MONROE CITY. As beautiful as blooming tallgrass prairies are, building one is just as unappealing.
The first invasive species, such as autumn olive trees or Bradford pears, should be uprooted and burned. And even after the seeds of the steppe grass are thrown, at first it will be ugly.
“And next year, you look there and just cry because it looks disgusting,” said Bob Kendrick, a member of the Mississippi Hills chapter of the Missouri Masters of Naturalists.
After that, the prairie slowly creeps in and then takes its full beautiful shape. It’s the “cry, crawl, jump” cycle, as Kendrick calls it.
“But that’s not really true, because sometimes it’s six or seven years,” Kendrick said, drawing knowing laughter from fellow naturalists as they mixed seeds from a dozen species with cat litter to toss on a patch of land near Mark Twain Lake, which the army The Engineering Corps just burned down.
The Mississippi Hills Group has committed to restoring seven prairies each year for seven years. Kendrick and his fellow volunteers hope to bring back abundance to local wildlife by restoring grasslands that were destroyed after European settlement of Missouri.
“There are two remnants of an 8,000-year-old prairie within a 40-mile radius of Monroe City,” Kendrick said. He said that the total area of these two sites is less than two acres.
The group is now in its third year and has established a seed bank that provides free seeds to landowners who want to create prairies. There are still four years left – or 12 more prairies.
They want people to know that anyone can do it. Kendrick pointed to the sign the group was planting seeds on, which should have read “prairie in progress”. Instead, “prairie in progress” was written. Another “r” was squeezed in after the fact.
“They’ll look at it and say, ‘Well, if these people can do it, I know we can do it,'” Kendrick said.
Kendrick and Christy Trevathan were in the first class of master naturalists in north-central Missouri.
Trevathan said the term “web of life” used by the instructor in their training four years ago still stuck with her.
“Because when you plant a prairie, you bring in insects. When you bring insects, you bring birds and small mammals, and then the small mammals feed the turkeys and deer,” she said.
She continued, “Everything started to make sense—why we do what we do.”
Prior to training as a master naturalist, Kendrick said he thought he knew quite a lot. But the knowledge he gained about invasive plants and the vast array of animal species in Missouri made him rethink it.
“I often go to the forest. I thought I knew something,” Kendrick said. “And I found out that I was a baby in the woods.”
One of the group’s instructors said their newfound knowledge of invasive plant species would spoil every outing from then on.
When Alan Miller began laying out an acre of prairie on his property, he first had to uproot rampant invasive species — primarily autumn olive trees. The friend who helped him started noticing trees everywhere as he drove home.
“When I got my seat, there was… one place in my area where this autumn olive grew, and now it’s just scattered all over the place,” he said.
This year, Miller said he peeled fall olives on 12 acres. He had to contend with an autumn olive when it tried to encroach on the land he had cleared four years before.
But on the acre he started prairie smashing on a few years ago, he’s seeing results from a prescribed burning last year.
“One of the guys who helped with that burn came to me,” he said. “I said, ‘Now there’s a treat for you,’ and he was blooming, and he was just full of flowers.”
In Kendrick’s own backyard, he estimates there are four or five species of birds that weren’t there before.
Not only master naturalists help. Kendrick said more than 40 people have collected seeds from prairie patches for the seed bank. Kendrick said he bought enough seeds for two acres and it cost over $1,000.
So he distributes seeds to those who want to help restore the prairie.
“My garage is a mess,” Kendrick said. “My wife is ready to kill me.”
Trevathan maintains a prairie in her one-acre yard and a songbird garden on an adjacent property she rents out.
“Everyone can contribute,” she said.
This story was originally published in the Missouri Independent.
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