by Ann Londrigan
Illinois’ first settlers gave it the nickname “The Prairie State” for its vast expanse of prairies. In 1820, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, close to 60 percent of Illinois’ 37 million acres were prairie lands. Here in central Illinois, trees could only be found in scattered sites called “prairie groves” or along waterways. Today, fewer than 2,500 acres of high quality prairie remain.
So, creating a prairie ecosystem alongside an established woodland made sense about 25 years ago, as part of the 1993 Plan for the Future of Lincoln Memorial Garden.
The plan involved many longtime Garden supporters, board members and community leaders, plus a $2 million capital campaign through the year 2000. Much of the effort centered on rejuvenating the original Jens Jensen-designed, 60-acre “Historic Garden,” including bridge renovations, a new map shelter, interpretive signs, plantings and clearing specific areas where trails had been lost. Council Ring #8, for example, was so overrun by forest growth that it had become hidden from view.
Grants from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) for erosion control and water filtration helped support work on the creeks and ravines running throughout the Garden and along East Lake Shore Drive, all leading into Lake Springfield.
The ambitious plan would nearly double the size of the Garden over the next 10 to 15 years. It included the purchase in 1995 of the 29-acre Ostermeier farm, now known as the “Ostermeier Prairie Center,” to protect and buffer the Garden, support existing wildlife and provide habitat for endangered species.
“Acquiring the Ostermeier land was a big step of expansion for the Garden and programs,” says
Kent Massie of Massie Massie & Associates, consultant for the 1993 plan. “There was concern at the time about the prairie project taking resources and focus away from the Historic Garden.”
A bigger concern, ultimately, was creating a natural buffer for the Garden’s fragile ecosystems from increasing traffic and plans for residential development. It got very political.
Building a prairie
The Ostermeier property was a mid-1800s farmstead with two small corn and bean fields, an old barn, a two-story home, some sheds and a dried-up pond. How to begin transforming it into tallgrass prairie?
According to Massie, the agricultural land had to be treated and burned to get things started. It was the pond project—messy as it was with dump trumps, track hoes and a purposely broken dam to rebuild—that gave the prairie its blueprint.
“We got a grant to help do the pond,” recalls Massie. “It was drained and dug out and became the fill material for the prairie. It all had to dry out for a year before it was shaped and mounded.”
The plan called for winding trails inside and along the border, restoration of a historic hedge row and development of a high point in the center where the two fields come together to serve as a lookout.
A grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources funded the professional planting of the prairie with a mix of native grasses and forbs, including wildflowers. This expanse of prairie was designed to complement the smaller patches of prairie in the Historic Garden, which Jensen designed as more meadow than tallgrass prairie, according to Massie.
Additional grants funded the trail around the pond, observation decks and boardwalks.
Adds Massie: “The serpentine route of the trails was designed so you can take school groups out into the middle of the field to experience the Illinois prairie, where you couldn’t see anything but tallgrass and sky, the way most of Illinois looked at one time.”
A few setbacks
Like scenes in the popular documentary “The Biggest Little Farm,” wildlife can take over what you’re trying to create in nature.
Massie recalls the story of rebuilding the pond with grant-funded native plant species for bank stabilization and wildlife habitat.
“We had volunteer days to plant the pond, student EPA interns helping us, and all these trays of expensive aquatic plants,” says Massie. “The geese came along and ate it like a smorgasbord. That was a nightmare keeping the animals away.”
Invasive species are another battleground.
Says Joel Horwedel, executive director of the Garden since 2013: “Early in my tenure we realized that we had lespedeza in the prairie, and we started the process of trying to eliminate it.”
Lespedeza (bush clover), like many invasive species, can overcome traditional prairie plants. Mowing, controlled burns and spot application of weed killer are tools used in this battle, which can take 10 years or more.
He adds: “It’s a lengthy process that we are still in the middle of, but you can now see a better balance of flowers and grasses.”
A place to learn
Environmental education has been a core mission of Lincoln Memorial Garden since its creation in the early 1930s. The Ostermeier Prairie Center has become a hub for learning about the prairie ecosystem.
“Just like a tract of forested timber is important, so are grassland prairies,” says Horwedel. “The deep-rooted prairie plants help control soil erosion and offer a sea of pollen-rich plants for our many pollinators. In turn, the insects attract birds and other animals who thrive in this habitat.”
“It has become a well-established prairie with nice species diversity,” he adds.
The Native Wildflower Demonstration Garden, completed in 2012, advances this education mission. It was built by Master Gardener and Master Naturalist volunteers with the University of Illinois Extension Logan/Menard/Sangamon in partnership with Lincoln Memorial Garden. Visitors can learn about native wildflowers and grasses that thrive in full sun and do not require a lot of water or fertilizer.
The site is registered by Monarch Watch as an official Monarch Waystation providing milkweed, nectar sources and shelter to sustain monarch butterflies as they migrate through North America.
Says Horwedel: “Prairies are an amazing habitat hub. They provide food and shelter to a vast array of birds and insects, many of which are threatened due to the loss of so much prairie habitat.”
“It remains one of the best places where the public can go to see the prairie in this part of the state,” says Massie. “People can walk down its paths and experience and learn from the programs offered by the Garden. It’s a landscape Lincoln would have experienced.”
He adds: “The 1993 plan took a big step for the Garden to become a regional nature education center.”