Micro prairies: No yard is too small to go with earth-friendly native plants

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If glimpses of strikingly beautiful butterflies are scarcer than a rare bird alert in your yard, maybe it’s time to go native.

Native plants are key to aiding and attracting native insects and pollinators, including swamp metalmark and monarch butterflies, hummingbirds and endangered rusty-patched bumblebees that were once plentiful in Wisconsin.

Restoring green space is important . . . no matter the size.

In fact, the more modest the yard, the easier it is to transform it into a micro prairie teeming with living things. Think of your yard as just one diminutive piece of the collective urban landscape.

“No yard is too small for the inclusion of native plants,” said Neil Diboll, consulting ecologist and president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield. “Even one plant of butterfly milkweed can attract monarch butterflies to lay their eggs and result in caterpillars that become the next generation of monarchs.”

RELATED: Turn your backyard into a birdwatching paradise by creating a ‘birdscape’ of native plants

Diboll is an internationally known expert on native plants who is living and working right here in Wisconsin. He is intensely knowledgeable and a regular guest on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Garden Talk.

“Numerous studies have shown that green spaces in cities improve air quality, reduce summer temperatures and benefit people’s mental health,” Diboll said.

“Restoration of the planet does not depend solely on preservation of large tracts of land in a pristine condition,” he added. “Small plantings of native plants, in urban and suburban landscapes, can provide critical habitat for a wide variety of birds, pollinators, other beneficial insects — even reptiles and amphibians, too.”

Diboll proposes the alternative of native plants.

“One of the advantages of a prairie in a small yard is the replacement of a nearly sterile lawn with a living landscape of beautiful native flowers and ornamental grasses. . . . They also provide wonderful opportunities for children to learn about the intricacies of nature right in their own backyard.”

The term “prairie” has a specific meaning, according to Diboll.

“Prairie is the French word for meadow,” he said. “The term prairie has come to represent the mid-continental grasslands dominated by warm-season prairie grasses and many showy flowers. Meadow typically refers to cool-season grasslands more common in the higher rainfall (areas of) northeastern U.S. and Canada.”

Little house on the little prairie

It seems that homeowners are looking to spend more time with birds than with lawnmowers, as native plants top the list of demands in a recent survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects.

A whopping 84% of both single-family and multifamily owners wish to incorporate natives into their yards. Drought-tolerant plants and low-maintenance landscapes came in second and third on the list . . . some qualities that native plants can also deliver.

Karen Johnson is setting the example in her Bay View yard.

A member of the Southwest Milwaukee/Wehr chapter of Wild Ones, Johnson wanted to “attract insects which in turn attract insect-eating birds.” Wild Ones is a national non-profit organization that began in Milwaukee in 1977 to promote landscaping with native plants.

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Initial preparation for natives is labor intensive, Johnson explained, but after that “maintenance is minimal.”

According to Diboll, the first step is destroying turf grass and weeds.

For fast micro prairie results this summer, manually dig up turf. Or, rent a mechanical sod cutter for larger areas. Visualize the area by using a garden hose as a border.

For an easy but slower method, Diboll recommended smothering the lawn with black plastic, cardboard or plywood for about three months.

Or, kill grass with a broad-spectrum, non-persistent herbicide such as glyphosate (Roundup) at eight-week intervals beginning in late May.

Plants then can be placed directly into the dead grass. The easy, slow method’s advantage is it does not disturb the soil and expose it to invading weed seeds.

Leaving a spot or two of bare soil in your yard is also beneficial to native bees, as 70% nest in the ground.

Once your natives are planted, water as needed until they are established in about two months.

Be patient with native plants, as they will first develop their long roots. Prairie plant roots can easily reach six feet or more, where turf grass roots grow only a few inches.

Mowing may be needed a few times the first season or two for weed control. After that, mow just once in early spring. Early spring is best because many insects overwinter in plants, and the native seed heads are a good food source for birds in the winter.

“Transplants are definitely better than seeds for micro prairie gardens,” Diboll said. “Seeds require two to five years to reach maturity, while many transplants will bloom the year they are installed (not all). Plants also result in tidier, planned gardens, while seeded prairies have a more casual and wilder appearance.”

Buy natives locally

Be picky about plant choice.

Regard any generic “wildflowers” with suspicion (especially in those free seed packets); make sure what you’re planting is truly indigenous and desired. The last thing you want is to unwittingly introduce invasives to your micro prairie.

It’s best to obtain native plants grown as locally as possible, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Most nurseries will reveal where their plants are grown, but ask if it’s not apparent.

Luckily, Wisconsin native plants are readily available.

From Prairie Nursery, order online or by telephone. Live transplant plants are still being shipped through June 6 then resume after Labor Day. Seeds are shipped anytime.

Prairie Nursery offers pollinator favorites, grasses, sedges, shade plants and no-mow grass. You’ll find natives that thrive in clay or sandy soils, moist or dry areas. The pre-planned gardens feature selections skillfully picked, or you can opt for the U-pick plant kits.

Stein’s Garden & Home also sells native plants at its 16 locations in Wisconsin. Stein’s has offered a special True Wisconsin Native area since 2011.

“Customers were looking for native plants that in many cases were already in our collection but mixed with the other perennials,” said Michelle Blayney, horticulture merchant for Stein’s. “True Wisconsin Native program allowed for those plants to be easily identified separately from the rest of the plants in the perennial assortment, as well as some additions that were not in the collection.” The natives saw strong growth, especially the bee-friendly varieties, she said.

Blayney said Stein’s True Wisconsin Native plants are raised in Germantown and have not been subject to hybridization. “They are truly Wisconsin natives,” she said. “They are unaltered.”

Johnson in Bay View said she finds natives at Stein’s, Shady Acres Perennial Nursery in New Berlin and annual sales at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Wehr Nature Center.

Other timely native plant sales are also coming up.

In Menomonee Falls, Wild Ones members receive 40% off all container-grown natives at Johnson’s Nursery throughout June, which is Wisconsin Native Plant Appreciation Month. Proceeds will benefit the three Milwaukee-area chapters of Wild Ones.

In the North Shore, the Schlitz Audubon Center is hosting a native plant celebration and sale on June 3. Drop-in activities will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with Wisconsin Master Naturalists and Gardeners. Six scheduled events will feature presentations and guided pollinator plant hikes.

