PLANTING PRAIRIE IN A DECEMBER FOG

 

Saturday we joined a group of about 20 people to help our friends, Jim and Marci Hess, who live near Blanchardville, WI, seed 12 acres of brand new prairie.IMG_5161-(5)

We all drove the winding roads to their place through the deep fog that has been shrouding the Driftless Area for over a week.  With visibility so low, it was a good day to stay home, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to help turn a corn field back to native prairie.

Jim and Marci had everything ready.  They had gathered most of the seed from within 50 miles of their land.  “We have been gathering and planting prairie seed long enough that we had an idea what would be in bloom when,” says Marci.  “We found so many cool little roadside remnants.  We found some really good seeds we hadn’t seen before. “

They gathered almost all the seed this year to make sure the seeds will germinate well.  Some seeds they had saved in their basement, stored under 50 degrees.  Jim told us that the seed we were about to spread would have a commercial value of about $25,000.

You can check out more about their projects here.  Marci will be posting about this planting soon.

Marci processes seed.

Marci records seed.

Marci estimated there were about 150 different kinds of prairie plants represented in the seed mix.  To make it easier to spread, they mixed the seeds with sawdust.

Jim divides seed for each of 21 areas.

Jim divides seed for each of 21 areas.

Jim had the field subdivided into 21 sections marked with posts and flags.  He gave us all maps, and we each took an area.  I chose Area 15, which had an interesting shape. IMG_5166

Jim had measured out the right amount of seed for each section and placed a bag in the middle with a bucket and the number of buckets we could expect to pour out of the bag written on it.IMG_5162

We spread out to our assigned plots.  It was so foggy that you could only see your closest neighbors.

I poured a bucket full.  Before I began I held a handful close to my eye and wished I had brought my 10X magnifying lens.

There were so many different kinds of seeds.  Some big, and some really tiny.  Each a slightly different shape.  They have come to a good spot to grow.

A handfull of prairie

A handfull of prairie

I tossed my first handful high into the air and let the wind take it where it would.  Then I began to walk slowly, tossing handfuls of seed as evenly as possible, changing my technique according the variable wind.  We’ve been having a heat wave with temperatures in the 40s and even 50s, and the ground was soft and damp.  Ideal for seed –soil contact, which makes for good germination.

The embryo prairie is being planted into the burnt stalks of a harvested corn field.  Marci said the depleted soil of the overworked ag field was good to start a prairie in.  If the soil is too rich, weeds can out-compete the young prairie plants and take over.

In fact, for the first few years, Jim and Marci expect to be looking at 12 rolling acres of weeds.  The prairie plants will be there, but they put most of their early growth energy into deep roots and have little to show for themselves above ground.DSCF9257

“It will be five to seven years before we’ll see any round-headed clover,” said Marci.  “We’ll still be spotting new prairie plants 10 years from now.  Meanwhile the prairie will turn what is now crap soil into great soil.”

Besides improving the soil, the prairie will provide a home to native invertebrates.  And the insects in turn support grassland birds – one of the most endangered types of animals in our area.

“We’re all about diversity here,” said Marci.  Every year she propagates more prairie plants and buys some bare roots as well as rescuing plants from prairie that is about to be plowed up. This week’s planting will be joining eight acres of thriving prairie they started a few years ago.

That's me.  Try to see other seeders in the fog.

That’s me. Try to see other seeders in the fog.

When I talked to Marci on the phone later, she told me she and Jim were surprised that so many of the people who helped them plant thanked them for the opportunity.  As one of those thankful helpers, it didn’t surprise me.

It was a valuable learning experience spending a peaceful morning working on Jim and Marci’s project.  It was an honor to have a chance to scatter such an amazing mix of seeds gathered from nearby remnants of the vast prairie that once flourished throughout the Midwest protecting the soil and providing a rich and varied habitat for animals small and large.

In the fog, I could almost imagine this new prairie spreading out far beyond our small but hopeful planting.

Have any prairie planting experiences to share?  I’d love to hear about them.

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