Back to our roots: Pocket prairies serve horticulture and history

FARGO - Some business, schools, parks and residents are returning to their roots and planting pocket prairies. These miniature prairies sprout on any utilized or non-developed land, creating a mini time travel device for all."Each one that is pla...
Planted specifically for pollinators, this pocket prairie flourishes. Special to The Forum.
Planted specifically for pollinators, this pocket prairie flourishes. Special to The Forum.

FARGO - Some business, schools, parks and residents are returning to their roots and planting pocket prairies. These miniature prairies sprout on any utilized or non-developed land, creating a mini time travel device for all.

"Each one that is planted is a little 'pocket' or piece of land that has been restored to native prairie," says Ashley Fisk, urban conservationist at Cass County Soil Conservation District (CCSCD).

Since the pocket prairie planting initiative began last year, CCSCD has restored 20 acres of native prairie grassses. Today pocket prairies range in size from 5 feet to 566,280 square feet. Fisk says that the native grasses that were here before the pioneers are all but wiped out. Only 3 percent of tallgrass prairies - which are native to the Red River Valley - remain today.

Prior to the Homestead Act of 1862, North Dakota was described by some as "a great uninterrupted expanses of nearly treeless prairie," according to AmericanHeritage.com. Fisk and others hope to restore some of our natural heritage so all might catch a glimpse of the ancestral Midwestern horizon.

"Pocket prairies are intended to be a mix of native (North Dakotan) grasses and wildflowers that will provide a wide array of interesting plants," she says. "Many different flowering species will provide various shapes, colors, and textures to a landscape as well as attract many different pollinating species."

Fisk says that she was inspired to start the initiative as she noticed the community's affinity for wildflowers and pollinators increasing. Tim LeClair - a Faro resident and beekeeper for last two years - reached out to the CCSCD after he learned about their pocket prairie initiative at the 56th Red River Valley Home and Garden Show.

"We just thought it would be a great environmental stewardship opportunity," LeClair says. "Pocket prairies are little less maintenance and a better habitat for our bees and other wildlife."

During April, the CCSCD prepped and planted 32,670 square feet of native prairie grasses on LeClair's land, south of 52nd Avenue on the east side of the Sheyenne River.

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Pocket prairies reduce compaction and erosion as well as help with infiltration by filtering out pollutants carried by runoff. These native grasses also attract pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds to increase a crop's harvest.

LeClair says during peak growing season he mows his lawn at least once a week, efforts that steal time, energy and money. When fully grown, pocket prairies do not require frequent mowing, which can decrease a person's carbon footprint.

"Before we were mowing about 2.5 acres, and it just didn't make sense to spend all that time out on the lawn tractor while not doing anything for the environment," LeClair says.

Unlike some plant species, native grasses and wildflowers can take up to 3 years to flourish. These plants have massive root systems, slowing above-ground growth. Maintenance varies from year one to year three; in the first year, watering is only necessary when it's a particular dry season. Defending your little piece of prairie can be difficult, during the first two years; thistles or other noxious weeds prey on these slow-growing plants.

Although LeClair chose to plant an extra large pocket. Fisk says that any person can use a large or small area to grow their own pocket prairie.

"There are lots of these little unused areas of turf in the downtown or industrial area and around the shopping areas of town," Fisk says.

Others see pocket prairies as an educational resource. Jill Wold, who teaches biology and earth sciences at Sheyenne High School in West Fargo, is planting their pocket prairie for the second time. Learning about pocket prairies from fellow high school science teacher Sara Forness, Wold first reached out to the CCSCD while Sheyenne High School was being built.

"We thought we would do different things with the pocket prairie," Wold says. "The students could identify plant species and do grasshopper counts in the fall."

Wold says that having the pocket prairie helps to explain what the CCSCD does, offering opportunities for juniors and seniors to think about their future.

"We are really excited for what the pocket prairie will look like in a few years," Wold says. "We just have to be patient."

For more information on how to plant your own pocket prairie, visit casscd.org

 

Pocket prairies: preparing, planting and pampering

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Spring to early summer planting is recommended in eastern Cass County. Planting time will vary from year to year but optimal seed germination occurs when the native plants' seeds are stratified - mixed with moist sand and placed in the refrigerator for one to four months.

Depending on the size of the "pocket," the time to prep and plant native grasses and wildflowers will vary. If the site is large and has 3-foot-tall growth on it, then expect to take some time on it - a site needs to be mowed close to ground and raked to expose bare soil.

The CCSCD can be hired to prep and plant prairie grasses for a small fee. Anything less than 10 acres costs a minimum of $300 to plant. Prep work is $65 per hour. Fisk estimates that a 0.5-acre site with standard turf grass would take approximately 2 hours.