prairie garden mess

lauriefree(z4.5 NY)May 5, 2010

After ridiculous labor clearing a chunk of lawn to make way for a new prairie garden, our first year was a total disaster. Until late August it looked like a weed patch, and in fact, was almost overrun with crabgrass. Eventually we had blooms -- lots of black-eyed susans, for example -- and there was some relief, but all summer I was the shame of the neighborhood with what can only be described as a mess. I think the garden needs to be broken down some way into smaller, neater "patches", but what I need most of all is to control the crabgrass this year (it's still pre-emergent here.) I am buying corn gluten meal for the lawn and was thinking of sprinkling it between the prairie plants that have come up to keep it neat. Any experience with this? Any other hints on keeping the garden from looking like a big weed patch?

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lycopus(z5 NY)

If starting with somewhat large plants you can throw down some wet newspaper and mulch between plants to keep the weeds down. If you put down seed now might be a good time to select the desirable plants and move them around as needed.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2010 at 9:16PM
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lauriefree(z4.5 NY)

Thanks. I think I will be clearing out and moving some plants. I do with someone could make a truly safe substitute for Round-up.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2010 at 7:42PM
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It sounds like you might need more seasonal interest. Bulbs and iris, along with annuals to fill in after, until your black-eyed susans and other flowers make an appearance. Bulbs (like daffodils) will naturalize and take very little water. Iris will also grow well in field conditions (that surprised me, too).

You might also need to start with smaller areas and mow around the beds and slowly work your way towards connecting them. If you remove a little grass at a time, maybe use a temporary edger, that should keep the grass out of the bed. Good sounds like it will be a beautiful garden...and congrats on not using Round up! :)

    Bookmark   May 24, 2010 at 2:09PM
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What you actually did when you removed the grass was to uncover dormant weed seeds in the soil, added water and sunshine and gave them a perfect environment to grow in. Weeds dislike rich fertile soil, they tend to thrive more in poorer ground. If you put down corn gluten you won't be able to get any wildflowers from seed for about 2 years, so think carefully about that. It will act like a fertilizer to established plants however so you could set out all kinds of flowers and bulbs.

A meadow normally has lots of tall grass which forms the base for all the other plants. Wildflowers will come up among the grasses and provide spots of color. Meadows also normally have lots of undesirable weeds, forming a balanced ecosystem that is self-perpetuating. So although the idea of having a meadow in a residential yard looks very pretty in the magazines, it's not very practical. And if you don't want those noxious weeds, it is extremely high-maintenence keeping them out. In order to eliminate the weeds in a meadow, you have to tramp on everything else to get to them. When everyone else on your street has manicured lawns and flower beds it will always have a more 'neglected' appearance than your neighbors yard.

If I could get my paws on your yard right now (which is still basically a clean slate) I would mark out beds and islands with narrow walkways between them and plant and plant and plant. I might let grass grow in the paths or I might throw down pine bark mulch. (The good thing about pine bark mulch is that after you walk on it for a season it breaks down into the most wonderful sweet-smelling humus that you can just rake up and throw on the beds to improve that soil.) If you let grass grow there your DH will only have to mow the paths which, if you planned them right, could take him all of seven minutes a week.

You don't mention if you have sun or shade, but around trees hostas are care-free and lush looking, and there are many ground covers that bloom in Spring. In sunny spots, you can still have a variety of colorful flowers blooming throughout the season. Starting in Spring with the sweet violets, shasta daisies, Spanish bluebells and muscari, followed closely by iris, larkspur and peonies, then the lilies, turks caps, columbines, clematis, coreopsis, bachelor buttons and butterfly weed. Sliding into the Summer months, you will have petunias, gingers, roses, buddleia, phlox, menarda and day lilies. As Summer wanes, the early blooming flowers are busy setting seed and the lavendar, passion flower, and blue mist flower will bloom and attract butterflies by the millions.

I know that's not a meadow, it's more of a cottage garden, but it's one that can be done in phases, rather than trying to put it all in one season. With a good layout, it will be easy to maintain if it does need weeding. And if you started now, you could act like last year was the first phase of the project and this garden is what you had in mind all along. That's probably what I would do if I could get my gritty paws on your yard.

Sorry, I think I was dreaming. Did I write something here?

