Wild or not, it is under your control. Your prairie planting can help you accomplish your goals.  First determine what you want to achieve, then make a few decisions to get you there.  Here are steps to help you along the way.

Planning comes first.  The steps of your plan are as follows

Step 1: The Goal

Step 2: Timing

Step 3: Seed Source

Step 4: Site Prep

Step 5: Planting

Step 6: Maintenance

Step 1: Determine The Goal

                The size and scope of your desired planting will guide the rest of your plan.  The steps are the same, but where you begin and where you want to end have a lot to do with the choices you make along the way.  Any size native planting is helpful for our wildlife including pollinators.  If you are living in the tallgrass prairie region, you are residing in one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth.  The plants you surround yourself with makes a big difference to the wildlife that depends upon that habitat as well as to your own wellbeing.  Take the time to search out information from Xerces Society and other research to help you understand the effect pollinators have on the food and other resources that you depend upon.  Common goals are:

  • A.  Native plants in my landscape

              This choice incorporates arranged plantings like any other landscape but with true nativeplants

  • B.  Pollinator Garden

               Plantings under 1 acre that resemble prairie with very diverse plants

  •  C.  One or more acres of Prairie or Pollinator plantings
  •  D.  Convert abrome field to Prairie
  •  E.  Convertcropland to Prairie or CRP
  •  F.  Overseedan existing prairie to increase diversity

Step 2 Timing – Understanding the timing of native seed and prairie development will help you incorporate native prairie plants into your timing with rewarding results.

Patience is required.  There is such thing as an instant Prairie, (sort-of), but that requires using plants or pre-vegetated matting, not seed. It also often requires pre-ordering.   

Plant at the right time to insure seed will break dormancy and seedlings survive.  Seed of most perennial flowering plants will be dormant.  That means nature has provided a thick coating or biological inhibitors that help it survive long enough for the right conditions to occur in nature.  So in most cases, a cold moist period of a few weeks to a few months is required to break that dormancy.  Most grasses and annual wildflowers have a shorter dormancy or no dormancy at all.  You can plan when you plant to help break seed dormancy. 

If you plant in the late fall or winter, nature will provide the cold moist period needed as long as the seed has proper contact with the soil.  Planting in the spring will mean that many wildflowers will lie dormant in the soil until the following spring.  The exception of course is for annual wildflowers and many grasses.  Planting in the summer time is risky because those that are not dormant may begin to sprout and then dry out in the heat of the summer and those that do make it will not have adequate time to establish a good root system to get it through the winter.  The best time to successfully plant your prairie depends on your goals, but often occurs in the late fall or winter.

 Understanding your prairie timeline.

Our Prairie Pronto seed mix includes many annual and biennial species that help you get results quickly, but ultimately, the best results will come in a couple of years time.  While some seed mixes incorporate many annual plant species, most are perennial.  Unless you are putting in plants instead of seed, expect your planting to take at least a year to see results.  Patience is important in prairie plantings, particularly if your goals include planting something over a few hundred square feet. 

How much time do you have and how much time are you willing to spend?  The more time you spend in planning and preparation the better your success is likely to be.  If you have a year or more, you can plan some valuable time removing old vegetation and the weed seed bank.  If not, never fear, you can still march ahead.  For larger areas, it may take just a little longer to achieve the desired effect.

Most native mixes are largely composed of perennial plants.  Assuming you start from seed, these plants take the first year to break dormancy, germinate and establish roots.  The second year produces some results, but it will take 3 to 5 years for most plantings to reach the desired goals.

Step 3:  Seed

Species and seeding rate

Seed can be purchased in packets of individual species, as pre-made mixes, or in custom mixes.  We recommend a seeding rate of no fewer than 40 seeds per square foot.  If you are broadcasting seed, most programs recommend twice that or 80 seeds per square foot.  In order to get cover very quickly, 120 seeds per square foot can be helpful. 

Hummingbird Moth on Peritoma serrulata

Seed Source

If your goal is good habitat for pollinators or native prairie, the best seed will be purchased or collected from within 100 to 200 miles of your project. The life stages of local pollinators often require specific plants to bloom within specific weeks.  These local genetics insure that bloom times coincide with local pollinator needs. In Nebraska and northern Kansas, that is often hard, but not impossible to find.  We have much of our seed spoken for in late fall, but we always keep back some seed for spring projects.  Be sure to reserve your seed early,particularly if you have a large project. Our seed is all collected from wild sources initially then grown out in our fields.  Wild collected seed is called zero (0) generation seed.  After it is grown in the seed plots, it is first(1) generation seed.  If it is grown again from first generation,the resulting seed is second generation. After that, we start again with wild collected seed sources, so that you can be assured our seed is still well adapted to this area.  Be sure to ask your seed dealer where their seed originates so you can make informed decisions about your prairie planting.

Step 4:  Site Preparation

Site preparation consists of removing old vegetation and as much weed seed as possible.  In addition,you may need to incorporate organic matter or topsoil, particularly if you are in an urban area or in a compacted area where construction has occurred.

Preparation for small areas.

