Green Iowa AmeriCorps
Growing a Backyard Prairie - Part 2
Before all other questions, I asked myself if it was even worth trying to plant such a small prairie. I want to emphasize that the answer to that question is YES. The average person cannot always do things on a large scale; I am a firm believer that lots of people doing what they can on a smaller scale does actually make a difference. This is how I convince myself to vote every election.
The next question was where to plant my prairie? Probably in my backyard and somewhere I could fence in easily enough to keep my dogs out. Yes, my dogs might help work the seeds into the ground but they could work them in too far, they aren’t migrating buffalo. Prairie seeds do not have to be buried deep into the soil. If you are planting prairie seeds in the winter, which is the best time, you don’t have to bury the seeds at all. I know what you’re saying; you want us to “plant” seeds in the winter and not bury them? Exactly. I worked my first seasonal job with Cedar Rapids’ parks department from April to November and the parks have quite a few native prairies scattered through them. I asked my boss when and how I should plant my prairie. He told me in the winter and just throw the seeds on the ground. The repetitive cycle of frosting and thawing actually works the seeds into the soil. I am hopeful that this is something I can't even mess up.
How do you know if your backyard can support a prairie?
Usually when planting perennials in your yard, you want to know what kind particles your soil is made up of. I know, most of you right now are saying that your soil is made up of dirt. Dirt is what you find in random parts of your house when you’re cleaning or what Christina Aguilara sang about. Soil is a lot more complicated than that but we're only going to dive into this a little bit, but I will put links for more those of you who are interested in soil. The three main particles that make up soil are clay, sand and silt and make up the soil’s texture. Are these important? You bet your Aunt Fanny. What kind of particles in a soil determine the amount of pore space. Pore space determines the amount of movement of air, water and nutrients in said soil. Most plants grow best in loam soils, which is a soil that has a good balance of sand, silt and clay. Loam soils are desirable because they allow water drainage(large pores) while also retaining moisture and nutrients(small/medium pores). Here’s a link that goes into more depth about all things soil; Soil Basics | Soil Science Society of America .
When I did my first prairie burn (if ya don’t know what this is, I’ll explain later) I was surprised to find very sandy soil. There ARE certain plants that grow in every kind of soil, I just didn’t expect these tall grasses and wildflowers to grow so well in sandy soil. In fact, native Iowan tallgrass prairies will grow in most Iowan soils, and some species are specially adapted to those less desirable soils. The healthier the soil, the better the prairie will grow but the seeds will most likely grow anywhere and make that soil healthier.
Long story long, you don’t have to worry about what kind of soil you have in your yard. I want to reiterate that I am not talking about restoring acres and acres of prairie, I am talking about a small portion of the yard (600 square feet-ish is the size I set aside for my prairie). This is important because restoring bigger plots are more calculated and take a lot more planning and precision.
Can your yard support a prairie? If you have soil in your yard, you can grow a prairie.
Your yard has soil, congratulations!! On to the next step.
Yay for soil, you're already a quarter of the way there. Next to do is pick the location. Figure out where in your yard you would like to grow a prairie. Just like with a healthier soil, prairie grasses will grow best in full sun. Can they grow in partial sun? Absolutely. Prairies can adapt to various moisture and soil conditions. I chose to plant mine in the corner of my backyard to make it easier to put up a fence and keep my dogs out. My fenced-in yard has a fenced in yard. Now that you picked a spot, you’ll need to kill off the current vegetation that is growing there. I do not advocate the use of weed killer so I would suggest using cardboard to smother the grass/vegetation. The instructions here are for people who would like to go above and beyond when preparing for a prairie. You do you, Buzz Lightyear.
Since it could take 6-8 weeks for the cardboard to smother the grass, make sure you are laying down your cardboard a few months before winter. I didn’t lay cardboard down in the backyard soon enough but because it had been a dry fall, the grass was mostly dead. When I do use cardboard I just open it up so it’s flat, lay it down and put some bricks on top, I do not go above and beyond like the link above. When the vegetation below the cardboard has died, it's time to remove the cardboard (please recycle). However you do it, you want the least amount of vegetation growing as possible, this will allow for most of the resources in the soil to go towards the prairie seeds/plants. It will also make it easier when it comes to doing maintenance on your prairie. Since I didn’t get rid of all the grass in my area, I will be hand weeding come spring, so I only have myself to blame. Invasive species and weeds can invade any size prairie so removing all current vegetation will help keep them at bay. On LARGER areas of prairie, it is common to conduct prairie burns, which are well orchestrated burns necessary to eradicate invasive species and saplings. Most of the biomass is below the surface of the soil so they grow back while the invasives and tree saplings do not. No matter how cool you think fire is, please do not set fire to your backyard prairie, your local fire department will thank you.
Are you ready for seeds?
An amateur's guide to finding seeds is knowing where to look. Here is where you look: Iowa Prairie Seed and Service Providers | Tallgrass Prairie Center
Iowa is divided up into three eco-zones and it’s important to buy seeds in your zone so you know those seeds are adapted to growing in your area. It’s also good to support local businesses that are helping to bring back native prairies. I ordered my seeds from Hoksey Native Seeds in early November, right before they were to be mailed out. You can order seeds earlier but they probably won’t arrive until after they harvest in the fall.
Check out the Tallgrass Prairie Center's seed calculator to help you decide which prairie seed is right for you and your yard. I chose tallgrass prairie seeds with wildflowers for my backyard, short-savana grass for my front yard and I might get a shortgrass pollinator mix to throw in both mixes. Hoksey Native Seeds also have tall backyard pollinator mix, short backyard prairie and tall grassland savana prairie. It’s totally up to you which mix you choose. I might have one of each before I know it. You definitely want to use the list above when seed shopping, this will help guarantee you are purchasing high caliber seeds from knowledgeable vendors.
Hoksey Native Seeds has a blog and a podcast that you can check out here -> the prairie farm.
Finally, it’s time to plant your prairie.
I was so excited to receive my seeds in the mail. Honestly, planting them was a little anticlimactic. I planted mine in early November and I probably could have waited till it got a little colder. I'm letting mother nature do its thing so I am sure they’ll work their way into the soil one way or another. If you prefer, one can use a seed spreader but the seeds are different sizes and bigger ones might get caught in the spreader. For a prairie this size, hand seeding is the way to go. If you want to ensure that your seeds get dispersed evenly, divide your yard into quarters or halves and do the same for your seeds. Then just spread the seeds according to how you divided them. I didn’t divide mine up, I just tried to visually make sure I spread them as evenly as I could. Fingers-crossed.
Now, we wait. Patience is a virtue that I have yet to acquire but now I have no choice. At least I have these blogs to keep me busy. Lucky you ;)
How to start a backyard prairie - Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (inhf.org)
PLANT IOWA NATIVE | Tallgrass Prairie Center
A Complex Prairie Ecosystem - Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
Mϋller, Mark. (2012). The world beneath your feet: a closer look at soil and roots. Department of Transportation.
About the Author
As sarcastic as she is adorable, Rachel always enjoys a good laugh. After spending 21 years working at Wal-Mart, she decided it was better late than never to go back to school. She joined AmeriCorps to gain experience and to help pay for her education. She is currently taking classes at Kirkwood with plans to study Environmental Science at the University of Northern Iowa. She lives with her wife, Amy, in Cedar Rapids. They have 3 dogs, Beto, Chimi, Bambi and one foster dog, Oscar.