Checking in with the Prairie | 8 Months After Planting

STOP! If you are curious about the beginning of this story read this post about how I planted the prairie seed. That is a very detailed post about the beginning of the process and includes some “how to” information. This post is just going to be a quick check in and will talk a little about first year management.

Prairie Plants?

Talk About Nerve Wracking

As a reminder, prairie restoration/planting is a process and a relatively long one at that. I will not know whether I have established anything worthy of being a called a prairie for another 2 YEARS. However, I want to document this process at every step so here goes the first update.

I planted the prairie by broadcasting seed on bare earth late October 2020. Iowa proceeded to have about a month and a half of no precipitation. OH NO! I watered a little but it’s a large area so It likely did little good. We had a fairly “normal” winter for Iowa – snowy, with persistent snow cover. YAY! But the snowy weather didn’t really move in until mid-December so there was a solid month and half where the seed just baked on the ground and was available for birds and other seed foragers. OH NO!

There was one period of bitterly cold weather. I have no idea how this may have impacted the seed which was under an insulative layer of snow. MEH? Late winter after snow melt we got unseasonably warm temperatures and a full week of rain. YAY! Then we entered into a month long period without a drop of precipitation. OH NO! Now we are back into drought conditions. OH NO!

If it’s not clear from the above, it’s been a roller coaster and I’ve second-guessed my timing and planting process a millionty, billionty times. If you’re thinking, “WOW, lady, just chill out. You can always plant again.” I can. You’re right. But did I mention it takes three years for prairie to even start coming into its own? Did I mention this seed cost over $300 (this is a lot in my budget!)? Did I mention I was gifted a generous amount of seed from a friend who hand harvested out of his own prairie? Basically, I’m really invested in this prairie.

What Does It Look Like Now?

After all those ups and downs, how is it doing now? First, it took a long time to fill in with green. It was bare ground with a few scraggly plants here and there until about a month ago (so until early-mid May). Currently it is covered with green… but it’s almost ALL weeds and not of the prairie variety. Lots of plantain, dandelion, some ragweed, a few grasses, clover, wood sorrel.

However, in the last week, I have finally, FINALLY, started to spot some scattered plants that are clearly prairie plants. The collage above shows several of them. I can’t identify most of them but I’m pretty sure there is echinacea, gray-headed coneflower and, the one I did positively i.d., a tiny Whorled Milkweed, which is a great find. They are still by far in the minority but they’ve made me a little less anxious.

First Year Management

Now that there is some vegetation, I’ve started to more actively manage the planted area. This first year, that means keeping it mowed to about 6″ height. This keeps the weeds in check, while the prairie plants take the time to develop their extensive root systems. It’s an attempt to give the prairie plants a competitive advantage.

I also broke down and watered with a sprinkler as we are in another period of semi-drought. I’ve never even owned a sprinkler in my adult life because I associate them with watering lawns which is just dumb. I’m borderline, anti-sprinkler. Regardless, I went out and bought one so I could baby this little patch of prairie. To be clear, I don’t have to water this with the same frequency and intensity I do my vegetable garden or other establishing perennials. Plus, once established the prairie plants will be very drought tolerant. However, for this first year, I am trying to give them every little boost that I can. If we continue without rain I may try to water every 10 days – 2 weeks, if we don’t get put under water use restrictions.

That’s the 8 month(ish) check in on the prairie. Establishing prairie takes patience…something I don’t have in abundance but it’s been interesting and I hope will end up being rewarding. Have you ever tried to restore some native prairie? What was your experience like?

Take care everyone and remember to get rid of as much lawn as possible!

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