If you have a question about establishing or maintaining tallgrass prairie please e-mail info@tallgrassontario.org. One of our directors will get back to you. We’ll post the responses here.

Question:

We have been approached by an outdoor education centre that would like to establish a tall grass prairie on a quarter hectare of abandoned field. Unfortunately, they are not able to fund herbicide applications so we need to find a way to prep the site without using chemicals. I was thinking of this approach:

  • Prescribed burn followed by tilling and then finally seeding (all in the same year, as their budget is limited)

 Is this a good approach”?

Answer:  

Herbicide treatment for site prep is better and cheaper than burning, however if herbicides aren’t an option then burning would be out too because of the cost.  Burning smooth brome (if it’s dominant) is not effective because it will just grow back. If the field is dominated by goldenrods and asters, the burn won’t have much effect either. If the field is forb-dominant (a prairie forb is a sun-loving-flowering-plant such as Tall sunflower or Evening primrose), seed into the existing vegetation in April, pack it and mow it once in June.  Better still would be baling it in June to get the thatch off and give the seed a chance. If the site is smooth brome, either avoid those spots when seeding or tarp them and leave them tarped for 2-3 years (then seed).  If it’s Reed canary grass, without the use of herbicide, prairie likely isn’t feasible so efforts should be made to enhance it as a meadow instead. 

For more information about establishing a meadow please see:

https://www.csu.edu/cerc/researchreports/documents/PlantingTheSeedGuideEstablishingPrairieMeadowCommunities2004.pdf

https://cvc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/12-205-prairiemeadow-booklet-web.pdf

https://www.worldcat.org/title/restoring-natures-place-a-guide-to-naturalizing-ontario-parks-and-greenspace/oclc/36041762

Planting 4-5 trays of Big Bluestem plugs in “open spots” in an old field can have good results in 5-10 years when Big Bluestem starts seeding in and taking over.  It’s low diversity but I’d be looking at the hardiest species in both seed and plugs to get the ball rolling.

My last comment might be that if they can’t get funds for herbicide or a burn now and keeping management in mind, it is better to seed a meadow or plant trees and shrubs. 

Question

I want to plant a Wet Tall Grass Prairie garden.  We live in Shrewsbury and so have a very high-water table.  I can`t find Ontario specific wetland prairie info.  Also, I am looking for any historical wetland prairie info for my area.

Thanks, Cindy

Answer: 

Thanks for your email.  It’s great that you’re planning to create a wet prairie garden and looking to incorporate native prairie species.  

As you may be aware, there are relatively large areas of prairie and oak savanna at Rondeau; but being situated on sandy dune soils these tend to be fairly dry soils (and perhaps not what you are dealing with).  There are small rail line prairie remnants near Ridgetown as well, but for the most part sizable remnant prairies are few and far between in Chatham-Kent.  Windsor has wet prairies, but I believe these are on sand and Shrewsbury would be more clay-loam soil, so different species assemblages.  The wetter and more clay-based soils of Chatham-Kent did historically contain large swaths of wet prairie, specifically around the mouth of the Thames River.  I’ve attached a document (Bakowsky and Riley 1992) which provides some background on these prairies.

A few species which are commercially available and suited to a wetter site include:

  • Big Bluestem
  • Prairie Cordgrass
  • Indiangrass
  • Switchgrass (a bit drier preference)
  • Wild Bergamot
  • Foxglove Beardtongue
  • Swamp Milkweed
  • Tall Sunflower (very tall)
  • Showy Tick-trefoil (a bit drier preference) 
  • Dense Blazingstar (rare in Ontario)
  • Michigan Lily
  • Blue Lobelia
  • Virginia Mountain Mint
  • Ohio Goldenrod
  • Riddell’s Goldenrod (rare in Ontario)
  • Missouri Ironweed (rare in Ontario)
  • Joe Pye Weed, 
  • Boneset 
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Green-headed coneflower

Your best bet on purchasing live plants would be to attend the Grow Wild Expo in London on April 18, 2020, there are several native plant vendors.  Other options could include purchasing seed by mail from an Ontario native plant nursery (Google brings up several options). https://caroliniancanada.ca/expo

If you haven’t read had a read through ‘Planting the Seed’, this document is very informative and can help with site preparation, species selection and management: https://tallgrassontario.org/wp-site/general-literature/

Good luck!