For further guidance, read “Landscaping with Native Plants of Wisconsin” (Voyageur Press, 2007) by Lynn M. Steiner, a Wisconsin-raised author and speaker on native plants.

In addition, “Wildflowers of Wisconsin” (Adventure Publications, 2000) by Stan Tekiela is handy for easily identifying flowers and distinguishing natives from exotics or invasives. If something blooms in your prairie, it’s imperative to know if it’s native or something detrimental that should be destroyed before going to seed.

Jennifer Rude Klett is a Wisconsin freelance writer of history, food and Midwestern life. Contact her at jrudeklett.com.

RELATED: Want to help animals and other wildlife avoid extinction? Choose native Wisconsin plants

Top 10 native plants

Here are Neil Diboll’s top 10 plant recommendations to help transform your yard into a beautiful, natural sanctuary that’s restorative for both people and wildlife. The list contains low-growing prairie plants for southeastern Wisconsin micro prairie gardens on well-drained, medium soils with full to mostly sunny conditions.

But keep in mind, there are natives to address just about any yard issues, including heavy clay soil, shoreline protection and nibbling deer.

GRASSES:

Prairie dropseed (sporobolus heterolepis), elegant emerald clump

Little bluestem (schizachyrium scoparium), blazing red fall color

FLOWERS:

Butterflyweed for clay (asclepias tuberosa, var. clay), attracts monarchs

Smooth aster (aster laevis), late fall bloomer

Cream false indigo (baptisia bracteata), loved by bumblebees

Purple coneflower (echinacea purpurea), butterfly favorite

Rattlesnake master (eryngium yuccifolium), attracts beneficial insects

Prairie blazingstar (liatris pycnostachya), beautiful lavender spires

Wild quinine (parthenium integrifolium), extra-long-bloomer

Ohio goldenrod (solidago ohioensis), compact pollinator favorite

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Even in the depths of winter, the entrance to the Sussex Prairie Garden is easy to spot, marked as it is by a giant roadside cutout of a bright pink bison. The garden is closed to paying visitors until 1 June, but that is largely because the waterlogged grass paths couldn’t stand up to the footfall, not because it isn’t worth a visit at this time of year.

Paul and Pauline McBride designed their eight-acre garden to be at its best from summer to autumn, but on a bright and frosty morning it presents an arresting spectacle. Backed by a line of oaks, with the undulating hills of the Sussex Weald in the distance, the effect is of a sepia-tinted photograph sprinkled with glitter.

Vast clumps of tawny grasses stand like deconstructed hayricks between broad, sweeping paths of lawn. Here and there, a daylily has been tricked by the unseasonal warmth into pushing out a flower bud among its lush, green, strappy foliage. In the main, though, sinuous ranks of blackened stems and frosted seedheads set up a distant echo of the sanguisorbas, salvias and persicarias that splash these spaces with colour in summer.

The McBrides have been advocates of this form of heightened naturalism since 2001, when they implemented a scheme designed by the grand master of prairie planting, Piet Oudolf, for a private estate in Luxembourg. “For two years we worked in consultation with him, and it was an inspiring experience,” says Paul, who trained as a gardener in his native Scotland at a time when ornamental grasses were virtually unheard of.

In the succeeding 15 years, they have got to know which plants perform well. “My rule of thumb is one-third grasses to two-thirds flowering plants – and all of them in really big clumps,” says Paul, who plants in groups of seven, nine or even more. As a short cut to selecting suitable cultivars, he says you won’t go far wrong if you read Oudolf’s book Dream Plants For The Natural Garden (Frances Lincoln).

Eight years ago, when family circumstance drew the couple back to the farm near Haywards Heath where Pauline grew up, they decided to realise a long-held dream and make a garden of their own that people would pay to visit, and that would be full of plants those visitors would want to buy. They drew up detailed planting plans, propagated every one of the 30,000 plants needed to fill the site and enlisted 40 friends and family to get them into the ground over the course of an exhausting but highly sociable fortnight.

Frosted sedum seedheads. Photograph: MMGI / Marianne Majerus

One year later, they sold their first entrance ticket. “That would be unthinkable with traditional English style borders,” Paul says. “Shrubs, especially, take so long to mature and cost so much. Our plants are easy to propagate and fast to establish.”

It all sounds a bit too good to be true so: are there any downsides? “You do need to weed meticulously for the first few years,” Paul says. “If you get couch grass running through a clump of calamagrostis, you’re done for. And we mulched really heavily for the first five years, which improved the condition of the soil and helped with weed control.

“You need a well-drained site, because these plants hate wet feet, but if you get the soil right, general maintenance is pretty low-key. One joy of this style is that it encourages you to leave the dead plants standing through winter. The birds and other wildlife are grateful for the food and shelter, and the plants are protected when temperatures drop, because the dead foliage insulates them from the cold.”

When it is time to cut back the old growth, usually by the end of February, Paul has a technique to suit the grand scale on which he gardens. “We watch for three dry, bright days in a row, then set fire to the beds. It seems to bring out the pyromaniac in all-comers.” That wouldn’t be a good idea in a small back garden, Paul accepts, “but there it would be a pretty quick job to shear everything back and dump the clippings on the compost heap. You could even pass it all through a shredder and put it back on the borders as a mulch.”

Plant a mini-prairie

So convinced are the McBrides that this is a style to suit every size of garden, they have created a self-contained 9m x 12m mini-prairie to showcase what is possible on a smaller scale. “The only difficulty, in a garden this size,” Pauline says, “is that you need the discipline to restrict yourself to a maximum of around 15 different plants. This is a look that relies on bold swaths for its impact. Discipline yourself to plant in groups of seven or nine, one-third ornamental grasses to two-thirds hardy perennials, maybe underplanting with bulbs to extend the season.”

The McBrides recommend four grasses to create height and texture: feather reed grass (Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’); tufted hair grass (Deschampsia ‘Goldtau’); purple moor grass (Molinia ‘Transparent’) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Pom-poms of pale lilac Allium ‘Summer Beauty’, creamy spikes of goat’s beard (Aruncus ‘Horatio’) and the powder blue panicles of eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana var salicifolia) add colour in late spring and early summer. In high summer, the garden sings with the bright yellow daisies of Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, the rich blue of anise-scented sage (Salvia ‘Blue Enigma’) and the deep red of bistort (Persicaria ‘Firedance’), burnet (.Sanguisorba ‘Red Thunder’) and Macedonian scabious (Knautia macedonica). In late summer, bright daisies of Echinacea ‘Sussex Prairie Seedling’, white spires of bugbane (Actaea simplex); and the dusky pink flowers of autumn stonecrop (Sedum ‘Matrona’) come into their own. And in winter, when the hardy perennials are slumped in frost-blackened heaps, a hedge of low-clipped box meanders around the tufts of desiccated grass and offers structure to the scene

• Go to sussexprairies.co.uk for more details and opening dates.

