Going Native

A Prairie Planting Guide


Loren Lown


Polk County Conservation Board

Jester Park

Granger, IA 50109







Published January 2001

2nd Addition








Printed on Recycled Paper with Soy Ink



When the first ethnic European settlers crossed into what is now Indiana, Illinois and on into Iowa, they were astonished by what they saw.  Some of the landscape resembled the savannas of Africa with large trees dotting the grasslands.  However, when they looked upon hundreds of miles of only grasslands, the best name they could find for this alien environment was “prairie”, the French word for meadow.  We now know that this Meadow was a complex ecosystem that developed over eons to suit the specific requirements of living on what we have come to call the Great Plains.

The flora of these grasslands (which could as well be known as forb-lands) exists under an extreme variety of topographic, moisture and soil conditions.  Understanding the conditions under which the different species developed will aid in the preservation and proliferation of those same species.  It is not the intent of this guide to cover all growing conditions or propagation techniques, but to present enough information for an individual to begin to grow and enjoy some of our native plants.  It is hoped that an introduction to native flora will be the start of a deeper appreciation and understanding of this now rare and valuable resource.




The most extensive soil types in Polk County are those of recent glacial origin.  The northern two-thirds of the county were covered by the Cary substage of the Wisconsin glacier, which occurred between 12,000 and 13,500 years ago.  These young soils are poorly drained, for the most part, but contain areas with sand and gravel ridges that are well to excessively drained.  The southern third of the County’s soils are formed from Kansan or Nebraskan glacial till with a loess overburden.  These soils tend to be well drained due to extensive cuts from numerous streams.  The remainder of the soils are of alluvial origin being either silt and clay or glacial outwash.  The original vegetation, whether prairie, forest or savanna, was determined by topography, moisture and, most recently, man.

Within these broad categories you will find the land further classified into xeric, mesic and hydric, terms used to designate how well drained the soils are.


Xeric- Somewhat excessively drained and

excessively drained soils; usually are sand or

soils containing rock or gravel.


Mesic- Moderately well drained and well drained

soils are soils that neither dry out nor tend to



Hydric- Imperfectly or poorly drained soils are those from which water is removed so slowly that the soils are saturated and water remains at or near the surface for long periods of time.


These soil types along with slope conditions will determine which plants to choose for your planting.  If you are inventive or industrious, several different sets of conditions can be created (e.g.: a low wet area created by borrowing soil from an area or impounding water, a dryer area by hauling in sand, rock or even larger pieces of limestone).



In stating that certain species prefer certain conditions, I do not mean to imply that they will not grow under less than ideal circumstances.  Prairie species are survivors if their minimum requirements are met.  Some plants are remarkably elastic.  Wetland species are sometimes found on seemingly dry hillsides and dryland species in wetter conditions.  However, your success ratio will be higher if you tailor your seeding to your physical surroundings.  As your seeding ages, the most suited species will eventually dominate in their particular niches if the competition is weak or ill suited for the site.




Your method of site preparation will be dependent on your soils and topography, previous land use, equipment and available time.


Before you begin, take time to walk your site and determine what you would like to accomplish with your planting: wildlife cover, flower garden, landscaping, erosion control.  Whatever your end result is to be, from a presettlement representation to a low maintenance flower garden, have a preliminary plan in mind before you start.


Try to select your site the fall before you intend to plant.  This will allow you to begin eliminating cool season grasses and weed species, preparing a plan and perhaps collecting seed.


If you have access to the proper farm or large garden equipment, the earth can be turned in the late summer or early fall and the resulting weed flush cultivated prior to winter.  The bare earth will sprout more weeds in the spring and each time you cultivate, the ensuing crop of weeds will be smaller.  The seed bank of weeds and cool season grasses can be markedly reduced using this method.  The number of times the area must be cultivated will depend upon the seed bank and types of weeds.


