By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Creating a prairie style garden is an excellent alternative to a traditional lawn or landscaping scheme. Plants for prairie gardens may be annuals or perennials and span flowering or grassy types. Caring for prairie gardens is a low maintenance project, where most simply self-seed annually or arise anew from stolons or roots.
The first step to this low-maintenance plot is to come up with a prairie garden plan. Prairie garden design requires you to choose the plants that you want in the space. Make your own prairie garden plan and select seeds that are beneficial to wildlife and will not become nuisance plants. Give some consideration regarding invasive species, as many plants included in prairie garden mixes may spread and take over the space.
You also have to remove any competing plants, such as sod, and till the soil. You can dig out these plants or lay black plastic over the area for two months. This is called solarization and will kill off the under-laying seeds and sod.
Some plants for the prairie garden are best suited for dry, gravelly soil while others need a richer, loamy site. Know your plot composition so you can choose the best selections. The best bets are native plants that would spring up naturally. These require less care and provide food for wild birds and animals.
A selection of perennial plants might include:
Mix in some native grasses for contrast and cover for animals. Indian grass, switchgrass and bluestem varieties will come up season after season. Introduce variety when creating a prairie style garden and you will have the most natural results.
The most economical way to start the garden is by seed, but you can intersperse potted plants to get a jump-start on the meadow. Seeds may take up to two years to fill in and produce a thick, full site.
Sow seeds after frost when spring rains will help keep them hydrated. Keep the seedlings wet and maintain vigilance for weeds during the gardens establishment. Apply light mulch after sowing seeds to protect them from birds and wind as they germinate.
The beauty of a natural meadow is its ease of care. Caring for prairie gardens requires only moderate watering once established.
Prairie gardens that dry out may catch fire in certain areas. For this reason, it is a good idea to provide a buffer of soil or sod between buildings and your home.
Plants with a capacity for invasiveness need to have the seed heads removed at the end of the season. Leave the seed heads on the remaining plants as food for animals and to allow them to self-sow.
At the end of the season, mow the spent plants to the ground and leave the cuttings as mulch. The garden will resprout in spring and provide a fuller more vibrant space with every successive year.
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True prairies in untamed western landscapes are largely populated by native, drought-tolerant grasses. Meadows, more common in the East, look similar but include a greater number of flowering perennials. Some native plants cross over between the two landscapes these tend to be sun-loving, rugged, and low-maintenance. Here, a group of plants that stand out from the pack.
Photo by Doreen Wynja/Monrovia
(Bouteloua gracilis 'Blonde Ambition')
This plant's common name comes from the fluffy flowers that grow nearly horizontal on the end of the grass stalks. The tan "eyebrows" float above powdery green foliage in this compact variety. Grows up to 30 inches high and 18 inches wide in Zones 3 to 10.
Photo by Gail Jankus/Getty Images
(Amsonia tabernaemontana 'Blue Ice')
Springtime is no time to get the blues—unless it's the clear blue flowers of this pollinator favorite. Easy to grow in sun to part shade, the foliage on 'Blue Ice' turns a brilliant gold in fall. Grows up to 18 inches high and wide in Zones 4 to 9.
Photo by Hort Printers/Monrovia
(Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks')
Goldenrod is indispensable in the prairie-style garden, and 'Fireworks' is the best cultivar of them all. Graceful constellations of gold flowers dress up this easy perennial from late summer to fall in full sun. Grows up to 3 feet high and wide in Zones 4 to 8.
Photo by De Agostini Picture Library/Contributor/Getty Images
(Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivanatii 'Goldsturm')
A cheerful summer classic, 'Goldsturm' black-eyed Susan brightens any corner in sun to part shade. This bulletproof beauty is deer-resistant and attracts butterflies. Grows up to 3 feet high and 2 feet wide in Zones 3 to 9.
Photo by Chris Burrows/Getty Images
(Veronicastrum virginicum 'Lavender Towers')
Culver's root is a vision, and 'Lavender Towers' is the plant at its best. Light-purple flower spikes hover above tall stems of symmetrical leaves in summer. While this tough plant is happy in average soil, it thrives in wet meadows, too. Grows up to 5 feet high and 3 feet wide in Zones 3 to 10.