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Above: Blue Grama Grass replaces turf to create an airy meadow garden designed by landscape architect Scott Lewis. Photograph by Mathew Millman via Scott Lewis.

Sumac Trees

Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.

“The common sumac, which was formerly despised by farmers, is now much planted about Middle Western homes because of its gorgeous autumnal colors,” writes Wilhelm Miller. “The sumac is a ‘red badge of courage’ which is often considered a symbol of the indomitable western spirit.”

Native Plants

Above: Photograph courtesy of Adam Woodruff & Associates. See more of Woodruff’s work in Considered Design Awards 2014: Best Professional Landscape.

On a busy corner lot in Springfield, Illinois, garden designer Adam Woodruff replaced his own front lawn with a modern interpretation of a cottage garden. The mix of low-maintenance perennials, ornamental grasses, and shrubs creates a colorful mini meadow and persuades pedestrians to stay on the sidewalk instead of taking a shortcut across his yard.

Woodruff included a number of grasses in the mix, including Sesleria autumnalis, Sporobolus heterolepis, Spodiopogon sibiricus, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, and Molinia litoralis ˜Transparent’.

Echinacea

Above: Photograph by Thomas Quine via Flickr.

“Echinaceas are a quintessential prairie flower and also incorporate quite well into more contained, urban gardens,” writes our contributor Kier Holmes in Gardening 101: Echinacea.

Energy-Saving Trees

Above: In Kansas, a weaver’s studio has a foundation made of local limestone. Photograph via Khanna Schultz. For more of this project, see A Prairie-Style Loom House for Weaver Elizabeth Eakins.

A deciduous grove of trees, leafy in summer, keeps the interior cool. In winter, the leafless trees allow sunlight in to warm the space.

Wildflowers

Above: Photograph by Marilena via Flickr.

Among Jensen’s favorite prairie and river bank wildflowers were: wild Phlox paniculata, purple Iris versicolor (collected from the banks of the Des Plaines river), and swamp rose mallows.

N.B.: What is your favorite style of garden? Steal ideas from more of ours:

  • Garden Design: Learning to Plant the Piet Oudolf Way.
  • 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from California.
  • How to Garden Like a Frenchwoman: 10 Ideas to Steal from a Paris Balcony.
  • 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from the Pilgrims.

With this post, I’m finally getting around to something I’ve been contemplating for several years. Back in October, 2015, Alan Short sent me an email from South Africa. He’d been reading this blog and was interested in exploring similarities between South African grasslands and the prairies of North America.

After some emails back and forth, Alan brought his colleague Greg Martindale into the conversation, and Greg then suggested I talk to Devan McGranahan – a professor at North Dakota State University who I first met at some patch-burn grazing meetings more than 10 years ago. Devan spent a year in South Africa doing post-doctoral work, which lets him compare North American grasslands to those in South Africa.

I’ve found the similarities and differences between the grasslands on our two continents to be fascinating and I’m hoping you will as well. In this post, I’ve asked Alan, Greg and Devan to provide a quick introduction the South African grassland, or veld, as it is locally known. In a future post, we’ll explore some management issues. You can read a little more about the South African grassland biome here.

Grassland and forest patch – in Fort Nottingham Nature Reserve. Such forests form fire refuges and are important component in the species and structural heterogeneity of the mesic grasslands in KwaZulu-Natal. The forest is an endangered vegetation type, Eastern Mistblet Forest, which is a form of montane forest. Photo and caption information by Greg Martindale

PE:

Alan, can you give a basic description of what the grasslands of South Africa look like and how they might compare to ours here in North America?

Alan:

Our grasslands have quite a wide range of climatic and geological variation. The eastern parts are high rainfall (700-2000mm, or 28-79 inches, per annum) down to about 500mm, or 20 inches, in the west where they start grading into the shrubby vegetation of the karoo. From that point of view, the range in precipitation is probably fairly similar to the US.

A couple of big differences might be that southern African grasslands are entirely summer rainfall, apart from some of the subtropical coastal grasslands which are mostly fire-maintained and have more evenly distributed rainfall. We do get snow on the mountains, and occasionally in the foothills (every 3-4 years), but it probably doesn’t contribute to precipitation in the same way that snowfall in North American prairies do.

The major structural feature of much of the African continent is the interior plateau, with a steep escarpment on the eastern flank which blocks a significant fraction of the rainfall coming in from the warm Indian Ocean in the east. So, in the grasslands of the escarpment itself, you have high-rainfall, mostly fire-maintained grasslands with patches of natural forest in the sheltered valleys and southern flanks of the mountains. These areas are particularly prone to invasion by alien invasive woody species. On the plateau, the grasslands are more climate-maintained, although fire still plays an important role.

Illustration by Chris Helzer. Apologies for over-generalizations

The biodiversity is spectacular. There’s a very long evolutionary history in these grasslands and a high rate of endemism. In the moist grasslands, much of the plant diversity consists of perennial, fire-adapted species with large underground organs. Annuals become more dominant in the semi-arid grasslands. The grasses are mostly tropical and subtropical species, with many of the same subfamilies as found in some of the North American prairies. At high altitude, once you get into basalts of the Lesotho Highlands and the summit of the Drakensberg (above about 2500m, or 8200 ft), temperate genera like Festuca and Poa become more common. There are a lot of endemic frogs, birds, reptiles and invertebrates, most of which are on the endangered species lists. In the central (plateau) grasslands as well as the coastal grasslands, huge herds of game were once a feature, but they’ve mostly disappeared and been replaced by livestock, apart from game farms and nature reserves.

Grassland and mountains in the Lotheni Nature Reserve, which is part of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site. The vegetation types here are montane grasslands, Southern Drakensberg Highland Grassland and uKhahlamba Basalt Grassland. These grasslands are grazed by free roaming wildlife species, the largest of which are eland and they are burnt on three or four year cycles. Photo and caption information by Greg Martindale

PE:

Devan, you spent a year in South Africa but are also very familiar with grasslands in the U.S. What can you add to what Alan described?

