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Volunteers help plant prairie at Bartlett Arboretum

Benito Carrillo Jr. joined about 75 others in scattering seed for the new prairie at Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine.
Benito Carrillo Jr. joined about 75 others in scattering seed for the new prairie at Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine. The Wichita Eagle

When I heard the wind howling outside my windows Monday night, I couldn’t help thinking about the nearly 2.5 million seeds that had been scattered Sunday to make a new prairie at Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine.

Sunday, you will remember, was sunny and warm for January, with temps in the 60s by the afternoon. The wind was up that day, too, and about 75 people who had gathered at the arboretum to plant the prairie had been urged to see “how low can you go” to broadcast the seed by hand from plastic Solo cups. The contents of each cup were worth $50, so the danger of blowing milkweed and liatris and coneflower seed was no little concern.

Of course, the thing that makes Bartlett Arboretum so much like a fairy tale half an hour south of Wichita is the fact that it is so not prairie. Its towering trees planted over a century ago, along with its winding creek and arched bridges and gingerbread cottage, give it a feeling like no other place on our section of the Plains.

But restoring a piece of it – the back meadow near the railroad tracks – to its literal roots represents for owner/steward Robin Macy a new focus of her time at the arborteum: sustainability.

“Climate change is real,” she said. “We can’t landscape the way we used to. Formal landscaping is not sustainable. This is an example of what common spaces – even yards that have expansive space – can put in” and look beautiful.

Sunday was the culmination of a three-year process that included the dredging of the creek bed during the drought, and the hauling up of the bed’s soil for depositing on the meadow. The soil was Jack-and-the-Beanstalk rich, Macy said, but after being under water for years, it was naturally depleted of oxygen. So it was treated as an enormous compost pile, receiving additions of grass clippings, leaves and all kinds of organic matter. And it got moved around and turned over, and “last summer it was sprawling with all kinds of weeds, so we knew it was fine to plant on,” Macy said.

By Sunday, the soil had been mounded into four berms covering an acre and a half. Macy called the afternoon’s festivities the “birthing” of the prairie. Friends and volunteers of the arboretum, and their children, paired up in 400-square-foot sections to scatter seed over the soil. Having already kicked off their Sunday shoes, the sowers then lined up shoulder to shoulder and tramped purposefully across the berms to the strains of “Footloose,” their feet urging the seed into the soil.

A light snow would have been the perfect follow-up that night, cleaving the seed to the soil even more. To germinate, the seed needs six to eight weeks of exposure to the cold before the soil starts to warm up in the spring.

But there was no light snow. And I worried about it Monday night, listening to the garden bells and chimes ring like mad.

But not to worry. Volunteer Blair Sullivan had come back with a roller Monday morning and rolled in the seed.

“I think we’re good,” Macy said. But she added: “We would like it to snow.”

Macy will be relying on natural rainfall to water the prairie, though if the summer gets terribly dry, “we have a couple things up our sleeve” to water the fledgling plants, she said. The arboretum has two new wells with plentiful, good water, in large part thanks to a grant from the Heritage Trust Fund. It normally gives money to projects along the lines of tuck-pointing an opera house, Macy said, but because the arboretum is on the National Register of Historic Places, it got the help.

The millions of seeds represent 50 types of plants. Flower seeds have been planted first, with grasses to follow in two to three years, so that the quicker-growing grasses don’t outcompete the flowers.

While it won’t take nearly as long for the prairie to make its splash as it did the trees, it still will take maybe five years for the flowers and grasses to reach maturity, Macy said. The prairie will probably be mowed multiple times before it’s allowed to flower, she said; that’s one way to keep weeds down and mimic the benefits of burning. Volunteers also will be on the lookout for returning Bermuda grass.

But picture this when the prairie is at its peak, in a few years: $450 worth of butterfly milkweed alone. The arboretum also is now home to four hives of bees, “and the bees will be happy,” Macy said.

The diversity of the prairie – which is much richer than that of the trees – will bring new life to the arboretum, said Sedgwick County master gardener Mike Martin, who has been instrumental in the prairie’s preparation.

“What’s going to be fun is to come back and see the activity between the two ecosystems,” he told the volunteers Sunday.

And when people eventually sit under the nearby redbud trees to take in the scene, Martin said, he urged them not to just look at the prairie. Be sure to “close your eyes and listen to it,” he said. “Smell it. You’ll probably even feel the earth move under you.”