The Joy, Angst, Excitement and Dread of Walking Through a Young Restored Prairie

Anyone who has watched a prairie seeding go through its first several years of establishment will appreciate and identify with this post.  For those of you who haven’t, the best analogy I can come up with is that the experience is a little like watching your son or daughter go off into the world on their own.  You can spend tremendous energy planning ahead, preparing a site, and harvesting and planting seed, but at some point, you have to just stand back and let the new prairie stand or fall on its own.  Sure, you can jump in and knock back the weeds a little now and then, but eventual success or failure depends upon many factors beyond your control, and it can be hard to predict the result during the first few years.

In February and March of 2016, we planted about 60 acres of land with a seed mixture of around 140 prairie and wetland plant species.  The site had been cropland for many years, and then was converted to a mixture of native grasses and used as pasture.  Eventually, the site became heavily invaded with tall fescue, smooth brome, and Kentucky bluegrass.  A few years ago, we decided to kill off the existing vegetation and try to establish a much more diverse plant community.  Although it had been farmed, the site still had some remnant wetland swales that had been farmed through and partially filled, but still had some wetland hydrology.  Restoring this 60 acres feeds into our larger restoration objectives of enlarging and reconnecting remnant (unplowed) prairies in the area.

Volunteers hand broadcast wetland seed on frozen wetlands during February 2016.

This “drop spreader” was used to plant the majority of the site.

We used a combination of herbicide application and tillage to get rid of the grasses and prepare a seed bed.  In addition, (under the appropriate permits) we had a contractor with a big scraper come in and deepen/widen the degraded wetland swales.  Using seed we harvested from nearby prairies and wetlands, a couple different groups of volunteers hand-planted the wetland swales and low sandy ridges created by excavation spoil, and we used a broadcast seeder behind a UTV to plant the remainder of the site.  (Thank you to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Natural Legacy Project, and Nebraska Environmental Trust for funding this project.)

During the 2016 growing season, I visited the site very rarely, and didn’t spend much time there when I did.  Early in the season, there wasn’t much germinating and growing except the kinds of “weeds” you’d see in an abandoned crop field (foxtails, pigweeds, ragweeds, annual sunflowers, etc.).  Later in the season, those weedy plants had grown so tall and thick, it was physically difficult to walk through them.

This photo shows the kind of weed cover that grew during the first growing season. Lots of tall ragweed and annual sunflowers were joined by some perennial sunflowers and other plant species we had seeded.  This is pretty typical of what we see during the first year of our restored prairies.

I walked around this site on Monday of this week and tried to capture what I saw with my camera.  As I explored, I experienced a roller coaster of emotions.  Some areas are looking way ahead of schedule, with a nice diversity of prairie and wetland plants coming in, while others don’t look like they’ve even started, or have problematic plants that we might eventually have to deal with.  On the whole, I feel good about the progress of the restoration, though we do have some trees to control, but my overall confidence comes mainly because I’ve been through this process many times.  We’ve had restored prairies look like junk for 4 or 5 years before finally kicking into gear, and others that look like a prairie after two years.  Very rarely have we seen plantings fail.  Regardless, it’s way too early to guess how this planting will turn out.

For what it’s worth, here is what I saw and thought about during my walk around this prairie at the beginning of its second field season.

The first thing I saw as I walked into the new prairie was a pretty good sized patch of 3-4 foot tall cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides).  The parent trees can be seen in the background.  We’ve been getting smarter about removing those kinds of seed  sources before starting projects, but these trees are growing along a public road and we didn’t have the authority to remove them.  We’ll have to evaluate our options for controlling the young cottonwoods in our new prairie.

A skeleton of an annual sunflower from the initial season shows how big some of those pioneering species were last year. Many of the sunflowers were over 12 feet tall.

Biennial wildflowers, like this prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) germinated last year and are blooming this year. Hopefully, this one will start a colony that will help support spring-flying bees and other pollinators in future years.  A pair of crane flies are mating on top of this one.

I was excited to see quite a few sedges blooming in only their second year. We don’t always get quick establishment of sedges from seeds. This one (Carex craweii) was in a patch of maybe 10 plants along the edge of a wetland, and I found at least three other species growing elsewhere in the site.

To balance out the excitement of seeing lots of sedges, I also found quite a few areas where there wasn’t much yet growing from our seed. This big patch of marestail (Conyza canadensis) was representative of maybe 30% of the planting. I think this is a soil issue – in our alluvial soils, prairie plant communities can vary dramatically from place to place, based on the soil deposits beneath them. Restored prairies establish with great variation for the same reasons.

Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), goldenrod (Solidago gigantea), and Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) make up a very nice patch of new prairie plants.

The wetland swales are filling in quickly with wetland plants, including lots of spikerushes, grasses, rushes, and a few forbs and sedges. Much of that vegetation came from our seed, but I think some also came from the seedbank.

We purposefully designed the wetlands to vary in their depth to groundwater so that we’d have some areas of standing water most of the time, but also many other areas that go dry each summer.

Some of the wetland pools had tadpoles in them, likely from the Woodhouse’s toads that have already colonized the area. I also saw leopard frogs hopping around.  In addition, numerous snails, and aquatic insects were moving around in the water, and dragonflies and damselflies were buzzing around above it.

This section of wetland had standing water a few weeks ago, but has now gone dry, leaving great habitat for shorebirds (but also for young cottonwoods).  The vegetation along the margin of this wetland is mostly native colonizing plant species such as fleabane (Erigeron annuus), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and Canada wildrye.

Sweetclover (Melilotus sp) is abundant across much of the new site. Experience shows that sweet clover (though I don’t like it) doesn’t seem to actually affect plant diversity much in our restored prairies, so we’ll just let it go until the site is established well enough to support fire and cattle grazing. At that point, the cattle will keep the sweet clover suppressed because it’s one of their favorite plants to eat.

In addition to areas of strong native plant growth and others dominated still by non-native or “weedy” plants, there were also areas where bare ground was still plentiful. Again, alluvial soils make all of this really interesting because the soils vary greatly from place to place and strongly regulate plant growth.

Last year’s seed pods of Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) show that this native perennial legume established and bloomed in its first year at the site.

Duck and raccoon tracks joined the tracks of many shorebirds along the edges of the restored wetlands. It’s really encouraging to see how quickly wildlife and insect species colonize these sites, even while the plant community is still young.

I’ll probably return to walk through this site numerous times this season because I can’t help myself.  Apart from working on cottonwood trees and a few musk thistles, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll actually do anything else here, so my visits will be mostly out of curiosity rather than to stimulate management.  As with this trip, I’ll see things on future walks that will encourage me and others that will make me wonder if the planting will end up as a disaster, even though I know it’s too soon to know anything.

Within the next few years, we’ll try to burn the new prairie whenever we can, and when the major grasses start to assert their dominance, we’ll begin grazing the site in ways that support a diversity of plants and animals.  Typically, that grazing begins when the site is between 5 and 8 years old.  In the meantime, there’s really nothing to do but wait.  (But I’ll still peek in now and then anyway.)

I was really glad to see coyote tracks along the edge of the site. The presence of these (relatively) large predators will be key to the long-term success of the ecological community in this restored prairie.

For those of you with technical questions about our restoration methods, we didn’t test our seed for viability, but based on previous experience, our seeding rate for this planting was probably about 2-4 lbs PLS/acre, about 2/3 of which was grasses and 1/3 was forbs, sedges, etc.  We typically broadcast our seed into recently harvested soybean fields, so this planting was a little different, but not that different.  We don’t mow weeds during the first season based on trials that have shown no difference in long-term establishment (sandy soils help keep weed densities low enough to still allow sufficient light to hit the ground, despite what it looks like in the 2016 photo in this post).  We don’t cultipack or harrow seeds in either.  We’re fortunate not to have much trouble with aggressive perennial invasive plants in our early plantings, which makes our weed control pretty easy.  Deciduous trees are the main exception to that, especially cottonwoods (as shown above) and Siberian elms (not too bad at this site).  Later, we see invasion by perennial cool-season invasive grasses, but we suppress those with fire and grazing.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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17 Responses to The Joy, Angst, Excitement and Dread of Walking Through a Young Restored Prairie

  1. Polish Hare on the Prairie says:

    Your analogy comparing prairie seedings to children is something I’ve often thought myself. It takes lots of work getting either going but in the end you have to have faith things will work out. And with prairie seedings they usually do. When I revisit seedings the first four or five years after planting its a mini treasure hunt everytime, never knowing what new species will show up where. Just a question on those weedy first year stands, do they receive much winter use from game and/or songbirds? As always, thanks for a great blog!

  2. Chris Helzer says:

    Thanks. Yes, those first year weeds are much used by ring-necked pheasant and northern bobwhite, as well as lots of seed-eating songbirds, both migrant and wintering.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Chris! It’s such a cool feeling to learn that so many different animals (including insects) have a place to forage, hunt, mate, and hide where previously they didn’t.