Devan:

The South African diversity is indeed striking, both in the types of grasslands and the species richness of even the grasses themselves, not to mention forbs. The spatial variability in distinct grassland types is itself higher than I associate with North American grasslands, and they are all packed into a less extensive area. The lack of snow-derived moisture is indeed a difference but I suspect the lack of frost (at lower elevations) is a bigger difference between the northern prairies I’m familiar with and probably all of South Africa’s grassland. Soils under African grassland are old and oxidized and much of the grassland biome reminds me more of eastern Oklahoma than anywhere else in North America: reddish soil and high productivity.

Alan mentioned the Drakensberg grasslands. It does snow in the Drakensberg. It gets cold, and one can see it in the soils: decomposition is slowed and deep, black organic matter builds up. These grasslands crank out as much grass biomass as any tallgrass prairie. But despite being set aside as a World Heritage Site and managed by the provincial wildlife authority, grazer density on these grasslands is much lower than one would expect. Grazer density is low because the sward drastically loses nutritive value in the winter and simply can’t support large herds. These high-altitude grasslands are known as “sourveld” and are complemented by “sweetveld” – rangeland that can be grazed all winter long. Again, I think a lot of these differences to North America are climate-driven, the difference between dormancy driven by cold vs lack of precipitation.

Mooi River Highland Grassland in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands – this area it utilised for cattle grazing and is burnt on a three to four year cycle. Photo and caption information by Greg Martindale

PE:

Greg, how are the grasslands in South Africa doing today?

Greg:

The grassland biome, which is the second largest biome in South Africa, at approximately 350 000 km2 (about the size of Iowa and Nebraska combined – PE), includes the country’s main economic centre, the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg and surrounding cities), which is its most populous, rapidly urbanising and industrialising region. Due to this, and other pressures such as crop production and the operations of several key industries including mining and forestry, approximately 60% of the biome has been irreversibly transformed.

Levels of transformation and these intense and growing pressures are of particular concern because the biome comprises a centre of diversity with an estimated 3 788 plant species and only 2% of it is formally conserved. Almost the entire area of the biome that has not been irreversibly transformed is used for livestock agriculture. The overall extent of grassland in South Africa, appears to be primarily determined by climatic variables, although fire and grazing exert considerable influence over the biome’s boundaries.

Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve – a Ramsar site and the source of the Umgeni River, KwaZulu-Natal’s most important river, as it is the main source for the economic centres of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. This nature reserve is subject to controlled grazing to allow areas to be kept open for the breeding of wattled cranes, a critically endangered species. Photo and information by Greg Martindale.

Biographical information:

Alan Short

Alan Short is a rangeland ecologist and independent consultant, advising farmers, conservation agencies and other land managers in southern Africa on sustainable range management principles. Previously, he worked as a research scientist at a provincial department of Agriculture, ran a national rangeland monitoring program for South Africa, and spent two years working for a conservation program in Mozambique.

Greg Martindale

Greg is the director of a small non-profit organisation in South Africa, which focuses on creating new protected areas with landowners. This builds on work he did when he was employed by the KwaZulu-Natal provincial conservation authority. Through this work he interacts closely with landowners to devise approaches to the management of grassland for livestock grazing, which are compatible with biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of critical ecological processes.

Devan McGranahan

Devan Allen McGranahan learned about tallgrass prairie growing up on his family’s farm in Clay County, Iowa, and learned about managing it while at Grinnell College. Afterward he spent a year living on game farms across southern Africa before taking up graduate studies at Iowa State University on a patch-burn grazing project. After returning to South Africa as a Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Grassland Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Devan joined the Range Science faculty at North Dakota State University. He specializes in grassland fire ecology.

Suggested Reading:

Reyers, B. and Tosh, C.A. (2003) National Grassland Initiative: concept document. Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Land Affairs, Johannesburg.

What is a Prairie?

Prairies are made up of mostly grasses, sedges (grasslike plants), and other flowering plants called forbs (e.g. coneflowers, milkweed). Some prairies also have a few trees. Wisconsin’s prairies fall into three basic types. Combinations exist where two different types meet.

Wet Prairie: Lots of water, deep clay silt loam or peat soil, poor drainage. Marsh milkweed and prairie cordgrass are two species of plants common to the wet prairie.

Mesic Prairie: Some water, medium-deep silt or sandy loam soil, good drainage. These areas are dominated by tall grasses: big bluestem and Indian grass. Here you will also find rosinweed and yellow coneflower. By late summer, flowers of the mesic prairie may reach 4 to 6 feet high.

Dry Prairie: Little water, dry shallow soil over sand or limestone. Dry prairies on steep slopes are also called “goat prairies.” Little bluestem, sideoats grama, and purple coneflowers can be found here.

Many prairie plants are adapted for a dry, windy, hot climate. Leaves of prairie plants tend to be long and narrow to prevent overheating. Some plants have divided leaves or broad leaves held stiffly upright, to expose less surface to the sun. Fleshy, hairy leaves and sticky sap help hold in moisture. Plants also have buds at or below the soil surface and a lot of root mass below ground–an adaptation to the natural fires that occurred in the grassland ecosystems. Prairies need fire. Without it, invading trees and shrubs gradually turn grasslands into woodlands.

In places where grasslands neared the forest edge, oak trees spread out across the prairie. Settlers called these parklike grasslands “oak openings.” Today, they are known as oak savannas. A prairie oak’s shade creates a microclimate underneath its boughs, allowing prairie plant species with broader leaves to thrive in the cooler, more even temperatures and moister soils.

Prairie soil is rich soil. It is this richness that attracted European farmers and altered the prairie landscape. Today, only scattered remnants of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna remain in Wisconsin. They are places well worth visiting. Check out some of the many other plants and animals that live in the prairie.

–Information compiled from A Pocket Prairie Guide, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Plant Species Composition of Wisconsin Prairies, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and Prairie Restoration for Wisconsin Schools, University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.

Related Wonders for You to Explore

What kind of area do you live in? Maybe you live in the mountains. Perhaps your home is near the coastline of a large lake or an ocean. Many people live in deserts. Millions of people live in areas called prairies.

If you’re a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’re probably familiar with the Little House on the Prairie series of books, television shows, and movies. But did you ever stop to WONDER exactly what a prairie is?

