The stewardship process of converting a fallow farm field into a prairie ecosystem is a multi-year process. It begins with the removal of existing vegetation through the application of herbicide. The removal of existing non-native vegetation allows native grass and flower seeds to access the space, light, nutrients, and water that would otherwise be unavailable. Other methods can also effectively remove existing vegetation, but herbicides have the added benefit of minimizing soil disturbance and preventing erosion. After a few herbicide applications, the field is ready for planting. Unlike the flower bulbs buried in the ground at home, prairie seeds are often planted right at the ground surface. These plants invest their energy in developing an extensive root system before their leaves and stems develop, and are typically quite discreet for the first year or two following planting. Once a deep root system is developed, the prairie grasses and wildflowers begin to visibly dominate the area. The planting will continue to mature over time as a result of natural disturbances and the recruiting of plants in their preferred microhabitats.
The Institute stewardship staff manages prairie plantings with prescribed fires that are intentionally ignited under a strict set of weather and site conditions. The fires help reduce competition from non-native plants. Prior to widespread European settlement in West Michigan, fires were commonly ignited either by Native Americans or by lightning strikes. Because fires have been suppressed in our landscape for nearly 200 years in order to protect our homes and crops, Michigan’s prairies, savannas, and other fire-dependent ecosystems are quickly disappearing. The controlled fires help set back encroaching shrubs and trees, stimulate native plants while reducing competition from invasive plants, and fertilize the soil with ash.
To increase awareness and understanding of the historical and environmental value of native plants and provide a highly visual example of native plants and provide a highly visual example of the efforts taking place on more remote areas of the property, the Institute replaced the non-native grasses and invasive weeds with native prairie plantings on the Visitor Center berm in 2013, the Education Building berm in 2015, and the parking lot berm in 2016. Native plants are part of our natural heritage, and it is important to ensure they are preserved for the health and enjoyment of future generations.
Each of the three phases of the three phases of this project was designed to be hands-on with a variety of people involved in the actual planting. Community involvement builds awareness of environmental issues as well as cultivates connections with the Institute.