  4. Mara says:

    My tiny garden of less than a quarter acre can’t be compared to the scale of your projects but I get that same feeling when I plant native seeds. We had an especially warm winter and wild temperature swings in the spring that make me wonder if they’ve been able to stratify. When after a period of time I don’t see any unique looking seedlings I wonder how long I should wait before trying again. Your article is both interesting and comforting and reminds me that patience is probably THE most important quality in landscape restoration.

  5. Joanne says:

    Nature is awesome and so is your project — and your photos too.

  6. Kathryn Kerr says:

    I love you for this. I have some idea of the difficulty of prairie restoration. K

    >

  7. Patrick says:

    I had the same feeling in one day walking my place last weekend. Recorded my first orchid species in the morning and then found (and pulled) my first stand of garlic mustard. Talk about a mood swing!

  8. James McGee says:

    The leaves of your Packera plattensis look very different than what we call Packera (Senecio) plattensis in the Chicago Region.

    I wonder why you till after killing the existing vegetation with herbicide. I would think tillage would just promote the growth of weeds over slower growing but more root competitive prairie species. I would burn off the thatch and seed in fall.

    Chicago area restorations have the same problem with cottonwood and Siberian elm. They mow the cottonwood in winter. This helps keep them suppressed until fuel has built up enough for fire to thin them out. In drier areas a drought will do wonders to control small cottonwood.

    You wrote “…, or have problematic plants that we might eventually have to deal with.” I would suggest getting on top of them before they become much more work.

    I did not pull a few Queen Anne’s lace in a planting because I was told they would be out competed over time. Now the areas where I removed tall goldenrod and field thistle are full of thousands of seedlings per square foot of Queen Anne’s lace which is competing with the seed I sowed. I am sure if I removed the Queen Anne’s lace when I did the control work I would be getting a better result now.

  9. James McGee says:

    I think your Senecio is actually Senecio pauperculus (Balsam Ragwort) which is a perennial. It is hard to tell without seeing the basal leaves.

    The Carex is actually Carex blanda. Carex crawei can be differentiated by its narrower leaves, longer staminate spike, and the lowest most spikelet originating from the lowest most sheath. Carex blanda was probably present before you started restoration and survived the herbicide application because it was shielded by taller plants.

    • James McGee says:

      I was wrong. The Packera (Senecio) can’t be P. pauperculus because the stem appears to have hairs. Your identification of P. plattensis is probably correct. Those pinnatifid looking leaves through me off. The shape of those leaves is probably just due to the fertility from the abundant decomposing vegetation and not a botanical difference.

  10. Matt Garrett says:

    I love watching the frustration on the faces of my young staff after they plant a prairie for the first time. They expect so much the first growing season and every muscle in their face wilts when it doesn’t meet their expectations. In 2017, humans demand immediate feedback and the prairie is the ultimate teacher in patience.

  11. Rex Peterson says:

    Conservation Reserve Plantings do not have as much invested, but your post reminds me of a CRP planting a neighbor did over a decade ago. They had purchased a farm that had been plowed to sand in the hopes of raising organic blue corn. The worst 40 acre patch was planted to the modern western Nebraska mix including switch grass and blue stems. They did not
    germinate. For five years we moved cattle across their carpet of sand burrs and puncture vine and the dog quickly learned to keep to the road. Then one year, the planting germinated and many years later the weeds are mostly crowded out.

  12. Bryan says:

    At times, I feel overwhelmed by my 2 acre restoration (in it’s 4th year). My question is how do you not become overwhelmed by the amount of land you steward? You must feel at times like you have 30 children to rear?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Bryan, I’m not currently a land steward for The Nature Conservancy, I just advise a couple. But I do manage our 110 acre family prairie and I used to manage several thousand acres for the Conservancy. I certainly felt overwhelmed much of the time, but got better at prioritizing, which helped. That said, land management is a constant battle and I don’t know anyone who feels like they have enough time and/or staff capacity to manage the land under their supervision.

    • James McGee says:

      People need to understand that restoration is a long term project. It is best not to focus on how much you have to do. You will be much happier if you set reasonable goals for yourself and think about how much you’ve accomplished. I like to work for two hours in the evening. I can usually hoe, dig, or pull over 600 weeds during one visit. If I am going over areas I’ve already worked I find less and if I am going over areas I have not yet worked then I control more weeds. As the area where you’ve controlled weeds accumulates you will be able to see the big difference your work has made and how there is progressively less and less that needs to be done. I think being able to see this difference over time is what gives stewards satisfaction and keeps them from feeling overwhelmed.

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