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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.