Pocket Prairie: Helping Our Neighbors, Healing Our Minds

‘Over 9 million acres of prairie once existed as a grassland paradise for Native Americans and early settlers. Today less than 1% remains.’ ~ USFW / USGS, Paradise Lost? Coastal Prairie of Louisiana and Texas

This article was written for June’s edition of the
Texas Master Naturalists™ Coastal Prairie Chapter
‘Courier’ publication.

Memorial Day weekend along the Gulf Coast marks the beginning of summer in Texas. Last year in 2019, school came to a conclusive end and, with it, so did spring volunteering at the elementary school gardens. As the school’s leadership did not want to move forward with a more natural approach for gardening, my time was looking to free up for the summer. Any restoration effort would have to begin at home.

That’s when I stepped onto the Katy Prairie for the first time. I knew was a goner, love at first sight with tall grass prairie. My husband, Scott, was equally wowed and enamored with the variety of grasses, flowers, and life brimming in this natural refuge. We learned that diversity of life is the heart-and-soul of the prairie, the enormous water-storing capacity notwithstanding. How could we have lived decades in flood-prone Houston and not have known of this important ecological heritage?

“What do you think?” Scott asked on the drive home. “Can we build a prairie of sorts … in our yard?” It was a halfway baited question, meant to rile me up, to test how committed I might be to such an endeavor. “Turf grass is over-rated,” he finished, as if a foregone conclusion. He had me at ‘prairie;’ my mind was already working out the details of it all before we even pulled into the drive.

Beer and tape measure in hand, we walked through my prairie visions, finishing with square foot calculations and color-coding on the whiteboard. We then headed to the hardware store for plastic sheeting, and as with all good nature projects, the day ended with a good scalping and watering of the turf to be killed, punctuated with camping out by the creek.

Outlining The Prairie

Prairie madness … the very beginnings (May 2019)

Whiteboard Rendition

All good projects start with engineering.

It did not take much to get the first 7,000 square feet ready for restoration; Katy Prairie Conservancy offered many resources to help with that. The real work was done by the sun’s rays and summer heat (death of turf grass, 9 weeks) followed by the microbial and soil fauna healing period (thick layer of wetted carbon, 8 weeks). All 40 yards of mulch – two trucks full – were free for the asking. A couple of unusually cool afternoons and a wheelbarrow got the job done.

Priority planting would be the sunniest first half where the grasses would grow, to allow sufficient establishment of root systems before the summer. All five grasses of the imperiled coastal prairie were present: Big and Little Bluestems, Switchgrass, Yellow Indiangrass, Eastern Gamagrass. Purchased as 1-gal starts, they were planted October 1st and November 1st, along with a variety of forb (aka wildflower) perennials. Each workday ended with seeding 2-ft diameter ‘crater pockets’ throughout the prairie and in between, just enough mulch moved aside to allow seed germination with bare soil. A thick layer of mulch remaining would discourage previously established St. Augustine and Bermuda from making a comeback.

Late Winter Prairie Beginnings

Later winter growth (March 2020)

Come February, all the annual wildflowers on the edges arrived right on schedule, but those planted in the prairie were beginning to show too. Salvia and Physostegia were the first to ‘pop,’ beckoning all the carpenter (Xylocopa) and bumblebee (Bombus) individuals nearby. Judging by the numbers, they simply could not believe their eyes and tongues. Slowly, the other flowers matured: Gallardia, Coreopsis, Monarda, Rudbeckia, Ratiba, Helianthus, Vervain, Conoclinium, Pluchea. For all the tiny and varied bee and wasp and fly and beetle species in the area, it was as if a neon sign flashed: COME. AND. EAT.

American Bumblebee

American Bumblebee
Bombus pennsylvanicus

Fraternal Potter Wasp

Fraternal Potter Wasp
Eumenes fraternus

Jade Clubtail

Jade Clubtail
Arigomphus submedianus

When COVID-19 hit mid-March, that little prairie would be our salvation. Stuck at home like many others, we broke up the monotony by walking around and through it, watching and logging all the newly found life that had just arrived. We learned that each species had different foraging techniques, and we began to recognize them by those habits. Who knew there could be so many dragonflies and damselflies? They love the prairie too! Like icing on the proverbial cake, bluebirds chose to raise their family on the bounty of the prairie.

