Native Plants

The oldest prairie restoration project was established at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum in 1935, guided by the research director and professor, Aldo Leopold. Since then, restoration of ecological communities such as prairies has become an important scientific discipline around the world.

Prairie restoration involves the careful planning and planting of many species of grasses and forbs (flowering plants) that are native to Midwest prairies. When planting pollinator-friendly habitats, prairie restoration focuses special attention on using native plant species due to the traits these plants have developed over thousands of years to help them survive. For many non-ecologists, the benefits of using native plants are not always obvious.

 

Native Plants have Beneficial Effects

Ron Bowen, the founder and president of Prairie Restorations Incorporated (PRI), explained their emphasis on using native plants:

“We really feel native plants have a lot of benefits; number one of course they evolved and grew in these same environments. So logically [they] would be more adapted to the soils, the weather, even the insect populations that pollinate them and so on. So… these plants work better, they’re apt to be more successful and provide more benefits.”

No Room for Weeds

Native plants require less maintenance because they have adapted to the soil, temperature and rain conditions for their native habitat.  With their deep strong roots and close spacing they create an environment difficult for weeds to grow and reduce costs associated with weed suppression.

“There’s not a lot of room here for weeds, these plants are competitive, and they’re going to keep it very tight. In a thinner mix, a turf mix, a fescue mix there’s a lot of available niches, and that means weeds. That’s what weeds want, weeds want opportunities, so the tighter you can make it, and the more stable you can make it, the lower your maintenance costs are going to be,” explained Bowen.

Soil Health

Finally, planting native prairie plants helps to improve the health and fertility of the soil. One of the main reasons that the soils of the Midwest are so fertile is because the prairie that dominated the landscape in the past built up organic matter and other nutrients in the soil over millennia. This created an environment perfectly suited for crops. Using native prairie species in solar farms can help improve soil health, therefore increasing the value of the land once the solar project is removed.

Mike Evenocheck of PRI stressed the value that PRI finds from incorporating native species into their restorations. “These plants evolved over thousands of years to be where they are in these intricate plant communities. And to use these in the built landscape is a great solution because they not only provide benefits for pollinators and other habitat, but they’re very low maintenance. They don’t need to be fertilized or watered; they’re adapted to the conditions here so it makes good sense to incorporate them in the landscape.”

Water Infiltration

The root structures of native forbs and grasses also help with water infiltration. Colleen Hollinger, public relations and business development manager at PRI, explained how these native prairie plants excel at reducing runoff.

“We’re able to go in and put in the native crops … that have six foot root system in there. What that does is it increases the whole filtration of water so that you end up not having standing water. You can have a one hundred year, two hundred year level of rain fall and we’ll go out the next day and what used to have been a mini lake for several days is merely some small amounts of moisture standing in the lowest parts of the prairie, because the prairie has adapted … all those roots create those air holes and it takes away the storm water,” said Hollinger.

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