A Prairie Journey

March 6, 2019

When I was in high school, my environmental science teacher had our class plant a prairie garden on campus. Inspired by the idea of ripping up sod and replacing it with the native plants that rightfully belonged there, I asked my parents if I could plant a prairie garden in our backyard. They said yes.

I rented a sod-cutter, bought some native prairie plants, and grabbed a few handfuls of sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosserratus) seeds from my local Audubon nature center. After a few hours of muddy work one spring morning, my prairie garden was born.

The backyard prairie garden I planted throughout high school and college. Photo by Evan Barrientos.

The real joy came the following summer when I started to notice wildlife using the new habitat I’d created for them. Dozens of insects I’d never seen before materialized to drink nectar from my garden. American Goldfinches plucked seeds from the sunflowers. Rabbits and voles took shelter in the miniature forest of stems and stalks. These sights not only made my backyard more beautiful, they made me feel like I could actually do something to bring back tallgrass prairie, an ecosystem of which all but one percent has been destroyed.

A sample of the insects that used my prairie garden. Left to right, top to bottom: Bumblebee sp., skipper sp., monarch butterfly, wasp sp., fly sp., bee-mimic fly sp. Photo by Evan Barrientos.

I carried this experience with me during college and my first year of fieldwork after graduating. One day while searching for my fourth field job, I came across a job posting from The Nature Conservancy, one of my favorite conservation nonprofits. However, it came with a catch. It was in Nebraska.

As a young naturalist growing up in Wisconsin, I had sworn to move away from the ecological desert that I had come to believe was the Midwest. Nebraska was nowhere on my bucket list, so I was hesitant to apply for the job. But then I thought about how rare prairies are, how much they needed my help, and how it had felt to create that oasis for wildlife in my backyard. I applied—and I got the job.

Later that year, I was (literally) up to my neck in prairie restoration. I learned with amazement how Nature Conservancy staff had figured out how to transform crop fields into beautifully diverse prairies in just five to seven years. And I got to re-live the experience in my backyard on a scale a thousand times greater.

The Nature Conservancy volunteers collecting seed for the restoration. Photo by Evan Barrientos.

Our main project that year was restoring a degraded prairie from scratch. One of the first steps was collecting the seed. That summer, I spent numerous hours picking seed. Even more importantly to me, I also recruited and trained volunteers to help us do so.

When winter came, it was time for us to finally seed the prairie. Part of the planting process required hand-sowing large amounts of seed across the wetlands and ridges of the unborn prairie. To do this, I organized my largest volunteer effort yet. Despite face-freezing winds and near zero-degree temperatures, more than 30 people showed up to volunteer. I still consider organizing that day one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done.

Volunteers seeding the prairie on a freezing day. Photo by Evan Barrientos.

Our main project that year was restoring a degraded prairie from scratch. One of the first steps was collecting the seed. That summer, I spent numerous hours picking seed. Even more importantly to me, I also recruited and trained volunteers to help us do so.

When winter came, it was time for us to finally seed the prairie. Part of the planting process required hand-sowing large amounts of seed across the wetlands and ridges of the unborn prairie. To do this, I organized my largest volunteer effort yet. Despite face-freezing winds and near zero-degree temperatures, more than 30 people showed up to volunteer. I still consider organizing that day one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done.

Common Milkweed (Aslecpias syriaca) sprouting in the prairie restoration. Photo by Evan Barrientos.

In 2018 I moved to Colorado to work for the National Audubon Society, which everyone knows means one thing: driving distance to Nebraska’s tallgrass prairies! Yes, I was excited for mountains and all, but I really was eager to return to the prairies that had made such a strong impact on my life. Last summer I drove back to Nebraska to see the prairie I helped create. Here’s what I found:

The Nature Conservancy’s prairie restoration three years after I helped seed it. Photo by Evan Barrientos.

Gone was the dirt field of two years before. In its place was a veritable jungle of sunflowers, grasses, and myriad other wildflowers. The wetlands I had seeded in the freezing wind were filled with beautiful species, and the sandy ridges were so dense you could hardly walk through them.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) thriving in the restoration. Photo by Evan Barrientos.

After a few seconds I found what I was looking for: insects using their new home. It was a dewy morning, and each bee, beetle, and bug was like a gem glittering in the rising sun.

Some of the insects I found in the prairie restoration. Left to right, top to bottom: Walsh’s digger bee (Anthophora walshii), tree cricket sp., lady beetle sp., damselfly sp. Photo by Evan Barrientos.

The more I explored, the more I discovered. To my surprise, not only had the quick-growing pioneer plants become established, but some of the more conservative species had already started to grow, too, far earlier than expected.

Flowers blooming in the restoration. Left to right: Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), cardinalflower (Lobelia cardinalis), and common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). Photo by Evan Barrientos.

I know that I didn’t plant that prairie by myself. It took expertise from an ecologist and a land manager, funding from donors, and dozens of volunteer hands, plus the incredible resilience of the plants and insects themselves. But by being a part of that process I truly feel that I’ve created something wonderful and important. Tallgrass prairie may be all but extinct, but we showed that if people care enough about them, prairies will spring back almost as if nothing had ever happened to them.

What sparked this journey for me? It all began with two tiny prairies: one at a nature center, and one at a high school. I hope that with each prairie we plant, we not only create more habitat, but more prairie stewards.

The prairie restoration from above in June, 2018. Photo by Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy.

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