How I Started a Prairie Restoration Project
Here's how and why I started a prairie restoration project on our small acreage. Watch my reel to get inspired!
To love and appreciate the Rocky Mountains, you only open your eyes, but to love and appreciate the prairie, you must open your soul. —Louis Toothman, 1961
I've lived in Kansas my whole life, but until a few years ago I literally did not know what I was looking at when I looked at a grassland - I knew not a single name of a single plant... it all just looked like... grass to me. Once I learned there was actually spectacular nuance in this apparently monotonous landscape, I was intrigued, bewildered, enchanted. Did you know that a healthy prairie ecosystem has more biodiversity than a rainforest?!?!?
Did you know that a healthy prairie ecosystem has more biodiversity than a rainforest?
The story of our prairie restoration project begins in 2018. Kory and I moved to rural Douglas County at the beginning of that year, and, at the time, the 5 acres that we had purchased were brome and fescue lawn grasses, so we were mowing every other week, which took 4+ hours and was doing absolutely nothing for the local ecosystem. Around that time, several things were happening at once which led me to want to try and reintroduce the prairie to our 5 acres.
I've always been environmentally conscious, and that consciousness has manifested in many different ways over the years — from an obsession to recycling, to learning about the many evils of petroleum-based plastics and their ubiquity and swearing them off as best I could, to wanting to become a zero-waste household (which I found to be practically impossible), to learning about the environmental, humanitarian and ethical issues with the fashion industry and committing to shopping mostly second-hand. All of these efforts have their dark sides, though, and over time I eased up on all of them for various reasons. I think it's toxic to be, for example, a zero-waste evangelist, because of the many equity and access issues — it's a sign of huge privilege to be able to go zero-waste in most scenarios.
In more recent times I've become a bit of a naturalist. My focus on any given thing comes and goes as I continue to learn and unlearn; Moving to the country inspired my curiosity in this land's native plants — and that curiosity, so far, has stuck. I suppose my interest began when I used to run frequently and would notice pretty blooming flowers along the dirt roads. I wanted to know more about them — their names, what human use they have or once had. This led me to an interest in ethnobotany (the traditional use of plants by people indigenous to a land), which led me to learning herbalism.
(Though it may seem innocent, there are pitfalls of restoring native landscapes, including some of the core ideals of the modern conservation movement, which often leave people entirely out of the equation, and almost always leave economically disadvantaged and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) folks out entirely.)
In 2019 I was in a low point with my depression. I had finally begun going to therapy, and my therapist and I agreed that I needed to find ways to feel connected to my local community in order to help alleviate some of my feelings of isolation, depression, and social anxiety. I needed to find 'my people'. I found local nonprofits and organizations dedicated to the prairie, including Grassland Heritage Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and Native Lands LLC and began attending educational events and talks they were hosting. I mostly was the random person sitting in the back, listening quietly. But over time I amassed some valuable knowledge and eventually got the courage to introduce myself, mostly through volunteering.
In 2019 I was in a low point with my depression. I had finally begun going to therapy, and my therapist and I agreed that I needed to find ways to feel connected to my local community in order to help alleviate some of my feelings of isolation, depression, and social anxiety.
I began volunteering with The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Kaw, helping with restoration projects in the area. I didn't plan it this way, but I was learning skills I'd need for my own project by doing hands-on work alongside people who work with prairies all the time. I learned to identify some plants, learned how to collect seed, and learned some how's and why's behind prairie restoration. I think it's important to say that my learning was patchy - I didn't go all in all at once. I did what sounded interesting to me, and picked up bits and pieces as I went along. We learn best and retain the most knowledge when we do the things that interest us, not when we overwhelm ourselves with the pressure to learn everything!
We learn best and retain the most knowledge when we do the things that interest us, not when we overwhelm ourselves with the pressure to learn everything!
Prepping the Prairie
After doing some research, I got in touch with KDWP for help because they have equipment (seed drill), cost-sharing ability, and expertise that they can lend to small scale prairie restoration projects like mine.
A wildlife biologist from KDWP helped me get started by recommending a prairie seed mix and seed providers in the area. Although it was helpful for my learning to begin this work with KDWP, I do recommend involving an ecologist and/or botanist right from the get-go, particularly someone who has a passion for and experience working with prairies. This is key to, among other things, ensuring that you have the right prairie seed mix for your particular location!
