Create a natural meadow in your own backyard with these expert tips on planting a prairie garden.
By Sarah F. Ehrhardt, Pewaukee, Wisconsin
The word “prairie” often calls up images of sunbonnets and covered wagons—the stuff of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Maybe that’s because these once-expansive areas of grasses and wildflowers are so rare now. About 90 percent of all prairies in the United States have been lost to farming, development and other land use—endangering butterflies, songbirds and other wildlife that rely on prairies for food and shelter.
But by restoring part of your yard to natural prairie, you don’t just help the environment. It’s a budget-friendly option, too. That’s because the native plants found in prairies have adapted to natural soil and the local climate. Deep root systems allow them to thrive even in poor soils. They require no fertilizer or watering. A settled prairie rarely needs mowing, and the wildflowers help prevent weed invasion.
The cost to restore an area of prairie is often less than what you’d spend annually to mow and maintain a manicured lawn. Those same root systems—5 to 15 feet deep—serve as a natural superfilter that helps to improve soil, water and even air quality. So much action takes place below ground that prairies are sometimes called upside-down forests.
Planting a prairie doesn’t mean sacrificing above-ground beauty. With so many species of plants to choose from, you can have visual interest from spring to fall. A local landscaper or your extension agent can help with specific recommendations for starting a prairie planting in your area. Some of my favorite prairie plants may work for you, too.
The nodding white blossoms of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) are in full glory as the rest of the prairie is greening up. As the weather warms, I look forward to arrival of the soft pink blossoms of bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)—a favorite of honeybees—and the fuzzy purple flowers of blazing star (Liatris spicata), a prairie beauty that’s popular with butterflies. In midsummer, the tall gray-head coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) dapples the prairie with yellow.
Autumn is possibly the most stunning season. New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) offers up vivid purples; frost asters fill the gaps with frothy white. Amid the blooms, prairie grasses wave in hues of blue, purple and red. I particularly like little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), with its gray-green foliage and purple seed heads, and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), which becomes a gorgeous tan-bronze mop and smells like popcorn (really!).
Wildlife attracted to your prairie ecosystem will enhance its beauty. You might see monarch butterflies flit among milkweed blossoms as you hear the soft drone of honeybees collecting nectar and finches twitter while harvesting seed. It’s an idyllic scene, and one that can be yours to enjoy. Plant a prairie, and watch that piece of the past come to life once more.
About the expert: Sarah F. Ehrhardt holds a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and has 25 years of experience in landscape design. She still loves to turn the soil and watch plants grow.