Think about what used to grow here.
Joel Dunnette entered the room with a stack of books and flyers. He organized the piles of information, hooked up his laptop and began a presentation requiring not a love for technology, but nature; specifically southeastern Minnesota’s heritage: prairies.
Garden-loving, nature enthusiasts and those interested in learning how to tend to a more environmentally-friendly habitat attended “How to Make Your Own Prairie Wildflower Garden” at Whitewater State Park in Altura, Minn., April 9.
Dunnette discussed the history of prairies and native Minnesota wildlife species. Prairies are defined as an open community, dominated by grass, having less than one tree per acre, and there are more prairies in Minnesota than one might think.
Dunnette said he became interested in prairie wildlife when he was a child. After retiring in 1984, he purchased property in the country and started experimenting with prairie wildflowers on a pallet.
“I learned so much more by doing,” said Dunnette.
Dunnette said an unusual aspect about prairie wildflowers is that they are unpredictable.
“I could see different colored flowers blossoming, changing from week to week,” said Dunnette. “Or three or four years later after planting, I would see them bloom for the first time,” said Dunnette.
In the presentation, Dunnette explained why prairies are “the best cropland.”
“Prairies are well adapted to our soils and climate; they are genetically diverse; they support local wildlife like insects and birds; and they have deep roots that are densely grown that improve water quality,” said Dunnette.
What makes prairie plants different than other species is they have extremely deep roots that can sustain fire, drought, winter and grazers. Dunnette said these plants put energy underground first, then to the flowers.
“Roots are getting their master’s while flowers are getting their GED,” said Dunnette, with a smile as the audience laughed.
While the presentation included much discussion on wildflowers themselves, every prairie garden needs prairie grass, according to Dunnette.
“Prairie grass is like the fabric and flowers are just decoration,” said Dunnette.
Participants were given complimentary Butterfly Weed seedlings, a perennial native flower.
Chuck Kernler—who has donated the seedlings to the program for 10 years—said he harvested the seeds in the fall and stored them in his freezer until January. He then placed them in a soil with the mineral Perlite for seven weeks to attract moisture to the young plants.
Kernler said Butterfly Weeds have magnificent blossoms and can be maintained easily.
“It can survive in pure sand with no care,” said Kernler. “They can thrive in hostile areas.”
About 25 Minnesota Master Naturalists students also attended the presentation as part of their weekly class. The program includes participants who actively study the area known as Big Woods, Big Rivers that extends over 12 million acres of Minnesota and stretches southeast to Arkansas, encompassing portions of 12 states.
Although many gardeners plant for the overall visual appeal, true prairie enthusiasts hope the benefits of natural growth will spill over to even residential flower beds.