Photo by Ram-Man/Wiki Commons
(Eutrochium dubium 'Little Joe')
A compact cultivar of popular Joe Pye weed, 'Little Joe' blooms with pink billows of fragrant flowers that attract butterflies in summer. The perennial does best in full sun to part shade. Grows up to 4 feet high and 3 feet wide in Zones 3 to 9.
Photo by Flowerphotos/Contributor/Getty Images
(Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus')
This king of purple coneflowers dons bright-pink daisies at knee height in summer. Pollinators adore the flowers, and birds enjoy spent seed heads later in the season. Plant purple coneflower in a sunny spot in spring to give it time to settle in, and give it well-drained soil, as winter wet can be deadly. Grows up to 3 feet high and 18 inches wide in Zones 3 to 8.
Photo by GAP Photos–Richard Bloom/Monrovia
(Panicum virgatum 'Northwind')
This cultivar is one of the best switch grasses to have in a prairie-style garden. Steel-blue columns make fabulous vertical accents, especially when topped by wispy flowers in late summer to fall. Switch grasses need sun to avoid flopping, but 'Northwind' is the most upright. Numerous pollinators and wildlife rely on this grass for food and shelter. Grows up to 6 feet high and 18 inches wide in Zones 5 to 9.
Photo by Vision Pictures/Monrovia
Little prairie dropseed charms as a textural accent, but don't let that fool you—this grass is tough as nails. Planted in full sun, the tall, translucent flowers bloom from summer until fall, smelling faintly of cilantro, before turning bronze in winter. Grows up to 3 feet high and wide in Zones 3 to 9.
Photo by MGA73bot2/Wiki Commons
(Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'Raydon's Favorite')
This aster blooms with clouds of lavender daisy-like flowers on long, arcing stems in fall. An easy plant to maintain in sun to part shade, 'Raydon's Favorite' divides with no fuss, making it a great choice to fill space quickly. Grows up to 3 feet high and 1 foot wide in Zones 3 to 8.
Discover how Sue Moffit creates her prairie-style garden in rural Rutland. Words Kendra Wilson, photos Richard Bloom
Published: November 25, 2019 at 12:26 pm
Prairie garden planting need not be a mess. More appealing still, prairie planting is reassuringly low maintenance. Within a framework of crisply edged beds, plants can look wilder, more themselves, than in a traditional herbaceous border. The prairie-style garden at Redhill Lodge is divided into triangles and rectangles, with short yew hedges planted diagonally across the latter. As they grow taller, they can be shaped or left straight. Read more about the prairie-style garden in Rutland here. Below are eight plants you need for a prairie garden.
Pale, starry flowers on glaucous foliage through late summer and autumn. Prone to root rot in poor drainage, it thrives in the Rutland heavy soil because of the sun, exposure and sloping situation. 60cm. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 3a-9b.
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Elegant, blue, globe thistles are highly attractive to pollinators. Cut back after the first flush to encourage further flowering, and deadhead in autumn to curb excessive self-seeding. 90cm. RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b.
Clouds of felty, whitish stems bear small violet-blue flowers in late summer and autumn. 1.2m. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 5a-9b.
These branching sunflowers with small heads tolerate some exposure but benefit from the protection of other tall plants. 2m. AGM. RHS H4.
Arching, green foliage supports dark-red flower plumes in summer, and pale, feathery seedheads catch the light in winter. 1.5m. AGM. RHS H6.
Provides movement in summer but also valuable interest in winter when golden tufts reflect the low sun. 90cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.
Tall, clump-forming groundcover, with fresh, ovate foliage and narrow, crimson flowers. Spreads freely in moist, heavy soil. 1.2m. RHS H7.
Racemes of lilac flowers on tall stems provide early colour. Seedheads take on a fasciated, flattened appearance in winter. 1.2m. RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b.
