The Ohio State University at Marion

Build Your Own Prairie

Tallgrass Principles

These principles have been used with the permission of the Ontario Tallgrass Prairie and Savanna Association. When appropriate edits have been made to the information to make them applicable to the Sandusky Plains region and shortened for the web. To read the original Tallgrass Principles, visit:

Tallgrass Principle #1: Use Local Seeds

In addition to spending time in and around your own prairie, it’s a good idea to go out and observe other prairies in your area. This will give you ideas about the diversity and condition of your own patch of tallgrass. It may be the case that increasing the biodiversity of your tallgrass prairie is an option. Remember that we measure such diversity in many ways; two of the most important of which are genetic diversity and species diversity. In other words, it may be good for your site to not only have many different types of species, but many different individuals of each species. It’s also not a bad idea to have several patches or locations of the same species within your prairie, ensuring that no single event can wipe out all the individuals of that particular species.

How we follow this principle at the Prairie Learning Lab:

Here at the Prairie Learning Lab, we’ve always followed the use local seed guideline. The restoration project started in 1977 with a haphazard collection of plants from the Claridon Railroad Prairie. At the time, there were rumors that the Claridon prairie was scheduled to be disrupted or even destroyed by the railroad company which owns the property. In an effort to preserve the species, Dr. Yoder and several Ohio State Marion students collected plants and seeds and brought them to the Marion campus. The Claridon Prairie is less than 10 minutes from the Marion campus. Since then, the Prairie Learning Lab has continued this dedication to local seed sources. Presently, we primarily collect from our own site and at times we still collect from the Claridon Prairie.

Tallgrass Principle #2: Let the sun shine in!

The single most important thing that you need to provide for your tallgrass is sunlight. Tallgrass plants are adapted to high levels of sunlight and they won’t grow unless they get it. In natural stands of prairie, fire, drought, heavy grazing, flooding, windstorms, and other disturbances keep the numbers of shrubs and trees down to a minimum. These types of disturbances periodically destroyed the natural build-up of dead plant matter that any grassland produces. All these disturbances tend not to happen in domesticated landscapes and we need to make up for this static situation, particularly the eradication of shrubs.

How we follow this principle at the Prairie Learning Lab:

The Prairie Learning Lab was once the site of a farmhouse with a row of trees growing along a fence line. As the prairie was restored, the trees remained and the shade they provided was negatively affecting the diversity of plants in the area. In 2005 and 2006, these trees were removed from the prairie. There were some who objected to this management technique, wondering aloud why a nature center would be cutting down trees. But Prairie Learning Lab leaders felt that our mission to preserve and accurately depict a prairie trumped the need to keep the trees.

In the years since the removal of these trees we have observed positive changes in the prairie which surrounded them. Each year we work to remove woody plants that don’t belong including trees and shrubs. It’s a long term project, but one with a great reward!

Tallgrass Principle #3: Work towards a circle

Ecologically, any patch of habitat is stronger if it’s closer to a circle in shape than to long, skinny rectangle. The rounder a patch, the more ecologically secure the center remains, since outside influences can’t easily penetrate deeper into the patch. In a long skinny rectangle, on the other hand, outside influences, like foreign seeds, predatory animals, or pesticide over spray, can easily cut across the entire patch.

How we follow this principle at the Prairie Learning Lab:

Although we haven’t taken to creating restorations in circles at the Prairie Learning Lab, we have begun to connect several smaller areas of prairie to each other in an effort to create larger swaths of prairie. In 2008, we connected two nearly half acre areas of prairie together to create a more contiguous and thus more secure prairie. This management style is the continued goal of the Prairie Learning Lab for future expansions. It is our hope that over the years, you will come to find a more connected and cohesive prairie.

Tallgrass Principle #4: Disturb the equilibrium

Prairie habitats depend upon periodic disturbances for their continued existence. Some types of disturbance are built into a site – poor soils, flooding, drought. In other cases, the disturbances are (or were) more dynamic – wildfires, trampling by large herds of elk or other grazers. One of the biggest issues with prairie conservation today is that such dynamic disturbances rarely occur naturally which allow woody and brushy plants to crowd out tallgrass species.

How we follow this principle at the PNC:

Disturbing the equilibrium is a challenge for us here at the PNC. Prescribed burns have typically been conducted in the spring season because of the lack of proper weather conditions in the fall months. We have placed our prairie on a 3 year prescribed burn regime which likely favors some plants over others. We will continue to strive to meet the goal of disrupting the equilibrium by attempting fall burns over the typical spring burn. We have been able to meet the goal of leaving a portion of the prairie undisturbed by fire to create a refuge for wildlife. The portion of the prairie that runs along the Grave Creek has not been burned during the last several burns which has allowed for birds, insects and other wildlife to find shelter. It is our hope that this section will be brought into the burn regime in the future and another portion of prairie may be left unburned.

Tallgrass Principle #5: On the use of muscles and chemicals

One of the types of disturbance that kept healthy prairies on the landscape was low nutrient levels in the soil. It follows, then, that prairies should not receive any type of fertilizers, either purposefully, or inadvertently through run-off from adjacent fields or overspray. This is vital for your prairie, because the tallgrass species can only out-compete non-tallgrass species in the absence of nutrients, but will be out-competed themselves in the presence of extra nutrients. This situation has to do with the marvelous adaptations that tallgrass species have developed in order to succeed in this environment.

How we follow this principle at the PNC:

We are very reluctant to use herbicides at the PNC due to the possibility of overspray and damage to the native plants. Round-up is only used as a last resort when we cannot control a plant population by removal or prescribed burn. Due to this reluctance to use chemicals, we spend quite a bit of time during the spring and summer removing invasive plants by hand. By the end of the summer our hands and arms have gotten quite a work out! We’ve been lucky to have volunteers from local boy scouts, school groups and even the local jails have brought inmates on a work release program to help remove woody plants. We do not use any fertilizers on the prairie itself but may receive some overspray or run off from adjacent farm fields.

Tallgrass Principle #6: Know your habitat and keep records

Fortunately for us, tallgrass enthusiasts and researchers have been conducting studies and experiments for several decades now, and they have made their information freely available. Yet, we need to keep gathering information and keep track of the impacts of our work. Too often, we find well meaning people applying active management to their tallgrass fragments without keeping track of the impacts of these actions. What makes this an issue is that some of the impacts of these management actions won’t surface for years, but then will have ramification for decades. So, perhaps the most important principle is to visit your habitat often, take the time to learn the plants and animals, keep track of the abiotic processes like precipitation and erosion, and keep notes.

How we follow this principle at the PNC:

Detailed records were not the strong suit of the PNC since it had been primarily run by student employees until 2003. At that time, a full time Program Coordinator was hired and record keeping became a stronger focus. Knowing the history of management techniques and successes is helpful to any landscape manager. Starting in 2003, a management history was created and every large scale management effort, including prescribed burns and plantings have been recorded since that time. This information will be useful for those who come later in PNC management positions so that they too can see the techniques and methods used to help preserve the native plants here at the PNC.

Check out this fun and interactive site to learn about both tall grass and short grass prairie ecosystems!