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Tallgrass Prairie Restoration

Updated on September 12, 2014

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

Peterson Field Guides: The North American Prairie
Peterson Field Guides: The North American 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

Gardening With Prairie Plants: How To Create Beautiful Native Landscapes
Gardening With Prairie Plants: How To Create Beautiful Native Landscapes

Informative text and lots of inspirational photos make this one of the best introductions to prairie restoration principles

 
The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook: For Prairies, Savannas, and Woodlands
The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook: For Prairies, Savannas, and Woodlands

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.

  • Switchgrass

    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.

  • Indiangrass

    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

  • Leadplant

    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.

  • Cupplant
  • Ohio Spiderwort
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Purple Coneflower
  • Butterfly Weed
  • Joe-Pye Weed
  • New England Aster
  • Prairie Blazing Star
  • Bergamot
  • 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.

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.

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    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      I became very interested in prairie restoration as I read and Buffalo For The Broken Heart. It really made me aware of how endangered our prairies really are. Having grown up on the prairies of the Midwest, I have a real appreciation for what you are doing and suggesting here. Some of the plants and grasses you mention are growing wild and beautiful on my property. I'd like to follow your lead and establish a prairie garden. Thanks for the great suggestions and resources. Appreciated!

    • ofdifferentsorts profile image

      Paul Franciskato 5 years ago from Junction City, Kansas

      The Flint Hills in Kansas are amazing to see - especially in the Spring and Summer when the grasses and wildflowers come back to life!

    • profile image

      Pastimedesigns 6 years ago

      Very nice lens. Glad I searched for it. The subject of prairies is very dear to my heart. I spent many years drawing prairie plants at my job and continue to add more to my list. Many of my drawings are on gift items in my store including a poster of 35 prairie flowers. http://www.zazzle.com/my/products/public/cg-196199...

    • CoeGurl profile image

      CoeGurl 7 years ago from USA

      Great lens! It's important to save something of the wonderful prairies that once covered so much of our country. One of my favorite areas is the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, located just south of Red Cloud, Nebraska, which is Willa Cather's childhood home. My lens about her home and prairie is here: http://www.squidoo.com/willa-cather-childhood-home...

    • profile image

      CreditRestoration1 7 years ago

      I am hoping to see for your next post. Hope it would be about landscaping.

    • profile image

      CreditRestoration1 7 years ago

      Prairies can actually give a cool landscape especially if you will combine it with yellow producing flowers.

    • profile image

      CaroleBee 7 years ago

      Great information, Kerry. Native prairies are extremely endangered. Thanks for sharing their importance. Lensrolled back to Conservation Gardening.

    • Clairwil LM profile image

      Clairwil LM 8 years ago

      5* lens. It's appalling that these beautiful landscapes are under threat. Thanks for highlighting this issue.

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 8 years ago

      Excellent lens and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    • profile image

      darlkay52 8 years ago

      I love your lens! I've always lived on the prairie and my favorite pastime is walking in the pastures around our farm. I transplant prairie flowers into my flower gardens.

    • kephrira lm profile image

      kephrira lm 8 years ago

      nice pictures, interesting lens - 5 stars from me!

    • naturegirl7s profile image

      Yvonne L. B. 8 years ago from Covington, LA

      Thanks Kerry, Love this prairie restoration lens. 5*'s and a lensroll back to Gardening with Native Plants.

    • profile image

      coopd 8 years ago

      Great lens! Wonderful information. Thank you for joining my Nature Lovers group :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Beautiful, beautiful lens! Another great resource you may want to add is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, nearly 11,000 acres of preserved land through The Nature Conservancy. It is breathtaking, humbling, astounding to walk on the prairie, all grasses, flowers, and sky.

      5* lens, gorgeous!

    • CherylK profile image

      Cheryl Kohan 9 years ago from Minnesota

      I love your lens and I'm lensrolling it to three of mine. Your pictures are beautiful.

    • RaintreeAnnie profile image

      RaintreeAnnie 9 years ago from UK

      Lovely lens and very informative and interesting. To know there is less than 1% left is very concerning.I love those prairie landscapes and flowers, they are so beautiful. 5 stars-and adding to faves. Your knowledge and passion for the prairie restoration shines through here :)

    • profile image

      LeslieBrenner 9 years ago

      5 stars! I've never understood why people spend lots of money and time fertilizing, seeding, etc., their lawns...only to mow them 2 inches high every week? Wild gardens are so much more beautiful.

