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Prairie plants are very slow to develop due to their conservative strategy of developing an extensive root system prior to putting a lot of energy into top growth. This is particularly true in the heavy compacted soils that characterize many Midwestern construction sites. Annual weeds on the other hand usually reach 4 or more feet in a first year prairie sowing if left uncut. These tall weeds shade the prairie seedlings and compete for water and nutrients.
The easiest way to maintain a first year prairie installation is through occasional mowing. Whenever weed growth reaches one foot in height, the installation should be mown down to 4 to 6 inches. Flail type mowers are particularly effective as the chop up the clippings rather than leaving large wads of cut weeds that can smother the prairie seedlings. Mowing should occur once a month from June through September unless weed pressure is light. The installation may be mown a final time after the growing season has ended in November to provide a neat appearance over the winter.
Second year maintenance will vary according to the type and density of weeds present. If there is a heavy pressure of biennial weeds such as sweet clover and Queen Annes Lace, mowing should occur when these weeds come into bloom in early to mid summer. Patches of Canada thistle should also be mown when they start to bloom in early summer.
If little weed pressure is present during the 2nd growing season, mowing may not be necessary. Biennial Black-eyed Susans bloom the 2nd year, adding color to the planting.
Canada Wild Rye, a native cool season grass will usually mature the 2nd year.
In any case, the installation should again be mown when the growing season is complete to provide a clean start for the third growing season.
A prairie installation typically starts to take on a more mature appearance in the 3rd growing season. At this point, only areas of noxious weeds such as Canada Thistle should be mown. Perennial such as Yellow and Purple coneflowers, bergamot, and asters should bloom in the 3rd growing season. Warm season grasses such as big and little bluestem and Indian grass start to mature and flower by the 3rd growing season. If burn maintenance is to be utilized as long term management, there may be enough fuel after the 3rd growing season to begin this maintenance. Otherwise, the installation may be mown in late fall or in March before growth begins.