Looking for Low-Maintenance on a Large Scale

 

The Olson prairie is in full bloom this summer.

“Before I had grandchildren,” says Nora Olson, “all of my pictures were of our prairie.” We are standing in her kitchen, and Olson has just finished giving me a tour of her property, located in Stillwater Township just north of Silver Creek. When the Olson’s bought their home a few years back, the land included an old farm field gone to weeds, as well as a rather large area of lawn surrounding the house. Having previous experience with prairies that she knew and loved, including 50 acres of land elsewhere in the township, Olson decided to bring the prairie to her new house as well. Now their home sits nestled between woods, a wetland and a few acres of prairie – a microcosm of the habitats found in the St. Croix Valley.

When people move out to the country, they are usually drawn by rural character and the opportunity to be closer to nature. All too often, however, they find themselves tending to giant lawns, without the knowledge or resources to do something different with the land. Turf grass is an easy and relatively inexpensive landscaping option for developers converting farmland into three to five acre lots. Everyone knows how to maintain a lawn, and most people appreciate the aesthetic of a large lawn, as well as having the space for outdoor play and gatherings. At the same time, tending to anything more than half an acre of grass can be a time consuming venture. Even with a riding mower, one can easily spend several hours each weekend trimming grass, not to mention the weeding, watering, fertilizing and pest management needed to keep a large lawn looking good. In addition, turf grass provides no habitat for wildlife and does little to prevent rainwater from running off into roadside ditches and nearby waterways.

 

This spring, Minnesota Native Landscapes coordinated a prairie burn for the Olson property to control weeds and encourage the native plants to grow.

Reducing weekly maintenance was a major motivation behind Nora Olson’s decision to go native. “When I think of all the hours I have saved myself from mowing,” she says, “I know it was all worth it.” That is not to say that the project happened without a considerable amount of effort. The Olsons spent about a year working with Minnesota Native Landscapes, a private company specializing in the installation and management of native plant communities, to prep the site by tilling it and applying herbicide to kill the weed bed before they planted. Next, they worked with the company to re-contour the land so that water no longer runs off into the woods when it rains. Finally, the area was seeded with a mix of native wildflowers and grasses. “Before, the water used to rush downhill through the old farm field and take out mature trees in the woods,” Olson explains. Now, a berm along the edge of the prairie slows the water down and gives it a chance to soak into the ground before it reaches the trees. “It is kind of like a super-sized raingarden,” she laughs.

After the burn, animal burrows were easy to spot. Could this be a badger, perhaps?

While maintenance was a motivation, the natural beauty of the prairie is Nora Olson’s greatest reward. Though the prairie was relatively barren when I visited, the plants still charred from a prescribed burn the month before, the bare ground allowed us to spot several large animal burrows. We hypothesized they might belong to foxes or perhaps even a badger, which are known to prefer prairie as their habitat. During the summer, the flowers and seed heads attract birds and butterflies in abundance. Then there is the amazing variety of the plants themselves – purple coneflower, yellow black-eyed susans and feathery big bluestem. “I could just sit and look at it all day,” Olson remarked as she grabbed another seed head in her hand and stopped to examine a plant coming up through the ashes. “Even though I know it will come back after the burn, I still love seeing it all return.”

To learn more about creating your own prairie, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/prairierestoration to download a prairie restoration handbook or www.BlueThumb.org to find local seed sources and businesses specializing in prairie restoration and management. Landowners in Washington County can also contact the Washington Conservation District (WCD) for a free site visit as well as advice and technical assistance for their projects. If the prairie planting will help to fix a runoff or erosion problem affecting a lake or stream, you may also qualify for cost-share assistance from your local watershed district; ask WCD staff during your site visit to find out.

On Tuesday, August 7, Nora Olson and Stillwater Township will host a prairie tour and workshop from 6:30-8pm. Come to see the prairie in full bloom, get ideas for your own property, and learn about available assistance. RSVP to nor.olson@gmail.com or 651-430-3399.