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Prairie Establishment

Iowa Prairie

“Not a breath of air stirred over the free and open prairie…”
– Francis Parkman

Prairies once covered hundreds of miles in the state of Iowa. Today, less than 0.01% of the original prairies remain. Not only are they an integral part of our heritage, they play an incredibly important role in our natural environment. Without them, the Iowa that we know and love wouldn’t be the same, so restoration is key to protecting the land that we call home.

The Importance of Prairies:

Prairies are beneficial for many, many reasons, both visually and environmentally. They provide beauty in all seasons, with changing colors and textures throughout the year for aesthetic appeal, while also providing a natural habitat for nesting birds and wildlife. They also make for an excellent food source for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, while working hard to prevent erosion, as well. Not to mention, they work perfectly for ditch planting and providing a screen in urban environments.

fiddle-leaf figs placed indoors

How to Grow a Prairie:

With so many benefits for both you and the environment, growing your own prairie couldn’t be more appealing! Although large expansive sites are optimal for prairie restorations, you can also plant backyard prairies with just a few hundred square feet. Prairies thrive in many soil types, so your only concern should be choosing a site that gets full sun, especially in the afternoon. However, if you have a prairie remnant on or near your site, remember to contact your local county conservation office for advice on how to protect it.

fiddle-leaf fig plant

Selecting Your Prairie Seed Mix:

Once you have your site, you will need to select your prairie seed mix. There are mixes available for both wet and dry sites, and you’ll want to select one that is as diverse as possible. Try to pick one with many different species of grasses and flowers for year-round interest and to provide the best pollinator habitat. Typically, they are modeled after historical prairies with about 60% grasses and 40% flowers. To fit with your aesthetic, you can adjust this percentage, but remember to keep at least 20% grasses for a true prairie.

When choosing your prairie seed mix, it’s important to select locally-sourced seeds harvested from Iowa plants that are adapted to our ever-changing climate. Here at Ted Lare Garden Center, our horticultural experts will be happy to help you select the best mix and the correct amount for you and your plot. You can also learn more about selecting and planting seed by visiting the Tallgrass Prairie Center online.

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Planting Prairie Seed Mix:

Before you begin planting, you will need to kill off any existing vegetation. You can do so with 1-2 applications of Round-Up from April through October, but remember that spring is easier for killing any weeds than fall. If there are any trees or shrubs, you’ll want to remove those and treat with a herbicide, but if you have steep slopes and erosion problems, you can skip treatment. Once the vegetation is killed, it is best to till the soil and remove old vegetation, if possible.

With the site properly prepared, prairies can be planted in both spring and fall, but late fall and early winter are optimal, as many prairie seeds need our cold winters to break dormancy. This late seeding also rules out the need to break up the soil before planting, as freezing and thawing will naturally work the seeds into the soil.

To ensure an even application, spread your seed right after a light snowfall so you can see where the seeds have fallen. While seed injectors and mechanical seed spreaders are great for larger acreages, spreading by hand is both simple and cost-effective. To spread by hand, grab a handful of seeds and walk quickly over the area, slowly moving your fingers to release seed as you go, and repeat until the area is covered. Without snow cover, it will be difficult to tell where seeds land, but continue to cover the area as best you can.

fiddle-leaf fig plant

Maintaining Prairie Grass:

Maintaining your prairie during its first year is the most critical, as there will be a seed bank of weeds waiting to sprout that your prairie seeds will have to battle against for light and nutrients. To give them a fighting chance, mowing your prairie grass is key.

Mow your prairie seedlings down 3-4 times over the course of the first summer. Don’t fret, it won’t hurt your new seedlings, but it will actually force them to put more of their energy toward producing roots, giving you a stronger plant overall. Weeds, however, do not tolerate mowing well and will eventually stop sprouting, allowing your prairie seeds to overtake the spaces the weeds were occupying. After the first year, mowing will typically only need to be done first thing in the spring.

By about year 4, your prairie will be ready for a prescribed burn. If your area does not allow prescribed burning, you can instead use a rake to remove dead foliage after your typical spring mowing to keep thatch levels from smothering the plants. If your prairie is large, simply mowing in the spring will be enough to keep it looking good.

The only other maintenance that may be required is periodic weed control. It is important to keep an eye out for aggressive weeds, such as Canadian Thistle, which can spread quickly. Herbicides may be necessary, especially during prairie establishment.

To learn more about the mowing and maintenance schedule, be sure to check out our Prairie Establishment handout.

While it may not look like much in its first year, keep it up, and your hard work will pay off. Typically it takes about 3 years to see your prairie start to thrive, so do not panic during those first two years.  Watch as your native prairie plants burst into bloom, getting more beautiful with each passing year. With prairie establishment, you’re not only beautifying your backyard, but you’re also bringing our natural Iowa landscape back to life so we can continue to enjoy our rich heritage for years to come!

