Seeing Past the Ugliness

I’ve spent much of my career restoring prairie, and I gain immense satisfaction from watching bare ground turn into beautiful prairie.  Following the lead of Bill Whitney and Prairie Plains Resource Institute, we have tried to harvest seed from as many plant species as we can for those prairie restoration projects, often collecting from more than two hundred species.  As a result, most of our restored areas are full of color and beauty throughout the growing season.  It’s a pleasure to walk through those areas, photograph them, and take visitors out to see them.

Our restored prairies can be very beautiful.

Our restored prairies can be very beautiful.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

However, not every square foot of our restorations is lush and beautiful.  In fact, some areas are pretty ugly; dominated by weedy species and abundant bare ground.  Those are the areas I don’t usually take visitors to see, and when I walk or drive through our sites, I tend to either avert my eyes or just avoid traveling past them in the first place.

It’s actually not my fault those areas are ugly.  I tried to make them beautiful…  I seeded them with dozens of showy wildflower species, but none of them took.  I re-seeded many of them, but nothing changed.  The alluvial soils beneath our lowland prairies were deposited by old river channels meandering across a broad floodplain, carrying and dropping many layers of sediment.  As a result, our sandy loam soil consists largely of a thin layer of sandy topsoil (4-8” or so) over sand and gravel.  In places, that topsoil may be a little thicker, but in other places, it’s non-existent.  That’s especially true in former cropfields that were scraped flat to aid irrigation, but even in unplowed prairies, there are strips of coarse sand with little or no organic matter – and that’s where my ugly patches are.

weedy patch

This little ugly patch is part of a restoration in its twelfth year of establishment, but it is still dominated by annuals, including annual brome, black medick, and annual sunflower (among others).  This patch is maybe an acre in size. Most of the rest of the planting looks very nice, though there are other ugly patches scattered throughout.

There are few plant species that can grow in almost pure coarse sand.  During periods of relatively consistent rainfall, seeds can germinate and plants can grow, but when the rain stops, most of those plants wither and die once the last of the soil moisture is used up or drains away.  Plants in these sites tend to grow and bloom during the spring, which is typically our wettest season, and then die or go dormant during the hot summer when rainfall is more sporadic. Our ugly patches are largely dominated by species such as daisy fleabane, annual sunflowers, annual bromes, buffalo bur, black medick, sweet clover, mullein, and “rougher” grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass or tall dropseed. While some of them are exotic species, most of those are either innocuous or already common throughout our sites, so it’s not like the ugly patches are breeding evil invaders.  They’re just ugly.

Ok, hold on a minute…

Ecologically, of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with these areas.  The plants in those coarse sandy soils are exactly the ones that should be there, given the options available.  Just because they are not species often considered to be attractive, or even desirable from some people’s aesthetic viewpoints, they are still the right plants for the job.  Not all are native, but none are problematic in those little patches where very little else can grow anyway.

Hoary vervain (purple) helps trace the outline of this ugly patch, which is also filled with species such as sweet clover, tall dropseed, and Kentucky bluegrass.

Hoary vervain (purple) helps trace the outline of this ugly patch, which is also filled with species such as sweet clover, tall dropseed, and Kentucky bluegrass.

The primary objective for our restoration work is not to create pretty flower gardens; it is to create new prairie habitat that expands and reconnects formerly small and isolated prairies in a fragmented landscape.  To be successful, those restored areas need to be floristically diverse enough to provide for communities of pollinators, herbivores, and other organisms that rely on that kind of diversity.  They must also provide habitat that allows the plants and animals in adjacent prairie fragments to expand their range into, and through, our restored areas.  Larger and more connected habitats facilitate larger and more connected populations of prairie species, making those populations more viable.  We don’t want to precisely replicate the habitat in nearby prairie fragments, we just want our restored habitats to be useable by the species living in those fragments.  In fact, we hope our restored areas provide some complementary conditions – valuable habitat types that might not exist in the prairie fragments.

