To be clear, I am only recommending doing this if you live in an area where prairie occurs. That said, it’s probably a safe statement to say that many, if not most, areas around the world have some native grassland. So, while my recommendations here mostly apply to homesteaders in the U.S. Upper Midwest, I think adding some mixture of native grass and wildflowers wherever you are is a good idea!
So, why am I a prairie evangelist? Why have I made it a huge priority to get this done in my first year at Keeper’s Croft?
There are many, many more reasons but hopefully this convinces you how good an idea planting prairie on your homestead is!
I will be planting prairie in a relatively large area. And by large I mean bigger than a garden plot. The area I planted was 1/8th of an acre. The key distinction, is that it is an area where planting plugs or starts would be financially and physically challenging.
The most important consideration is whether the site has full sun. Prairie thrives with lots of sun. Soil type is not super important though you want to make note of whether the sites is especially dry or wet which will have an impact on the type of seed mix you use.
The current vegetation at the site will also be important in determining how you approach site preparation. Probably the easiest site to start with is a weed free crop field or a lawn.
My site is the front part of my yard and ditch which is dominated by lawn. It did have some red clover and other weeds but nothing to noxious or persistent. I paid attention to the how wet it got this spring and summer. It never held water even during the wetter spring.
Finally, if you are planting in a place like I am, next to the road, you want to check in with local government or utilities. In my case, the county said that they must (*eyeroll*) mow vegetation back a certain distance from the road. It means they will mow about halfway down that side of the ditch slope closest to the road. I’m okay with that. I will probably need to put up signs to not spray. I am also planning on trying to keep communicating with the county and see if they can be friendlier to roadside prairie.
Site preparation may be a lengthy process. You can interseed prairie into existing vegetation but it doesn’t have great success. Try to minimize weed competition as much as possible. This can be done through physical methods like smothering the grass or removing sod or with herbicide.
If your site is an old weedy field, you will likely want to take a couple of growing seasons to prepare the site to ensure you are not only killing the current vegetation but also taking care of the weeds in the seedbank. When we are restoring a large area to prairie that has been pasture, they will actually plant it to corn or soybeans for 2-3 years which keeps some cover on the soil while also allowing for eradicating weeds.
So, if you are planting into a crop field that hasn’t been allowed to be weedy, it’s probably good to go. Lawn will need to be killed out but can likely be done so in 1 season as long as it wasn’t super weedy.
Despite my dislike for herbicide, I decided it was the best approach for my site. I sprayed it out 3 times starting in August with Roundup and got a pretty good kill on all the vegetation. Doing this again next year may have been wisest but I’m gambling and moving forward with planting this year. As it got closer to planting time, I mowed the dead grass as short as I possibly could.
There are many things to consider when buying a seed mix.
First of all where to buy. Choose a seed dealer that is close to you if possible. Native seed dealers have become easier to find in recent times but you will likely need to do a bit of googling to find one that offers what you need. For example, in Iowa the Tallgrass Prairie Center maintains an online database of seed dealers and service providers.
The reason for choosing a nearby seed dealer is that you are more likely to get local ecotype seed. This fancy term just means the seed is more likely to have similar genetics the native prairie in your area. It is especially important to seek out local ecotype seed if your homestead is close to a native prairie. Local ecotype seed is also superior as you know it will be very adapted to the growing conditions and soil in your area.
As for the species in the seed mix, you probably want to pick the most diverse mix you can afford. The more species, especially the non-grass species, that are included the higher the price. However this is one place you don’t want to skimp. Species diversity helps combat weeds. It’s also important to pay attention to the ratio of grass to forb (wildflowers) seed in the mix. Grass can easily out compete and swamp the flowers especially if the mix is heavy on Big Bluestem and/or Indian grass. You want the ratio to be 50:50 between forb and grass or heavier on the forbs.
Most seed dealers will have mixes for dry sites, or wet sites or in between sites, so this should also be a consideration.
I spent a fair chunk of change to buy the most diverse mix I could. This will be at the front of my property so I want it to be very heavy on the beautiful flowers. I got the Grand Diversity Prairie mix from Prairie Moon nursery from southern Minnesota. It is 62.48% forb seeds to 35.23% grass seed with about 2% woody plants as well. It is for Medium-wet to Medium-dry soils. If I had really wanted to have the very best results I would’ve bought two different mixes one for the bottom of the ditch which is likely to be better for wetter species and the slope and flat area for dryer species. This was simpler. My biggest concern is that the seeds per square foot seemed pretty low while planting.
There are a few different times to plant prairie. The most common are dormant season (aka early winter) and spring. Prairie seed needs stratification, to undergo a period of cold, for best germination. So getting it planted in early winter allows this process to happen naturally. It often produces better results as well.
Another advantage to planting in early winter is that you can broadcast the seed rather than sowing it in and you don’t even need to rake or till the soil. The freeze thaw cycle helps facilitate good soil-to-seed contact. For specific timing, plant when the ground has some moisture and if you can swing it right before a light snow. One to two inches which won’t stick around is ideal. As it melts, it again helps that soil to seed contact. I think this is the best approach if you hand broadcasting in a relatively smaller area, like my 1/8 of an acre.
Being able to sow seed opens up more possibilities but sowing prairie seed is a tricky business. The seed is tiny and light and fluffy, so planting with a regular crop drill doesn’t work well. Native seed drills do exist and if you are planting a large area, look into the renting possibilities in your area. Your FSA/NRCS office is a good place to start with questions.
I chose to plant my prairie after a week of gray rainy weather and the day before we got a light snow. It was a gamble because we’ve had drought conditions this summer so did the week of rainy weather fix that? Maybe not, but I looked at the 10 day forecast there was no further rain in sight. Ideally, I would have broadcast the seed just before the snow storm but the day leading up to the snow was very windy. Prairie seed is feathery and light, so by planting on a less windy day, I directed the seed rather than the wind! The snow ended up being pathetic, maybe 1/4″, but it was something.
To make sure the seed was spread evenly on the site, I broke the site and the seed into 10 equal parts. I definitely felt like I didn’t have enough seed to cover but an experienced colleague reassured me. The mix I got came with the smallest seeds in a separate bag and a bag of cover crop seed. These were all mixed together for broadcasting.
This is only the beginning! Intensive management will be required over the next two years to give the prairie plants a chance to establish their impressive roots systems and really start to flourish. Year three is probably the earliest I will be able to make a fair assessment of how this planting went. I will definitely be updating here!
Hopefully this has inspired you to plant some prairie on your homestead and some intial ideas on how to go about it. It’s exciting to see what will come!
I love books and reading, so I can’t resist including a book recommendation with each post. The book will, in some way, correspond to the post.
My Antonia by Willa Cather takes place on the great plains of Nebraska during the colonization of those lands. I don’t remember many details from this book but Cather’s writing captures the humans occupying this place and time so vividly and the prairie landscape is a character as well. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars.
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