Ecological Restoration Step-by-Step
Ecological Restoration – Step by Step
This time of year, with spring finally in the air, our phones can blow up with enthusiastic people looking for native plants and wanting help with restoration and maintenance projects. Many times, folks know what they want – amazing natural shores, incredible prairies, and picturesque woodlands – but they often don’t really know what it takes to produce quality natural areas. How do I get started? What plants will I need? How do I prepare my yard? What weeds should I look out for? What other maintenance activities are important?
To help answer some of these questions, we are going to showcase a shoreline restoration project located in the beautiful city of Edina. This project is typical in that it involves a suburban home nestled in a neighborhood surrounding a lake or pond. Also common is that this client had manicured turf grass extending right up to the water’s edge. This created a few issues that the owner wanted to remedy – prime habitat for dozens of geese, bank slumping and exposed soil, a lack of quality habitat, and a drab and boring landscape.
The homeowner requested that we establish a native and diverse natural shore buffer to address these problems. They wanted native plants with deep root systems to lock soils in place and reduce the erosion potential. A wide buffer along the water’s edge also helps to infiltrate water runoff from upland turf areas. Geese are much less enthusiastic about accessing shores with taller vegetation. To them, this type of habitat is dangerous because it may harbor predators. On top of these benefits, a natural buffer creates essential habitat for fish, wildlife, and a multitude of pollinators.
We design our projects so that flowering will occur throughout the growing season. Our clients find that this is so much more interesting than turf, which many ecologists consider a biological wasteland. Our restoration projects usually involve four key phases: restoration design, site preparation, project installation, and ongoing maintenance. We will summarize these steps below and throw in a few valuable nuggets of information from the Edina shoreland project.
Restoration Design – Our ecological restoration projects begin with a clear understanding of the client’s vision and overall goals for the property. This involves walking the property with the owner and discussing current conditions and restoration potential. Next, we get into site assessment, noting topography, drainage, soils, micro-climate, existing vegetation, wave action, any erosion issues, and landscape views. We compile and assess all of this information to develop a restoration plan, which includes a method of how and where native plant communities will be established. We choose native plant species that will thrive, but will also fit the desires of the homeowners. We use a combination of science, art, and years and years of experience to put together a solid design.
2. Site preparation – A variety of methods can be used to prepare a site for planting. Our overall goals are to substantially reduce weed and turf cover, while stabilizing the site and eliminating any existing erosion. The particular approaches that we use depend on a variety of site characteristics, existing vegetation, and the time of year. Herbicides are a useful tool in ecological restoration. However, we are always eager to use alternatives when possible, such as manual weed removal and “solarization.” This is a process that involves covering the site with a material, typically plastic, for at least a couple of months. Sunny days will generate intense heat which will eventually kill the covered vegetation. As a bonus, the process is sometimes so effective that the weed seeds in the soil are also eliminated. Depending on the method used and the extent to which a site is weed-infested, preparation for a new planting could take between two weeks and up to a full growing season.
3. Installation – A restoration really starts to take shape once the seeding and planting begins. For a majority of our projects, we use 3” and 4” container plants. All of our plant material is grown in our commercial greenhouse from locally sourced seed. We are very proud to say that we have never used any sort of pesticide in this facility. This is a safe zone where bees, hornets, butterflies, and even a few garter snakes have free rein. On steep slopes or sites with wave action, we sometimes use a combination of seed, erosion control blanket, and container plants. This is where our experience really comes into play. Exactly when and how the plants, seed, and erosion control materials are installed really shapes the restoration and determines the overall success of the projects.
4. Maintenance – Monitoring and maintenance are a vital component to a successful ecological restoration – we cannot stress this enough. One of the biggest threats to our restorations, especially in the Metro area, is invasive weed species. Unfortunately, weed seeds get introduced to sites by wind, water, animals, and even by humans. Left unchecked, we have seen high quality restorations go downhill quickly. We use efficient monitoring and innovative maintenance approaches to assure that our managed natural areas are never overrun by invasive weeds. The type of maintenance technique applied depends on the invasive species present and their abundance, as well as the time of year. Our experienced maintenance staff determines if mowing, targeted pesticide application or selective cutting will be most effective.
When starting out with an ecological restoration project, it’s important to realize that you are in it for the long term. You are not planting annual flowers that put on shows of color immediately. Our perennial forb species take time to establish. During the first growing season, even the plants that we install may not flower. A majority of the plant’s energy is going into the root system, and not above ground growth. Natural areas, especially when newly established, can look a bit wild and that is unexpected for many folks. So be patient and realize that, year after year, your restoration will become more amazing and showy with age.