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Creating Space for Nature

By Lora Goerlich

Most horse properties cover larger land areas than traditional residential homesteads making them ideal places to incorporate eco-friendly elements. Native prairie and woodland areas, commonly referred to as naturescapes, are environmentally friendly and produce brilliantly colored flowers throughout the season that require minimal maintenance, in turn creating habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Native prairie and woodland habitats are valuable alternatives to high maintenance monocultures created by meticulously landscaped, mowed lawns. For this article, the term “native plants” refers to historically and naturally occurring, regional plants, not introduced through human activity.

Mid Summer Prairie Flower Blooms LCG

Start small – Native plants are hardy survivors that thrive on regional climate conditions. Once established, natives need amazingly little upkeep which means even those with a green thumb deficit can be successful.  Where to begin? First, determine which plants are best suited for your region and property type. Variables include soil type and the amount of sun in the intended area; during the day will the area have full sun, full shade or partial sun and shade? Next, find a plant source; I linked four plant resources at the end of the article. Using an existing garden bed is a terrific place to start. It will allow time to study the low-maintenance requirements and physical attributes of the plants you choose. Knowing the plant's height, spread, color, and how they propagate will come in handy when planning a larger scale naturescapes.

Once you have mastered a native garden bed, it is time to consider transforming a nearby section of lawn. This will require tilling up the ground or removing the existing vegetation to prep for transplanting live plants or broadcasting seeds. Both are practical ways to start a larger area. Live plants will fill the area more quickly than seeds. Seeds normally require about three years to establish.

Maintenance – Naturescapes are not maintenance free, but fortunately, long-term care and oversight are less labor intensive than the ongoing upkeep of manicured lawns. The two preferred management methods are spring or fall mowing and burning (Always research state and local ordinances before considering burning). Both methods help deter undesirable plants from taking over. Burning has the added benefit of assisting in seed germination of preferred plants. When burning is not an option, spring mowing is the next best method. Late March to mid-April mowing allows prairie inhabitants to have access to food source (seeds), and cover during the harsh winters, it also protects ground nesting birds who begin nesting in early spring (depending on region).

Late Summer Native Grasses LCG

When unwanted forbs or woody vegetation take root, additional measures will be necessary. Spot mowing, hand pulling plants, cutting then disposing of seed heads before they mature, and selective herbicide application are common control measures. Currently, I have two competitors that are proving to be formidable opponents: dogbane and bindweed. Dogbane also known as hemp weed, Indian hemp or wild cotton and is easily confused with the much needed, common milkweed. Although it is native, with notable beneficial uses, it is toxic to humans, dogs, and livestock. But the pressing issue is the speed at which it takes over open areas. The other nemesis bindweed is a rapidly growing, prolific vine. Bindweed twists around and climbs up host plants while simultaneously choking the life out of them. Field bindweed is a nationally listed invasive that is difficult to manage since most measures will negatively affect the host plant. Both plants are aggressive.

Bluebird Boxes on Horse Fence LCG

For the Birds – Do not forget to add blue accents to your eco-assets. Blue birds (not to be confused with blue jays) thrive in open spaces, but for blue birds to brood and raise their young, they need cavities such as nest boxes or hollow spaces in trees which, these days, are not always easy to find, which has contributed to a decline in their population.

Pasture fence can benefit blue birds in two ways. First, wood and metal fence posts make terrific locations for box placement (be sure to protect fence mounted boxes from climbing predators such as raccoons and snakes). And second, fence rails that overlook pastures and prairies offer strategic hunting perches in addition to offering safe resting spots for newly fledged birds.

Autumn is the perfect time to start planning, preparing, and planting for next year’s colorful and diverse natural spaces that will add valuable habitat for years to come. And… the availability of hearty native perennials and planning resources have never easier to find.

Get Recognized – County, state, and national organizations value habitat restoration projects on private property; every contribution is important. If efforts meet specific criteria, property owners might be eligible for recognition that could include monetary incentives. Nature Conservancy and county soil and water agencies are great starting points for those interested in registering their natural area (I have listed additional planning and management resource links at the end of the article).

Autumn is the perfect time to start planning, preparing, and planting for next year’s colorful and diverse natural spaces that will add valuable habitat for years to come. And… the availability of hearty native perennials and planning resources have never easier to find.

Native Prairie Recognition LCG

More resources from non-affiliated sources: 

  1. First-time native plant gardeners: Native Garden Designs - Wild Ones

  2. State by state guide to native plants:

Native Plants by State - Find Natives Near You! - Native Backyards

  1. Live plants, seeds, regional planning resources, consulting and much more:

Getting Started with Native Plants | Prairie Nursery

  1. Pollinator planting kits, books, garden tools, seeds, bare root, and live plants:

Prairie Moon Nursery: Storefront

  1. Bluebirds by region:

Which Bluebird Species Are You Seeing in Your State? - Avian Report

  1. University of Kentucky PDF download with information on attracting bluebirds, box placement and upkeep: http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/for/for52/for52.pdf.

Originally published in Horse Trails of America October 2023 "The Trail Journal."

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