How you can help restore native Texas habitat with a pocket prairie.
Marshall Hinsley talks to entomologist and New York Times best-selling author Doug Tallamy; Diane Sloan, CEO of K.S.S., a Dallas landscape architectural studio; and experts with the Native Prairies Association of Texas about what prairies are, why we need them and how you can turn a little spot of your yard back into a verdant part of the state's native ecosystem.
A production of GreenSourceDFW.org.
MARSHALL HINSLEY: How you can help to restore Texas to its native state with a pocket prairie, in this episode of the Texas Green Report, a production of Green Source DFW and the Memnosyne Institute.
I'm Marshall Hinsley.
Planted on a small plot of land on the grounds of Parker Elementary in the Houston Independent School District, Texas native grasses and flowers grow as a tiny part of a huge restoration effort of one of the world’s most disturbed ecosystems.
The 220-square-foot, U-shaped garden grows off to one side the school between the building and the street. In the spring, bluebonnets will emerge as the first flowers to bloom, covering the plot in shades of indigo.
As summer approaches, Indian blanket will repaint the plot into the hotter orange and yellow colors of summertime. Milkweed will attract monarch butterflies that can raise their young on no other plant. Salvias and fall obedient plant will provide nectar for hummingbirds before they head back south in the fall.
From December to February, insects that overwinter in leaf litter and the hollow centers of dead or dormant plant stems will be protected from frigid temperatures and emerge in the spring— a web of life experiencing the cycles of the seasons — all in an area about the size of the average dining room.
DELLA BARBATO: “We wanted a place for the teachers, and the students to learn about the importance of native plants, native prairies and our native pollinators,” says Della Barbato who organized the project.
MARSHALL HINSLEY: She’s the director of education for the Native Prairies Association of Texas, an organization that helps schools, businesses, municipalities and landowners learn about and recover part of the state’s natural heritage through prairie restoration that ranges from large-scale projects to tiny pocket prairies such as the one at Parker Elementary.
DELLA BARBATO: “We're growing minds in the way that the students learn firsthand how important native plants are, how important native prairies are, because the insects do not feed from the nectar or pollen from all of these landscape plants that come from Europe and Asia and Africa. Our native pollinators need our native plants, and you just can't get those at a garden center.”
MARSHALL HINSLEY: Installed with the help of the elementary students, the new pocket prairie adds to a network of prairie restoration efforts that as a whole will help to piece back together the prairie land that once covered the majority of the state.
Texas was largely a sea of grass and flowers before European settlers arrived in the 1700s, with prairie land spanning from the plains of West Texas to the edge of the Piney Woods in East Texas, and stretching from the Gulf Coast all the way past the Red River and beyond into Canada in a vast North American ecosystem that supported billions of birds, butterflies, bees, bison and other animals, some of which migrated with the seasonal cycles of the flowers and grasses.
JEFF SARGENT: “Prairie lands as a whole are primarily grasses and forbs, or flowering plants. They do have some trees, but very few. They, at one time, covered two thirds of the state of Texas prior to European settlement,” says Jeff Sargent, development director also with the Native Prairies Association of Texas. “Grasslands as a whole in North America and globally are the most endangered ecosystem on Earth, and it's primarily because the rich soils created an ideal opportunity for agriculture to develop. And then beyond that, human settlements began to develop and took out that space. There are less than 1 percent of the tall grass prairies in Texas remaining today,”
“When European settlers came into what is now Texas, they discovered the rich soils and immediately began accessing that, plowing it, planting cotton — essentially became king in Texas in the mid 19th century — and then into the early 20th century, cattle ranching became more dominant, and the grasses were excellent feed for cattle too.”
MARSHALL HINSLEY: As prairies were turned into agricultural land and more recently into parking lots and suburbs, the species that have for eons relied on native flowers and grasses have also declined in number, victims of the mass human effort to cover the planet in asphalt, concrete and turf.
The present crash of the monarch butterfly population is perhaps the most visible example of prairie species decline among the general public, and many people who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s have witnessed the disappearance of three billion birds from North American skies over a 50-year period, many of which are associated with prairie lands as documented by researchers with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
As awareness of prairie habitat loss has grown, pocket prairies have emerged as a doable response to reverse the downfall of the ecosystem. Anyone in Texas with a backyard or who manages a plot of land can with little effort and little expense turn just a part of a grassy lawn or unkempt space back into the prairie that it once was, which will provide food and shelter to countless species who have few places left to go.
CARLY AULICKY: “Anywhere we have turf grass, whether it is a place of worship, it is somebody's lawn, a campus for a school or a corporation, that is a place that can be restored to native plants,” says Carly Aulicky, Native Prairies Association of Texas' North Texas director of outreach and stewardship. “The beauty of pocket prairies is that they're not defined by needing to be any particular size, and they're really versatile.”
