For the second installment of meadow month, I thought I’d talk about one of the most famous meadows in North America. Famous not only because it was such a successful restoration project but also because one of the most famous conservationists, Aldo Leopold, played a significant part in its creation and success.
Before the Prairie
Prior to the creation of Curtis Prairie, the area (a 25-hectare plot), located in Madison, Wisconsin, had a long history of agricultural use. It was first farmed in 1836 and after running through eleven owners in twenty-four years, it was purchased by the Bartlett family who began to farm it regularly until 1920. A rotation of corn, oats, and pasture were planted on two-thirds of the property where excessive moisture did not make plowing dangerous. One section was left as it was found and another mowed down regularly.
Between 1920 and 1926, the land was left untouched. The Bartletts were finished with cultivation and it wasn’t until the land was sold to a veterinarian in ’26 that it was once again used. This time, however, there was no farming: thirty-five horses used the entire 25 hectares as a pasture.
University of Wisconsin
In 1933, the land was sold to the University of Wisconsin and by 1936, the Curtis Prairie restoration project was underway, having recruited Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps to help with the labour.
And that’s where our good friend, Aldo Leopold, comes in. He was part of the first planting which took place over four years from 1936 to 1940. As a supervisor, it was Leopold’s job to oversee the project in terms of best practices and make decisions about plant species. During this first planting phase, clumps of prairie were dug up from railway right of ways and other areas destined for construction.
Between 1950 and 1957, a second major planting took place. Seeds were planting using a variety of methods – everything from hand planting large seeds to broadcasting smaller seeds after a prescribed burn.
The Curtis Prairie is just one prairie restoration at the University’s arboretum…an arboretum that spans over 500 hectares. Pretty impressive.
Learning Along the Way
The Curtis Prairie isn’t just the oldest restored prairie but a scientific research site. Over the past 78 years, students and researchers from the University of Wisconsin have been studying how best to seed a prairie, restore farmland, burn a meadow, reduce alien species, prepare the soil, and reduce negative plant competition.
It is research that has been done at the Curtis Prairie that helps us at Wildflower Farm not only plant meadows here but help you with your meadows and meadow-style gardens.
If you have ten minutes, I encourage you to watch this stunning video with landscape architect Darrel Morrison. He talks about Curtis Prairie, Aldo Leopold, and Jens Jensen and how the three have impacted his design work. It really makes you look twice at a prairie or a meadow and think harder about growing your own.
How many native wildflower species can you identify in this video? Let us know in the comments below!