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:
- Plant Your Own Prairie
- Site Selection
- Preparing Your Site
- Planting or Seeding Your Prairie
- Prairie Maintenance
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.
- The Nature Conservancy provides guides to prairie restoration that are tailored to specific land-use types. Note: this resource provides information for seed mixes and restoration professionals specific to Minnesota so be sure to check out the Iowa specific resources listed below on our page for that information.
- The Iowa State University STRIPS project specifically addresses the benefits of incorporating prairie into productive agricultural lands. Download their Installing Prairie Strips: Frequently Asked Questions brochure to learn more.
- The Natural Resources Conservation Service has guides for planting corn and soybean fields to native prairie and converting cool season grass into native prairie.
- This article from the University of Wisconsin Extension describes planting prairie on smaller plots and explains why it’s often important to plant seeds in the fall.
Prairie Restoration Books:
- The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson
- Restoring the Tallgrass Prairie: An Illustrated Manual for Iowa and the Upper Midwest by Shirley Shirley
- A Practical Guide to Prairie Reconstruction by Carl Kurtz
Selecting Native Plants, Buying Seeds, and Seeking Assistance
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.
- Pheasants Forever Native Seed Program
- Plant Iowa Native has a list of private companies in Iowa (click on “Prairie/Wetland Services) that offer seeds, seed mixes, and plants as well as various services related to establishing and managing a prairie including soil testing, planting, mowing, prescribed burning, herbicide application, and brush control.
- The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa provides a video series on creating a seed mix. They also have a seed calculator for soil types in Iowa to help design high quality prairie plantings and a detailed brochure on designing seed mixes.
- The Iowa DNR has private lands staff who work cooperatively with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other agencies to provide technical assistance to landowners and connect them with various cost-share programs related to prairie establishment. Visit our Wildlife Habitat Programs and Consultation page to find NRCS and DNR employees in your area that are available to help.
- Iowa DNR information on private landowner assistance for establishing native habitat
- NRCS information and resources for establishing native prairie – this page includes a seeding calculator
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.
- The Natural Resources Conservation Service has a guide for managing native prairie starting the first year after planting and continuing through the third year and beyond.
- The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa has a technical guide for initial post seeding and early reconstruction management. They also have a guide that describes evaluating the quality of a prairie after the first or second growing season to make sure restoration goals are being met. Their evaluation suggestions range from complex sampling techniques to simply take a photo of the prairie each year to document changes.
- The Iowa Prairie Network Native Prairie Management Guide describes various management techniques that are often used to maintain a healthy, diverse prairie.
- Prairie plantings can become dominated by grasses which reduces their value for wildlife and often their aesthetic value as well. Purdue Extension offers a guide to renovating native warm-season grass stands for wildlife and the Xerces Society has a guide for interseeding wildflowers to diversify grasslands for pollinators.
- Prairie Management Book: The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States by Chris Helzer
Enjoying the Prairie
Learning the names of native plants and wildflowers can be a fun way to enjoy the prairie.
- The app, iNaturalist, linked and described in this article, has shown to be an effective plant identification resource.
- Bur Oak Guides to prairie plant identification
- Plant Identification Books
- An Illustrated Guide to Iowa Prairie Plants by Paul Christiansen and Mark Muller. There is also a website based off of this book which maps Iowa prairies open to the public.
- Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan T. Runkel and Dean M. Roosa
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.
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:
- Seed collecting from tallgrass prairies
- Drying, cleaning, and storing prairie seed
- Propagating native plants
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.