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Green Landscaping: Greenacres


Wild Ones Handbook


 "Once we become interested in the progress of plants in our care, their development becomes a part of the rhythm of our own lives and we are refreshed by it.-

Thallasa Cruso


Prairie Maintenance

Prairie Maintenance
by Alan Wade, Prairie Moon Nursery

Mowing is the primary management tool used to prevent weeds from shading prairie seedlings. During the first growing season the planting may need mowing a number of times. The cutting height should be 4 to 5 inches (a home lawnmower set at the highest cutting position should work well for small areas). Mow each time the weed growth is 6 to 10 inches high and do not allow weeds to set seed. Do not worry about cutting the tops off or crushing the seedlings. A flail-type mower is preferable for large areas because it chops cuttings into small pieces which will filter down and serve as mulch. If a sickle-bar or rotary-type mower is used, mow more frequently so cuttings will not have become large enough to smother native seedlings. Try to time the last mowing so weeds can grow to about 8 inches before winter. This will help protect young seedlings from heaving frosts. During the second growing season one mowing may be helpful in late spring or early summer if weeds are thick. This should be the last mowing needed for weed control unless a serious problem occurs. Raise cutting height to 6 to 12 inches if mowing during second year.

Hand weeding small plantings during the second and third growing seasons will make a big difference in your planted prairie. Care must be used when weeding to avoid disruption of the soil which can dislodge prairie seedlings. Weeds will generally pull easier a day or two after rain or watering (when soil is soft but not muddy). Another control option is to clip weeds near the ground with pruning shears. Whatever method you use, be sure to remove weeds from the site before they mature and spread seed. Discriminating between prairie seedlings and weeds is of utmost importance. If you are unsure as to what your young prairie plants will look like, plant a small amount of the seed mix 1/4 inch deep in a regular garden flat filled with sterile potting soil and keep moist. By studying the seedlings which emerge you will learn to recognize prairie seedlings. These may then be transplanted to pots and eventually set out in the planting. An easier method to avoid pulling prairie seedlings is to remove only plants which you are sure are weeds. To help identify weeds, cover part of the planting area with a piece of bed sheet before sowing. Mark the outside corners of the sheet (stakes, driven in flush with the soil surface, will not interfere with later mowing). Remove sheet after seed is planted. Plants that germinate in this marked area can be considered weeds since prairie seed has been excluded.

After two growing seasons, planted prairies need to be burned annually for the next several years to become well established (mature prairies with no serious weed problems may need burning only once every two to four years). Always use caution when burning. Check local fire regulations and obtain permits. Try to burn or mow only one-third of the prairie area each year to preserve over-wintering insects, their eggs and pupae. Always plan fire safety into plantings, even if you are not going to use burn management. Prairie fires intentionally or accidentally set during fall or spring dormancy can burn very rapidly. Use any existing features such as roads, driveways, streams, lakes, or mowed lawns as fire a prairie fire breaks. In addition to paths through a prairie, also include a wide path around the perimeter. A mowed lawn buffer 20 feet in width between buildings and prairie is advised. An alternative to burning is to mow in late fall after seeds set or preferably in early spring (late March to mid-April). Sites that are too wet in spring need fall mowing when soil is dry. If burning does not occur periodically, cuttings need to be removed to avoid a thatch layer buildup. Do not cut and then burn large quantities of plant material (creating thick piles) or you will sterlize the soil beneath. 

For more information, we recommend purchasing the booklet How to Manage Small Prairie Fires by Wayne R. Pauly.


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