Driftless Prairies: Native Habitat Restoration

Nature inspires awe!

Planting the Deer Camp Prairie

This is the 3rd planting we’ve done on our land. I’ll take you through our two-year process which includes the following planning elements:

  1. Determining Seed Type and Amount
  2. Marking the Sections
  3. Mixing the Seed
  4. The Day of the Planting

When we acquired this 12 acres that we named the Deer Camp Prairie, it was an alfalfa field.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie

Winter of 2012 before being planted to corn.

Because of the rolling hills of this land, we decided a corn crop would be the best way to prep it for the planting. For each of our plantings, we have gone with an ag crop prior to planting. It helps to keep the weeds at bay and reduces herbicide usage. We chose corn as the last crop instead of soybeans because the corn stubble would break up quickly yet hold the soil and prevent erosion when the snow melted with the warmer spring temperatures.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie

The corn field, November 2014

What we didn’t plan for was a problem with harvesting the corn. In early November, when most of the corn crops around us were already harvested, we started to get concerned. We were really getting stressed out when it was still standing the middle of November. Several phone calls later and we still had an unharvested corn field and weather predictions of 3-5” of snow. Eventually and with some firm coaxing, Jim was able to get the farmer to harvest and the corn was out a few days after Thanksgiving. Although our agreement was for the farmer to harvest, then mow and bale the husks, he refused to bale it. You can see from the photo that there is too much debris left on the ground for seeds to get seed-to-soil contact and for any sun to get to the seeds in spring. There is also too much snow for us to burn the residual husks and stubble. We were feeling helpless and depressed.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie

A view of the debris left from the corn harvest.

Thankfully, we caught our first break and it warmed enough for the snow to melt. Now we wait until it becomes dry enough to burn. We’re checking the weather forecast daily and sometimes more often at this point. A cold spell returns with high pressure and lower humidity and the ground freezes. The forecast is for above 32 for the upcoming weekend. We debated about what to do; we were worried that even with the warmer temps, it would not be dry enough to burn over the weekend. While I was working on another project inside, Jim stole off and tried burning. Viola!! It worked. He came back inside and we scrambled to get into burn clothes and scurry off to get this field burned.

We burned half of the field the first day; we only had a couple hours before the sun went down and the humidity rose.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie

Half of the field is burned

The next day, I began mowing each stubble row with our Kubota tractor. It was a dusty job and it took me nearly 10 hours to complete.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie

Mowing the stubble after the burn.

DSCF9191

Mowing row by row

While I mowed, Jim burned the other half. These photos show clearly why it would have been futile to try to plant without baling or burning.

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie

Burning the stubble from the edge inward

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie

Burning the stubble

While we were feeling quite screwed over by the farmer, we were also feeling quite lucky that the ground stayed frozen and the humidity remained low so we could get this mowed and burned.

Unfortunately, there were areas that didn’t burn well. We donned our rakes and created small burn piles that we could then burn. These areas were patchy and over the 12 acres, we probably hand raked about a quarter of an acre. Never let it be said that we aren’t committed to returning our ecosystems to a sustainable state!

Planting prairie, Savanna Prairie

Raking up what didn’t burn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Determining Seed Type and Amount

We prefer to hand broadcast seed rather than drilling or machine broadcasting. The seeds are such varied sizes and shapes that we didn’t have faith in our ability to calibrate a machine broadcast spreader. Drilling seeds into a field have the same issue with the varied seed sizes and we prefer not to have the aesthetics of seeing the drilled “lines” years later. Of course, our method requires a number of volunteers in order to make it happen in a timely manner. Thank goodness we have some GREAT friends who love being outside and restoring nature!

The first step in preparing for the actual planting is to know the full acreage of the land you are restoring. Then within that acreage to break it down into its habitat types, such as dry, dry mesic, mesic, wet mesic, or wet; and within each of those you need to determine what portion of the areas receive full sun or partial sun. Generally speaking, most prairies are full sun. We have a maintenance path around the prairie and then some area adjacent to woods; in this area we plant partial shade (AKA savanna) species. To calculate this, we stepped it off using some basic information.

