After observing the beauty of a nearby prairie you may be tempted to convert a small or large portion of your property to a prairie complete with native wildflowers and grasses. Starting a prairie from seed involves more labor and patience than most conventional plantings, but, once established, prairie plantings pay off in beauty, drought tolerance and minimal maintenance.
Preparing the Site
Site preparation is essential. For the best results, the existing weeds and all other vegetation should be removed before sowing seed. There are three methods of eliminating vegetation. The best method is the application of a contact herbicide (such as Roundup™) sprayed directly on growing plants. It kills plants on contact and breaks down before reaching the soil. Wait at least 10 days after the last spraying before you plant your seed. Never spray on a windy day because the spray may drift. It usually requires two applications of Roundup at two-week intervals to get rid of unwanted weeds and vegetation.
Another method to prepare the site is to till the ground. The disadvantage to this method is that each time you till you also bring more weed seeds to the surface to sprout and germinate. If you must till, till only 4-5 inches deep to remove old roots. Spray herbicide three to six weeks after the final cultivation to eliminate new weed seed that has sprouted.
If you have a smaller area you could kill the vegetation without herbicides by covering the area with black plastic, tarps or other material for an entire growing season to smother growth.
One of the easiest landscapes to convert into prairie is a lawn free of weeds. After herbicide application, mow the grass as close to the ground as possible. If there is not at least 20% bare ground for seed contact, rake up all vegetation.
Wildflower Seeding Times
Fall seeding is generally recommended for most wildflowers and native grasses. Sow the seeds on the surface evenly after the first frost (usually late November through mid-January) and let the freezing and thawing take the seed down into the soil. Many of the seeds will germinate during March and April but the warm season grasses will not germinate until May or June when the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees F.
Spring seeding is also an option. For best results, seed should be planted from mid-May to mid-June. The benefit of spring seeding is more moisture availability.
Seed can be sown a number of different ways depending on the size of area to be planted. Hand sowing and hand held cyclone seeders usually work well in areas of an acre or less. When hand sowing it is important to mix the seed with kitty litter or vermiculite to help prevent clumping and to provide even distribution. Take one-half of the total mix and evenly sow seed over the entire area. Take the remaining half of the mixture and spread over the same area spreading opposite to your first pass. Rake the seed in lightly, being careful not to bury the seed too deeply. Try to bury the seed no deeper than 1/4 inch. Tamp to firm the seedbed after seeding. When planting larger areas, again mix seed with kitty litter or vermiculite, use a Brillion or Truax seeder with a brush attachment on freshly cultivated soil. Seed drills, if equipped with a no till attachment, can plant into sites that have existing vegetation eliminated with herbicides.
Water is necessary for all seeds to germinate. However, fall plantings do not need to be watered, and spring seed requires the soil to be moist for 4-6 weeks after seeding. If rainfall is low in the spring then light watering 2-3 times a week for 4-6 weeks will help ensure good germination. DO NOT over water as this could stimulate weed seed growth and root rot of the new seedlings. Wildflowers and native grasses are very drought tolerant and continual watering is not needed. After the first year of seedling growth, watering will not be necessary unless there is extreme drought.
It is not necessary to fertilize wildflowers if they are planted in their native habitat. The first year of growth for most perennial wildflowers and grasses is a time of root establishment. Fertilizer would be only be used by the invasive weeds, which you do not want. Also fertilizing may produce excessive foliage at the expense of blooms.
Mowing is the easiest way to keep weeds from taking over. For smaller or steep areas, a weed-eater works fine. Wait to mow your planting area until all plants have gone dormant and set seed. After the first killing freeze, wait about 30 days and then mow all vegetation to 6-8 inches high. This will help protect the plants from heaving during the winter. Rake off large pieces of vegetation to allow the soil to warm in the spring and trigger the growth of native, warm season grasses and wildflowers. For small areas, hand weeding can also be done the second year after planting. Your planting should be mowed the first year because hand weeding may dislodge young seedlings from the ground. The second year you may weed by hand when the ground is soft after a rain. You can also clip off weeds at the base before they have a chance to set seed.
Typically, it takes three years for perennial wildflowers to get well established. When grown from seed, most native wildflowers put their energy into root development the first year or two. That is why our mixes contain both annuals and perennials. The annuals will bloom the first year while the perennials are getting established. The second year some annuals will reseed themselves and a few of the perennials will bloom. By the third year, the perennials should begin to bloom in earnest. The annual species in your original mix will die out after the first year of growth so you might want to reseed with our annual mix in the spring in subsequent years to ensure continuous color.
Wildlife Food Plot Planting Instructions
Much care and hard work has gone into every pound of our wildlife mixes. First, identify and mark the area you are seeding to attract wildlife. Till and break up the soil by discing, harrowing or dragging. Remove as much thatch as possible. If your area allows burning, you could burn the area prior to seeding. We do not recommend applying any fertilizer due to invasive weeds that could take up most of the nutrients. You can proceed to seeding with a broadcast hand seeder or a mechanical spinner with a tractor. Cover the seed very lightly with a drag harrow or chain link fence pulled behind a tractor or ATV. Make sure you pack the ground firmly after covering the seed. Control annual weeds throughout the summer by hand weeding or brush hogging with a tractor or mower.
Turf Planting Instructions
Make sure all ground is dry and has been graded for the last time. Optimum time for turf seeding depends on locality and time of year you wish to seed. A general rule of thumb for the Midwest in the spring is March 15 - May 10, and in the fall from August 15 - October 10. Pick up any rocks that might interfere with future mowing. Test your soil prior to seeding and follow fertilization recommendations set forth in test. It is best to determine the area in square feet to be seeded by measuring the length by width. We suggest using a broadcast seeder (hand or tractor operated). Set the seeder for the pounds per square feet. It is usually a number or a letter along the opening of the seeder. For new seeding on bare soil, we recommend 10 lbs per square feet. For over-seeding existing lawns, 5-7 lbs per square feet is usually our recommendation. Make sure you get good seed to soil contact. For large areas, you can compact the soil with a roller. There are rollers which can be pushed and rollers which can be pulled by a tractor, truck or ATV. Small areas can be compacted by stomping the seeded area with your feet. Apply starter fertilizer (with no pre-emergent) after seeding is completed. Keep the area moist for at least 14 days and do not mow shorter than 3 inches the first three times. To ensure the seed does not dry out between waterings, lightly sprinkle with rich top soil, covering all seeded areas.
Horse Pasture Planting Instructions
Pasture over-seeding can be very successful at any time of the year. The best time for over seeding is November - May for most areas. It is important to remember the amount of animals that are stocked on any previously seeded area. Prior to seeding, we recommend you conduct a soil test and add the nutrients as needed. Using a tractor with a disc, drag down any thatch and break up any waste by-products from the animals in the stocked area. If seeding bare ground, make sure all clods and foreign debris are worked into the soil. After seeding the area with a drill or broadcasting, pack the soil by using a cultipacker or any other item that has a rolling action to smooth out the area. Depending on the number of animals per acre, over-seeding would only need to be done every other year. We recommend 21 lbs per acre for bare ground seeding and 15 lbs per acre for over-seeding. It is a cheaper source of feed than buying hay all year!