Why Plant a Prairie Garden? To Restore a Natural American Habitat, That’s Why
Plus, they're low-maintenance, attract birds and pollinators, help with erosion control, highly sustainable and more.
Photo By: RainDogDesigns.com/wordpress
Photo By: Shutterstock/John De Bord
Photo By: Shutterstock/Hank Erdmann
More than 200 million acres of North America — from Canada to Texas — used to ripple like a vast sea of grass. Today, less than 1 percent of that prairie landscape remains. Fortunately, this vital and beneficial habitat is slowly making a comeback.
Native plants have evolved over hundreds of years to adapt to their surroundings. They may require a little help with weed control as the seeds or young plants develop in a new area for the first year or two, but they require minimal care once established.
Water Conservation and Quality
Prairie plants need less water than most thanks to their hardiness and their deep root systems, which also help funnel rainwater into the soil and water tables. Some native prairie plants can thrive in heavy soils (such as clay) and survive standing water, which can make them good candidates for low areas or rain gardens. These plants help filter impurities from the water that might get into underground aquifers, lakes and rivers.
The deep roots of prairie plants and nutrients provided by them helped build the rich black soil that was tilled for farming in the 1800s. Those deep roots help stabilize sloped areas and prevent erosion. This can be especially vital for shorelines when homes sit along lakes, rivers or wetlands. The plants also can prevent lawn or agricultural chemicals from washing into waterways.
Butterfly weed, blazing star and purple clovers are among the many native prairie plants that attract and nourish butterflies, bees and a wealth of beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps, which don’t sting people and will keep spiders, ticks and critters that harm plants under control, said Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis. He said an organic tomato farmer claimed: "The prairie is my pesticide" after planting a small prairie eliminated a hornworm problem that was affecting his harvest.
Feed the Birds
For good backyard birding, plant a prairie that can sustain a diverse world of insects. "Almost every songbird species depend on insects for their young," Diboll said. "If you don’t have insects, you don’t have birds." Seeds from flowers such as echinacea, coreopsis and Joe Pye Weed will feed goldfinches and other birds.
"We are starting to see a shift aesthetically in embracing natural looks instead of being trimmed and clipped," said Alan Branhagen, director of operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and author of Native Plants of the Midwest (Timber Press, 2016). "[Prairies] are a wonderful, sustainable landscape that creates one of the best habitats for wildlife from birds to every kind of pollinator."
Spark the Senses
Walking by a prairie garden and brushing past aromatic plants can release sweet fragrances from plants such as white-flowered mountain mint and lavender-flowered bergamot.
Blooms may be gone by late fall, but foliage and grasses can provide colorful swaths of oranges and reds and add depth to the autumn landscape.
Besides providing seeds to feed birds in the fall and winter, prairie foliage can offer shelter to wildlife and texture for a winter landscape — especially with grasses. "The grasses anchor the whole garden and regulate the nutrients," said Beth Markhart, outreach and training director with Minnesota-based Prairie Restorations. "They’re going to be the foundation."
Areas converted to prairie don’t require mowing. Every few years the prairie ideally experiences a controlled burn (which replicates lightning strikes and natural burns). Only part of the prairie should be done at once, Markhart said. That way a diversity of insects in the unburned area can populate the whole garden and help the biome thrive. An alternative to burning is mowing the prairie area down to about six inches in late winter or early spring before new shoots come up. That dethatches old foliage and churns up dead stems.
Share the Love
Keep expanding your prairie garden or help others by dividing and sharing plants and by collecting seeds by hand to start new plants. Learn more about growing coneflowers from seed >>