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Prairie Facts

Planning and Installing Small Prairie Areas

Prepared by Morris J. Houck, USDA-NRCS, Director of the Plant Materials Center, Knox City, TX

Introduction

Many times we find small odd areas that are not suited for intense management such as farming or hay production or we have small out areas that are not providing any benefit to the surrounding landscape. A solution to finding an environmentally friendly use for these areas would be to establish them into a small scale native prairie.  These areas usually less than .5 acres in size can be established into a native prairie with little effort. These small prairie areas would provide an island habitat for many native plants and animals. Many of your local wildlife species would utilize the areas for food and escape cover from more open areas. If you follow the basic steps outlined below and with a little patience you can have yourself a small piece of the prairie.

I. Preparing the Seedbed

A clean weed free seedbed will be your best asset when installing a small prairie area. For best results a clean seedbed should be prepared at least a year before the scheduled seeding. Till-up the soil making sure you have eliminated as many weeds as possible. Many weeds and unwanted grasses will continue to germinate over time and this could warrant repeated tilling. Contact herbicides may be used to kill unwanted grasses and weeds before and after tilling. Accomplishing this well in advance of planting will allow the site to settle and accumulate moisture. Be aware of any possible erosion problems from wind or water while your site is free of vegetative cover.

II. Seeding

Two seeding windows exist for most prairie plantings.

1.  Late Winter or Early Spring Plantings - January through March
2.  Fall Plantings - September through October

Many plants benefit from being planted in the fall. Certain plants, mainly wildflowers, will germinate in the fall and remain as a small rosette during the winter. These plants are usually developing an extensive root system throughout the winter to support their flowers in the spring.  When planting warm-season grasses like big bluestem, little bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, side-oats, and buffalograss, a late winter to early spring planting works best. 

There are local and regional variations in appropriate plantings. Check with your local Texas Parks and Wildlife resource specialist or a local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service for a list of the most appropriate native grasses and forbs to plant for your area. For example, in Hunt County, the primary component of Blackland Prairie is Eastern gamagrass, then either switchgrass or big bluestem, or little bluestem, depending on the slope and aspect.

Whenever you purchase seeds, always purchase according to the amount of pure live seed (PLS) per pound. The higher the PLS the better your chances are to get more viable seed into the ground. Be aware that many native forbs/wildflower species are not sold according to PLS. Native grass seeds nearly always can be purchased according to PLS.

To efficiently handle small amounts of seed, mix the seed with moist sand. Most prairie seeds are either very small or light and fluffy. Mixing them with moist sand will increase the bulk of the material and aid in applying the seed. Do no attempt to spread your seed without mixing with moist sand or you will waste much of it and not get good coverage.

Prior to actual planting, roll or pack your seedbed, making sure that soil is firm and not fluffy. The seed/sand mixture can then be broadcast over the entire area making sure uniform coverage is obtained. Lightly rake in the seed and again roll or compact the seedbed. This procedure will ensure good seed to soil contact.

Plantings may be lightly irrigated if water is available.  Avoid watering late fall plantings.  This may initiate plant growth too close to approaching freezing temperatures.

III.  Maintenance

During the first and following growing seasons, controlling the annual wildflowers will be your biggest challenge. They will overgrow your seedlings, taking moisture from them and creating too deep a shade. Mowing, hand pulling, and herbicides are the available and most common methods of removing them.

Mowing at a height of 6 to 8 inches will assist with the control of most weeds. Mowing is quick and easily accomplished with little effort. On the down side mowing in the spring is detrimental to seed production of many blooming plants. Mowing is however beneficial late in the season to assist with clean-up and seed dispersal.

Hand pulling is easy and selective weed control can be accomplished. Depending on the size of the area, hand pulling may not be an efficient choice, however, small numbers of isolated weeds can easily be controlled this way.

The last method of weed control involved the use of herbicides. Many are available, but most are selective in nature, meaning some will control grasses, leaving the forbs, and some will control forbs, leaving the grasses. A prairie is a diversified mixture of grasses, forbs and legumes. Herbicides may be used efficiently for spot treatment but over-spraying the entire planting would destroy the heterosity of a prairie.

Whenever our prairie is well established (3 years plus), one method that should be used for renovation and weed control is burning. Many prairie plants will react favorably to periodic burns. You may also observe that the seed of many prairie plants favor burning as a means of stratification. Be conservative with your fire.  Rotate your burn around to give animals a place to escape and a place for food and shelter.  Burn only 1/3 or 1/2 when you burn and don’t burn every year. Most burns should take place in February and March.

If you follow these basic rules you can establish a prairie, small or large, that will give you and local wildlife many years of enjoyment.