My Tips for Prairie Planting in Gardens

There's more to it than simply planting grasses and herbaceous perennials.

coneflowers closeup

Valerie Loiseleux / Getty Images

Prairie planting is a popular choice in modern garden design. Prairie planting is a term used in contemporary contexts to describe mixes of grasses and herbaceous perennials that mimic grassland environments. Most typically, these include species commonly found on the prairies of the American Midwest. But they can also mimic other grassland and meadow environments, such as Mediterranean maquis or South African meadows, for example.

The options from which you can choose, and the right choices, will depend upon where you live. Native mixtures of grasses and perennial flowers can create wildlife-friendly schemes. They can be used ornamentally to create flowing and naturalistic gardens, or incorporated in order to "rewild" an area of your space, if you live in an area where grasslands, meadows, or prairie would traditionally predominate. 

Here are some things to think about if you are creating a prairie planting scheme in your garden.

Decide Whether You Are Creating an Ornamental Border or a Native Prairie Area

When planting in your garden, the first decision to make is whether you are looking to mimic a prairie environment in an aesthetically pleasing border design, or looking to reestablish a wilder native prairie area in an area where these once would have predominated. 

It is important to understand that an area of prairie planting can only ever be a pale imitation of a true prairie ecosystem. Native prairies are complex ecological systems which take many, many  years to develop, with intricate symbiosis between soil, plants, and wildlife species.

Conservation of remaining prairie remnants is crucial, so before preparing a site and planting, make sure any remaining vegetation is not in place. If your goal is ecosystem conservation and restoration, then a plant survey is crucial before you make your plans.

In most gardens, however, prairie planting will largely be an aesthetic choice, and will be chosen as a scheme to encourage wildlife into the space and cater to native species.

Choose Native Species

Choosing native species is always the best approach. Selecting the right grassland and wild meadow or prairie species appropriate to your location is important.

While some gardeners may choose to plant nonnative species, these will not be as well adapted to the conditions in a given area. Native plants will always be the best choices for local wildlife, so these are the most eco-friendly.

In the American Midwest, for example, some native prairie plants include Indian, bluestem, and switchgrass grasses, goldenrods, asters, milkweeds, and coneflowers. But it is a good idea to research not just U.S. native species, but also the species best adapted to your specific area. (Even within the general prairie bioregion, there can be considerable variety in the species best for inclusion from north to south.)

Even outside the regions where prairies historically predominated, smaller meadow or grassland and wildflower ecosystems can still be hugely valuable additions to a garden. But again, choosing native species and especially avoiding any invasive nonnatives is important.

Decide Whether You Will Sow Seed or Purchase Plants

There are two main ways to create an area of prairie planting. The first option is to sow seed. The second option is to purchase prairie plants and place these to create a more curated planting scheme.

Sowing a prairie from seed creates a more natural environment. The seeds are mixed and broadcast over an area, and allowed to create low maintenance ecological communities of plants. This is the cheapest option and the most sustainable. 

Plants form a natural community which will evolve over time and will spring up more densely, thereby giving more resilience against weeds once mature. Weeding, however, will be more time-consuming at first, and more management can be required especially over the first few years. 

Purchasing prairie plants to place deliberately in a border or other planting area is another way to create an area in your garden. This is more expensive, but it allows you to create a scheme which becomes established more quickly in smaller spaces. 

Careful and ordered placement of plants can create more aesthetically pleasing areas, with neater flower distribution. This approach will be easier to maintain initially, but may make it harder to manage weeds over time. And though it will not look as natural, such schemes can still provide many benefits for native wildlife.

Assess and Prepare the Site Prior to Prairie Planting

Most prairie plants require free-draining soil in full sun. Assessing the site will help you make sure that you choose the right plants for the right places. 

Weeds are a key factor in determining the success or failure of your planting scheme. Prairie plants can often be outcompeted by vigorous weeds before they get the chance to establish themselves. Preparing the site well before planting, i.e. ridding the area of vigorous weeds, can be crucial. 

In an organic garden, of course, herbicides should be avoided. One great way to ensure that the area is weed-free is to sow a dense summer cover crop of buckwheat, then a winter cover crop of winter wheat or winter rye prior to trying to establish prairie planting in the area. This should help eliminate problem weeds from the area.

Maintenance and Management Will Be Required Over the First Few Years

If you have chosen to plant rather than sow your prairie planting scheme, add an organic mulch to aid plants as they become established. Water regularly during dry spells for the first couple of growing seasons. Cut or mow plants in spring, and chop and drop these as a mulch. After the second year for seeded prairie planting schemes, selectively thin dominant species to maintain biodiversity.