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Plant a Prairie Garden At Home

Mar 31, 2020 ● By Jennifer Durkin

Photo Credit: USDA Forest Service Photo by Gary Chancey

by Jennifer Durkin

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 moisture.

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.

Jennifer Durkin is a USDA Forest Service horticulturist at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, in Wilmington, IL.


Where To Begin

Enjoy 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.