  • An acre is 43,560 square feet
  • A comfortable stepping pace is around 2 ½’

We calculated the Deer Camp Prairie had 4.4 acres of dry, 5 acres of dry mesic, and 1.6 acres of wet mesic. The area between the maintenance path and the woods was calculated to be around 1 acre total. Here is a link to a copy of that map: Habitat map, Deer Camp prairie

When we did our first planting, we decided to plant at the rate of 10 pounds of seed per acre. Knowing the planting rate and the acreage to cover for each habitat type, we could then begin to develop our species list and the amount of each that we would need. Here’s a link to a copy of the total number of species we planted: Seed listing for planting

Marking the Sections

When hand broadcasting the seed, we found that ½ acre plots are quite manageable for one person. It’s not too much walking and doesn’t take too much time. By overlaying onto the habitat map, Jim was able to section off the Deer Camp Prairie into 21 segments, which we then assigned a number.

The corner of each section was marked with a metal T-post, which we borrowed from a neighbor. Because these were borrowed, we didn’t want to alter them. Instead of painting neon orange onto the posts, we taped flags and flagging tape. Not every section was a perfect square or rectangle. In order to make it clear for our friends, we spray painted lines radiating from the posts to clearly mark how a section related to that corner post. We placed small orange flags around the perimeter to designate the maintenance path. No sense throwing seed there!

Prairie planting, Savanna Prairie

Metal T-post marking the corner

Prairie planting, Savanna Prairie

Small flags marking the path

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mixing the Seed

We knew there were 21 sections so we lined up 21 buckets and taped numbers onto them. We then estimated how many buckets it would take to cover each section and wrote that on the section map. Even though we worked to make each section ½ acre, being exact wasn’t practical and some sections were a bit smaller or larger. A couple of safety tips. If you don’t wear glasses always wear safety goggles and always, always, always wear a face mask. Seeds are very dusty.

We mixed up the seed for the wet mesic first. Since there were only 2 sections of this mix we could mix it on top of the table in our metal bin. Because we had 2 sections of wet mesic, we divided each seed type in half before mixing it. By doing this, we are making sure that the seeds are more equally divided between the sections and not accumulating into one or the other section.

There are a number of species that can be planted into both dry and dry mesic habitats. We separated the seeds that would only be put into the dry or the dry mesic sites. All the others were mixed together into one base mix and mixed well.

Creating the base mix for the dry and dry mesic areas

Creating the base mix for the dry and dry mesic areas

We then tackled the species we separated. We determined there were 7 dry sections and 12 dry mesic sections. Each of the dry species were divided into 7 piles, then put into the bucket with the number that corresponded to that habitat. We then divvied up the dry mesic seeds in the same way. Each one was checked off the list as we went. In this manner, we could double check ourselves and make sure we didn’t skip any seeds.

Prairie planting, Savanna Prairie, mixing seed

Kinda like Santa — checking it twice…

Next was to take the base mix and divide it up into 19 piles. For each section, we started with the base mix, then added the additional seeds from the bucket into it, mixed them together, added the sawdust, and mixed it all up well.

Once mixed thoroughly, we scooped the mix into buckets and dumped all but one bucket into a seedbag, counting each bucket as we went to ensure it matched the number of buckets on our estimate. We had to make a few adjustments in the number of buckets for each section; thankfully the adjustment was always to a higher number!! Once we completed a section, we wrote the section number on a flag and stuck the flag in the bucket of seeds. We wrote the section number on the feedback and placed them together.

Prairie planting, Savanna Prairie, mixing seed

All the seedbags with their respective buckets, numbered and organized

Prairie planting, Savanna Prairie, mixing seed

A close up view of the number on the flag and the number on the feedbag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Day of the Planting

On the day of the planting and before the volunteers arrived, Jim loaded up each bucket and seedbag and took them to the center of each section. We learned that by taking it to the center, rather than using an edge, the volunteer then had to look around and ascertain their area before they began planting. It also keep the additional seed in a central area for replenishing the bucket.

Prairie planting, Savanna Prairie

Jim hauling the seedbags and buckets to the sections.

We did a brief orientation for the volunteers of our process. We gave a demo of how to broadcast seed and explained what the bucket count on the map meant. Each person signed up for a section, and was handed a map.

Prairie planting, Savanna Prairie

The map we provided the volunteers

We then proceeded to the field where Jim and I drove and walked around making sure everyone was oriented to their posts and understood any oddities in their section layout.

The day was foggy and the field was a bit muddy, but folks were prepared!

Afterwards, we washed off boots in the propagation garden, making sure any seed was in a good place to grow!! Then we headed inside for lunch.