“The more pocket prairies that we have, and the more effort there is on small scale to big scale to put native plants back into these places that have not had them for a long time, the better off our ecosystem is going to be. Also we're going to be able to support unique organisms to the prairie, particularly native pollinators.”
MARSHALL HINSLEY: Diane Sloan, C.E.O. of K.S.S., a Dallas-based landscape architecture studio that has created a variety of public and private native landscapes, says creating a pocket prairie is a simple concept: pick a species that you’d like to attract — monarch butterflies for example — and find out what plants they need for food and for raising their offspring, and plant them in the area that you want to make into a little prairie after removing all turf and other plants that are not native. Essentially, there are three categories of plants that will recreate a little spot of prairie.
DIANE SLOAN: “If you really want to simulate a prairie, you're going to have to put in a lot of grasses. Fortunately our native grasses are gorgeous. The main four plants of our tallgrass prairie are big bluestem; little bluestem, my favorite grass; Indian grass; and switchgrass. And fortunately, all of these are beautiful in the garden.”
“Everybody, of course, should be planting milkweed now to help our endangered monarch butterflies on their trek to the far north and back down to Mexico.”
“So you’ve got your grasses, you’ve got your wildflowers and some basic shrubs.”
MARSHALL HINSLEY: Sloan says pocket prairies can be as small as a 2-foot-by-2-foot square in the corner of a backyard, or a short strip of ground between a garage and a walkway, or as large as the grounds around an office building.
A proponent of replacing the exotic turf grasses in your yard with native flora and author of the New York Times best-seller, Nature’s Best Hope, A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, Doug Tallamy is the T. A. Baker professor of agriculture in the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. And he says when you’re just getting started with a pocket prairie, keep your project manageable. Aim for density over diversity and build it in such away that your pocket prairie looks like a planned section of your yard.
DOUG TALLAMY: “So I'll give a talk and people say, I'm gonna go home, rip out all my lawn. I'll say, ‘No, don't do that. Replace a part of your lawn and figure out how to do it.’ There are lots of help groups — online groups that can walk you through this. There's several books out there about how to make meadows and prairies.
“I would recommend starting small so you get the feeling for what's going to be happy in your yard. This is where I would use lawn or grass as a cue for care. So line it with maybe one mowers width of turf grass that explains to your neighbors, this is not just a patch you forgot to mow — that it's an intentional part of your landscape. And it gives it aesthetic value even in the wintertime when not much is happening. Start with the common plants that we know are going to do well.
“There are a number of butterflies that depend on asters. But a single flowering aster is not going to be enough to support any of them. When you are trying to support pollinators, you want to make their foraging as efficient as possible. So you want a number of blooms of the same kind very close to each other so that they don't have to fly 100 yards in between each flower. That burns up more energy than they get from the nectar and the pollen. So patches of plants are very important. We do want diversity, but you need density as well. You need abundance."
MARSHALL HINSLEY: And most of all, he says, understand that wildlife will eat your pocket prairie — that’s part of the plan — you’re rebuilding the food web.
DOUG TALLAMY: “If you have a plant that is not being eaten by something, it's not doing its job.
“I get calls, people say, ‘I planted a milkweed and worms got on them and ate it, so I squished the worms.’ Well, the worms, of course, are caterpillars of the monarch. But a single milkweed ramet is not enough to get even a single caterpillar through to maturity. So, what you really want is a milkweed patch. Then you can have all the monarchs you want. There'll be enough food material so that they can complete their development. So it's a balance, a delicate balance between diversity — you want as many species as you can get, but you want enough of each species so that the things that need those plants can actually complete their development.
“When you put in any kind of a prairie planting in your yard, you're helping maintain the creatures that keep us alive on this planet. It's really important. And yes, they're sequestering carbon. And yes, they're managing the watershed because those deep root systems create channels where the water infiltrates and replenishes the water table as opposed to running off in sheets when you have a thunderstorm, which is what happens with lawn grasses.
"And then finally, those plants — by making those caterpillars and those grasshoppers and the other things that are eating these plants — are providing the food that supports other animals.
“Let's just talk about birds — if you want Carolina chickadees breeding in your yard, you need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars, just to get the babies to the point where they leave the nest. That's one nest. Where are those caterpillars going to come from? They're going to come from the plants in your yard, and it's not lawns. And it's not non-native trees. It's not crape myrtle. It's not camelias. It's not all these plants we bring in from Asia. It's going to be the native plants. Things like golden rod support 110 species of caterpillars. So that's what I mean by rebuilding the food web so that you can have other living things in your yard. And those are the things that run the ecosystems that support humans.
