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He's planting a new idea in prairie conservation

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

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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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