Today I’ll discuss choosing plants for your backyard prairie.
2. Choosing Prairie Plants
So now you know where you want your prairie. It may be a large one taking up several acres, or a small one by your door but choosing plants is the same for all. But before you start looking at plant catalogues get out a pen and write down 3 things about the site: how much sun, what type of soil you have and how wet the area is. You will need to know these three things before you buy any plants so keep the information handy.
Things to consider
The purpose of your new prairie is to help feed wildlife and look pleasing. To accomplish this you must consider plant bloom times. Ideally, you want a prairie that is always in bloom. This will make it look planned, and will help feed pollinators, birds and mammals throughout the seasons.
To keep a prairie in bloom you need a variety of plants. Filling your prairie with just purple coneflower will make for a beautiful display in July, but a barren field for the rest of the summer. To make it easy I divide blooming into 3 time periods: early (April to June), mid (June and July and late (August to first frost). Now, as I pick out my plants I make sure to always pick one from each category. For every plant you pick, you must also pick a plant representing each of the other bloom times for balance. Many prairie plant sellers tell you when a plant blooms in the description so all it takes is a bit of reading to pick the right plant.
For example: I have a prairie that is full sun and has dry soil. I like Butterfly Weed so I pick that. It blooms in late May into June. This is my early bloomer. Now I need to pick 2 more flowers. I next pick Partridge Pea, which blooms in July, this is my mid bloomer. Lastly I pick a Frost Aster which blooms in September, this is my late bloomer. My new prairie of 3 plants has the ability to bloom almost nonstop.
“For every plant you pick, you must also pick a plant representing each of the other bloom times for balance.”
This can be very important for the long-term success of your prairie. To determine your soil type, take a soil sample and send it to your local Water and Soil Conservation department. They can test it and tell you exactly what you have. If you have a ‘bad’ soil type, don’t worry. There are no ‘bad’ soil types because prairie plants thrive on bad soil. If you have clay, sand, or rocky soil there will be a plant you can grow. (For most information about soil testing read my post about picking trees). Soil testing is essential to the long-term success of a prairie.
Once again, when looking at plants, make sure to pick ones that do well in your soil type. Many sellers will note soil in plant descriptions. If you can’t find a soil preference in the description, another good place to look is the plant’s range map. Many retailers also include this on their site. Bring up the map for the plant and see if it is native to your county. If it is, it most likely will grow on your soil.
For example: I love bee balm and want some in my prairie. I have clay soil as determined by my soil test. When looking at bee balm types I see that Spotted Bee Balm likes sandy soil. That plant isn’t for me. But Wild Bergamot tolerates clay. It even is native in my county on its range map– this is the plant for me!
Just like trees and shrubs, prairie plants like different amounts of sun. Most are happy in full sun, but if you have some shade there are still some plants for you.
When looking for plants, be sure to match your site with their sun preference. Many people enjoy Cardinal Flower for its bright red blooms and all the hummingbirds that visit it. But, it is not happy in full hot sun, especially if the soil drys out at all. It does much better in a location with a bit of shade so don’t put this plant out to bake.
To learn more about how to tell how much sun your site gets read my post about picking trees.
Don’t forget the most important part
Did you know that a prairie is more grass than flowers? A wild prairie can be 80% grasses! Grass is an important part of a prairie. Grasses support wildflowers (no flopping), hold the soil, provide food for wildlife and add year-long interest to prairies.
A good way to make sure you have enough grass is to plant at least 7 grass plants for every 3 wildflowers. Don’t just pick one type of grass. Variety is key in a prairie. It not only pleases the eye, but it makes the area more beneficial for wildlife, providing different types of food and shelter.
For example: My dry prairie in full sun on clay soil needs some grasses. I look at what is out there and decide to add Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, Canada Wild Rye and Prairie Brome. I plant 7 grass plants in my prairie for every 3 flowers.
Now onto the plants
There are many different types of prairie plants you can grow. It is almost overwhelming.