Another method of preparing a new planting is to use a chemical control to kill the existing vegetative cover and then no-tilling your seeds into the dead stubble.  This method can be quite effective as most weeds are destroyed using a glyphosate herbicide  with usually only two applications.  The initial application can be done in the spring or the previous fall and the second shortly before planting.  This has the advantage of destroying the ground cover without exposing the existing seed bank of weeds.  It also provides erosion control and a mulching effect to prevent unsightly and competitive weeds from developing as quickly as they normally would.  Some applications use only one spraying shortly before planting and have been very successful.  While many prairie enthusiasts have difficulty using chemical controls, a relatively benign chemical used properly can save a great deal of work and expense without damage to the environment and, on erosive soils, a ground cover of dead sod can prevent most wind and water erosion.


Prairie plants will do quite well on a variety of soil types without adding fertilizer.  In fact, the use of fertilizer is discouraged especially during the initial establishment phase.  Fertilization will only provide nutrients for competitive weeds that slow the establishment of your prairie planting.  I recommend only one soil amendment, the addition of lime, if a soil test shows it is needed for the species you intend to plant.




Some sites considered for prairie plantings may actually be prairie remnants.   A remnant is a small piece of original prairie.  Neglected undiscovered remnants can be hidden treasures with unique ecological value, and with plant species that are seldom found in plantings.  


Even heavily impacted sites may be prairie remnants.   Possible remnant sites include pastures, old cemeteries, road ditches, railroad rights-of-way, sunny areas in woodlands, low marshy wet areas, unplowed land next to creeks and rivers, and land left alone because it was rugged to farm.   Many overgrown remnants reveal beautiful prairie species when the trees and exotics are controlled.


If your site is a prairie remnant, it’s important to record what is there.  Help may be available through your county conservation board, the IA. DNR, or the Iowa Prairie Network.  If your site is a remnant, there are several management options.   


If there’s a remnant near your planting site, please give special consideration to using seed native to Iowa, or “Iowa Ecotype” seed.   (Be sure to tell your dealer that’s what you want.)   One of the best ways to learn which prairie plants are native to your part of Iowa is to visit a local prairie remnant.  Prairie plantings are valuable copies, but prairie remnants are irreplaceable originals.



An Iowa ecotype plant is a certain variety of a species that has developed in response to specific Iowa growing conditions.  Some individuals feel that the importation of seed from outside of the state or by planting commercial cultivars of original prairie plants, we risk destroying the genetic framework that makes our local prairie unique and viable.  I believe it is a reasonable concern that by introducing new genetic material we may weaken species designed to survive our unique conditions, destroy the pure ecotype, or introduce new plant pathogens. Research is needed to address those questions. 


Development of local seed sources over past few years is an encouraging advance for Iowa’s prairie reconstructionists.  Iowa ecotype seed is now readily available, and the supply is continuing to expand in volume and number of available species.  The cost is comparable with cultivar seed from a commercial grower.  Planting an area of native plants with ecotype seed is no longer cost prohibitive.  The ongoing Iowa Ecotype project based at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls collects, identifies, and produces source identified seed that are then provided to commercial growers for production.  As of early 2000, there were over 70 Iowa source grasses and forbs available from 119 Iowa sources.  This effort and the hard work of local seed dealers have resulted in cost-competitive Iowa ecotype seed finally being available.  In the past many conservation agencies used non-ecotype seed because of problems with the cost and availability of Iowa ecotype seed for our larger reconstructions.  However, recent cost reductions and increased availability allows us the option to plant primarily Iowa ecotype seed, even on those large projects.  Polk County Conservation Board has also established a native forb nursery, collects seed from our native areas for replanting, and have adopted a policy of not planting any non-Iowa seed within one mile of a known prairie remnant. 


We encourage all serious restorationists and gardeners to plant species native to our area and to use Iowa ecotypes whenever possible.  One viable alternative is to purchase a “mix” of grasses and forbs from a firm that harvests bulk material from native prairie remnants or from a reconstruction that was planted with remnant seed.  These mixes contain species that are often otherwise unavailable from commercial sources.  For the serious restorationist this is an excellent option. 






















There are several prairie restorationists in Iowa that harvest bulk seed from remnant prairies or areas that were planted with seed from a remnant.  This bulk seed is often 80% or more non-seed material.  The 10% to 20% seed content varies in seed viability and species content from year to year.


