Planting a Prairie - Basic Techniques

There is no definite recipe for planting or restoring native ecosystems, but the process follows a basic outline. The processes and outcomes vary with each individual, their resources, their goals, and the land’s soil and topography.

I differentiate between grasslands and prairies. Grasslands are dominated by grasses, typically the “big 5” warm season grasses: big blue, Indian grass, switchgrass, little blue, and side oats grama. When I use the term “prairie,” I’m referring to a diverse native ecosystem that includes more forbs than grasses.

Clarifying your goals, your finances, and your time are imperative. Success is defined by your expectations and whether your restoration project meets these. This guide will detail the processes from planning to implementation. It highlights topics that require your attention and it examines options and methods to align choices with your goals. Along the way, we’ll share our lessons learned, too.

The topics covered will include:

  • Determine your goals
  • Land Preparation
  • Scheduling to Plant
  • Seed Sowing Techniques
  • Determine Seed Type and Amount
  • Calculate the Acreage and Soil Type
  • Marking the Land for Hand Broadcasting
  • Mixing the seed
  • Day of the prairie planting
  • Maintenance

Determine Your Goals

Keep it simple. Before you plant there are two main issues to determine: 1) How much money do you want to invest and 2) how much time can you commit to land management.

There are government cost-share programs to assist you. As you explore this, be certain the program meshes with your goals. Your county Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office can provide an overview of available programs. Also check with your county land conservation office for what they may offer.

Do you want a something simple with low-diversity such as a CRP planting or a high-quality, high-diversity planting or something in between? Your plan can be anywhere on this continuum. Costs and time follow this continuum as well. Lower costs and maintenance time is expected with a CRP planting while a high-quality, high-diversity restoration will be more resource intense.  A realistic, workable plan means your desired outcome matches your goals, your financial resources, and your time commitment. 

Equally important is matching your planting consultant (paid or otherwise) with your goals. If you want something closer to a high-quality, high diversity ecosystem, be sure you are not talking with someone who only plants CRP land and visa versa.

 

Land Preparation

Land preparation is the most important step in your restoration! Thorough preparation will decrease maintenance costs!

Driftless Prairies has remnant prairie, remnant oak savanna, remnant woodlands, and planted prairies. All our planted prairies were planted to corn, alfalfa, or soybeans when we bought the land. Land we acquired years later had a different process prior to planting and we learned a few lessons from that experience.

Each landscape restoration project requires a unique plan. The topography and the current vegetation dictate the necessary preliminary steps. Let’s go through 6 options.

Let’s go through 6 options

The goal is to provide a weed-free foundation.

Whatever option or combination of options you choose, eliminating weed competition is necessary.

Option 1:

Crop the land for a year or multiple years, depending on the crop. This is normally done when the land is already supporting crops. Cropping requires working closely with a local farmer if you don’t have your own equipment. Be sure proper legal paperwork is completed to ensure the crop is harvested as agreed upon. This is especially important if you are working with a cost-share agency and have a contractual requirement to plant by a certain date.If the land is in corn, the farmer will typically mow the stalks and bale the remaining husks after harvesting. Even with this, there will be a fair amount of husks and stalks remaining. If you don’t feel the seed will get adequate soil contact, consider burning. You might need to mowing the stalks shorter as well. Corn as the final preparation technique can be advantageous if the land topography is sloping because the standing stalks can prevent the seed from washing away and the soil from eroding.

After harvesting and mowing, the remaining corn litter is thick.

Option 2:

If the crop is soybeans no further preparation is needed after harvesting.

Option 3:

Smothering is effective if done for a couple of years. The smothering material can be anything solid. Resist using synthetic carpet scraps as they may leech chemicals into the soil.

Option 4:

If the crop is alfalfa, it must be herbicided. Alfalfa is a perennial and it can be persistent. Once the last cutting is taken and while it continues photosynthesizing, herbicide it. If necessary, plant a winter cover crop to prevent erosion during the spring thaw. The following year, kill off any remaining alfalfa and keep the field weed free until planting time. Another option with alfalfa is to put corn or soybeans in this field and plant in winter after the harvest.

Option 5:

If you don’t want to crop the land, use a general herbicide, keeping the green killed off for a growing season. This would not be done in a remnant area or an area with remnant sod (meaning it was grazed heavily but never plowed). This technique is used when the land was previously cropped but is currently fallow.

Option 6:

If the land has cool season grasses (e.g. smooth brome), grass-specific herbicide is most effective and should be used for 2 years prior to planting.Two of the prairies planted before we owned the land were prepared using herbicide for only one growing season. The final application was missed, leaving much of the vegetation alive. The planting struggled with weeds and cool season grasses nearly usurping the natives. The dismayed landowner abandoned the planting and mowed it like a lawn. It was a great loss of resources.

A couple of important notes:

After killing the vegetation, if substantial standing dead plant material remains, burning may be necessary. If the dead plant material isn’t too much to prevent seed-to-soil contact, mowing is sufficient and advantageous.

