Tallgrass Prairie Restoration
Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. ~Willa Cather~
One of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, the tallgrass prairie is also one of its most endangered. Less than 1% of the original extent of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem is preserved today in its natural form.
In recent years, however, there has been a great revival of interest in native tallgrass plants for landscaping and livestock forage due to their beauty, hardiness, low water needs, and ease of care.
This lens is an introductory guide to planning, creating, and maintaining a prairie garden or restoration project of your own.
Introduction to the Prairie
Visit a Prairie
Includes descriptions of over 160 prairie preserves throughout the United States and Canada
Why Start a Tallgrass Restoration Project?
Prairies are beautiful!
Prairie wildflowers are what initially attract many people to native prairie plants. With a good mix of seeds, it is possible to have wildflowers blooming from March to the first frost in a prairie garden.
The beauty of the grasses is not so startling and flashy, but many prairie gardeners soon come to love the grasses as much as the flowers. Lush green in the summer, they turn beautiful shades of red and gold in the fall and remain a striking addition to any landscape throughout the winter.
Prairie gardens are also extremely popular with wildlife. Butterflies love prairie flowers and birds feed on the seeds. In rural areas, prairie are popular haunts of deer, pheasants and other game.
Prairies are low maintenance!
For most people, starting a prairie restoration project means digging up pre-existing lawn or other landscaping, so the initial labor of preparing the bed is not insignificant. Until the prairie becomes established, after about one to two years, it will also require regular weeding and possibly some watering.
After they are established, however, prairie gardens are virtually maintenance free. Depending on the size of the prairie garden and the gardener's personal preference, they need simply to be burned or mowed once every one to three years to prevent their biomass from building up too much and suffocating spring growth or creating a fire hazard.
Weeds will encroach only with difficulty upon an established prairie and prairie plants, having evolved under the stresses of frequent drought, are well-adapted to living without watering. Nor do they require pesticides or fertilizers to remain healthy.
Prairies are environmentally sound!
Americans love lush green lawns. Unfortunately, lush green lawns are a status symbol imported from England, where it rains a lot more than it does in most of the American West. The constant watering and frequent application of pesticides and fertilizers required to maintain a healthy-looking lawn in the American West is unhealthy for both the lawnowner and the environment, and even contributes to water shortages in many Western cities, especially during periods of drought.
Native prairie plants, once established, require neither watering nor chemical fertilizers and pesticides to thrive, conserving water and reducing the release of dangerous chemicals into the air and groundwater. Not only that, they promote biodiversity and attract wildlife.
Prairie Restoration Guides
Informative text and lots of inspirational photos make this one of the best introductions to prairie restoration principles
The bible for tallgrass prairie restoration, with helpful information about native woodland and oak savannah habitats as well
What Kind of Prairie Garden?
Depending on the size of your yard, your budget, and your personal preferences, a prairie garden can be anything from a small border of native wildflowers established from transplants to a multi-acre restoration.
Many gardeners new to prairie plantings like to start small, with an experimental border or other planting, to get some experience and learn more about their preferences. Prairie plants and seeds can be expensive and before starting a large project it does pay to understand the process and your final goals.
For example, many people considering a prairie planting picture a beautiful meadow of wildflowers and buy seed mixes containing a variety of wildflowers and grasses without realizing that in its natural state, the prairie is dominated by grasses and within a few years it will return to its natural ratio of about 60-80% grasses. In the meantime, many people will have grown to love the prairie grasses as deeply as they do the wildflowers, but for others, this can be a major disappointment. If you suspect you may be in the latter group, you may want to consider a mix that uses only the shorter and less aggressive grasses like little bluestem and sideoats grama, or even no grasses at all, although this is not recommended in larger plantings.
The Building Blocks: Recommended Grasses
- Big Bluestem
The king of tallgrasses and the most common species in the original tallgrass prairie. A sod-forming bunch grass, it grows 4-9 feet tall and is popular forage for deer and cattle, although it should not be overgrazed. An attractive blueish-green in the summer, it turns red-gold in the fall and winter months. Prefers well-drained soil.
A highly ornamental grass, but often too aggressive for borders and other small prairie gardens. It forms clumps about 3-6 feet in height and turns an attractive gold in the fall. A popular forage and nesting grass for wildlife. Tolerates flooding and poor drainage better than big bluestem.
The third and least common of the great triumverate of tallgrass species, Indiangrass is a handsome accent grass that grows about 3-8 feet tall and produces golden plume-like seedheads in the fall.
- Little Bluestem
A highly ornamental bunch grass, Little Bluestem grows 2-3 feet in height. Blueish-green in the spring and summer, it turns a lovely shade of red in the fall and winter. Very popular with wildlife, but requires well-drained soil.
- Sideoats Grama
An attractive accent grass about 2-3 feet in height that produces purplish oat-like seeds that line one side of the stem. Popular with birds and butterflies, it is extremely drought tolerent, but does not compete well against the taller grasses.