The major drawback to using this seed is the variability of species content and seed viability.  With that caveat, it can be said that some very diverse, very handsome plantings have been achieved using this method.  Some of these plantings have developed with 80 or more prairie species in a rich matrix.


Whether you choose to broadcast or drill your seed, seed in the fall, winter, or spring, use a designed mix of species or bulk harvested seed please support our local seed producers and dealers.  Iowa ecotype seed is now available for most commonly planted species.  I encourage the use of ecotype seed and discourage the use of “cultivars” or cultivated varieties.  Cultivars are selected for certain characteristics and often are incompatible with the goal of achieving a diverse prairie planting.




People have often asked what my favorite prairie plant is.  I tell them “the one I’m standing next to”.  As you become aware of the remarkable diversity of prairie flora, the task of choosing what to plant can become formidable.  This is where your planning will assist in your selection of species.  The more subtle and unique species often escape the attention of a beginner.  The more knowledgeable an observer becomes the more they recognize that diversity is essential to the health of the prairie.  It transforms the “plain cloth” of a prairie species planting into the stable rich fabric of interdependent grassland.  You will already know if your land is xeric, mesic, or hydric and, with a little research, will know the kinds of plants that prefer those areas.  Research your chosen species.  It is fun to learn about why certain species grow where they do.  Do they have special germination requirements?  What moisture regimen do they prefer?  How much sunlight do they need - 60%, 70%, full sun?  What are their eventual height, color, and bloom time?




The tendency of many first time planters and some experienced ones, too, is to plant more grass seed in the mix than is necessary if you also want forbs (non-woody, flowering plants) to prosper.  Grasses are more competitive than forbs when first planted and, if sown too thickly, will tend to dominate.  Good advice is to purchase as much forb seed as you can afford for the project even at the expense of grass seed.  Although it may delay that “finished” look that a strong grass stand gives a prairie planting after three years, your overall balance will be more natural.  Grasses will eventually produce the bulk of the biomass, but the forbs will have had time to establish themselves and be competitive.

It is difficult to recommend a seeding rate or mix because of many factors.  Soils, planting methods, and choice of species all play a part in the success of a seeding.  The soils and hydrology will determine the species but the planting method, and purity of seed will determine the number of seeds necessary.


We will begin with explaining the term PLS.  PLS means, “pure live seed”.  If a bulk seed is listed as 50% PLS, that means it is necessary to buy 2# (lbs.) of seed to get 1# of PLS.  It is important to buy seed on a PLS basis to avoid planting all chaff without viable seed.  Commercial seed dealers will list the viability of grass seed and some, but not all, will provide the same information for forbs.  It is important when designing your planting to know that the seed you are purchasing will sprout.


Seeding rates will vary depending on the type of seed, but a general rule of thumb is that 6# to 8# per acre of PLS is enough native grass seed to establish a solid grass stand in approximately three years time.  When the objective is to provide a more historically accurate planting, the ratio of grasses to forbs should be the reverse of most plantings.  To achieve a forb-rich planting, grass seed should be reduced to 5# to 6# or less per acre.  Reducing competition with newly sprouted forbs increases the survival rate.  Include as many forbs as you can afford in the planting mix.  Some richer plantings have used two or three times the amount of forb to grass seed.  However, forb seed tends to be the most expensive part of your planting and the cost will limit most applications.  A half of a pound to two pounds of forbs to the acre can produce a reasonable showing but anything more contributes to the diversity, stability, and the enjoyment of your planting.  I would recommend a minimum of six grass species and twenty forbs for a beginning.  Our high quality prairie remnants contain anywhere from 200-300 different plant species depending on size and conditions present on the remnant.  An important part of your planting process that can take place during the cold months is visualizing your selected forbs and the order of their blooming.  By researching the species and the number of seeds per pound, you can fine-tune your seeding to a certain number of live seeds per square foot.  The seeding mixtures used in Polk County Conservation Board areas contain 40 to 50+ viable forb and grass seeds per square foot.  Forty or more seeds per square foot will ensure that your efforts are rewarded.   As you choose your mix, you may be tempted to seed heavily with the asteraceae or daisy family because of their beauty, quick establishment and relatively low cost.  A caution is in order.  While native sunflowers are always welcome in a prairie planting some species can become dominant and affect your planting in the same way a weedy invader would.  Sow your sunflowers lightly and possibly even wait to introduce them after sufficient competition has been established.  If you feel quick color is important, use Grey-headed Coneflower, Partridge Pea, or Black-eyed Susan to provide it.  These showy natives will decline as your prairie matures and not dominate it.


