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The Best Plants for Prairie Gardens

Prairie gardens are native to much of North America, thus they attract birds and pollinators; and once they're established they are low-maintenance, super hardy and drought-tolerant.

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Delicate Grasses and Vibrant Wildflowers

Clouds of butterflies, a buzz of happy bees and zigzag flights of dragonflies signal the success of a thriving prairie garden that blends delicate grasses and vibrant wildflowers. A growing number of people have turned to this style of gardening — inspired by North America’s native landscapes — for front and backyard inspiration.

"It’s a hugely productive ecosystem that was largely overlooked," said Neil Diboll, who founded Wisconsin’s Prairie Nursery three decades ago when many gardeners saw prairie plants as weeds rather than important — and beautiful — components of a landscape that can tolerate drought or too much rain, requires little maintenance once established, and can enrich soil for the future.

Homeowners need full sun for at least half a day for a prairie garden to work and to know what kind of soil they have to choose the right plants. Fortunately, many species, such as milkweed, come in close to a dozen varieties that can fit soil that’s sandy, thick with clay, prone to standing water after rains or needing to survive scorching summers.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Jason Patrick Ross

Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

If you choose just one, pick the vibrant orange butterfly weed, which is in the milkweed family and essential to monarchs for laying eggs, providing leaves for caterpillars to eat and nectar for butterflies to drink. "Butterflies flock to it," said Diboll. "It’s a real show-off plant." There are close to a dozen kinds of milkweed, such as red or swamp milkweed, to fit a variety of soil conditions or offer different colored blooms. Diboll advises avoiding common milkweed, which can take over a garden and is best for expansive meadows.

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Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)

Besides attracting bees, butterflies and other pollinators, this plant helps condition the soil and add nutrients.

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Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

This nicely clumped prairie grass grows in any soil. The wispy grasses provide shelter to wildlife and texture to the winter landscape.

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