- Prairie Dropseed
Widely considered to be the most attractive of the prairie grasses, prairie dropseed grows about 2 feet tall and forms handsome, airy clumps with delicate seedheads. It turns a rich bronze in the winter. Birds like the seeds.
The Building Blocks: Recommended Legumes
A small, deciduous shrub about 3-6 feet high that produces tiny purple flowers that group together into spikes. The leaves are covered with short hairs that give the plant a grayish appearence. Extremely drought tolerant due to a 6-16 foot root system.
- Partridge Pea
A short plant about 1-2 feet in height that produces large numbers of small but showy yellow flowers. Common along roadsides, but may be toxic to some livestock.
- Purple Prairie Clover
A showy and popular perennial with tiny purple flowers that cluster into spikes. Extremely popular with butterflies and bees, it also makes a good cut flower.
The Building Blocks: Recommended Forbs
The wildflowers you choose will depend on your soil conditions and personal preferences, but these are some of the most popular and beautiful native wildflowers, most of which adapt well to a range of conditions.
- Ohio Spiderwort
- Black-eyed Susan
- Purple Coneflower
- Butterfly Weed
- Joe-Pye Weed
- New England Aster
- Prairie Blazing Star
- Lanceleaf Coreopsis
- Compass Plant
- Showy Goldenrod
- Shooting Star
- Ox-Eye Sunflower
Maintaining a Prairie Garden
The First Years
Your prairie will need some help until it becomes established, which generally takes one to three years, depending on how carefully you have prepared the site and whether you are using seeds or transplants.
The most important job is weeding. If you have started from seed, you should know that many prairie plants grow only a couple inches tall their first year of growth, concentrating their energy instead on establishing a good root system. Unfortunately, it is easy for weeds to shade out the baby plants during this time and kill them. If you are concerned about this, mowing a few times over the summer with the blades set to their maximum height may help. You should also plan to weed regularly by hand as necessary.
Unless it is an unusually dry year, watering will probably not be necessary for a seeded prairie garden, and may even promote harmful weed growth. If you have started with transplants, however, some watering will probably be necessary until their root systems have recovered from the trauma of being moved, especially if it's an especially dry year.
Using herbicides of any kind during this time is not advised.
The Later Years
Once safely established, prairie gardens are virtually maintenance free. Most weeds will have trouble establishing themselves in the face of competition from the taller grasses in particular, although occasional spot weeding may be necessary. One common exception is non-native cool season grasses such as brome. Spot mowing can help control these species. If you want, you can replace the weeds with native transplants, but the prairie will quickly reclaim any bare ground on its own if you prefer not to do so.
Depending on the size of the garden and your personal preferences, you will need to burn, mow, or otherwise clear old growth away about once every one to three years so the built up biomass doesn't suffocate early spring growth over time or develop into a fire hazard. This is preferably done in late spring - late March to early May, depending on where you live - so the prairie can provide food and cover for wildlife over the winter. In larger prairie restorations, it is a good idea to divide the area into halves or thirds and do a different section every year.
Larger prairie plantings may also find it wise to mow a wide swath (usually about 8 feet) around the edges to serve as a fire break. This is especially important near any buildings or trees.
Other Prairie Resources
- Prairies Forever
A non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the ecological and cultural significance of the American prairie through education, outreach, and public engagement. Extensive information on all aspects of prairies.
- Iowa Prairie Network
A volunteer organization dedicated to the preservation of Iowa's prairie heritage. Includes information about restoration, where to visit a prairie, and more.
- The Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois
Lots of information about prairie history and restoration, as well as information about where you can visit a prairie in Illinois
- Prairie Plains Resource Institute
A Nebraska-based non-profit with information about restoration techniques and projects, Nebraska prairie preserves, and more.
- Prairie Haven
An interesting and informative blog about a couple's Wisconsin prairie restoration project. Lots of beautiful photos.
- American Prairie Foundation
The mission of American Prairie Foundation is to create and manage a prairie-based wildlife reserve that, when combined with public lands already devoted to wildlife, will protect a unique natural habitat, provide lasting economic benefits, and impro
But I Don't Live in the Prairie Region!
Many prairie plants are so hardy and adaptable that you could grow them almost anywhere. However, I strongly encourage you to use plants native to your own ecosystem in your landscaping, especially if you are in an area where water conservation is important. There is a growing number of resources available to help you.
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Founded by former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and actress Helen Hayes, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center works to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants, and landscapes. Contains an extensive database of na
- Backyard Wildlife Habitat
The National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program got me interested in wildlife gardening at the tender age of 8 (it took me a few more years to discover the benefits of prairie gardening). It contains extensive information about w
- Wild Ones
Wild Ones is a nonprofit organization working to promote environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.
- North American Native Plant Society
Dedicated to the study, conservation, cultivation and restoration of native plants.
- Center for Plant Conservation
One quarter of the native plants in the United States are of conservation concern. That’s 5,000 different species. So we work to preserve and restore these native treasures.
- Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program
The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) is a voluntary program for people who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat primarily on private land. Through WHIP USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service provides both technical assistance