Dordt College News

Prairie school

January 15, 2010

The Dordt College prairie gets ready to leap

Why doesn’t Dordt College do something about all those weeds along the bike trail? That’s a question we heard periodically this summer. Actually, Dordt is doing something.

Joelle Van Gaalen, senior biology major
Dr. Robb De Haan, professor of environmental studies

The college is restoring twenty acres of tall grass prairie along the trail. The former Kuhl farm, which lies on the south end of campus, is not a prairie yet, but it’s slowly becoming one.

A prairie is distinctly different from lawns and pastures, despite the fact that all three are sometimes called “grassland.” The neatly trimmed, even spread of grass that makes up lawns is much different than the diverse mix of 150 to 200 species of wildflowers and grasses “ever changing in form, color and texture” that make up a prairie.

In 1850, the entire landscape in Northwest Iowa was covered by tall grass prairie. Early settlers were amazed by the seemingly endless expanse of wildflowers and tall grasses. Things have changed. Today, many people living in Iowa have never walked through a tall grass prairie, and most would have a hard time recognizing one if they saw it. This is not surprising, since 99.9 percent of the tall grass prairie in Iowa has been converted to another use. Globally, tall grass prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth.

Given the nearly complete loss of prairie in Iowa, restoration projects like the Dordt College prairie enable us to get to know the unique plants God created and placed in this part of the world and learn to appreciate the beauty of prairie. For those who like animals better than plants, the prairie also provides habitat for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, giving them a home, and giving us a chance to enjoy them as well. 

Prairie restoration involves land preparation, seeding, and maintenance. Land preparation for the Dordt College prairie began several years ago when we removed trees from the wetland area, began to use only herbicides without carryover on the cropland, and removed the original pasture. The northwest seven-acre portion of the prairie was seeded in the spring of 2008, and the rest was seeded in the spring of 2009. After seeding, newly-planted prairie needs to be mowed regularly for up to three years to prevent annual weedy plants from inhibiting the establishment of prairie species. Mowing is no longer necessary after a healthy population of prairie plants has become established. Long-term management of the prairie will involve removal of specific weeds, some mowing and haying, and ideally some carefully controlled burns. 

It is often said of a newly-seeded prairie that the first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year it leaps. The Dordt College prairie was “sleeping” and “creeping” this year (thus the abundance of annual weedy plants), but if all goes well, it should leap in the next year or two. 

Bringing the prairie to the public

“You don’t have to go to a rain forest or the mountains to experience nature,” says Dr. Robb De Haan, who teaches environmental studies. You can enjoy the beauty of nature in a prairie and be amazed at how intricately connected this part of God’s creation is—“especially if you learn a little bit about it,” he adds.

De Haan’s goal is to help all who are interested to learn to see the prairie as a beautiful and beneficial ecosystem in which they can directly interact with God’s creation.

In September, he and some of his students invited members of the community to a Prairie Walk to learn more about the Dordt College prairie. Those who came received a sheet of photos to help them identify prairie flowers and grasses growing in the field. After a short introduction to the project and an overview of what it contained, De Haan invited people to spend time walking through the area to see what they could find. De Haan, emeritus professor of biology Dr. Del Vander Zee (a long-time promoter of a restored prairie), and several students meandered along with the walkers, answering questions and pointing out rare examples or interesting species. It was a perfect early fall evening, and there was a palpable sense of interest as children, parents, and retirees strolled through the grassy meadow.

“The neat thing about a prairie is that within five or six years you can restore a good ecosystem,” says De Haan. “A forest takes generations.”

But De Haan is convinced that to really see a prairie you have to know something about it.

“I first ‘saw’ the prairie in graduate school,” he says, even though he’d been in countless fields. “And in order to know something you have to name it—like Adam had to do in the Garden of Eden,” De Haan adds. “When you name something, you begin to care about it and for it.” By looking for specific plants and animals, people can see a beauty and diversity they might miss by only scanning the field as they pass by or even through.

To help visitors to the prairie learn to name things they see, De Haan, with the help of the Dordt maintenance staff, is putting up a sign at each end of the bike trail that winds through the area.

“We’ll keep posting photos and information about new developments so that people can get to know more about the prairie,” De Haan says.

And there will be changes to note. Restoring a prairie may take a relatively short amount of time, but it has already taken many people many hundreds of hours and will continue to do so for the next couple of years while native grasses and flowers get well established.
De Haan also hopes to add more elements to the area. He’d like to create a small pondscape in the southwest part of the prairie that would be fed with runoff from some of the housing developments in the area.

“Small ponds were part of prairies, providing shallow water for wildlife,” he says. They also could give students hands-on experience doing water sampling. And ponds help clean up excess fertilizers.

For now, though, the budget is spent, and efforts will concentrate on nurturing what’s been planted and on helping people see the meadow as so much more than an overgrown weed patch.

Please feel free to contact Dr. Robb De Haan, professor of biology and environmental studies at Dordt College: or 722-6220.

“This work has reinforced everything I’ve learned about conservation and restoration.” Joelle Van Gaalen, senior biology major

I’ve had an awesome opportunity to work with the prairie restoration project, helping out with several different stages. I’ve learned by doing, including harvesting and planting seed and removing invasive species. This summer, I spent a lot of time planning, planting, and maintaining the demonstration garden of native species.

I’ve had to learn patience, as restoration is an ongoing activity. The restoration project will probably never look completed to me. I knew that the work I was doing now was necessary for the “project” to become a “prairie,” but I wasn’t fully satisfied because I always saw that so much more had to be done. There were always more non-native species than native prairie species. But Dr. De Haan would look at the prairie and say something like “this looks quite good!”

While the native species frequently looked worse after I had hacked off the weeds in the demonstration garden, Dr. De Haan saw the potential of the native species to grow where they would not have been able to do so before. I guess the most important thing I learned was that there are different stages of restoration, and the prairie is not expected to look the same at each stage. While there are still many hours of work to do and many invasive species to battle, at the end of the summer, I could also say that the prairie was looking good for a first- and second-year prairie.

This work has reinforced everything that I’ve learned about conservation and restoration, including what I’ve learned at Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. I know the value of conservation and restoration, and I’m deeply motivated to consider the effects of all of my actions on the world because I know how difficult it is to fix the wounds of environmental degradation and how important the world’s well-being is to humans and to God.

“I . . . began to fall in love with the prairie.” Rachel Gorter, senior agriculture plant science major

I took a class called “Local Flora” last fall and began to fall in love with the prairie. From there I worked for Dr. Vander Zee a bit, planting seeds of prairie plants that we had collected as a class. After the seeds sprouted, I transplanted the seedlings into bigger pots, to allow for more growth.

This past summer I attended a Prairie and Oak Savanna Conference with Dr. De Haan and Joelle Van Gaalen. It was so inspiring to see how many people were there and how many people really cared about the prairie and its preservation.

From both of these experiences, I have learned a lot more about the environment around me and what it used to be. I feel as though I have a larger perspective on agriculture and its role in our society based on what I have seen and learned. The prairie project and associated classes have forced me to grasp what kind of an impact I am having on that world.

The prairie is a learning environment for students. In one class I took, we traveled around Northwest Iowa, finding bits and pieces of remnant prairie. With this restoration, we are able to see prairie in its emerging processes right next door. And it is aesthetically pleasing, too.

I think the prairie restoration project gives a great glance into what our environment used to be and allows students and residents of the community to see what Iowa was originally like.



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