Native Prairie Restoration – Year 4

We restored 12 acres to native prairie in the spring of 2017. It’s been a bumpy ride, but we’ve made it to Year 4!

Look back at our first 3 years here – Native Prairie Restoration: Years 1-3.

Year 4 – 2020: Growth was slow coming into spring. It always surprises us how much later prairies awaken compared to forest and gardens. We saw a handful of new species proliferate – like wild 4 o’clocks and white wild indigo. Lupines were our first to bloom. The prairie was dominated by little bluestem and we had way less black eyed susan and spotted bee balm then previous years. Our 2019 seed collections were paltry compared to prior years, but our collections increased substantially for 2020. We continued to gather and reseed the prairie throughout the season, but particularly in early spring and late fall. Species present: 46 out of 118 species were visible this year.

Weather: The 2020 winter came on quickly but was warmer with a bit below average snowfall. Lows were in the -15 to -20s F. A much welcome improvement to the 2019 winter. Spring was chilly and slow to warm up. Not much rain. This was the first year we noticed a “duff” buildup from decaying grasses. We were advised to burn this away, but have found that it is setting up a water conserving and soil holding mulch layer – allowing other mesic plants to thrive. We welcome this and look forward to greater plant diversity and density. We now have pockets of thicker growth intermixed with dead zones and sparse areas.

Summer was gorgeous – mildy warm with regular, light rains. Fall was long and mild. We went into the 2020 winter with better than average snowfall, but mild temperatures.

What Grew: The prairie started off slow in spring with lupine and the bee balms (spotted bee balm and wild bergamot) bringing most of the green. This year, we noticed water gems sparkling on the lupine for the first time. What a beautiful sight – and a wellspring of clean water for pollinators and wildlife.

Summer brought new varieties! And so many bees and butterflies. When we started this journey, we encountered just a few bees per summer. Now there are loads of pollinators -sweat bees, green bees, bumblebees, monarchs, mining bees and various moths and wasps.

We have pockets of diversity. The prairie looks flat in aerial shots but is actually quite “rolling.” This sets up various areas that are wetter than others and different plants take advantage of the varying water. We have pockets of bee balm, sawtooth sunflower, liatris, with taller big bluestem and indian grass, surrounded by swaths of black eyed susan, spotted bee balm, the prairie clovers, and shorter little blue stems. Some of the blue stem areas are quite large and they are absolutely stunning in the winter. Some of the “wetter” areas are accumulating a thatch of plant litter, and when we move that aside, the ground is noticeably moist.

My favorite native prairie plant, anise hyssop is now found in multiple locations. Some of the plants are large and bushy. Some are barely sprigs. But they are here and I love them. Ohio spiderwort is also my favorite native prairie plant (lol, so many faves) and showed up in multiple locations in early spring. It was so gorgeous. We shared some photos on our instagram.

Then we have the “runways.” These areas are filled with purple love grass, and not much else. They are absolutely beautiful in the summer. Then in the fall, they look like dead zones as the purple love grass tumbles away. Nothing is left. Just sand. Such an odd experience. We are continuing to re-seed the runways with black eye susan, spotted bee balm, and the prairie clovers (white and purple) in the hopes that they might establish in the area. There are a few individual plants but from a distance it’s pretty bare.

Throughout the winter, we took advantage of the rolling hills to ski from one area of the farm to the next. You’d be surprised how exhausting it is to walk through miles of deep snow. Skiing is great. And, we discovered that skiing causes any leftover seeds to drop to the ground, adding to the seedbank.

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.

This year, we started our soil trials. This will give us insight into our soil constraints. As we have come to expect in growing native prairie, the seedlings were slow to show themselves – even though we planted in February to ensure adequate cold stratification – and selected seeds with type A germination – that should germinate immediately.

Maintenance: None. We did not mow in spring and will not mow this fall. We may need to mow next year. We added new seeds in the spring and fall.

The prairie went dormant early in September when we hit an unseasonably frigid cold snap. Then it warmed up into November but the prairie had went to sleep. By this time it looked like a sea of waving bluestem. All red and sparkly. I can not explain the sparkle and it doesn’t translate in photo or video. You have to see it in person. The wind blows the delicate stems and the individual seed bracts sparkle in the light. It’s gorgeous.

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