Spring is fickle and we never know what to expect but one thing is for sure, every gardener gets the itch to dig in and feel the soil. Edible gardens (herbs, fruit, and vegetables) are on the rise. I know I plan on growing some purple carrots, yellow beans and baby beets you just cant get these at the supermarket.
It’s a great way to cut down on your food bill and eat fresh, and healthy. And its way faster to nip out to the garden or even the patio for the makings for supper! You can use this as a basic guide on what to plant, when, and with other plants (interplanting).
In the Edmonton area zone 2, the average frost free date is May 27th. It is usually is safe to seed most things by May 15th, if the ground is dry enough to till. You must have corn planted by this date, or it likely wont mature by fall.
Transplant the majority of your frost hardy vegetables (plants like lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and onions by May 10th, if the forecast does not include a subzero night for the next 4 or 5 days. Be prepared to cover them up if it gets really cold (-5C). There is a chance we may still have a frost through May 30.
If a frost warning is forecasted, simply cover your plants with sheets, bath towels or light blankets for protection. For smaller container plants you can simply move them to a protected area such as a porch roof or into the garage for the night.
Spinach and Peas can be sown directly into the ground usually by May 1st! Youll be picking peas by July 5! Also, seed , beets, radishes, swiss chard, turnips, carrots, and onion sets can usually be sown directly into the ground around May 1st. Be sure you mark all your plants so you know what is growing in each row.
By May 10th, plant potatoes, beans, and corn. Springs here in Edmonton are getting later, and later! I used to plant pumpkins and basil by June 1st, but now I wait until around June 10th. (Froze them too many times!).
Make the best use of space by combining varieties of vegetables into your garden, particularly if it is a small space. You can also interplant vegetables with flowers to add some pizzazz to your garden and encourage bees to pollinate, and discourage the white cabbage butterflies.
For example, the First Nations peoples planted corn, pole beans, and pumpkins together. The corn served as support for the beans and in turn the beans release nitrogen into the soil. The pumpkins cover the bare ground, to keep the weeds down.
You can also plant a fast growing plant with a slow growing plant. Brussels sprouts planted among spinach allows the slow growing Brussels sprouts all the time they need to grow, by the time they need more room, the spinach will have already been harvested. This works the same with radishes and onions.
Some of my favorite things to plant together are basil with tomatoes, beets with dill, the Brussels spouts, cabbage, broccoli, or cabbage with marigolds (camoflauge the color and scent of the cabbage so the white cabbage butterflies cant find them). Feel free to include your favorite flowers to encourage butterflies and beneficial insects. Some of my favorite flowers to plant around the garden are cosmos, bachelor buttons, snapdragons, and lavender.
Take a late-summer stroll through the Dixon Prairie and see golden grasses sparkling like jewels with touches of color, and the lake rippling marvelously in the wind.
The black-eyed Susan and coneflower plants you spot here may seem sparse, lanky, and scattered unlike the neat clumps or broad sweeps that can be seen on Evening Island and, perhaps, in your garden.
Over the last few decades, plants once native to midwestern prairies have been welcomed into gardens. But in our front yards, they often don't look much like they did in the prairie.
When we grow prairie species in the garden, even in the same extreme and unpredictable climate, they are living in altered conditions from the ones in which they evolved. Prairie plants behave differently in our gardens for a number of reasons, according to Joan O'Shaughnessy, the Garden's prairie and river ecologist.
The Dixon Prairie, which wraps around the south and west sides of the Garden, has been reconstructed to include six types of native northeastern Illinois habitat, with plants that fit in those niches, growing the way they naturally do.
When you see black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) here, for example, it appears as a stray sunny face, but rarely as the kind of bright bushy clump we are accustomed to seeing in manicured gardens.
In the prairie, black-eyed Susan has much more competition from other plants for water and nutrients, O'Shaughnessy says. It grows in much leaner soil that doesn't push it to create leaves and flowers. In the prairie, densely surrounded by grasses, it must grow tall and slender to reach up to the sun — and it gets all the support it needs from surrounding plants.