    • Kiwisoutback profile image

      Kiwisoutback 9 years ago from Massachusetts

      This is an excellent lens, I gladly lensrolled it to my "Bison not Buffalo" lens. Never knew about the "status symbol" element to our grasskeeping habits we carried over from England, but it makes total sense. The impacts of keeping your grass looking green are devestating in the US, it's far-reaching.

    • profile image

      Yardflower 9 years ago

      Down here in the south (Mississippi) we have prairie remnants. I've enjoyed exploring them and with the help of www.meadowmakers.com have created my own small prairie. I hope to visit the tallgrass prairies some day. Thanks for a great web site.

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 9 years ago from Royalton

      I just recently started learning about grasses and became fascinated by them. From the meadows of Vermont to the watery expanses of the Everglades and on to the prairies, what variety! Come see the Bluebirds

    • KSamuel-Stevens profile image

      KSamuel-Stevens 9 years ago

      Great and important information which I will definately use. I will check back when site preparation is complete. Five stars.

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      Very nicely done. I lived in South Dakota for seven years, and I came to love the prairie. I really miss the open grassland and the endless sky. I even miss the wind! Thank you for bringing it back to me!

    • Karendelac profile image

      Karendelac 10 years ago

      I rated this lens 5 stars. Thank you so much for raising my awareness of this endangered plant. A very important topic. All the Best, Karen at Karen's Kinkade Art Store

    • profile image

      Chestnut_Consulting_LLC 10 years ago

      Very informative site on restoring our prairies. We visited Jeffers Petroglphs Historic Site in SW Minnesota this summer and hiked through a restored prairie. It was lovely despite the heat. Restoring prairies remains a real challenge, and you're doing vital work.

    • profile image

      Earthserver 10 years ago

      Awesome lens-five stars for sure, and a bookmark. Great resources. I just constructed a rain garden and planted it to several forbs. I bought the forb plugs from ion exchange. Great people to work with.

    • profile image

      AnneEasterling 10 years ago

      Wonderful lens! Excellent tutorial, great links.

    • M Schaut profile image

      Margaret Schaut 10 years ago from Detroit

      Its a great lens! Wonderful project, too!

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 10 years ago from San Francisco

      I once read letters of a young woman visiting a prairie for the first time, back when prairie covered much of the US. She told of horses standing in grasses up to their necks. An amazing sight. Welcome to Building Ordinary.

    • profile image

      ank 10 years ago

      Hi kerryg, great lens . I really enjoyed articles on it. However , i have also created my lens check out

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    • profile image

      ank 10 years ago

      Hi kerryg , great lens . I really enjoyed articles on it. I'd love it if you would take a look at my lens on Container Gardening Tips!check out t

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    • profile image

      flaminglacer 10 years ago

      Squid Angel Star

    • Christene-S profile image

      Christene-S 10 years ago

      Blessed by a SquidAngel

    • Classic LM profile image

      Classic LM 10 years ago

      Wow! beautiful lens! Welcome to my group Nature and Environment! Very glad to have you. I voted 5*s on this lens, too bad there are only 5*s available! I added it to my lens about the Monarch Butterfly and the Mouse Deer. if you have a minute, please visit! Keep the good stuff coming!

    • Barkely profile image

      Barkely 10 years ago

      Great information, thanks for sharing.

    • one SquidAddict profile image

      one SquidAddict 10 years ago

      Welcome to the Group! I have rated you 5*

      Save the Planet

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      Otzi 10 years ago

      Your work here just puts me at peace Kerry. Being a person who loves a 'big horizon' I enjoy reading your perspective on the Prairie landscape. If I can help on any renovation ideas please let me know. Otzi

    • JimB LM profile image

      JimB LM 10 years ago

      A wonderfully designed and informative lens on an important subject. The tallgrass prairie is a beautiful part of our country, but very little of it is left today. Thanks for helping us learn more about it!

    • profile image

      giddygabby 10 years ago

      Super lens on the value of prairies and how to preserve their native plants and enjoy them in our gardens, Kerry. Thanks for all your hard work. This lens rates five stars in my book!

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 10 years ago from San Francisco

      Kerry, I was born in the Midwest and miss the undulating landscape. Prairies I have known a few, but never the horizon-to-horizon tall grasses Cather loved. Thank you for your passion and for sharing it with us all. I've added you to my Village of Ordinary lensroll. Namaste