Prairies (or meadows, to use the European term) are extremely diverse assemblages of flowering perennials and grasses. They are beautiful from spring to fall, and the seeds they produce feed the birds all winter. In this area prairies were always interim ecosystems—in a place where the forest canopy was destroyed by fire or flood or the activities of humans, a small prairie would appear and would remain for several decades until the woody growth took over.
I have three small prairies—most people would call them perennial borders. Each is four or five feet wide and up to thirty feet long. The picture above shows part of one of these gardens in June; the picture below shows a different one in August. They contain a wide variety of native flowering perennials and grasses. Two of these plots were planted around 15 years ago, one was begun about 8 years ago but has been extended several times. They have never received any fertilizers, chemicals, or soil amendment, and they are watered perhaps once or twice a season, if there’s a particularly dry spell. They provide glorious bloom from May through October and seedheads that feed the birds all winter.
You can start a prairie garden from seed (fairly difficult) or from plants (very easy). To start from plants, choose a site that gets full sun. Select plants that are well-adapted to your site, particularly in terms of whether it’s wet or dry, sunny or shady. To remove the existing lawn, you can do several different things, but the easiest is just to apply a thick (3-4”) layer of mulch, such as shredded hemlock bark. Lay the mulch down in fall and the ground will be ready to plant in spring. Plant right through the mulch. Do not amend the soil in any way.
When ordering plants, allow approximately one plant per square foot (so for a garden that is 4 feet wide by 20 feet long, you would need 4 x 20 or approximately 80 plants). As you select plants, be sure to consider height—some prairie species can grow 8 feet tall, and you probably don’t want too many of those in a small space. Choose plants of varying heights and bloom times, and be sure to select a mixture of flowering perennials and native grasses. In nature, forbs (flowering plants) and grasses always grow together; the grasses are beautiful year-round and the backbone of the prairie ecosystem. Grasses, like flowers, attract birds and butterflies, and their root structure complements the roots of the perennials so that the plants keep each other from flopping over.
Spring is the best time to plant. Once the plants are in the ground, water the garden thoroughly and keep it watered whenever there’s a dry spell during the first growing season. Some plants will be slow to take off, but some will bloom that first season. By the second season, and certainly by the third, the garden will be spectacular. You will be astounded by the variety of pollinators, butterflies, and birds it attracts.
A couple of details of care are radically different from everything you’ve ever been taught about perennial gardens. First, do not use any fertilizer or soil amendments—ever. Prairie plants are tough, and they build their own soil. Second, do not do any garden cleanup in the fall. Butterflies and other helpful insects will overwinter on the ground in the leaf litter, and birds will eat the seeds all winter.
Each spring, remove the previous season’s top growth, breaking down the tough stalks close to the soil level (they will snap off very easily). Once everything is on the ground, rake away the litter and either compost it yourself or take it to the town recycling center. That is the only maintenance involved.
Take some time this cold, snowy weekend to plan next year’s prairie garden.