Spill the beans: What are all the new beds about?

Plugs are expensive. Like, really expensive. Planting densely is important in native landscape design, but that means adding a lot of plants to your order, especially ground covers. Growing your own plugs from seed is a great idea, but ground cover plants can be slow to germinate. So, is there a better method to consider? That’s what we are testing here at Prairie Oaks with our new Ground Cover Garden.

Our new garden will consist of six bean-shaped beds with varying light conditions from partial sun to full shade. In them, we will be growing nine different species of ground covers: May Apple, Wild Ginger, Violet Wood Sorrel, Common Blue Violet, Pussytoes, Palm Sedge, Christmas Fern, Maiden Hair Fern, and Lady Fern.

What is a ground cover?

Ground covers, as the name implies, cover ground. Okay, maybe there is a bit more to it than that. Ground covers are plant species which are adept at filling in spaces and gaps in landscapes. They are generally good at spreading out on their own, and to do this, they often utilize rhizomes.

Rhizomes let a plant spread out without having to seed. The rhizomes creep horizontally underground, and from them, new clones of the original plant can sprout. The key for our garden plan is that although they are clones of the original plant, the new plants can be divided from it.

Diagram from Research Gate

Our plan

We will be starting our garden from seed (except for the ferns) this fall. A lot of the plants we picked require a period of overwintering, so getting them in the dirt now makes sense. We will plant rather densely so that come summer, we will have lots of young plants to choose from. Then, whenever we need to fill a space in the landscape, we can just pull from this plant stock. However, we will make sure to only take every other plant so that we still have a foundation to regenerate the plant population from. Over the course of the year, whatever is left in the beds will shoot out rhizomes and fill back up with new growth. In time, I also expect them to self-seed for added density. Following this strategy will give us a constant supply of plants to pull from throughout the year without needing to replant.

Want to see how it all turns out? Make sure to follow our Instagram @prairie.oaks for regular updates!

The Practical Value of Pavers

Pavers are an undeniably beautiful and popular aspect of landscape design.  Unfortunately, they are also quite time-consuming to install and can get pricey. In your native landscape with lots of tall, dense plantings, they may seem like an unnecessary expense since your plants create their own border. However, if you have the time and money, I would highly recommend getting some pavers, even (and especially!) if your landscape has a high density. This is because pavers have practical value along with their aesthetic appeal, and using pavers could increase the overall ecological quality of your landscape.

The main practical benefit of pavers is that they create a hard border between your path/lawn and your plant bed. Having a hard, consistent border is essential to maintaining the quality of everything inside and outside the bed. To understand why, let’s consider what happens when you mow or weed-whack the edge of your bed.

As you mow many times over the course of the year, the movements of your mower are rarely the exact same every time. This is no problem in the middle of your lawn, but at the edges of your plantings, every variation means either cutting back productive plants or not cutting enough of the lawn. Both of these situations result in the creation of a disturbed area, which invasive weeds like Queen Anne’s Lace or Reed Canary Grass happily exploit. When these weeds get a foothold, they can completely take over and ruin an area.

Take a look at this planting. Where is the edge? Where did it used to be? Would you want to try to weed this?

In contrast, pavers communicate exactly where one space ends and another begins, so you don’t have any inconsistencies when you mow the edge. They also provide a physical barrier to prevent lawn grass and shallow-rooted weeds from establishing outside of a bed and then creeping in. In this way, the health of your bed is improved and you don’t have to worry as much about creating disturbances.

Overall, pavers can be an ecologically productive addition to your landscape as well as an aesthetic one. Even if you haven’t installed them before, it is a fun experience to try, and nothing is as rewarding as creating that perfect curve. A clean edge isn’t just nice for your eyes— it’s nice for your plants too!

