What is a prairie?
Prairies are ecosystems made up of a mix of grasses and flowers (forbs) that are fire-dependent. Prairie plants are extremely deep rooted -- some species with roots more than 12 feet deep -- and are excellent at holding soil in place, filtering water, and preventing erosion. The roots created extremely the extremely rich and fertile soil for which Iowa is so well-known. Many bird, insect, mammal, and reptile species depend on this habitat.
More than 80% of Iowa was once covered in tallgrass prairie. But over time as land use changed (we built cities, roads, agriculture fields, etc.) this critical habitat has diminished: Today, less than 0.1% of the original prairie remains.
We work to enhance and protect prairie remnants (those original prairies that survived European settlement and have never been plowed) as well as plant prairie reconstructions/restorations (prairies that are not original). We pay special attention to seed source and strive to use seed that is as genetically similar to the plants that would have originally been on that site as possible. This is often referred to as "local ecotype seed." The reason for this is those plants have adapted to a specific geographic environment. We harvest seed at our best sites with a combine or by hand each year to use in future prairie plantings, or we purchase it from a reputable source.
Prairie grasses and wildflowers grow much slower than weeds in the first couple of years following a prairie planting. In the first year, prairie plants work to establish their root systems and therefore grow very little on the surface. In fact, some forbs (flowers) take several years to appear. Undesirable plants like marestail, giant ragweed, and Canada and musk thistles usually dominate early plantings, giving the prairie a weedy appearance. This is an expected phase in a “young” prairie; you’ll see us simultaneously combating weeds and encouraging native grass and forb growth with regular mowing during this time.
In subsequent years, prairies can be maintained with occasional mowing, burning, or spot spraying. Every prairie planting requires patience, time, and close management, and if given the right care will become a valuable piece of habitat for a multitude of Iowa animals.