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."
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.
Building Prairie Sod
If you want only a few prairie grasses or flowers for your beds, it's simple enough to order individual specimen plants and manage them as you would other perennials. Specimen plants work quite well in flowerbeds, border plantings, and wildflower islands surrounded by turfgrass. If your intent is to build a true prairie sod—an interdependent, intertwined community of plants—your best bet is to use a wildflower-and-prairie-grass seed mix that matches your site conditions and soil type. Once you have chosen your mix, here's how to prepare the site.
Site/seedbed: Prairie plants do best in an area open to sun and air—not surprising considering they evolved on the breezy, sun-drenched plains. Prairie plants require at least half a day of full sun and good air circulation, which discourages fungal diseases. Although it's difficult to achieve an entirely weed-free planting site, that is your goal. Prepare the site organically by choosing one of these three methods:
1. Place black plastic over the ground for an entire growing season. This deprives the weeds of moisture and sunlight and raises the temperature, literally cooking the soil.
2. Layer newspapers 10 sheets thick over the area you want to turn into a prairie garden, and then top the paper with a 2-foot layer of dead leaves and grass clippings in roughly equal amounts. Let the leaves-and-grass mixture compost for one growing season; then scrape off the top few inches until you get down to the easily crumbled, composted material. Seed directly into the compost. This way, you create a new seedbed and entomb any weeds in the soil below.
3. Remove the turf with a sod cutter or spade and sow seeds directly into the ground beneath. This only works if your lawn contains few weeds.
Seeding: When planting 1 acre or less, hand-broadcast the seeds. Prairie seeds can be tiny. To spread them evenly, bulk up the mix with sawdust or sand.
Regardless of where you live, you can plant in either spring or fall. When planting in spring, rake the seed lightly into the soil and roll the bed as you would when planting turfgrass. The seeds require firm contact with the soil. Keep the ground consistently moist until the seedlings are established.
If you plant in fall—usually from late September until the ground freezes—there's less need to rake or roll. In winter, as the ground heaves from the cold, the seeds will work their way into the ground. They germinate when warm weather returns in spring. This "dormant seeding" works especially well in hard-to-dig clay.
You will need to guard against erosion, particularly on slopes. Diboll recommends mulching the bed with a weed-free straw, such as winter wheat. Or you can add annual rye seed to the seed mix (at the rate of 15 pounds per acre) and raise a "nurse crop" that grows a few inches and stabilizes the soil through winter. In USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 1 to 5, the rye dies from the cold and helps fertilize the planting. In warmer zones, the annual rye will survive winter but will peter out the next season. "Even if it doesn't die off, it typically won't interfere with the planting," says Diboll.
Year one: Prairie seedlings grow slowly and will soon be outpaced by weeds. Yes, weeds. Despite all of your preparations, weeds still appear.
"The first year, it looks bad," warns Diboll. "All you see are weeds and these little prairie plants down near ground level."
Three or four times during the growing season, mow the bed with a weed and grass trimmer or hand scythe to a height of 6 inches—always before the weeds set seed. That way, you cut the weeds but spare the seedlings. Leave the cuttings in the bed as mulch.
Never try to pull any weeds by hand because you may disturb the emerging prairie plants.
Year two: To accommodate the increasing height of the prairie plants, raise your mowing height to 12 inches. Mow once or twice this season, beginning in June when biennial weeds, such as Queen Anne's lace, bull thistle, and sweet clover, are flowering but not yet setting seed. Mowing off the flower heads breaks the weeds' two-year cycle.
Annual weeds still come up, and you may notice some perennial nuisances, too, such as Canada thistle, dandelion, and bindweed. It's okay to pull weeds carefully by hand now that the prairie plants have developed root systems, but do so only after a good soaking rain, when the roots pull easily and you are less likely to disturb your prairie seedlings.
Year three: Now's the time to control the cool-season weeds, such as quackgrass and Kentucky bluegrass, that appear in the beds while the prairie plants are still dormant.
Early in the season—about the time maple trees begin to bud—mow the entire planting down to the ground and rake out the cut material. Or you can mimic nature and burn the prairie. (See "To Burn or Not to Burn" below.) Either treatment sets back the weeds, warms the soil, and encourages the reemergence of the warm-season prairie plants.
"It's precisely what happens in nature," says Diboll. "Prairies really take off after this treatment."
Subsequent years: By now you have a firmly established prairie sod of intertwined plants that fend fairly well for themselves. Occasionally, you may pull a weed or two, but burning or mowing in spring is usually all the annual maintenance required.
To Burn or Not to Burn
Burning a prairie can be fun but also a little hazardous. The vinyl siding on Prairie Nursery's office building has a wavy appearance, the result of a fire that had been set to clear weeds from a prairie planting along the foundation.
"Prairie grasses burn pretty hot, apparently hotter than the melting point of that siding," says a chagrined Neil Diboll. "We're more careful now."
Prairies naturally evolved with fire, and even in today's home landscape, they require either controlled burning or close mowing each spring. Burning works best because it removes all aboveground material—last year's dead growth and cool-season weeds that are actively growing. The charred ground efficiently absorbs heat, warming the soil and stimulating the warm-season prairie plants to emerge.
Burning, however, is impractical for many homeowners. The planting may be too close to a structure, or there may be burning restrictions. Check with your local government before planning a burn. The alternative is to mow the planting close to the ground—right down to the dirt—and rake out the material. This removes most growth and exposes the soil to the warming rays of the sun.
If you decide to burn, follow these safety tips from Diboll:
Burn in the evening, when humidity is higher and wind and temperature are lower, making a fire easier to control.
Always burn into the wind. That way, the fire will creep slowly forward.
Mow the area ahead of time to reduce flame height.
Don't burn alone, and keep a hose on hand.