Preparing for the Prairie Planting
The first prairie we planted was the 5-acre Prairie; that was in Jan 2008. It was part of the original acreage we purchased which also included 3 acres of woods. We had some prairie experience at this point but also knew we had much to learn. In January 2010, we planted the Berry Prairie using the same techniques.
Here’s our step-by-step plan.
- Decide on a management plan
- Prep the land
- Prepare for the prairie planting
- Day of the prairie planting
Decide on a management plan
Keep it simple. There are several issues to think about and decide before planting a prairie. You must understand the financial commitment and work required before purchasing the seed. Some issues to be considered:
- How is the land going to be prepared?
- How long is the time frame for this preparation?
- Who is going to do the prep work? What are the costs of the prep work?
- Who will do the two mowings the first year? What are the costs of this mowing?
- How is seed obtained? What is the cost of seed?
- How much seed should be planted? What types of seed should be planted? When should it be planted? Where should the seed be sourced from?
- What are the maintenance requirements for the first year? Second year? Third year? Who will do these and at what costs?
- How often will we burn? This brings up a whole other set of thinking. In order to understand how often you will burn, you need to know what your overall management goals are. Prescribed fire is a management tool, done to achieve a certain goal and its frequency is determined by the goal not by a rote schedule (i.e. every 3 years).
- Who will conduct the burns? What are the costs of this?
- Is there a government program that will assist with costs or property tax reductions? If so, does that program mesh with your goals? Check with your county Farm Service Agency (FSA) office.
Prep the land
Once we had these questions answered, we made an agreement with a local farmer to crop the land — the first year would be corn and the second year would be soybeans. The land needs to be prepared to ensure the weeds are “gone” before planting. This is a critical step. It allows the prairie seeds to grow without unnecessary competition. It also cuts maintenance costs in subsequent years. We chose the cropping method for preparing the land. The farmer would herbicide in the general course of his crop management, killing most of the weeds growing between the crop rows.
We were very surprised when the second year came up as corn~ The farmer working the land decided corn prices were better than soybeans and took it upon himself to disregard our agreement. Grrr….
Corn leaves lots of chaff and stubble, whereas soybeans do not have chaff and stubble. To make matters worse, the farmer’s equipment broke down. He was unable to get the crop out soon enough for us to herbicide any remaining weeds. To break up the corn stubble, a friend disked it lightly and the farmer paid for this additional work.
We created our management plan to include two mowings the first year. To prevent damage to the equipment, we removed some of the larger rocks. We mowed the first time when growth was about 1’ tall and a second time when it regrew to about 1 ½’ tall. Each time we mowed it to 6″ tall. Mowing is important. It allows sunlight to the seeds and keeps weeds from setting seed. The first year of a prairie planting is pretty ugly and mostly weeds.
Prepare for the Prairie Planting
The germination requirements of many of the prairie forb (flower) seeds drove the decision of when to plant. In general, the majority of prairie forbs require a 40 degree period and then a 70 degree period before the seed will germinate. By planting in the winter, it mimics nature.
Planting a prairie with snow on the ground is beneficial. If hand sowing, folks can see where seed has been spread. Planting with snow on the ground and snow forecasted for the next day is ideal. Snow covering will prevent seed predation by birds. If the forecast is for sunny skies, the solar heat absorbed by the dark seeds “melt”them into the snow. We planted in January of 2008 on what was literally the only weekend that wasn’t snowing. We were restricted to the weekend because we worked weekdays and many of our volunteer friends worked those same days.
Our decision to hand broadcast the seed was an easy one. Our friends who love prairie work wanted to help and it looks more natural than drilling.
To facilitate the hand broadcasting system, Jim took an overview map of the land and marked it off into eleven quarter-acre sections. The day before the planting day, he took the map and stepped it off on the land, placing flags at the corners of the quarter sections.
Jim also added contours to the map. This determined the acreage in dry, dry mesic, and wet mesic. It also provided us with square footage the area adjacent to the woods, which would be planted with a savanna mix due to the shading.
Day of the Prairie Planting
We mixed the seed with sawdust in our garage and placed it in the proper number of buckets. We planted 10 lbs of seed per acre which extrapolated to 2 buckets per quarter section — a total of 22 buckets of seed. The sawdust comes from a lumber mill not a woodworker. The wood needs to have some moisture remaining in it. Be sure there are no walnuts or cedars processed in this sawdust.
Each volunteer was oriented to their quarter section. They took their two buckets to their quarter section and walked back and forth tossing the seed out until they covered their designated section. Once the prairie planting was done, we adjourned to the local bar for a well-deserved lunch!!!
Whew! The prairie planting is done and the pressure is off. Now we wait until spring.
As spring arrived and the weeds began to grow, we mowed two times as per our simple management plan. We were grateful we knew to expect nothing but weeds the first year! We made sure the invasive weeds were removed and we didn’t worry about the annual weeds. The mowing would prevent the annual weeds from setting seed.
In 2008, we continued removing invasive species during the growing months. I spent many hours on thistles and reed canary grass. By 2009, our prairie was looking pretty good but we will never let up on those persistent invasive plants!!