natural succession through Prairie seed

Two articles  –

Marc Pastorek – Natural Success via Prairie Seed

Charles M. Allen – Natural Succession (below, scroll down)



Natural Succession via Prairie Seed by Marc G. Pastorek

Most of the land you will find in the southeastern U.S. has been disturbed  and the vegetation that exists is secondary or worse in ecological terms, in its level of quality and sometimes, in its biological value. Most land has been altered either by man or through other unnatural means, overgrazing, fire suppression, etc.

When you find a place that has not been disturbed or has been disturbed very little, you might be standing in a prairie. The only way you can tell is to identify some of the plants. Plants can tell you what the soils are like and to what extent the soils and the plant community that grows there has been changed from its natural form. For instance, you can sometimes tell when just over grazing has changed the landscape, compared to plowing, or tree farming. Certain plants do not come back from heavy impacts like plowing or bulldozing. and so when you find those that contain plants that are high on the coefficient of conservative rating, you know that the ground has only been slightly changed. Most high quality species in plant communities are lost in plowing, while grazing can actually be beneficial to preserving biodiversity and species richness since the ungulates, cows, etc., grazing mimics the evolutionary buffalo grazing.

In seeding a prairie, you can recover ancient historic vegetation, restoring your land to maybe not exactly what was there before but something nearly as good. Dr. William J. Platt, fire ecologist, botanist, calls prairie via seed “totally artificial, but perfectly natural”, meaning it might not be the exact plant community that was there prior to white man’s arrival, but its a good substitute and worthy of the effort – a perfect way to create natural wonder in the human and re-energize man’s connection with the Earth – a hand-full of prairie seed is an Earth-healing concoction of biodiversity. 🙂

Prairie from seed is an enjoyable pastime project, providing the gardener with year-round opportunities for observation and entertainment. Prairie gardens are insights into what our landscapes once looked like. We know that because people have studied remnants of prairies scientifically for 100 years, and the more prairies are studied, the more questions arise about their biological complexity, their inherent beauty and their support for rare and threatened prairie-dependent wildlife. Horticulturally speaking, prairies can be used in a thousand ways – there are countless plant combinations for a designer to choose from.

Prairie by seed can typically recover the species diversity in numbers by as much as 30 or so percent – instead of 40 plus species per square meter, like you’ll find in some prairies, you can establish 15 or so species per square meter. That’s pretty good especially if the quality of the previously existing vegetation had no high quality species at all. You can change an old field weed landscape into a garden prairie (prairie garden) in a short period of time, attracting the rarest insects, ones that you’d never see otherwise. The old saying build it and they will come applies.

You can regularly “graze” your garden prairie, discovering news things each year, each day, each hour. Prairies evolve. Natural succession guides the direction of each individual species in the plant community. Providing natural methods of management is the guiding tool.

In a landscape that will fuel a fire, one with grasses covering the ground, its possible that no seed is needed for recovery. Grasses are the fuel for a fire and the existing seed in the seed bank will respond to fire over time. A bahia or Bermuda grass pasture will burn and over several years, the Bahia/ Bermuda will fade out and a whole variety of plants, will replace the Bahia.

If you seed a prairie you’ll initiate and jumpstart to hopefully establish specific species. Succession will occur. In three years the vegetation is dramatically different than the first and in five or seven years it changes again and in ten and then twenty and so forth, its noticeably different. Even after ten and twenty years you’ll occasionally find new plant species that are revealing themselves for the first time, from the original seeding that was done. How fun is that?

The surprises in a prairie are constant, nearly continuous.

The famous prairie scientist Dr. John Weaver who studied prairies for fifty years when there was lots of prairie to study, said – the prairie was “kaleidescopic in character”, meaning the diversity of species and the color, the forms, textures, and the shear complex nature of the above ground and below ground aspects of prairies is ever-changing, ever-colorful.


above, Weaver prairie roots drawing

Even if you do the prep work for a garden prairie poorly or do little or no prep work at all you’ll probably change the landscape in a favorable way. Make the hard efforts and reap the pleasures! Experimenting with prairie seed is fun and exciting and always educational. And if you manage it lightly or don’t manage it at all, things will go in the right direction as far as restoring ground goes, be a good steward for the Earth. By simply letting land fallow, adding nothing, you’re allowing for native fauna to utilize native flora, you’re conserving precious soil. So don’t throw out the lawnmower altogether, just reduce how much you use it. Mow 80% less that you do normally and you’ll see a great percentage more butterflies arrive, flutter around, and hang out. Your neighbors might hate you for it, but maybe not.

If you’re lucky (only if you try), landscaping with a prairie plant community will result in a grass-dominant garden-like landscape that you’ll enjoy on a day-to-day basis, all your life long.






Natural Succession –  by Charles M. Allen

Succession is defined as the orderly replacement of one community by another.  Succession is driven by competition; plants are competing for light, water, nutrients, space, and the ability to reproduce.  Primary succession takes place in areas where other plants have not been before while secondary succession takes place in areas where plants have been before.  Most succession is secondary and would include disturbed areas like clearcut, or abandoned farm areas.  The succession in a body of water like a lake or pond is considered to be primary since there were not plants in the water before. Animals also undergo succession but are so dependent on the plants that their succession is closely linked to the plant succession.

The first plants to move into an area are called pioneers and are mostly annuals with light weight seeds and usually produce massive amount of seeds during reproduction.  If a given area is not re-disturbed, the species makeup will start to change.  During the second (sometimes the third or later) year, perennial species will move in.  In a few years, woody plants would start to move in; shrubs at first and then followed by trees.  In some areas, pines or willows move in early (during the first years).  These early successional plants all are usually full sun plants and often grow in even age groups or stands.  Early successional stages are unstable and the species makeup is changing. Animal species would also be changing as the plants change.  If the area is severely disturbed by tilling etc., succession starts all over again.

