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Versatile Hunter

Building Backyard Prairies and Wetlands

Sun, September 17, 2017

As a Field Biologist, I’ve spent a lot of time designing, building, maintaining, and monitoring native plant restoration sites throughout the U.S. Although all of those projects were a blast to work on, none were as fulfilling as working on my own 5 acres of bluff ground here in central Illinois. 

When I first purchased our property it was in poor shape, with severely eroded hillsides, lots of invasive plants, and a Sugar Maple population that was quickly overtaking the native oaks and hickories.  Not to mention huge logs that had been felled and left in place and years of construction trash. There was a good seed bank of native species that could be found in pockets and part of the ground was flat and had been clear cut which could serve as an excellent spot for a native prairie planting.

I began by doing what I always recommend to homeowners and contacted the local USDA NRCS office and had the local Soil Conservationist come out and walk the property with me.  We discussed potential cost sharing programs and the general condition of the plants and trees on the property. After discussing with them and the local IDNR Forester I realized that my property was too small to qualify for any of the larger farm-based programs I typically dealt with.  So, I started looking into locally-based grant programs.  I was about one year too late for a local grant program from the Tri County Regional Planning Agency that did cost sharing for restoration on local bluff ground but ultimately found grant money through a Trees Forever pollinator and tree restoration program.  I put together the grant application and soon learned that I qualified for several thousand dollars’ worth of cost share money from them. 

The plan I drew up consisted of a rain garden/wetland that captured water from my rooftops and pool runoff to prevent additional erosion to the ditch.  It also consisted of a short grass prairie (something I always suggest to landowners over the more popular and traditional tall grass prairie which grows above the average person’s head and does not therefore allow for good wildlife viewing and/or simply walking through the property once implemented).  That took care of the open clear cut areas and then for the rolling timber ground I prescribed a removal of all woody invasives (mostly Bush Honeysuckle) as well as Sugar Maples.  This would allow the native oaks, hickories, and native undergrowth to receive sunlight and begin to once again cover the forest floor and prevent future erosion. Erosion on the wooded bluffs of central Illinois is a major issue and one that any homeowner should be aware of if they own ground here.  Take a look at what happened to homes in East Peoria a few years back to understand just how serious the issue is (they lost their entire back yards during a rain event).  The Peoria Park District has some amazing demonstration sites if you’d like to see what those ravines/bluffs SHOULD look like.  The best example I’ve seen being Camp Wokanda.

With use of a good skid steer, some quality seed from a local seed source, and some good old fashioned hard work the native prairie was planted, wetland/rain garden dug and planted, and much of the invasive species and Sugar Maple removed in year 1.  Subsequent years have consisted of expected maintenance such as cutting and spraying the woody growth stumps with a heavy dose of Roundup, hand pulling invasives, herbiciding, mowing, and even a couple well-controlled spring and fall burns.

The advantage to doing all of this? 1) Piece of mind on not losing more of my ground down the creek every year, 2) less mowing, 3) better growth of quality wildlife food trees, 4) increased property value, 5) trails for my son and his friends to ride their four wheelers and bikes down, and for me especially—a science experiment right in my own backyard.  I was asked for a property name for the sign that Trees Forever provided as part of the cost sharing grant I received—we aptly named it “Birkey’s Bluff.”

Don’t lose sight of creating or improving wildlife and native vegetation on small parcels.  There are plenty of options out there for grants and cost share if you are willing to put in the time and effort to research and the results can be amazing.

Attached Photos:
1-Maples shading out ground cover resulting in erosion of hillside
2-Removed honeysuckles and maples to allow sunlight in and grow ground cover
3-Shortgrass native prairie restoration
4-Wetland/rain garden at top of hillside to capture rainfall from roof

Maples shading out ground cover resulting in erosion of hillside

Removed honeysuckles and maples to allow sunlight in and grow ground cover

Shortgrass native prairie restoration

Wetland/rain garden at top of hillside to capture rainfall from roof


What great work you’ve done.  Some good information for improving smaller plots of land.

Posted by Katie for Conservation on September 19

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