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Overwintering Tropicals in Iowa

“You can’t get too much winter in the winter”
– Robert Frost

Winter in Iowa can be a bittersweet time for most of us – while we won’t say no to a delicious cup of hot chocolate or the frozen, but stunning, winter aesthetic, it’s hard to say goodbye to our gardens and spending warm evenings outside. Once we start to feel that chill in the air, we know that our plants are getting ready for the season change. However, this doesn’t mean saying goodbye to all our plants quite yet. Bringing a few of your tropical plants inside for the winter is the perfect way to save them for next year, while allowing you to hold onto a slice of summer heaven all year.

How to Overwinter Your Tropicals:

The obvious answer to overwintering your delicate tropicals – who are much happier in a heated oasis than in our snowy Iowa prairies – is to simply bring them inside for the winter, and there are even a few different ways to do so. This makes it easy to find a method that is tailor-fit for your favorite plants, as well as your home and indoor lifestyle.

fiddle-leaf figs placed indoors

Overwinter as a Houseplant:

For tropicals of most shapes and sizes, bringing them indoors as a winter houseplant is a popular method to protect them. Plants like crotons, palms and philodendron will reap the benefits of your cozy indoor lifestyle, without the chilly winter weather, but you will also get to enjoy its beauty all year!

Simply repot your plant from your garden, shaking all the garden soil from the roots before moving to an indoor pot. For the best results while potted over the winter, always use fresh soil from a bag, not from your garden – this will also help to manage any pests from outside. Place your new temporary houseplant near a window to give them the sunshine they crave and water them as needed throughout the season – keeping in mind that they may need a drink more frequently in a pot than they would in your garden.

fiddle-leaf fig plant

Start Fresh With Plant Cuttings:

Some of our bigger plants are simply too large to manage indoors, like hibiscus and mandevillas, but that doesn’t have to prevent us from saving them in some way. Rather than struggling with a large mother plant, trim off a few healthy growths to repot and start growing them over the winter.

Take your cutting, remove the lower leaves, dip the stem in rooting hormone and plant them in new potting soil. With the warmth of your home and a little humidity (consider misting them to really encourage successful growth), you should see your cuttings taking root and thriving over the winter season.

Let Your Plant Go Dormant:

Allowing your plants to go dormant and hibernate through the winter will let you save your favorite tropicals without all the fuss of nurturing them in your house all winter. Whether it be a canna, begonia, or banana, leave your plant outside in the cooler weather this fall for a little longer, to let it know that it is time to hibernate – though, never past freezing. Once your plant has been chilled – but not killed with frost or snow (keep and eye on the forecast) – repot it in fresh soil and place somewhere cool and dark for the season. Although your plant is hibernating, it will still need some water, so don’t forget to check the soil for dryness periodically. Once the winter passes and the weather warms, you’ll have a gorgeous tropical plant that is ready to shine in your garden again after its beauty sleep.Love what you’re reading? Sign up to our email newsletter, and get inspiration delivered straight to your inbox.

Potential Pest Issues:

Before you bring your plants indoors make sure to look them over good for any pests that might be trying to hitch a ride indoors for the winter. Common pests often include mealybugs and spider mites and you’ll want to remove or treat them before bringing them inside where they can spread to other plants.

Mealybugs are fuzzy, white bugs that grow in the branches or crevices of plants.  Check the undersides of leaves for a fine webbing or mottled tiny leaf spots – signs of a pest problem – and remove any you see with a q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol.

Spider mites can be treated by spraying your plant with organic insecticidal soap, which can also be used to treat a wide host of other potential pest problems on tropical plants, such as aphids and whiteflies.

Pictured below from left to right: Mealybugs, and spider mite damage.

fiddle-leaf fig plant

Getting Adjusted:

Moving your plants from one climate to another normally causes a little bit of stress. To have healthier and more attractive plants through these transition periods, you can help them through their adjustment period from outdoors to indoors and back. Successful transitions start with happy plants. Try to get your tropicals as much sunshine as you can before you move them, and aim to keep their conditions similar to what they will experience in your home. Once you’ve moved your plant inside, keep them in as much sunshine as you can, and even consider using a sun lamp to help out, if you need additional light. Stressed plants show their dissatisfaction by wilting, browning, or dropping their leaves – making the adjustment easier is an investment in a healthy plant that looks great all year.

Once winter is over and the weather has warmed up again, it’s time to reintroduce your tropicals to your garden. For the best results, take your time to do this over a few weeks. Your plants will be spoiled with the consistency of your home climate and will need time to get used to the variability of our Iowa weather. If possible, shift them into a seasonal area, like a sunroom, or begin by taking them outside for only a few hours each day, leaving them for longer each time. Once they’ve had the chance to get used to outside temperatures and conditions, they’ll be happy left outside in the garden for the rest of the season, allowing you to enjoy them and the rest of your yard when the weather is mild.

We associate winter with freezing temperatures and the end of our garden, but it doesn’t have to be the end for all your plants. With the right overwintering, you can keep your tropicals to enjoy year after year beside all your favorite hardy garden perennials. All you need is a little know-how and extra care for your garden to continue to flourish every year, enhancing your outdoor experience with each new season, and saving a touch of greenery to get you through the frozen winter.