Today, many gardeners try to fix the altered soil by fertilizing and digging in manure, compost, and other organic matter that makes it far more nutrient-rich than the original prairie. We water the lawn and spray the bugs. We grow plants in isolated clumps, not mixed in with companions and competitors.
We tend to like our plants compact and well-behaved and we like to see a big punch of color. So plant growers often select shorter, bushier examples of species such as Showy black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii) and propagate them as cultivars to appeal to gardeners. They also create hybrids from several native species that have qualities that work in gardens, though not in prairies.
Black-eyed Susan is a good candidate for gardens, O'Shaughnessy says, because it is a "pioneer plant" — short-lived, but opportunistic and able to grow in a wide variety of habitats and take hold in disturbed soil. No soil is disturbed as much as that of the average perennial garden.
The prairie plant perhaps most loved in gardens is coneflower. Usually it's purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Yet the evidence suggests purple coneflower was rare in northeastern Illinois before we started gardening, O'Shaughnessy says the most common species in the prairies around here was pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida). When you see itin a remnant or restored Chicago-area prairie today, she says, it most likely escaped from a garden.
Echinacea purpurea 'Prairie Splendor'
Purple coneflower is the favored garden species because it can grow in a broader variety of habitats, she says. Pale purple coneflower is native to dry prairies with fewer nutrients than the enriched soil of perennial beds.
So it is with blazing star. Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) thrives in the Garden's gravel hill prairie and sand prairie, while prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) is most likely the species that was most common in the native prairie. But the species most often found in gardens, and most often the basis for cultivars, is marsh or spike blazing star (Liatris spicata).Though it's mainly native east of here, marsh blazing star is better adapted to soil that is often watered.
It's crucial when choosing native plants for our gardens to select those that will thrive in our gardens as they are today. "Right plant, right place" applies as much to native plants as it does to imported perennials. Just because a plant may have grown in a particular spot in 1830 does not mean it will thrive in a garden at that location now if the conditions have been drastically altered.
At the same time, it's important to choose natives that will support native insects, birds and microorganisms. That's one reason ecologists stress buying plants that are locally grown from seed that evolved in the vicinity. Strains of the same species from elsewhere have not co-evolved in the same relationship with local animals, which may depend more and more on our gardens for food and breeding places as their native habitat is degraded by development and climate change.
Does that mean you shouldn't use cultivars of native species, such as the array of Echinacea hybrids developed at the Garden by Jim Ault? Not at all. If you can make a native bee or butterfly happy with the nectar from a hybrid, it's worth planting. But if you have a suitable spot for it, consider using the straight, wild species of a native plant, such as soft and golden prairie dropseed grass (Sporobolus heterolepis) or vivid-orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Many living things will be grateful for that little scrap of the vanished Chicago-area world.
Beth Botts is a garden writer and speaker who lives and gardens in Oak Park, Illinois.
Black-eyed Susan is a good candidate for gardens, O'Shaughnessy says, because it is a "pioneer plant".
Indian Summer black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta 'Indian Summer')
Tiger Eye Gold black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta 'Tiger Eye Gold')
Herbstonne rudbeckia (Rudbeckia laciniata 'Herbstonne')
What does it take to grow a North American-style meadow garden in Europe using prairie-style plants? Planting expert Noel Kingsbury considers the best plants to grow from perennials to wild flowers and how to plant a prairie style garden, plus the best way to maintain the garden so it stays looking its best .
Published: September 26, 2018 at 3:28 pm
Although many prairie plants are not native to northern Europe, many have been part of our garden history for almost 200 years, and, with a few exceptions, they have behaved well. Most are an excellent source of nectar for pollinators in late summer and autumn, at a time when our native species have little to offer. They are also strong growers on fertile soils, so it is no surprise that for more than 20 years researchers in the UK and in Germany have been looking at using them to create a colourful low-maintenance combinations for public space plantings, like the Piet Oudolf field at Hauser & Wirth Gallery in Somerset.
