Native prairies: their benefits and how to establish them
Updated: Nov 16
Prairies come in all shapes and sizes, from fields of 8ft tall Big Bluestem to wet meadows to shortgrass prairies. Prairies provide habitat for local wildlife, recycle nutrients, and increase water infiltration, and protect the landscape from erosion.
Prairie plants are like the icebergs of the plant world: we can see part of them on the surface, but their real scope can only be seen below ground.
While traditional turf grass has roots that stretch around 2 inches deep, the roots of native prairie plants can dig up to 15 feet! These roots not only hold the plant and soil in place, but they allow the plant to prosper through above-ground disturbances like fires.
Today, however, just over 1% of Minnesota’s original 18 million acres of prairie remain.
Re-establishing native prairie habitat is an easy way to return the land to its historic state and bring its benefits back. Prairie re-establishment can be done in many different ways and can come in many different sizes.
Creating Small Gardens
This option is the most accessible to urban residents. Smaller gardens can be done at any size suitable for the property. Native plants can be planted around mailboxes, or a sunny spot in a backyard.
The first step is to kill whatever existing vegetation is present. With small gardens, the existing vegetation will typically be turf grass. Removal of turf grass can be done by covering the grass with a tarp, ripping it out with a sod cutter, or using a herbicide.
Once the existing vegetation is gone, find a local plant or seed provider and start shopping! Our office can provide you with a list of local seed dealers and nurseries that supply Minnesota Native species. Additionally, the Scott SWCD hosts a native plant sale every spring that is open until early June. Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates.
Once you've acquired your plants, time to start gardening. Plant native seeds or plugs between May 15th and June 30th for best results. If you want to do a fall seeding, plant your seeds after November 1st.
Converting Turf Lawns
Converting entire lawns to native prairie is very similar to the process of planting a small garden. Simply expand the conversion process by however large the planting area is. Existing vegetation must be removed; herbicides or tillage is recommended for larger sites. Seeding is the typical method for lawn conversion, being done either in early spring between May 15th and June 30th. Late fall seeding after November 1st is also possible.
For spring seeding, weeds will need to be clipped throughout the summer, and for fall seedings, weeds will need to be clipped before they go to seed the next year.
For larger plots, renting seeding and tilling equipment is recommended to aid in the process. The Scott SWCD has equipment for rent as well as services for hire.
Converting existing cropland into native prairie is one of the easier methods. Little to no site preparation is necessary since seeding can be done around crop harvest. SWCD technicians can work with you to help develop a plan.
Once a plan is started and the site is prepped and ready, seeds can be purchased. For spring seeding, purchase in early spring and plant between the May 15th - June 30th seeding window. For fall seeding, purchase seed in the early fall and plant after November 1st. Equipment is available for rent from the SWCD, as well as custom seeding services.
Special note: Herbicide use is a unique consideration with cropland conversion. Some herbicides hinder new seedings and should be avoided when planning plantings.
Ultimately, whatever techniques you use, converting your property into native prairie will provide essential pollinator habitat, improve local water quality, and provide beauty and color for years and years to come.
Our office provides technical assistance to landowners interested in converting land to prairie. If you have a project you want to get started, give our office a call!