The Prairie Restoration

Followers of this blog understand that some of the energy behind our gardens is coming from a base source: guilt. You see we are urban sprawl. We purchased a spec home 2 years ago after failing to find a farmette that even remotely fit both our budget and our needs, and stand by that decision. On the up side our new home is relatively energy efficient and we ensured we got one with a south exposure for at least minor passive heating, but on the downside we live on an interstate in a subdivision. So last year we began a quest to see how far we can take Green Living while living in suburbia-or to take a line from Dan Chiras-can we make Suburbia into Superbia? And does the fact that in Latin superbia means hubris concern me at all? The answer to both is a resounding yes!

My quest to heal this land-hopefully to a point beyond even the farmer was able to attain-led me to a great book (Gaia’s Garden) and then on to Permaculture from there. The basic plan for our home will be to limit inputs (energy for the home, water and fertilizer for the gardens, purchased food for us) while maximising our comfort (healthy mental and physical environment for the family), the livability of the site ( i.e. reducing interstate noise), and increasing it’s biodiversity.

On the biodiversity front the biggest initiative was our 12’x60′ prairie restoration along the DOT fence, My goal was to swap the all but monoculture grass mix the DOT used (it had spread thru the fence) for a diverse prairie culture that would be tweaked to provide excess nitrogen for the 25 Thuja tree wind/sight break to shield us from both the north winds and I-90. With some educated ecological design I am attempting to foster a succession planting from monoculture to prairie to ‘forest’ in under 10 years. What was that about hubris again?
Here is a shot after my first days digging and desodding in June.

So enough background and time for the progress report. The Thuja were about 18″ tall when I put then put them in and have put on 2″ or so the first summer. Hopefully they will double in height next year (they should be able to put on 3-5’/yr once established!) now that their roots are developed. Initial prognosis of the prairie planting was not good. Even though I had cut the sod off to a depth of 4-6″ the rhizomes from the nasty DOT grass were prevalent enough that within the first month they had sprouted several shoots per sq foot and were threatening to reclaim the project before the slow growing perennials could get established. I compounded this by watering the prairie seeds heavily the first few weeks-the prairie seeds didn’t need the water, but the rhizome bits loved it. First learning! So I went in and hacked down the prairie growth to about 4″ with a sickle to even the odds. Then in late July the darn DOT grass sent up thousands of seed stalks-not good! By now the prairie plants had sprouted well and were about 6-8″ tall and I couldn’t just go cutting again, so I basically hand weeded the stalks. Payback? We have hundreds of blooms, and its only the first year! The black eyed susans and cup plants are short, but blooming and it looks like some of the clovers and perhaps the quinine will bloom as well. Given the thickness of the wildflowers, and the amount of native grasses that I see sprouted but only 4″ tall I am confident that next summer they will be able to complete and win against the invasive DOT rhizomes.

Given the vigor of the Big Blue Stem grass, Cupplant, and Indigo I have seen in the other smaller prairie plantings my new biggest concern is that next summer when the prairie gets into its own it will be 2-3′ taller than the 36″ tall Thuja…ox-eye sunflower, cupplant and bluestem can easily hit 6′ once established. The prairie was designed to be a nursery crop, shielding the tree seedlings until they can thrive, but the prairie is about a year ahead of where I thought it would be on growth, threatening to shade out the trees next year. What a great problem to have! Most likely I will either mulch larger circles around the mini trees, or just cut down swaths around the trees that I am worried about to let in some light.

From a biodiversity standpoint, the first year of my prairie didn’t see a return of the buffalo to central WI, but we did make some gains at least compared to a typical suburban yard. First of all we got some snakes-well at least one 3′ garter snake now includes our prairie in its territory. The other gains are on a more entomological level, primarily in spiders. LOTS of spiders. On one particularly foggy August morning I went out to find literally hundreds of dew laden webs strung between the prairie plants. Watching the spiders drink from the dew as they cleaned their webs was a treat I would not otherwise have had. Hopefully next year will bring more of the cute and cuddly biodiversity in the form of increased avian visits and perhaps some small mammals searching for the much more nutritious wildflower seeds. I would also love to see the prairie expand itself to begin to reclaim the DOT grass on the other side of the fence!

Here’s to hubris!

3 Responses

  1. “The first year of my prairie didn’t see a return of the buffalo to central WI.” Well, there’s always next year. Heh.

    So cool, Beo! Huzzah for hubris, if this is the result.

  2. Cute and cuddly would be nice, but regardless, the prairie is really neat to have back there. It naturalizes that portion of the backyard without encroaching on the recreational space or the general feel of the whole backyard area.

  3. I had a similar problem with plants threatening to take over the trees I planted (though mine wasn’t prairie so much as weeds). I did finally put down some newspaper and mulch around them. We’ll see how that goes. I’m thinking of buying a batch of trees next spring from the Ohio DNR. They sell tiny little 6-12 inch saplings of all kinds of trees for like $0.50 apiece. I think you have to buy them in batches of 25 though. Instant baby woodlot!

    Anyway, you two are my heroes. You’re doing so many awesome things…

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