Farm Horizons, May 2004
Going native: Prairie grass, wildflowers returning to landscape
By Lynda Jensen
Native prairie grass and wildflowers used to grow abundantly in Minnesota, when this area was first being settled.
What was can be once again, as many people are deciding to plant their property with native grasses today, available from Prairie Restorations of Watertown.
Native plants found in Minnesota are tough, beautiful, and low maintenance, commented Scott Van Den Einde, contract manager and restorationist.
“They don’t have to spend as much time watering or fertilizing,” Van Den Einde said.
There are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from, with a custom mix of seed being formulated for each customer, depending on the height of plants desired, and location of each field.
Prairie Restorations crews install the native grasses much like a farmer planting a new field, using large equipment and tractors.
The fields can be as small as a backyard garden, or as large as 80 to 100 acres. A lot of new residential developments are featuring the native grasses now, he said.
The following is a small sample of native wildflowers:
• sweet flag • bishop’s cap
• prairie onion • prairie sage
• wild ginger • Lindley’s aster
• heath aster • blazing star
• wild indigo (liatris)
Some of the grasses grow as low as 12 inches, or as tall as six to seven feet.
In fact, years ago the tall grasses used to make horse riders nervous because they would be as high as the horse, Van Den Einde said.
Some patrons ask for butterfly gardens, or other mixes that specifically attract certain wildlife, he said.
There are also specialty gardens such as rainwater gardens, which are becoming popular, he said.
Rainwater gardens make use of a city’s storm sewer system, using depressions to catch water and sustain plant life within the garden. This helps to filter the water before it reaches area lakes, he commented.
“We just planted one in Wayzata,” he said. These gardens can be seen along the boulevards in the Wayzata downtown area.
An example of regular native grasses can be found at city parks in Hutchinson, or any number of locations in the Twin Cities on both public and private land.
The following businesses own native grass land: State Farm in Woodbury, Blue Cross Blue Shield in Fargo, and IBM in Rochester. The Minnesota Nature Conservatory also has native plantings.
The company has designed, restored, and managed more than 20,000 acres of prairie, wetland, woodland and shoreline.
“The bulk of our business is private residential areas,” he said.
Prairie Restorations also plants in several other states, including South Dakota, which is more arid than Minnesota, he said.
As they move west, the business tends to plant shorter grasses that are more drought tolerant, he noted.
“You might have to spend more up-front,” he said. “But in the long run, you don’t have as much maintenance.” The grasses are also eligible for CRP land kept by farmers.
One thing interesting about prairie grasses is the natural preference toward fire.
“Prairie species really thrive on fire,” he commented. When native Americans tended the land, they used to purposely set fire to some areas in order to attract buffalo to the new growth.
Fire restores the health and vigor of the native plants and reduces weeds and other exotics.
Therefore, to keep the prairie grass thriving, controlled burns are done by Prairie Restorations on a regular schedule, about once every three or four years, he said.
This is usually done by a crew of workers who carefully control conditions during the burn, commented Joel Asp, line management supervisor.
The crews are probably more concerned with smoke than with a fire getting out of control, since crews are carefully trained to avoid the latter, he noted.
A great deal of insurance is required, along with permits and the like, Asp said.
The company also offers weedspraying for maintenance, if this is necessary.
Most of the plants, if live ones are used instead of seeding, are grown in Princeton, which is where the business’ headquarters is located. It has been in business since 1977.
The popularity of natural prairie grasses is causing the company to grow in fact, Watertown is the most recent branch office to open, with a new office being planned in the northeast metro.
There are a total of five offices right now, including Cloquet, Cannon Falls, Hawley, Princeton, and Watertown.
Prairie Restorations serves all of Wright, McLeod and Carver counties.