This restoration was from seed and this is its seventh growing season. The random, unkempt look is intentional. Except for removing invasives, I don’t try to control where the plants grow. I’m happy to let them do the thing they’ve been doing for millenia and just enjoy them and the fauna they attract.
This area is about 6/10 acre in front of my house. It started as a typical rural lawn with tall fescue, Bermuda grass, Kentucky bluegrass, and other non-native cool-season “lawn” grasses. It also had a lot of winter annuals like chickweed, henbit, dead nettle, etc. It was mowed by the previous owner but not doted over and cared for like a lawn in the suburbs.
Against the recommendations I read, I first sprayed this with off-the-shelf glyphosate (Round-Up) late in the summer (early September). There are other methods to kill existing vegetation, but you cannot skip this step and I will say my inattention to this detail has caused the most problems going forward. I got a pretty good kill despite the dormancy of some of the cool-season stuff. Later that fall, we burned off the duff and dead plant material and I spot-sprayed what greened up after it cooled down. That winter, I sowed mainly seeds from Hamilton Native Outpost in one of their prairie seed and companion grass mixes suited for my site (I have the paperwork at home somewhere if you want the details on it, but you should choose based on your site not on what worked here). I mixed in some seeds from local sources, but this is mostly from the seed mix. I recommend that you check Grow Native! (http://grownative.org/) to find a seed or potted plant vendor that serves plants obtained from your area. I’ve overseeded this plot each year with a variety seeds collected locally. Some plants will only readily establish themselves in already established habitats. Just like forests, prairies go through successional stages with some species dominating early in the process, only to have those give way to other species.
I thought it was a disaster the first year. It was overgrown with weeds (ragweed, mare’s tail, a lot of the cool season stuff I failed the kill the first time, the winter annuals). This is where you need to know your plants. The annual weeds can just be knocked down both for aesthetics and to give your baby natives the sunlight they need to thrive. The cool season stuff required a lot of follow-up spot spraying. Don’t be discouraged. This planting is in its 7th year. I’d say the first 2-3 years seemed pretty sketchy unless you could spend the time out there and see that your natives might not be flowering but they were growing. Don’t give up! You cannot really see how a site is going to look for your natives for at least 3 years.
Throughout the years, I’ve had to cut and treat stems of multiflora rose (which is well established on my neighbors’ properties and in the the fencerows along the road), walnut trees, hackberries, and elms. Burning alone will not kill them.
Controlled burns are done in the off-season. My long-term goal is to burn this only once every other year so a good native fauna can become established in the area that might otherwise be set back severely with an annual burn. I’m working on another similar-sized project (see http://pearlcreek.net/new-native-planting/ for a summary; the 1/3 acre there is meant to supplement another ~1/3 or so that is already fairly well established) so I can alternate burning each every other year. Except for two winters ago, this patch has been burned or attempted each year.
This property (http://pearlcreek.net) is 10 acres with about 1/2 of it wooded with mostly native vegetation. The other half was open pasture and lawn, but at least part of it was probably historically bonafide prairie. Although I prepped and seeded the “open” areas next to the forested areas, these areas also get native vegetation from the woodland areas. The seeds I put in place just are left to compete with the seed bank that is already there. If it’s native, I let them fight it out, which has the pleasing effect of blurring the lines between open area and woodland.
If your area is visible to the neighbors, put up a sign explaining your restoration. They’ll know what you’re doing and might become curious as to why you’re doing it. Naturally, if you’re in an urban or suburban area, your challenges with the unkempt look will be greater. Make friends and explain what you’re doing before someone goes on a crusade against you!
Here are some things I would do differently.
1) Pay attention to what you have. If you have a patch of ground that has some natives in it, kill the invasives, do a controlled burn, and see what shows up after a year or two. I had a wet sedge meadow area that I overseeded with native seeds from Hamilton before really paying attention to what was there. Now, I don’t know what was naturally part of that meadow and what I put in. It was a pretty neat feature to begin with and I wish I’d left it alone.
2) Don’t skimp on killing the existing vegetation. I did on this site and I got really lucky. I have a real pasture in another area where I skimped and it is overrun with smooth brome, a lot of fescue, and now sweet clover. The natives get better up there each year but I have a significant effort in place to try to knock back the invasives each year.
3) Plan your restoration so you can leave at least 1/2 of it unburned each year. This helps native fauna that depend on the cover and structure of the planting to survive and thrive over the winter months. Even birds and small mammals can adjust somewhat to burning and a rather traumatic and sudden loss of cover, but smaller animals, particularly insects, depend on dormant plant material for overwintering and a burn naturally kills them outright. If you have nearby sources to provide these fauna with refugia, I think you’ll be more successful in the long run even if you won’t notice it right away.
4) Diversify your seed sources. I did this a little by hand collecting seeds. Early on, I noticed that I got almost zero germination for my native grass seed. A couple of years later, purely by accident, I discovered that a handful of side oats seeds I put out really took off and continue to do well (although some of the other grasses have also started filling in now, too). Because of the almost infinite number of site characteristics (light, soil, moisture, usage, history, existing vegetation, etc.), one species might do better than another. Give yourself every chance at success by diversifying. And don’t be afraid to try something as you go. This is a long-term investment and it will look different every year.
5) Start now! Even if you have only a small space to convert or you can only afford seed material for a small space, give it a try. You can expand it each year (and it will expand on its own).
6) Contact the Missouri Department of Conservation, specifically the Private Land Conservationist for your county, to tap into cost-sharing grants for restoring landscapes. They can help you with a vision and strategy, too. Check out Grow Native! as well as the Missouri Prairie Foundation and their companion Facebook sites for information, events near you, plant sales, techniques for invasive control and native propagation, and opportunities to network with others who have done this or want to do it.
7) You’re a landscape artist now! Visit other native restorations and native prairies and other habitats to see what you should be striving for. Go forth, restore habitat, and enjoy it all!