Letting Mother Nature sort it out may not be the best strategy.
Most native seed companies sell carefully designed blends to match the soil, light and drainage conditions unique to any given site. So if your project sports a recently cleared slope with sand-box soils, you would use a collection of species that thrive on sand in full sun. If you’re replacing difficult-to-mow lawn in your drainage ditch, you would use wildflowers and grasses that handle fluctuating water levels.
It makes sound ecological sense to match plants to place.
Depending on the area, these site-specific native mixes are then distributed either mechanically or by hand, hoping that all species that comprise the mix make a strong showing; a strategy a former colleague of mine coined, “letting Mother Nature sort it all out.”
I never really thought twice about this method until several years ago when I received a call from a client asking to be reimbursed $600 for a pound of meadow blazingstar seed that she paid for as part of her mix, but never saw as an adult plant. At first I thought she was being difficult, giving her my very practiced spiel about being patient and prairies mature very slowly….blah, blah, blah. She politely listened, but then gave me the history of her site, detailing her thorough site preparation, seed mix selection and post seeding management. She had followed the prairie establishment rules to the tee and HAD been patient for six years. She had a valid point. My sales training also reminded me that if someone has the courage to complain, there are many others who feel the same way so I set up an appointment to evaluate the prairie myself.
Although I found a handful of blazingstars buried in a fray of other natives, she was right in that they just weren’t there in the numbers that they should be. After a thorough walk through cataloging the early successional “quick to establish” plants and any slower growing conservatives lurking in the understory, I couldn’t pin the absence on too much moisture, weed competition or deer browse. The problem was clearly competition from other prairie plants that were included in her mix.
Her prairie looked similar to so many other mature prairies that I’ve evaluated; the relatively aggressive heavy hitters had taken control of the field. Big bluestem, yellow coneflower, monarda, switchgrass, white false indigo, stiff goldenrod and New England aster were prolific, but bossy to the exclusion of other prairie players. Meadow blazingstar just couldn’t compete.
Her point was now loud and clear.
Why did she invest in a diverse mix if ultimately all she was seeing were the heavy hitters?
Although we solved the immediate problem by refunding her for the blazingstar, the issue of the no-shows wasn’t going to go away if I continued to follow the same path. Installing diverse seed blends hoping all prairie players would play nice was the goal but, in reality, the A-team had control while the rest warmed the bench.
It was the catalyst that prompted the testing of other methods to install prairie seed.
After experimenting on a few plots in my yard, it seemed the best way to give every species a fighting chance was to divert from the diverse pre-mixed seed mixes and create custom blends on my own.
The method is pretty simple.
The first step mirrors the seed mix design process; generating a species list that matches the conditions of the site as well as your native landscaping goals. If you want to see monarchs, include a ton of milkweed. If a native Zen garden is your vibe, emphasize simplicity, keeping the number of species to a minimum.
The difference between the two methods is mixing and sowing the seed. Instead of throwing 25 or more species on the ground hoping that Mother Nature will sort it all out, install wildflowers as monocultures with a reduced amount of grasses and sedges (an essential backbone) where you think they will do best, filling in between the wildflowers with a higher seeding rate of grasses and sedges. So when you install meadow blazingstar seed in front of your kitchen window, you know you will eventually see meadow blazingstar plants from that very window and your money’s not wasted.
Although prairie plants will ebb and flow over time as your prairie ages, installing precious native seed so all species stand a chance is a mindful approach to prairie establishment.