What are native prairie plants?
Although native plants are defined differently by experts, generally they are defined as those plants that were historically found within a specific ecological community prior to settlement. Native prairie plants are mainly species of grasses and wildflowers (forbs) that were indigenous to the open grasslands and savannas throughout the Midwest. Today, prairie plants in their natural habitats are relatively rare and should be managed to continue their existence and maximize the diversity present. Trees Forever is actively involved with partners and volunteers in establishing native plants in community enhancement plantings, road ditches, and along creeks, streams and rivers for their many functional benefits of holding soil, infiltration of water and decreased run-off and reduced maintenance needs. Refer to our Implementation Guide: Why Plant Native for more information about the use and benefits of native prairie plants.
My town has planted prairie plants. Why do they look so weedy? And why don’t they do something about it?
There is often a challenge to the success of a prairie planting in the first few years of its installation. In fact, it might take 3-5 years for a prairie seeding to really begin to have the desired showy impact that was envisioned. The native prairie grasses and wildflowers (forbs) that are planted by community groups to beautify community entryways or planted by roadside managers in the road ditches are unlike the flowers and shrubs obtained from most local nurseries that have an immediate impact. Because the young plants are focusing their energy in the first couple of years on establishing a deep root system that reaches for ground water, the plants often do not bloom the first year or two and can have a shaggy, unkempt appearance that is often mistaken for weeds. This is not to say that known annual and biennial weeds like foxtail, button weed, and mare’s tail won’t be found in the midst of a native planting--they often will need removal. However, prairie experts are generally not concerned with a few minor weeds in a planting, since they know that within a couple of growing seasons the prairie plants will choke them out. If you are concerned about the appearance or weediness of a prairie planting, do not take it upon yourself to do something about it. First seek out the area Trees Forever Field Coordinator to help you find the group, agency, or organization responsible for the project and discuss your concerns with them. There is no substitute for having a person knowledgeable and experienced with prairie plantings walk the site with the concerned citizen to discuss the planting, identify desirable species and discuss a solution.
How do I get my prairie planting established correctly?
If you’ve recently seeded a prairie, by now you should know that it will take time and patience in order to get it established and begin to look like the prairie you’d envisioned. Your efforts to get it there will involve some tools and techniques to minimize the chances of failure. There is no recipe to follow and each site and circumstance is unique. However, there are some general rules of thumb in order to successfully establish a prairie planting. For starters if you didn’t begin with a weed-free seed bed, you should expect more weed problems. Management in the early years of establishment will prevent any weed species present from setting seed and keep sunlight down to the ground level. One of the best ways to do this is by mowing the area and posting signs to the effect of “prairie in progress” in addition to your other educational efforts. Three to four mowings throughout the first growing season and then perhaps an additional one or two the second growing season (if needed, based upon an evaluation of the stand) are generally enough to release the planting to grow, having controlled much of the future weed problems. Several good books and references are available to assist you. Refer to our Implementation Guide: Maintenance of Large Scale Prairie Plantings for additional information and consult with your Trees Forever Field Coordinator for guidance.