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Creating A Native Prairie
Creating A Native Prairie
Published by Porterbrook
Default Creating A Native Prairie


Frank W. Porter
Porterbrook Native Plants

Prairies are vast grasslands that once dominated the landscape of the heartland of North America. Early settlers, who had spent weeks winding their wagons through dense forests in a search of new lands to farm, were amazed to find these treeless expanses. For many of them, trees were indicators of fertile soil. They quickly bypassed these “barren” lands and searched for more inhabitable areas. For those who chose to settle in the prairies, farming was not practicable because the deep sod formed by the extensive root systems of the grasses made it nearly impossible to turn the soil. Not till the development of the steel plow would the prairies succumb to agriculture.

Native prairies have almost completely disappeared from the American landscape. “The prairie flowers have strangely enough disappeared from open ground, under the croppings of cattle and the clippings of the scythe,” observed one visitor to the Midwest in 1847. “Only a half dozen sorts were seen in a ride of 30 miles, and these straggling at great distances.” Over-grazing, excessive plowing, and land development have destroyed this fragile ecosystem. Only small remnants of these prairies remain to give us a glimpse of one of the wonders of nature. These relic prairies, although small in size, can still be found in old settlers cemeteries, along a railroad right-of-way, or in the corner of a farmer’s field.

Over two hundred different plant species grew in the prairies of the Midwest. Asters, sunflowers, goldenrods, coneflowers, and blazing stars created a rainbow of colors. And different species of grasses served as the protective blanket for this panorama. Some of these prairie grasses grew “taller than a man on horseback.”
Efforts have been made to reestablish prairies. Seeds are collected from the relic prairies and planted in protected areas. The original ecosystem of the prairies, however, can never be recreated by man. We can, nevertheless, appreciate some of the beauty of these plants and the complexity of this unique ecosystem by creating a native prairie in our own gardens.

It is important to start on a small scale. A four foot by eight foot plot can accommodate several different species and will be easy to manage. The first step is to remove all of the existing vegetation by scalping the turf to a depth of two to three inches. Do not till the soil because this will only bring buried weed seeds to the surface. Dig a cavity large enough for each plant and amend it with compost. Leave the remaining soil undisturbed.

Prepare a map of the garden and select the prairie species. In the center of the bed, plant alternately Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem), Silphium laciniatum (Compass Plant), and Silphium terebinthinaceum (Prairie Dock). On either side of this center section, plant a combination of Liatris aspera (Rough Blazing Star), Liatris pycnostachya (Prairie Blazing Star), Asclepias sullivantii (Sullivant’s Milkweed), Solidago ohiensis (Ohio Goldenrod), Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake Master), and Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem). Along the border of the small prairie, plant Boutelea curtipendula (Side Oats Gamma Grass), Hypoxis hirsutus (Yellow Star Grass), Gentiana crinita (Fringed Gentian), Phlox glaberrima v. interior (Smooth Phlox), Coreopsis palmata (Prairie Coreopsis), Amorpha canescens (Leadplant), Viola pedata (Birdsfoot Violet).
These plants, once established, will attract butterflies, birds, and many beneficial insects. And you will have a small parcel of what was once a distinct plant community.

This article was first published by the Marietta Register
By Hedgerowe on 06-24-2009, 06:51 PM

I would love to start my own meadow/grassland/prairie in my back field (a former farm field). It would not be prairie here, but meadow. I've started reading up a bit on appropriate grasses, but am looking at such a large area (1.5 acres, large to me, anyway) that "scalping" seems onerous and nearly impossible without earth moving equipment. It would take me years to do it by hand!

How does one do a small area while leaving adjacent areas as-is, without having the invasives invade back in from the as-is areas (is this making any sense)? Should I be referring this question back to the chemical vs. no-chemical threads?
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By Porterbrook on 06-24-2009, 08:11 PM

I do not use any chemicals or fertilizers at the nursery. Weeds and unwanted turf are removed by hand. I use a Pulaski axe to perform this task. The secret is not to do the entire area at one time. Begin with a plot that you feel comfortable working on without undue physical strain. Follow the procedures outlined in the article and in the article about establishing a native plant garden. Once the ground is prepared, you need to make a selection of the plants you want in it. I always use plants instead of seeds. Plants quickly establish themselves, thereby out-competing any weed seeds left in the soil. These plants, in turn, become seed producers and will help to fill in the interstices between your plants. You keep repeating the process until your meadow or prairie is the size you desire. Having said this, I would ask you to consider a different way of approaching the planting of your backyard. Instead of a meadow, establish individual areas planted as described above that are connected by pathways lined with native shrubs and small-sized trees. An archway, covered with native vines, could be constructed leading into the newly planted yard. The pathways would allow you immediate access to all of the plants so that you can actually see their entire habit and blooms. You would also be able to keep control of weeds, remove dead foliage, and add new plants. Just some thoughts.......
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By Hedgerowe on 06-24-2009, 08:44 PM

I like your plan much better, especially as I am a shrub and tree lover. It sounds lovely in fact, especially the pathways and the archway. Maybe a small meadow among the other plantings could be managed. Excellent ideas, Porterbrook, and something I can pull off myself (no heavy equipment). Thank you! I will let you know how it comes along.
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