The use of plugs to increase the diversity of your planting is a common practice.  High quality native species in plug or plant form are available from many of the nursery/seed sources listed in this book.  The seed is usually Iowa ecotype and starts are available in either flats or pots.  Some nurseries will custom grow the seed you collect locally for your restoration.


The following mixes are examples on which you can build your own mixes that suit your unique site and needs.


A sample mesic mix:

Virginia wild rye                                       Elymus virginicus

                                                                    #1 or less per acre           

Big bluestem                                             Andropogon gerardii

                                                                    #1 or less per acre

Indian grass                                              Sorghastrum nutans

                                                                    #1 or less per acre

Little bluestem                                          Schizachyrium scoparium

                                                                    #1 or less per acre

Canada wild rye                                        Elymus canadensis

                                                                    #1 or less per acre

Switchgrass                          Panicum virgatum

(Iowa ecotype only)                                #1 or less per acre

Total Grasses                                           4 – 8# per acre


Blazing star                                               Liatris pycnostachya

Greyheaded coneflower                          Radibida pinnata

New England aster                                   Aster novae – angliae

Ox-eye                                                        Heliopsis helianthoides

Pale purple coneflower                            Echinacea pallida

Black-eyed Susan                                    Rudbeckia hirta

Compass plant                                          Silphium laciniatum

Purple prairie clover                                 Dalea purpurea

Mountain mint                                          Pycnanthemum


Horsemint                                                  Monarda fistulosa

Rigid goldenrod                                       Solidago rigida

Iron weed                                                  Vernonia fasciculata

Round headed bush clover                                Lespedeza capitata

Sweet brown-eyed Susan                      Rudbeckia subtomentosa

Butterfly-milkweed                                   Asclepias tuberosa

Cream gentian                                           Gentiana alba

Meadow Rue                                            Thalictrum dasycarpum

Canada milk vetch                                    Astragalus canadensis


Pick additional forbs to suit your site and soils; be creative.

Forb amounts can be from 2 – 20# per acre depending upon your budget.


A sample mix for dryer sites:

Little bluestem                                          Schizachyrium scoparium

                                                                    2 # or less per acre

Northern dropseed                                  Sporobolis heterolepis

                                                                    .5# per acre

Sideoats gramma                                      Bouteloua curtipendala

                                                                    2# or less per acre

June grass                                                 Koeleria macrantha                                       .5# per acre

Porcupine grass                                       Stipa spartea

                                                                    .5 to 1# per acre

Indian grass                          Sorghastrum nutans

                                                                    1.5 or less per acre

Total Grasses                       4# to 8# per acre


Blazing star                                               Liatris aspera

Showy sunflower                                     Helianthus rigida

Aromatic aster                                          Aster oblongifolius

Cream false indigo                                   Babtisia bracteata

Tickseed                                                    Coreopsis palmata

Purple prairie clover                                 Dalea purpurea

White prairie clover                                 Dalea candida

Larkspur                                                    Delphinium virescens

Pale purple coneflower                            Echinacea pallida

Leadplant                                                  Amorpha canescens

Black-eyed Susan                                    Rudbeckia hirta

Wild petunia                                             Ruellia humilis

Flowering spurge                                     Euphorbia corrolata

Compass plant                                          Silphium laciniatum

Ground plum                         Astragalus crassiocarpus

Rattle snake master              Eryngium yuccifolium


Again, add as many addition forb species as you can afford.

Forbs should equal 2 – 20# per acre.


A cover crop of ½ to 1 bushel of oats per acre is often used to establish a temporary ground cover on steep or plowed ground where erosion may be a problem.  This cover reduces erosion and provides shade for new seedlings.  It will also provide fuel for a second-year burn.  Always use certified oats as a cover crop.  Bin run oats have poor germination and usually contain many weed seeds.  You will have enough weeds of your own without importing more.  It is important that you mow any oat seeding that becomes dense enough to shade new seedlings.