Something to note before you start reading, prairie planting is not the same as meadow planting in the traditional sense. Meadows are mown in mid summer, traditionally for hay and then re-grows the following season. Prairie’s may never be mown but are sometimes burned in late winter to get rid of invasive weeds. If you’re looking to plant a meadow, the article below will point you in the right direction.
Essentially it is the North American equivalent of a wildflower meadow – about three-quarters grasses and one quarter wildflowers (usually called ‘forbs’). Unlike European wildflower meadows which have a flowering peak around Midsummer, they tend to peak in late summer or even early autumn – this is one reason why there is so much interest in them amongst European gardeners. There are lots of different types of prairie, but the one which we tend to focus on is the ‘tallgrass prairie’ of the upper Midwestern states, eg Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin. It is very species-rich, with the late-flowering component (many of them members of the daisy family) being much appreciated by butterflies and other pollinators.
Gardeners and those interested in managing public space started to get interested in prairie in the 1980s. European native wildflower meadows do not really work on fertile soils as you tend to end up with grass, grass, more grass and the occasional knapweed – our most visually and biologically diverse wildflower communities tend to flourish only on thin, calcareous soils. A dense ‘natural’ plant combination such as prairie can be very low-maintenance and notably weed-resistant, so it looks like a viable proposition for public parks, corporate landscapes and larger gardens. I would add that in small gardens, strips of prairie planting, only a metre wide, can be very attractive. They are very good for pollinators, and the seedheads are much appreciated by seed-eating birds in the winter.
We have a longer history of growing North American perennials than you might think. From the late 18th century a very wide range of species have been grown in northern and central Europe, in both botanical and private gardens. The magnificent herbaceous borders of early 20th century gardens contained many prairie species, particularly of Aster, Helianthus, Rudbeckia and Solidago. Since the 1980s there have been more introductions from the US, particularly since American growers themselves have now turned to using natives in a big way. Amongst the ‘new’ prairie plants are Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, which doesn’t run like the old goldenrods, Vernonia species – dramatic tall violet-purple flowers for the very end of the gardening year and Veronicastrum virginicum, a statuesque perennial with a long season of structural interest.
There is a ‘but’ – the grass component does not do so well with us. The reason for this is that American prairie grasses have a C4 route for photosynthesis, which needs more heat, hence their being called ‘warm season grasses’. All the forbs have the normal C3 route and our lack of summer heat is compensated for by the exceptional amount of light they receive from May to July this is why many are surprisingly successful as far north as central Sweden, and certainly in Scotland. The grasses however need a lot of heat to get them growing, which means that in spring the forbs will swamp them as they are slow to get going. I have seen American grasses flourish as far north as St Petersburg, but only in a conventional border, where they have more space than in a dense prairie planting. Many gardeners, myself included, use Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ as a ‘cool-season’ substitute.
European prairie plantings are not real prairie, as we focus our interest on the flowering plants, with only a small grass component. In making a prairie we are aiming at creating a dense intermingled mass of perennials – I stress ‘intermingled’, as simply creating big blocks of perennials is not a prairie, just a giant herbaceous border. Dense intermingled planting helps create a mass of interlocking roots and stems, which is strongly weed-resistant.
The site needs to have full sun, a fertile soil and be as weed-free, and as free of weed-seed as possible. There are three methods of planting a prairie: standard nursery-size plants, plugs and seeding.
Using nursery-grown plants is expensive, unless you can get them from a wholesaler or grow them yourself. It gives the quickest and most predictable results. Plants should go in at 9 per square metre, more or less randomly. Weed control should be rigorous for the first year or two – after that the clumps will have tended to mesh together. If you are including prairie grasses, such as varieties of Panicum virgatum, they do however need more space around them as they tend to develop more slowly than the forbs, both early in the season and from year to year.
It is possible to grow plants from seed in plug trays and then plant them out. However seedlings tend to germinate at different rates, which is where I got a bit unstuck in making a prairie planting at home – if you plant these quick developers out, you end up with a colourful but rather rank planting and it is then impossible to add the later-developing plants. It is better to keep the quick-developing seedlings waiting a year and plant them out with the slower ones – it won’t do them any harm to keep them pot-bound for a time. Plugs can go in at 16 or 25 per square metre.
