woodland and prairie…a restoration update

It’s already September.  Tinges of fall color are showing up in my little restored woodland — a few sumac leaves have turned flamboyantly red, the jack-in-the-pulpit berries are clusters of ruby gems, and goldenrod waves it’s tall, frowzy head. Time for a little restoration update.

My work this summer has been quite different than last year when I was pulling up buckthorn with all my might and main.  I had one large patch of it to remove that I had ignored last year, but for the most part I have had a reprieve from that back-aching work.  Instead I’ve spent time controlling and removing other invasive or unhelpfully aggressive plants such as thistles, day lilies, burdock and catmint, white sweetclover and oxeye daisies… and have battled a completely different problem — a historic drought here in Minnesota.  July, especially, was intensely hot and almost completely dry.  I watered judiciously and worried about my baby trees.  Most everything has come through decently.  I lost a few shrubs, I think to deer or rodents, and one tree for reasons unknown. Meanwhile I also had one run-in with some ground-nesting yellow jackets. Apparently I stepped on their house and in no time flat I was stung at least 8 or 9 times on my foot and legs. A very swollen foot and intense itching was, thankfully, the worst part of that little encounter.

It has been a joy to see the most devastated area of the yard transformed into a virtual pollinator banquet hall this summer, packed with tall Joe Pye, stands of milkweed, and vibrant Prairie Phlox all of which emerged quite on their own from the seed bed. That area has been populated by lots of happy bees and butterflies. Other native species are popping up as well such as White Snakeroot, Blue Lobelia, and Pagoda Dogwood. Elderberry has sprung up prolifically throughout the area, an excellent native shrub that works hard to remediate northern woodlands after buckthorn is removed.

(left to right: Joe Pye, blue lobelia, white snakeroot, nannyberry)

What I’ve discovered about the restoration process is that after you yank out all the bad stuff and feel completely demoralized that anything will ever grow again, the fact is that a whale of a lot of stuff does indeed grow and you are faced with a completely different set of questions.  How much should I manage the growth? Should I allow merely-decent plants to grow for now, to challenge invasive plants, but then pull them out later? Do I need to remove some beneficial plants that apparently love this space but are rapidly dominating the area, for the sake of adding diversity which will be better in the long run? I am coming face-to-face with how much there is to know, how little I do in fact know, and how mysterious and complex these intricate ecosystems are.

This fall our next wave of planting will take place with hundreds of native wildflowers being delivered either in late September or very early October. We’ll be planting species with a range of bloom times from early spring to late fall such as Canada anemone, early meadow rue, wild geranium and bergamot, beardtongue, and asters. This sequence means that native pollinators have a supply of food throughout the entire season, from April to October. Woodland wildflowers are not as theatrical as those that live in copious sunshine but they reward close observation and feed the small creatures who play such pivotal roles in our world.

(left to right: anemone, bergamot, beardtongue, golden alexander, heart-leafed aster)

The other really exciting news is that I received a second grant from Nine Mile Creek Watershed District to convert a large section of my back yard into native prairie — the portion of lawn that lies between the two areas we’re restoring to native woodland.  We’ll be killing off the turf there and seeding the whole area with native prairie and savanna wildflowers and grasses.

Almost all of our suburban and urban lawns are actually invasive species, not native grasses. Kentucky bluegrass is not native to the Americas, even.  The process by which manicured lawns became the established and expected look in our neighborhoods is a peculiar and fairly recent phenomenon. You can read an interesting article about that here. As such, lawns are invasive monocultures which do not do well in drought, do not support pollinators, and do not have root systems that benefit groundwater supplies. Replacing any amount of our lawns with native plants has tremendous advantages for our soil, water, and wildlife. The small prairie we’re installing will feature an enormous diversity of plants — about 50 different species in a relatively small area.  Diversity brings health to the environment and provides for the unique, often highly specialized needs of native insects and birds who in turn play critical roles in a healthy ecosystem. Native grasses and wildflowers have strong, deep root systems that survive drought handily, anchor the soil, and absorb rainwater instead of allowing it to run off.  We are working with Ed’s Buckhorn Control to help us with the seeding process and we’re purchasing seed from Minnesota Native Landscapes. That process will begin in September and we will plant, hopefully, by sometime in November.

maybe my prairie will look like this one day!

