As a strategy to avoid a ton of hillside lawn mowing, Jeff and Linda Rotschafer’s backyard prairie has worked amazingly well.
As an escape from an otherwise noisy and hectic world, it has worked even better for the Eden Prairie couple.
Before retiring, Jeff would occasionally do work presentations and include a slide with a yellow swallowtail butterfly perched on a purple coneflower. His words for the slide were, “Meet my psychiatrist.”
Their little house on the prairie was documented by the local newspaper in 1994, and 29 years later their prairie patch is still going strong.
It’s a place where they commune with tall prairie grasses and colorful coneflowers, and the butterflies, bees, and birds that visit. And, a few weeks ago, it served as a backdrop for their son’s wedding and 55 guests.
In other words, it’s been a big part of their lives. Looking back, says Jeff, “You just pinch yourself over how fortunate you were to end up here, because of all of the things it brings and offers to us.”
How it began
Planting prairies has become more popular over recent years. Still, prairie habitat once covered one-third of Minnesota, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), but little more than 1% of this habitat remains today.
The Rotschafers were on the front end of this restore-the-prairie movement, deciding when they moved to a new, Eileen Street neighborhood in Eden Prairie in 1986 that most of the sloping pasture land that was their new backyard should be planted with prairie grass and wildflowers.
“We had this big, long, expanse of a yard,” states Jeff. “And we said – I said – I don’t want it to be grass, because I’ve got to mow it!
“So we said, ‘What are our options here?’” he adds. “And there were zero trees here at that time, so we had kind of a blank canvas.”
They worked with neighbor Tom Ploszay and a company called Prairie Restorations Inc., one of the first companies in the United States to specialize in restoring native plant communities, to seed a new prairie stretching across their two backyards.
Beyond their prairie was an expansive marsh feeding Mitchell Lake, supplementing their nature vista and visits from wildlife.
They nurtured their backyard prairie, and it evolved over time. Only the Rotschafer portion remains today – about 50% to 60% of their lot is planted prairie – and the ratio of wildflowers to prairie grass may have shifted some.
“There’s probably less variety than we had originally,” says Linda. “That’s just how things go in a prairie,” with the strongest plants surviving.
A flower they haven’t seen for a few years might suddenly show up, she adds. “Every once in a while something just magically appears. The seeds have been dormant, and all of a sudden it pops up.”
Pheasants, once plentiful, are now rare. But other animals have taken their place in their prairie and the marsh beyond.
“This is almost like living in the country for us,” says Jeff. “We have deer, foxes, coyotes, geese, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes – about any form of wildlife we get to see. And all sorts of birds.
“I’m a nature buff. I really enjoy that stuff,” he adds. “I mean, we had two fawns playing around in the back yard this morning.”
It’s work, with a big upside
The Rotschafers admit a backyard prairie isn’t the right choice for everyone. You need to prefer a wild look over the manicured lawn that is a staple of suburban life.
“We don’t want to come off as saying it’s an easy thing to do,” explains Jeff. “It is work. Probably less work than trying to maintain a lawn. It’s not long-term work, but stuff you have to stay on top of.”
They mow the prairie about once a year, in the spring, and also collect the plant seeds and redistribute them for a thicker look.
“You’re constantly fighting invasives,” he adds, referring to non-native invasive plants like leafy spurge and buckthorn. “And there are invasives in here right now.”
Beyond the prairie, it’s obvious the Rotschafers have multiple green thumbs. A local “Best Garden Award” for overall greenery on their property is also in their background.
Among their other tips for prairie newbies: Make sure your prospective patch gets plenty of sun; start small; shop around for the best mix of prairie seeds; and religiously remove those invasive plants.
Years later, you may be reaping the benefits seen by the Rotschafers.
“I think the closer you get to it, the more you enjoy it. It’s not just the beauty of the flowers, but all the insects, butterflies and that sort of thing, that you get to see as you get closer,” says Jeff.
“I’m looking out, and I’m enjoying watching bees, pollinators. Just all forms of that have offered up an environment that’s conducive for them,” he adds, trying to put into words what he gets out of their prairie.
“There’s so many people that have taken away that environment from those pollinators over time. So, we’re just sort of giving back to that.”
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