Grow a prairie garden: Field notes from Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Fall Color 2019: Black-eyed SusanGrowing a prairie garden at your home or business is simpler than you might think. Follow a few basic principles in planting and you will be on your way to a whole new look and feel in your yard that will be easier to maintain and enjoy.

At Midewin, experts are strategically working with over 275 different native Illinois plant species. On the prairie glacial plains and elsewhere, volunteers, partners and staff work vigorously year-round to restore what was one the Joliet Area Army Arsenal. For such an undertaking, planning and strategy has been key all throughout the 24 years since Midewin was established. Midewin plant specialists suggest the following considerations for at-home prairie gardeners:

Attract pollinators

When thinking of a prairie landscape, ask yourself: “Which kinds of wildlife do I want to attract to my garden?” “If you love hummingbirds, plant wild bergamot and with prairie blazing star,” Durkin said. “If you want to attract monarchs, milkweeds are one type of plant that you should be sure to include.” This season, Durkin and other staff put together a guide to a wide array of Illinois prairie plants and the bees, butterflies, insects, birds and other pollinators that they attract. The guide is available online, here.

Think local

A backyard prairie is another way of connecting with your natural heritage. The extra thought and effort that you put into the initial planning and implementation will be worth it for years to come. Try to use plants that are grown from seeds that are native to your area; they will grow best here in the type of soil, climate and prairie environment to which they are naturally accustomed.

Start small

Manage your project incrementally; start out with a small area and you can expand in future years.

Pale Purple Cone FlowerVariety is the spice of prairie life

For the look and feel of a prairie, plan a design with broad curves. Randomly placed groupings of plants replicate natural plant populations. Create a mosaic of plants at various lengths, planting shorter plants in front and taller plants behind them. If you are careful, try planting just one or two compass plants. Collect the seed heads each year or cut the plant back after flowering before seed matures so it doesn’t multiply in the coming years. Compass plant can overpower other plants, but because they tower high above other prairie plants, they shout out prairie and are icons of native Illinois landscape. They can be worth the risk. “Little by little, strive to increase the botanical diversity of your garden,” said Midewin Botanist Michelle Pearion.


Make bold horizontal statements

Prairie style landscape design represents the strong, horizontal lines of the flat or gently rolling Midwest landscape. “Native Illinois prairie plants with flat flowers or horizontal branches reinforce the horizontal lines of a classical prairie landscape,” said Midewin Landscape Architect Rick Short. Incorporate plants that make a subtle prairie statement with gentle horizontal lines. The graceful clumping of prairie dropseed makes a distinctive statement in the prairie garden with its finely textured, outwardly curving leaves. The branching flowerheads of wild quinine form a nearly flat bunch at the top of the plant.

Consider grasses, but just a few

You might be focused on attracting pollinators, but don’t forget about grasses. Some grasses will provide support and diversity to make your garden. To deter grasses from overpowering plants, use medium- to short-length grasses and introduce just a few tallgrasses, such as prairie dropseed and little bluestem.

Midewin Ecologist Bill Glass with Purple Prairie Clover seedsPlant plugs or seeds?

Whether to plant seeds or plugs depends mostly on your budget. If you have the money to spend, plugs will take root sooner and grow and flower much faster. If plugs are not in your budget, be sure to treat seeds as directed on the packaging before planting. When purchasing seed mixes, double-check to ensure all of the plants in the mix are native prairie plants. Avoid storing seeds in plastic bags.





Simplify yard maintenance

Once a prairie garden is established, much of the hard work is behind you, and future years will be for maintaining and enjoying the results of your labor. Maintenance of the landscape will require much less. The investment will be worth it as you realize, right in front of you, how you have expanded resources for local bees, butterflies, birds and other natural friends of the prairies.