After spending two years planting perennials and perennial gardens around the yard, all the while mowing what passes for a lawn, I came to a startling conclusion: I wanted to turn almost the entire back yard into a prairie, or at least a prairie-style "garden". I'm not really sure those two words go together. However, for a number of reasons, I didn't want to have to continue mowing the large expanse of grass back there. But a prairie in the burbs?
I don't live in the part of the country traditionally known as the Great North American Prairie; that large expanse of territory extending from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in Canada to southern Texas and Mexico and approximately 1,000 miles from western Indiana to the Rocky Mountains. When the French first arrived and saw the huge herds of buffalo and bison roaming freely there, they called it the great prairie, from a French word meaning a meadowland grazed by cattle. Big bluestem grass, the tallest and one of the most abundant of all the prairie grasses as well as an essential food for the American Bison, was everywhere across the heartland.
But would a prairie work here? True prairies receive anywhere from approximately 12-22 inches of rainfall a year. We receive closer to 52 inches. Besides that, all my neighbors spend a sizable amount of time either mowing or having their lawns mowed. Time, expense, noise, air quality and other environmental considerations, are a few of the reasons that started me thinking about cultivating a prairie. The fact that we back up to woods with a steady parade of critters coming and going, have neighbors that don't garden and sometimes don't mow either, have lots of scattering and blowing "weed" seeds every year, were additional things to consider.
Prairies are made up primarily of grasses, sedges (grasslike plants) and forbs. Some prairies contain a few trees as well. There are three main categories of prairies:
Wet Prairie - lots of water; deep clay, silt loam, or peat soil and generally poor drainage,
Mesic Prairie - some water; medium to deep silt or sandy loam soil with good drainage. Tall grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass can be found in abundance in this type of prairie along with plants like rosinweed and coneflower. Flowers of the Mesic Prairie may reach 4-6 ft. tall by the end of the growing season,
Dry Prairie - little water; dry shallow soil, sand, limestone and occasional steep slopes called goat prairies. Little bluestem, wild oats, and purple coneflower are among the plants found there.
At the edge of the prairies of the Central Plains sometimes stand groups of prairie oak trees. Their environs were referred to by the settlers as oak openings. Today they are called savannas. The shade of the trees in the savannas creates a microclimate that allows many other species of flowers to survive there by providing them with cooler temperatures and moister soil.
After scouting around the state in hopes of locating an area that I might use as a reference for comparison, I was delighted to discover what is known as the Oak Ridge Barrens Natural Area. Oak Ridge Barrens was preserved in 1988 through a collaborative effort of the city of Oak Ridge, State of Tennessee, and a group called Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning (TCWP). Native grasses and perennials dominate two pockets of vegetation, called barrens, in that area. Barrens are small woodland openings distributed across the southeasten US. The vegetation growing in them is similar to that growing in the Tall Grass Prairies of the midwest and Great Plains. Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana), which are actually junipers and not cedars, are common trees dominating the landscape around the barrens and prairie areas in this part of the country. The Oak Ridge Barrens abound with typical prairie grasses such as big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii). They are also the home of at least two endangered species in the state: Prairie Goldenrod (Solidago ptarmicoides) and Torrey's Mountain Mint (Pycnathemum torrei).
Many prairie plants are adapted for a hot, dry, windy climate. Their leaves tend to be long and narrow like those of the coneflower and help prevent overheating and dehydration. Some plants have divided leaves or stiff, upright leaves that expose less surface to the hot sun. Hirsuite (hairy) leaves and also sap help some of them hold in moisture as well. Many prairie plants have buds at or below the soil surface along with very large masses of underground roots which help provide protection from the fires that are common on prairies. These fires are needful events due to the fact that, along with drought and browsing by animals, they help hold back the advancing trees and shrubs that eventually would turn the prairies into woodlands.
So what do you plant in a 'suburban prairie'? Natives, wildflowers, grasses, of course, but you could also plant any perennials that suit the zone. Shrubs and vines can work well depending on the amount of rainfall needed for them to survive. As a general rule, keep in mind that prairies are wild, natural, unmowed areas where some plants can easily get lost amid the taller growth. Local nurseries or mail-order wildflower and native nurseries in your state are great places to turn for advice and recommendations. Prairies are basically grasslands, so check local weed control ordinances before planting prairie grasses; if prohibited, you might want to concentrate on prairie wildflowers.
Technically, prairie plants fall within three main categories: short, tall, or mixed grass. Common prairie plants include big (and little) bluestem grass, blue grama grass, buffalo grass, wild oats, fleabane, Indian grass, milkweeds, purple coneflower, sunflowers, and stinging nettle. Sedges are common in Wet Prairies but can also grow in dry ones. Blue grama grass, which grows in both short and tall grass prairies, is a perennial grass with crescent moon-shaped flowers that are often used in floral arrangements. Fleabane has white, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers. The Native American Indians used most of these prairie plants for food, medicine, dyes, poultices, teas and other things. Over 200 native prairie plants have been documented as having been used for medicine by Indians, settlers and doctors. Prairie plants are quite a useful and interesting group.
Once I began planning and then subsequently looking around the yard at what I had, I was pleased to see I had already planted a number of these good prairie plants. I was on the right track with my selections. Now I just need more of them to cover the rest of that lawn! A prairie has a beauty all its own. And so can a prairie in the suburbs.
Some images courtesy of Sunlight Gardens, Andersonville, TN and used with permission.