He's planting a new idea in prairie conservation

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    HARVEST TIME: Carl Kurtz uses a combine to thresh the seeds from plants on his farm in St. Anthony, Iowa. Mr. Kurtz sells a seed mix that contains 50 species of prairie flowers and grass.
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In mid-October, the hills of central Iowa glow with rich golds and russets. The smattering of trees dotted among huge fields of corn and soybeans change color, and farmers work late to bring in the last of the harvests.

Like their neighbors, Carl Kurtz and his wife, Linda, have been spending long hours on the combine. Rather than corn or beans, however, the fruits of their labors - spread out in billowy piles on their barn floor - bear a striking resemblance to fluffy gray dust.

"Here's a tick trefoil. And a little bluestem. And Indian grass," says Mr. Kurtz, sifting through a handful of the gray fluff to easily identify nearly microscopic seeds: coneflower, rigid goldenrod, Canada wild rye.

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Kurtz still farms the 255 acres his father bought in 1930, where the family raised pigs, chickens, cattle, and corn when he was a boy. Today, aside from 90 acres he rents out for the traditional corn-and-bean rotation, nearly all of the land is used to grow prairie. He sells the seed to homeowners, businesses, and towns that, more and more, want to plant their land so it looks the way it did 150 years ago.

While his stands of prairie are a rarity among the huge tracts of commodities that surround them, Kurtz is far from the only person growing grass seed. What is unusual is the way he grows it. Unlike nearly every other seed farmer in Iowa, he's not interested in monocultures. Instead, he sells seed in a bulk mix that includes at least 40 or 50 different species.

Kurtz, a former freelance photographer who was trained as a biologist, originally started growing prairie this way for economic reasons. Far cheaper to grow than monocultures, it meant he could offer it at much lower prices to customers. What he hadn't guessed was how many ecological benefits he'd see.

"With a monoculture it never really stabilizes," he explains. "I had a friend who had butterfly milkweed, which he planted on his hands and knees, and he only got seed out of it one year."

Kurtz's current philosophy: Nature knows what's best. The less he tries to control what he grows, the less weeding he needs to do, the more interesting the prairie looks, and the more birds, rodents, and other animals come to visit.

"I saw four yellow rails yesterday," he marvels, mentioning a particularly rare bird sighting. "One winter I had 300 pheasants." Bobolinks and other grassland birds are frequent visitors, and badgers sometimes make their dens on his land.

The ever-changing prairie

Interest in native landscaping - which here in the Midwest often means prairie plants - has been growing in recent years. Kurtz sells to homeowners, farmers, county conservation boards, and businesses. Pella Corp., a large window and door manufacturer, recently planted 10 acres at a plant in Story City, Iowa, with his seed.

The one thing Kurtz asks for from his customers is patience.

The first year after planting, just three species - usually saw-toothed sunflower, rigid goldenrod, and gray-headed coneflowers - may come up. Grasses typically don't appear until the fourth year, filling in the empty spaces between the flowers.

Getting gardeners and biologists to accept the prairie's ever-shifting nature can sometimes be tricky. "People want to use specific seeds, they want to have control," Kurtz says. "But what you have Year 3 is not what you're going to have Year 4."

Even after four years, the amount of time Kurtz says it takes for a prairie to really get started, the composition will change from year to year. This year, the tick trefoil was particularly dramatic. "The whole hillside turned pink," he remembers, a note of awe in his voice. Tall, yellow compass plant blooms made it even more dramatic.

And last year, at a local virgin prairie that Kurtz also harvests, he found 100,000 blazing stars, something he hadn't seen in 12 years of working there.

By fall, most of the blooms have subsided; from the road, Kurtz's prairie looks the same color as the corn farms that surround it. But hidden among the towering grasses - some of the big bluestems are more than 7 feet tall - are a few lingering gentians and asters.

"They're like ground pepper," Kurtz says, picking out a few of the tiny white gentian seeds from a plant. He looks until he finds a mountain mint, which also produces a barely visible - and remarkably pungent - seed. "These might cost $1,000 a pound" bought separately, he says, "but [they're] in our mix."

The work ends, and begins

By the beginning of November, all the seeds Kurtz and his wife have collected will have dried sufficiently to start bagging them. To get it done quickly, they usually invite 20 or so friends to come help them in return for a huge home-cooked meal and good conversation.

"It's like an old-fashioned threshing," he says with a laugh.

He's in a hurry to send the seeds to his customers, since November is the ideal time to plant. The long winter days give the flowers the cold, wet conditions they need to germinate.

Planting the seed - Kurtz recommends using 10 to 15 pounds of his mix per acre - is just the beginning. Returning the land to what was once its natural state takes a surprising amount of work - one reason, perhaps, why it's still a little-used landscaping option. Weeding, by mowing or by hand, must be vigilant, and fire - a common occurrence before settlers came to the Midwest - is a necessity, at least every few years.

But Kurtz says he loves hearing about the results from customers just beginning to see the prairie they planted three or four years ago really start to take root.

"Most people don't have a clue what a prairie is," he says. "When we sell seed to farmers, they are so excited."

He recalls one seed-corn salesman who put in a small planting near his house. He showed up last year at Kurtz's door, eager to show off his many photos of the flowers that have bloomed.

"It was like he was showing pictures of his grandkids," Kurtz says.

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