According to those criteria, our “ugly” patches are perfectly fine.  In fact, they add value to our restored prairies.  A prairie planting that is relatively uniform in plant composition and structure throughout would be much less useful in terms of habitat diversity.  The bare ground in the sparsely-vegetated “ugly” patches provide great places for invertebrates and reptiles to sun themselves.  They are also excellent brood-rearing habitat for quail, prairie chickens, upland sandpipers and pheasants, whose chicks can’t move through dense vegetation but still need overhead cover from predators.  Pollinators probably find our “ugly” patches quite beautiful when they are filled with resource-laden annual sunflower or hoary vervain blossoms, and even less popular species such as daisy fleabane offer food value for at least some insects.

fleabane a

While daisy fleabane is not usually found on lists of species to plant for pollinators, it does provide food for many insects.

Intellectually, I know these rough-looking areas aren’t truly ugly, and I am glad to have them, but my mind doesn’t always think intellectually.  As the person who collected and planted many of the seeds for our restored prairies, I sometimes catch myself thinking of them almost as gardens, or even works of art.  (I imagine architects rarely take visitors to the furnace rooms or utility access areas of the buildings they design, though they certainly appreciate their value.)

Putting ourselves in the role of artist or gardener is a trap many of us can fall into, but it’s a dangerous trap indeed.  The greatest risk is that aesthetics start to guide the way we design and manage restored sites.  We could, for example, devise seed harvest strategies that emphasize greater collection of seeds from big showy plants and minimize harvest of plants with less aesthetic value.  Even worse, its tempting to avoid defoliating prairies during the peak flowering period of our favorite flowers, even though we know periodic mowing or grazing has no long term impact on their populations.  It can also be tempting to spend time removing plants we think are unattractive or undesirable, even though they don’t actually cause any harm (e.g., exotic plants that aren’t truly invasive).  Since I’ve never met a land manager who feels he/she has enough time or resources to deal with the invasive species they have, wasting effort on the removal of non-invasive species is just silly.

Here in the Platte River Prairies, we’ve been very careful to set and follow clear ecological objectives for the restoration and management of all of our sites.  We consider habitat diversity and availability rather than blooming periods of attractive plants as we devise annual management plans, and we harvest seed from every plant species we think can play an important role in our restored prairies (excepting those species we know will colonize on their own).  However, I still find myself tempted to chop down any “ugly” plants I come across while I’m out on musk thistle patrol.  I was also appalled to find that I had almost no photographs of the “uglier” patches among our restorations when I started working on this post (but lots of photos of “pretty” patches).   Clearly, I’m not immune to the gardener/artist mentality – I just resist it the best I can.

P.S. We also have other scattered “ugly” patches in our prairies caused by factors such as high soil nitrogen or grazing/loafing patterns of cattle.  While I don’t often photograph them either, they are just as valuable as the ones featured in this post – they add to the heterogeneity of our prairies.  Next time you stop by, remind me and I’ll show them to you.  That’ll be fun…  


25 thoughts on “Seeing Past the Ugliness

  1. Chris:
    Again, thank you for this “gift” in my inbox.
    (And again, my grandfather built the old place on Turkey Creek at the Niobrara confluence across from TNC Niobara Preserve…best times of my childhood there).
    You might be surprised how many people want the botanical names of the plants you feature. I do! Your readers probably are comprised of a large portion of both amateur and professional “naturalists”. I’m a Certified Arborist and Certified Nursery Professional, and I credit my formative years in the botanical diversity of Keya Paha county for my passionate need-to-know.
    Linda Jarsky (Harry Bates’ granddaughter)
    Boise, ID

    • Thanks Linda – yes, you’re right – I should list the latin names of plants more often. sometimes I’m just lazy about it. Other times (as in this case) adding the latin names seems like it would extend the length of paragraphs and make them less readable. Also, in this case, the particular species names weren’t necessarily important to make the point I was trying to make. Nevertheless… point taken.

