Your biggest task in the first few years of a prairie planting is weed control. Weeding, burning, and mowing are the most effective ways to control weeds.
In small areas, removing and cutting back weeds are the most efficient methods. The most challenging aspect of these tasks is distinguishing between prairie plants and weeds. If you aren't sure what a seedling is, wait a week and look again, but be sure to remove the suspected weeds before they flower and set seed. See references for obtaining the slide set, Prairie Seeds and Seedling Identification (EP-6725).
The best way to manage a large prairie is through the use of controlled burns. Fire promotes plant growth by keeping down competition from trees and weeds, and by recycling nutrients. Burning is not practical or possible in all situations, as in small lots or within the city limits. Check with your local fire department to see if burning is allowed, and to get the required permits. Burning in April or early May is most advantageous to warm-season prairie plants, because it reduces competition with weeds and the soil heats up more quickly. Most prairies have only portions burned yearly in a cycle where complete burning takes several years. This partial burning fosters survival of overwintering insects that are lying dormant in the form of eggs or cocoons. It also leaves food and shelter for birds. Though burning is quite effective, it is not recommended until at least the third year after planting.
Mowing and removing clippings is a good substitute for burning, particularly on smaller sites. If you start a prairie from seed, mowing is recommended during the first year to control weeds which grow more quickly than prairie plants. For the first few years, set the mower high (4" to 8") to avoid cutting desirable prairie plants. After 4 or 5 years, mowing once a year after the seeds have fallen, or preferably, in the early spring. Remove clippings to expose crowns for regrowth.
Prairie usually needs no herbicides, insecticides, or fertilizers. Dense prairie vegetation will discourage invading weeds although perennial grasses from adjacent turf can invade along the edges of the planting. The wildflowers will provide food for beneficial insects which will aid in controlling pest insect populations.
For additional help in establishing and maintaining your prairie, consult the references below as well as private landscaping companies and, in some midwestern states, the Department of Transportation. For your own enjoyment, take photos from of same spot, on the same dates, several times a year, for several years. This will show you how far your prairie garden has progressed. Note how it changes through the year, including new and different creatures that your garden has attracted. Don't be surprised to see butterflies and native birds like goldfinches. Enjoy the benefits of restoring part of the landscape to what it was not so long ago.
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