When early explorers first pushed westward past the Appalachian Mountains, they encountered a landscape that was different from the mountainous and forested areas they were used to. These interior lowlands were filled with wildflowers, grasses, and plants and didn’t have nearly as many trees.

Explorers called these areas “prairies,” borrowing a word from the French that meant “meadow.” Ecologists classify prairies as temperate grasslands, because they are characterized by plants and grasses rather than trees.

Prairies are mainly found in the interior lowland areas of North America. In the United States, prairies can mainly be found in the area known as the Great Plains, which includes most of the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Prairies also constitute large parts of many other states, including Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Prairies cover almost 1.5 million square miles of land in the U.S. Rainfall decreases as you move from east to west. Eastern prairies tend to be moister, while western prairies are usually drier the closer they get to desert areas.

The climate of prairies is influenced greatly by their central location. They’re shielded on the east and west by mountains, and they’re far from the oceans. As a result, prairies can experience a wide range of temperatures, from hot summers to cold winters. In addition to temperature fluctuations, prairies are also known for their strong winds.

Over the course of history, large grassland fires often consumed prairies. These fires were an important part of the prairie ecosystem, as they helped to purge invasive species and trees. Without these fires, prairies would have been overtaken by trees and turned into forest areas.

Because of these fires, most prairie plants develop deep root systems that allow them to survive fires and temperature swings. It’s not uncommon for most prairie plants to have two-thirds of their matter underground.

As these plants die out each winter and grow again each spring, parts of their root systems die underground and add rich organic matter to the soil. This is why prairie lands are some of the best farming lands in the U.S.

Prairies have been important sources of food for many grazing animals. The natural grasses that grow on prairies are good sources of food for a wide variety of animals, including cattle, deer, buffalo, and rabbits. Of course, one of the other animals that calls the prairie its home — and bears its name — is the famous prairie dog!

Unfortunately, many prairie lands have been lost over the years to farming and the building of large cities. Many states are beginning to preserve their remaining prairie lands, so that they can reintroduce native wildlife and plants to keep the rich heritage of prairies alive for future generations.

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Five Great Grasses from the Oudolf Garden

John Hoffman (L) and David Hoffman (R) visiting with Piet Oudolf (C) at his home in Hummelo, a village in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Photo courtesy of Henk de Jong.

Piet Oudolf knows grasses. His planting designs in Europe and the United States are masterful mixes of textures, colors, and seasonal highlights. He consulted on planting designs for the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park and the High Line in New York, both of which use a matrix of grasses to support a wide range of perennials. Piet’s knowledge and experience with grasses make his gardens a must-see for grass lovers.

Piet’s home garden in the Netherlands illustrates the integral role that grasses play in his designs. This August, John and Jill Hoffman, along with their son, David, visited the Oudolf garden. Henk de Jong of CNB New Plants arranged the visit, and went with them to the garden. The group spent time meandering and talking with Piet. Which grasses caught their eye?

1. Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (Feather Reed Grass)

The large, open areas of the garden are punctuated by plantings of Feather Reed Grass and Joe Pye Weed. The plumes of this popular, cool season grass appear in spring and persist well into the fall. ‘Karl Foerster’ has an architecture that Oudolf refers to as “emergent.” Most of their foliage is concentrated at the base, while the blooms are on upright stems above the foliage. ‘Karl Foerster’, like other emergents, stand tall and look good above shorter plants. They are seen separately from their surroundings and are useful for creating structure and emphasis.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ is an old favorite. Its upright habit and golden plumes provide points of emphasis and create rhythm in the landscape.

2. Nassella tenuissima (Mexican Feather Grass)

The ultra-fine foliage of Mexican Feather Grass catches the tiniest hint of a breeze and comes alive with motion. The flowing habit has a softness and texture that is both visual and tactile. It appears extensively throughout the site, softening hardscape and keeping the garden in motion. Piet notes that serendipity should be allowed to play a role in a garden, and the reseeding of Mexican Feather Grass adds that element of chance. Nassella tenuissima also serves as part of the garden matrix, a layer of plants that anchor the plant combinations and support the more showy perennials.

Oudolf allows Nassella tenuissima to reseed freely in his garden, where it emerges between brick pavers and softens the hardscape.

3. Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ (Golden Dew Tufted Hair Grass)

‘Goldtau’ is a compact cultivar of Tufted Hair Grass. The plumes are bright chartreuse-yellow, aging to bronze. Here in the garden, the airy plumes and foliage provide a base for showy, flowering perennials. It’s part of the matrix that Oudolf establishes in his plantings. He often pairs the wispy plumes with hard, dark, defined shapes to lend interest to the fall and winter garden.

Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ also forms part of the matrix of Oudolf’s garden. He notes that during late summer, “The pale colors and soft textures of the grasses effectively highlight the deeper colors and more defined forms of the flowers…”

4. Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ (Red Switchgrass)

Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ is not fussy about soils and withstands difficult site conditions. Its airy panicles, red-burgundy coloring, and upright structure give it interest from mid-summer through winter.

Piet calls ‘Shenandoah’, “…structural, but at the same time, low-key.” In his garden, the red and burgundy highlights create depth and contrast. On the High Line in New York, Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ serves as a matrix plant, with blocks of other grasses scattered throughout. Red Switchgrass provides interest from mid-summer on through the winter months.

5. Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’ (Dwarf Prairie Dropseed)

Prairie Dropseed is an elegant grass with wonderful habit and texture. ‘Tara’ takes its best qualities, shrinks them down, and adds some uniformity. Large sweeps of ‘Tara’ are amazingly beautiful, with showy plumes and a uniform habit. It’s sprinkled liberally throughout the Oudolf garden, serving as a matrix plant with its neat habit and airy, see-through plumage.

Sporobolus heterolepis ‘Tara’ was selected by Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm for its compact structure and more uniform habit and flowering.

Spending time with Piet was especially fun for John Hoffman. John’s travels through Europe early in his career, including visits with Piet , shaped his love for grasses. John was happy to see many Hoffman Nursery favorites among the garden plants. So take a page from Piet Oudolf’s design book, and try these great grasses for yourself!

The studio is filled with designs and offers a fascinating glimpse into this master plantsman’s world. Thanks to Piet for hosting and to Henk de Jong for arranging the visit!

Oudolf draws a comparison between matrix planting and fruitcake: both are shaped like rectangles, and studded with treats. Good fruitcake depends on good batter. A good matrix planting depends on background plants that are “visually quiet, with soft colors and without striking form,” says Oudolf. Grasses are an obvious choice; they can occupy the space for a long period of time, year-round perhaps, without having to be replaced.