This is the best method as the seedlings will form a dense carpet of growth, which will rapidly develop a plant community that will completely dominate the soil surface. The perennial seed specialist Jelitto sell a prairie mix, based on James Hitchmough’s work at Sheffield University. Seed can also be obtained from American suppliers but since some do not sell to Europe, they may need to go via an American friend, and may get heavily taxed if sent on by post importation is however perfectly legal.
Research suggests that sowing into a 5cm deep layer of sand is a good way of minimising weed seed competition, but the site will need irrigation until the plants have rooted through into the soil beneath. Very few prairie species’ seed need winter chilling, so spring sowing is best.
One point is worth mentioning – many daisy family species are prolific self-seeders (aster and solidago in particular) and can become a weed problem in the rest of the garden, but only if there are two different clones growing together. Using a cultivar means that you are using a clone, so it can’t produce seed at home I have masses of Solidago rugosa all derived from one plant (a clone) and it never seeds, but when I grew S. flexicualis from seed, and kept around a dozen plants, it soon became something of a nuisance.
There are two main tasks: dealing with end of year growth and weed control.
The mass of dead growth at the end of the year is most easily dealt with by chopping down with a brushcutter or hedgetrimmer sometime after Christmas and just left to rot down, which creates a natural mulch layer that is particularly beneficial for invertebrate biodiversity. You may choose to burn it however – see below.
Anyone who is growing plants through a gravel mulch will need to keep this clear of organic debris, which means growth needs to be removed for composting.
The main weed problems are native pasture grasses, which have an advantage over prairie species in that they grow over winter, along with nettles and goosegrass. Low level non-grass species such as creeping buttercup are not a problem as the taller prairie plants overshadow them. Taller weeds such as nettles are best hand-pulled but patches of grass are best dealt with by spot-spraying with a glyphosate-based herbicide, to avoid disrupting the soil and bringing up yet more weed seed.
Any discussion about prairie soon comes around to the question of burning. It’s a colourful topic, much inflamed by a slight pyromaniac tendency amongst prairie gardeners (there’s a You Tube video of me setting fire to grasses somewhere). In North America, prairies were largely created by fire, either natural or lit by Native Americans to create good grazing for buffalo and game. An end of winter (January or February) fire burns off invading weeds and gets rid of the debris, without harming the prairie species, which do not emerge until later. I have found it a fantastically successful way of getting rid of goosegrass seedlings this species is a particular problem as it climbs up and over plants during the summer. However our west of Britain climate is rarely dry enough for this to be relied on as a method of routine maintenance, and in urban areas it is also distinctly anti-social.
The highly successful prairie at Cambo House in Fife, Scotland uses a gravel mulch as a weed suppressant. Here are head gardener Elliott Forsyth’s notes on this:
Late-summer flowering prairie plants are very long-lived and constantly regenerating. Their dense root and above-ground growth can create an extremely tough and resilient long-term vegetation, which needs little care and which, like a wildflower meadow, will change gradually from year to year, so you have the satisfaction and interest of having created something which has a life and a dynamic of its own. Bee, butterfly and bird life will be an added bonus.
Research at Sheffield and in Germany and the Netherlands is increasingly focusing on adding spring and early summer components to prairie mixes: camassia bulbs, species of summer-dormant perennials like species of Dodecatheon and Mertensia, or even oxlip, Primula elatior, or winter annuals such as Viola tricolor. Smaller daffodils also combine very well.
Words: Noel Kingsbury is internationally known as a writer about plants, gardens and the environment. He also works as a garden/planting designer and horticultural consultant and is best known for his promotion of what is broadly called an ecological or naturalistic approach to planting design.
Images by Robert Mabic
All the images here were taken at Dutch garden Lianne’s Siergrassen. The prairie-style display garden is attached to a nursery specialising in ornamental grasses.