MOUNT VERNON — At the top of a hill on Darrel and Middie Morf’s land in rural Mount Vernon, a clear line delineates where a contemporary strip of short, monotone brome grass ends and the prairie begins.
Within the prairie, bursts of color from orange blossoms of butterfly milkweed, purple coneflowers and yellow black-eyed Susans are interspersed through tall, swaying grasses. The air is filled with the trills of crickets and birdsong, along with a sweet smell of grass and wildflowers. A deer bounds over a hill, and monarch butterflies flit from flower to flower. Darrel reaches into the grasses and pulls off leaves of mountain mint and bergamot, also known as bee balm. They have a sharp, aromatic flavor.
For the last twenty years, the Morfs have been restoring part of their land to native prairie. Planting the tall grasses and wildflowers has environmental benefits; they have deep roots that help prevent erosion and improve water quality while supporting a wide array of birds, butterflies, bees and more. The grasses provide cover for larger animals like pheasants and quail.
“There are probably 80 to 100 species of plants and flowers on this land,” Darrel’s son Paul Morf said. “There’s something blooming May through October.”
Darrel and Middie Morf’s prairie, as well as a prairie on land owned by Paul and Jennifer Morf, will be featured on a Parade of Prairies tour hosted by the Indian Creek Nature Center July 20.
The tour, which starts at Indian Creek Nature Center, includes four prairies and lunch at Paul and Jennifer’s property, also in rural Mount Vernon. Jean Wiedenheft, Director of Land Stewardship at Indian Creek Nature Center, said the goal is to show people the role individuals can have in restoring prairie habitat.
“Most land, most open space in the state of Iowa is owned by private individuals, and a lot of them are doing really interesting things on their property. It’s a way to showcase what individuals are doing on their land,” she said. “It’s a chance to understand what inspired them, to understand the beauty of their design, to ask about challenges they’ve had.”
This is the second year for the prairie tour; last year’s tour focused on more urban prairies.
“Private individuals can do this in their own yards. Corporations can do it on their property,” she said. “It enhances pollinator habitat, it enhances wildlife diversity, it enhances beauty.”
On the Morf property, Darrel Morf enjoys walking through the prairie year-round — or cross-country skiing, in the winter. The family has a mowed patch at the top of a hill for camping.
“Walking out here, this is a great place to watch the sunset,” Darrel said.
The mowed paths they’ve made through the prairie provide space to walk and also act as fire breaks for the burning they undertake every couple of years as prairie management. Burning kills invasive species while releasing seeds of beneficial plants, allowing the landscape to be rejuvenated.
“We’re learning as we go. We continue to learn,” Darrel said. “We fight honey suckle and tree seedlings constantly.”
He is an encyclopedia of native plants, pointing out native legumes that act as nitrogen fixers, the spiky white cones of rattlesnake master and the tall stalks of Canadian milk vetch, abuzz with bees.
Darrel and Middie moved to Mount Vernon in the 1980s and later bought the land that would become their prairie. In 1998, they took the first 14 acres out of production after the farmer working it told them the hilly ground wasn’t good crop land.
They later added two additional parcels of prairie, one 32 acres, the other 18 acres.
“When you looked at this vista, you felt you wanted to expand it,” Darrel said, gesturing to the view of rolling hills overlooking the boundary with Palisades Kepler State Park. “It’s sort of addictive.”
Today, native prairie seed mixes are readily available, but when they planted the first 14 acres, they had to make their own. Paul said they bought dozens of seed varieties and mixed them up in a big cement mixer, diluted with sand. Volunteers came and helped them sow the seed.
The land is part of a Conservation Reserve Program, in which the U.S. Farm Service Agency pays farmers to keep environmentally sensitive land out of production and to plant species that will improve environmental health. The first 14 acre plat is also protected by a conservation easement held by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
They inspired their son and his wife to follow in their footsteps. When Paul and Jennifer they were deciding where to live after Paul finished law school, they decided that even if they couldn’t have the mountains of Colorado or the oceans of the coast, having a nature-centered home was important to them. They’ve planted between native prairie near their restored farm house, along with a stand of woodland and a large wildlife pond.
“The nice thing about this prairie movement is you can find wild places in Iowa again,” Paul said. “It’s fun that we could put a little more wilderness in.”
If You Go
• What: Parade of Prairies
• When: 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. July 20
• Where: Bus departs from Indian Creek Nature Center, 5300 Otis Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids
• Cost: $45, includes lunch
• Details: (319) 362-0664, indiancreeknaturecenter.org/gallery/parade-of-prairies
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