Prairie Restoration

Ron Bowen of Prairie Restoration
Photo by Caitlin Abrams

Ron Bowen knew the end was coming. He knew it when he was in grade school. He knew it when the subdivisions came in.

Bowen, 67, was born in St. Paul. He spent his youngest years near the bluffs at the south end of the High Bridge. When he was 6, his parents bought a farmhouse on the edge of West St. Paul. They moved out there and he fell in love with the stream, the woods, the scrubby plants, and the toads hopping along fencerows. Then every bit of land except the dirt around Bowen’s own house was sold to subdivide for new housing.

“Within three or five years everything I had loved, the way a boy loves running around the woods and streams, it was all gone,” he says. “The stream got put underground in a culvert. The woods were gone. It was so stark. Even as a boy I thought, ‘If this is going on everywhere, we are going to have some serious problems down the road. This is not well thought out.’”

And now, in 2014, monarch butterflies are so few that many doubt they will make their great migration from Mexico to Minnesota, and other points north, ever again. It’s about pesticide agriculture, yes, but also about vanishing prairies. Since 2008, enough acres of prairie and wetland to equal the size of Indiana have been plowed up and converted to farmland—and 39 percent of that in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Why? Because of the high price of corn driven by ethanol and the high price of soybeans driven by China. It’s happening so fast that a lot of Minnesotans don’t even know it’s happening. But Bowen knew. And he knew he had to do something about it.

“I knew from fifth, maybe sixth, grade that I was going to be a forester and that I was going to do whatever I could in my life to find a different way to do this,” he says. By this, he means finding a way for people to coexist with wildness, instead of the existence of humans meaning the nonexistence of everything else.

He went to the University of Minnesota to study forestry, and in a lucky break after graduation he became a gardener for Bruce Dayton. Dayton is the former head of Dayton-Hudson Corporation (now Target), the man who launched the B. Dalton Bookseller chain, and an important trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. But Dayton also loves native plants, an appreciation passed on to him by his mother, Grace. In 1968 Dayton placed an ad in The Minnesota Daily seeking a gardener for his estate near Lake Minnetonka. Bowen got the job, moved to the estate, and started his first native plant restoration.

Bowen studied native plants, rescued them from development-destined land, and figured out how to propagate them. He restored the area that is now the Wood-Rill Scientific and Natural Area, which Dayton donated to the state. “My reputation for propagating prairie plants started to get around,” Bowen says. “I had a lot of people knocking on my door. Hennepin Parks approached me to consult for them.” With Dayton’s support, Bowen gradually went out on his own and founded the country’s first grassland- and wetland-restoration company, Prairie Restorations in Princeton, Minnesota.

Today the company has retail stores in Scandia and Princeton, and it works on native plant restorations from Martha’s Vineyard to the Dakotas. Bowen has had a hand in re-establishing thousands of prairies and wetlands. But that’s nowhere near enough for him, because he figures the United States once held 18 million acres of prairie, and now it’s down to fewer than 200,000 acres.

He has a plan to fix that. This spring he is introducing a program he calls “Sowing It Back Together.” He’s selling “sowing” kits that include not mere individual plants, but plant communities, because plants have not evolved in single nursery pots, they have evolved in community together—one gives shade that another needs, one sends roots deep, another roots shallowly, and they bloom in succession, not competing for the same pollinators but blooming in sequence in a dance that supports the bugs that support them.

Bowen’s pollinator garden kits will have 27 species to attract, feed, and help big beautiful butterflies but also the teensy glittery metallic-green sweat bees most of us haven’t even learned to see. His goal is to get all of us to do our little part to restore the prairie by dedicating 25 percent of our land—our tiny yards or our big ones, our church landscapes and school grounds—to native plants.

“If this takes off in the five-state region, in 10 years we could establish 500,000 acres of native plant communities,” says Bowen, his eyes sparking with excitement. “My whole life has led up to this moment. This is the first time we have everything we actually need to make this happen.”