How a prairie gets ready for winter


As autumn shifts into winter the prairie has already prepared for spring and is simply lying in wait. Their seed is spread, and though above ground the parent plants die back for winter, below there is an underground root system that keeps the plants alive year to year.

Above ground we see only 1/3 of the entire prairie plant.  Actually, 2/3 of the plant lives underneath the surface as massive root structures that tend to be longer than the plant on the surface is tall. Each year 1/3 of those roots die and decompose adding lots of organic matter to the soil as well as making channels for water to trickle deep into the ground.

This organic matter is the key ingredient for healthy soil because it attracts microbes, earthworms and fungi that bring the soil to life. These organisms help to break down that organic matter making the soil spongy and able to bounce back resulting in reduced compaction. Additionally, organic matter increases the soil’s ability to hold water. It is said that for every one percent increase in organic matter, the soil can retain four percent more water. All of this contributes to the dramatically increased fertility of prairie soil.

While the parent plants are rejuvenating their roots, the seeds that they dropped this fall will lie dormant until the proper conditions for growth occur. The seeds of many native plants have built-in dormancy mechanisms that protect them from germinating at the wrong time, like before freezing winter temperatures begin and kill newly sprouted seedlings.

Unlike the seeds of annuals, lots of perennial seeds require a period of moist cold before they will germinate. This process, called stratification, breaks down the seed coat and allows moisture to enter the seed to begin the germination process. Our prairie seeds get this naturally in the wild, lying on the ground, being half buried by fallen leaves and the past season’s parent plant growth during our frigid winters. The seeds will germinate when its stratification requirements have been met. In nature, varying seasonal and weather patterns can make stratification times vary as well. Without this period of cold and wet, certain seeds won’t germinate at all. Instead, they continue to wait inside their shells, asleep.

Come out to Kroening Interpretive Center at North Mississippi Regional Park and take a walk through the prairie to collect seeds that you can sow in your own yard this fall. Join us on weekends for free activities!  Saturdays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. stop by our Naturalist’s Nature Table where we’ll have themed activities and a craft. Stay for five minutes or all day! Sundays from 12:30-3:30 p.m. drop in for Family Funday, grab prepared activities that are fun for the whole family and head out into the park for some quality family time in nature.

Here is the schedule for our themed weekends in November.

Nov. 5/6 – Frost and Freeze: find out how MN plants and animals handle our deep freeze.  Nov. 12/13 – Waterfowl Migration: learn which water birds you can spot on their way south. Register for our free Early Birding program 9-10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12.  Nov. 19/20 – Wild Turkeys and MN Food: take a tour of your Thanksgiving dinner plate and discover how each item grows in Minnesota. Nov. 26/27 – Under the Snow: explore who’s active down there, which are hibernating and how they all make it through the winter. Register for a free special program, Arts and Animals on Sunday Nov. 27 from 1-3 p.m. where you’ll be able to make some fun art and meet some live critters!

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