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Establishing a prairie planting

Q: I’m interested in creating a wildflower prairie garden in our backyard. Can you tell me the pros and cons of starting with plants vs. seeding the area?

Samuel Bunting, St. Louis, MO

A: Larry Enkoji, horticulturist at the  Missouri Botanical Garden , replies: A prairie is a rich landscape of diverse native grasses and forbs (herbaceous, flowering plants). Growing one from transplants offers the advantage of quicker establishment. Since the plants are older going in, flowering usually occurs earlier, often in the first year. The ground will also be covered quickly, resulting in fewer weed problems. And if you’re interested in creating a more designed look, it’s easier to control the placement of the plants with transplants. 

The main disadvantages of starting your prairie garden from transplants are higher cost and the extra labor needed to dig holes and get the plants in the ground. These factors may limit the number of species you’re able to plant initially, but you can always add other species later. If you’re just getting started in prairie gardening, limiting plant choices will help you learn about prairie plants gradually. 

Starting a prairie from seed is often recommended—especially for large planting areas—because it’s cheaper and requires less physical effort. It also makes it easier to get more diversity in your garden right away, simply by including more species in your seed mix. The obvious downside to starting from seed is that it takes plants longer to become established, so patience is definitely required. Some seeds may take one to three years to germinate, and then may not bloom for a few years more. There also is likely to be competition from weeds, and you’ll want to be vigilant about removing them so the desirable plants have room to thrive. If your land slopes steeply, you may have a problem with erosion and seeds washing away. You can minimize this by applying a light layer of weed-free mulch, like straw, to the seeded area.

Some good plants for a prairie garden are: prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), blue false indigo (Baptisia australis), royal catchfly (Silene regia), smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima), ox-eye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), prairie blazing star (Liatris pycno­stachya), sedges (Carex spp.), and ironweeds (Vernonia spp.). 

Regardless of the method used to start a prairie garden, it’s important to control weeds before planting. Do this by allowing weed seeds to germinate in the area and then killing them, either by cultivation or the use of a chemical herbicide. It may be necessary to follow this process two or three times to eliminate especially noxious perennial weeds.

From Fine Gardening 71, pp. 80