Planting a Prairie
Planting methods for a native grassland is dependent on site topography and the type of site preparation that has taken place prior to planting. As stated in this website's section on Site Preparation, the preferred choice to establish a grassland is from seed placed in a well prepared seed bed. This is by far the most economical and will provide very good results if done properly which includes spending time on the proper site preparation. Taking shortcuts by failing to undertake good site preparation will no doubt prove to be time consuming and costly.
The preferred method of planting a grassland on a site with light soils and relatively flat open terrain is with a grassland seed drill. These drills come in a variety of sizes and can be pulled behind small to medium sized farm tractors. There are several non-profit organizations in Ontario that own drills manufactured by Truax Mfg of Nebraska. These drills have multiple compartments for seeds with varying sizes and can precisely plant seeds into the seed bed at very shallow (1 to 2 mm) depths. These drills can be calibrated to ensure grass and forb seed are planted based on seeds per square meter and once calibrated properly are surprisingly accurate.
These drills plant in narrow rows and attempt to drill the seed just under the surface of the soil. In fact, examining the site after planting will show a few seeds are visible on the surface but with very solid seed to soil contact. The seed drill has packing wheels located directly behind each rows coulter to ensure the seed is firmly in the seed bed and is not likely to be blown or washed away.
Sowing these grassland seeds too deeply means the new sprouts will likely not make it to the surface. Past experiments drilling grassland seeds at normal farming depths of 2 to 5 cm have met with very poor success rates and is not recomended.
Machine Broadcast Planting
Native grasslands can be planted with a mechanical broadcaster, but this method is mostly restricted to areas with steeper topography or where grassland drills are not available. Mechanical broadcasters simply spread the seed on the top of the surface of the seed bed and rely on a packer or rake towed behind the broadcaster to ensure the seed makes contact with the soil. Seeds do not generally penetrate the soil surface though and are subject to wind movement, washing away in a rain or being eaten by birds. There are some brands of broadcast planters that can be calibrated for grass and forb seed and do an adequate job of distributing seed evenly and uniformly. Truax Mfg again makes a good quality broadcast spreader.
Hand Broadcast Planting
Broadcasting seed by hand should only be used where the terrain is such that the topography presents a danger to the operator of a tractor or atv towing a mechanical planter. Hand broadcasting does not allow for uniform distribution and generally will require more seed than mechanically planted sites. A great deal of seed is wasted when broadcasting by hand due to uneven distribution, especially of very small seed. Some of this can be alleviated by mixing the small seeds with sand or wheat bran to distribute the seeds in an inexpensive medium which can help with seed distribution.
Smaller sites can be planted using prairie plugs instead of seeds. Plugs can range in price close to $1 per plug and given the need for roughly 10 000 plugs per acre the cost to plant any more than a small plot by plugs is cost prohibitive. Where plugs do come into play is attempting to augment new plantations with plants that are more difficult to grow from seed. Plugs can be planted by hand after the site has been seeded by machine or hand broadcasted.
Ontario genotype seed is very expensive, so not taking the time to do proper site preparation is inexcusable. Although there is a chance that some seed may grow simply by scattering seed in an area populated with cool season tame grasses, the chance of a good quality grassland being established is very minimal. While it may seem ok to rush forward and plant a site without proper site preparation just to "give it a try", experience has taught us that starting a grassland in anything but the most optimal situations will prove to be a frustrating exercise. Take the extra year and put the site into proper site preparation and drill the seed where possible for best results. Use clean seed from a reputable supplier and seek assistance from Tallgrass Ontario.