Our Maturing Reconstructed Prairie

Six years ago I wrote my first ever Dyck Arboretum blog post about our “Teenage Prairie” Prairie Window Project (PWP) reconstructed prairie. The birth and development of this project was the focus of my early years here at the Arboretum from 2004 to 2010 and at times it indeed felt like developing progeny. Sticking with that maturing prairie/human metaphor, I’d say this prairie today would be in the young adult stage. While it is still maturing, it relies much less on the parental influence of Arboretum staff and its changes from year to year are more subtle.

Prairie Window Project in September 2017
Prairie Window Project in August and October of 2010

I recently gave a 40-minute webinar presentation about the story of developing this PWP prairie. I enjoyed remembering all the educational and community building opportunities this project intensively afforded over a 7-year period and how it still serves us today. From that presentation, I will summarize through images and interpretation the stages this reconstructed prairie has been through.

Conceptual Stage

This reconstructed prairie was a gleam in the eye of Harold and Evie when they started the Dyck Arboretum in 1981. With native gardens already established here, they also wanted visitors to experience the feeling of visiting a larger prairie ecosystem. I was tasked with oversight of this project when I started working here in 2004. Preparations began in 2005 to turn 18 acres of agricultural ground south of our hedge row to a prairie.

The conceptual plan showing our existing grounds (in green) and the proposed PWP to be developed.
The red 1.3-acre rectangle was planted in 2005 and 2007 and the blue 5-acre oval was planted in 2009 and 2010 after earth moving added some topographical relief

Collecting Seed

We wanted this prairie reconstruction to be developed with local ecotype seed collected with in a 60-mile radius, knowing that the plants would be best suited to local fauna, soils, and climate. No other prairie in Kansas had been restored with local seed, and we knew this site could be a unique future seed source for creation of other prairies. We set out to visit more than 100 nearby blueprint prairies to collect data on their plant composition, study the butterfly and bird populations they supported, and scope out where we would best be able to hand-collect seed. Visits to these prairies on a regular basis helped us secure the grass, wildflower, shrub and sedge seed needed to plant a diverse prairie at Dyck Arboretum.

A graduate student collecting seed from a nearby remnant prairie
Volunteers collecting seed from a nearby remnant prairie
Harvesting large volumes of grass seed with the aid of a nearby KSU Ag Extension plot combine
Seed collection outings sometimes involved the collection of insects, rocks, sticks and more

Seed Mix

To best mimic the species composition of the blueprint remnant prairies we were observing, prairie restoration literature suggested that we should be aiming for a wildflower:grass ratio of no less than 50:50 and perhaps even has high as 80:20. Other target planting parameters included at least 50 lbs of seed per acre, a minimum of 50 seeds per square foot, and as much species diversity as possible. Five different plantings between 2005 and 2010 met these parameters and more than 120 local ecotype prairie species were planted into the PWP during that time.

Volunteers cleaning seed, removing chaff, and helping us best estimate seed weight that would insure the most accurate species mix calculations as possible
An example of the level of detail that went into planning the seed mix
2005 seed mix ready for planting

Planting Seed

Planting our seed mix with a seed drill or mechanical planter wasn’t realistic given the unique shape of our planting areas and diverse shapes/weight/textures of the seed mix. An alternative plan was to establish a planting grid that would allow for even distribution of seed using 5-gallon buckets. We assigned two buckets and a volunteer per planting unit, distributed seed (sand added for bulk) evenly to all buckets, and instructed volunteers to evenly cover their flag-marked planting unit.

Establishment of planting plots to best insure an even distribution of our seed mix
Volunteers walking to their assigned planting plots in January 2005
A graduate student distributing seed in January 2007

Prairie Management

Prairies require regular disturbance management of grazing and fire to maintain healthy ecosystems and prevent the invasion of woody plants and non-native cool-season grasses. Selective pulling of certain invasive, non-native species was key early in the PWP planting’s development. Once the desired prairie vegetation built sufficient roots after about three years and became well-established, a rotation of mowing (to best simulate grazing), burning and leaving residual has been implemented ever since.

