Prairies once dominated the Midwest landscape from Canada to Texas and from the Rocky Mountains to Indiana. A prairie is comprised of mainly grasses with some flowering plants (forbs) and a few small shrubs, but few to no trees. There are three categories of prairies depending on soil moisture: xeric (dry), mesic (medium), and hydric (wet). Today, there is increased interest in establishing prairie gardens in urban areas. Conventional turf requires labor, does not provide habitat, and has high environmental costs. Prairie gardens are ecosystems that provide shelter for a wide variety of insects and mammals and reduce the environmental impact. During the initial stages, they do require an investment in labor. Once established maintenance time is less, but not nonexistent.
The first step in establishing a prairie garden is to select an open space with full sun. If converting turf, be sure to first consider how much lawn will be needed for family recreation and other activities. In addition, check with municipalities and home owner associations regarding weed ordinances and other restrictions. Neighbors might also have an opinion about what appears to be a weed patch going in next door and education prior to planting can go a long way in calming concerns.
Prairie gardens can be a fire hazard in dry weather. Therefore, keep them a safe distance from any dwelling. At least twenty feet of turf between the garden and combustible items will provide a suitable barrier.
Site preparation is an extremely important and can be the difference between success and failure. It is vital to remove all grasses and weeds in the plot before planting. Take the time to carefully remove all visible vegetation as well as the seeds not visible in the soil. If possible, take an entire year to complete the process.
To begin: either physically remove the sod and vegetation; smother it with plastic, paper, or compost; or kill it chemically (following all label directions carefully). Cultivate deeply, then cultivation shallowly every few weeks for a growing season to deplete the seed reserves.
Next, select plants for the specific area based on soil conditions. (A soil test when the process started will be a great help.) A prairie garden can be started from either seeds or plants. Seeds are less expensive, but will take 2 to 5 years to reach mature size, and are hard to identify as seedlings, making weeding a challenge. Plants are more expensive, but will establish more quickly and give greater control over plant placement.
Steer clear of the “wildflower mixes” in a can. These contain non-native varieties, many of which are aggressive. Instead choose native plants that attract pollinators. Be sure to include some grasses that will provide variety as well as nesting areas for wildlife. Choose a range of sizes, textures, and colors. Strive to have at least three species in bloom at any given time. Diverse plantings will attract more wildlife.
Once the bed is established and the plants are selected, planting can commence. After frost and before the heat of the summer is an ideal time. If using seeds, make sure to get good soil contact to get a good germination rate. Many of the seeds are very small and can be mixed with a filler such as sand or compost to make spreading them easier. Cover with a light mulch of organic material such as straw. Supplemental watering should not be necessary unless drought conditions prevail. Fertilizer is also not necessary as the prairie plants don’t require it, but it will make the weeds prosper.
The biggest task the first several years is weed control. In small areas, hand weeding is most effective. If identifying seedlings is a problem, wait a week, look again to try and identify them.
For larger areas, controlled burns (where permitted) in early spring is the best method after the third year of planting. Mowing 3 to 4 times the first year with the deck set at 4 to 8 inches is a good substitute for burning. Remove the clipping to expose plant crowns to regrowth. In all cases, do not let the weeds go to seed. Mow or burn annually from the 3rd to 6th year. Subsequently, it is necessary only every 2 to 3 years.
Patience is a virtue and that is never more true than when working with prairie gardens. It takes considerable work initially, 3 to 5 years to establish, but the end result will be a beautiful and environmentally friendly ecosystem.
Certified Master Gardener