There are many reasons for entering into a prairie restoration or landscaping project, including the creation of wildlife habitat, aesthetics, education, or the sheer enjoyment of prairie plants. Unlike gardens where annual flowers are planted to produce a luxuriant garden in one year, prairie plants will require approximately three years to develop from seed. However, once established, prairie sites can be maintained with a minimal amount of effort.
Prairie restoration begins with site selection and the determination of the size of the project. Ideally, a level to gently rolling area which was prairie in presettlement times should be selected. For assistance in determining if prairie soil is present at a site, you may consult a local Natural Resources Conservation Service Office or the original Government Land Office Survey Records which are available in county courthouses and in the Illinois State Archives Building in Springfield. These surveys delineate the boundaries of the prairies and timber about the time of settlement in the 1820's and 1830's.
Once the site for the prairie has been finalized, the size of the restoration needs to be determined. A site that is one acre or less is large enough to represent prairie flora, but larger sites are more desirable if you want to create several prairie communities and provide additional wildlife habitat. Keep in mind that larger restorations will require considerable manpower during site preparation, planting, and initial maintenance. If you do not have the time, money, manpower, or machinery to establish and maintain a large tract, it would be best to establish a smaller, more manageable plot.
Once you have selected a site and determined the acreage to be planted, you will need to acquire sufficient quantities of seed for your restoration. Several Illinois commercial nurseries specialize in the production of prairie plant seeds (Appendix 2). Some individuals believe that it is best to purchase or collect seed from a site that is within 100 miles of the restoration site in order to preserve the genetic integrity of local plant populations. When buying seed, avoid distant sources or "improved" or "selected" strains of prairie grasses and forbs. These "improved" or "selected" strains are very aggressive, a characteristic which enables them to crowd out desireable plants.
Although some prairie grasses may be purchased commercially at a reasonable cost, many grass and especially forb seeds are expensive. For this reason, you may want to supplement your commercially grown seeds with those that can be collected locally from degraded prairie remnants (Table 1). If you wish to collect seeds on private property, you should obtain permission before you do any collecting. Also, please remember that it is illegal to collect seeds or other plant materials on Department of Natural Resources properties or in any Illinois Nature Preserve.
If your objective is to duplicate the presettlement prairie, select seeds of those plants which formerly grew in your part of the state, Illinois has a large variety of prairie types which have certain characteristic plants. Plants of the northern prairies, such as prairie smoke, pasque flower, have no place in your restoration if you live in southern Illinois. Likewise, the plants of the southern prairies do not belong in prairie restorations of the north. A good guide to follow is the natural divisions concept described earlier, and search for seeds within the natural division where your prairie establishment site is located.
For information on the prairie plants that are native to your county, consult "Prairie Plants of Illinois" by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (Voigt and Mohlenbrock 1979), "Plants of the Chicago Region" by Swink and Wilhelm (1994), "Distribution of Illinois Vascular Plants" by Mohlenbrock and Ladd (1978), or "Flora of Illinois" (Mohlenbrock 1986), or "Plant Species Composition of Wisconsin Prairies (Henderson 1995).
Never dig any prairie plants from any remnant prairie unless it is about to be destroyed. Most prairie plants can be propagated easily from seed. Leave the plants where they are growing so others can enjoy them in the prairie. Prairies continue to be lost in Illinois due to development, road construction, herbicides, woody invasion, and neglect. Taking plants from these prairie remnants makes these sites less diverse and forever diminishes the experience of visitors.
Some seeds (such as grasses) lose viability if they are stored dry for a period in excess of one year, but other seeds require exposure to cold temperatures, a process called stratification, before they can germinate. For most prairie plants it is best to dampen the seeds slightly, place them in plastic bags, and put them in cold storage (34 F is ideal) immediately after collection where they should remain until planting time. Moist stratification generally results in a higher germination rate for most prairie species.
While in storage, be alert for the growth of fungi which could damage seed. Other seeds, such as pale coneflower, can be stored in a dry condition (Table 1), but better germination is usually achieved through moist stratification. For more specific information on stratification requirements consult Nuzzo (1976) or Rock (1977).