The 5 Steps to Make a Backyard Prairie: Part 3 (and a FREE PRINTABLE)

The 5 Steps to Make a Backyard Prairie: Part 3 and Free Printable

The 5 Steps to Make a Backyard Prairie: Part 3 and Free Printable

Today I’ll discuss the basics of planting and caring for your prairie. Don’t forget to download your FREE PRAIRIE PLANNING PRINTABLE at the end of the post!

3.Prepare the site

Now that you have chosen the site and the plants, it’s time for the most important step: preparation. A poorly prepared prairie site is a setup for doom, or at least a lot of hard work in the future.

A poorly prepared prairie site is a setup for doom, or at least a lot of hard work in the future.

The site for your new prairie should be bare dirt. All plants should be cleared and the underlying seed bank empty. What’s an underlying seed bank? Let me explain.

When plants grow and produce seed, the seed falls to the ground, is buried by squirrels, or is it somehow is buried in the dirt. This seed has a specific set of conditions that it needs to grow. So, if a seed that likes a lot of sun falls into an area with a lot of shade, it waits. Some seeds can wait years, even decades in the soil for the right condition.

So, you just cleared your site. All the plants are gone! But they aren’t. The seeds waiting in the soil are suddenly in the sun! Up they sprout. All of a sudden your cleared dirt is full of weeds!

Because of this it can take more than one year to start a prairie. You will most likely have to clear the ground more than one time. But how do you clear the soil?


Solarization is a great option for smaller areas. What you do it take a piece of black or dark-colored plastic and lay it over the area you want to clear. Wait a year (make sure the summer sun hits it) and the heat bakes the soil. It gets too hot so all the plants die. The next year you have bare dirt, and some of the seed bank may be dead also.


This method is similar to solarization. To smother you must place a very thick layer of material over the site. It is more effective than solarization in shady areas. This can be old carpet, lots of newspaper, cardboard or wood plywood sheets. The trick is that it must be THICK. I have found this to be the least effective method as something always seems to sneak through. Leave the material down for a year.

Roundup or glyphosate

Using chemicals usually does not have a place in the backyard wildlife habitat, but creating a large prairie is an exception. Many sites are just too big to cover with plastic, or may have weedy plants with very deep roots that could survive solarization.

Follow the instructions on the package, and after spraying it can take up to two weeks for all the plants to die. I find that I always miss a spot and have to respray some areas. Usually you will see browning in the first few days and can easily tell where you missed.

To save some money, don’t purchase ready to use glyphosate. Concentrated bottles of the generic (glyphosate) can be purchased at farm supply stores and some garden centers.

Controlled burn?

Some use a site burn to remove the current plants. While this is the most natural way to create a prairie – it should only be done by professionals! A burn done in the wrong conditions can easily escape and put not only your life, but the lives of your neighbors in danger. If you would like to do a burn I suggest contacting your local Soil and Water Conservation office. They can provide you with the knowledge and resources you need.

The site is clear, now what?

After clearing the site, don’t dig into the soil. Some recommend tilling the earth, but this can cause a problem. When you till the soil you bring lower dirt to the surface. With that dirt comes seeds (the soil seed bank). These seeds may not have germinated if the soil had been unmoved.

When the site is cleared you don’t want to plant your prairie plants right away. I always wait a year to make sure that no weedy plants are not ready to sprout from the soil seed bank. I have made the mistake of not waiting in the past. I am still trying to clear that area of weeds, only now my weeds are mixed in with my coveted prairie plants. It’s a mess!

To protect the soil and make it look less like a patch of bare dirt you can plant what is called a cover crop. This is an annual plant that will hold the soil, prevent weeds from sprouting while you are waiting. Be sure to choose the right cover crop for your area.

Retailers specializing in prairie plants usually also carry a cover crop. Common cover crops are oats, barnyard grass, annual rye grass and winter wheat. Sow the cover crop the first fall or spring to protect the soil. Wait and remove any weedy plants that appear through hand pulling or spraying if they have deep roots.

4.Planting the site

A year has passed and your cover crop is gone. Fall is in the air. Now is the time to start your prairie if you want to do it from seed.

Fall is the best time for seeding prairie plants. Why? Because the soil is still warm, but the days are cool. This also takes advantage of breaking the dormancy of many seeds naturally. This dormancy, or waiting to germinate, is a seed’s way of making sure it starts growing in the spring. If you sow in fall you also don’t have to pack (press the seeds into the soil) the seeds as winter’s freeze and thaw cycle will do this for you.

Once the ground temperature is around 45F (usually in mid October in the upper midwestern states), take your seed and spread it evenly on your site. Just toss it onto the soil. Once done you can sit back, drink a cup of coffee and wait for spring!

Tip: Sow your prairie seeds when the ground temperature is 45F, usually in late fall.

But what if you don’t want to use seeds? Some prairie plants, if started from seeds, may take years to bloom (like False Indigo). If you feel starting from seed isn’t for you, you have a small site, or tons of money, you may try growing a prairie from nursery plugs.

Nursery plugs are usually sold by the flat and shipped in the spring. Many companies let you mix and match the plants in the flat allowing you to have a greater variety.

If growing from plugs, I recommend preparing the site as if you were sowing in autumn. Sow a cover crop in the autumn and then plant the plugs in the spring as soon as the ground is workable. For the first year, watch the plants carefully for signs of stress as they may need extra water while setting roots in the soil.

5.Caring for the site

Spring is here and you are running out every day to see when your new plants will start growing. Then you see a weed! Don’t pull it.

Pulling weeds the first year after seeding a prairie risks ripping out all your young prairie plants. Instead cut the flower heads off the weeds throughout the year. Also, avoid spraying herbicides as the drift may kill your new plants along with the weeds.

Dont pull weeds the first year after seeding a prairie or you may kill young prairie plants. Click To Tweet

The second year your new prairie’s plants have more roots and the plants may begin to flower for you. Prairie plants put most of their energy into making big, deep roots first. This is good because it protects them from drought, but it also causes them to skip the first year of blooming.

These larger roots allow you to pull weeds and not rip out your prairie plants too. Keep up with the weeding for the first three years and you will be rewarded with a beautiful prairie!

Other than weeding, prairies like to be cleared every few years. In nature this occurs with fire. Unfortunately most cannot burn their prairies. Instead, every 3 years rake your prairie and remove the thatch (top layer of dead material) from the site. This thatch can be composed. Remove thatch in early spring before plant growth occurs (what great exercise!)

Now you know how to properly site, pick plants and start a prairie garden. And as promised, here is your FREE PRAIRIE PLANT PLANNER to help you get started.

Free Printable Tallgrass Prairie ◊   Free Printable Shortgrass Prairie   ◊   Free Printable Mixedgrass Prairie

In the beginning I mentioned that prairies can be hard work. But, as you can see, once you have one past the second year they are much easier than a lawn.

Go out and start planning your new prairie – and tell me about it in the comments!

Paige Nugent

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