Each year the prairie looks different on Kelly and Angie Tagtow's acreage near Elkhart, Iowa. Gray-head and purple coneflowers may bloom one year, and wild bergamot and cup plants may grow the next. New plants appear while others disappear. This is the natural cycle of a prairie.
This diversity of prairie scenery is exactly what the Tagtows set out to achieve when they bought their 12 acres in 1994. Living on the land is nothing new to the couple. Kelly grew up on an Iowa farm, while Angie lived most of her life on an acreage in Wisconsin. Town life was not for them.
"We enjoy the outdoor spaces and felt boxed in by the small apartments and houses," says Kelly.
Unsure of what they wanted to do with their new land, the Tagtows initially rented it to a local farmer. Then in 2001, Kelly enrolled in the Iowa Master Conservationist program. The goal of the program is to teach people how to sustain natural resources and become better stewards of those resources.
Each new class gave Kelly ideas of what could be done to better sustain his land. One part of the 32 hours of hands-on training was prairies, including grasslands. Before they could implement any of the ideas Kelly garnered from the program, the Tagtows had to decide on a conservation program.
Preservation or restoration
There are two main types of prairie conservation Ð preservation and restoration. A prairie restoration was the most appropriate answer for their location. With restoration, the land has to be prepared, and the existing vegetation has to be removed. Whether you're planning to restore or reconstruct a prairie, Kelly recommends considering what kind of expansion plans the nearest city has and whether that could disrupt your own plans.
After participating in the program, Kelly knew he wanted to have a mix of local ecotype seeds (seeds native to the area). He suggests doing some research and seeking local seeds for prairie plantings. The program also led him to a prairie expert, Carl Kurtz, who lives in Iowa. Kelly had heard him speak at several prairie conferences and was impressed with his knowledge and background. Kurtz harvests prairie seed that had the mix of local seeds Kelly was looking for.
When the final crop was harvested from the Tagtow land in 2002, prairie seeds purchased through Kurtz were planted. The seed mix is diverse, with roughly 50 to 60 forbs (flowers) and 6 to 10 grasses. A seed drill and broadcast sprayer were used to plant the forb and grass mix.
Weeding is an important component of maintaining a prairie site. To reduce the recurrence of annual weeds, most prairie plantings are mowed several times in the first year of seeding. Typically, once the weeds reach 10 to 12 inches in height, they are mowed with a sickle or rotary mower to 2 to 4 inches. During the second year, the prairie becomes more established and chokes out the weeds. However, some additional mowing may be necessary to control weeds.
Besides planting prairie flowers, Angie has planted low-maintenance perennial plants in a backyard garden. Her flowers of choice are the purple balloon flower, hybrid tea rose, and daylilies.
The pond on the property is also part of the restoration. The Natural Resources Conservation Service wetland program required that the Taglows build a dike to retain water runoff. The idea behind the dike is to reestablish the prairie potholes that are found in central and north central Iowa.
With each change they make to their property, the Tagtows know that they are investing in an important part of the Midwest's heritage. Not only has the prairie created beautiful, productive soils, but it also provides habitat for a variety of wildlife.
"When learning about prairies, I didn't know that so much of Iowa had been altered from its original state," says Kelly. Whether for urban expansion or agricultural use, over 99.9% of the original prairies in Iowa have been altered or destroyed. But without the prairie, there wouldn't be rich soil to support agriculture.
"Knowing we could reverse some of that alteration, even a small portion, seemed like the right thing to do. It also provides a more relaxing setting for us and our neighbors, and it provides food and habitat for wildlife," he says.
Key to restoration
One of the keys to restoration, says Kelly, is patience. It is a slow process but the rewards of a healthy prairie are worth the wait. Prairie plantings need time to develop, but each spring the Tagtows begin to see more changes that are taking place as their land is transformed back into the blooming prairie it once was.
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