Burning without herbiciding beforehand does not kill the weeds or the cool season grasses. If the weeds are rhizomatous or clonal burning will stimulate them. Cool season grasses are generally stimulated by fire and the lack of competition as well.

 

Diverse plant communities are more stable, productive, and resilient.

Determining Seed Type and Amount

Create a list of seed species desired for each soil type and decide the desired percent for each. To create a diverse mix, plan on at least 50 different species. And DO NOT plan the tallgrasses! I cannot stress this enough. I created a spreadsheet with equations to simplify it. If you’d like a copy of the Excel spreadsheet, please email me.

The spreadsheet calculations serve as a guide. By using the spreadsheet and the calculated acreage for each soil type, we know the target amount to collect. It assists with budgeting, too, but you’ll need to add a current price schedule column and multiply it by the “ounces needed for X acres.”

We plant at the rate of 10 pounds of pure live seed (PLS) seed per acre in a 60/40 mix – 60% forbs, 40% grasses. These grasses should be short grasses rather than the tallgrasses.  PLS is expressed as a percentage on labels. It refers to the percent of seed in a pound that is viable and has the potential to germinate. Purchased seed labels will specify a PLS percentage and the percentage of inert ingredients.

PLS is not known for collected seeds unless they are tested. This additional expense isn’t necessary unless the organization you are working with requires it. We generally assume 50% of the cleaned product is viable.

We often supplement with purchased seed when we cannot collect sufficient amounts of a certain species.

Sourcing seeds can feel overwhelming. It doesn’t need to be. Purchase only from a reputable native seed company who can verify where the seed was grown. Never purchase a native seed mix from a big box store. It’s usually from an unknown ecoregion and includes non-native seeds. 

Seed Planting Rate

Plant 10 lbs per acre.

Use a 60/40 mix – 6o% forbs and 40% grasses

If you’re planning to collection your own seeds, here is more information on collecting and cleaning.

Below is an example of the spreadsheet I created.

An example of the seed calculation template

Calculating the Acreage and Soil Type

Calculate the restoration’s acreage and the various soil types before deciding which seeds to plant. Soil types vary in The Driftless Area. A general soil guide is to have dry soil on hilltops grading to dry mesic, mesic, wet mesic, and wetlands. You will need to ascertain if portions receive full sun or partial sun within those soil types. Lastly, is the soil loamy, sandy, or clay.

Determining the soil type doesn’t need to be exact but the more information you have the more success you’ll have. Sowing the right seeds in the right soil type equals success. If the seed isn’t “happy,” it isn’t going to germinate and grow.

Calculate the acreage by stepping it off. Phone apps are available as well.

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

Print a map of the restoration area. Draw lines showing the topography and soil type. For example, we calculated the Deer Camp Prairie to have 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 is approximately 1 acre.

Below is a map we created of one of our planted prairies.

Deer Camp topography map with soil types listed

Mixing the Seed

We mix seed with moist sawdust from a mill. Other options are kitty litter or sand but we use sawdust because these other options are too heavy when hand sowing and not conducive with clay soil. Use sawdust from a milling operation not a woodworker because the milled sawdust is slightly moist. Tiny seeds cling to this moist sawdust and are distributed thoroughly. Be sure no walnuts or cedars are processed in this sawdust.

Do not mix the seed more than a day prior to planting. The sawdust’s moisture could cause the seeds to mold. We store the sawdust in woven feed bags.

A couple of safety tips. Wear glasses or safety goggles and always, always, always wear a face mask. Seeds are very dusty.

Seeds for each soil type were mixed separately. As an example, we mixed the wet mesic seed into one pile, then divided it in half because there were 2 sections of this soil type (Section 20 and 21). Once in two piles, we mixed them with sawdust. By doing this, we ensure the seeds are equally divided.

We continued mixing all the seeds for one soil type, then separating into piles before mixing with sawdust.

Here’s an example of our mixing process.

I'm checking my seed list as we add it to the seed mix pile.
One section's seed mix is getting sawdust added and mixed into it.

We mix the base seed mix, then separate into the same number of sections as the prairie.

Kinda like Santa — checking it twice! Each seed species was checked off the list as it was mixed. 

One section’s seed mix is getting sawdust added and mixed into it.

The prairie was divided into 21 sections so we taped tags onto 21 numbered buckets. We estimated the number of buckets required to cover each section and wrote that on the map. This way the volunteers could estimate how much seed they had to complete a section. They could judge their steps and how much they were tossing out with this info. 

Once seeds and sawdust were mixed thoroughly, divided, and numbered according to their section, we scooped the mix into buckets and placed the rest into a seedbag. We counted each bucket to ensure it matched our estimated number written on the map. 

We went section by section writing the corresponding number on a flag and placing the flag in the seed bucket. We then wrote the section number on the feedbag and set them together.

The buckets and additional seed for each sections.

This is what the sectioned map looked like when we were done mixing and dividing seed.

Section map with number of buckets

When to Sow the Seeds

Planting is done between November and February in The Driftless Area. Prairie forbs’ (flower) germination requirements prompt the winter planting decision. In general, most native forbs require 90 days of 30 degrees followed by a 70 degree period to break dormancy. Planting in the winter mimics nature.