  2. Thanks again for getting the gears moving.

    The question that seems to follow is this: How much variance can exist in ‘primary objectives’ while still falling under the ‘restoration’ umbrella? While I think you have the objective pretty nailed down for “pure” ecological restoration work (best handled by NGO’s with mission-driven objectives?), I’m thinking of other players in land management with objectives that are influenced by but not 100% driven by ecosystem-level management for non-human purposes. Namely: urban forest districts, state game managers, and even consultants/developers/regulators.

    For example, a restoration company building a wetland mitigation site may select a less diverse seed mix because 200+ hand-collected species would be uneconomical at a given scale; they may also select species with quick vegetative growth to meet short-term (1-5 yr) performance standards demanded by regulators. Likewise, urban parks, even when expressly managed as “natural” habitat, get enormous political pressure from the thousands of eyeballs that are always watching the site (massive clear cutting around Chicago to restore prairie, etc).

    That said, I suppose it’s a balancing act between not being ecologically-dogmatic (considering how fast the field changes), while still holding to certain values and considerations. Each agency/NGO/company has various incentives and competing interests.

    • Hey Adam – good to hear from you again. You’re absolutely right that there are lots of appropriate objectives for restoration projects, and that not all of them require super diverse seed mixtures to be successful – and that aesthetics are more important in some cases than others. At the same time, the “pure” restoration is not restricted only to a few NGOs. There are some very diverse restoration projects on private lands in Nebraska that are being paid for with cost share funds by a mixture of federal, state, and private organizations. Also, I’d love to see state and federal agency restoration programs become increasingly proactive and strategic about where funds are spent to do high quality restorations – focusing on reconnecting important areas (by going to those landowners with proposals) rather than just taking applications from whomever applies.

      More to your point, though, objectives should be set based on the situation. I think the larger point, however, that it’s dangerous to evaluate restoration success purely by aesthetics still holds. …Unless aesthetics is the primary stated objective (and it’s fine if it is). When neighbors and others are evaluating with aesthetics, restoration professionals can take opportunities to educate/remind people about other ways to judge success rather than just bowing to pressure, though some degree of compromise is often the best strategy…

      It’s definitely complicated. Thanks for the comment.

      • Thanks Chris. I think of this all the time in the context of the oak savanna remnants, our historic, natural, native communities … that were managed to a large degree by pre-industrial humans for what we presume to be utilitarian purposes. One wonders, with the level of free time some hunter-gatherer societies apparently had to devote to various artistic endeavors, whether they intentionally practiced any landscape-scale artwork.

  3. Chris

    I guess that I don’t think of these places you call “ugly” as such because I am aware of the benefit to the wild things that live there. I am always on the look out for the kind of critters that would call them home and appreciate the quality’s they possess for just that reason. Like looking at things from the bigger picture perspective.
    Over the years my gardens at home have taken on more of a prairie look and the “ugly” areas are the most productive habitat for wild life. (I always blame your influence on me when the neighbors complain!):^)
    It is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps you should be handing out some of those bee goggles of yours when you take people out!


  4. I have found partridge pea to be one of the most drought resistant of native annuals. Also very beautiful blooms through mid season and a great source of pollen for bees. Have you tried it in any of these problem areas?

  5. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I am challenged to remember that about 70% of our native bee species are ground nesters and need some bare ground for nesting– a good reminder that not every square inch needs to be filled with plants!

  6. I think Karen’s point that she sees these more barren areas as attractive because of what she knows is there is key. She sees it as attractive because of what’s she is looking for in it. The old “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What people see is entirely informed by their vales and criteria. I think it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of people who don’t grow up in regions with historic or existing prairie aren’t that impressed with it when they see it, even the “real nice parts” that you show in these wonderful photos. A lot of the outdoors-minded people I went to school with in Southern Minnesota were into outdoor sports: skiing, rock climbing, mountaineering, sailing, canoeing, mountain biking, and such. Most of these people were split between the mountains or the ocean being the most gorgeous place on earth. Most of them initially listed our school’s location as a huge minus. After 4 years of exposure a lot of people I know, myself included, had fallen in love with the area.

