Is it possible to cut up and transplant a to-be-developed prairie (sort of like you might cut and reposition sod)?

Is it possible to cut up and transplant a to-be-developed prairie (sort of like you might cut and reposition sod)? In my area, there are lots of projects that are clearing / developing perfectly good prairie, and then there are many projects that are trying to restore prairie. I figure that if a good process and equipment existed, it would make sense to cut up prairies that are slated for development and move those entire sections of perfectly good prairie – plants, soil, and all – to places that want to restore prairie. I haven’t heard of anyone doing that kind of thing. So I wonder if the lack of that kind of activity is limited by money, equipment, desire, imagination, or something else?

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I think serious prairie requires pretty hefty soils, but really not my area of expertise. @bouteloua may have good ideas.

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Prairie sod (native plants grown in a nursery, then cut and sold as a sod) is a purchasable product from some nurseries, and there are at least a few prairie remnants in the Chicagoland area that were (in part) “transplanted” to other areas due to impending development/impacts. I imagine most projects are limited by permissions/permitting and $$$ (=time, tools/equipment). e.g. https://www.chicago.gov/content/dam/city/depts/zlup/Sustainable_Development/Publications/Chicago_Nature_and_Wildlife_Plan/Marquette_Park_Lagoon_and_Prairie.pdf

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thanks. i’ve definitely heard of folks using spades to dig up plugs for transplanting, like what i think is being described in that document about Ashburn Prairie. i imagine the scope of what could be transferred this way might represent <1% of an original prairie (though perhaps some of the most significant parts of it), and i wonder if anyone has moved much larger sections prairies – like acres worth?

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This project aims to transplant 6 acres of wet-mesic dolomite prairie sod for a mining project: https://www2.illinois.gov/epa/public-notices/Documents/401%20Certification/2019/C-0037-19-10302019-PublicNotice.pdf

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I imagine one thing that makes prairie harder to transplant than lawn sod is the root depth. Many prairie plants go far deeper than the couple of inches required for lawn.
Also, I imagine that many restoration projects are reluctant to move too much en masse because of the risk of accidentally bringing in the types of plants they are trying to remove.

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In an ideal world, develop the bit that needs rehab.
And keep the surviving remnant as a prairie conservation area.

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This was done on a small scale in Windsor, Ontario. An ecopassage was built to connect two pieces of prairie habitat separated by a highway, and sections of existing prairie were used to create new prairie habitat on the ecopassage. I believe they talk a little bit about this in the Ecohighway documentary that was made about the project: http://ecohighway.ca/

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They should trade.

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Back in the late 1980s when I was working for the City of Austin, we identified a large patch of Big Bluestem (about 5 acres) on a tract near Pflugerville, Texas, that was to be developed eventually. With the landowners permission, we organized a community transplant effort. The site was degraded Blackland Prairie with moderately deep soils over soft chalk substrate. We were loaned a CoA backhoe and skilled operator to assist. The backhoe could scoop out a chunk of the Big Bluestem sod about 6 ft x 2 ft and about 1 ft deep. We knew we certainly weren’t getting the full root system of the prairie grasses but from experimentation we recognized that this provided enough of the root system to allow a cluster to get established at a new site. One backhoe bucketload would basically fill up the back of a pick-up truck. We did this over a 2-day weekend and had dozens and dozens of local farmers and ranchers come by–along with various conservation groups–to get some free sod. By the end of the two days, we had dug up less than 1 acre but it made a huge contribution to restoration efforts in many, many other locations. (Imagine how many 6 x 2 ft chunks are in 1 acre!)

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thanks for your story. besides being quite an inspirational and amazing example of what folks coming together for a common cause can achieve, these numbers really help me think about the scope of the challenge.

