is where we currently stand. It feels as though we are heading into a stable 1x week rain pattern and the heat is consistent for central Minnesota.
What Grew: The prairie looked absolutely dead until June. Hawkweed and hoary alyssum took up their usual position. But something new also emerged – Lupine. We had at least 18 large lupine plants that bloomed profusely. There were baby lupine plants scattered throughout the prairie, but the larger plants were quite unique and interesting. By the end of June, it was clear that we would, once again, have a massing of black eyed susans.
Around the 4th of July, the black eyed susans began to bloom. Followed soon after by spotted bee balm and the prairie clovers. The “plant free” dry upland areas were sporting black eyed susan for the first time. Bee balm started to show up sporadically – much shorter than we’ve seen in more fertile prairies. Maybe we have some indigo plants starting? The yarrow has almost all disappeared. Purple love grass came and went in waves. There appears to be short cool season grasses throughout, and we are currently waiting on the warm season grasses to put on their growth.
Horseweed is almost non-existent and where it does exist is is under 1 foot tall. The crab grass and sheep sorrel barely exist.
Most species are still spordically placed and have few representative plants. 46 species are present.
Maintenance: None. We did not mow in spring and will not mow this fall.
Why has our prairie been so slow in developing? Will it every be diverse and self sustaining? Will it ever support our honey bee colonies? Did we waste over $11,000??!!?!??! So many questions….
What happened? We think the first 2 years of drought may have caused massive seedling death or seed loss. It’s possible the drill put some of the smaller seeds too deep. It’s possible animals/insects ate many seeds and/or seedlings. It’s possible our soil is just too dry for most of the species we planted. Sadly, we never saw any prairie coreopsis, anise hyssop, butterfly milkweed, goldenrods, or any of the sunflower species. All of these are essential for pollinators.
We are hopeful that some of the slower growing plants that require extensive scarification and stratification are still waiting to emerge. We are crossing our fingers for new jersey tea, the baptisias, indigos, and lead plants.
In all, it has been a frustrating and scary experience. We have spent thousands of dollars and many hours preparing, planting, mowing, fretting. We bought a riding lawnmower to maintain the prairie but soon realized that 12 acres was too much to finish in a weekend! We rented tractors and trailers. Then we bought a tractor and batwing mower. All of this is expensive.
All of the plants that “grow anywhere” and “germinate right away” have failed in our prairie. Maybe the environment is just too harsh? Too dry. Too sunny. Too hot. Too cold. We don’t know.
Consider this wild experience: 8% of our original seed mix was common milkweed. It thrives in dry environments and, in fact, covers a large amount of our pastures. At year 3, we have 12 milkweed plants (not colonies!) in our prairie. In the winter of 2018, we burned a large wood pile to the ground. Because there were nails in the wood, we flagged the area not to be mowed/driven until we could do two seasons of nail removal. This left what we refer to as “the sacred circle.”
The sacred circle is a 14 foot circle that is filled – FILLED – with milkweed. It’s also filled with monarch butterflies, caterpillars, and bees of all sorts.
This type of thing just amazes me. We diligently seeded and reseeded milkweed into the prairie and there is barely any there. In fact, our children take all the milkweed pods from our pasture and reseed the prairie with them every fall! But the sacred circle was not seeded. It’s unlikely that another colony spread into the circle by rhizomes (the distance is too far.)
Either our prairie is a cursed wasteland where seeds go to die, or prairie seeds germinate when and if they feel like it and that is all there is to it. We will continue to update as we continue on this journey. Maybe the other species will germinate eventually. Maybe they will become more prevalent. Maybe the grasses will eventually dominate and overtake the whole thing? Time will tell….