Few of us will ever see a true prairie like the pioneers of old had seen, but we can bring the plantings and the feeling of them into our own prairie garden. The hardy plants and descriptions of how they grew together in that vast sea of grasslands we call “The Great Plains” are still available to us.
As an additional asset for modern landscapers is the fact that many of these natives are ideal for the challenging conditions of drought. A prairie garden is the modern answer for water restrictions and easy care.
Prairies are rare now, but some enthusiasts believe you can have a little piece of the prairie in even the smallest of yards. I am inclined to agree. To better understand the benefits and challenges of including this style into our properties, digging into the history of the original state of a prairie environment helps highlight bringing together your own.
How did the original settlers see the native prairies?
In her excellent book on the subject of “Gardening with Prairie Plants” , Sally Wasowski not only makes a strong case for creating prairie landscapes in suburban, or even urban areas, she alsoÂ illustrates her statement that “A prairie landscape can also be eye-poppingly gorgeous!“.
Using plans, photos, and successful examples of many such gardens it becomes easy to see how to incorporate this very American look into the modern landscape.
It Isn’t an Instant Garden
The estimated time for creating an established garden of this type is three or more years. While that may be true when sowing seed, many expert sources of advice recommend starting with plants rather than seeds to speed up the process.
What do conservationists think?
What do conservationists think now? The answers might vary- the following video conversation and some quotes from experts shed light on creating yards in “the prairie spirit”.
“Why plant prairie grass as opposed to the typical non-native cool-season grass such as bluegrass,orchard, and brome grass? First, native grassland wildlife species are better adapted to living in a mixture of native grasses and flowers. Second, those same grasses and flowers are better adapted to the soils, weather, and other biological and physical conditions found in Ohio. Third, to plant prairie is to restore a priceless part of Ohio’s natural history” –ODNR
Historical Views of the Original Prairie Sights
“The early settlers of west-central Ohio found larger prairie openings in the forest; islands of grassland scattered across a dozen or more counties. These small prairies, dominated by big bluestem, Indian grass, and little bluestem, were outliers of the vast prairies farther west.” (-J. E. Weaver 1954, a man passionate about prairies.)
Ohio’s Climate Change
It is believed that Ohio’s climate was once drier, and that as it became more humid the woodland crept in from the east to create islands of prairie. ( OSU Prairie Center)
The prairie is ever-changing. Fifteen days ago the Yellow Coneflower was dominant, with the Prairie Bush-clover supplying low staccato dots of reddish purple. In July your eye was struck by magenta islands of Purple Coneflower, pink islands of Prairie Phlox, the deep orange of the Butterfly-weed, and rare daubs of the red of lilies. –Cook County Nature Bulletin No. 30
– Eliza Steele, Summer Journey in the West (1840)
“mere open space, a lack of trees, and vegetation that doesn’t rise above the height of a man’s head do not make a prairie ” prairie refers to a natural community which, like a giant organism, is composed of a multitude, a sum total of its parts. It is a complex ecosystem of grasses, flowering annual and perennial plants, shrubs, a few trees, and a variety of wildlife, from the macro-vertebrate to the microcosmic. –Mary Taylor Young, Land of Grass and Sky: A Naturalist’s Prairie Journey
Trees often associated with prairie lands in my area of Ohio are the Burr Oaks.
Make Your Own Prairie Garden
Prairie Soil Types
What sort of soil do you have, xeric, mesic, or hydric?
- Mesic [meaning “middle”] are soils with medium moisture (water).
- Very dry conditions are “xeric” (think of the term “xeriscape”)
- very wet conditions are called hydric soils
My own soils were originally “hydric”, but the farming practices of tiling and deep drainage ditches have modified those conditions. Perhaps your soil conditions have been similarly changed by the hand of man
“A prairie is not an old patch of ground that has been left to grow.” -from OPA FAQS
How can you create something of the Prairie ecosystem in your own garden plot?
Once you have targeted the type of soil you have, you can begin planning on the types of plants to populate your new prairie. Prepare the soil by clearing out existing plants and grasses. Create a seedbed much like you would for annuals or a vegetable garden. I would till it a few times over a season. I’ve had wild petunia and other such plants show up when the soil was turned up and disturbed.
Steps For Prairie Garden Planting
- After the place is prepared for them,
- Plant the little plants or sow your seeds during the spring designated times,
- You will need to weed well during the first season or so.
- Learn to burn it in a controlled, safe way.
Directions on burning a prairie, here.
A quote from that document: “Young prairie plantings are sometimes infested with cool season grasses and may be too green to burn at the appropriate time in mid-spring. The prairie grasses that provide the main fuel for the fire often do not reach full development until the fourth growing season (We generally recommend that your prairie be burned for the first time in the spring of the third growing season). The combination of plentiful green cool season weeds plus a dearth of dry prairie grass fuel can lead to a prairie that simply won’t burn despite one’s best efforts”
“Even in its fullest glory, a prairie is a thing of subtle beauty; a prairie restoration in progress is even plainer.”
Landscape Design Tip
Remember the tip to plant in “drifts of plants”? Curvy clouds of plants tendrils weaving in amongst larger taller plants all create a more natural look to the cultivated garden. Your prairie is still a gardened place.
