You don't need to live on the prairie to have a prairie garden. Natural landscapes featuring mainly native plants are being sown in yards across North America as environmentally friendly alternatives to turf grass.
These durable plant combinations include flowers, shrubs and trees. They require little attention, add year-round color and interest and provide wildlife-friendly habitat.
"Many species found in prairies are native to other plant communities found outside the Midwest, such as woodland openings, meadows and barrens, as well as mountain and desert habitats," says Lynn Steiner of Stillwater, Minn., author of "Prairie Style Gardens" (Timber Press. 2010). "And even if these plants aren't native to your area, they are still often better choices than exotic plants that come from outside North America."
City and suburban gardens often aren't large enough to support meadows, but many prairie plants adapt well to smaller spaces, she said.
"They tolerate less fertile soils, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. They thrive on less water, reducing water use. And they don't require heavy fossil-fuel input from mowing and trimming," Steiner said in an email.
Margaret Brittingham, an extension wildlife specialist with Penn State University, said it takes some effort to get prairie plants established "but once done, they're easy to handle."
"They're great for attracting birds and butterflies," she said. "You can use them for cut flowers, too."
To keep neighbors happy and win official approval from municipalities, make the conversion from lawn to meadow look tended and not unkempt, Brittingham said.
Some design suggestions:
-- Create borders using hedges, mowed edges, low fences or walkways. They act as buffers, keep plants from obstructing sight lines and frame an otherwise natural landscape, Brittingham said.
-- Start small. Save money by converting from turf to meadow in manageable yet visible pieces. First, eliminate any trouble spots on the lawn, and then expand gradually, mimicking nature's processes of gradual succession.
-- Find the right plants for the right sites. Don't plant sun-loving prairie flowers under shade trees, or plants that like their feet dry in low spots that collect runoff.
-- Go native. Nonnative species generally have less wildlife value, Brittingham said, and are often invasive, eliminating many native species. Check the noxious weed control lists issued for your area and ensure that none are included among the seeds you sow or in the containers you plant.
-- Help spread the word. Draw a map of your natural landscape and make it available through brochures placed around your yard. "You might even include a listing of the plants you used and where you got them," Brittingham said.
-- Humanize the project. Add yard art or something personal and whimsical, Steiner said. "For accent and embellishment, rusted iron sculptural pieces blend nicely with the casual look of a prairie landscape. Sundials are nice additions to gardens featuring these sun-loving plants. Birdbaths made of ceramic or stone are practical as well as beautiful."
By illustrating that your landscape is cared for and designed intentionally, you'll show that you haven't just allowed "weeds" to take over, Steiner said.