Spring Growth

Still Growing (April 2020)

White-tailed Deer

One of the Twin Fawns

Eastern Bluebird

Proud Mr. and Mrs. Eastern Bluebird

Bluebird Eggs

Our very own Easter basket!

Nature’s pace paired with a notable absence of human cacophony made outdoors the place to be, and for the weeks that followed, that solitude and being part of nature calmed us to our evolutionary core. Everyone should have a prairie to ease their worries and fears. And while we should all strive more to help each other in difficult times, we should not discount the tiniest of those neighbors who now need us more than ever.

Leaf-cutter Bee and Gallardia

Parallel Leafcutter Bee
Megachile parallela

Pearl Crescent

Pearl Crescent
Phyciodes tharos

Poecilanthrax lucifer (Bee)

Fly-looking Bee
Poecilanthrax lucifer

Pocket Prairie Full Bloom

Full Bloom! (May 2020)

So here we are, a year later, and Memorial weekend marks the 1st anniversary of a pocket prairie restoration. What better way to celebrate than with a renewed restoration effort: 1,500 square feet more of coastal prairie to enjoy … and that much less to mow?

Coming 2021: Firefly Meadow

Some in the coastal prairie circles have said to start small, but at least start.

For the health of our environment, for the animals that have always been here who need our stewardship, for our very mental and physical health, I say start where you are, with what you have,  where you can … and don’t ever stop.

Related Sites and Links:

9 thoughts on “Pocket Prairie: Helping Our Neighbors, Healing Our Minds

  1. Thank you for sharing your remarkable experience, Shannon, and for re-creating a small parcel of native prairie. I’m so impressed with how much has happened in a relatively short time. Nature has repaid your efforts in such wonderful ways.
    Please keep us posted about the exciting goings-on in your world.
    Best,
    Tanja

    Like

    1. I appreciate your kind words, Tanja, and you’re right about time moving forward with lightning speed!

      My friend Della and worked on a video series together at a remnant prairie in the Houston area (and my backyard!) while social distancing. If you’re interested in seeing them, click the links in this page.

      https://texasprairie.org/the-deer-park-prairie-education-program/

      Now that my time has freed up for the next couple of months, I’m hoping to play some blogging catch-up, particularly as it pertains to native insect and plant conservation. I’ve learned so much … it all needs to be pushed out into the world and out of my head. We really missed Colorado Springs this year. Cheers, Tanja.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Wonderful photos and videos of your local wildflowers and insects. The Deer Park Prairie looks absolutely inviting to plants and animals, and to humans, too. I’m glad you are enjoying yourself so much by trying to return some of the land to what it once was. More power to you and your friends.

        Colorado Springs will be happy to welcome all of you with open arms when the time is right again! 🙂

        All the best for the remaining (hot, here too!) summer months,
        Tanja

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great job well done. We try to just keep part of our property in a natural state, mowing there only once a year. That, among other things, just now makes for good cover for fawns. Unfortunately, that area is not too diverse as wildflowers go, We do have oodles of Mexican hats,but not much else. Every year we try, but so far to no avail. Next autumn I’ll try seed balls.
    Thanks for all the beautiful pictures, and stay healthy,
    Pit

    Like

    1. ‘Natural state’ is a great way to manage! Bring in a suburban neighborhood with an HOA and deed, the look of our yard is restricted. I think we found the winning combo with a prairie garden. It’s still work, but a different kind of work: stewarding rather than managing. Great to hear from you, Pit! Seed balls are fun, esp. if you have bored grandkids who like to throw rocks. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When we were looking for a new place, we nearly automatically excluded ones with an HOA. And as we have no grandkids, all the fun with the seedballs is for me! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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