My interest in the prairie started early. Born in 1967, I developed an interest in nature early. Later this evolved into an interest in prairie and prairie restoration when my family bought 80 acres of farmland in Hardin County, Iowa in 1987. That Fall, we staked off two acres of the land with the intention of restoring it to tallgrass prairie. Soon we were scouring the local ditches and railroad right of ways collecting all of the prairie seed we could lay our hands on. Surprisingly, we found quite a few tiny pockets of surviving prairie. Educating ourselves as we went along, we learned to identify the common prairie species by sight both from what they looked like in flower and after they went to seed. Winter soon came and we put our prairie restoration on hold till Spring.
In the Spring, we tilled the plot we chose to restore with a garden sized Sears garden tiller. We recognized the uniqueness of what we were doing as we tilled through heavy corn stubble residue from the previous year and attracted long glances from passing pickup trucks from the road nearby.
Scattering our collected seed to the wind, we were able to cover nearly half an acre that first year. Based on what we had read on prairie restoration, we knew we’d need to be patient as the prairie plants spent their first years developing deep roots with little to show above ground.
Later that Summer, we transplanted rattlesnake master, hoary puccoon, prairie phlox, and others from an area of railroad right of way we had learned was slated for bulldozing. We were happy to augment our restoration with transplanted sods of virgin prairie. More important, we were happy to save the virgin transplants from certain destruction. We learned through our restoration efforts that the last bits of virgin Iowa prairie were still being chiseled away into oblivion. Would there be a day when even these tiny bits would be gone?
By the second Spring, we observed tiny compass plant seedlings and the emergence of small clumps of big bluestem and Indian grass. Slowly the prairie was returning to where it had been absent for 115 years.
By the third year, the prairie took off. By the fourth year, we burned the first half acre and through more local seed collecting had reseeded the remaining acre and a half.
Twenty something years later, this two acre restoration exceeded our expectations. The transplanted species have prospered and spread. Our success was highlighted a decade ago when the Hardin County Roadside Management director contacted us about the prairie he discovered one Summer day as he and his crew spot sprayed thistle patches in county ditches. “Was it virgin prairie?” he asked. He could not tell the difference.
Our restoration is a sense of pride. Not pride in ourselves, but we were proud that at least on this tiny speck of land in a sea of corn and soybeans, the prairie, not the bulldozer, won.