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Green Landscaping: Greenacres


Wild Ones Handbook


"Native flowers, grasses and ferns can match the finest cultivated perennials in beauty and surpass them in ruggedness and resistance to insects and diseases." - 

Jim Wilson 

a puccoon

Planting A Prairie

Planting A Prairie
by Neil Diboll

Prairies require sunny, open sites with good air circulation. A minimum of one-half day of full sun is necessary for most prairie plants to thrive and bloom.

Be careful of aggressive, weedy plants located adjacent to your future prairie site. Some plants can creep into your meadow by means of underground rhizomes, while others have seeds that can blow in on the wind. Problem neighbors include Quackgrass, Smooth Bromegrass, Johnson Grass, Canada Goldenrod, Tall Goldenrod, Canada Thistle, Gray Dogwood, Sumac, Buckthorn, Tartarian and Japanese Honeysuckle, and Multiflora Rose, to name a few. If there is an old field next to  your prairie, expect some incursion by unwanted visitors. To prevent this problem, maintain a mowed strip five to ten feet wide between the prairie and the old field, and mow the adjacent fields every summer in late July, before the plants go to seed.

Short prairies are a good choice for around homes and buildings. Tall prairies are best when planted on larger acreages, or in background situations. You may want to plant some areas of both tall and short prairie to create two different landscape effects and habitat types. Beware that if you plant tall prairie to the west or north of your short prairie, the ripening seeds of the taller plants may be blown into the short prairie. Eventually your short prairie may become a tall grass prairie.

For a prominent display of flowers, plant them with the shorter bunchgrasses, such as Little Bluestem, Prairie Dropseed, and Side Oats Grama. These low-growing, clump-forming grasses allow the flowers to show off better than when planted with the taller prairie grasses. Large, robust flowers should be planted with the tall prairie grasses. I recommend including native grasses for a number of reasons. Their dense root systems help squeeze out weeds, making the prairie truly low-maintenance. Grasses also help hold the flowers upright, and provide cover and seeds for birds. The grasses' warm autumn colors of gold, orange and bronze extend the meadow's interest well into winter.

For small prairie gardens, transplants are often preferable to seeds. Perennial flowers and grasses are slow to grow from seed, and typically do not bloom until the third year. With care, transplants often bloom the first year, giving you an instant prairie garden.

Transplants do best when installed in spring or early fall. Early spring flowers often do better when transplanted in autumn.

Transplants should be spaced approximately one foot apart. Mark each transplant at planting time so it's easily identified. Mulching with three to four inches of clean straw helps keep weeds down. One weeding may be required the first growing season. Once established, little if any further weeding should be necessary.

Seeding prairies in late spring or early summer typically produces good results. Most prairie flowers and grasses are warm season plants which germinate best after soil temperatures have warmed up. Grasses do best with spring and summer seedings. Planting in spring or early summer allows for better pre-planting weed control than fall seeding. Prairie plantings can be successfully seeded through mid-July.

Fall seeding can be very successful, too, especially on dry soils. Fall plantings are dormant seedings (the seeds will not germinate until next spring). Fall plantings on dry soils allow seeds to germinate in early spring and become established before the heat of summer. Clay soils can also benefit from fall plantings. Young seedlings can become established before the clay dries out in summer and restricts root growth. Careful soil preparation and weed control is essential with fall plantings. Native flowers exhibit higher germination when planted in fall.

Fall seedings on erosion-prone sites require planting with a nurse crop for soil stabilization. Nurse crops of annual rye (15 lbs. per acre) or oats (128 lbs. per acre = 4 bushels per acre) must be planted by mid- to late September to grow sufficiently to form a protective covering over the soil. The nurse crop will be winter-killed, but the dead roots will continue to hold the soil over winter, until spring when the prairie seeds germinate. 

For more information, we recommend purchasing the booklet Prairie Restoration for The Beginner by Bob Ahrenhoerster and Trelen Wilson.


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