These mixes cover a broad range of soil and moisture conditions.  Some species will thrive and some will be suppressed depending upon existing conditions and competition.


I no longer recommend that switchgrass be seeded unless it is from an Iowa source.  Some of the cultivars I have planted, especially Cave-in-the-Rock, have proven to be terribly aggressive and have quickly choked out other grasses and forbs.  I will now use only Iowa ecotype switch grass seed as a part of a diverse mix.


Don’t allow one seeding mix to dictate what you plant.  Investigate other grasses and forbs and pick ones that appeal to your own ideas of beauty.  Some of the more uncommon species are among the most handsome grasses and forbs on the prairie and worthy of inclusion on any list.  You will find the more you know about prairie the more “favorites” you will have.  The lush growth and complex interactions between scores of species in a native ecosystem develop numerous niches attractive to fauna.  Many species of insects, birds, and mammals have formed dependent/interdependent relationships with their complex prairie homes.  The more species we are able to incorporate into our plantings the more opportunities are afforded to wildlife.




Here you go!  Down the slippery slope of “I must have that one growing in my prairie”.  I suggest you plan a succession of blooms.  That is not as difficult as it seems.  Many seed catalogs provide a wealth of information and some are horticultural guides in their own right.


Following are a few of the more easily grown and attractive species native to south central Iowa.


I encourage you to make your own list that provides color throughout your prairie year and reflects the unique landscape you’ve chosen as a site.








Anemone canadensis                     May/June


Butterfly Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa                        June/July



New England Aster

Aster novea-angliae                      Sept/Oct


Cream Colored False Indigo

Babtisia bracteata                         June


Partridge Pea                                 

Chamaecrista fasciculata             July/Sept


Prairie Coreopsis

Coreopsis palmata                        July/Aug


Purple Prairie Clover

Dalea purpurea                             July/Aug


Pale Purple Coneflower

Echinacea pallida                         June/July


Rattlesnake Master

Eryngium yuccifolium                   June/Aug


Showy/Stiff Sunflower

Helianthus rigidus                         Aug/Sept



Ox Eye

Heliopsis helianthoides                 June/July


Round Headed Bush Clover          

Lespedeza capitata                       Aug/Sept


Blazing Star

Liatris aspera                                August


Blazing Star

Liatris pycnostachya                     July/Aug



Monarda fistulosa                         July/Aug



Monarda punctata                        July/Aug


Foxglove Penstemon

Penstemon digitalis                       June/July


Prairie Phlox

Phlox pilosa                                  May/July


Mountain Mint

Pycnanthemum virginianum         July/Aug


Greyheaded Coneflower

Ratibida pinnata                           July/Aug


Wild Rose

Rosa species                                  June/July


Black-eyed Susan

Rudbeckia hirta                             June/Aug


Wild Petunia

Ruellia humilis                               July/Aug


Compass Plant

Silphium laciniatum                      July/Aug


Blue-eyed Grass

Sisyrinchium campestre                May/June


Rigid Goldenrod

Solidago rigida                              June/Oct


Hedge Nettle

Stachys palustris                           July/Aug


Western Ironweed

Veronia fasciculata                       July/Sept



The following are a few woody plants that occurred frequently on Iowa prairies and which compliment a herbaceous planting.


Lead Plant

Amorpha canescens                      June/July


New Jersey Tea

Ceanothus americana                   June/July




Spirea alba                                    July/Aug



The impulse to cover seeds with a nice layer of soil is appropriate for the vegetable gardener but not the prairie planter.  We know that for garden seeds to germinate we need to supply moisture, warmth and air.  Those requirements are also true for the prairie plants, but most do not require deep planting and many of them are harmed by the practice.  Native forbs and grasses seed themselves by various methods but always seem to end up at or near the surface of the ground (there are, of course exceptions) where they are buried by this year’s duff.  The environmental conditions present at the soil surface: higher temperatures, better drainage and air circulation, all improve germination.  The single most important planting tip is to have a firm seed bed so that, when seeds are planted, there is good seed-to-soil contact and the seed and later the developing seedlings are kept moist.  Whether you choose to  broadcast or to use a no-till drill, it is important that you see some seed on the surface occasionally, or you are planting too deeply.  One-quarter inch deep is the optimum depth for most prairie species.  Small seeded varieties need to be at or near the surface.