Home Prairie Maintenance Tip
“By the third growing season, the annual maintenance needed for most prairie gardens is the removal of last year’s dead stems and leaves. In early spring, the garden should be either raked off or mowed down with a lawn mower. Re-sprouting prairie plants need warm soils and direct sunshine. Removing the previous year’s stems and leaves will help new growth.” -Maintenance is described in the PDF from Ohio’s Dept. of Natural Resources:
That is a lot less work than most gardens require, but it maintains the quality of the plants to crowd out invasive weeds.
Plants and Facts for a Prairie Garden
A prairie garden is located in full sun
“Forbs” are the herbaceous plants that grow in a prairie. They account for 60% of the species present in the prairie.
Royal Catchfly [Silene regia] is 2-3′ tall, with red blooms. Grows in full or part sun and moist to slightly dry soil.
Common Milkweed [Asclepias syriaca] is a well known weed plant that supports the Monarch butterfly; its showier cousin is the Butterfly plant,[Asclepias tuberosa] Height: 1-2 feet.
Tall Tickseed [Coreopsis tripteris] Height: 4-8 feet is yellow and supports wildlife.
[Oenothera fruticosa] Evening Primrose is a favorite that has yellow blooms in late spring. Height: 4-8 feet
[Rudbeckia hirta] Blackeyed Susans are a must. You have to have some. Height: 16-24 inches tall
Whorled Rosinweed [Silphium trifoliatum] blooms yellow in September. Showy, non-invasive. Height: 4-6 feet.
Ohio Spiderwort [Tradescantia ohiensis] blue flowers in May-June, Height: 2′-3′.
Asters Novae-anglae and Symphyotrichum oolentangiense, the blue aster for fall color.
How to Arrange Plantings
To get an idea of how these plantings work together in the ecosystem of a prairie, looking at a few examples and gardening a few trivia facts can shed some light on this very complex subject. consider some of the following plants and their habits:
Prairie crocus [Pasque flower or Pulsatilla patens] seems to be generally limited to unbroken prairie. It forms a partnership with fungi in the soil, exchanging nutrients. These fungi are important for its success in dry prairie soils. Occasional fires seem to greatly improve growing conditions for prairie crocus, by boosting the supply of nutrients and sunlight when dry grass cover is removed. Two years after a fire, prairie crocuses bloom in much greater abundance. -Plant watch
That description of the Pasque flower tells you a few things about prairies:
- They are a complex ecosystem
- They thrive in certain conditions which eliminate competition from trees and woody shrubs
- Maintained by burning periodically in a controlled way
- A prairie garden is a sunny garden.
Plant Essentials for a Prairie Garden
There are a myriad of plant choices, but these should get you a respectable looking garden in the beginning, along with the grasses that are best for your soils.
– Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
– Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
– Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
– Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginianum)
– Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
– False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
– Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
– Hairy sunflower (Helianthus mollis)
– Prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
– Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera)
– Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris)
– Virginia mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum
– Whorled rosinweed (Silphium trifoliatum)
– Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
-plants recommended by the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources
These are the gardens of the Desert, these
The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,
For which the speech of England has no name —
The Prairies. I behold them for the first,
And my heart swells, while the dilated sight
Takes in the encircling vastness. Lo! they stretch,
In airy undulations, far away,
As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell,
Stood still, with an his rounded billows fixed,
And motionless forever. — Motionless? —
No — they are all unchained again.
-William Cullen Bryant
“Grasslands,which include steppes, meadows, heaths, and pampas are found on every continent except Antarctica, but the prairie is unique to North America. The Great Plains ecosystem characterized by long, hot summers and cold, dry winters is home to a unique plant community bereft of trees and dominated by magnificent grasses, with a smattering of colorful forbs.” ~ Prairie-Style Gardens: Capturing the Essence of the American Prairie Wherever You Live
- Ohio Prairies
- PDF Download : Making a Prairie Garden
- Ohio Prairie Association
- Butterflies of the Prairie
- Bluestem Farm, useful plant lists and info
- Morning Sky Native Plants
- Burr Oaks
- Garden botany:Central Prairies and Plains
- COSI native prairie
- Pioneer Settlement of the prairies
- Michigan Oak Openings
- Ohio Prairie Map
- Gardening with Prairie Plants: How to Create Beautiful Native Landscapes – my favorite book on the subject
I do personally have a prairie garden now, since the idea has intrigued me, especially after reading Sally Waskowski’s book. I have gravitated more and more to the plants that I now know are native to this place, because they thrive here. In desiring lower maintenance in the long run, it is proving to be a good move to have some prairie spaces in my garden.
update: I did, indeed, put in a “prairie patch” in my front yard. It is still work in progress, but I am happy with the effect which harmonizes well with my flat rural landscape. I have invaders of introduced plants and have stands of non-native grasses, so it is more a “prairie look”, than an actual prairie. The rabbits don’t mind the qualification, though.
I created a new garden to mimic a patch of prairie, using the guide of the information gathered here and from reading Waskowski’s book. I am very enthused about it.