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053110 prairie sievers
Prairie Sievers kneels among the flax bonnets in her yard recently. Sievers and her husband took out the sod in their front yard four years ago and put in native plants. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

A cool rain tucked the blue flax bonnets low in the meadow on Briggs Street.

The indigo flowers dotted a sea of green, shade after shade of sage and forest and even melon. Come July, the heat will open more buds, and then cyclists riding by will point out to each other the way the colors paint the verdant expanse.

"This (field) is just awash in yellow and blue and red and pink, and it gets tall," said Prairie Sievers, standing in front of the home her husband's grandparents built.

It's taken several years, but the yard in front of 2620 Briggs St. has turned from lawn to prairie. In 2006, Sievers and her husband, Zandy, rented a sod lifter and ripped out at least a couple thousand square feet of lawn. Sievers found the grass dull and boring, the mower cantankerous.

"I didn't want a huge riding mower," Sievers said. "They're loud, and they're stinky."

She did want native plants, so she ordered seeds from Western Native Seed, a Colorado company with seed mixes from the Rocky Mountains and Western Great Plains. On its website, Western Native Seed lists prices and amounts: A pound of meadow seeds, for instance, goes for $25, and one pound of the grass and wildflower mix covers 1,000 square feet.

Eastgate Rental loans out sod cutters, which run $24.96 for the first two hours, and then $12.48 for additional hours.

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The first year after planting, Sievers and her husband battled back weeds. They planted black-eyed susans to be the "thug species" and push out intruders.

"It does muscle out the weeds, yet it's short-lived, so it doesn't become a problem," Sievers said.

They nurtured the echinacea, the purple blazing star, the goldenrod, yarrow, bee balm, sage, Idaho fescue, little blue stem, and gramma grass. They seemed to always be outside, pecking and poking in their yard.

"I'm sure the neighbors thought we were insane," Sievers said.

In the beginning, sometimes younger enterprising neighbors mistakenly saw a field of opportunity: "I had a lot of kids come up, ‘Do you need someone to mow your lawn?' "

Since then, at least one neighbor, a birdwatcher, has commented on the array of birds the field has attracted. Sievers hears bikers, maybe on their way for a ride up Miller Creek, alerting each other to the display behind the berm made of the torn-up sod with a, "Look at that yard!"

She's pretty sure the birds showing up to eat the native seeds also carried in the wild strawberry plants and thimbleberry. Butterflies flit over the grasses, too.

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Even Sievers' son, Bannin, who is 22 months, helped garden this year, tossing clay seed balls into the yard. The balls are smaller than a ping pong ball, larger than a big marble, and they're homemade from clay, compost, seed and water.

The clay holds moisture for the seeds and even helps the gardeners distinguish between budding native plants and invading weeds. Mostly, the greens shooting up in Sievers' yard are ones the gardeners - or birds - planted.

"There's less than 1 percent of stuff that we don't want," Sievers said.

The evolving ecosystem brought some unexpected outcomes as well. Sievers' neighbor tells her he's seen sparrows feeding on seeds, and then hawks swooping in to feed on sparrows. The neighbors' relationship, in fact, came out of the prairie project, the seeds of conversation.

Shrubs are part of the mix in the field, among them sage, yucca, ninebark and currant. This year, mushroom caps have popped up, a possible sign a fungal mat is growing underfoot that helps plants absorb nutrients.

Old decomposing roots and moisture can push mushrooms up, said Missoula County Extension Office plant clinic coordinator Sandy Perrin, and the growth is part of some natural prairies.

"Certainly in a mountaintop area prairie, you betcha," Perrin said.

When it's dry, Sievers waters some, mostly because she knows neighbors and onlookers appreciate the greener meadow. She mows just once a year, at the end of the season, and these days, she uses a push mower. The riding mower is long gone, sold online in 10 minutes for $800 to a Helena man.

"It's been a labor of love, I guess you would say," Sievers said of the prairie. "We've spent a lot of time out here, but it's been fun."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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