40 Acres of Prairie
One summer day while stopped along a dusty rural road, Ray and Patti Hamilton spotted several tall yellow compass plants swaying on a distant hillside. With their three children in tow, the Hamiltons hiked back into the field to discover a dozen small islands of native prairie grasses and flowers. Along with the compass plants there was a colorful blaze of butterfly milkweed, native aster, lead plant, grey-headed coneflower, big bluestem, prairie dropseed, indigo, and more.
"It was like we had found a ship with sunken treasure," Ray recalls. He estimates that this prairie community is many thousands of years old, surviving more recent human settlement because they were clustered around dolomite outcroppings where a plow had never ventured.
When the Hamiltons - Ray is a physician and Patti is a homemaker - learned the owner of their find was willing to sell a 60-acre parcel, they were delighted. Today, 40 acres - everything but the woodlands - have been preserved or replanted into a vibrant, living prairie system.
The Hamiltons' first priority after acquiring the land near Maquoketa, Iowa, was to make sure the existing native prairie remnants flourished. That meant removing overgrown woody vegetation and dead brush in the remnant prairie and savannahs, the transitional spaces between the prairie and woodlands. Bit by bit, the Hamiltons dragged away box elders, elms, dogwoods, sumacs, and cedars. "By cutting back the secondary growth, we opened things up for the suppressed prairie edges," says Ray.
Simultaneously, the Hamiltons started restoring the tilled acres. They replanted crop ground into native plants in small sections, mostly 1 or 2 acres at a time. To prepare the ground, Ray applied glyphosate herbicide to eliminate existing vegetation. Then he lightly disked the soil using a pull-behind-type disk.
Committed to preserving locally native genotypes, the Hamiltons used only seeds collected by hand from varieties they located within a 10-mile radius. The seeds were dried on window-type screens and stored in brown paper bags. In all, they collected 40 to 50 seed types.
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