Once Ward and Wendy Larson no longer had cattle to graze their pasture in Credit River Township, they were left with ten acres of lawn to mow. As anyone who mows their lawn knows, ten acres is a lot of lawn.
The Larsons were not set on mowing that large of an area, but were not sure what the alternatives were. In early 2014, Ward and Wendy received a mailing from the Scott Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), in Jordan, inviting them to a free workshop to learn about planting native prairies and financial assistance options. Ward and Wendy attended the February workshop, and by spring they were in the process of restoring four acres of their lawn to native prairie.
Alyssa Alness, Ecological Specialist with the SWCD, taught the workshop and guided the Larsons through the native prairie restoration process.
“It was exciting to convert that much lawn into native prairie,” says Alyssa, “and now instead of having to mow the area, they can just enjoy it.” Alyssa worked closely with the Larsons from the first site visit where they made a plan for the prairie restoration, to guiding them through site preparation and seeding, to follow up site visits after the prairie was planted to answer maintenance questions.
The Larsons’ prairie is now on its fourth year and is looking great. Their prairie restoration project has been a conversation starter with their neighbors. Ward noted that “when we initially killed off such a large part of the lawn the neighbors were concerned, but when we explained that we were preparing the ground to plant a native prairie, they got excited about it!” Ward mows paths through the prairie not only for himself and Wendy, but for friends and family who stop by. People are always curious about the prairie when they come to visit, so he created a binder identifying the plants that can be found in the prairie, which guests can use as a guide when walking along the paths.
Not only is the Larsons’ prairie a beautiful conversation starter, it is helping to conserve natural resources. Native prairies improve water quality by eliminating sources of sediment and other pollutants, and by reducing the amount of storm water runoff. Unlike turf grass which has shallow roots, the roots of native plants and grasses are very long which create pathways for storm water to infiltrate into the ground. The mix of native grasses and flowers provides diversity which enhances habitat quality for many wildlife species. Ward has noticed that deer like to sleep in the prairie and walk on the paths. He has seen an increase in monarch butterflies because of the milkweed in the prairie. There is also a row of spruce trees near the prairie where many birds nest and Ward sees the birds flying between the prairie and their nests in the trees. The prairie is providing habitat that the lawn could not. This one project is making a difference.
While they are no longer regularly mowing the area as lawn, there is still some maintenance involved. For the first two years, the Larsons mowed the entire prairie twice a year to keep the weeds from going to seed. Last year, the prairie’s third year, it only required spot spraying of a thistle patch which will have to be treated again this fall. Next spring, they plan on burning the prairie, which kills back many of the weeds and helps the native plants thrive. Ward has been enjoying their prairie because “every year is a new experience. Yes, there is work involved, but overall it has been fun.”
There is a perception that native prairie restorations can only be done by converting farm fields to native prairie, but Ward and Wendy’s prairie shows that a lawn can be restored to a native prairie successfully and beautifully. If you have property that you are interested in restoring to native prairie, technical and financial assistance may be available. Contact the Scott SWCD in Jordan at 952-492-5425 or visit scottswcd.org to find out more.