Larsons' dream home includes a restored prairie/meadow

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Summertime reveals the vibrant colors of the Larsons' prairie/meadow. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

Minnesota natives Richard and Gail Larson spent several years  searching for a parcel of land to build their retirement dream home. 

The Guttenberg transplants' search began in the lakes country in their home state. The couple failed to find exactly what they were looking for, so Gail decided to extend her search to include the bluffs of the Mississippi River. They viewed properties on both the Iowa and Wisconsin side. It was in the newly-developed Estes Point subdivision in Clayton County where the couple found their nirvana. "It was love at first 'site,'" commented the Larsons. 

The Larsons' passion for the environment and a desire to live a carefree lifestyle during their retirement years prompted them to investigate alternatives to the more common forms of landscaping. "I didn't want to spend my retirement years mowing the lawn," commented Richard. 

As luck would have it, Chad Hazen, a member of the building crew that constructed their spacious two-story log home, also had experience with prairie planting and restoration. 

Preparing the ground and planting the seeds

The first step in planting a native garden is the eradication of any existing plant life. "Due to the size of land that we were working with we had to use Round-up to complete the job," said Richard. 

 he Larsons went on to say,  "The next step was to till the ground into a nice smooth seed bed. You should purchase seeds from a reputable prairie nursery within a 150-mile radius of your planting site. Don't just buy 'wildflower' mixed seeds." The seeds were planted using a drill to plant the grasses mixed with forbs (a herbaceous flowering plant other than a grass) pulled behind a four-wheeler. The smaller seeds were cast by hand into the ground by Chad's wife, Cheryl.

Once the prairie/meadow is planted, Mother Nature takes over. "Ideally the planting would have been followed by gentle rains and ample sunshine. What actually occurred was two weeks of drought followed by a series of downpours. Luckily prairie plantings are hardy and adaptable," Gail said with a smile. 

First and second year maintenance

The following year required a lot of mowing. Richard said, "The prairie plants are mostly growing their extensive root systems, so it is necessary to mow down the annual weeds." 

The second growing season the Larsons saw one mowing to control wild mustard and other early weeds. "The prairie was visually dominated by white daisy, yellow, black-eyed and brown-eyed Susans, cone flowers and sunflowers," they told The Press. 

Prescribed burn

Part of the continued maintenance of a prairie/meadow is a prescribed burn. Once a meadow is established, it is recommended to burn every other year in the spring. 

The Larsons said, "In March of 2009, we hired Driftless Land Stewardship of Bagley, Wis., to complete our first prescribed burn. The crew carefully prepared and planned the burn, sectioning off the prairies and lighting each plot one at a time. They start the fire along the outside edges, and the fire works its way to the center of the plot and whoosh! — it goes up in a ball of flames. The burn is used to discourage shallow-rooted cold weather non-native plants, allowing room for deep-rooted warm weather native plants to thrive. As a result of the burn, the prairie's destruction opened up the way to new life and beauty for the upcoming growing season." 

The Larsons have experienced difficulty in hiring professionals to help with the continued maintenance of the prairie. 

Gail commented, "More people are embracing environmentally- friendly landscaping, making it difficult to schedule a burn. Most places I have called put you on a two-year waiting list."

Rain gardens

In addition to the prairie/meadow, these dedicated land stewards planted several rain gardens. Rain gardens receive water from hard surfaces such as rooftops, sidewalks, driveways and patios. The shallow depression of the garden holds the water so it can slowly filter back into the soil as the plants, mulch and soil naturally remove atmospheric pollutants from runoff.

The Larsons told The Press, "We planted several rain gardens strategically located at the base of our downspouts and other areas of run-off. We filled those gardens with over 40 varieties of marsh milkweed plants, green cattail and a variety of grasses that enjoy a wet environment. The rain gardens attract a variety of birds and butterflies when they are in bloom."

The surrounding prairie and carefully-planted rain gardens provide the perfect habitat for a variety of wildlife. "I enjoy driving the four-wheeler out into the middle of the prairie/meadow, shutting off the motor and sitting quietly listening to the prairie hum. Gail and I both find pleasure in watching the prairie plants adapt to the shifting weather conditions from year to year," commented Richard. 

The Larsons' commitment to the environment and desire to relax and enjoy their retirement has created the perfect oasis for wildlife to feed, romp and procreate, allowing the Larsons to sit back on their porch overlooking their prairie/meadow and enjoy their little slice of paradise.

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