At some point along the way, shade tolerant species like beech, magnolia, some oaks, dogwood will move in.  These shade tolerant species are very patient; they will grow very slowly and wait their turn.  A good name for them is “oskar”.  Oskar is a character in a novel “The Tin Drum” who preferred the juvenile stage to the adult stage and stopped growing at the age of three.  In a few (or longer) years, the full sun plants will still be producing seeds that will germinate, but not be able to survive because of the shade.  Meanwhile, the shade tolerant species will survive as oskars and can take over when the full sun plants die.  Oskar trees can grow rapidly if given the opportunity.  Additional seedling oskars are produced and wait for the adult trees of the same or other shade tolerant species to die and make a space for them.

The final succession stage is called the climax community and the kind of community is controlled by the climate, soil, etc but one of the two major physiognomy classes (forest or grassland) is produced.  The climax vegetation consists of almost all perennial species and in forests is mostly woody shade tolerant species.  In undisturbed areas in climax vegetation, oskars of the climax species are produced and replace it’s ancestors so the species makeup is stable.  But, a climax community is never solid 100% at the final stage of succession.  Disturbances have and will be occurring to start succession again.  In a natural situation, only a small part of the climax vegetation is disturbed at any one time.  A tree dying or being blown over creates a gap.  The disturbance effect on succession is dependent on size and severity.  If the disturbance (gap) is large, succession may restart from the beginning but most gaps are small and succession picks up further along and closer to the climax.

Some plant communities are held at a non or subclimax stage of succession by outside factors such as fire, tilling, or mowing.  Pine forests and bogs are examples of a fire climax; fire keeps succession from proceeding.  An agronomic field is a non-climax plant community maintained by tilling, usually annually.  Roadsides, pipelines, and power lines are maintained at an early stage of succession by mowing; woody plants are eliminated.  Bottomland hardwood forests may not have been allowed to undergo succession to a climax by annual or less frequent flooding.

A great way to study and demonstrate succession is the “succession wheel”.  In the 1970’s, the idea of a succession wheel was presented to me by Rusty Gaudet. I have worked with several wheel designs including brick for pathways and then went to the mowed pathway as the most efficient.  I also created circles in the center for viewing with one path for access. My son, Andy Allen, added the idea of four pathways (north, east, south and west) that meet in the center and divide the circle into four equal parts.  Then each of the four parts can be divided once to create eight equal triangular (piece of pie or pizza) shaped sections. You could start in any section but based on the fact that the sun is usually in the southern sky, I like to start in the section just north of the west walkway and then move clockwise. This will prevent shading by the taller plants if you started in the southern sections. You will need to till seven sections the first year, which will be all but the one just north of the west walkway.  The second year you would need to till six sections which would be all but the one just north of the west walkway and the one just west of the north walkway. The third year, you would need to till five sections which would be all but the one just north of the west walkway, the one just west of the north walkway, and the one just east of the north walkway. The fourth year, you would need to till four sections which would be all of the sections south of the west and south of the east walkway or you would not till all of the sections north of the east and north of the west walkways.  The fifth year, you would only need to till three sections which would be the one just east of the south walkway, the one just west of the south walkway, and the one just south of the west walkway.  The sixth year, you would only need to till two sections which would be the one just west of the south walkway and the one just south of the west walkway.  The seventh year, you would only need to till one section which would be the one just south of the west walkway. For the eight year, you would till the first section that you started with, which is the one just north of the west walkway.

During the first year, you would have one section (just north of west walkway) that is more than one year old (the age would depend on the last year this was tilled prior to you starting the succession wheel) and seven sections that are one year old.  The second year, you would have one more than two years old, one two years old, and six one year old sections.  The third year, you would have one more than three years old, one three years old, one two years old, and five one year old.  The fourth year, you would have one more than four years old, one four years old, one three years old, one two years old, and four one year old. The fifth year, you would have one more than five years old, one five years old, one four years old, one three years old, one two years old, and three one year old. The sixth year, you would have one more than six years old, one six years old, one five years old, one four years old, one three years old, one two years old, and two one year old. The seventh year, you would have one more than seven years old, one seven years old, one six years old, one five years old, one four years old, one three years old, one two years old, and one one year old.  The eighth year, you would have one eight years old, one seven years old, one six years old, one five years old, one four years old, one three years old, one two years old, and one one year old.

At this point, you could start over and re-till but it would be nice if you could create another circle nearby so you could leave this original circle to continue succession.  In your original succession wheel for the ninth year, you would have one each of a nine year old down to a two year old section but no one year old section. The tenth year you would have one each of a ten year old section down to a three year old section but no one and no two year old sections.  If you created another succession wheel nearby, you would have the whole range of ages from one to nine, one to ten etc.

I have used rope or string and posts to mark the sections and walkways.  I mow the walkways and dig up any leftover perennials including woody plants in the new sections.  You could do just about any size circle and that would depend on your available sites and ability to till the area.  If you have different soils and especially different wetness, you might want to create more than one succession wheel so you could see the differences between the two or more sites.  At Allen Acres, there are two succession wheels; both on Cahaba sandy loam soil with one set that was begun in 2002 which now has eight different ages and then a second one that was begun in 2009 so it now has four different ages.

One thought on “natural succession through Prairie seed

  1. Pingback: butterflies from scratch | Meadowmaker. Seed Man. Artist.

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