I’ll write another restoration update later this fall to let you know our experience with the second wave of planting and the beginning steps of converting our lawn to prairie.  Meanwhile, here are a few titles specific to prairies and wildflowers you might enjoy with your kids, and one classic guide to using native plants in your landscaping that I’d suggest if you’re on the cusp of considering any restoration yourselves.

Plant a Pocket of Prairie, written by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Betsy Bowen
published in 2014 by University of Minnesota Press

A Minnesota author-artist team created this beautiful book which very briefly describes the vast prairies once occupying thousands of miles of North American terrain and the sad fact that most of them have been displaced.

The bulk of the book focuses on the joy that can be ours if we plant even just a small pocket of prairie in our home lots — the birds, butterflies, and other small creatures that may well begin visiting because of the prairie flowers and grasses they enjoy. Foxglove beardtongue may entice a ruby throated hummingbird; rough blazing star may lure in great spangled fritillaries. Each page exults in the beauty, colors, and delicate shapes of these plants and animals via Betsy Bowen’s lovely woodblock prints.

A significant portion of the information comes in the end pages of the book which tell more about the original and backyard versions of prairies, briefly describe each animal and plant mentioned in the book, and present places where we can still see sizable examples of native or restored prairies. It’s a one-of-a-kind gem for ages 4 and up.

Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story, written and illustrated by S.D. Nelson
published in 2012 by Abrams Books for Young Readersw

Buffalo Bird Girl was a child of the prairies, born in the 1830s to the Hidatsa people who lived in what is now North Dakota.

S.D. Nelson tells the story of her rich life and culture in this fascinating, beautiful book. The enormously-strong earth-mound lodges and grandmother’s hot, hearty breakfasts; the seasonal farm chores, buffalo hunting and favorite children’s games; the frightening attacks from the Lakota and the changes that came with the traders and missionaries.

All of this is told vividly, accompanied by Nelson’s captivating acrylic paintings, graphite drawings, and historic photographs. Each page is full of appeal while the story of this amazing woman’s life grabs hold of us, mesmerizes us straight through to her old age. A lengthy Author’s Note provides extensive information about Buffalo Bird Woman, the Hidatsa people, and the clash of cultures that came with European arrivals. A timeline correlates her life with events from 5000 BCE to 2009. A fantastic read for ages 5 and up.

Buffalo Music, written by Tracey E. Fern, illustrated by Lauren Castillo
published in 2008 by Clarion

Follow the account of Buffalo Bird Girl with this story based on the life of Mary Ann Goodnight who settled at Palo Duro Canyon on the Texas panhandle in 1876.

A strong, hearty woman, Molly’s life is full of toughness and chores, early mornings, smokey fires, scrub basins, scorching heat. Devoid of human neighbors, Molly’s ears have become accustomed to the squawks of crows, the chirps of prairie dogs, and above all, the music of the buffalo.  Herds and herds, thousands of buffalo, roaming the vast plains, huffing, scratching, wallowing, thundering, creating a comforting background soundtrack to Molly’s life.

Then, the buffalo hunters come with their rifles.  In short order, the herds are decimated.  Molly’s music is gone.  Until one morning,  a cowhand trots up, leading a couple of awkward, frowsy buffalo calves. Orphans.  Since Molly is known far and wide for nursing orphaned animals, it seems the best place to take ’em. Molly’s tender care for these two puny critters succeeds, and as time goes on, more and more orphaned calves are brought her way.  Molly assembles them into her own, small herd.  Years later, to her joy, when the folks at Yellowstone National Park declare their desire to rebuild a buffalo herd there, Molly is able to supply them with some of her “babes” to get started.  Her work in saving the buffalo, has resulted in a herd for all Americans to enjoy. It’s a great story of restoration for ages 4 and up.

