If You Build it They Will Come

A Restored Prairie: Liberty Prairie Reserve

Tallgrass prairies that once covered millions of acres of the American Midwest, including Illinois, now cover less than 1% of its original area. Recent interest in prairie restorations and landscaping with native plants have begun to make a bit of progress in re-creating one of the most complex and diverse ecosystems in the world. Native prairie plants are resilient, drought-resistant, and attract many species of native wildlife, including birds and butterflies. For information about butterflies and other insects native to northeastern Illinois, visit Ron Panzer’s website.

Birds and butterflies require three essential elements in their habitat: food, water, and shelter. The natural food, shelter, and water provided by prairie plants will attract the widest variety of birds and butterflies. Another bonus is that prairie plants help to establish a food web where the butterflies and their larval stage caterpillars serve a major food source for birds and other wildlife. So, “if you build it, they will come.”

Knowing that our efforts to re-create a prairie ecosystem would increase the native fauna in our own backyard, made us want to forge quickly ahead! Once we had selected the restoration site, we quickly realized that the project was going to take years to accomplish. As seasoned DIYers, we knew that our dreams and enthusiasm were always greater than our time and endurance, nevertheless, determination to make a positive impact on our environment prevailed. We decided that the restoration project would be much more doable by dividing the designated restoration area into smaller, more manageable portions. Our property’s plat of survey coupled with measurements taken in the designated restoration area shown below in green provided us the dimensions needed to sub-divide the region in to manageable pieces. Once we had selected the sub-site section and prepared the seedbed, the next task was to design the garden.

Land Plat with Designated & Divided Restoration Areas Displayed in Green

Graph paper supplied a grid that helped us accurately design the gardens. The grid system enabled us to map out the size and shape of each sub-section site, as well as plot the site’s other physical features that will influence the prairie garden such as shrubs, trees, or creek. Drawn to scale, the plot’s square footage could be determined. Determination of the site’s area helped us calculate the number of plants and their placement on the site. As a general rule, forbs are to be planted twelve (12) inches on center and grasses planted eighteen (18) to twenty-four (24) inches on center. Below is a layout for sub-section H and a photo of the partially prepared slope.

Restoration Sub-section H Plot

Partially Prepared Sub-section H slope

Proper flora balance is recommended to promote the establishment of adequate ecosystem biodiversity and provide a visually appealing garden year round. Sub-section H has a fairly steep slope, which required the installation of fascines to help limit erosion. Deep-rooted forbs, grasses, and sedges were used in conjunction with the fascines to more permanently stabilize the soil.

We selected most of the plants for our creek side restoration project from those listed in the Native Plant Guide for Streams and Stormwater Facilities in Northeastern Illinois prepared by the USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Services’ Chicago Metro Urban and Community Assistance Office, as well as  Swink and Wilhelm’s book, Plants of the Chicago Region. The USDA guide helped us choose plants that were well matched to our garden’s sun exposure, soil conditions and type. Armed with our garden design it’s now time to build fascines and grow native plant “plugs” for installation in our garden.

Local & national birding information:

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