The Way to Get Your Own Prairie On

I must admit the first time I saw a prairie wasn’t before the spring of 2007, when my wife and I were looking for a wedding reception venue. We finished up at Spring Creek Prairie, a never-plowed 800-acre remnant 20 minutes south of our city. I am unsure how I heard of it but I know that ever since that time, the prairie has had a special spot in the lives of my wife and I, especially as we think about buying some acreage and starting prairie-inspired companies.

Here in town you will find plans to make a 7-mile prairie road from a bison park near our home down to Spring Creek. Just 1 percent of the tall-grass prairie remains, I wonder just how my garden might be an extended part of this trail — and what my small suburban lot means in a world of wildlife and individuals where gardens have become refuges for us all.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

It’s difficult to imagine just how big the prairie used to be in the North American Great Plains and Midwest — covering nearly 50 percent of the U.S. — and just how quickly it disappeared over the span of a hundred decades or so. When I visit refuges in Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa, I feel something I never feel elsewhere — that distance to the horizon that comforts me as the grass sways like waves, the birds leaping through folds of bluestem, insects rebounding from crazy bloom to crazy bloom. I need some of that in my own landscape. I need prairie back, and maybe if I am lucky I will observe the birds and insects come home, too.

Feldman Architecture, Inc..

In case you have a few acres that are full of weeds, the easiest way to prep for a prairie is to till the soil to expose the roots to air or broadcast the area with something like Roundup. I know that it’s not ideal to utilize the latter, but I wonder whether the ends justifies the means — you need a fresh slate to disperse a prairie seed mix, and that mix must be spread onto bare soil. A lot of those seeds also need a period of cold, wet winter weather to germinate in late spring, which is why a late-fall planting (after a couple pops) is perfect.

Here is a detailed prairie establishment guide by Prairie Nursery — by prairie prep to seeding, establishment and upkeep.

Jocelyn H. Chilvers

OK, you do not have a couple acres; maybe you have a bigger suburban lot. You are able to turn that into prairie too, with seed combinations, which would be the most economical method to get a diverse planting — although it is going to take a few years to establish a prairie, and you are going to have to spot check for weeds before the natives crowd them out. After that the plants will probably be quite low maintenance, requiring just an early-spring mowing (or a burning if you can do it safely).

Frequently spaces under trees are bare, and grass can not grow, but you will find shade-loving wildflowers and grasses on the market — two of my favorite places to find those plants would be the searchable database at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the internet shop at Prairie Moon Nursery.

Gardens from Gabriel, Inc..

And now some of you’re thinking, “Hey, I don’t have some acreage or even a suburban lot, and all I need is a low-maintenance some thing on a problem area that gets lots of sunlight and dries out frequently.”

Maybe you are able to mass some sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) or prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Those are two of my favourite prairie shortgrass plants. If you prefer blooms that are taller, think about some racks of bluestem (Andropogon spp) orIndian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) — you might even possess the taller grasses from the back and the shorter ones up alongside mimic a more traditional garden layout. Toss in some coneflowers, blue lavender or liatris (Liatris aspera) for some pops of flowering color from early summer to midautumn, and you’ve started cooking up a prairie.

If you have a shadier place, research native sedges — they look like grasses but are not as tall.

D-CRAIN Design and Construction

You can even get really minimalist if you want. Inside this picture various plants are dispersed almost like they’d be in the arid high plains crazy — a specimen here, a drift there. Designing a prairie garden can spur some trendy imagination, and I strongly think any aesthetic can be achieved using just prairie grasses and wildflowers.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Here’s a midfall scene from my own garden. Front is a liatris gone to seed, behind it’s a ‘Purple Dome’ New England aster cultivar, and further back is a stand of tall Indian grass. This layout is really a bridge between the formal and informal look I believe prairie plants lend themselves to quite well.

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Here is another view from a very different part of my backyard, at USDA zone 5 (find your zone). Above is a stand of gray-headed coneflower, purple coneflower, long-headed coneflower and yarrow. Sprinkled in you will find some zizia, little bluestem, liatris, milkweed and a plethora of other prairie plants at a 40-square-foot mattress of running colour from May to October.

Christopher Yates Landscape Architecture

If you merely need a lawn replacement, then a seeding of buffalo grass or even blue grama works good for a 6- to 8-inch insure you can also mow once in a while if you prefer (but consider allowing it to grow to form a natural, wavy habit). Prairies in our landscapes do not have to be tall or complex or cluttered.

Great grasses for a new lawn

Kathleen Shaeffer Design, Exterior Spaces

If you live in a cooler climate or at higher elevation, you are able to stretch the rules a bit and allow red fescue grow and make undulating waves 4 to 6 inches tall. A couple well-placed trees from the grass make a playground- or prairie-like feel and are extremely low maintenance.

Mark English Architects, AIA

Why not give some baskets the prairie look? You might seed the containers, but buying some nursery plants may be most suitable for you, so you get a quicker bang for your dollar.

Another planting proposal: Have pleasure and layout one container with some little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) underplanted with purple prairie clover or stunt blazing star (Liatris cylindracea). You may need to put the container into the garage or shed for winter so that the roots do not freeze or shut out, especially if you live in zone 5 or even a cooler climate.

There was all kinds of prairies from the U.S.: inland, lowland, sand and even some on the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

There are prairie plants for virtually any type of environment, from wet to dry. You can go all out having a diverse seed mix, make traditional beds or get modern with just blossoms. Match the layout to your home and maybe pick up Catherine Zimmerman’s publication on meadow gardening, Urban and Suburban Meadows.

Prairie plants are low maintenance when correctly sited, and once established feed all kinds of beneficial pollinating insects, enhance soil fertility and revive a little bit of what was formerly here for lots of species that still rely on native prairie plant communities.

Every small garden landscape, when connected, becomes a prairie corridor for miracle and for life you maybe didn’t know was there till you welcomed it back home.

More: 3 Ways Native Plants Create Gardening So Much Better

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