    I just share that because it’s good to remember that our preference for one landscape or another, and one plant community or another, is informed by many things. It seems reasonable a botanist, a horticulturist, or a gardener would be drawn to more floristically showy and textured areas. But can anyone who has spent time in different natural landscapes say they have ever come upon a natural area in our world that didn’t have some kind of beauty? Even if you weren’t ready to pack up and move there? Overall, those different areas are what gives the world and it’s individual regions such beauty. Just as I wouldn’t want the rich fields where you have 200+ species to be monocultures, I wouldn’t want an entire prairie to be a monoculture of plant cummunity type either. I’m sure there is much of interest to be found in those “barren” areas.

    I’ll quit rambling after I point out one more thing. I think this challenge of perspective is one of the biggest challenge to the preservation of natural areas. How do we win support to protect ecologically important areas when there is no mountain peak, surf break, or fantastic publically-admired animal to put on the poster. Just like those kids I went to school with (and myself) it’s a matter of slowly providing new perspectives.

  7. When I look at your “ugly” areas I still do not believe you are satisfied with them. I do not think your lack of satisfaction has as much to do with aesthetics as you claim. I think you know these areas could be higher quality habitats, but you are disappointed in the outcome.

    The difference between native gardening and restoration seems to be the level of intervention that occurs. I am sure more could be done to improve these areas, but is the benefit worth the effort. Looking at the species present makes me think these areas have a high pH and compacted soil. Soil compaction can make ecosystem recovery almost impossible. You could try to break up any hard-pan present and give the recovery a head start by transplanting plants and soil from donor areas. According to “The Vascular Plants of Iowa” some of the rarest plants in the state prefer such alluvial sandy habitat.

    • I am satisfied. There is no compaction issue in the soils they’re growing in coarse sand doesn’t compact well. I like the habitat provided and am satisfied with the plant species present.

      • I must admit some disappointment. I can understand accepting that not enough resources are available to heal the damage that has been done. However, I just can’t see Chris Helzer being satisfied with areas in his prairie restoration being composed of species that are characteristic of over grazed pasture.

        Sandy soil can have compaction issues. Concrete is a good example. It is mainly composed of sand and gravel, but does not hold much water. In my area we have a lot of natural concrete. It is a type of tufa. The layer of silt over the sand could also be causing a compaction issue.

  8. Are the “ugly” areas due to conditions not capable of supporting plants at all or only supporting weedy species? Or are they due to missing species? Given the fact of habitat destruction and fragmentation, are there species that may have once grown in those conditions but that have been lost? Where I live, forest is overwhelmingly the dominant vegetation type. But there still exist small fragments of prairies supporting Indiangrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, and switchgrass in more droughty habitats. Because of their small size, if these are lost by disturbance, there will no longer be significant seed sources to re-establish them in other areas that may open up due to fire or other disturbance. Then they too may become “ugly” areas.

    Are there species from other plant communities that may have once existed in the “ugly” conditions that have been lost?

    • Brian, good questions. I can’t say for sure that there aren’t other species that could exist in the “ugly” areas but aren’t around in the landscape anymore, but I doubt it. The most likely species for that role would be opportunistic species, which tend to be fairly widespread and mobile and/or with the ability to create and grow well from the seed bank. Also, there are similar habitats in nearby remnant prairies; old river channel scars in which organic matter was scoured away, leaving only the inorganic sand/gravels. The plant species in those habitats are the same as what I see in our restored prairies.

  9. Pingback: Bringing nature back home: some food for thought and helpful resources | Natural Areas Notebook

  10. Chris- Thought about your blog last night as my wife and I watched PBS/NG- Earth a New Wild. The numerous examples from around the world showing how intence short term grazing by domestic and wild critters maintain open evironments, often all held togehter by top predators keeping the herds together and moving. Today the rancher on his horse was the predator in Montana. Thinking of history and the bison- makes so much sence.

  11. Chris, thank you for this post. We just converted 70 acres of CRP to native prairie last year in Southern Iowa. I understand patience and hard work are needed traits when establishing a prairie. Then, of course, there’s maintaining it after established. I will remember to value the ‘ugly and empty’ as well. This has also given me the idea to look at the various soil types and understand what can and can’t grow there.


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