Ripples from the Dunes: Autumn Prairie Gardens


Dark form of Eastern Swallowtail on Joe-Pye weed by Jennifer Klein

This article was written for Ripples from the Dunes, by Jennifer Klein, Land Management Coordinator.

Autumn is in the air. Monarchs have been migrating in large numbers along the lakeshore, headed to
the overwintering grounds in Mexico. Maple trees are starting to show off brilliant orange leaves. The
nights are getting cooler. Wildflowers are producing seeds. Thoughts turn to apples, pumpkins, and
perhaps hayrides.

Indeed, the change from summer to autumn is quite noticeable. Summertime is normally when our
thoughts are on pollinators and prairies. At that time of year, wildflowers are blooming in brilliant
yellows, purples, and oranges. Caterpillars and butterflies are visible as they eat leaves and nectar.
However, autumn is also an important time to be thinking about pollinators. Autumn is the best time of
year for collecting prairie plant seeds. This makes sense because that is when the seeds are mature and
naturally drop.

Have you ever thought about creating a little wildflower garden of your own? Autumn is the perfect
time of year to do some planning. Maybe you were discouraged because you weren’t sure what to
plant, it seemed like too much work, or it seemed cost-prohibitive. Emily Dickenson once wrote, “to
make a prairie it takes a clover, and one bee.” Indeed, even the smallest prairie planting is beneficial to
pollinators.

Fortunately, planning a small prairie garden is relatively easy. If you are able to collect some desirable
prairie plant seeds in the fall, with landowner permission, you will find that starting your prairie is quite
affordable. Once you have the location picked out in your yard, the next step is to find a seed collection
site. Be sure to visit the site throughout the summer, making note of the plants you are interested in
and their location. Then, when you return in the fall and the plants are all brown, you will be able to
recognize them.

When you are ready to collect, you can find guidance from the Bureau of Land Management’s Seeds of
Success program. They recommend collecting only 20% of the available seed from the species you
desire. It is recommended to collect from individuals with a variety of characteristics (as opposed to all
the plants with larger blooms, for example). Seeds should be dry and mature when they are collected
and they should be placed in brown paper bags.

Once all of your seeds are collected, they should dry for three days in a cool, dark, and dry place. Some
seeds require cold stratification or double stratification before they germinate. It is important to
research the species you want to plant in order to ensure success. Because seeds naturally drop in the
fall, they will do well with being spread that same fall or even frost seeded into the snow. If you plan on
waiting until spring to seed, you must find out the requirements of storage for that species.
Prairie plants may appear as tiny green plants in the first year. Often it takes a few years before you see
mature plants producing flowers in your prairie garden if you are starting from seeds. It is important to
mow down any weeds in the first couple of years, in order to reduce competition.

Although it may only take one clover to make Emily Dickenson’s prairie, having a variety of wildflower
species will make for a more interesting one.

photo- dark form of Eastern Swallowtail on Joe-Pye weed by Jennifer Klein

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