The 5 Steps to Make a Backyard Prairie: Part 1

The 5 Steps to Make a Backyard Prairie: Part 1,

The 5 Steps to Make a Backyard Prairie: Part 1,

Lawns are taking over the country. Everyone is after the lush green European manicured look.

Lawns are growing at the rate of 5,000 acres a day. It adds up to 41 million acres requiring countless hours of mowing, pounds of fertilizer, gallons of water and herbicides.

The American lawn hurts the environment and is unsustainable. For the look we sacrifice food, clean water and wildlife habitat.  

The American lawn removes the native landscape taking with it wildlife and plants that help control flooding, climate change and clean water. A lawn of turfgrass cannot compare ecologically with a native plant community.

The American lawn now represents a serious civic problem. That the space devoted to it continues to grow—and that more and more water and chemicals and fertilizer are devoted to its upkeep—doesn’t prove that we care so much as that we are careless.”– Elizabeth Kolbert

So why not abandon your lawn and turn your backyard (or part of it) into a prairie.  This month I’ll tell you how to do just that! And, at the end I’ll post a FREE PRINTABLE to help you pick your new prairie plants.

Why Prairies, not lawn?

A prairie is made up of many different plants that are adapted to the area where they are growing. This makes them very resilient. While your bluegrass lawn must be watered, mowed and sprayed, a prairie just exists. It lives off the water from the sky, weeds itself and is mowed by nature (through fire and winter).

Prairie plants tend to have deep roots. Lawn turf grass roots go meer inches into the soil, prairie grasses reach down feet into the soil. They pull up water and nutrients from deep in the earth. This protects them from drought, unlike water hungry lawns.

Lawns feed only a few types of wildlife. It is eaten by grubs and sod webworms (which we kill with pesticides), is grazed by some animals like deer (but they prefer other plants) and houses earthworms for the Robins. But because lawn is made up of one type of grass, there is no diversity.

Diversity is better for wildlife.

A prairie can support many more species than a lawn, from the Monarch butterfly to the coyote, a prairie makes a better home.

This 3 part series will help you make your backyard into a prairie habitat allowing you to help more wildlife.

Is a Prairie Right for Your Backyard?

There are many types of grasslands that people consider a prairie. There are the iconic tallgrass prairies of the midwest, the short grass prairies of the Rocky Mountains and the mixed grass everywhere else. Prairies can be maintained in wet areas, dry areas and moderate areas.

Warning: Prairies are not Maintenance Free

When people talk about planting with natives, or creating a prairie, it can seem as though they are describing a perfect natural landscape. Just sit back and watch it grow. Don’t fall for this.

Having a prairie takes work.

The place where you want your prairie must be properly cleared. The plants or seeds must be purchased and planted.

To maintain a prairie, especially during the first 3 years, is a commitment. However, an established prairie can be less work than a lawn – especially if you live where prairies occur naturally.

Like a lawn, a new prairie needs water. The first year the plants may need a bit of help, but this lessens with time. Like a lawn a new prairie needs weeding. Until the prairie plants take hold, weedy plants can sneak in and take over. Like a lawn a prairie needs mowing. Most backyards aren’t good places to burn a prairie so you will have to mow it a few times a year in the beginning, and then once a year later.

Unlike a lawn, a prairie does not need fertilizer or pesticides. Prairie plants do better in poor soil.

Today I’ll discuss the basics of choosing the location for your prairie.

1.Pick the Site

 Look for the Sun

Prairies need a sunny area with at least a half day of sun. The site should be open, in that a breeze is possible as the plants you will be growing do not like stagnant air. In addition to preventing a breeze, large trees compete with the prairie plants for water and nutrients. Avoid areas with shallow rooted trees. Safe trees are oaks with their deep taproots.

Prairies need a sunny area with at least a half day of sun. Click To Tweet

Look for the Weeds

Goldenrod, while beautiful, may take over a prairie

Goldenrod, while beautiful, may take over a prairie

The area itself should also not already be full of weeds. Weed seeds can lay dormant in the soil for many years. They will wake when you clear the ground for your new plants. Suddenly next year you will have a field of weeds! Good places to use are current lawns, fields that are recently in use for crops or cleared ground from new construction (make sure the equipment did not compact the ground too much).

Look at the areas near your new prairie site. Are there weeds there? Some weeds can spread through the ground, or throw seeds far from the mother plant and make more work for you. Avoid areas near Box Elder, Locust or Cottonwood trees or you will be pulling their seedlings out constantly. Also make sure there is no Canada Goldenrod or Canada Thistle around. Although these are native plants, they will quickly take over your new prairie – they are a bit aggressive.

Look at the Soil

The plants you choose for your new backyard prairie will be determined by how wet your soil is. Luckily it’s easy to find out the drainage of your soil, just do a hole test. It’s easy!

  1. Dig a 1 foot hole.
  2. Let the area dry out completely.
  3. Fill the hole with water.
  4. Time how long it takes to drain.
  5. Match your results.
    • Empty in 10 minutes = look for plants labeled ‘dry’
    • Empty in 30 minutes = look for plants labeled ‘dry-mesic’
    • Empty in 30 minutes to 4 hours = look for plants labeled “Dry -Mesic”, “Mesic”, or “Wet-Mesic”
    • Empty in more than 4 hours = look for plants labeled “wet”

Write down your soil drainage after your test because you will need it for plant selection.

Look at the Laws

Know the weed laws of your neighborhood. Many areas have limits to how high your lawn can be. A good way to start is through a simple Google search. Try searching for “lawn ordinances” and the name of your county or township. Know what you are allowed to have before you start. It will save you money in the long run.

Monarch Waystation Sign,

Monarch Waystation Sign

Many ordinances have allowances for areas that are “managed natural landscaped areas” to attract wildlife. Look for wording in your local code that allows this. The City of Cincinnati has a similar wording in their code for an example.

The trick to code compliance is to show that your new backyard prairie exists on purpose and not the result of neglect. To do this you can add things called “elements of care.”

Elements of care can include:

And finally a warning – a dry prairie can be a fire hazard. Make sure to leave at least 20 feet of lawn or pavement between your home and your new prairie.

Now that you know how to choose your site, get outside and look at your backyard. A prairie can be any size! Pick your site and return her to learn how to choose the right plants for your new backyard prairie.

How do you plan on making your prairie look intentional? I have my site certified by Monarch Watch. Tell me about your site in the comments!

Paige Nugent

Share on
Previous Post Next Post

You may also like