Yard Smart: Growing a prairie
Someone once said that the only living vestiges of the American tallgrass prairie stand over the dead in pioneer graveyards. The thick covering of sod was built up over the ages. The graveyards were also fenced against grazing livestock, which further protected the thick layer of native grasses and perennials.
From this extraordinary ecosystem comes some of the best perennials for gardens. They aren't just beautiful, but super-adapted to local climate and soils. Moreover, they maintain a natural resistance to pests and diseases as well as have an innate tolerance to extremes such as the drought that so damaged this year's corn crop. But the tallgrass prairie has seen such dry years before and within each species lies characteristics that resulted from millennia of natural selection.
Gardeners unfamiliar with prairie ecosystems don't realize that coneflowers, blazing star, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, milkweed and Joe Pye weed are all derived from the prairie. These perennials are adapted to grow side by side with our big burly native grasses that fed the buffalo and, later, livestock. These grasses and flowering perennials combine to create a variety of tall and short prairie ecosystems.
For a long time I have written on aspects of these easy-care perennials, their habitats and relationships to wildlife and American history. More recently, prairie plantings are proving an excellent way to replace lawns with a more environmentally friendly plant community. The problem has always been helping readers to obtain the lesser-known perennials and native grasses that may not be commonly stocked at garden centers. While the best place to find them locally is an independent garden center, many natives are not amenable to growing very long in containers. They are difficult to keep in stock, so are often a special order.
And then I discovered Prairie Moon Nursery while judging the 2012 Green Thumb Awards. Its Gardener's Companion catalog arrived with sample seeds and I was immediately impressed that the company offers young plants by mail, too. This proves a rare reliable source for well-started native perennials for any kind of garden. While perusing the catalog I realized that this is more than a catalog, it's a holistic resource for gardeners devoted to the American prairie and how to obtain the best results from its species.
Starting a whole prairie from seed isn't easy. At Prairie Moon, they are growing the many perennials and grasses in small, but very deep, containers. This allows plenty of deep rooting early on in the life of the plant, which is key to their vigor and early drought resistance. Container-grown plants help your prairie project enjoy a head start without so much dependence on nursing seeds along.
This is a realistic nursery that is putting into practice green ideals rather than just using buzzwords or following causes. They market prairies as packages, which is smart and gives customers an edge. The mix-and-match trays of perennials and grasses in varying kits are ready-made to plant out upon arrival. These will be the foundation of a prairie, so that pre-started perennials and grasses help protect the new seedlings. This large-scale approach is what we all need to realistically introduce an entire ecosystem to a yard all at once. It also means you aren't waiting years for results.
Go to www.prairiemoon.com and order the catalog, Native Gardener's Companion. You'll want to keep it for a permanent reference. You may not recognize many of the plants at first because these are prairie species rarely stocked in garden centers. But as natives, you can be sure they are ready for American soil and climate conditions.
For those of us who need an alternative to thirsty lawns, if you want more wildlife in your yard or perhaps you long to protect the environment in a special way, help is on the way.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.