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Establishing a Grassland

Whether you are attempting to establish a tallgrass prairie, oak savanna or a meadow, the basic concepts of establishing the site is the same.  The most important step in a grassland project is in site preparation.  Without proper site preparation the chances of success of a project is slim and given the high cost of restoration or creation techniques it just is not worth the risk.  Tallgrass Ontario will not enter into a project unless proper site preparation is part of the management plan for a site.

Where do we start?

Everything depends on what is on the site now.  Is the site an area with existing indicator species on it, or is it a farm field that you wish to plant into a high diversity grassland.  Farm fields are relatively easy so we will start there.

Farm Fields

If the site has been farmed or is currently farmed, the best site preparation is to plant the field for one year in Round-Up Ready soya beans.  This is the most practical site prep for open farm lands.  The Round Up Ready bean crop allows for regular applications of glyphosate on the soya bean crop which will virtually eliminate early weed competition from the newly planted grassland.  In year one of the project, the beans are planted, sprayed with glyphosate twice and then the beans are harvested in the fall as a normal crop.  The following spring, a select mix of grassland seed is directly drilled into the soya bean stubble using a specialized seed drill such as the Truax Warm Season Seed Drill. 

Old Field Meadow

Old field meadows are agricultural fields that have been allowed to go fallow and are dominated by goldenrods, cools season grasses and non-native clovers and other vegetation.  These sites are tricky in that they have a ready seed bank of weeds and non-native species that compete agressively with newly planted native grasses and flowers.  The first order of business is to reduce or eliminate the above ground vegetation on the site.  A prescribed burn is a good site prep for these old fields, it eliminates the biomass of the old field and returns some of the nutrients to the soil.  The blackened top soil helps warm up the site ad preps it for drilling of a select grassland seed mix.  A preferred option is to spray the newly burned site (within a week of burning) with a pre-emergent non-selective herbicide that will eliminate any new growth from the goldenrods and other weedy competition.   10 days following the spray treatment, the grassland seed mix can be drilled into the site.

An option to burning is to mow the site as low as possible using a flail mower or a stock chopper.  The area should then be tilled using an aggressive cultivator or even a moldboard plow and then worked down to a finer seed bed with a farm disc.  The site needs to be aggresively sprayed at least twice, once with a pre-emergent herbicide and then again with glyphosate after the first sign of vegetation emerging.  The site can then be drilled with the selected grassland seed mix using a no-till drill.

If possible, the preferred option for old field sites is to plant the site after tilling in the Round Up Ready soya bean treatment for at least one growing season and treat the site the same as in example 1.  The extra years site prep will be well worth the wait.

Existing Grasslands with Some Indicator Species

If the site you have already exhibits signs of a native grassland (a few indicator plants such as Big Bluestem and others) then a different approach should be taken.  An intensive approach as outlined in the first two examples is probably not the first choice to take.  In this example the grassland restoration should be attempted using a prescribed burn without seeding.  If there are indicator species present, the goal should be to re-establish the native grassland by re-introducing fire to the site.  A prescribed burn should be attempted at least two years in a row.  After each burn the site should be monitored to determine if more indicator species are showing up on the site.  If native grasslands plants begin to show up after the burns, then the site should be restored as a native grassland.  This will entail a more expensive and labour intensive approach, but has the best chance of truly "restoring" the site.  Advice should be sought from Tallgrass Ontario or your local MNR or Conservation Authority biologist. 

Restoration of existing native grassland can be helped along by seeding the site with seeds collected from the site or other nearby remnants.  Another method that ensures success is to collect seed from select grassland plants on or near the site and have plants grown from those seeds and then plant those plugs back on the site.  This will speed up the process and provide instant diversity into the grassland. 

Savanna Establishment

Savanna's are even more rare than tallgrass prairie and meadows.  Many attempts are being made in the province at establishing savanna's with moderate to good success.  A savanna reconstruction project can be achieved by interspersing a grassland project with either black oak or burr oak seedlings, large calliper stock or even by direct seeding of accorns.  Savana's are a more complex ecosystem to try and restore, so we encourage proponents to contact Tallgrass Ontario for further direct help if this type of ecosystem is planned.