The land around the new Jackson Country Regional Health Center will be awash with changing colors in the coming years as the native prairie plants sown this fall take root and flourish.
“The prairie changes colors throughout the year, which is why it’s so incredibly interesting,” said Cyndi Diercks of Lawns Unlimited. She and her husband, Marty, own the Bettendorf company that the hospital’s board of directors contracted with to do the prairie planting project.
In the spring, the landscape will be full of whites, light pinks and purples, she said. In the summer, the dominant colors will be deep golds, while jewel-toned hues will bloom in the fall.
The aesthetics is just one advantage of many gained by returning the ground around the hospital to plants native to Iowa.
“The way we go at it, a prairie planting should be beneficial to everybody,” said Marty, noting that it needs to make sense to the landowner monetarily, environmentally and aesthetically.
“If we can get all those to work, it’s a no-brainer,” he said.
Curt Coleman, hospital CEO, said the hospital’s relocation to a facility with much more land around it presented an opportunity to create both a beautiful landscape and lower maintenance costs for years to come.
“We hope that once the prairie starts to grow over the next few years and begins to mature our patients, employees and members of the community can go out and enjoy nature,” he said.
Lawns Unlimited has done prairie plantings for the past 20 years at properties throughout the Genesis hospital system, at the University of Iowa, at car dealerships, city parks, housing subdivisions and more.
While there is an upfront cost to planting a prairie, the maintenance for years to come is minimal. Prairie does not have to be mowed weekly, as regular grass does during the warm months. It also brings different songbirds to the area, as well as butterflies, and provides habitat for small animals. Even though the prairie planting just occurred this fall, Marty already has seen quail and pheasant on the hospital grounds. The prairie also is good for drainage and soil health. In addition, the Diercks designed a short-grass walking path that weaves through about a quarter mile of the landscape outside the hospital. It can be used for by clients receiving physical rehabilitation, and employees or visitors for walks.
The prairie won’t reach its full visual potential in the first year, Marty said. When it reaches about 18 inches, it will be mowed down to about 6 inches in the spring to keep the weeds from overtaking the prairie plants.
“It’s a race,” Marty said. Eventually the prairie plants will grow tall enough to shut out the weeds.
Across town at the Jackson County Historical Society, 6 acres were planted in prairie vegetation this fall on city-owned land that previously was used for a corn-picking contest.
“We ran out of enough people and horses to continue that adventure,” said Phil Gent, the volunteer who took care of the planting. That’s how the idea came about to create a natural area next to the historic railroad depot and train car. The prairie landscape will reflect the time period of the narrow-gauge railroad that ran from Bellevue to Cascade in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Gent said.
Three acres will be native, Iowa pollinator seeds to attract butterflies and bees, and 3 acres will be a variety of clover to attract honeybees and wild bees, he said.
The city recently agreed to a 10-year contract with the historical society, which will provide the labor to seed and maintain the vegetation. The Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund also is partnering to support the project.
“Since the land has minimal potential uses, this makes for an attractive use of the land and will enhance the overall appearance of the museum property, and we hope it will be of interest to the local citizens to treat it as a public park,” Gent said. There will be a driveway from the north, off East Maple Street and a small parking lot for visitors.
Both Gent and Coleman see educational opportunities for students and others to study the changing landscape and learn about their natural environment.
“Prairies are really a kind of work of art in themselves,” Coleman said. “And the Dierckses really painted a vision for us.”
For Marty and Cyndi, returning land to its natural prairie habitat has been rewarding for decades.
“The prairie is fascinating,” Cyndi said “You will never go to a prairie and be bored at any time of the year because you will find different flowers, different wildlife.”