Restoring prairie takes time and patience

Jerry Apps

In 1867, Tom Stewart, a Civil War Veteran, homesteaded my farm. When he arrived, he saw a mixture of open prairie land with small clumps of trees.

Rains awaken burgeoning prairie restoration on author Jerry Apps' farm.

Stewart hired a neighbor, who had oxen and a breaking plow, to turn over the wild grasses and flowers that had grown there for several thousand years. He likely planted this “new” land to wheat, which was commonly grown throughout central and southern Wisconsin counties at the time.

Now, more than 150 years later, I am working to restore some of Tom Stewart’s prairie land to its original state. I know that is probably impossible as Stewart’s prairie land had been cultivated until I started my prairie restoration in 1968. Corn had been the final cultivated crop on this land before I allowed it to begin returning to its original state.

I encouraged the prairie restoration by cutting rogue brush and trees, and I occasionally mow it. I have several pine plantations that surround my prairie, so I have been skittish about doing a burn.

Over the years, new wildflowers have appeared as well as grasses I had not seen before. This year, with the late summer rains, my early autumn wildflowers have been spectacular, especially the blazing star and goldenrods. I’ve also seen monarch butterflies everywhere. A couple weeks ago, my daughter Sue, and I counted a dozen monarchs in one cluster.

Each year I see something new in my prairie, some new grass and wildflower, and often a butterfly I hadn’t seen before. To help the monarch population, we have lots of milkweed plants. With the recent rains on our sandy soil, our droughty prairie has thrived.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Prairie restoration requires patience, but what a joy to see something new each season.

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work go to