a community newspaper serving western Albemarle County

In the Garden: Prairie in a Can

By Charles Kidder

Do you remember meadows that came in a can? (Or a packet for that matter.) You can still buy them, although I’d bet that sales peaked long ago. The concept of throwing some seeds on the ground and getting a beautiful flower garden understandably had appeal to less-than-energetic gardeners. The results fell considerably short, however. What went wrong? After all, these are tough “wildflowers” that should be able to thrive with almost no care. Alas, things are rarely that simple.

Just what are we are trying to create here, anyway? A prairie? A meadow? (Or a steppe, if you prefer a European term.) The differences between the former two are not always clear cut; in fact the early American pioneers borrowed the term “prairie” from the French, where it actually meant something more akin to “meadow.” Notwithstanding, I’ll attempt to make some distinctions that I think the average person can relate to.

In the U.S., prairies are vast grasslands that originally occupied huge swaths of the middle of the country. In actuality, the term grasslands is a bit of a simplification, since much of the vegetation was forbs, or what most people would call flowers. And “The Prairie” was not one homogeneous entity. Taller species of grass grew in the wetter eastern portions, while short-grass prairie occupied the drier western plains. In drier zones, trees and shrubs would have only occupied river bottoms, while in the moister prairies woody vegetation would be more common and would tend to “invade” the grasslands. Fire and animal browsing would keep the trees and shrubs in check.

Meadows are usually smaller pockets of herbaceous vegetation surrounded by woodland. Many are man-made, especially in humid areas. Roadside clearings are examples we’re all familiar with. Others, like alpine meadows, are too cold and windy to allow much in the way of tree growth. Although man may still be creating meadows—or prairies—by slicing roads through the landscape, almost all the original wild American prairie is gone, replaced by corn, soybeans and other crops.

In some ways, creating a meadow/prairie garden is not as different as you might expect. If you have a typical flowerbed, its species composition to a large degree already mimics that of a meadow. The manner in which it was installed and is maintained differs greatly, however. In a flowerbed, typically you A.) dig a hole, and B.) insert plant, although natural seed dispersal might also help some species to spread. For maintenance, you cut down old vegetation by hand and probably remove weeds the same way. But what about installing and maintaining a large-scale prairie garden? Given the “sprinkle some seeds” ads, people imagine that a meadow is going to be a low-maintenance garden. Maybe. Eventually.

If you’re actually going to attempt creating a prairie, your first step is removal of existing vegetation. This can be an arduous process, and annual weed seeds will be difficult to eliminate totally. But there are four techniques you can choose from:

Herbiciding—the least environmentally-friendly method for a variety of reasons

Sod cutting—removing the top 2 to 3 inches of sod will only be effective if no perennial weeds are present, a highly unlikely proposition

Cultivating—tilling repeatedly at one-week intervals, or for a full growing season at 2-3 week intervals if perennial weeds are present. Eventually effective, but repeated tilling wreaks havoc on beneficial fungi and bacteria.

Smothering—covering the bed with black plastic, carpet, wood, newspaper, etc. This would be pracital for a flower bed the size of your living room, but what about for an entire acre?

As you can see, there are drawbacks to all of these. Pick your poison, but not literally.

Next, comes planting. Till lightly again to eliminate any small weeds. Your seed mix should be blended with a carrier, such as sand, sawdust, peat moss or vermiculite. Do not plant in wet soils. If spreading seed by non-mechanized methods, split it into two batches. Spread half in one direction, then the other half at ninety degrees to that in order to ensure even coverage. Mulch with straw. Watering is not absolutely necessary, but will hasten germination.

Now for maintenance, where any garden reaches the make-or-break phase. Mowing is required roughly once per month, or when weeds reach one foot tall. Mow your prairie to 6 inches high. This should set back the weeds, but allow the shorter perennial prairie plants to keep growing.

In Year 2 of your prairie, in mid-spring mow as close to the ground as possible and rake off the cuttings. When weeds reach one foot tall, cut them down to six inches.

Year 3 would ideally begin your mid-spring burn cycle, the best way to maintain a prairie. Beginning with Year 5, burn half your prairie every other year to allow an area for invertebrates to breed in the off years.

It will be a while before you can fully enjoy your prairie. Prairie seeds will germinate over a two to three year period, and some will not flower until Year 3 or 4. No instant gratification here. And remember that a true prairie will be majority grasses, with wildflowers scattered about. The grasses not only help to support the floppy forbs, but also provide an attractive green matrix to back up the flowers.

All the above wisdom on prairie installation and maintenance comes from Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin; their website provides considerably more detail. Consider all the prairie dos and don’ts that they provide as a sobering reality check. But if you’re willing to make a long-term commitment, prairies can provide a beautiful space that wildlife loves.

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