The practice of allowing areas to grow wild and regenerate naturally with minimal human intervention is widely referred to as “hands-off” restoration. The ceasing of regular land management allows the natural processes of succession to unfold. While it sounds simplistic, ”hands off” restoration means more than just letting the grass grow; it is an educated decision. Depending on the circumstances of a given area, “hands-off” restoration may still require a small human component. Removal of invasive species may be needed to give an ecosystem a small nudge in the right direction.
A “hands-on technique” refers to planting or seeding of desired species of plants. A new approach to this type of naturalization is also the use of controlled burns. A controlled burn is one of the most effective and natural grassland management tools. When practiced with caution and common sense, controlled burns are a safe, ecologically sound, and efficient way to manage and invigorate prairies and meadows.
The technique that the Niagara Restoration Council has used in the past for prairie restoration is based on the experience of Paul Jenkins and Miriam Goldberger owners of the native plant nursery wildflower farm. This technique follows a four year plan to rebuild a native prairie.
Year one of a prairie restoration project must begin with a thorough site preparation in the spring. In order to free the native species from competition with invasive species they advise the complete eradication of all present plants. This can either be done with chemical herbicides like a systemic glyphosate product, or by repeated tilling of the soil over two years.
This is also the time to begin designing your prairie. The only requirement is that the plot should be divided up into several distinct areas. A five-foot-wide grass path should separated each of these areas (sections).
The Second year will not give you much to look at. During this year, you should cut the grass at least twice, to a height of 6 inches and no less. This height forces the plants to devote more energy into root development and less into flower development.
This year will also not produce much to look at since year three is also a mowing year. The mowing results in a stronger root system, which allows them to be more competitive against weeds in the future. The new prairie should be mowed twice during the summer, this time at a height of 12 inches.
At last you can sit back and watch as your prairie blooms. The only maintenance that is necessary is a small controlled burn over a different section of the prairie each year, on a rotating cycle.
The paths separating the prairie into sections that were established in the first year of regeneration, allow for effective fire control. As the segments are physically separated, sections may be burned individually. It is important to note that you should alternate the burn so that you are not burning the same area each year. Staggered fires (i.e. from sector to sector) allow beneficial insects and butterflies to move into, and from adjacent areas. It is also extremely important to talk to your local fire department before proceeding with any burns.