Prairie Home Companions

Prairie grasses and flowers are excellent alternative to a traditional lawn.

By James McCommons


As Neil Diboll walks through acres of shooting stars, prairie dropseed, and dozens of other prairie plants at his nursery in central Wisconsin, he recalls how some 20 years ago he hunted down their forebears in ditches, along railroad tracks, and in the corners of unplowed fields. "Every few weeks, I'd drive the back roads and look for little remnants of prairie, "he recalls. "I'd see a plant, stop, and collect some seed. It was botany at 60 miles an hour."

Back then, Diboll—an ecologist by education—ran a shoestring operation. He lived in a beat-up trailer where he germinated his seeds, studied old agricultural books, and steeped himself in the lore of a grassland ecosystem that had nearly disappeared from North America. He was, by his own admission, a bit of a kook—a visionary, too, as it turns out. In recent years, as home gardeners have embraced native plants and the "wildscaping" movement, his once-lonely passion has blossomed into a bustling business, Prairie Nursery, with more than 40 employees.

Today, Diboll is a sought-after lecturer on the garden circuit and a leading advocate for incorporating prairie flowers and grasses into the home landscape. "These are perfect plants for organic gardeners looking for alternatives to a traditional lawn," he says. "And they are great for people who want to make their yards more attractive to birds, butterflies, and other wildlife."

Prairie flowers and grasses are regal plants. The subtle hues of the grasses naturally complement the flowers' vivid colors. Good looks aside, they are tough and versatile and able to grow in several soil types and climates, he says. They thrive without chemicals, fertilizers, or supplemental watering. And because most are perennials, they return year after year. "You're not just putting in a few plants. You are installing a community of plants that evolved together for thousands of years," he says. "Planting a prairie is a joint project with nature."