The seed of prairie plants may be planted by a variety of methods, including specially made drills, rotary spreaders, or hydraulic mulchers. Hand broadcasting can be utilized on sites less than an acre in size. The important element here is the even dispersal of the seed over the area. Any large scale planting which does not drill the seed into the ground will require the use of a harrow and roller to "set" the seed. This can be accomplished on small plantings by using a rake and a roller attached to a garden tiller. If the conditions are suitable, and the seed viable, it should germinate within two or three weeks.
The use of no till prairie seed drills has increased dramatically in recent years. These drills are made by a number of different manufacturers, and all of them will provide the no till planting that is desired. Using no till planters reduces costs, saves time, and prevents disruption of the soil that could be experienced with the traditional methods of planting. Sites that are to be planted with this method must be free of large, high standing vegetation that will clog the planters on the drill and reduce contact of the planters with the soil, thus reducing the overall effectiveness of the planting effort.
If you plan to use a rotary spreader or drill to plant your prairie seed, make sure that the seed is dry and relatively free of large (three inches or longer) pieces of leaves or stems. If the seed is wet or full of debris, the spreader or drill will not operate properly. Drying and cleaning can be accomplished by placing the seed on a concrete floor. Spread the seed out so it forms a layer about two inches thick. Turn the seed with a rake frequently to aid the drying process. Stems, sticks, and other debris can be removed at this time. If conditions are satisfactory, the seed should be dry within one or two days or less, depending on quantity and drying conditions.
During the first year of the restoration, do not expect to see much growth from the prairie plants. It is during the first year of growth that most prairie plants establish their root systems. Have patience! After two or three years, if survival is good, the prairie plants will be well established. Both Betz (1986) and Schramm (1990) describe the importance of establishing the "prairie matrix," a group of easily established prairie plants that represent the initial stage of succession that eventually leads to the development of a planting much like a native prairie remnant. Schramm (1990) describes four stages that he refers to as the (1) Initial Downgrow Weedy Stage characterized by prairie annuals, (2) Intense Competitive Stand Establishment Stage in which yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) or false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) are prominent, (3) Closeout Stage in which rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and prairie dock (S. terebinthinacium) are prominent, and (4) a Long-term Adjustment Stage in which the conservative species such as lead plant (Amorpha canescens) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) begin to flower. Betz (1986) describes the introduction of second, third and last stage plants. In his last stage, conservative plants like prairie gentian (Gentiana puberula), prairie lily (Lilium philadelphicum), and Meads's milkweed (Asclepias meadii) will be introduced. These conservative prairie plants can be seeded into less diverse areas of the planting by hand sowing or by a prairie seed drill as the planting matures.
The Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin was planted between 1936 and 1941 using the single species concept. In this method, seeds or plants of a single species were placed into plots with the belief that the plants would mature and spread with time. Now, sixty years after the initial planting, certain species such as big bluestem, Indian grass, rattlesnake master, Canada goldenrod, rosin weed, and white false indigo have spread throughout the plantings (Sperry 1994). Established prairies, like remnant prairies, are going to be dynamic communities that will change with time.
There is much that has been learned about recreating prairies, and much more that will be learned in the future. We have much to learn about soils and soil organisms and how they influence prairie reconstruction. It will be important to quantify the results that we observe so that those that follow will know exactly what was done in the planting so they can take advantage of available knowledge.