‘Over 9 million acres of prairie once existed as a grassland paradise for Native Americans and early settlers. Today less than 1% remains.’ ~ USFW / USGS, Paradise Lost? Coastal Prairie of Louisiana and Texas
This article was written for June’s edition of the
Texas Master Naturalists™ Coastal Prairie Chapter
Memorial Day weekend along the Gulf Coast marks the beginning of summer in Texas. Last year in 2019, school came to a conclusive end and, with it, so did spring volunteering at the elementary school gardens. As the school’s leadership did not want to move forward with a more natural approach for gardening, my time was looking to free up for the summer. Any restoration effort would have to begin at home.
That’s when I stepped onto the Katy Prairie for the first time. I knew was a goner, love at first sight with tall grass prairie. My husband, Scott, was equally wowed and enamored with the variety of grasses, flowers, and life brimming in this natural refuge. We learned that diversity of life is the heart-and-soul of the prairie, the enormous water-storing capacity notwithstanding. How could we have lived decades in flood-prone Houston and not have known of this important ecological heritage?
“What do you think?” Scott asked on the drive home. “Can we build a prairie of sorts … in our yard?” It was a halfway baited question, meant to rile me up, to test how committed I might be to such an endeavor. “Turf grass is over-rated,” he finished, as if a foregone conclusion. He had me at ‘prairie;’ my mind was already working out the details of it all before we even pulled into the drive.
Beer and tape measure in hand, we walked through my prairie visions, finishing with square foot calculations and color-coding on the whiteboard. We then headed to the hardware store for plastic sheeting, and as with all good nature projects, the day ended with a good scalping and watering of the turf to be killed, punctuated with camping out by the creek.
Prairie madness … the very beginnings (May 2019)
All good projects start with engineering.
It did not take much to get the first 7,000 square feet ready for restoration; Katy Prairie Conservancy offered many resources to help with that. The real work was done by the sun’s rays and summer heat (death of turf grass, 9 weeks) followed by the microbial and soil fauna healing period (thick layer of wetted carbon, 8 weeks). All 40 yards of mulch – two trucks full – were free for the asking. A couple of unusually cool afternoons and a wheelbarrow got the job done.
Priority planting would be the sunniest first half where the grasses would grow, to allow sufficient establishment of root systems before the summer. All five grasses of the imperiled coastal prairie were present: Big and Little Bluestems, Switchgrass, Yellow Indiangrass, Eastern Gamagrass. Purchased as 1-gal starts, they were planted October 1st and November 1st, along with a variety of forb (aka wildflower) perennials. Each workday ended with seeding 2-ft diameter ‘crater pockets’ throughout the prairie and in between, just enough mulch moved aside to allow seed germination with bare soil. A thick layer of mulch remaining would discourage previously established St. Augustine and Bermuda from making a comeback.
Later winter growth (March 2020)
Come February, all the annual wildflowers on the edges arrived right on schedule, but those planted in the prairie were beginning to show too. Salvia and Physostegia were the first to ‘pop,’ beckoning all the carpenter (Xylocopa) and bumblebee (Bombus) individuals nearby. Judging by the numbers, they simply could not believe their eyes and tongues. Slowly, the other flowers matured: Gallardia, Coreopsis, Monarda, Rudbeckia, Ratiba, Helianthus, Vervain, Conoclinium, Pluchea. For all the tiny and varied bee and wasp and fly and beetle species in the area, it was as if a neon sign flashed: COME. AND. EAT.
Fraternal Potter Wasp
When COVID-19 hit mid-March, that little prairie would be our salvation. Stuck at home like many others, we broke up the monotony by walking around and through it, watching and logging all the newly found life that had just arrived. We learned that each species had different foraging techniques, and we began to recognize them by those habits. Who knew there could be so many dragonflies and damselflies? They love the prairie too! Like icing on the proverbial cake, bluebirds chose to raise their family on the bounty of the prairie.
Still Growing (April 2020)
One of the Twin Fawns
Proud Mr. and Mrs. Eastern Bluebird
Our very own Easter basket!
Nature’s pace paired with a notable absence of human cacophony made outdoors the place to be, and for the weeks that followed, that solitude and being part of nature calmed us to our evolutionary core. Everyone should have a prairie to ease their worries and fears. And while we should all strive more to help each other in difficult times, we should not discount the tiniest of those neighbors who now need us more than ever.
Parallel Leafcutter Bee
Full Bloom! (May 2020)
So here we are, a year later, and Memorial weekend marks the 1st anniversary of a pocket prairie restoration. What better way to celebrate than with a renewed restoration effort: 1,500 square feet more of coastal prairie to enjoy … and that much less to mow?
Coming 2021: Firefly Meadow
Some in the coastal prairie circles have said to start small, but at least start.
For the health of our environment, for the animals that have always been here who need our stewardship, for our very mental and physical health, I say start where you are, with what you have, where you can … and don’t ever stop.
Related Sites and Links:
- Build a Pocket Prairie | Katy Prairie Conservancy
- Natural Solutions to Flooding | Katy Prairie Conservancy
- Paradise Lost? The Coastal Prairie of Louisiana and Texas | US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey
- Dirt Play: Pocket Prairie | DirtNKids Blog