Oak Damage: Upcoming Webinar

We must help this keystone species ASAP
Join us August 5 at 8am

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Over the last twenty years, we have seen perennial damage to the leaves of oak trees.  Join us on Zoom, August 5 at 8am, as Dr. Jesse Randall of Michigan State University shares his findings regarding the effects that pre-emergent herbicides have on native tree health. We will also hear an explanation about the oak tree’s role in our ecosystems from Douglas Tallamy, the author of several books including the current bestseller The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Tree

Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 875 1425 6235


Dr. Jesse Randall is Michigan State’s Forestry Innovation Center Director.  Previously employed with Iowa State, Jesse has spent the last decade researching the effects of various unnatural chemicals on the native and essential trees of our ecosystems.
Douglas Tallamy is a professor of entomology wildlife ecology at University of Delaware.  He has written three books about environmentalism, two of which are New York Times Best Sellers.

Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 875 1425 6235

Taking a Breather!

Hi all! As of today, 7/20/2021, Prairie Oaks will be going offline for some much needed rest & recovery! We have been working very hard and have been fortunate to work with some incredible, insightful, curious, and hard-working folks from our community and beyond. Stay tuned for when we open our doors back up. We look forward to reconnecting in the future with new projects, people, and opportunities!

Prairie Burn

Early March we were blessed to have the perfect weather for a safe prairie burn. We had over a dozen friends and volunteers on hand to enjoy a beautiful experience honoring the transition from winter to spring.

Controlled burn in the oak savanna
Lighting the back fire to create a fire break
Fincher Fire Brigade

Shop Renovations

Some big changes have taken place over the past year at Prairie Oaks, thanks to the dedicated and persistent hard work of many neighbors, friends, volunteers, and workers. This includes some major renovations to the shop: the installation of new lighting and insulation in all of the walls and ceiling, the construction of an attached greenhouse, and the organization of areas for woodworking, vegetable processing, and machinery repair.


The Greenhouse
Greenhouse planning and construction began in late 2017 and finished in the spring of 2019. The greenhouse is 14ft x 11ft (156 square ft) with built-in cedar planting boxes. The greenhouse was also installed with a Ground to Air Heat Transfer system (GAHT)With a GAHT system, the ground under the greenhouse is used as a battery to store heat sequestered from passive solar heat and thermal mass of the soil. 


When the temperature inside the greenhouse reaches 80 degrees, a small fan kicks in to force hot air from the higher points of the greenhouse into plastic pipes that are coiled and buried 6 feet under the ground. If the temperatures exceed 90 degrees, an exhaust fan kicks in. These processes are controlled by thermostats. When temperatures drop below 60 degrees, the GAHT process is reversed by recalling the stored heat from underground. We also have a very small heater connected to a thermostat that kicks in if the temperatures fall below 55 degrees. While the temperature regulations are not fully perfected, we continue to experiment with this new system.  


Tree Update: Spring 2019

IMG_6985.JPGAsh Removal
The Emerald Ash Borer has devastated many of our 600 ash trees, requiring us to fell many over the past year. The EAB is an invasive, wood-boring insect that specifically targets ash trees (Fraxinus spp.). The EAB is projected to kill nearly 100% of the 8.7 billion extant ash trees in North America. For more information on the EAB, visit the Iowa DNR page or the Emerald Ash Borer Information Network.

Although the EAB will continue wiping out ash trees, we we will do what we can to minimize the impact of the EAB on the rest of the ecosystem. The open spaces in the canopy will allow sunlight to reach the young oaks and walnut trees, which will eventually establish a new canopy. We continue to plant diverse tree species to ensure that the wildlife will be supported with ample habitat, shelter, and food.

img_6981.jpgContinued Tree Planting
This spring we have potted and planted 250 trees and shrubs, including hazelnut, high bush cranberry, hibiscus, arborvitae, redosier dogwood, white oak, shingle oak, red oak, paw paw, rose mallow, serviceberry, and pecan.


Tree Update: Late Spring 2017

Got inspired late to plant over eighty hardwood trees this spring.  This years focus was to add more bur and red oaks to the Savana.  To introduce more fall color and interest to the nursery, three species of maples (Red Sunset, Northwood and Autumn Blaze) were plated on the hill west of the brown barn.  Tulip Tree, Canada Red Choke Cherry and Crabapples were interspersed among the nine maples.   To catch the rain water from this hill and the one on the north a small pond below the planting is being constructed by David.   Sidra and Hilario helped plant the trees in the holes dug by David’s large two foot auger.  Our record was 30 trees in one day.