A nursery that specializes in native plants

Aug 21, 2020  | 6 min  | Ep4601

Most of the area surveyed by Creighton University was at one time prairie. The acres transitioned over time to tilled fields to help feed the world. Now, a movement is looking to put some land back into native grasses and plants.

Peter Tubbs has more in our Cover Story.  

Workers slowly harvest ripe seeds on a September morning. The rows of Anise Hysop are part of the 365 acres of plants and grasses at Prairie Moon Nursery near Winona, Minnesota. Surrounded by corn, soybean and dairy operations, Prairie Moon is notable for managing a diverse harvest.

Bill Carter, President, Prairie Moon Nursery: “Well, we have a lot more crops, lots and lots of crops. We about 750 different species. Not all grown here but the vast majority of them are.”

The 750 varieties are plants that covered the prairies of the upper Midwest for millennia before the plow broke the sod in the 19th Century. As landowners have considered non-agricultural uses for farmland over the last 50 years, returning areas to the original plant base has gained popularity. Prairie Moon has found a business niche supplying seeds for restoration projects both public and private. While raising seed is an agricultural process, the details are different compared to neighboring farms.

Bill Carter, President, Prairie Moon Nursery: “and many of our plots were whole harvest multiple times. You know, we'll get the earliest crop off of it, we'll come back, hand collect another. You can get a lot, a lot of seed faster by growing as a monocrop. You just can't do that with every species.”

Prairie Moon grows most of its own inventory, focusing on species that are rare or difficult to grow. Common varieties that are simpler to grow and harvest are purchased from growers in the upper Midwest and New England to maximize the diversity within each cultivar. 

While seeding native plants benefits the soil and reduces erosion, these species also feed the insects that pollinate agricultural crops and other plants.

Kaitlyn O’Connor, Education & Outreach, Prairie Moon  “They produce that habitat that a lot of our species need. Um, and they also have benefits to a soil and water quality, especially as it relates to soil erosion and water pollution and runoff.”

Harvest stretches from late May to early November. The winter months are spent cleaning, packaging, and shipping orders. Some varieties are grown out and shipped as live plants, but the majority of the offerings in the company’s catalog are seeds. 

Most of the varieties offered for sale are grown in plots, which allows for easier weeding and harvest. But some of the plants only grow in a naturalized stand, as they would in a native prairie environment. 

Prairie Moon advises landowners looking to install native plants on their property. The goals of the landowner and the conditions on the ground shapes the kinds of varieties that are planted. 

Kaitlyn O’Connor, Education & Outreach, Prairie Moon  “Every piece of land has a historical context in terms of habitat. … But I think what more and more people are realizing is that we have our own unique habitats here in North America, like the Prairie that 99 percent of that habitat has been plowed under or paved over since the 1830s and so there is real work that we can do right here at home.”

Prairie projects run the gamut from ornamentals in the yard of a homeowner to a preservation site surrounded by full mechanization farm fields.

Kaitlyn O’Connor, Education & Outreach, Prairie Moon  “First you want to have a conversation about the homeowner's goals. What exactly is it that you want to achieve? Are you hoping to get a government contract cost share through the NRCS or the FSA? That's going to be a certain type of project. Are you an urban land owner who just wants to attract birds so that you can do some bird watching from the kitchen window? Well that's going to be another type of project that we can help with.”

Some prairie reconstructions look to return a farm field to the plants it may have hosted before agricultural cultivation. The State of Iowa has planted hundreds of miles of highway right-of-way in native plants to both provide habitat for pollinators and birds as well as reducing mowing costs each summer. Iowa is the only state with this kind of program.

A hillside that drains into a creek in Whiteside County, IL was converted to native prairie 20 years ago. Part of the projects seed stock were produced by Prairie Moon. Since the restoration, the erodible farm ground has stabilized, and the creek now runs clear.  

The improvement in water quality may be long term due to the work of the Hardin family which owns the land. This corner of the farm is rented ground, but has been placed under an easement that limits the types and techniques of agriculture the renter can utilize, and requires the areas of prairie and trees remain undisturbed. 

Steve Hardin, Landowner: "And it's sort of a unique that it's um, one, one of the few agricultural easements, um, where it's, it's for perpetual, either agriculture use or preservation use.”

The prairie and hardwood plantings run for nearly a mile along Otter Creek, which drains into the Mississippi River 8 miles downstream. The mix of grasses and plants provides food and shelter for a variety of birds and wildlife, and filters the water that flows off the strip.

The Hardin family enjoys continuing the conservation work their Grandfather began in the 1950’s with the first terraces in the region. The original prairie planting was done by their late Grandmother in 1998, and has matured over the past 20 years.

Steve Hardin, Landowner:  “Just um, going there and walking it, it just has a whole different feel than the rest of the farm and I don't know exactly how to explain it…  it's just quieter there and something's more serene about it when you walk it. We've started now with a couple of people in the area. We, one other person had some interests, so you never know. Maybe, maybe it'll catch on.”

For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs.


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