The Prairie Community needs Diversity

By Woody Woodruff

When my neighbors saw me put in 50 acres of prairie restoration and take out 50 acres of row crop they questioned my sanity. And after a substantial investment in native seed and plants, time, and labor, just to see a bunch of weeds growing the first few years, I had my doubts as well. However, as the prairie started to reach a balance in its diversity and a multitude of ecosystem services started to kick in, well, did I change my tune.  The community of the prairie came alive. That’s right; I see the prairie as a community of life, and a life much like our own communities. The first things that I noticed were all the new species of birds and insects that would stop during migrations for a safe place to rest and refuel.  Dragonflies and grassland birds were the first to come. The next thing to happen was that the numbers of everything started to increase. Bob whites, ring necks, meadowlarks, great horns, northern harriers, praying mantis, honey bees, monarchs, ornate box turtles and even king snakes, mice, white tails, cotton tails, bob cats and coyotes all made a niche for themselves in the prairie ecosystem. And as time continued and the prairie community developed, the population just seemed to balance out.

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At the fundamental development of a prairie are the plants. They are the staple source of food, shelter, and habitat for all the living things above ground as well as below the surface. The first thing I did at Mud Prairie was plant a wide variety of seeds to make up a diverse prairie community. Grass families are at the center of establishment. Grasses like Big & Little Bluestem, Indian, Eastern Gama, Buffalo and Side Oats Gama are a few. The largest family is the Asteraceae family which is made up of asters, roses, coneflowers and sunflowers. These families, as well as many others, make up the natural diversity of prairie plants that function in stimulating a heathy, natural state of sustainability. When I planted my prairie thirty years ago I started with five warm season grasses and 30 different flowering forbs. But for the first few years I saw little of that diversity develop. Then between five and ten years I started to see most of those plants surface. And as the health of the soil grows, I start seeing new varieties of plants that have been waiting for the right opportunity to grow. The fringed poppy mallow was one of those plants. A natural outcome of prairie land is that as the soil grows healthier, it can support more diversity. And with that diversity above ground, the system is feeding more diversity below ground as well. I too live in the prairie system, and as it has grown and changed, so has my view of the world. A community is much healthier if it is diverse in what it grows.

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