Question: 

Hello, I am a volunteer with a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving grasslands in upstate New York U.S. called the Grassland Bird Trust    https://www.grasslandbirdtrust.org/conservation/   I’ve really enjoyed reading your most thorough and informative website.

I see that you’ve got some data under ‘Grassland Benefits” attributes to the U.S. EPA regarding carbon storage for tallgrass prairies that may sequester “between 0.30 and 1.7 metric tons per acre/per year”. We would like to make people aware of the carbon sequestration potential of grasslands, and would like to estimate the carbon storage potential of our grasslands. 

I would assume that Ontario, like our upstate NY region, has grassland areas that are not original to the state. We have grasslands that are relatively younger, and have mixed native and non-native species of forbs and grasses. Do you have any concrete measurements of carbon for some of the younger grasslands in Ontario? Do you have advice on how we might state the carbon-holding potential of our grasslands without exaggerating?

You are welcome to email or call me. 

With Best Regards,
Mary-Beth Wagner
Glens Falls New York U.S.

Answer:  

Thank you for contacting us. We are gratified that you have found our website helpful.  Our goal is to provide comprehensive information and tools to enable private and public landowners to conserve endangered Tallgrass Prairie habitat. We are a federally regulated charity that operates entirely through the efforts of volunteers.  Our source of funding is public donations, government and foundation grants. 

The web page under the grassland benefits tab called Tallgrass Praire and Carbon Sequestration is designed to illustrate the connections between highly diverse tallgrass prairie grasslands and carbon storage.  While the eastern geographic extent of Tallgrass Praire is believed to be western Michigan (A range map can be found on this page), sizable fragments also existed in Southern Ontario. Most of these have been converted to agriculture. The focus of Tallgrass Ontario is preserving what is left and encouraging tallgrass prairie creations where feasible. 

All of the information on that web page is a result of an on-line literature review conducted 5 years ago.  Since that time there has been no further review on this subject. One of the sources for information about storage capacity was from a master’s thesis summarizing research at Midewin Tallgrass Praire in Illinois conducted for the Chicago Carbon exchange. Because of the failure of the Copenhagen COP 15 in December 2009 the carbon market rules were never confirmed so the Chicago exchange failed.  The situation has not changed in the last 10 years as COP 25 completed this month was also a failure on carbon markets; a true market failure of the commons because conservation lands could benefit if its carbon storage was recognized and traded as a commodity. These disappointments however do not invalidate the research confirming that tallgrass prairie has high carbon storage potential.   

Included on the web page is a discussion about Glomalin, a recently discovered soil glue that binds carbon for long time periods and is considered a key element in grassland carbon storage. Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, found living on plant roots around the world, appear to be the only producers of glomalin.    There is also a discussion of how green house gasses, carbon dioxide in particular skews Earth’s energy balance to a small degree but over time, through accumulated changes, alters the Earth climate system in ways that are becoming noticeable to humans and eventually will lead to lethal effects for many ecosystems and the species they support if the rate of change exceeds the species ability to adapt.  

An important attribute of tallgrass prairie is its deep rooting systems (an illustration of the rooting system is found on the web page). It is not unusual for the roots of some tallgrass prairie plants such as cup plant and big blue stem to exceed 6 feet or more. It is the deep rooting system of tallgrass prairie that increases the carbon storage potential.  A highly diverse prairie (many species) will have a more diverse rooting system which enhances carbon storage even further.  The figure we have posted (1.7 Metric tons/acre/year) is for deep-rooted highly diverse native tallgrass prairie; this figure is tentative and is based on a literature review referenced in the thesis summary. The lower value for tallgrass prairie (.3 metric tons per acre per year) was derived from the Geotimes link on the webpage (6 megagrams/hectare over 8 years converts to .3 metric tons per acre per year). 

