Building a Native Prairie

January 2022

By Esther Jordan, Co-Director, Horticulture and Communications Specialist, and Nate Dalman, Co-Director, Horticulture and Researcher III

Over the course of the last three years, the West Central Research and Outreach Center has gradually been transforming a 17-acre plot into a native prairie habitat for beneficial pollinators. Before the project began, the site was filled with non-native vegetation, volunteer trees and shrubs, which offered little to no pollen or nectar sources for pollinators. Once these undesirable species were removed, we could focus on weed control and preparing the soil for the native seeds to be sown. The restoration site is adjacent to the City of Morris bike path between the Pomme de Terre Overlook and the Pomme de Terre City Park.

Given the ecological conditions of the site, the native plant communities include dry prairie, mesic prairie and wet prairie plants.  Providing a diverse habitat with abundant nectar and pollen sources is arguably the most effective method of enhancing or protecting a local beneficial pollinator population. Fifty Bur Oak trees native to prairie savannah ecosystems were also planted throughout the site. This adds to the historic prairie savannah landscape and may also help sustain various species of wildlife.

While all plants and trees have been planted, it will take a few years for the site to look like a native prairie. It simply takes time for the native plants to establish their root system and begin to flower. Some wildflowers can establish quickly, within a year or two, while other wildflowers and the grasses can take several years. Preparing the soil for the planting of prairie species also brought annual weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate. However, annual weeds are choked out by the perennial prairie species upon establishment. Prairie establishment can be a slow process so We must remain vigilant with aggressive maintenance strategies while the native plant species establish themselves, particularly for perennial weeds. Our goal is to mitigate weed pressure by mowing, spot spraying, and burning as needed.

Not only does the project site serve a vital role in the health of our pollinator populations, but it also offers students and the public a way to engage with nature and learn more about the importance of pollinators in our local ecosystem. Two wayside rest areas are located along the trail. Each rest area is shaded and includes a bench and provides optimum views of the restoration site with the Pomme de Terre river in the background.  Education signage is available at each kiosk, providing information about why the restoration is crucial in preserving a habitat for beneficial pollinators, why we need pollinators, how we restored the area, the various native pollinators in our region and what specific food sources they are attracted to, the type of habitats each of them desire, and how to create a pollinator friendly landscape in the home garden.

As we head into 2022, we look forward to launching interactive educational components relating to our restoration project. “Buzz About” is a participatory simulation where participants select a pollinator and must choose which native plants to visit in order to obtain food. This program can be accessed via a smartphone or device while on the trail, in the classroom, or from home.

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). The Trust Fund is a constitutionally-established permanent fund for protecting and enhancing Minnesota’s environment and natural resources.