The benefits of native prairie plants have been highly touted for decades. They can support birds, butterflies, and other pollinators; help with erosion control and water management; and thrive without added water or fertilization. Native prairie plants are an indispensable part of a complex environmental web in which a multitude of species depend on them for food and shelter. Still, bringing them into our home landscapes in a pleasing and low-maintenance fashion may be easier said than done.
The keys to creating a beautiful and easy-care prairie garden are properly preparing the planting area before you plant, choosing the right plant for the right place, and considering the scale or the size of the plants in relationship to garden beds and the larger landscape. Native or not, many of our native prairie plants have been scaled down and bred for better garden performance.
The best way to reduce garden maintenance is to make sure your planting area is weed free before you plant. Given the unforeseen consequences of Roundup® on pollinators and the environment, I highly recommend the old-fashioned manual approach to achieve this goal. Use a sod cutter to remove sod, and smother weeds with cardboard or blackout fabric. Be patient; give yourself weeks or months to make sure that your bed is weed free. Perennial weeds, like quack grass or thistles, may take even longer to remove. Once the weeds have been eliminated, cover the garden beds with a two- to three-inch layer of finely shredded mulch to prevent new weeds from germinating. It’s not necessary to add fertilizer or soil amendments when you select a plant palate adapted to your site conditions. Start clean to minimize future weed battles.
Right Plant, Right Place
Most prairie plants prefer full sun—six hours or more of direct sunlight—but many will be happy in partial shade—four to six hours of direct sunlight. Native prairies are categorized according to moisture levels and soil type: dry, mesic, and wet. If your soil is shallow, sandy, or rocky, you should choose plants native to our dry prairies. These plants are naturally drought tolerant. If you have heavy clay soils, limit your choices to “clay busters” and plants native to mesic prairies. If you’re planting a wet spot or rain garden, plants native to our wetlands are the natural choice. Prairie plants are great choices for problem spots, such as steep slopes where other plants may be difficult to establish. Choosing the right plant for the right place ensures your plants will be vigorous and easy to maintain.
Size and Scale
In nature, prairie plants colonize large expanses, and the vastness of these colonies is what makes them inspiring. Walking through a prairie and seeing waves of flowers and seas of grass backlit by the sun can take your breath away. Unfortunately, what’s magnificent in a large prairie may look rangy and unkempt in a garden setting. Fortunately, plant breeders have been busy creating improved natives with the ability to support wildlife like their wild cousins, but tamed for the garden. Most of these improved natives are shorter in stature, upright in habit, and have showier flowers. This is not to say that many of our unimproved natives are not excellent garden plants. Many are more vigorous and winter hardy than their improved cousins. Whatever plants you choose, it’s important to remember the size and scale of the plant in relationship to the garden bed.
Tip: The rule of thumb is plant height should be limited between one-third to one-half the width of the garden.
Why native? We have so many beautiful choices, and they are well suited to our climate. Native plants selected for the proper soil type and moisture conditions require minimal maintenance and little to no added irrigation or chemical pesticides. Where space is limited, a combination of natives and improved natives creates beautiful gardens that can support a multitude of indigenous species and help mitigate a world of environmental problems. Nonnatives may be showier, but they simply cannot compete with natives in supporting biodiversity. If you do not have space for a pollinator garden or rain garden, why not try adding more natives to your garden.
Joan W. Ziegler is a horticulturist and garden designer and winner of the 2015 Perennial Plant Association Merit Award for Residential Landscape at ZDA, Inc. Landscape Architecture, 4797 Capitol View Road, Middleton. Call (608) 831-5098 or visit zdainc.com .