:) Cheryl

    Bookmark   May 26, 2010 at 11:05AM
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Hi there,
I heard once a lecture from Neil Diboll who started praie planting in serious in he USA. He stressed that you need patience, and, before -even more important- proper soil preparation. In his prarie mixtures he typical lpants start flowering around the third year. In the long run you should be able to controll the stuff just by burning or mowing in a small plott. I dont know the weed grass but I thought the link could be usefull.
If the weeds are really that horrible I would raher start anew, cover everything with a black plastic sheet for a season or use round up.
Well, keep on going, cheers, Lin

Here is a link that might be useful: god father of prairie planting

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 6:17AM
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lauriefree(z4.5 NY)

Thank you so much for this. We are in year 2 and it seems that the brown-eyed susans have decided to take over. They are pretty, but I wonder about the daisies, coneflowers, lavender...are they gone for good? We have only had the susans, coreopsis and lupines this year, and now just the susans. But sometimes nature makes its own rules, and it takes some knowledge to defy her. I'll do some more reading-up.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 6:59AM
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linrose(6b KY)

I need some more information here in order to help you. How large is the area? Did you start from seed or plants? Are you using all natives? What are you trying to accomplish with this garden? What are the soil/sun conditions? Are you using any mulch? If so, what type? Did you till/amend the soil first?

Starting a "prairie" garden is not easy. First you have to know what plants are native to your area. The term "prairie" refers to a specific ecotype. There were few if any remnant prairies in New York state, perhaps in the Niagara area, most certainly in southwestern Ontario. I'm guessing you wish to recreate a meadow. I would suggest reading up on native plants in your area. Wild Ones is a good place to start. They can help you find a chapter near you as well as recommend books and websites to guide you. Good luck!

Here is a link that might be useful: Wild Ones

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 11:35AM
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I think you dropped the ball (or weeder) by not pulling out your weeds while they were small. It is very important to stay on top of undesirable plants for the first couple of years. Mulch helps to keep the weeds at bay too.
You may want to consider adding a few ornamental or prairie grasses to your garden because most prairie and meadow flowers do not bloom for the entire season. You need the grasses to be the backbone of your prairie. I would stick with one or two varieties or you may end up with the crabgrass look again.
I am in Texas with a different climate and plants. When I remove almost all of the grass from my front and backyards, I started a blog to let the world know that what I was doing was intentional. I also thought it could come in handy if I ran into trouble with code enforcement officers because I do not have the typical suburban lawn.

Dont give up. Be persistent. And donÂt be afraid to remove plants if they donÂt work out.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2010 at 4:14PM
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rufino(z10 Florida)

I have been in your situation and a method that has worked for me is the ring method. Here's a short summary of the method. Focus on one or two square feet and remove every single trace of every weed in that small area while being very careful to leave any desirable plants and to disturb the desirable plants as little as possible. Then, using a rather fine mulch (such as dried leaves, pine needles, small pieces of pine bark, etc.), you heavily mulch that small area being very careful not to smother the desirable plants with mulch but taking care to mulch the bases of the desirable plants (weed seeds often germinate at the bases of desirable plants). When you are finished, there should be absolutely no signs of loose or disturbed soil whatsoever...the only thing that should be visible are the desirable plants you preserved and a thick protective layer of organic mulch.

The process is then repeated at the perimeter of the previously prepared small area, extending it outward. You continue working in "rings" around the original area until you are done. It may seem daunting but, using the ring method, I have cleared huge areas of solid weeds, some of which were growing 3 feet high. The important thing is to be consistent and diligent. Once the area has been completely treated, the native plants will fill in and it will become much harder for weeds to establish. If done correctly, the ring method yields impressive results and further weed prevention can be done in about 15 minutes per week (mostly the removal of weed seedlings).

Once you've freed an area of weeds, never forget that the very best time to remove a weed is ... when you first notice it.

Good luck and kind regards,

    Bookmark   August 15, 2010 at 2:02PM
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lauriefree(z4.5 NY)

Thank you,'s an approach that would definitely work for me. I'm ripping out the over-abundance of black-eyed susans (or something looking like them) right now and I'll do the concentric square method of weeding.

I read once (here?) of an organically-inclined couple where one of them had had it with the weeds and while the other was away, sneaked out with a canister of roundup and took care of the weeds in a clandestine operation!

