Little Prairie by the House

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I am thankful for the many pleasant surprises our farm offers up each year. Like our first chestnuts ever. Or pumpkins growing out of compost piles. Or wild elderberries. Or spotting a sixty-year-old old license plate in the weeds. Or finding oyster mushrooms growing on box elder logs cast aside at the edge of the forest. Maybe the biggest pleasant surprise was that our native perennial pasture–commonly and affectionately referred to as the prairie–planted between tree rows on highest 4.5 acres of the orchard seems to have taken off. 

The seeds are expensive, so I did a lot of research–online, lectures, talking to prairie enthusiasts, before planting. Like everything else we have learned here, there were so many questions to answer.

When to plant? What to plant? How to plant? How to prep the soil? One common method for soil prep is to spray Roundup on all existing vegetation, wait awhile and then plant prairie seeds into the blank slate. I hear it works, but I am not a fan of any poison, and that’s a lot of poison. I know many prairie enthusiasts embrace one-time Roundup use for the greater good. In fact, one so-called expert said I had to use it. (Did not, did not.) I know the Roundup people say the product is perfectly safe. I also know that conflict-of-intere$t sometimes makes people state opinions as facts. Moreover, I know poisons are only needed to grow things if we are constrained by narrow thinking. Enough on that. 

Another soil prep method is to disc the planting area several times in a summer and plant in fall. Keep killing the weeds and get your blank slate that way. I didn’t have access to the disc implement long term so that was not an option.

A third method is to burn. A native perennial seed producer said that prairie seeds like to germinate on burned sites. I don’t have experience with controlled burns and I imagined the consequences of an uncontrolled burn, for example, burning stuff I didn’t want to burn–like our young trees. 

I made a plan–from borrowed ideas and parts I just made up. Because there was so much corn stubble I disked the whole field once after the trees were planted. (A smarter farmer than I would have disked it before planting the trees, but I didn’t think of it in that order.) 

I then planted a cover crop–annual rye and clover. The cover crop would suppress weeds and control erosion. It would die in the winter and then I would plant my native mix. But my timing was off because it’s better to plant natives in the fall. Many of the native seeds need cold moist stratification–a period of cold and moisture–to break dormancy. (I probably could have planted natives that first fall, but I did not think of it.)

The cover crops didn’t winter kill. Or maybe they did, but they reseeded the following season (2015). But I think that was OK. There were roots in the ground. In fall of 2015 I decided to just go for it. I ordered a high-diversity (lots of different species) short-grass seed mix from Prairie Moon Nursery. In November I planted it using my multi-purpose seeder pulled by my tractor. The planter, has two heavy wheels with steel fingers sticking out to roughen up the soil and make ¾-inch depressions into which some of the seeds can fall. Another wheel follows to tamp the soil down.


 


I had no idea if it would work. In the summer of 2016 I saw black-eyed susans and some plants that looked like they might be natives–clumps of grass here and there, spotty patches of plants somewhat convincing for fledgling wildflowers. A year later learned that the black-eyed susans are not perennials, but marker seeds added as an indicator that the perennial seeds were well distributed. Encouraging sign. There was also a lot of annual grass growing back. We mowed it all at least a couple times. By summer’s end I was pretty sure it had not worked, and about that time I heard a couple stories of failed native planting endeavors. 

By late spring of 2017 there was cause for optimism. There were more native-looking plants, defined as plants that don’t look like familiar weeds. Later the entirety of the planted acres were awash in yellow black-eyed susans. We, meaning Kelly, again mowed it a few times. These maintenance mowings are touted by Prairie Moon and other experts we talked to. The mowing cuts the annuals before they go to seed and gives the slower-growing perennials a chance to get established. 

We mowed once again in early summer 2018, then let it go. This is what happened:

Q&A

What are native perennials?

Diverse collections of grasses and flowers (forbs) that once covered large areas of undisturbed land.

Why do you want native perennials?

Because they are well suited to our climate and soil. Once established, they are drought and rain tolerant. Their deep roots create channels so more rain soaks into the soil. They also improve the soil organic matter, helping the soil hold more moisture. 

Why do you call it a native perennial pasture?

Because we hope to graze animals there someday. 

You mean like Bison?

Yes, like Bison, but much smaller. Bison would be really cool, but they are too big for the amount of pasture we have, even if we graze the whole 12 acres. 

Will it work?

I have no idea.

Timeline:

2013 fall, bought the farm (field still in corn)

2014 spring and summer, planted trees, disked fields, planted cover crop

2015 cover crop persisted

2015 fall–seeded 4.5 acres of natives

2015 winter–seeded small satellite native mixes–pollinator mixes and rain gardens

2016 black-eyed susan, wondering if prairie worked

2017 black-eyed susan identified as markers

2018 I think it worked!

If I could do it over:

Disc the field (spring)

Plant the trees (spring)

Plant annual cover (spring)

Mow the cover in mid summer and fall to suppress seeding

Plant natives after frost before snow (or broadcast seed on snow)

Maintenance mow the following spring and summer.

Experiment:

Maintenance mow three times–spring, summer, fall and plant a couple more acres in the lower fields after frost, then maintenance mow following season.

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