Growing a prairie garden
at a home or business is simpler than people might think. Following a few basic
principles in planting can give a whole new look and feel to a yard that will
be easier to maintain and enjoy.
Start small and manage the
project incrementally; then expand each year to gradually achieve the
complexity of a prairie-style garden. Everything doesn’t have to be
accomplished in one season; realistically, it will require multiple years of
growth and expansion.
Prepare the area for
planting by removing the sod or vegetation in a small area. Use a rototiller to
break up the soil two weeks before planting, if needed. Laying down mulch
around plants after installing will help keep weeds back and the soil retain
When choosing plants,
first think about bloom times. In each section of a prairie garden, include
plants that bloom at different times throughout the season. Ideally, something
will always be flowering. This strategy will keep pops of color constant and
also provide food for pollinators from spring until fall. This season, Midewin
staff created a native pollinator guide for gardeners that includes bloom times
of each plant. The information is available online here
Another good question to
consider is the kinds of prairie wildlife and how to attract those species to
the garden. Gardeners who love hummingbirds should plant wild bergamot and
prairie blazing star. To attract monarchs, be sure to include milkweeds.
Incorporate plants that
make a subtle prairie statement with gentle, horizontal lines. The graceful
clumping of prairie dropseed makes a distinctive statement in the prairie
garden with its finely textured, outwardly curving leaves. The branching
flowerheads of wild quinine form a nearly flat bunch at the top of the plant.
While some gardeners are
focused heavily on attracting pollinators with flowers, don’t forget about
grasses. They will provide foundation, support and diversity in the garden. To
deter grasses from overpowering flowering plants, use small amounts of
medium-to-short-length grasses such as prairie dropseed and little bluestem.
Create clusters. Help
pollinators by placing similar plants close together so that they do not need
to travel as far from plant to plant to collect nectar. Plant in odd numbers of
a few species, such as three plants of one kind. Anything to help the
pollinating process along will support the overall growth of the garden.
For the look and feel of a
prairie, plan a design with broad curves. Randomly placed groupings of plants
replicate natural plant populations. Create a mosaic of plants of different
lengths, planting shorter plants in front and taller plants behind them to view
the blooms more easily.
Once a prairie garden is
established after several years, much of the hard work is complete, and future
years can be dedicated to maintaining and enjoying the results of many hours of
labor. Over the years, less maintenance will be required, and the investment
will be worth it as new habitat has been created for local bees, butterflies,
birds and other natural friends of the prairies.
Acres and acres of land is
not needed; anyone can get involved in the honorable initiative to encourage
more pollinator populations in Chicagoland. Look online to find a place to
volunteer. Offer to collaborate with a neighbor or friend and work in their
yard. Locate a communal garden where multiple people come together to plant and
encourage pollinator populations. Native plants can even be grown in containers
for a small space.
For more information about how to create a
pollinator oasis, click here.
Where To Begin
the cheerfulness of purple coneflower, the intricacy of butterflyweed or the
soft texture of prairie dropseed by learning to incorporate them into a garden
with the free USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service eight-page handout Pollinator Gardens: A Design Guide Detailing
All of The Ins and Outs of Planting A Pollinator Garden
The publication lays out
what is needed to design, prepare, plant and maintain a pollinator garden,
including things that bees and butterflies and other pollinators need in a
garden; different methods for getting a site ready for planting (an important
step not to be forgotten because site preparation is key to a successful
garden); when to plant; information on maintaining a pollinator garden; and
bonus tips for success.
Even with all that
information, it can still be difficult to know where to begin. The Pollinator Gardens Design Guide includes five small
garden designs for a range of different site conditions, from sites with full
sun to some shade and dry to wet soils. The designs include a layout for
each garden and plant lists that give the number of plants, as well as
suggested spacings between plants.