Restoring the Prairie | Living the Country Life

Restoring the Prairie

An Ohio naturalist celebrates old beauty by planting acres of native wildflowers and grasses. Here are some of his tips on how to grow your own prairie.
Guy adjusts a nesting box for bluebirds and tree swallows.
The prairie offers views of wildlife year-round, whether that be foxes leaping through snow-covered forbs or butterflies flittering among summer blossoms.
Purple coneflowers are a prairie mainstay and add color to the scene.

Guy Denny is a modern-day frontiersman, and restores Midwestern prairie lands–including 22 acres at his home in Frederickstown, Ohio. On his land, drifts of Indian grass and big bluestem are painted with clusters of purple coneflower, yellow coreopsis, and 140 other prairie species–all ideal habitat for Guy's resident butterflies, dragonflies, birds, woodchucks, rabbits, foxes, and deer. Guy began planting his prairie 17 years ago, starting with a simple strip along his 3/4-mile drive. 

"Prairies are unique to North America and a rich part of our heritage," says Guy, retired chief of Ohio's Natural Areas and Preserves. For thousands of years, tallgrass prairies expanded across the Midwest, with several prairie plants reaching the East Coast. These prairies rotated with forested areas as glacial periods came and went. When the steel plow was introduced, some prairies disappeared, as once-abandoned hard lands suddenly became farmable.

Today, there's a movement to restore these prairie habitats as people recognize their beauty and appreciate the wildlife attracted to the diverse environment. "Anywhere you can grow corn and soybeans, you can grow a prairie," Guy says. Prairie plants grow best in a site with daylong sunlight, although a few plants thrive in a half-day's sunlight. The plants grow in a variety of soil textures sand tolerate a range of pH levels. 

All prairie plants require patience. "The first year reaction is 'I must have done something wrong,'" Guy says. "The second year, there are the not-enough-color complaints, but by the third and fourth years you can enjoy the show." 

Mixing grasses and flowers brings year-round interest to the prairie. Guy offers advice on starting your prairie and what to expect in subsequent years.

Preseason: Select a sunny field, hillside, or lawn. For quickest results, treat the area with a systemic herbicide. Or smother vegetation with tarps or boards, use a sod cutter to remove lawns, or till the soil every two to three weeks for one season. 

Year One: Plant seeds in fall, so they experience cold temps to successfully sprout. Rather than a prairie seed mix, plant wildflower seeds in clusters then fill voids with prairie grass seeds (such as Indian grass or little bluestem). Seed small spaces by hand and larger acreages with a rented seed drill. Run tractor tires over seeds or use a cultipacker to ensure soil contact. Occasionally, mow or string-trim to 6-8 inches to reduce weeds and allow prairie plants to grow deep roots. 

Year Two: Let the prairie grow. While it may look a bit weedy, be patient. The plants are growing strong root systems and the prairie will begin to take shape in another year.

Year Three and Beyond: Dig up and cut problem weeds (burdock, sweet clover, Canada thistle, and Canadian goldenrod) before they go to seed. Spot-treat with an herbicide. Fill pockets with more seed as needed. Mow in late fall or early spring to 6 inches. 

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