    Bookmark   August 16, 2010 at 8:51AM
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I love Little House on the Prairie

    Bookmark   August 23, 2010 at 10:26PM
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rhauser44(z6 MI)


I'm happy I found this post, as I've had the exact same experience, with the excat same thoughts.

In the Fall of 2009, I spread a dry meadow mix of native seeds in a 25x25 foot area behind my garage here in the suburbs of SE Michigan. I slept that winter envisioning the a lush, little piece of nature that would spring forth the following year.

And spring forth it did! Ummm lets just say in reality, this past summer, it looked like an overgrown unkempt mess behind my garage. I felt bad for the new neighbors that moved in behind me. Soooo, this winter I'm thinking of a new gameplan and layout for my meadow.

It will be a more "suburbanized" version of a meadow, along the lines of seamommy's & rufino's recommendations. Something that shows my neighbors some intelligent design to the area, and that the area is cared for.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2010 at 8:16PM
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lauriefree(z4.5 NY)

By the end of summer, year 2, I had some interesting plants and little pockets of beauty. But it still isn't the lovely garden pictured. I like informal but this is wild, and even if every plant I see was in the seed mix (no crabgrass problem this year, yay!), it is too unruly. Somehow I have to create little gardens within the current wildland, but I will have to weed out a lot of the prairie plants in order for it not to look like several little patches of chaos. I guess I'm going to need a lot of mulch to create paths and such. Check back and let me know what you plan to do next spring.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2010 at 9:17PM
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ontnative(5b Can/USDA 4)

Making some paths through your "prairie" planting is an excellent idea. It will make the area look tidier and easier for you to maintain, and allow you to enjoy your garden more.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2011 at 10:51AM
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Hi! I found good flowers from and my mom wants to grow like those flowers. What flowers do you think she can grow?

    Bookmark   October 3, 2011 at 11:39PM
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greenhaven(SW MI z6)

I am wondering how your prairie garden is doing now. Where a lot of folks with good intention fall victim is expecting showcase results right away. Even professionally planted native prairies take a minimum of three years to establish, and then several more years to look like the final vision.

Native plants spend a lot of energy the first couple years in putting down those long roots, and our jobs as stewards and gardeners is to control those weeds, and give the seedlings the opportunity to do what they do best.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2011 at 6:39PM
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lauriefree(z4.5 NY)

Thanks for asking. Better after year three weed-wise. I found that some colors really dominated, particularly yellow. And after three years, some varieties really took hold, not always leading to the most aesthetically pleasing result. I'm happy that it looks so much better than the first year. Also, we're managing it better by installing pathways and mulched borders. It really needed "breaking up" because a garden was what we wanted, not a field. I'm sure the showcase will be there next year.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2011 at 5:32PM
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update please :) i know this thread is a few years old now. i am starting my native garden. started with some plants from the native plant society sale in the fall as well as planted some milkweed, iron weed and seeds. i am guessing the bed now measures 8 x 15 ish. i love the idea of working out from there, and actually thought of that earlier today before searching and finding this post. pic taken in october.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2014 at 10:49PM
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Standard practice for establishment of prairie plantings is two or three rounds of nonselective herbicide or other method of weed kill, each application spaced out sufficiently to allow a new batch of weed seeds to sprout followed by dormant seeding, followed by 6 to 8 inch mowing in first through perhaps third year when weed seedheads are beginning to form (but before they're formed enough to contain viable seeds!). This is bare minimum. If you were sold on the idea this is an easy garden to create, you were misled.

Prairies are not really native plant communities where I live, but they're useful nonetheless for covering areas around our stormwater ponds. The method outlined above is one which has worked time and time again. But it really does take all that just to get acceptable results. And even then, if you've got tough invasives like reed canary grass or Canada thistle, you'll still need the backpack sprayer to do spot spraying.

I think the results can be worth the trouble. But where I depart from the WildOnes, et al, is in describing this as somehow the rightful vegetation, "the" native plant community. Mostly it's not. We had mixed northern hardwoods with scattered white pine and hemlock, with swamp conifers and shrub carr in the low areas, trending towards wet meadow and marsh as things got progressively wetter.

Oh well, prairie plantings are good for pollinators and do have aesthetic appeal....when functioning well.


    Bookmark   March 18, 2014 at 12:41PM
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