This is the section on “I planted it, I pampered it, where the heck is it!”  Prairie plantings are a disappointment to many first-time planters.  The lush, first-year growth that we have come to expect from commercial seed just does not happen with prairie species. The plants that survived on the plains were hardy perennials that relied on vegetative growth and clonal reproduction as much as they relied on seed for offspring. Some plants have very low seed viability and are most easily started from division or cuttings. However, even plants that produce seed in profuse amounts have developed strategies for long-term survival. Many prairie species bloom over long periods of time and mature seed throughout the growing season; therefore, seed harvested for replanting may contain many immature nonviable seeds. Even seed purchased from a dealer who lists total germination can give you a false sense of security. That total germination count includes what is known as “hard seed”. Hard seed is another adaptive strategy of the prairie. The plant may produce seed that will germinate this season but the hard seed may take a month, a year, maybe two years before it germinates. This strategy gives the species the best overall chance of surviving a severe drought or other natural disaster. Domesticated seed is bred for reliability and dependability. Prairie seed was forged for survival and permanence.


What this all means is keep the faith. The prairie planting may look weedy and unattractive for several years. Except for the rare failed seeding, the plants are there and, given time, will dominate.







You will get many different opinions on the best time to plant prairie seed. Fall, winter, and spring through June all have their advocates. Fall and winter (frost seeding) seedings sometimes have problems with seed mortality, especially grass seed. However, many forbs seem to do better when seeded in the fall. The germination problems and the high cost of seed once made me reluctant to recommend it. My experience over many years, however, has shown me that a fall or winter seeding often produces the best results. Seed is stratified in place and the settlement of the soil around the seed insures good contact. If you do a fall or winter seeding, modestly increase the amount of grass seed to make up for the viable seed lost over the winter. I still believe that the best overall results are obtained when you plant after the ground temperature reaches 55 degrees and before the middle of June. On bare ground, in Polk County, that occurs in an average year on or near April 20. On ground with thick cover or a north facing slope that could be well into May. You may continue to plant into the warmer and drier season. The cut-off date varies with the amount of rainfall that occurs. Most seedings can be successful if planted even into August providing there is adequate moisture. However, sufficient rainfall necessary to support a new seeding cannot be expected to occur after the 15th of June in most years.







Your first-year seedings are going to be a mess. There’s no way you will prevent weedy growth. However, there are things you can do to prevent your neighbors from posting “No Hunting” signs on your lawn or the weed commissioner from mowing your country tract. The first two years will see a great many weeds, and you may have to mow the planting depending on where it is and the amount of weed pressure. The first year you can mow the planting on an as-needed basis but never below 6” to 8”, or you will damage your emerging seedlings. The second year’s growth should not be mowed after May, unless spot mowing is required to control a problem area. Mowing your plantings greatly reduces competition from annual weeds and can mean the success or failure of your planting. If you have a weed problem mowing is always a good management decision. Hand weeding is a choice for small plantings. However, you should avoid hand weeding the first year unless you can recognize prairie seedlings. Pulling annual weeds can also disturb seedlings of prairie species during the initial establishment phase.


Perhaps this is an appropriate time to consider what a weed is. I consider very few plants to be weeds. To me a weed is an alien plant that is aggressive and easily spread. Canada Thistle, Purple Loosestrife, Crownvetch, and Birdsfoot Trefoil come to mind. These weeds, as well as a few others, should be dealt with immediately before they become a plague on your land. Other less-serious plants, especially the annuals, are of little consequence to the prairie planter except when they are sufficiently dense as to shade out or compete excessively with the new seedlings. Velvetleaf and foxtail are only there because the ground is disturbed and that is where they hold the advantage. A modest weedy cover will help carry a fire in the spring. Don’t panic about the weed patch. It will all come to pass in about the third year when the planting begins to mature and the growing conditions favors biennials and perennials.