Earth Partnership for Schools teachers pulling invasive non-native yellow sweet clover in June 2010
Volunteers helping conduct a prescribed burn in April 2018

Research

More than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students have been invaluable in collecting data to monitor populations of plant and wildlife species. Their efforts have helped us understand changes in groupings and species as the planting matures and management continues.

Graduate students conducting vegetation sampling July 2008
Vegetation guild importance value changes over 12 years
Small mammal trapping and population monitoring on the PWP

Education into the Future

Our PWP reconstructed prairie is regularly used by preschool, K-12, and college students to learn about the plants and wildlife important to the natural history of Kansas. Community bird and butterfly enthusiasts regularly monitor the species that are found within. And visitors seeking recreation on our paths enjoy the prairie backdrop that enhances their Arboretum stroll.

Elementary school students collecting seed for a plant-growing project
Students conducting sweep netting to temporary collect and learn about insect populations
High school students collecting specific leaves as part of a scavenger hunt test during the finals of the Kansas EcoMeet

The Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction on the southern part of our grounds has been a valuable tool to promote prairie conservation, education, and community building with our membership. This project has been at the heart of our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land. Pay this prairie a visit sometime and let us know if and how it may hold value for you.

The Prairie Paradox

“Reversing deforestation is complicated; planting a tree is simple.”

– Martin O’ Malley, Former Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore.

When I first read this saying, I automatically changed it in my mind.  I changed it to “reversing prairie degradation and loss is complicated; planting a wildflower is simple“.  Granted, we appreciate trees in Kansas. But more than trees, we need to plant prairie to reverse the losses to our signature landscape.  Only one percent of the original prairie remains—99 percent of prairies are gone.  The rich prairie land is now used to produce crops and raise livestock.  Only a few pockets of prairie still survive in their original form, including the Flint Hills.

I grew up on a farm and learned so much from farm life.  I know the value of the land.  I understand how hard it is to eke out a living working the land.  There is a richness of the soil precisely because it was once prairie.  Conservation of the soil is vital to the success of any farm.  Stewardship of the land is understood.  We can’t take the land away from the farmers and landowners, but we also can’t let the prairie disappear forever either.  We need the food that this land produces and we need to save this almost extinct ecosystem.  It is complicated on so many levels.

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

Big Bluestem growing in the Prairie Window Project

I believe the solution to the prairie paradox is to allow for and encourage individuals to make small steps, such as choosing to plant native wildflowers and grasses in our own yards and landscapes.  Just like remnant prairies that dot the landscape, our small gardens can have an impact.  This impact can be multiplied with each new wildflower and each new garden that is established.  By choosing to establish just a few native plants, we can begin the slow process of reclamation, rejuvenation and renewal of this lost landscape.  Large expanses of prairie are never coming back, but a patchwork landscape of our own native plants seems doable.

Larger prairie restorations are a challenge.  They can take years to get established and even then the results will almost always fall short of the original prairie.  I can remember looking at a prairie restoration in Wisconsin that had been seeded over 20 years earlier.  The guide noted that the prairie had just started looking like the original prairie.  It took that long to develop into something that resembled a true prairie.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t plant new prairie.  If anything, we should start now so the transformation can begin.  A “new prairie” does not develop overnight. It takes time and is complicated by so many different factors.  We should have realistic expectations and be patient.

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Burning the Prairie Window Project-Spring 2016

Even our Prairie Window Project is continuing to mature.  It is now nearly 10 years old.  We have worked hard to keep the trees and yellow sweet clover out of the prairie.  We planted the prairie with good diversity of wildflowers and grasses but even that is no guarantee of success.  The impact of farming on the land, weed competition with new native seedlings, management regiments and many other influences can have detrimental effects on a prairie reconstruction slowing the transformation.  These examples demonstrate how complicated it can be to change a farm field to a prairie.  It is costly, time consuming and unpredictable.

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Earth Partnership for Schools Native Planting

We should keep planting native plants because it is the right thing to do. Plant a prairie if you can.  Reclaim a prairie if you can.  The prairie ecosystem, unique to North America, is an important part of our natural heritage.  Native pollinators need these plants for their survival.  Native wildflowers and grasses create habitat for wildlife.  We should be aware of the many benefits of native plants.  Obviously, native plants are worth the effort.  Remember, planting a wildflower is simple –why not start today?

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This is a landscape worth saving!