Prairie restoration is a long term project meant to restore and maintain land to its original prairie state. A natural prairie is a complex ecosystem with upwards of 250 native plants. On original prairies there might have been about one mature tree per acre of land.
It has taken us a long time to understand and appreciate the diversity and importance of prairie land. Pioneers certainly didn’t. Coming from forested lands, pioneers thought the prairie was akin to desert.
What they didn’t know and we are learning is that up to two thirds of the prairie ecosystem is below ground. The average depth of roots is six to eight feet and some plants (such as prairie dock) have 15 foot tap roots.
Naturally, this it made it very difficult to cut into and farm. It wasn’t until John Deere invented the steel bottom plow that we were able to cut into this dense root system and find to our surprise the richest soil in the country. The rest is history so they say and now 150 years later we’re trying to restore some of this natural richness that has been lost to the march of civilization.
Prairie restoration is a very difficult undertaking. There are countless non native and usually invasive species that have to be eradicated first. In our area, one of the worst is buckthorn. Buckthorn was once a cultivated bush that was brought from Europe in the 1930’s. It quickly escaped from yards and made itself at home in the prairie and throughout the Oak Savannah. (Oak Savannah is the transition area between prairie and more forested land. The average is about 13 mature trees per acre in the Oak Savannah vs. the one per acre on the prairie.)
Buckthorn grows rapidly and doesn’t have anything edible for wildlife. It quickly spreads everywhere and chokes out other more desirable plants. Buckthorn is only one of countless other plants that do the same thing. Garlic mustard and purple loosestrife are two other such invasive plants in my part of the country. In the South, Kudzu vine is such an invasive.
Unfortunately, many of our invasive plants may have at one time been planted deliberately because someone thought it was pretty. I, myself, have been tempted when I’m traveling, and see something beautiful, to have it in my own garden.
But ignorance isn’t always bliss and too often we have to learn the hard way that our lack of knowledge can cause a great deal of damage and a lot of hard work to undo.
Prairie Restoration is difficult work and sometimes even disheartening. Recently, I read an article about Paul Mozina, a Milwaukee resident, who with his wife and some dedicated friends had worked tirelessly for every weekend for seven years to clean up the marsh surrounding the ice age trail in Hartland, WI.
They’ve made a huge difference in the look of the surrounding area, but the cleared areas are constantly sprouting new buckthorn seedlings and the marsh they’re trying to improve stretches for about 200 miles. That’s a huge task for a few volunteers to maintain and as you can imagine, Mr. Mozina has decided to call it quits. Not all prairie restoration is sad though.
Last week I had the pleasure of listening to “Prairie Bob” Ahrenhoerster discuss prairie restoration. Mr. Ahrenhoerster is an expert in the field of prairie restoration and currently is part of the UW-Whitewater prairie restoration project which is very successful. He also donates his time and expertise to restoring some of the prairie surrounding Old World Wisconsin. In addition, he is an author and very engaging speaker and field guide.
He ardently explained the importance of maintaining the diversity and healthiness of natural prairie. It not only is a huge source of food and shelter to wildlife, natural prairie also restores and maintains the quality of our soil and preserves natural resources.
Mr. Ahrenhoerster is not a fan of cultivated lawns. He maintains that they sustain less life than a desert, which actually does sustain quite a few natural species. He believes that it would be better for all of us if we could leave at least part of our property wild. (That of course will not automatically restore itself to prairie, but untended is better than what we do presently.)
It was also interesting to note that when we create a “prairie garden,” it is just that. A true prairie contains over 200 varieties of plants, but a prairie garden may only contain about 25. (Even so prairie gardens are still beautiful and wonderful local habitats to native insects, butterflies and birds).
If you are interested, Mr. Ahrenhoerster has his own seed company. Part of his work includes gathering and harvesting native prairie plant seeds. Every region has its own temperature and water requirements and thus the plants have their own particular genotype.
If you are interested in prairie restoration the entire area should be seeded with local gentypic seed after it is cleared of invasives. Then it needs to be carefully tended until the seeds reach maturity. Since most prairie plants are perennials this could take several years, but once established some prairie plants can live for hundreds of years.
So now both you and I know more about prairie restoration. It’s interesting isn’t it? Usually we are very caught up in our own little plots of land, but when you think about it, all of our little plots are part of a much bigger picture. Thanks for gardening with Julie.
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