Native grasslands and prairies are great
alternatives to lawns. These habitats also are among the most
threatened ecosystems in North America, and, consequently,
populations of many grassland wildlife have declined dramatically.
Despite similar appearances, grasslands can provide quite different
ecological resources depending on the types of grasses within them.
Cool season grasses, such as orchard grass, timothy, tall fescue,
and Kentucky bluegrass, grow best in cool weather and are commonly
found in lawns and pastures. These grasses require relatively high
levels of maintenance and offer poor wildlife resources. In
contrast, warm season grasses, such as Indian grass, big and little
bluestem, and switchgrass, grow best in warm weather. Native
grasslands and unplowed prairie remnants are dominated by native
warm season grasses. These grasses provide numerous environmental
benefits to land managers, including reduced maintenance, drought
tolerance, soil improvement, and wildlife habitat.
Avoid planting exotics or invasive species.
The following are aggressive, exotic species that can take over your
meadow: bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), Canada thistle
(Cirsium arvensa), crown vetch (Coronilla varia),
Dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis), nodding thistle
(Caduus nutans), purple loosestrife (Lythrum
salicaria), spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), and
Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota).
Consider planting warm season grasses that
are native to your area. Not only are they attractive, but warm
season grasses will generally outperform cool season grasses under
drought conditions and in poor soils. This means that maintenance is
lower for these native species. Native grasses also provide
dependable forage production for livestock and wildlife. Their
extensive root systems provide excellent soil-holding capabilities
and, thereby, reduce erosion.
Purple coneflowers are a beautiful way to incorporate
native plants in a landscape.
If establishing a prairie, closely follow
recommendations for preparing the site and seeding, watering, and
fertilizing grasses. Several organizations, including seed companies
(e.g., Sharp Bros. Seed Company, Ernst Conservation Seeds), the
Natural Resource Conservation Service, and state natural
resource/wildlife agencies, provide detailed information on how to
establish native warm season grasses in a given area. Be careful not
to overseed a grassland.
Avoid haying or mowing from April to August.
Haying often coincides with peak nesting of grassland songbirds such
as bobolink, Eastern meadowlark, and grasshopper sparrow. Many bird
nests, young birds, and deer fawn are lost each spring due to mowing
hay or brush-hogging fields. If possible, avoid mowing or clearing
thick, brushy areas from April to August. In addition, place the
cutting blade to a height of 6 inches to prevent further loss of
Limit invasion by woody vegetation. If you
want to maintain the grassland, woody plants must be controlled
through mowing, burning, grazing, or cutting. For best results,
woody plants should represent less than 5 percent of the
Maintain the largest grassland area as
possible. Few people realize that many grassland birds are area
sensitive (i.e., they require large areas of habitat to live and
reproduce). In fact, hundreds of acres of native grassland may be
necessary to attract species like grasshopper sparrow, bobolink, and
Henslow's sparrow. Some experts recommend a minimum prairie size of
100 to 250 acres to attract and sustain grassland bird populations.
In addition to managing a large grassland, keeping adjacent habitats
open (e.g., agricultural fields, pasture) may attract area sensitive
Without regular disturbance, woody plants can invade
Carefully locate hedgerows and lone trees.
Recent evidence suggests that hedgerows may reduce the nesting
success of grassland-nesting birds because predators may be
attracted to the taller woody vegetation. Unlike the benefits that
hedgerows provide in shrubby, upland habitats, certain grassland
species may avoid prairies that are fragmented by hedgerows, as they
can divide the grassland into smaller habitat patches. In light of
this, avoid establishing hedgerows and other woody vegetation
through the center of grasslands. Instead, try to locate woody
plants near edges.
Avoid prairie monocultures. Focus on
structural and species diversity of grasses and forbs. A prairie
dominated by one grass, even if a native species, will provide fewer
structural and food resources to wildlife than a prairie with a mix
of native forbs and grasses.
When possible, remove tiles to restore
natural moisture gradients. Each plant species thrives within a
particular microenvironment (e.g., soil type and moisture level).
Restoring the natural moisture gradient to the area will allow for
the coexistence of wet and upland prairie species.
Burn, but avoid burning too frequently. There
can be too much of a good thing. Although native prairies usually
require active management and/or prescribed burning, burning at
too-frequent intervals (less than 3 to 5 years apart) can create
prairies dominated by dense grasses. Grass density increases by 20
to 40 percent every time you burn. At high grass densities, forbs
cannot compete, and the structural complexity of the grassland
decreases-and with that the value to wildlife decreases.
Consider strip-disking to increase structural
and compositional diversity. A variety of annual grasses and forbs
will grow in areas recently disked. When disking for wildlife, the
goal is not to uproot and turn under all existing plant matter.
Instead, vary the disking intensity to expose bare soil in certain
areas and stimulate stem growth in others.
All else being equal, mow or burn in the
spring rather than fall to retain winter cover. Many birds will use
grasslands during the winter months. If you can retain vegetation on
the site, you will be more likely to provide habitat for birds like
Fox Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow.
Be patient. Native prairies and grasslands
undergo succession. For example, some species, like Purple
Coneflower, may not become established until the third year. Some
undesirable exotic species, such as Queen Anne's Lace, naturally
disappear after the first or second year of grassland management.
Notice how grassland species will change with the changing structure
of the prairie as well. For example, some species prefer short,
sparse vegetation, whereas others like taller, dense