Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Small Scale Prairie Restoration

Chris Schad from The Bee Shedgot into beekeeping with his prairie restoration work.  His idea was to feed bees naturally by increasing the quality foraging plants we grow.  Here are some of the prairie tid-bits we learned from Chris at our last meeting:

What is a prairie?

A prairie is diverse, a mixture of wildflowers (forbs) and grasses.  Prairie plants have an amazingly deep root system.  Years and years of organic matter build up in the soil from all the yummy microbial life making this soil incredibly rich.  This fact is why the prairies were cultivated all across America and turned into such rich farmland (dare I say much quicker than their formation!).  

So, how did the prairies come to be?  Back some 50 or so million years ago, tectonic plates slipped and slided just enough to make the Rocky Mountains.  This changed the light, rainfall, and entire climate of the region.  Then if that wasn't enough, about 110 thousand years ago glaciers made their way through the land giving us hilly terrain, potholes, lakes, rocky outcrops, and depositing geologic parent material everywhere.  Then it got windy, real windy.  This parent material blew and blew and deposited loess which became the important parent material for prairie formation.  

Thousands of years in the making

Over tens of thousands of years with the help of fire, buffalo, prairie dogs, and other critters, the prairies maintained themselves.  

There are 3 basic types of prairies:

Wet Prairies
Soils are moist during most of the year.  Types of plants may be Swamp Milkweed, Marsh Marigold, sedges, Joe Pye Weed, Ironweed, and Irises.

Mesic Prairies
Moderately moist soils, water soaks into the soil without runoff.  Plants may be Fragrant Hyssop, Prairie Onion, Heartleaf Aster, and Wild Blue Indigo. 

Dry Prairies
Well drained to excessively drained.  Plants may be Prairie Sage, Butterfly Weed, and Harebells.

Why restore prairies?
In times of drought, these plants have such deep root systems that they can weather the drought.  Prairies provide a diverse and nutrient rich source of food for animals and pollinators.  Prairies create habitats for animals and support pollinators and also improve water quality and prevent runoff.  Plus, they are just gorgeous.

How to restore a prairie
Site selection:  Carefully select the site and determine what kind of soil (dry, mesic, wet).  How much sun is shining on the site? Is the site on a slope?  A slope will be drier, whereas the base of a slope will be wetter with richer soil.  
Site Prep:  This is the most crucial step, just like painting, it's all in the prep work.  Don't rush, it may take more than one season to rid the land of invasive weeds.  Clear out all the crap using fire, mechanical means-smothering is best, don't till, this will just bring up weed seeds.  Or chemical such as Round-Up, if you are inclined.  Fire seems to work the best.  Make sure you know what you are doing if you are taking on the burn on your own, and get any required permit.
Seed selection:  What are your goals?  Do you want mostly a grassland, or more wildflowers?  What is your budget? Fall is often a good time for seeding since many flower seeds require stratification (cold period) to bloom.  You may consider a cover crop to add to the seeds to give you quick cover and help crowd out the weedy plants.  A good cover crop is oats.  

Don't rush any part of the process, and remember that it takes a couple of years for the prairie plants to establish their roots, so you will not see your full prairie emerge immediately.  

Maintenance is key!
Year one, mow to 8" and possibly spot treat the invasives with herbicide.  Every few years, say 3-5, consider a burn to keep the woody plant material from taking over.  

And remember... it is so worth it!

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