Within the matrix, plant a few visual treats that will bloom in succession over the course of a year: a clump of irises to bloom in spring, perhaps, followed by poppies in summer and sedums in late summer and asters in autumn.

Support the locals.

Above: A bird’s-eye view of Oudolf’s garden at Hummelo.

When appropriate, Oudolf plants native species, but never just for the sake of planting natives. “It is important that planting schemes for biodiversity combine species which really support wildlife effectively as well as those which simply look good and tick the ‘native’ box,” he says.

When choosing native species, ask: Is this a plant that bees like? What about birds? Or butterflies?

Plant in layers.

Above: Oudolf takes design inspiration from natural landscapes, where “plants can be thought of occupying a limited number of physical layers within a community.” For instance, large trees are a layer, grasses another. Flowering perennials and low-growing plants that spill over the edge of a path form other layers.

When designing a garden, keep it simple: Two or three layers are enough, says Oudolf. The idea of layers is to help the eye “read the confusion of leaves and stems in front of you” to make sense of the garden. Evergreen shrubs in the background and perennials in the foreground, for instance, are enough to create distinct visual focal points.

Frame the views.

Above: Oudolf uses masses plantings to create a frame around the horizon.

Borrow landscape features–your neighbors’ trees, or a distant mountain–and make them part of your garden by keeping plantings low and uniform. With that approach, the foreground can become a backdrop.

Blur the edges.

Above: Create depth and a feeling of mystery with plants that intermingle. Avoid separate, distinct clumps of different kinds of plants and instead allow plants to self-sow among themselves.

Learn to love brown.

Above: In Oudolf’s garden, end-of-season hydrangeas have a beauty of their own.

Life is a cycle, the garden reminds us, and every phase of it is beautiful. “Gone are the days when brown and yellow foliage was seen as compost material to be cleared away as quickly as possible,” says Oudolf.

Planting a perennial garden? See our curated Garden Design 101 guides, including Perennials: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design. For more of Oudolf’s gardens, see:

  • Required Reading: How to Create Piet Oudolf’s Painterly Landscapes.
  • Dream Landscapes: 10 Perennial Gardens Inspired by Piet Oudolf.

N.B.: This is an update of a post published November 15, 2015.

Piet Oudolf’s Next Wave

A new garden—his own—marks the next step in Piet Oudolf’s constantly evolving creative journey. By Noel Kingsbury

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In April 2011, a visit to Piet and Anja Oudolf’s home was an unexpected opportunity for me to watch the couple lay out a new section of garden. Piet and his family have lived in an old farmhouse at Hummelo, in eastern Netherlands, since 1982, and I have been a regular guest there since 1994. As the garden has developed and changed over the years, I have observed how every alteration reflects Piet’s ongoing evolution as a designer. This particular change entailed creating a garden from a patch of land that had been a sales area for their nursery business. It was, in a way, the end of an era. The nursery was central to Piet and Anja’s life for years, the plants they chose to grow and sell having played as much a part in launching Piet’s career as a globally known garden designer as the gardens themselves.

After Piet and Anja Oudolf closed their 6,000-square-foot nursery, it left an empty space. Writer Noel Kingsbury was fortunate to witness its “wild” transformation.
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Closing the nursery in 2010 left a roughly 6,000-square-foot area of poor loamy and sandy soil between the farmhouse and Piet’s office building, and an inevitable question in the air. The weather on the weekend of my visit was clear and sunny — perfect conditions for setting out on a new project. I watched as Piet began filling the empty space by planting Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, an ornamental grass well established as having a long season, providing a strongly vertical visual element, and being very wind resistant in certain soil conditions. The Calamagrostis “echoed the plantings around the office building,” Piet explained. Other plants (very strong perennials that could compete with native and spontaneous vegetation) went in at some distance from each other, more or less randomly. They included late-flowering robust perennials, but also earlier ones like Monarda bradburyana, which flowers from the beginning of June. Between the grass and perennials, Piet then sowed a meadow mix created by the Dutch company Cruydt-Hoeck containing Dutch native grasses and wildflower perennials, such as Dianthus carthusianorum and Valeriana officinalis.

My next visit was in August. The perennials were growing strongly, and the grass and the first of the wildflowers were getting established, including wild chamomile and yarrow. As I walked past the plants, I realized that to the uninitiated, it might look like a garden that had been invaded by wildflowers. Or was it the other way around, a wild grassy area being made into a garden?

Fluffy plumes of Deschampsia caespitosa grass set off the silhouette of dark late-season Veratrum californicum, a handsome, graphic plant when left to go to seed. (Photo by: Philippe Perdereau)
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This was definitely an unconventional plant combination. So why do it? “It was about a creating a solution,” said Piet, “less maintenance for the future, and an experiment to see how robust perennials would grow with native grasses and wildflowers.” Framed that way, the new garden began to make a lot of sense. I could see how the ornamental grasses, including Calamagrostis, Panicum virgatum (the prairie species known as switchgrass), and Festuca mairei (a drought-tolerant species from North Africa) would provide long-term basic structure. And the flowers with intense color — the blue spire of camassia and the deep magenta-pink of the cranesbill Geranium ‘Patricia’ — would be especially striking when seen dotted around in grass.

The dominant flowering season is from June to October. Many of the perennials are species of North American origin, reflecting the long fascination Europeans have had with the continent’s flora. There are asters, species of Eutrochium (Joe Pye weed), Helenium (sneezeweed), Vernonia (ironweed), and relatively new in cultivation here, Monarda bradburiana (Eastern bee balm). “The grasses are slowly spreading among the perennials,” said Piet. “It will become like a perennial meadow.” Key to the aesthetic is the random location of the perennials. Except that it is not random, but the result of Piet’s intuitive placing of plants to create a subtle underlying order. Defining that order, I thought to myself, would probably require a Ph.D. and a very powerful computer. Better just to enjoy it.

