Why You Should Consider A Prairie-Style Yard
When Benjamin Vogt and his wife, Jaclyn, moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, their suburban property matched their neighbors'—a lot of lawn. Vogt filled front borders with astilbe, hosta and other go-to perennials. Over time, as he explored local prairies on walks, he began adding natives like blazing stars and asters. But the real philosophy switch happened when he looked up care tips for butterfly bush. Despite its name, the popular plant is becoming invasive and supports no butterfly larvae.
So Vogt pulled all the showy purple spikes and sowed assorted prairie plants instead. The difference was striking. On the butterfly bush, he says, "One lone tiger swallowtail worked the blooms, like a tourist at a restaurant the locals never visited." But now the garden was a buzzing community. "The wildlife octupled in just that one patch!"
Inspired, he ripped out half of his front lawn and planted a 1,000-square-foot designed prairie. "I live in Nebraska and want to celebrate my state and the beautiful wild places I see," Vogt says. "I don't want to have to drive three hours when I can have that at home." Besides, he boasts, he waters little and only has to mow once, in the spring: "The maintenance advantages alone are significant. Now, I can just enjoy my garden and experience it like I'm on a mini vacation."
Today, he champions prairie planting though a blog, online classes, books and a landscape design business, Monarch Gardens. He says, "I tell my clients, even if you just take one corner and put in a few asters and grasses, you're making a massive difference in supporting wildlife. Do we really need all that lawn or can we give a little bit back to nature? I think 99 percent of the time, yes, we can—and we should."
Benjamin Vogt shares a few tips for creating a beautiful (and just wild enough) pocket prairie.
NARROW YOUR PICKS For a cohesive look that won't overwhelm, limit your plant palette to five—one native grass and four wildflowers. Choose shorter (under 3 feet) varieties and clumpers that behave. Skip bullies like Canadian goldenrod that have rampant roots and seeds that self-sow everywhere. Aim for a succession of blooms to provide continuous interest and support a host of pollinators.
GO SHOPPING Check out specialized online sources, such as Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota or Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin. Or better yet, find a native plant sale with specimens grown from über-local seeds.
PLANT THE BASE Start with the grass—a layer of living green mulch—choosing sedge or a bunch-type grass and spacing plants 12 inches apart. Sun-lovers include sideoats grama grass or clustered field sedge; in shade, try white-tinged sedge.
COLOR IT IN Next add clumps of wildflowers, grouping them in numbers of three to five to create a brighter beacon for pollinators. One possible menu: prairie alum roots for spring blooms, pale purple coneflowers for early summer, nodding onions for mid-summer, meadow blazing star for late summer and one aromatic aster for fall.
Prairie of Plenty
In addition to wildlife habitat and food, a miniature prairie delivers year-round texture and color variation. (Dried seed pods and grasses look stunning dusted in frost or snow.) And there are invisible perks: Prairie plants have dense, deep roots nearly double or triple their height. They help filter pollutants from the air and water, prevent flooding and soil erosion, and capture and store carbon.
PURPLE PRAIRIE CLOVER (Top left) These thimble-shape flowers are not aromatic but provide critical pollen for a variety of insects. Their feathery foliage is an added bonus. Plants grow up to 2 feet in sun to partial shade and prefer well-drained soil.
LITTLE BLUESTEM (Top middle) This fine-textured, bunching ornamental prairie grass (center) emerges in blues and greens then deepens to purple and eventually copper in late fall. The seed heads are a standout as they sparkle in the sunlight.
RATTLESNAKE MASTER (Top right) Spiky yucca-like leaves and bristled golf-ball flowers (right) add architectural drama to a prairie planting and lure adult pollinators throughout the late summer. Plants reach up to 5 feet and thrive in full sun.
ALUM ROOT (Bottom left) Heuchera richardsonii is a native alum root, or coral bells, that sends up shoots with petite greenish blooms in late spring. Its maple-like foliage pops among wispier prairie grasses.
PALE PURPLE CONEFLOWER (Bottom middle) Unlike classic coneflowers, this beauty features gracefully dropping petals in soft pink. Leave the jet-black seed heads for winter interest and as a food source for the birds.
AROMATIC ASTER (Bottom right) Mounds of dainty purple flowers bring welcome color to a fall garden and attract scads of insects storing up for winter or migrating south.
Did you know?
The Great Plains prairies once covered 550 million acres—nearly a third of the continental United States. Today, small remnants remain along railroad tracks and in old cemeteries. Visit larger prairie preserves at Kansas' Tallgrass Prairie, Nebraska's Sandhills and South Dakota's Buffalo Gap. They're all great for hiking, bird-watching, wildlife viewing and garden inspiration.
Bookshelf: Growing Native
In 2022, look for Benjamin Vogt's second book, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design. Until then, here are other beginner-friendly titles.