When looking for plants try to find local sources first. Not only will you be supporting the local economy, you will also be starting with a plant that is the most adapted to your conditions. When you buy locally grown plants or seeds, they come from parent plants that already can survive your specific weather and soil type. These plants will struggle less when starting out!
If you can’t find a local source for your plants, check out Prairie Moon Nursery, Gardens North or Swallowtail Seeds. I have purchased from these mail order companies and have been very happy with their plants. (I have not been paid to provide these links, I just really like them).
Must Have Dry Prairie Plants
Must Have Wet Prairie Plants
While the above plants are commonly found in most prairies, I want to highlight some lesser used plants that you may overlook. These plants are wonderful for attracting pollinators and adding color to your backyard prairie.
Tip: When choosing flowers for your new prairie, avoid newer versions with double flowers or different colors. Many of these plants are sterile (don’t make seed), difficult for pollinators to eat from or the wrong color to attract pollinators. Stick to the old-fashioned favorites to attract more wildlife.
Tall Green Milkweed – this milkweed isn’t as showy as its cousins, but it blooms starting in June helping out pollinators during late spring. It can keep blooming all the way to August! This a great milkweed if you have sandy dry soils and does not spread as aggressively as common milkweed which makes it ideal for smaller backyards. This is a rare plant, so growing it also saves a species!
Button Blazing Star – also called Rough Blazing Star, it is a mid-season butterfly magnet, and a favorite of the tiger swallowtail, clouded sulpher, painted lady and the red admiral for nectar. Of all the blazing stars, this one seems to have the longest bloom. It also blooms just at the time that seems to be a flowering slump for many prairies. It is native to most of the United States and into Ontario, so it great for eastern and western prairies. It prefers sandy or rocky soil, but tolerates clay. Besides butterflies, native bees and hummingbirds are also drawn to this purple flower. Depending on the soil, it grows 1 to 4 feet tall., but seldom flops in the right soil. Tuck it in the grasses and let it grow!
Tall Boneset – this an amazing choice for late season. It is related to Joe Pye Weed, but is much shorter and holds white blooms, topping out at about 3 feet. While it is shorter than Joe Pye, it brings in just as many pollinators! It has a long bloom also, lasting more than a month in late summer into fall. It also hosts the larva of a few moth species. It is an excellent alternative to the more aggressively spreading goldenrod to help pollinators at the end of summer, prefering dryer sites that the goldenrod. It tolerates a range of soils and is native from the east coast to Texas.
Frost Aster – I love this delicate beauty. Its name is due to the large amount of small white flowers held over its leaves blooming until first frost. It grows about 3 feet tall. It looks like frost in August! Loved by small bees and other insects, it grows nicely in the late season prairie. This plant seems to be visited by the smaller pollinators. It also hosts many leaf hoppers, weevils, grasshoppers, walking stick and the Pearl Crescent butterfly. It isn’t picky about soil. Like most asters, it likes to seed itself so if you have one, you will soon have plenty!
Rose Milkweed – while you can grow rose milkweed (or also called swamp milkweed) in dryer soil, it will be much happier in the wetter area of your backyard. Like common milkweed, it is loved by bees and butterflies, and is the larval host to the Monarch and Queen butterflies. Unlike common milkweed, this won’t take over your yard. I’ve found this milkweed to come up just after butterfly weed in my backyard and it makes a wonderful backdrop for it. It blooms in July and early August and the flowers smell like vanilla! It is native to the eastern United States to Texas. It even grows in wet clay!
Great Blue Lobelia – this mid to late season bloomer is great for wet areas and a bit of shade. Lobelia is a hummingbird buffet and you will often see them buzzing around this flower. If your area isn’t wet enough for Cardinal Flower, try this beauty. It tolerates dry soil more than its cousin.
Later this month I’ll discuss wildflowers that you can sow in the autumn, so come back and learn about some more choices for your new backyard prairie.
Our next article will bring it all together and tell you how to prepare the site and plant your new prairie – and don’t forget to come back to pick up your FREE PRAIRIE PLANNER PRINTABLE. Miss the first post in the series? Find The 5 Steps to Make a Backyard Prairie: Part 1 here!