Eutrochium maculatum ‘Purple Bush’ (Joe Pye weed): A stately native of America with strong structure and flowers that bloom well into late fall, followed by attractive dark seed heads. (Photo by: Philippe Perdereau)
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Naturalizing garden perennials among a grass-dominated wild flora has long been a dream of gardeners, but has rarely been done successfully. In his book The Wild Garden, the Irish journalist William Robinson promoted the idea back in 1870 that garden and wild could somehow amalgamate. However, the problem has always been that the strength and tenacity of European native grasses (now, of course, introduced and widespread in North America) make it very hard for nonnative perennials to survive in their midst. Piet is more likely to succeed by not watering much, and for the counterintuitive reason that the soil underlying the old nursery area is relatively poor, so the growth of the native grasses will be reduced, giving the perennials more chance to compete and so to thrive.

The new garden is the latest step in Piet’s creative journey. When he came to Hummelo he had already been a garden designer all his working life, but in a distinctly architectural style. (At the time, garden design in the Netherlands was dominated by Mien Ruys, a gifted and prolific landscape designer who used a wide range of plants strongly framed by geometrically clipped shrubs — a distinctively Modernist version of a traditional European garden art form.) Starting in the 1980s, Piet began to work increasingly with perennials, but with occasional contrasting blocks of clipped foliage. Examples of this plant shaping could until recently still be seen in the new garden in the form of blocks of weeping silver pear Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’.

For many years, Piet used perennials in discrete clumps of one variety. Gradually he began to play with scattering key plants throughout a site and creating some areas where plant varieties were intermingled. He explored these ideas in the Lurie Garden in Chicago, completed in 2004. Since then he has worked extensively on creating a sophisticated, nature-inspired blending of perennial varieties — an approach evident in his work at New York’s High Line. The “perennial meadow” experiment at Hummelo looks like the latest step in a journey that has become wilder and wilder.

Related Reading:
Q&A with Piet Oudolf
Piet Oudolf’s Garden for the 2011 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion
High Line, Part II, Opens
New York’s Completed High Line

See more garden designer profiles.

5 useful tips for creating prairie-style planting

Landscape architect Petra Pelz has created a magical private garden in Germany using structural grasses and a limited mix of colourful perennials. Petra has used prairie-style planting to great effect, making the garden feel rich and dense. There is an ever-changing pattern of colours and shapes to keep the interest in the garden going throughout the year. Here you’ll find planting inspiration from Petra’s garden and top tips for introducing prairie-style into your own garden.

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Using grasses in prairie-style planting

Grasses, especially Miscanthus and Hakonechloa, feature prominently in Petra Pelz’s garden, providing both the informal structure and the movement Petra loves. “They sway with the slightest of breezes,” she says, “giving an impression of lightness and playfulness. And they give each area of the garden the distinct character I’m looking for.”

From June onwards tall, tufts of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and the silver-pink plumes of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ dominate the view, providing a focal point that draws your attention away from garden borders, tempting you to venture ever further and discover its hidden treasures. They also help frame Petra’s richly woven tapestry of groundcovering perennials, which blankets the ground completely from spring through to autumn – so densely packed no weed would stand a chance.

Other grasses in Petra’s garden include Panicum virgatum ‘Rehbraun’, M. sinensis ‘Kleine Fontäne.

Petra’s tips for prairie-style planting

Landscape architect Petra Pelz has cleverly ‘borrowed’ the tall trees in a neighbouring property to create the impression that this pretty summerhouse marks the start of a woodland area and not the end of her garden. Photo by Sabrina Rothe.

  1. Foliage is more important than unusual flowers. When choosing plants, focus on those that have consistently beautiful and healthy leaves.
  2. Use evergreen plants to provide structure. These don’t need to be formally trimmed; even left to grow freely they will bring order to the planting, while flowering perennials and grasses create the necessary dynamics.
  3. Use grasses to create a clear focal point. Petra uses both the tall Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and the low growing but striking Hakonechloa macra to frame her flowers combinations. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ frame the flower combinations in Petra’s garden
  4. Focus on a few, hardy and expressive types of plant. Petra combines these in large groups to form a thick carpet of plants and create a clear design. This also makes the subsequent maintenance easier.
  5. Use hardy plants to form flowering islands. Among the plants Petra uses alongside her grasses are Echinacea purpurea, Agastache rugosa, Verbena bonariensis, Persicaria amplexicaulis and Kalimeris incisa.

Written by Michael Breckwoldt
Pictures by Sabrina Rothe

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You can find out more about Petra Pelz’s work at la-pelz.de

When I bought a house with a blank canvas of a garden, I wanted to pay homage to one of my horticultural heroes. Having admired the ethos and designs of plantsman and designer Piet Oudolf, I decided to emulate his style by creating my own prairie garden, composed entirely of herbaceous perennials and grasses.

I used to garden piecemeal – a plant-it-in-the-flowerbed-and-see-how-it-looks approach – but I changed my philosophy after doing a garden design course. My previous garden was a mixture of shrubs and herbaceous plants, but I wanted a space that looked as if nature had created it, inhabited by insects and birds, and that was also functional for my family.

The space is about an acre, surrounded by fields, with a few ancient apple trees upon which I anchored my design. Creating such a garden entails a leap of faith. To be a prairie gardener means embracing plants at every stage of their life, whether they are resplendent with colour or starkly bleached by the vagaries of winter. The ebb and flow of the seasons is beautifully captured in a prairie garden, which provides months of interest and a constantly changing palette. After late February’s annual cut-back, the garden bursts into life from mid-May onwards. What follows is a slow burn of successional flowering, reaching a crescendo in late summer, when everything is in flower.

The theory sounded wonderful, but I spent hours deliberating. I worried about how my paradise would look in winter. Would it be awful to look out at brown foliage for three months of the year? Should I take the safe option and incorporate shrubs to provide reliable structure? Eventually my heart won out. This type of planting needs straight lines to provide a framework and curved ones to encourage slowness and contemplation. More mundanely perhaps, my sweeping curves of Breedon gravel make the most fantastic cycle track for my children.

Gravel paths lined with (from back) Stipa gigantea, Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, herb fennel and Achillea ‘Cloth of Gold’ (on right) provide a framework and a way through the garden

The plants were placed, observed and finally planted. The speed with which perennials begin to grow is one of the joys of prairie planting; within weeks the perovskia and eryngiums mushroomed in size, while bumblebees and butterflies danced attendance. Stipa tenuissima bobbed around in the wind like bleach-haired surfers. For maximum effect, plant types are repeated around the garden with each of the sections echoing the others. All parts contain achillea, nepeta and, most notably, Stipa gigantea. This has become my signature plant; it begins flowering in June with a proliferation of floating heads. It is dotted around the garden in ones or threes, and between June and September the setting sun infuses it with a golden light, transforming the seed heads into horticultural popping candy. It creates a focal point and rhythm, and provides a stately punctuation point above frothier planting beneath.

