How To Plant Native Grass and Wildflower Seed

Your native plants are mostly long-lived perennials that send roots down the first year with little top growth. The second year will show top growth and some flowers. The plants continue to develop in size as they mature. It is important to remember that prairie plants take time to grow. Be patient! Your patience will be rewarded with a beautiful low maintenance garden that you will enjoy for years.

Site Preparation

Before you plant your prairie, the site needs to be properly prepared. This can be a lengthy process depending on what you are starting with and the method of preparation that you choose. Most experts agree that this is the most important part of a successful planting.

The objective of site preparation is to create as clean a seedbed as possible. All soil has existing seed in it; this seed is called the seed bank. As you work soil mechanically with shovels, tillers or other means, you are bringing seeds in the seed bank to the surface where they will germinate. These seeds need to be depleted in order for the native seed to get the best start.


The first step in site preparation is to remove existing vegetation either by mechanical means or with the use of herbicides.

Mechanical (If Not Using Herbicides)
Areas of dense vegetation should be mowed as short as possible and then plowed. After the soils dries out some, shallow tilling or disking may be done. Work the area to a depth of one to two inches as early as possible in the spring. When the area begins to green up, till or disc again. Repeat as often as necessary during the growing season. This method often requires an entire growing season to complete. Another method on smaller areas is to cover the earth with multiple layers of newspaper or black plastic. This will effectively smother any existing vegetation.

The decision to use an organic or synthetic herbicide should not be taken lightly. If you choose to use herbicides, make sure they are handled carefully and used in accordance with manufacturers directions. We recommend hiring a professional agricultural herbicide applicator to treat larger areas. These applicators have the proper equipment, are licensed and properly trained. Do not combine mechanical preparation with herbicide preparation.

Installation of seed

Broadcasting may be as simple as hand sowing seed from a bucket or bag. If you use this method, begin by mixing the seed with aged sawdust or sand as a carrier. This will help carry the light seed to the ground and also let you see where you have been. It is best to go over the area twice at right angles to assure complete coverage.

Divide the seed into two equal parts. This is where you may want to mix each half with sand, aged sawdust or vermiculite as a carrier and a marker to know where you have sown. Sow in one direction with 1/2 of the mixture, then at 90 degrees with the other half. This will assure good coverage over the entire area. Lightly rake the area with a leaf rake turned upside down. The objective is to get seeds between 1/8 and 1/4 inches into the soil. Lastly, use a roller and roll one way and then at 90 degrees to the first rolling to set the seed. If your site is sloped and erosion may occur, cover the area lightly with clean, weed-free straw or fine mulch and water thoroughly.

Another option is to use a mechanical spreader. There are drop and rotary spreaders. The Truax company manufacturers a rotary unit called the seed slinger. It has been specially designed to pull fluffy seed down onto the rotor where it is dispersed. Here again, we recommend that you apply the seed in two directions at right angles. After you broadcast the seed, you will need to roll it with a heavy roller to assure good seed to soil contact.

We recommend that you sow the large seed as described above, then roll it once. Next, sow the small seed and roll again at a right angle to the first time. If the ground is too uneven to roll effectively, rake it in or drive on it with your lawn tractor or pickup truck.

No Till Drill
No till drills or slit seeders are large machines pulled behind tractors. The John Deere Rangeland and Truax Flex series are both equipped to handle the fluffy seeds of some native grasses and wildflowers. These machines can be set to meter out the seed accurately to assure the correct number of seeds per acre of ground. They are also designed to place the seed at just the right depth. OPN uses the Truax Flex style drill. Please contact us for information about our installing your seed using our Truax Flex style drill.

Frost Seeding
Requires exposed soil. Site preparation in advance of a frost seeding will help ensure exposed soil. Frost seeding is a method of seeding that takes advantage of the natural freezing and thawing of the soil surface. Timing is important to assure that the soil surface is frozen when the seed is sown. You may broadcast over a light snow. Broadcast the seed as discussed in either section above. No rolling is necessary with frost seeding. As the soil freezes and thaws throughout the winter, the seed will stratify and get worked into the soil, thus completing the process.

Ongoing Site Maintenance

For the first year after you plant your native seed, maintenance is critical. Even the best-prepared sites will still have some undesirable plants that appear. These plants can be perennial weeds or annuals.

Perennial Weeds
Perennial weeds will need to be removed by hand.  If you choose to use spot organic or synthetic herbicide treatment, timing is critical and is different with different perennial species. Consult additional resources to gain a better understanding of organic or synthetic herbicide use in the life cycle of certain plants.

Annual Weeds
Annual weeds will generally out compete your native seedlings if left unchecked. Annuals are designed to grow quickly, flower, produce seed and die in one growing season. Nearly all of the species you will have planted are relatively long-lived perennials. For the first year to several years, they are busy growing down and establishing deep root systems. Top growth is usually limited to a few inches. This allows the use of mowing as a very effective tool against the annual weeds. Mowing keeps the annual weeds from setting seed and also allows light to penetrate the site and reach your seedlings. A good general rule is to allow growth of plants to reach 10 inches, and then mow it back to 8 inches. These heights are important for two reasons. Most annual and perennial weeds flower above this height and are stunted and stressed by repeated mowing. You do not want excessive amounts of top growth mowed off and dropped onto your new seedlings; this can smother them. We recommend using a flail mower to mow large areas, or a mulching mower set as high as possible on smaller areas. We recommend against using any mower that will leave windrows, these will smother seedlings. After the first year of conscientious maintenance, your prairie should be able to hold its own.

You may need to mow a time or two in the spring of the second year to get the early cool season annuals under control. OPN Seed (Ohio Prairie Nursery) generally recommends that you leave the prairie stand through the winter. Not only is it beautiful, but also provides food and cover wildlife. In the spring when it dries enough to get on the land, use your flail mower or mulching mower to remove top growth. You may rake off the remains if you want to. Some recommend this to allow for light to warm the soil sooner. Prairies were originally maintained with fire. All the plant species in a prairie ecosystem are fire tolerant. When enough fuel load (grass) is present, usually after the second or third year, burning is a preferred method to control woody species as well as non-fire tolerant aliens species. Extreme care must be taken when using fire as a tool. Please consult with your local fire chief, your state's Division of Forestry and the jurisdictional EPA body in your area prior to burning. Some local codes prohibit burning of any kind. Always work with an experienced burn leader and all appropriate safety equipment.

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