Our process began by laying herbicide down on the existing fescue and brome. This was a tough pill for me to swallow because, although it was for the greater good and was ultimately the right move for us, it felt wrong starting a project to restore plants with the death of other plants. Indigenous wisdom is the guiding light that I try to follow in my prairie restoration pursuits, as the indigenous view of nature sees all living beings as relatives, therefore treating them with the same respect with which human relatives are treated. So even though the brome and fescue didn't 'belong' where they were growing, it still felt a bit wrong to kill them in one fell swoop — prioritizing efficiency and my own interests over the lives of the beings that were already growing and living in that space. I digress. We went ahead with the spraying fairly late in the season, after most pollinators had migrated or gone dormant, in order to reduce our negative impact at this beginning phase of restoration.
Our next step was purchasing seed, based on the list and ratios which Courtney Masterson of Native Lands, LLC provided to me. Her list was based not on what I deemed pretty or desirable to grow, but what's best for our particular location. After all, the ultimate purpose for doing this restoration project is for the benefit of wildlife and the local ecosystem. We originally used a seed drill to plant the seeds, but over the years we have reseeded by casting the seeds by hand.
After all, the ultimate purpose for doing this restoration project is for the benefit of wildlife and the local ecosystem.
Over the course of 3+ years the prairie plants have begun to establish themselves here with the help of a regular schedule of mowing and burning. We don't graze our land, but that's an option for prairie maintenance too. We mow to keep the height of the grass and forms manageable and to keep out woody species. We keep an eye on when things are flowering and try to be strategic about when we mow. For example, as I write this, a lot of the rudbeckia has gone to seed, while problematic ragweed and a bushy aster are beginning to take over. So, time to mow before it gets beyond what the mower can handle!
We have burned the land two or three times already over the past few years, but I imagine our burning schedule will eventually become more of an every other year thing rather than every year once the native grasses really get well established. The idea with burning is to loosely mimic nature; grasslands thrive when intermittently burned.
Another important key to keeping the prairie moving in the right direction is regularly reseeding with native prairie seed recommended by a local prairie ecologist/botanist. Additionally, depending on what your ecologist/botanist recommends, it may make sense to plant 'plugs' of prairie plants. I received a milkweed grant from Monarch Watch, a Kansas nonprofit which, among other things, provides free milkweed species to restoration projects! (This is a one time grant, so choose when to apply wisely.) Last summer I gathered a group of friends to help me plant around one hundred milkweed plugs of 5 different varieties. Bless these women and their time donated to this cause because it was a HOT June day!
And finally, it's so important to build a trusting relationship with a local ecologist/botanist whom you can call on for troubleshooting, like when a certain native species seems to becoming too abundant, or whether or not to worry about the ragweed cropping up. (Of course, always be respectful of their time and expertise, and pay them when it's expected!!!).
Why bother with prairie restoration?
Prairie restoration is an uphill effort. But people do it because of their love for the prairie. Grasslands are beautiful landscapes, full of life and wonder. They support pollinators with food (flowering plants), shelter, and habitat. They support local wildlife: In my region, white tailed deer, opossums, snakes, rabbits, and even coyotes are important pieces of the local ecosystem puzzle, and they all thrive in their native prairie habitat. The roots of prairie plants can go down 6+ feet into the soil, helping to prevent erosion, store carbon, and enrich the surrounding soils.
If the ancient art of herbalism piques your interest, your prairie can provide you with your own supply of native plant medicine, like yarrow, echinacea, goldenrod, mullein, and more. There's lots to learn from the histories of the Plains Indians and the interrelationship between native peoples and native plants.
In times of despair, taking a walk along the prairie plants buoys my mental health and rekindles my hope for our future.
Perhaps the most significant reason to start a restoration project? For me, it's been the knowledge that I'm doing something beneficial for the environment with what I have (literally) in my backyard. In times of despair, taking a walk along the prairie plants buoys my mental health and rekindles my hope for our future. The prairie is beautiful and resilient, and posses a wisdom beyond what I can fully grasp. Just knowing that the prairie has been around for