Why does a first year prairie look like garbage?

Our prairie is now 2 years old, but we forgot to report on it’s first year growth. Maybe it’s because we were embarrassed of how it looked. There was so much uncertainty and fear that first year. We planted at the end of May 2017.

Right after planting, we had a month and half without rain and punishingly hot 90F weather – that’s hot for Minnesota.The prairie looked like a bunch of little weeds and lots of sand. It was pretty obvious all of our seeds had died and we had made a mistake.

We called the seed company. We called our conservation officer. They all assured us that seeds will grow when the weather/time is right and it would take about 3 years before the prairie looked somewhat respectable. That wasn’t super reassuring but they took our complaints in stride. Here is an image that shows how prairie plants grow. The word on the street is that prairie plants spend the first few years growing “underground” and then start appearing above ground. Wild stuff.

Why Does a Prairie Look Like Garbage in Year 1?

As the summer went on, the weeds got taller. Here are a few shots of the prairie later in the summer. We had a lot of horseweed (mare’s tail), crab grass, and yarrow. The yarrow is a welcome short lived perennial prairie The others are “weedy” annuals that we mowed down to allow light to reach the other seeds and to prevent as much reseeding as possible. We had a whole field of mare’s tail!!! This was not what we expected, wanted, or imagined. It set up a lot of fear and misgivings in our minds.

Luckily, it turns out the seed company and the conservation officers were right. The prairie would grow when it was the right time.

We had back to back droughts in 2017 and 2018, but the prairie did begin to “show up” in year 2. You can check out our Year 2 update here.  If our weather had been wetter, it’s possible the prairie could have emerged sooner.

Maybe some of the plants did germinate and die because of the heat/drought. We will never know. We planted 48 species and in year 2, I was able to identify 21 of those plants growing on our prairie by the end of fall. Not all of them were there in force, but I found at least 1 plant of those 21 species.

The grasses are really starting to show up and should fill in a lot of the open sandy areas. I am crossing my fingers that we finally start to see some more sunflowers, anise hyssop, asters and blazing stars. We are planning to bring our first box of bees next spring and they will need the flowers.

The moral of this story: if you plant prairie plants, try to have patience. They will eventually come. It takes years for them to look “nice” but it does happen.

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