Successful prairie planting demands careful planning; ironically, creating something that looks natural requires thought and discipline. I’ve banned myself from making spontaneous plant purchases. Sometimes, though, the garden has its own ideas. Last summer, the Turkish sage (Phlomis russeliana) prolifically self-seeded and created a planting plan of its own; the Macedonian scabious (Knautia macedonica) did the same. Now that I have the backbone in place, I enjoy letting the garden make up its own mind.

I had to replace a mass of Deschampsia ‘Goldtau’ with new planting this year, after it was rotted by the clay soil and two wet winters. One year, numerous foxgloves magically appeared and are slowly expanding their territory. Cow parsley has also made its way in. It may be a weed, but I struggle to think of other umbellifers to rival its impact. So it stays: the garden has become its own little ecosystem, where humans happen to hang out, too.

How to plant a prairie, by Jane Perrone

Prairie garden designs employ a pared-down palette of grasses such as stipa, deschampsia, calamagrostis and deschampsia, along with herbaceous perennials that look their best in late summer: sedums, echinacea, achillea and the like.

Rather than dotting plants about, plant masses of them in sausage-shaped drifts: contrasts of height, texture and form are more important than colour. Group a tall, airy grass such as Stipa gigantea with the fleshy leaves and flattened flower heads of Sedum ‘Matrona’, for instance.

Choose a sunny, open spot – prairie plants don’t like shade – and remove all weeds before planting. You don’t need a huge garden to get the look: in smaller gardens, prairie expert Noel Kingsbury suggests planting 1m-wide prairie “strips”.

Once established, all that’s required is a decent haircut in late winter or early spring.

• For more pictures of Kirsty Grocott’s prairie garden, go to guardian.co.uk/gardens

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Many of our garden daisies are descendants of North American prairie native plants. In recent years they have become popular in more naturalistic styles of planting (Piet Oudolf style perennial planting) as well as in the herbaceous and mixed borders of traditional gardens.

Prairie planting is really a bolder version of the wildflower meadow, where grasses and perennials meet to create a soothing, softly moving gardenscape that evolves and changes as the year progresses.

Based upon the natural habitat of the North American prairies the plants involved enjoy an open sunny position, and are at their best in late summer and early autumn. In fact many still look good during the winter months when dried stems, leaves and seed heads take on an everlasting beauty in the low light.

Most of these subjects are also excellent subjects for the wildlife friendly garden. Bees and butterflies enjoy the nectar and pollen of prairie daisies. In some cases the winter seedheads are a food source for wild birds.

The perennial rudbeckias start to come into their own in mid summer in a blaze of rich sunshine yellow that will brighten the dimmest of days. Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ never ceases to impress; a true black-eyed beauty that will thrive on poor soil and the toughest of situations as long as there is some moisture deep in the soil. Leave the flower stems after the blooms have faded; the black cone shaped centres will persist throughout the winter, curiously beautiful in their own rite, a stunning contrast against frost traced grasses on a winter’s morning.

The purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea is another member of the daisy family that has become a household name because of its medicinal application. Used as a herbal remedy to boost the immune system potions containing echinacea are to be found on every supermarket and chemist’s shelves.

Echinacea purpurea itself is a wonderful combination of rich redddish- purple reflexed petals and a chestnut brown cone, laden with orange pollen when the flowers are at their prime. The long lasting blooms on stout stems are not only excellent border flowers but also lend themselves to cutting.

Echinacea purprea ‘Magnus’ is a particularly fine form with glowing purple pink flowers and a flatter flower form. The flowers can be truly massive and make wonderful anding platforms for bumblebees that crawl across the petals to the nectar-rich centre.

Up until a couple of years ago all cone flowers grown in gardens were pink, purple or white. The advent of orange and yellow varieties created great excitement amongst perennial enthusiasts and garden designers. The stunning Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’ is a personal favourite although I have found it a more reluctant plant to establish in the garden. It needs good drainage but adequate moisture in summer. Get it through the first winter and it seems to be fine. Its fine petalled, burnt orange blooms combine superbly with the light airy stems and tiny purple flowers of Verbena bonariensis.

The rich bronzes, oranges and reds of the heleniums have a wonderful period character. Their silky petals and velvet button centres remind me of shreds of rich upholstery. Old cottage garden plants they are popular for their disease resistance and reliable late display, and their tolerance of virtually any soil conditions. Interestingly the helenium is named after Helen of Troy; the plant reputedly sprang from the ground watered by her tears. As most species seem to be North American prairie dwellers this is something of an enigma.

Cultivars are numerous; choose them in flower when you can see exactly what shade you are getting. Helenium ‘Waldtraut’ is an outstanding upright plant reaching a metre in height. The branched stems are topped with large golden yellow and copper-brown flowers in late summer. The best red cultivar is considered to be Helenium ‘Coppelia’; this more compact cultivar with deep red flowers was raised at Bressingham Nurseries, Norfolk, England. The earliest of the heleniums is the prolific ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ with glowing copper blooms on stout, stocky stems. It makes a wonderful drift alongside the sapphire plumes of Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’

Heliopsis helianthoides is another prairie daisy; it is a perennial sunflower with bright golden yellow flowers carried on 120cm tall upright stems. For a softer effect choose Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ with lemon yellow flowers produced on upright plants.

Bold, simple daisy flowers shine out in contrast the soft filigree seedheads of grasses and the bold spikes of agastaches, the giant hyssops. Agastaches are clump forming perennials with aromatic foliage and bottle brush flowers. ‘Blue Fortune’ has lavender blue spikes on neat compact plants. ‘Alabaster’, as the name suggests, is pure white. Both grow to around 1 metre, 3ft in height.

Prairie daisies also associate well with the architectural blooms of kniphofias, the red hot pokers. Their biggest drawback is their unattractive foliage which is easily hidden amidst prairie grasses and other late flowering perennials. The eryngiums, varieties of sea holly are also good planting partners, their silver and steely blue flowers are a good contract to the gem hues of the prairie daisies.

For more on prairie planting and naturalistic planting – take a look at the following online gardening courses:

New Style Perennial Planting by Michael King – best selling planting author
Planting Design with Perennials by Noel Kingsbury – best selling author and lecturer

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