“You’re contributing to conservation with this hobby and you will learn what works and what doesn’t work as you proceed.”
“At my house we have 10 acres that were mowed for hay, and we've put it back, and I've been taking a picture of every species of moth that now occurs in our yard, and I'm up to 1,195 species because we put the plants back. I always say, imagine what would happen if everybody put the plants back.
"And that's what these pocket prairies are. We're starting to create living landscapes instead of just dead decorations. It's very rewarding. It is our responsibility as gardeners of the earth. It's our responsibility to make it a livable earth. There's a lot to feel good about when you actually do this.”
MARSHALL HINSLEY: Once established, pocket prairies need very little maintenance, like keeping them free of turf grasses and other nonnative plants that will always encroach. The spot may also need to be watered for the first year or two, but only occasionally.
Sloan says the fact that a pocket prairie needs very little work for the most part is itself an incentive to turn as much of your lawn into a prairie as you can manage.
DIANE SLOAN: “The first year you will have to do the watering. You will have to manually weed to keep undesirable things out of the garden. We all know that our soils just carry all kinds of undesirable seeds but that will be less the second year. And by the third year, you should really be up and running with very little water, mowing once or twice a year, and that’s it.”
MARSHALL HINSLEY: And although the immediate benefits of pocket prairies can be seen in the habitat they create for native wildlife, Aulicky says that the more land we restore to a prairie-like state, the more we’ll see the eco-services they offer.
CARLY AULICKY: “There’s actually short term and long term benefits. The short term is seeing benefits for native pollinators. But the long term benefits are definitely going to be along the line of preserving ecosystem services. Especially pocket prairies in urban areas, which are expected to get hit by seven- to 12-degree-Fahrenheit increases under some of the worst climate change model increase projections for heat. Prairies can help absorb some of that heat. They are capable of absorbing up to five tons of carbon in an acre after it's been allowed to establish. So you're looking at about five years or so into a restoration process, when you've been able to establish a diverse community, you can store an absolute ton of carbon.
“And right now, one of my favorite factoids is that if we were to snap our fingers and preserve all the native grasses in the U.S., we could sequester 1 billion metric tons of carbon right now, just by keeping them as they are on the ground. And they're just really great at it. But importantly too from an urban perspective, is prairies are absolutely ace at mitigating rainfall and flooding.
“In fact, prairies are capable of absorbing up to nine inches per acre of rainfall, which is absolutely amazing. And in a state that's usually in the top 10 for natural disasters, such as the flooding event that we just saw this summer. That's incredibly important. And all of this is due to the tremendous root systems that prairies have.
“When we're looking at a stand of switchgrass with it six feet above ground, there's at least six feet of roots below that plant, which allows them to do the things like store carbon and slow rainfall and help keep our cities from flooding.”
MARSHALL HINSLEY: And just as important, says Sloan, pocket prairies are beautiful features to observe throughout the seasons.
DIANE SLOAN: “In the spring, your pocket prairie will come to life. The grasses will just spring up out of the ground. Nobody has springs like Texas. Your wildflowers will be profuse. The grasses will be green and greenish blue. You will have a lot of color. Your songbirds will be coming. Your little native bees will be buzzing. The monarch butterflies will [be] beginning their northward migration. And you'll see them coming through in March and April. Hummingbirds will be visiting your flame acanthus and your Turks cap.
"As the year progresses into summer, you'll have less of those spring wildflowers. You'll still have them but they won't be in such profusion. Your sunflowers will start going crazy and they are so beautiful, like having just a patch of sunlight in your yard.
“And in the fall you get a whole different crop of things that are blooming. Your frost weed will bloom. Other things will start dying back, your inland sea oats, the blades of the grass turn bright yellow. Beautyberry bushes will be covered with beautiful, bright lavender berries. Your Turks cap will be setting fruit.
“It’s a beautiful time of the year in the garden.”
"And then as we head in toward winter, don't think that the winter garden is ugly. The great garden designer Piet Oudolf says get used to brown, but I think he's wrong. There's a lot of color in the winter garden as well as the beautiful movement of your grasses and the sound of the rustle of the wind through the winter garden. And little native bees will be living in the hollow reeds of your plants. A pocket prairie has beauty all year round.”
MARSHALL HINSLEY: You can learn more about what Texans are doing to keep the state a natural, beautiful place by visiting GreenSourceDFW.org.
TEXAS POCKET PRAIRIE RESOURCES
Native seed suppliers:
Texas Green Report: Rewilding' urban areas can bring back biodiversity
Green Source DFW: Create your own pocket prairie
Green Source DFW: Rewilding North Texas is doable, says landscape architect