I mentioned that annual weeds carry a fire well. I assume some of you may have reservations about how appropriate the use of fire is for the location you have chosen for a planting. Fire is not a required part of owning a prairie plot, but it will make your life a lot easier if you can burn. Proper burning techniques are not difficult, but when and how and the necessary safety procedures will require you to have someone assist you the first time and to help set up a burn plan and schedule. Your local Soil Conservation Service, County Conservation Board, Iowa Native Plant Society, or the Iowa Prairie Network are all good places to begin. The popularity of native plantings and the amount of PCCB natural areas now being fire managed no longer allow for us to assist landowners except in unusual circumstances. There are now new companies that can assist with fire planning and coordinate burning for a modest fee. Often the above mentioned agencies or groups have helpful literature and occasionally individuals willing to assist you. I am, of course, speaking of the larger plots. Small backyard plots can be burned as necessary with only a garden hose as back up. It should be mentioned that Polk County has a “no burn “ ordinance. Be certain that the proper permits are obtained prior to beginning. This will protect you and your local firefighters. I like to burn all new plantings the spring following the seeding and sometimes again the following year if weeds are a problem. The accepted rule for burning established plantings is to burn on a three to five year cycle to avoid favoring annual or biennial weeds. Properly timed fire will suppress cool season grasses and weeds while liberating nutrients and warming the soil. Many prairie seeds need warm temperatures to germinate and some flowers seem to show up on the year following a burn in elevated numbers.


If you are working with a large established area of native vegetation, which is used by wildlife, you should burn no more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the area in a year’s time. High quality nesting habitat is rare these days and some of our threatened birds, as well as mammals and insects, will find a secure home on your area. Recent research has shown that a three to five year cycle of cool season burns is best for maintaining diversity in remnant and reconstructed prairies. Even fauna that is negatively impacted by fire show no lasting impacts if sufficient refugia remains unburned.


If you cannot burn, I suggest that the planting be mowed and the residue removed in the spring to prevent shading of the ground and the possibility of an intense grass fire fueled by accumulated duff.




Should you have weedy and/or brushy invaders and not be able to burn or weed them out, herbicide is needed. I use very little chemical control in native plantings, but some serious problems must be addressed. By careful use of a herbicide, no harm will be done to your planting and the offending plant will be permanently removed. For deep-rooted perennial weeds such as Canada Thistle, use a glyphosate-based product and for trees or shrubs, a Triclopyr-based product. These two chemicals are available at your local garden center in ready-to- use formulations and are not restricted-use pesticides requiring an applicator's license to apply.  I do not mean to imply that any chemical poison is risk free.  Herbicide application should be done carefully following all label instructions.  The individual doing the application should wear the recommended personal protective equipment and dispose of excess product and containers safely and correctly. 


If you are fortunate enough to have one of our rare native prairie remnants please consult an expert before using any herbicide.


This general information on native vegetation establishment is intended to act as a guide for the novice but also to encourage activism on the issue of prairie preservation.  The loss of 99.9% of our native grassland has all but denied our children their heritage.  Become active!  Support and join organizations such as the Iowa Prairie Network, The Iowa Native Plant Society, The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, or The Nature Conservancy.  When the last marsh is drained or the last prairie bulldozed for another “improvement” your protest will be meaningless.  Now is the time to involved.  Many of your friends and neighbors may not realize that a “worthless” mud puddle or weed patch is actually a vestige of a wondrous and complex ecosystem.  Pull weeds, cut brush, volunteer to help a landowner burn, and educate others.  We have a responsibility to save what remains.












The following list of companies supplying native seed is provided as a service to the reader.  No endorsement of any company is intended and any omission is unintentional.




