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He's planting a new idea in prairie conservation

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Kurtz's current philosophy: Nature knows what's best. The less he tries to control what he grows, the less weeding he needs to do, the more interesting the prairie looks, and the more birds, rodents, and other animals come to visit.

"I saw four yellow rails yesterday," he marvels, mentioning a particularly rare bird sighting. "One winter I had 300 pheasants." Bobolinks and other grassland birds are frequent visitors, and badgers sometimes make their dens on his land.

The ever-changing prairie

Interest in native landscaping - which here in the Midwest often means prairie plants - has been growing in recent years. Kurtz sells to homeowners, farmers, county conservation boards, and businesses. Pella Corp., a large window and door manufacturer, recently planted 10 acres at a plant in Story City, Iowa, with his seed.

The one thing Kurtz asks for from his customers is patience.

The first year after planting, just three species - usually saw-toothed sunflower, rigid goldenrod, and gray-headed coneflowers - may come up. Grasses typically don't appear until the fourth year, filling in the empty spaces between the flowers.

Getting gardeners and biologists to accept the prairie's ever-shifting nature can sometimes be tricky. "People want to use specific seeds, they want to have control," Kurtz says. "But what you have Year 3 is not what you're going to have Year 4."

Even after four years, the amount of time Kurtz says it takes for a prairie to really get started, the composition will change from year to year. This year, the tick trefoil was particularly dramatic. "The whole hillside turned pink," he remembers, a note of awe in his voice. Tall, yellow compass plant blooms made it even more dramatic.

And last year, at a local virgin prairie that Kurtz also harvests, he found 100,000 blazing stars, something he hadn't seen in 12 years of working there.

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