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Florida-Orchard Prairie Coming Into Its Own

Posted by Bethany Semancik -

John Marlin came to a turning point in the summer of 2011. Driving home from work, he spotted a lone figure in the middle of a large prairie planting on Florida Avenue in Urbana.

It was University of Illinois student Sarah Menning, president of the campus environmental group Red Bison, digging weeds with a round-end shovel — "this poor woman by herself with an inappropriate tool, surrounded by 50,000 large, vicious prickly lettuce," he recalled.

Marlin, a research affiliate with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, decided he had to help.

Soon he had approached the Student Sustainability Committee, which funded the prairie, with an offer: He would coordinate management of the 2.3-acre demonstration plot as a volunteer if the committee and university would let him hire students to take care of basic maintenance and coordinate volunteer activities. They agreed, and the stalled project, which was set in motion in 2009 by now-retired Natural History Survey scientist Tony Endress, started moving again.

The prairie is bounded on the west by the U of I President's House, on the south by a horticultural field laboratory, on the east by married-student housing and on the north by Florida Avenue, a major thoroughfare.

"It's a lot of work," Marlin said. The Florida-Orchard Prairie, popularly known as the "President's Prairie" because of its location, has had a run of bad years, crises, and controversies, including opposition from neighbors who didn't like the original messy look. The edge along residential Florida Avenue was "solid weeds," Marlin said, and was sprayed with Roundup in spring 2012 in an effort to quiet the complaints. Native plants were bagged to protect them from the herbicide, Marlin recalled, but the sprayer was too low to the ground, knocked all the bags off, and prairie plants and weeds bit the dust together.

That same spring, volunteers grew 6,000 plugs of native flowers in a campus greenhouse and planted them along Florida, in an effort to create an "immediate, socially acceptable area," Marlin said.

Then came one of the driest summers on record. Water was hauled in 250-gallon wagons. Crabgrass flourished, and the site was mowed twice. A core group of volunteers from student groups, Grand Prairie Friends and East Central Illinois Master Naturalists battled weeds all summer. The first student restoration technicians were hired that fall.

The next year, 2013, was the year of the dandelions and the violets, which Marlin refers to as "violents" because they aggressively shade out other plant's seedlings. Also, quack grass erupted — Marlin has no idea where it came from — and the entire field was sprayed with a grass-specific herbicide.

Nevertheless, by that time the prairie flowers were getting a visible foothold, and Marlin was hearing fewer complaints and more encouragement. "I took it over to prevent failure," he said, "to keep it from getting plowed over. If it failed, there would be no additional prairie plantings on campus. This is a very high visibility area."

What's visible in spring and summertime now is an eye-catching field of colorful, healthy-looking prairie plants, over 30 different species, including goldenrod, bee balm, coneflowers, and rattlesnake master. On the shady west side, shade-tolerant plants like cardinal flower and campanula are going in, along with woodland wildflowers like geraniums, bloodroot and ginger.

The diversity is not great compared to an old remnant like Loda Cemetery Prairie, with its 130-plus species. Still Florida-Orchard provides habitat for a large number of bee species, as well as butterflies, beetles, birds, voles, and a visiting fox.

The improvement also seems to have turned the neighbors around. Steve Rugg, who lives across the street at 610 Florida, complained outspokenly after the university stopped cutting what had once been a mowed lawn. "It looked to me as if they had quit mowing and called it a prairie. That was ludicrous," he said. "It looked as if the president had forgotten to pay his lawn service bill."

Rugg still has unanswered questions about the purpose of "putting a prairie here," and wants plenty of advance notice if a prescribed burn is ever carried out. But he says Marlin "has gone out of his way to be sensitive to the neighborhood. I'm pleased with the effort. There are paths to walk through, and the flowers are lovely when they're in bloom. There are fireflies and monarch butterflies. There's wildlife. The fox drives our dog nuts." He and his wife Debbie, who liked the prairie idea from the start, are even planting coneflowers and Rudbeckia in their yard, "which we might not have done if we had not seen them across the street." Overall, he said, there is growing acceptance in the neighborhood.

Perhaps one answer to Steve Rugg's question — Why a prairie here? — lies in the diverse insect population that Florida-Orchard supports. Marlin, an entomologist by training, has watched a massive degradation of insect habitat in Illinois since the days 40 years ago when he criss-crossed the state collecting bees for the Illinois Natural History Survey.

"Six weeks ago I drove 50 miles on Route 127 in Southern Illinois," Marlin said, "and saw only 60 spots with native plants, usually isolated spots. Bees and bugs can only travel so far. The bottom line is that habitat is disappearing. My belief is that the hope for a lot of populations of native insects rests in urban areas. Every municipality in the state has a small plot behind the firehouse, and a more manicured area in front of the city building that could be planted with native flowers."

Of course a 10- by 20-foot plot won't support a bird or anything larger all by itself. "We also need big areas in some kind of natural condition," Marlin said. But he believes small "pollinator pockets" can be an important part of the larger strategy.

Meanwhile, the Florida-Orchard Prairie remains a work in progress. Marlin says the main problem now has shifted from invasive aliens to aggressive natives —tall goldenrod, bee balm and New England aster. There's not much to do about that problem, he said, except wait it out. "Native prairies spent hundreds of years sorting out species," Marlin said. "You can't just throw in seed and expect a beautiful, balanced prairie. We're attacking the non-natives and managing the native aggressives." He'll be calling on Master Naturalists for help.

Story by By John Palen (2012)
Photo by John Marlin

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