Creekfinding: A True Story, written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Claudia McGehee
published in 2017 by University of Minnesota Press

This book is an account of a restoration project in the Driftless region in northeastern Iowa where one man purchased a large acreage of farmland with the intention of restoring it to native prairie. One day an older neighbor stopped by and told him that right there, smack in the middle of the cornfield, he had caught a brook trout many years ago.  A brook trout in a cornfield? How could that be?!

Turns out a natural trout stream running through that plot of land had been filled in by farmers to make more room for corn. Thus a new project was born — to relocate that trout stream and restore it back to its former glory. Ages 6 and up.

Planting the Wild Garden, written by Kathryn O. Galbraith, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin
published in 2015 by Peachtree

Some gardens are planted by human hands, with seeds placed tenderly in the soil.  But look around you! From forests carpeted with snowy white trillium, to grassy meadows whose milkweed patches attract fluttering monarch butterflies; brambly tangles of raspberry canes scrambling in roadside ditches, and pure white water lilies floating atop their long, wavering stems. These wild gardens are planted, too.  But how?

Kathryn Galbraith simply, clearly, peeks at many different ways seeds are transferred: wind and rain, birds and furry raccoons, exploding seed cases and seeds with sneaky, grab-on-to-you hooks.  Wendy Halperin’s gorgeous, whisper-soft artwork always elicits a sigh of pleasure.  Ever so lovely.  Broad views of windswept grasses, sequences of close-ups showing seeds taking wing, sunny streams and dozens of wild creatures…each page, including the endpapers, is beautiful and engaging.  Includes a nice bibliography for finding out more.  Gorgeous book for preschoolers and up.

Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes
published in 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company

Each of the poems in this book acts as a riddle.  Sidman intrigues us with tantalizing hints within her verses, written in a variety of forms, each one describing something found in a meadow habitat.

In the dark/in the night/in the almost-light/in the leaf-crisp air just before sunlight/sprouts a secret, sparkling sight:/berries grown on the vines of night…

The poem goes on to further describe these mysterious berries, “the jewels of the dawn.” “What is it?” she asks at the end of each of these lovely depictions.

After every two riddling poems, we turn the page and find the answers in brief, factual explanations of this feature of meadowlands.  Did you guess what this one might be?  Beth Krommes’ fabulous scratchboard illustrations provide gorgeous hints to help us guess that we’re learning about is… dew.

Exploring nature by intermingling science and art is an exceptionally good idea. Adding the riddling element makes it all the more enticing for ages 4 or 5 and up.

Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America
by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein
published in 2005 by Harper Collins

Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, came by her nickname early in life. How did that happen? Why did she so deeply cherish the  Texas Bluebonnet? Where did she roam in her wilderness ramblings as a child? What cause did she take up as First Lady and how has that brought beauty to us all?

Read about the wildflower legacy of this far-seeing woman and become inspired to bring beauty to a patch of the world near you. Brilliantly colorful illustrations are fitting for this blossom-filled story. Ages 4 and up.

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Douglas W. Tallamy
revised edition published in 2009 by Timber Press
360 pages

If you’re pondering the idea of replacing some of your gardens or lawns with native plants, this book might just give you the final push into action. Tallamy has a contagious passion for restoring habitat loss by incorporating a lovely, diverse selection of native plants into our home landscapes.

Brief, informative, engaging segments address everything from the vital role of insects in our world to the tragic costs of extinction and diversity loss, the critical importance of native species, and even helpful ways of being considerate of the neighbors when replacing typical landscaping with native landscaping. It’s a practical, energized, mini-course in backyard ecology.

Included are tips for starting small, using leaf litter as mulch, choosing tree species wisely, and more. There are also dozens of pages loaded with full color photographs that walk us through various species of trees, native insects and butterflies with their needs and benefits. There’s a Q&A section with answers to tough questions. And there are appendices with copious lists of native plants and their wildlife value listed by region of the U.S., as well as host plants for various butterflies.

You can find my earlier posts about my backyard restoration project here.


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