Allendan Seed Company

R.R.4  Box 625

Winterset, Iowa 50273

(515) 462-1241

(515) 462-4084 fax

Dan Allen


Cedar River Garden Center

P.O. Box 259

2889 Palo Marsh Road

Palo, Iowa 52324

(319) 851-2161

(319) 851-2164 fax

Eric Howes-Vonstein


Diversity Farms

R.R. 1 Box 87

Dedham, Iowa 51440

(515) 683-5555

Jon Judson







Heyne Custom Seed Services

26420 510 street

Walnut, Iowa 51577-4110

(712) 784-3454

(712) 784-2030 fax



E-mail Heyne@netins.net

Bruce Heyne


Kingfisher Farms

29633 170 Ave

Long Grove, Iowa 52756

(319) 285-5406

Joe Slater


Ion Exchange

1878 Old Mission Drive

Harpers Ferry, Iowa 52146-7533

(319) 535-7231

(319) 535-7362 fax



E-Mail hbright@means.net

Howard and Donna Bright


Iowa Prairie Seed Company

1740 220 Street

Sheffield, Iowa 50475-8031

(515) 892-4111

Daryl Kothenbeutal



Gene Kromroy

546 Crestview

Ottumwa, Iowa 52501


Carl Kurtz

1562 Binford

St. Anthony, Iowa 50239

(515) 477-8364


Osenbaugh Grass Seeds

R.R.1 Box 44

Lucas, Iowa 50151

(515) 766-6790

(515) 766-6795 fax


John Osenbaugh


Rose Hill Nursery

2282 Teller Road

Rose Hill, Iowa 52586


Glenda Buenger


A more complete listing of seed dealers is available from the booklet: Iowa Seed Directory

 Iowa Crop Improvement Association 

2023 Agronomy Hall 

Ames, Iowa  50011-1010








A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold

Oxford University Press


Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.


An Illustrated Guide to Iowa Prairie Plants

Paul Christiansen and Mark Muller

Bur Oak Books, U of Iowa Press


Edible Plants of the Prairie and

Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie

Both by Kelly Kindscher

University Press of Kansas



Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Northeastern and Northcentral North America

Peterson and McKenny

Houghton Mifflin Company


Fire in North American Tallgrass Prairies

Scott Collins and Linda Wallace

University of Oklahoma Press


Flora of Missouri  (Steyermark)

Geo. Yatskievych

The Missouri Botanical Garden Press


Iowa Noxious Weeds

IA. Dept. of Ag. and Land Stewardship

Wallace Building

Des Moines, Iowa


Journal of a Prairie Year

Paul Gruchow

University of Minnesota Press


Landforms of Iowa

Jean Prior

Bur Oak Books

U of IA Press


Missouri Wildflowers

Missouri Dept. of Conservation

PO Box 180

Jefferson City, Mo.



Native Prairie Establishment and Management

Iowa Job Sheet

USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service

Des Moines, IA or your local field office


Prairie Garden, The

J. Robert and Beatrice S. Smith

U of Wisconsin Press


Prairie Propagation Handbook

Harold W. Rock

Wehr Nature Center 9701 W. College Ave

Franklin Wisconsin 53132


Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers

Doug Ladd and Frank Oberle

Falcon Press

A Nature Conservancy Book


The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook for Prairies, Savannas, and Woodlands

Stephen Packard and Corneila F. Mutel

Island Press


Vascular Plants of Iowa

Lawrence J. Eilers and Dean M. Roosa

Bur Oak Books

U of Iowa Press


Wildflowers of Iowa Woodlands

Sylvan Runkel and Alvin Bull

Iowa State University Press















A list of things to consider:


1)      Selecting your site.

a.       know your soil type and characteristics

b.      decide what the purpose of the planting is to be

c.       is your site “burnable”


2)      Preparing the site:

  1. till or no-till
  2. do you need herbicide


3)      Select your seed mixture:

  1. Is your seed Iowa Origin seed?
  2. Do you want to mix your own, buy a mixture,

Or purchase a “bulk” remnant-based mix

  1. Are you buying PLS?
  2. Do you have enough diversity?
  3. Do you need a companion crop for erosion control?


4)      When will you plant?

  1. Spring, Fall, or Winter


5)      Maintenance:

  1. Mowing may be necessary.
  2. Hand weeding or herbicide, are you prepared?


6)      Burning:

  1. Is it necessary or can you mow.
  2. Do you have a burn plan?
  3. Do you have adequate water and help?
  4. Did you get a permit?
  5. Did you call the Sheriff or fire chief?