Prairie Home Companions

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

By James McCommons


Plant Communities
When French explorers first penetrated the Great Plains, they called the vast grasslands "prairie," a word meaning "meadow." But you need not live on the plains to grow a native prairie, Diboll points out. Grassland ecosystems also occur naturally along both coasts and amid eastern woodlands. His and other native-plant nurseries sell meadow and woodland varieties that do well in many regions of the country. Also, many of the hardy, highly adaptable prairie plants grow nicely outside their native region.

Some gardeners use prairie plants to overcome landscaping obstacles, such as stabilizing a steep hillside, planting on septic drain fields, or penetrating hard-to-work soils. Diboll sells customized seed mixes for sandy or clay soils and wet or dry conditions. Choosing the right mix of plants for the site is the key to success, he says.

"All prairies aren't the same. Some plants evolved where water was abundant, others in drier conditions. Some are best suited to sandy soils, others for clay," he says. "The plant community will differ depending on the site conditions, but as long as you choose the proper plants, you can establish a self-sustaining prairie."

It takes a few years for a prairie seedling to grow, mature, and sustain itself. First, you must prepare a weed-free bed for the seeds and help the slow-growing seedlings compete for the first couple of years. In time, the plants muscle out most invading weeds, helped along by an annual spring burning or close mowing of the planting. Burning or close mowing removes dead plant material, keeps out encroaching vegetation, and encourages the reemergence of the prairie plants. "Prairies are low maintenance but not no maintenance," says Diboll.