Grasslands without deep rooting systems would be expected to store much less carbon. These grassland habitats exist in Ontario.  We are not aware of anyone putting carbon storage figures on “cultural meadow” communities, as they are often referred to as in Ontario.   In regard to advice on “how you might state the carbon -holding potential of our grasslands without exaggerating?”, the lower limit quoted on our webpage (.3 metric tons) is for tallgrass prairie so I would suggest a number less than that, perhaps between .1 and .2 metric tons or less but the only way to confirm is through research (measurement) that focuses on that habitat.  The presence or not of Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi living on the roots of cultural meadow plants would impact carbon storage capacity to a great extent. 

Question:

Back in December, Tallgrass Ontario responded to some questions I had about carbon sequestration in tallgrass prairies. I have a couple more questions that I hope will not be too tedious.

1) What is your definition of a ‘young’ grassland? 10 years? 20 years? What is the criteria?

I ask because it is my understanding that more mature grasslands would have greater potential to store carbon. (Some roots die each year which become the tubules that facilitate movement of water and minerals, like carbon, to be carried deeply into the ground.) Our grasslands were farmed for many (40? 50?) years. The farming has stopped on the conserved acreage. It is still managed by cutting different sections every three years to keep brush from growing. The cutting is done with a tractor and bush hog-type mower. We realize that the tractor, while farming and now with mowing, compacts the soils. This brings us to the next questions:

2)  Has anyone tried aerating large tracts of grassland? How do we correct this compaction and still mow? (We probably won’t burn.)

3) Would it be better to cut with a horse team? Know anyone who has tried this and what type of mower did they use? We used to have some local teams, but perhaps the growing brush is too tough to cut through without the bush hog. Is there a better tire to use on our tractor? Tires with spikes? (I’m thinking of the aerators that golf courses use.)

Any thoughts and suggestions are appreciated.

Best regards,
Mary-Beth Wagner
Glen Falls New York U.S.

Answer:

Thank you for contacting us with follow-up questions. 

1) Provided a grassland receives regular maintenance (either prescribed burning or mowing to keep woody plants out) a new grassland over many decades evolves to a more mature state. A mature state is characterised by deeper roots and increased diversity of plant species present. When creating a grassland seed mix there is a rule of thumb that certain species will perform the best initially. Generally, these species are lumped together as early successional, meaning they naturally show up first and then disappear or become much less common. Early succession prairie species include Black-eyed Susan, Wild Bergamot, Hoary Vervain, Showy tick-trefoil, Evening primrose and Canada Wild Rye. The next species to appear are the mid successional species- such as Butterfly Milkweed, Round-headed Bush-clover, Big Bluestem and Indian Grass. The last species to appear are the most conservative species. These species are typically only found in prairie remnants and generally do not inhabit creations. Plants on this list are Pink Milkwort, Gatinger’s Agalinis and White Fringed Prairie Orchid. A species mix with lots of early succession and some mid succession species will do the best. If appropriate the most conservative species can be added last. But research indicates that it may take a prairie at least 50 years to be ready for the conservative species.  

2)The root volume increases over time. The carbon is stored in the roots so the greater the volume of roots the greater the carbon storage potential.  Most bush hog mowers can be operated with small to medium size tractors. Any soil compaction that takes place should be minimal and not detrimental to the grassland if the mowing is done when the soil is dry.  

3) Aeration is not recommended as it could do lasting damage. The rooting systems of both young and mature grasslands keep invasive plants such as Canada thistle and non native grasses out. Aeration of the soil could allow invasive plants to gain a foothold.  

4) A horse team could be used to cut the plants but the cut grass may have to be baled and removed from the site if it impedes regrowth. As an alternative a bush hog mower chops the plants into small pieces that can be left in place allowing natural decay mechanisms to recycle nutrients back into the soil while allowing plants to regrow.