OREGON – Sixteen years ago, Ken Kielsmeier of rural Oregon, had a somewhat wistful idea that has since bloomed into a haven for native plant and wildlife species.
Always a nature enthusiast, Kielsmeier, 60, became increasing concerned about the ever-diminishing numbers of insects, birds, and other animals native to Ogle County caused by the loss of habitat.
He convinced his childhood friend Mark Long to convert some of his farmland south of Leaf River back to native forbs and grasses, in other words, to what was growing there 200 years ago before European settlers came to the area.
“I talked Mark into enrolling 8 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program,” Kielsmeier said, and the two set out to plant a prairie.
The result of their work is an ever-changing seasonal color palette of the purple, yellow, and pink blooms of coneflowers, milkweed, joe pye weed, New England aster and goldenrod setting off the gently rolling “sea” of tall grasses.
The project began in May of 2003.
“We disked up the ground, and we got a mix with big and little bluestem, switch grass, Indian grass, and side oats grama,” Kielsmeier said. “We sowed it with a broadcast spreader mounted on the tractor.”
They also had a wildflower mixture that Kielsmeier added to damp sawdust.
“I sat on the back of the tractor and flung it out by the handfuls,” he said with a chuckle.
At first they weren’t too sure what they had accomplished, because the native plants and weeds were hard to tell apart.
They mowed it back to 10 inches high about once a month to ensure the native plants wouldn’t be shaded out by the faster growing weeds, and to let them build a root base and get established.
“We mowed it again the following June, and then let it go,” he said. The following spring, they did their first burn to discourage the cool season weeds and warm the ground for the prairie plants.
“By the third year, we knew we had what we wanted,” Kielsmeier said.
The reward has been a growing number and variety of native wildlife – including monarch butterflies, numbers of which are dwindling worldwide at an alarming rate.
“It would be a shame and a great loss if we had no more monarchs,” Kielsmeier said. “It’s a sin to let species disappear. Life is cheapened by the loss. Stewardship goes back to the origin biblical mandate that God gave Adam to cultivate the land and keep it, to use it but not abuse it.”
The colorful orange and black butterflies are thriving at the Long Family Farm, as Kielsmeier pointed out their caterpillars feeding on milkweed and a pair of adults mating on a yellow coneflower.
“I’ve learned a lot along the way, through reading, and trial and error,” he said. “The prairie is always changing. It has its own unique personality, and it changes from year to year.”
Besides the prairie, five more acres are planted with native trees and berry-producing shrubs that provide food and shelter for birds and small animals.
Several large oaks grow along the banks of a small stream, the banks of which are lush with white pines and various native shrubs, as well as the forbs Kielsmeier has planted throughout the years.
When he started, only brome grass grew among the oaks, he said.
The variety of plants supports a variety of animal communities in several ways, he said.
Small animals and some birds such as wild turkeys, pheasants, and bobwhites take shelter under the pines in winter when the snow drifts deep across the prairie, he said.
Kielsmeier said his first grade teacher Mrs. Priller gets credit for his interest in nature, particularly butterflies and moths.
“She encouraged us to bring in bugs and butterflies,” he said. “That really piqued my interest. She really fanned the flames.”
He spends 6 to 8 hours every week in the prairie, April through October.
“It’s not required. I love doing it,” he said. “it’s a place I can bring my family and friends to show them the grandeur of God’s creation.”
He encourages everyone to plant natives in their yards, and has helped family and friends get their own prairie plots going.
He stressed the importance of buying genuine native plants from a nursery.
“The average homeowner can make a bigger difference than they think by just planting a small area of natives. Your don’t have to have acres.
“If you plant it they will come, meaning the wildlife.”