Best timing:

1. Before it rains
2. A sunny day with snow on the ground
3. A cloudy day with snow predicted to fall shortly after broadcasting the seed.

Planting with snow on the ground is beneficial but not necessary. When hand sowing, the white background provides a contrast to the dark seeds and sawdust making it easy to see where the seed is tossed and equally easy to see where seed wasn’t tossed! If the forecast is for sunny skies, the dark seeds collect solar heat and “melt” into the snow. Cloudy days leave the seeds exposed and prone to bird predation. Ah yes, we’ve had that experience!

Grasses do not require a cold, moist stratification but are generally planted at the same time to save resources. Grass seed only requires 70 degree temperatures to germinate.

Do we mix the seed with something?

1. You can mix with sawdust (from untreated, undried wood)
2. Use the hammermilled chaff and sprinkle it with water to moisten

We mix with these slightly moist substrates for equal distribution. If all is dry, the tiny seeds could end up in the bottom of the bucket and not distributed throughout the planting.

Overseeding and planning a spring burn?

Sow the seeds early in winter — between November and December — making sure to broadcast low to the ground. The winter rains and snow will work the seeds through the standing vegetation into the soil where they will be protected.

Shows the contrast of the seeds on snow

Planting on snow makes it easy to know where you’ve sowed the seeds.

Plant between November and February to mimic nature’s processes.

Prescribed fire

Seed Sowing Techniques

We prefer to hand broadcast rather than drill. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Hand broadcasting is a natural look but requires a number of volunteers, buckets, and feed sacks.

Drilling requires less preparation prior to planting day. It necessitates equipment rental and calibration knowledge or hiring someone. Good calibration is vital for even seed distribution. Seed size variation could result in several passes with a drill which is time consuming and is an additional cost for a hired operator. A 3-point hitch broadcast spreader works similar to drills but requires the same calibration precision.

Handsown seeds mixed with milled sawdust is simple and effective. Small seeds cling to the moist sawdust and are evenly distributed.

Drills provide good seed to soil contact but seeds requiring light for germination are too deeply buried. Drilling can create an unnatural row-like look that can be seen for years later. If this is what you decide, Prairie Haven has some good details about it. 

 

Sectioning the Land for Hand Broadcasting

Half acre sections are manageable for one person. It’s not too much walking and doesn’t take too much time. Use the topography and soil type map to create the sections with a single soil type. It will create some irregular ½ acre sections but it’s much easier for the volunteers. Then assign each section a number.

 

Photo to the right: Jim is putting flags along the edge. This is where the prairie stops and the maintenance trail begins.

Jim putting flags along the edge to show where the maintenance trail begins.

To mark the sections, we placed a metal T-post at each section corner. Marking flags and flagging tape were used to highlight them and make them clearly visible to volunteers. To further clarify each section, because some were irregular sized, we spray painted lines radiating from the posts to designate how each section projected from the post. While the picture shows a “+” pattern, not every section will be uniform. It’s a large blank canvas and easy to misunderstand which T-post to T-post connection completes a section. We placed small orange flags around the perimeter to mark the maintenance path. No sense throwing seed there!

A wider view of the metal T-post marking the corner of the sections
The metal T-post and paint to show the sections

The Day of the Planting

Before the volunteers arrived, Jim took the buckets and seedbags to the center of each section.  By taking it to the center, rather than using an edge, the volunteer had to intentionally orient themselves to their area before they began planting. It also keeps the additional seed in a central area for replenishing the bucket.

We did a brief volunteer orientation with a seed broadcasting demo. Each person received a map, signed up for a section and was briefed on the bucket count notation. At their section markers, we explained the painted lines on the ground and oriented them to which T-post to T-post connection was theirs. If they sowed all the seed they had and didn’t fully cover their area, they needed to let us know. We set aside some additional seed in case this happened.

The time spent organizing before the volunteers arrived made the planting go quickly and was more fun! Everyone likes a well organized event! The Deer Camp Prairie took 24 people 1.5 hours to seed. We then spent 3 hours eating, drinking, and celebrating! This is the proper ratio of planting to partying!

The brief volunteer orientation explaining the section layouts, buckets, and seed bags.

First time volunteers were a bit nervous about being able to estimate and cover their area. We assured them there would be no problems. Once they did a lap they would have a good rhythm and it would come naturally. 

Maintenance

As spring arrived and the weeds grew, we mowed twice. This kept weeds from setting seeds and from shading the germinating plants. We knew to expect weeds the first year and the prairie didn’t disappoint.

The second year (2 views shown to the right) we continued removing invasive weeds by pulling, herbiciding, or using the predator. This type of maintenance is required annually.

I like to say there are “50 Ways to Right” when managing. The difference is in which combination is kinder and gentler to the land. 

Planting prairies

Here are 2 examples of our plantings.
They show the differing process for each. The include gallery photos of our many friends who volunteered their time to help!