  • each 6 x 2 x 1 ft chunk would weigh around 1000 lbs or so, assuming 2000-3000 lbs for a cubic yard of soil
  • there would be about 3500 such chunks in an acre
    • so moving 1 acre would require moving about 1800 tons
    • assuming 20 hrs of daylight over 2 days, you would have been cutting and loading about 3 chunks per minute using the single backhoe (which is quite a feat)

from about 14:40 to 16:15, there’s a description and some video of their actual sod moving process, which was also quite helpful to see.

it looks like in this case, they’re cutting the squares manually using sharpshooter spades and then somehow loading them onto pallets. (exactly how they’re loading them is not super clear from the video, but i’m sure it would be relatively easy to find out.) assuming a standard North American pallet, it looks like their chunks are roughly 4 x 3.5 x 1 ft, which would be just slightly bigger than gcwarbler’s chunks, and tells me that:

  • 1 ft depth is probably ideal for this kind of thing, even across different kinds of prairie
  • a half- or 3/4-ton chunk is probably the upper limit of what you want to try to work with, using commonly available equipment / vehicles

i love how easily a mini loader equipped with a pallet fork can transport the sod mats and then just slide them exactly into place. (it wasn’t clear to me how folks would have unloaded half ton chunks of sod from a pickup bed, in gcwarbler’s example, but this example shows how easy the unloading process from pallets can be.)

i feel this. unfortunately, i think it’s always the old story of folks not appreciating what they have until they’ve actually lost it.

while the way things so often get done is still so heavily driven by $$$ and without a way to easily translate the value of prairie into $$$, it’s still super hard to get folks to really appreciate the consequences of developing perfectly good prairie. even in my area where we’ve had so much flooding, it’s hard to get all folks to appreciate that leaving a prairie undeveloped or adding a few features to make it accessible as parkland can save lots of human structures around it from the next inevitable flood.

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We have Amazon planning their new head office for Africa.
The site is the floodplain of the Liesbeeck River. Prone to flooding. But it is okay, they will fill in the floodplain with concrete. Neighbouring suburbs will take on the flooding instead.

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Wish there were an :weary: emoji where the heart is. I’d have used it.

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We have been fighting this for years. Then the Council snuck it in during lockdown.

Hello! We’ve transplanted a small prairie at the Terradise Nature Center along with cultivating a prairie remnant in Marion, Oh. You may want to reach out to Tyler Butler on iNaturalist or more directly through the Terradise Nature Center Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TerradiseNatureCenter for more information on techniques, timing, etc.

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This is exactly what I have been thinking could happen! Digging up the plants themselves can be difficult. I have participated in several plant rescues pre-development project, including the one near Pflugerville mentioned below.
What I would like to do is preserve the seedbank by getting the top several inches (or whatever the experts say we need for that soil profile). In addition to the plants and ecosystem, we are losing the FUTURE plants and all the seeds that have been in that soil, sometimes for generations, that are wasted by being paved over. Never to be used by nature. There is true value in that and could even be seen as a way to mitigate the development that is taking place. “It should be a law” that every construction site planned over well-documented native plants have soil scraped off first and saved in some fashion. After all, that is what the first passes of machinery do, is scrape and level and move the soil from place to place. It would take nothing but labor to do the first pass into non-profit dump trucks who will find “homes” for the seeds/soil. Yes, there would be some unwanted plants, but the benefits far outweigh that. It would be true seed preservation.
I am serious, I think we could make it a thing. Like carbon offsets, wetland mitigation efforts, etc.

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Do you think a wetland can be created this way?

We have watched how the seedbank returns plants in Tokai. Decades later, after the pine plantation was felled. (The soil remained in place)

It’s been done with Tallgrass Prairie near Omaha, Nebraska. A professor at University of Nebraska at Omaha supervised it. The tall-grass prairie couldn’t just be cut up and moved like bluegrass sod. We used deep shovels, preferably ones with flat sides (tile spades? Is that what they’re called?). Lots of deep scoops of dirt, placed on a truck and then planted right next to each other in the space for the reconstituted prairie. The group had gone through and dug up some of the deepest rooted plants before the main prairie transplant, and tucked these roots in between the regular scoops at the new site. If I remember (and it’s been maybe 30 years since I was there), the transplanted prairie, or much of it, survived, though it was quite weedy at first.

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were the weeds already in the transplanted sod or seed bank, or did they arrive during / after transplanting?

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