Related Stewardship Plans: Bee Prairie, Degraded Grassland, Far Pond Slope

Even though most of Iowa was covered in Tallgrass Prairie, today it is a rather rare ecosystem. Less than a tenth of a percent of Iowa’s Prairies remain, and development and agriculture continue to threaten what little is left. Prairies are dominated by grasses and forbs (flowers), with few to no trees present. Prairies are as diverse as rain forests, and reconstructive efforts struggle to even scratch the surface of what levels of diversity are possible. For this reason, all projects involving the creation of Prairies will focus on establishing the most ecologically-productive genera first. After a Prairie is established, our efforts can focus on enhancing the diversity, but getting the “keystone” species into the ecosystem is critical for helping as many animals (including insects!) as possible.

Keystone Forb Genera for Our Region (NWF)

Solidago (Goldenrods), Symphyotrichum (Asters), Helianthus (Sunflowers), Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susans), CoreopsisEchinacea (Coneflowers), Oenothera (Evening Primroses), Heliopsis (False Sunflowers), Silphium (Rosinweeds), Vernonia (Ironweeds), Ratibida (Prairie Coneflowers)

Prominent Native Grasses

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis)

History of Prairie Oaks’ Prairie

Two basic thoughts gave rise to the planting of the native prairie, which began in 2000 on the West and East facing slopes behind our home.  First, mowing the slopes was dangerous. Second (and more importantly), we have always been in awe of prairie plants.

Prairie plants have been a part of Iowa’s landscape since the time of the great glacier movement some 9000 years ago.  These resilient plants adapted to many harsh environmental changes. It is estimated that 70-85% of Iowa was prairie–mostly tallgrass prairie–an ecology that thrived up until 150 ago when it was plowed up and for agricultural farming. In fact, it was the prairie that created the rich, fertile soil of Iowa. The root system of these amazing plants can be 2x as deep as the height of the aerial parts. Some prairie plants can reach 12’ above ground…meaning the roots can reach 24′ deep!

In the early spring of 2000, Joyce ordered 88 plugs of native prairie flowers and grasses (13 varieties of flowers and 5 varieties of grasses) from the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation.  Preparing the initial small plot was an experiment. We did not want to use an herbicide to kill back the pasture grasses growing there. Instead, Joyce chose to mow the area very short and shallowly till. The turf was removed from the plot, the soil was tapped down firmly, then covered with a thick black landscape cloth.  The black color of the cloth absorbs solar heat, effectively preventing any undergrowth.  Once the plugs arrived, small cross-hatch slits were cut into the landscape cloth in a diamond pattern and each plug was hand planted.  The landscape cloth stayed in place the entire season, but was removed the following spring when the area was burned. 

Each year for the next four years, Joyce hand planted the prairie in this manner, adding a section to the original plot until the area became about 1/8 of the present day size.  Joyce recorded that by 2004, a total of 814 native prairie plants (27 varieties of flowers and 8 varieties of grasses) had been planted.  By 2004, two spring burns had been conducted, one in 2001 and the second in 2002. No herbicides had been used up to that point. 

In 2005, the remaining West facing slope on the South end and the entire East facing slope was planted with the help of Peter Schramm Prairie Restoration from Galesburg, Illinois using his drill planter and seeds he had collected from native prairies. 

The prairie now has 50 varieties of native prairie flowers and 8 varieties of grasses in a 60:40 ratio (approximately). We burn the prairie as needed every three years and hand cut trees that take root such as mulberry, dogwood, sumac, and grapevines. Still, the most well established and beautiful part of the prairie is that first plot Joyce hand-planted in 2000!  Some prairie plants are now spreading into the woodland edges and open areas on their own. 

In 2016, we were surprised to notice another prairie plant arise in the front pasture.  Having been around the prairie plants for some time, Joyce noticed an unfamiliar plant sprouting in the front yard and protected it from being mowed down. With the help of Moselle, the plant was identified as a native cup plant  (Silphium perfoliatum). It grew 12’ tall!  For years it must have been waiting to grow.