Back to Nature: Your Prairie Garden

Wherever the prairie had been indigenous, it can be restored again - including in your own backyard garden! Prairies can be replicated on large or small scales with great success. And while the Midwest and Great Plains states are famous for the oceans of prairies that once thrived there, prairie plants can be found throughout North America. The following article discusses designing and installing your own prairie garden.

Prairie is rather a general term that conjures of the image of tall grasses that range for miles; one thinks of meadows and "fields of grain." But prairie systems of plants are far more vast and contain great varieties of species from which today's gardener can derive inspiration. From very short-grass gardens to the nearly shoulder-high, the possibilities of returning your landscape back to a more natural-looking state are within reach - though it will take some work.

The resurgence of prairie gardening and landscaping began, perhaps, as an academic endeavor. Several decades ago, science departments of universities and colleges began to experiment with the idea and found much success. Today's gardeners sometimes choose to return to prairie-like conditions because the native grasses, flowers, trees and shrubs are extremely hardy, relatively easy to maintain, and simply beautiful to behold.

First things first: consider your lot. You’re lucky if you can start from hay meadow or existing grassland. True prairie land is almost impossible to find. Nevertheless, so long as you have a front yard or a back yard, you can garden with prairie plants. Beginners should think about starting small. If you have an area in your yard - a slope perhaps - that is difficult to mow, this would be a great area to introduce some prairie plants.

Before choosing plants, visit some prairie areas near your home to get an idea about the plants that thrive there; usually they’ll be safe bets for you so long as you take lowland or highland conditions into account (lowland prairies tend to collect water so you may need a thirsty variety of plants, depending on the amount of rainfall your area gets). Also, while there are many types of lands that support prairies, for the purposes of this article, we will focus on three very general types.

Wet prairies, especially in spring, see delighting wildlife like migrating birds. A great ground cover for a shortgrass wet prairie is field horsetail, but there are many other worthy choices. Naturally, other species fall in harmony with your main grass like various sedges, taller grasses and wildflowers. Swamp milkweed is a great species for shortgrass prairies as well.

The conditions for tallgrass prairies usually range somewhere in the middle of not-too-wet and not-too-dry. You’ll find many of these prairies on rolling lands. Praire dropseed is a dominant species for these types of prairie landscapes; its leaves are narrow and sweeping so when coupling it with other plants, you may consider a broader-leafed species for some contrast.

Upland-type prairies are always dry; this is the type of prairie land that once dominated the Great Plains. Such prairies are characterized by short grasses that seldom grow beyond the height of your knee. Prairie dropseed is also a good choice for dry conditions as is little bluestem. Pair either of these with Indian paintbrush or prairie verbena for a natural setting. But no matter what type of prairie land you work with, you will need to research for the individual plants you select. Ask yourself if they grow in the type of prairie you are designing, how they need to be planted, how far spaced apart, how fast they germinate, and so forth.

Your prairie garden should ideally contain these elements: a soil layer, a ground cover, short and tall grasses, sedges, plants, herbs and wildflowers. This, of course, will be up to the gardener or landscaper to decide. Consider a few helpers as well; prairies have always relied on various creatures to help along. Burrowing creatures like gophers and prairie dogs are indigenous to prairie environments. Prairies are also home to many species of insects like butterflies, beetles, bees and ants. Many birds can be beneficial for prairies. It may be wise to cultivate plants that attract bluebirds, shrikes, meadowlarks and savannah sparrows.

Other considerations to make before planting a prairie garden include preparing a seed bed, and tilling flat lands. Pastures and steep slopes and best left untilled, but you’ll want to do a bit of homework on the subject of tilling, as well as when and when not to use herbicides. You may also need to consider how you might enrich the soil if it is necessary for your area. Then, you need to consider the plant species and whether you’ll use seeds or transplants. Finally, you must consider maintenance. Any garden might be high or low maintenance. Depending on where you fit in as a gardener, you’ll need to choose plants that harmonize with your gardening lifestyle.

Before planting, again, make sure the species is suited to your area's conditions. Wonderful prairie grasses and sedges include: Little Bluestem, Sideoats Grama, Texas Wintergrass, Indian Ricegrass, Needle-and-Thread, Prairie Dropseed, Indiangrass, Western Wheatgrass, Canada Wildrye, Switchgrass, Prairie Sedge and Rough Rushgrass. There are many more excellent choices to consider.

Great flowering prairie plants include: Silvery Lupine, Indian Breadroot, White Wild Indigo, Sweetbroom, Grasspink, Large Yellow Ladyslipper, Marbleseed, Blanketflower, Western Red Lily, Wild Blue Flax, Wild Hyacinth, Prairie Celestial, Harebells, Eastern Shooting Star, Pink Evening Primrose, Glade Mallow, Wild Strawberry, Yarrow, Prairie Smoke, Northern Bedstraw, Scarlet Paintbrush, Thimbleweed, Tall Meadowrue, and many, many more.

No matter what prairie plants you choose to grow, you’ll be creating a landscape of historical and environmental significance. Of course, you’ll also have a lovely bit of scenery to enjoy too.

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