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Prairie Vs. Meadow, Which One Works In Your Landscape?

Ilona Erwin

They have similarities, but are obviously different. What makes the vital divide between the two, and what if we would like to plant one, or the facsimile of one in our garden?

First, The Provenance

Prairies

Prairies are grasslands, complete environments of not only grasses, but forbs and animal life.

Meadows

Meadows are open areas that are usually the result of ancient animal husbandry farming practices. A lawn can become a meadow, a field can become a meadow, with grasses and wildflowers dominant.

Meadows were pastures that were filled with wildflowers, and had the occasional tree or two; they were maintained by scything.

Characteristics In Common

meadow of intermingled flowers

Meadow of intermingled flowers |
Photo by Dave Catchpole

What do both landscapes have in common? Their naturalistic look, harking back to a wild habitat of grassy places. Filled with diverse plants that compete for light and moisture, but in harmony with each other in ways that developed over long horizons of time.

This is achieved in a garden through “intermingling” the plants. Both types of gardens, whether based upon prairie or meadow environs, can have a “weedy” look, unless a few design elements are used.

Both are open areas with light requirements of plenty of sun.

Intermingled Design Elements

  • Mindful use of good foliage
  • Repetition of some dominant flowers
  • Spikes and tall plants that give vertical interest within the melange of flowers and grasses
  • The mown path for contrast

Even an area with little distinction between plants, which makes it difficult to see as a garden, benefits from the contrast of a mown path. It satisfies the eye’s need for some focus.

The Contrasts

Meadows And Their Plants

While there are climate differences within both prairie and meadow which ranges from wet to dry, the meadow is more often a place with moisture. The bright flowers of an English meadow, of poppies and bachelor buttons with clovers, scabious, and Ox-eye Daisies are not US natives, but grow well here.

IMG_1677

In Europe, a meadow was a field bounded by enclosure, tended by farmers for their livestock. Over time, it became a complex and stable ecosystem. There are both dry and wet meadows. Some of our best loved romantic flowers are found in a wet meadow: Marsh Marigolds, Lady’s Smock, Ragged Robin, Marsh Bedstraw, Bugleweed and Forget-me-nots intermingled with grass and rushes.

The look of this type of meadow is more in keeping with most people’s view of a cultivated place that we call a garden. It is an interim growth within woodlands, often an outcome of the farmers mowing of his fields. Grazed during the growing seasons and cut for hay in late summer.

Vast Sea Of Prairie

The prairie is a mature climax after dry conditions and fire created a clear expanse of land for these grasslands to thrive. Black-eyed Susans and other Rudbeckia plants, Echinacea, Liatris, and many other plants that are tough and tolerant grow well together and dot a prairie brimming with waves of grass.

Its look is more subtle than the meadows of Europe, and unlikely to be replicated in the garden. What we can expect is that the use of the plants native to this region will be water conserving and grow well in challenging situations.

My personal opinion is that the New American style pioneered by such landscape innovators as Piet Oudolf best places these plants in our gardens. Often using the drift or block method of growing plants in a design that gives the feeling of expanse, it is now widely used in public gardens.

NaturGestalten (Piet Oudolf) - Maximilianpark - Hamm {september 2014}

A succession of seasonal interest works very well with this style of planting.

Installing A Naturalistic Garden

Incorporating forbs and grasses that will thrive in your conditions is important. Hardiness, moisture requirements, and soil that supports the plantings will determine the overall success and sustainability of this kind of garden. One of its features should be less maintenance.

Many wildflower mixes are formulated for specific regions.

It is lower maintenance, but in the early seasons especially, needs some attention to make sure weedy invaders don’t take over. Mowing or burning at the right time, some attention to weed removal… these will be necessary tasks.

Mow the meadow is in very early spring, before new growth emerges.

Do you have clay soil and a woodland meadow is desirable? Try to establish Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) and New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae). Loamy and not so well drained? Flowers from the tall grass prairie, Rattlesnake master, (Eryngium yuccifolium), and Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) are moisture loving. Pearly-everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) grows well on drier soils.

The key is to find the characteristics of your garden and match the plants to its conditions.

General Steps For Both Meadows and Prairie

  • Choose plants that grow well together
  • Plantings that are well adapted to their environment
  • Major in perennials rather than annuals
  • Include proper grasses

Then follow this checklist of tasks:

  • Clear weeds: turn up soil to expose weedseed, allow to germinates, destroy.
  • First few years mow high at intervals to allow sunlight to reach establishing perennial plants.
  • Don’t fertilize, it only encourages the weeds.
  • Weeding is necessary until desired plants and grasses are established.
  • Seed with regional mix, add individual plantings that are wanted, aim for a diverse and large number of species.

The Golden Rule Of Weeding

“One year’s seed is seven years weed”

Don’t allow undesirables to go to seed.

Prairie Or Meadow?

It will largely depend on the area you wish to landscape. If you have a small, suburban Cape Cod house and yard, bringing a meadow look to the front yard would be in keeping with both the look of the house and the neighborhood.

If you have a bigger landscape and a contemporary style home, try the prairie plants, especially with what Piet Oudolf calls the “dream landscape” look.

As in all landscape design be aware of the factors that will make it great: combining architecture style with land conditions and the general genius loci of the place.

More about Prairies (including plants and grasses)
Seed and the Sower 02

Seeding vs. Transplants

Grow From Seed

It is always more economical to grow from seed when a large area needs to be covered.

Some of the pros for using this method.

  • Economical
  • Quickly fill space
  • Wide variety of plants
  • Preparation and planting:one time

Some of the cons:

  • less control over planting design
  • longer for plants to reach mature size: may take three seasons to reach blooming size.
  • weeds gets foothold more easily

Planting Tips

  • Plant in spring
  • Mulch with 3 to 4 inches of straw
  • Watering is important for seedlings

Container Grown Plants

Ongoing labor is needed to create enough plants to fill a large space (or very large budget), but the effect of larger plants and their ability to hold their own while getting established is greater than with tiny seedlings. Control over the design when planting the perennials you choose.

Pros for this method:

  • Strong plants fill space, less weeding
  • Design control of color and form
  • Quicker effect

Cons of container grown plants:

  • Some natives are difficult to grow from transplants
  • Expense
  • Labor in making divisions over time
Planting Tips

  • Mow high about 4x in the first season to give perennials light.
  • Keep after the weeds.
  • Water regularly until plants are established

Perhaps a hybrid of the two methods would work the best. With preparation of the site for seeding, weed are brought under control and a large number of plants are begun. Then as weeding progresses, add perennial potted plants to spaces where weeds were removed, or where the design needs taller plants or certain color.

Are There Problems With Wild Gardens?

Neighbors or Homeowner Associations may not be happy with this choice of yard management and design. If that is likely, an ambassador’s approach may be  useful. Share some plans and give assurance.

Keep the design tidy with edgings and verges that blend with the surroundings, a mown space and a tighter design.

Some methods of maintenance may not be possible for your area. Burning is prohibited in many places, or inadvisable during droughts or certain seasons. Adjust your garden plans to community standards of water conservation and pest control.

For most people, a well maintained space that looks cared for, if wild is appreciated. The idea of landscaping beauty is expanding and a beautiful planted space with either the prairie or the meadow features helps to cultivate that broader view.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.