Prairie Restoration - Habitat Headquarters

Iowa was once covered by 30 million acres of prairie that was home to a huge diversity of plant and animal life. Prairies contain an abundant mixture of grasses, sedges, and forbs or wildflowers. Different prairie plants grow based on soil types and moisture levels, which determines whether an area will be a wet, mesic, or dry prairie, all of which can be found in the state. Since European settlement, prairie land cover in Iowa has been reduced to less than 0.1% of its original extent and with its disappearance, the state lost many of the plants and animals that depend on this habitat for survival. Efforts have been made across the state and throughout the Midwest to restore prairie habitat and preserve the few original prairie remnants that have persisted. To learn more about one of Iowa's rare remnant prairies check out this video.  

Here, we have collected resources from a variety of sources that provide useful information on prairie restoration, management, and renovation. This page primarily focuses on larger prairies. Urban prairies and prairie gardens are important as well. We will soon have a backyard page available for more information on how to establish prairies in landscapes or backyards.

How to Establish Prairie Habitat

The Conservation Learning Group at Iowa State University collaborated with several other organizations to produce a guide called What to Expect: Establishing Prairie Vegetation on Your Farm that provides some quick tips for starting a prairie and explains how a newly established prairie looks from year 1 through year 7 and beyond. 

The National Park Service has a series of pages that break prairie restoration down into useful steps which introduce the restoration process for beginners:

  1. Plant Your Own Prairie
  2. Site Selection
  3. Preparing Your Site
  4. Planting or Seeding Your Prairie
  5. Prairie Maintenance

prairie planting located between crop fields
Prairie habitat can be integrated into productive agricultural fields. Photo Credit: Conservation Media Library 

The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa also has a guide on site preparation and seeding.

North Dakota State University has a Prairie Reconstruction Guidebook with an in depth description of how to establish prairie habitat.

Prairie restoration can be a unique process for each landowner based on site characteristics and restoration goals.

Prairie Restoration Books:

Selecting Native Plants, Buying Seeds, and Seeking Assistance

Photo Credit: Conservation Media Library 

Choosing what to plant is an important part of planning a prairie restoration. The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa provides a summary of things to consider when selecting plant species.

There are many places that sell native prairie seeds or plants and offer services to help private landowners establish prairie habitat. The links below are not an endorsement of any company or organization and omission does not imply discrimination.

Managing Established Prairies and Renovating Grassland

Although prairie habitat is native to Iowa it can take some work to establish a high quality prairie with a diversity of native plants.

purple prairie clover plant in bloom
Purple Prairie Clover

Enjoying the Prairie

Learning the names of native plants and wildflowers can be a fun way to enjoy the prairie.

Knowing when species bloom and including species that bloom during different times throughout the growing season in your seed mix maximizes the amount of time you get to enjoy flowers. The publication Introduction to Iowa Native Prairie Plants on the Iowa State University Extension Store includes flowering periods of common native prairie plants.

monarch butterfly on orange butterfly milkweed flower
Prairies provide crucial habitat for monarchs. 

Many different species of butterflies can often be found in the prairie. Check out the book The Butterflies of Iowa by Dennis W. Schlicht, John C. Downey, and Jeffery C. Nekola and Butterflies in Your Pocket: A Guide to the Butterflies of the Upper Midwest by Steve Hendrix and Diane Debinski to help identify the ones you discover in your prairie.

For people who want to do more with their prairie, the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa has guides for:

Additional Resources

If you’re still looking to learn more about prairies and prairie restoration check out these additional resources.

References and Resources for Prairies and Native Plantings on the Iowa State University Extension Store

The Iowa Prairie Network Prairie Literature reading list provides a variety of resources related to prairies including general background information, propagation and management, plant identification guides and keys, and even a list of fiction novels and poems about prairies for the true prairie enthusiast. The Iowa Prairie Network also has a list of Iowa prairies that people can visit.

All 10 of the technical guides included in our prairie habitat headquarters page from the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa can be found on their website.