Establishing a Carefree Prairie Garden

Landscaping with native plants nurtures pollinators and birds, while providing colorful blooms and textures.

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If you’re dreaming of a low-maintenance garden that buzzes with busy bees and flutters with butterflies amid the zigzag flights of dragonflies and hummingbirds, it’s a good time to go native.

Prairie plants, especially those that grew wild in the Midwest and Great Plains before development and farming took over, have been embraced for water conservation. They provide food for birds and wildlife, and play a crucial role in supporting and reviving the flagging population of pollinators. Many prairie varieties are similar to native plants that populate meadows in Eastern states.

Start Small and Easy

The transition to a prairie garden can be as simple as adding three native plants to an existing flower garden. That offers a better habitats for bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators — the ones backyard gardeners, farmers and orchard growers depend on for a thriving food supply. Try some clumps of native grasses along a small side yard or add bee balm, butterfly weed and coneflowers to a corner of your yard.

Prairie Gardens Save Resources and Time

Central U.S. prairie varieties can put down deep roots that enrich the soil, and don’t require anyone to baby them with water or treatments to eradicate pests. Native plants can curb hillside erosion while weathering harsh winters, soggy storm seasons and summer droughts.

Pick Pollinator Favorites

Many butterflies depend on specific plants for their larvae, such as milkweed for monarchs. You can even register your yard to be an official monarch way station and participate in citizen science projects. Endangered Karner blue butterflies will only lay their eggs on wild lupine, so you can help their cause by including this flower in your garden. In general, butterflies flock to bright-colored, nectar-rich flowers such as purple prairie clover, coneflowers and blazing star, which some gardeners jokingly call “monarch crack.”

Find Your Perfect Match

While prairie plants thrive in well-drained soil and full sun (six or more hours a day), others can handle part shade or wet conditions. Some, such as joe-pye weed, blue flag and asters, can even be used for a native rain garden. Plug in your yard’s soil moisture and sunlight, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will help you find the best native plants for your state, including cacti and succulents in desert regions.

Mix Plants and Seeds

If you hoe or till your soil before planting seeds or seedlings, you can jump-start the growing season. Some, such as the native grass prairie dropseed, can take a few years to reach full growth. Black-eyed Susans, often one of the quickest and most colorful prairie plants to bloom, may grow back as a perennial or regenerate from fallen seed each season.

Plan for Continual Blooms

Check on plant bloom times when planning your prairie garden to have continual flowers that start with spring’s wild phlox and penstemon, and end with autumn’s asters. Dead-heading (cutting off spent flowers) will encourage plants to keep blooming. If you let some blossoms go to seed, they will feed birds and wildlife that need the energy for migration or the long winter.

Seek Local Inspiration

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center offers a directory of close to 1,500 native seed and plant suppliers throughout the country. Tour arboretums, native plant nurseries and native landscape displays to get ideas for which plants to pair together. Tall grasses can provide a nicely textured backdrop for colorful blooms such as black-eyed Susans and coneflowers.