The prairie: wide open, grassy spaces that aren’t just for Laura Ingalls Wilder! Over the past 150 years, prairie land was converted into homesteads, agricultural fields, highways, cities, and other usable land. It’s beautiful territory that’s now getting a much-needed renewed focus: now more than ever, people appreciate the sparse beauty of the prairie. Naturally, the need to garden follows! Prairie land no longer covers the vast amount of territory it used to, so if you plan to be gardening there, make sure to use native plants that will help nurture and conserve prairies.
“Prairie” refers to grasslands that stretch from Ontario all the way to Texas, and from Colorado to Indiana. These areas typically receive a limited amount of rainfall, with cold winters and hot summers. The grasses often see summer fires, so be on the lookout for those. Get a good understanding of the kind of land you’ll be working with before you ever take shovel to soil.
To start, it’s essential that you not use pesticides. While pesticides do kill pests and keep your garden relatively safe, they also deter the development of natural diversity like butterflies and native plants. Part of prairie gardening needs to be a focus on getting native plants to grow, so don’t keep them away!
On that note, make sure you’re planting native plants! Prairies are characterized by tallgrass, mixed grass, and shortgrass. Wildflowers grow prevalently, as well as coneflowers, prairie phlox, false indigo, and orchids. These plants will fill out your garden the best, and they’re the most likely to stay happy. Grasses are a must. Seeds or plants or fine, but know that seeds will take two to five years to reach their full size.
Plants are best sown or planted just after the frost but before the summer. In Minnesota, for example, seeds are most happy to be planted between May 20th June 20th. Seeds should be spread thinly to make sure they get enough space to grow. Seeds should be watered after they’re planted, and a good rule of (green) thumb is to use half a pound of grass seed per thousand square feet.
Once everything is planted, your biggest concern will be weather and weed control. Watch for fires and hope for rain! If it all falls into place, you’ll be able to enjoy your own prairie wildflowers in the summer.