The establishment of a native prairie planting can be accomplished in a variety of ways. A successful native planting will consist of the following:
- A conceptual plan of the project with a projected budget. This plan would include research of the prospective site with historical data and an aerial map, detailed specifications of the desired native seed mix, a planting schedule, and a map of the desired planting area.
- Selection of local ecotype native seeds and plants specific to the conditions of the selected site.
- Proper site preparation and competition control methods to eradicate invasive species and other competition.
- Effective planting techniques, accurate seeding rates, and proper timing to ensure a successful installation.
- A diligent stewardship plan and implementation schedule ensuring your prairie's success into the future.
1. Planning for a Native Planting
Planning and designing your native prairie planting should not be taken lightly. The more time you put into the planning and designing your project, the better chance you will have of success.
Start by selecting a site and determine what the conditions of the selected site are. An aerial map may be helpful in determining the boundaries of the selected area.
Next, research the history of the prospective site in relation to the land's vegetation prior to European settlement. Determining what plant community existed will help in determining which species will thrive on your site. If other natural areas exist around your selected site, then the species that exist in those natural areas may be helpful in indicating what existed on your site at some point in time.
- Soil Type - Does the site have sand, loam, clay, or organic soils?
- Hydrology and Moisture Level - Is the site dry, medium, or wet in nature?
- Sun Exposure - Does your site receive sun all day, part of the day, or is it mostly shady?
- Topography - Does the site slope? The slope may influence the moisture levels and/or sun exposure.
- Existing Vegetation - An initial assessment of the site should be done by a professional with knowledge of native plants and invasive species. This assessment will help to determine what action should be taken next to restore the area based on the pre-existing conditions.
Once a site has been selected, the next task should be the actual design of the prairie. Lay out the size, shape, and location of the planting as well as other physical features that will influence the prairie such as shrubs, trees, fences, buildings, roads, or ponds. Also determine the size of the area to be planted in square feet or acres. This will help to determine how much seed is needed for the site.
If the site is going to be managed using prescribed fire, fire breaks should be considered in the planning process. Roads, mowed areas, ponds, or other bodies of water can all be used as firebreaks. It may be necessary to plan for a four- to six-foot-wide firebreak at some location to help contain the fires.
After you have gathered all of the necessary information about your selected site and laid out your design for your prairie, then you can start to prepare a budget and timeline for installation and management of your prairie. The cost of the installation may vary greatly. Seed mixes can range from $200 to $2000 per acre depending on components and their availability. Site preparation and installation can also vary greatly depending on who is doing the work or how the work is being implemented. When it comes time to construct a budget, it may be best to consult a professional for a bid proposal or estimate based on your specific goals and needs for your property.
2. Selecting Native Seed for Your Project
Selecting a native seed mix can be very simple. Your goals, project size, and budget will help to determine the appropriate mix for your site. Other key notes for helping select the appropriate seed mix:
We recommend using 3-5 grass species and 10-15 wildflowers at a minimum to create diversity. Consider the weight ratios to be 80% grasses to 20% wildflowers. This ratio will allow the grasses to be very robust against competition while still allowing for some wildflower color throughout the year.
- Species should be selected based on your research along with the soil type, hydrology, and sun exposure of the site.
- Only use PLS (Pure Live Seed) for your project.
- Purchase local genotype seed from a reputable supplier.
- Try to use a variety of wildflowers and grasses to create a diverse prairie.
- Add cover crop to mix to help stabilize the soil and help compete against weeds if necessary.
3. Site Preparation and Competition Control Methods
Site preparation is considered one of the most important steps to establishing a prairie. If a project fails, it is usually because of the lack of patience to take all of the necessary steps to control competition or expenses are cut and improper techniques are used to prepare the site.
The first step: DO NOT underestimate the amount of weeds in your seed bank. Eradicating the existing competition (non-native and/or invasive species) is a priority and vital to the success of your prairie. You should plan on preparing your site at least one full growing season before installation of your native seed. This may take a second year depending on what your vegetation assessment concluded after the first year of prep.
An initial vegetation assessment should be taken so that you understand what is on your site. If you determine that a significant amount of desirable vegetation is present, you should consider restoring or enhancing the site. This would start with spot herbiciding and burning to control weeds and then interseeding into the existing vegetation. If the assessment concludes that there is a significant amount of unwanted vegetation, then it may be worthwhile to start from the beginning. You would need to start by eliminating all existing vegetation by applying herbicide applications, cultivating or smothering the entire area, or a combination of techniques.
- Herbiciding - Herbicide applications are generally used on larger sites that have little or no native vegetation naturally occurring. The number of applications will depend on pre-existing conditions. Agricultural fields of corn or soybeans may require only one or two treatments before a spring installation. Fallow or pasture fields usually require several treatments per year for one to two years before installation is recommended.
- Smothering - Small areas such as lawns can be smothered in an effort to block sunlight, thus killing the vegetation without the use of herbicide treatments. Cover the vegetation with black landscaping fabric and leave in place for an entire growing season.
- Cultivating - Cultivating is another technique used to control weeds without the use of chemicals. This does cause soil disturbance and is followed by more weed growth, so cultivation needs to persist through an entire growing season. Stubborn weeds may require two seasons and some deep-rooted rhizomatous weeds, like Canada Thistle, may not yield to cultivation without the use of chemicals.
4. Installing a Native Prairie
Timing of Installation - Installation can be done in the spring from April to June, or as a dormant seeding in late fall or winter.
Methods of Installation - The method of installation will depend on the size of your planting, soil conditions, and your budget.
- Spring Seeding - If planting in spring, native seed should be planted between April 15 and June 15. A spring seeding will normally favor the warm season grass species during the first year. Many of the wildflower seeds that do not germinate the first season will appear in the following growing seasons.
- Dormant Seeding (late fall or winter) - Dormant seeding is timed so that seeds will not germinate until the following spring. Dormant seedings can be done any time when there is snow on the ground from late fall until mid-winter (October to November). Planting earlier in the season is better, so that you will avoid frozen soil. This tends to be a good technique if the areas you are seeding tend to be wet in the spring. Dormant seeding has also been known to be more favorable towards native wildflowers.
- No-Till Drill - A no-till drill is recommended for large sites with hard ground or existing vegetation, No-till drills cause minimal soil disturbance and do not require the soil to be tilled before planting. These drills will require specific calibrations based on seed quality, seed type, site conditions, and proper seeding depth. A maximum planting depth should be 1/4". If the seed is planted too deep or does not have good seed to soil contact, it will not sprout.
- Hand Broadcasting - This technique is used mainly for small acreage projects, yards, or overseeding an existing prairie to add diversity. Seed is generally mixed with a spreading agent such as sawdust or vermiculite in a large bucket and then dispersed by hand. The additional spreading agent will help to give more bulk to your mix and aid in spreading your mix more effectively. Cover crop seed such as oats or annual rye can also be used.
- Culti-packer with a Native Seeder - When planting into bare soil, a culti-packer is recommended. A culti-packer will help create good seed-to-soil contact after the seed is dropped by packing the soil and seed with its rollers. This equipment is used less frequently than the no-till drill but is effective when planting into bare soil.