Farm to prairie

Project to create a pollinator prairie takes flight

By Kristen Wicker

Photo: Land near Germantown MetroPark will be transformed into a native Ohio prairie, similar to the one found at Huffman Prairie State Natural Landmark, with a focus on monarch habitat

The creation of a special natural area just for birds, bees and butterflies—particularly monarchs—is taking flight.

Five Rivers MetroParks is in the process of acquiring 112 acres of farmland located on Boomershine Road, across the street from the Germantown MetroPark sled hill entrance. Of that, 72 acres of the land previously used to grow soybeans will become a prairie that will provide the food and nesting sites necessary for pollinators’ survival. Many of the plants will be milkweed, which is critical to monarchs since it’s the only plant on which these distinctive butterflies lay their eggs.

The project is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Clean Ohio Green Space Conservation Fund. Protecting the dwindling monarch population is a priority for Fish and Wildlife, which is determining if monarchs should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Indeed, approximately 6,000 acres of monarch habitat is lost in the United States every day.

Yet pollinators such as monarchs are required for 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants to reproduce. Pollinators are food for songbirds, and one-third of humans’ food is produced with the help of pollinators.

“In general, all pollinators are in trouble—and they’re all necessary for our natural areas and agricultural production,” says Mike Enright, Five Rivers MetroParks interim director of conservation. “Germantown MetroPark is part of more than 7,000 acres protected in the Twin Valley by Five Rivers MetroParks. In this larger, more stable natural area, we have an opportunity to enjoy great success.”

Seed for native grasses and flowers is being collected and prepared now, the land will be prepped during spring 2016 and seeds will be planted this coming June. Eventually, the land will be a modern-day version of native Ohio prairies once common hundreds of years ago.

Five Rivers MetroParks needs the community’s help to make this transformation happen: While many of the prairie plants will be grown at the seed nursery at Germantown MetroPark, volunteers are needed to collect and clean seeds for milkweed and other native plants. Call 937.275.PARK (7275) or email meredith.cobb@metroparks.org to participate in upcoming events with Meredith Cobb, Five Rivers MetroParks conservation technician:

Prairie Harvest: Oct. 15, 20 and 22, stop in between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; locations depend on weather and seed availability, and will be announced a week in advance.

Prairie Seed Cleaning: Oct. 16 and Oct. 23, 9 a.m. to noon, Germantown MetroPark Seed Nursery, 7501 Conservancy Road.

In addition to seed prep, it takes a lot of work—and patience—to create a native prairie. Thousands of seeds must be planted, hundreds of plants put in the ground, and at least two to three years spent meticulously monitoring the transition. Some of the plant seeds, such as the fluffy milkweed seed, have to be prepared by hand.

“Once we get the seed harvested and cleaned, it will be stored for winter and kept cool and dry so it can be planted directly into the field,” says Mary Klunk, Five Rivers MetroParks conservation manager and prairie expert.

During the first year of the prairie transformation in 2016, focus will be on controlling weeds so they don’t compete with the native plant seedlings for water, sun and nutrients.

“Ideally, since the land was planted in soybeans, it will have nitrogen and natural fertilizer and there won’t be a lot of weed competition,” Klunk says. “We expect to really see quite a few plants blooming the first year, such as black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower. The following year, we’ll see plants bloom that need to germinate through the winter, like the orange butterfly milkweed. By the third year, the wildflowers will really start to take off.”

This is not Five Rivers MetroParks’ first prairie restoration: Examples can be seen at several MetroParks, including Carriage Hill, Cox Arboretum, Eastwood, Possum Creek and Sugarcreek MetroParks. Visit metroparks.org to download park maps, which note where the prairies are located. Another excellent local example of a native Ohio prairie restoration is Huffman Prairie State Natural Landmark, where interpretive signage about the prairie’s history and restoration recently was installed. Visit metroparks.org/huffmanprairie for directions.

People also can create a pollinator habitat in their own outdoor spaces. Several of the plants that will be grown at the new Germantown MetroPark prairie are also great for the home landscape and can be planted this fall: Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed, Black-Eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Dense Blazing Star, Meadow Blazing Star, Rough Blazingstar, Virginia Mountain Mint, Thin-Leaved Mountain Mint, Grey-Headed Coneflower, Bergamot, New England Aster, Prairie Dropseed and Little Bluestem.

“This is a two-fold plan,” Klunk says of the Germantown project. “The initial seed planting will occur, then we’ll identify areas where, depending on soil types, we’ll target to fill in with plants grown in the greenhouse. We’ll monitor and continue to add pollinator plants after seeing how the initial seed planting shakes out. We will need support from volunteers throughout.”

To learn more about how you can volunteer to help Five Rivers MetroParks’ prairie restoration and other conservation efforts, contact volunteer coordinator Yvonne Dunphe at 937.275.PARK (7275).

Reach DCP freelance writer Kristen Wicker at KristenWicker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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