If you have a small area to work with, you have several options for site preparation.  In a lawn, simply remove the sod manually, add a little top soil and your are good to go.  If you prefer, you can kill the sod by layering items such as cardboard, old carpeting, and boards over the the top,making sure to overlap pieces so that the grass doesn’t grow through cracks.  You can also kill the sod with chemicals, or by using solarization.  If you have a weedy area and don’t want to use chemicals, solarization is often the method of choice.

Solarization requires mowing then watering, then placing a thin (3-4 mil) clear plastic over the site.  This plastic is available at most hardware stores in large sheets. Seal the edges with soil, boards, or fabric staples.  Cut a few small slits in low spots to allow water to drain off.  The sun will do the rest.  Keep the plastic on for 6 to 16 weeks.  If you have tough weeds such as bindweed require three months for a complete kill.  Weeds and weed seed will continue to sprout under the plastic and burn up.  Each time the bindweed or other weed begins to grow, it expends a little more of its stored energy until if finally gives up.

Preparation for converting a brome field into prairie

The best case would be to remove the brome or set it back as much as possible.  The most effective method is to spray the brome in late fall, then when it begins to warm up in the spring, spray it again.  Then continue to spray every 6 weeks until late October.  Seed can be planted in late mid December

Another method is to Spray once in the fall and once in the Spring, then seed in spring. Or spray Spring and every 6 weeks until late October then plant in mid December.

If you are using a seed drill to plant, it is not necessary to plow, disk or rototill the soil, however, if your plan is to broadcast seed by hand or with machinery requires disking or tilling the soil so that the seed will have contact directly with the soil,

Preparation for converting cropland to prairie or CRP

If you are converting cropland and plan to be in the CRP program, your local NRCS agent will have a plan for you to follow.  If you are on your own, the first item of business is to determine what chemicals have been applied to the cropland in the past 2 years.  Pre-emergents such as atrazine and many other chemicals have a residual effect that may prevent seed from germinating.  If that is the case, plan to plant soybeans for another year or plant a cover crop that will prevent weeds from taking over while the herbicide wears off.  Seed can be drilled into soybean fields if the stubble is chopped very fine and there are no windrows or piles from combining.  If stubble has been piled then bale it or disk it in.  If you plan to broadcast seed by hand or with machinery, you will need to disk or till the field.

Preparation for overseeding an existing prairie

If you have brome within your prairie, you may want to apply a chemical treatment in the late fall after the native species have become dormant.  If you are broadcasting seed, you have the option of lightly disking first.  This will bring up weed seed, but it will also allow your native seed to land on bare ground.  As an alternative, you might rake the prairie first and create bare patches of soil that way.  If the plan is to drill seed, there is no need to rake or disk.

Step 5:  Planting

Native seed should be planted no more than ¼ inch deep.  Broadcasting on top of the ground is also acceptable.  Scoring the ground and pressing the seed in is helpful to insure seed to soil contact when broadcasting is used.  Many small seeds require light for germination, so it is very easy to plant these seeds too deeply.

Areas less than an acre

 Areas of a few square feet or up to an acre can easily be hand broadcast.  Mixing the seed with rice hulls, vermiculite, cracked corn, or sand is an easy way to make sure it gets spread evenly.  With small areas we prefer vermiculite because it is easy to see where you have spread the seed.  Rice hulls are the cheapest option at about $0.35 per pound.  There is no rule about how much carrier to add.  We use approximately one gallon of carrier per 100 square feet.  Mix it in with your seed well then divide your mixture in half.  For small areas, spread this half of the seed over the entire area to be seeded, then use the second half and repeat.  Doing it this way ensures that you will not run out of seed before the job is done.  For somewhat larger areas you can divide the area into quarters then divide ½ of your seed into four parts and spread the seed into each quarter, then repeat with the second half of the seed.  Tossing the seed in a light breeze helps distribute the seed.  Don’t attempt to hand broadcast on very windy days.  When you are finished broadcasting, use a sod roller, tires or foot traffic to press the seed into the soil.  Cover with a very light mulch and water.  Keep the soil moist until the tiny plants establish roots.

Planting an acre or more

Seed can be broadcast by hand, with a hand crank grass seeder,  a broadcast spreader, or a Brillion seeder.  When broadcasting, dragging a chain across the seeded area or pressing the seed down is necessary to keep seed in contact with moist soil.  A seed drill is the most efficient way to get good seed to soil contact.  That said,  If you are using a drill, one can save out the seed that require light to germinate and broadcast these after the other seed is planted.

Step 6:  Maintenance

To mow or not to mow

Once you have your seed in the ground, seed germinating in the first growing season will spend most of their energy establishing roots.  A few of the annual species may bloom.  Biennials will grow low rosettes.  Mowing is recommended to keep weed seed from germinating.  Each time weeds reach bloom height, mow the planting to a height of 6 inches.  You may need to mow every 6 to 8 weeks.  In the second season, mowing is recommended twice.  In the third season, the native species should begin to bloom and provide coverage that discourages weeds. 

In the case of seed mixes designed for rapid establishment (ie. Lots of annuals), mowing can still helpful, but is not required.  Any seed mix can be established without mowing, but it may look weedy for the first couple of years.

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