What the Last Prairies Teach Us About 21st Century Gardening

I live on the edge where the historic range of tallgrass prairie begins to transition to mixed grass prairie. A few hours west in the Nebraska panhandle and you’re in shortgrass prairie. Basically, the dryer it is, the shorter the prairie (and the more wildlife, since most people don’t want to live out there). It’s amazing what we don’t know about the tallgrass, an ecosystem that once covered 10% of the country and is the least protected and most endangered of any ecosystem in the world. In the last remnants we’re slowly unearthing how the prairie once worked, and what it might mean for conservation, restoration, and even backyard gardening.

Spring Creek Prairie in Denton, NE -- never plowed

Spring Creek Prairie in Denton, NE — never plowed

A recent study done by a team based at the University of Colorado took soil samples from 31 cemeteries in the eastern Plains, finding that a group of bacteria from the phylum Verrucomicrobia was abundant – it’s not in tilled farmland soils of the former tallgrass prairie. Though they aren’t sure what the bacteria does in the soil just yet, it seems to play a part in breaking down carbohydrates and thrives in poor-nutrient soil (aka non fertilized farmland).

So what? Follow me a bit further to the STRIPS program at Iowa State University, where researchers at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture have begun trials of prairie planting within farm fields.  By strategically placing very small amounts of prairie in and around agricultural fields, the center has found that topsoil loss is reduced 95% and chemical fertilizer runoff into streams and lakes drops 90%. The deep roots of prairie plants anchor the soil and help with water infiltration and filtration. In addition, let’s say you’re growing crops that require insect pollination for maximum yield – well, need I go on naming the benefits of wildflowers?

July in part of my garden

July in part of my garden

From 2006-2011 the states of Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas converted prairie to farmland in an area equal in size to Indiana (some studies say New York state). From 2011-12 Nebraska has lost virgin prairie and rangeland to the tune of almost 55,000 acres – twice as much as the next closest competitor, South Dakota. And our governor just asked President Obama to increase ethanol mandates which would put even more pressure on farmers to convert prairie margins, duck-breeding ponds, marshes, and highly erodible lands to corn.

So I’ve ranted at you while tossing out stats, and you’re asking what in the blazing bison saddles does this have to do with my garden. First, I don’t believe in tilling soil – it disrupts soil structure and microbial life; I hate seeing it done in ornamental native plant gardens as prep. Second, prairie plants will, maybe in a few decades, begin to increase soil fertility and moisture retention – shoot, I’d argue in just 7 years in my garden it’s already happening, as water that used to pool after a heavy rain no longer does. Third, using prairie plants will increase wildlife diversity; the STRIPS study showed a 380% increase in biodiversity just using small patches of prairie in row crop fields, so imagine what will happen in your backyard.

You better know what this is and what's at stake -- plant milkweed

You better know what this is and what’s at stake — plant milkweed

Clearly there’s a better way to farm that won’t inhibit yields (it may even increase them), will heal waterways and create safer drinking water, could mitigate fertilizer use, and lower the need to pump irrigation water from rivers and aquifers. And by extension, there’s clearly a better way to garden — it’s 21st century gardening. Right? Gardening to connect us back to place; gardening to heal our broken connection to life; gardening to make others aware of the larger landscapes that now also need our tending as a result of climate change. It’s a radical new world — in 2014 make your garden a native plant garden and protest the systems that literally erode our future.

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  1. says

    I just want to say thanks — for what you do and for being eloquent talking about it. I can usually tell from the first sentence teaser in my NPWG email that it is one of your blogs, so I go read it. And occasionally go over to the Deep Middle. At first I read because, hey, you’re in Lincoln, home of Weaver and 9-mile prairie, and I just like that. But I’m hooked, and happy for the chance to send your essays to others.
    from the Milwaukee River Watershed and home of Curtis and Lapham,

  2. Marilyn says

    The STRIPS program sounds promising. Amazing what can be accomplished when we work with mother nature instead of against.

  3. says

    I so agree, no tilling! Just think of the underground ecosystem lost – all those important fungal-plant connections alone. I think no till ag systems take 7 years to regain yields comparable to tilling. After that, in many cases yields increase and just think of the soil structure (compaction aside).
    Heather Holm recently posted..Book Release: Pollinators of Native Plants


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