geoffb(SW MO)June 1, 2003

My prairie garden is celebrating its fourth season, and I wanted to take the occasion to share the lessons I've learned so far.

Some background info: The area runs along the sidewalk in my suburban neighborhood. I think I calculated its area at about 1500 sq. feet back when I first started, but I'm not sure how accurate that is now. Given its location and size, I treat it both as a "flower bed" and a "wildflower area," if that makes sense. Back in 2000, I killed off the existing patchy fescue and weeds with Round-up, seeded the area with all-native wildflower seeds, covered with straw, and the rest is history.

1. Fight weeds aggressively in the first couple of years, and DO NOT let them seed. I was dismayed to discover Johnson Grass growing among my babies the first year, and I've been cutting and spraying ever since. My persistence has payed off, and it's almost gone. I had to give up and start mowing the far end of the area, because I never really weeded it and it was overrun. This spring, I have to pull lots of foxtail grass because a couple of plants seeded last year. In retrospect, I should have taken an entire growing season to kill off existing vegetation when I first started. I was too anxious to get started with the fun stuff, though. On the whole, I think I'm over the hump with the weed battle, but it would have been easier had I been more patient.

2. Start off with native grasses! I didn't. If I had, that would probably also have reduced some of my weed problems. Now, I have lots of beautiful forbs but no grasses. The bare spots between the forbs have to be weeded occasionally and look ugly. I haven't had much luck with subsequently trying to seed the grasses, so I'll be adding plugs here and there and will hopefully get them established eventually.

3. Be careful with Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). It is a large, aggressive plant, and I'm currently waging war on it. It grows very easily and quickly from seed. It forms large clumps and can be over four feet tall by the end of May (shading out just about everything else). Because my space is small (relatively speaking), it quickly got out of control. Once I get it confined, I'll be sure to deadhead regularly. It's great for the back, with other tall things, but it will definitely outcompete legumes, coreopsis, etc.

4. Appreciate the little things. For example, Sleepy Catchfly (Silene antirrhina) volunteered in the dry, rocky edges of the bed. It is small and very inconspicuous, but it's an interesting little plant and I am glad it's there.

5. Educate others. Some county mower person took it upon himself to mow part of the bed in late summer '01. I've also had neighbors occasionally trample plants and picking flowers I wanted seeds from. So now I put up signs with a short informatory note about what the area is.

6. Favorite plants (at this moment):

- Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) - What a dazzler! Plant it with Coreopsis lanceolata and Oenothera missouriensis.

- Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya) - Classy blooms in the heat of late summer.

- Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) - Irresistible explosion of yellow in May, but needs cutting back in the summer.

Annual Plains Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) is gorgeous when in bloom but looks pretty bad when the flowers fade. Goldenrods, asters, and Palafoxia callosa are good for fall color. Echinacea pallida hasn't really done well for me. I have lots of plants, so I'm hoping they'll get better with age.

I have lots of "hopefuls" that are still small, like Missouri Primrose (Oenothera missouriensis), Pink Primrose (Oenothera speciosa), Trelease's Delphinium (Delphinium treleasii - a very few seedlings that I'm hoping against hope will survive and bloom for me), and Rose Verbena.

Hopefully, I'll be adding a few prizes like Penstemon cobaea and Royal Catchfly soon.

What an adventure!

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sherriseden(z6 IL)


Sounds like you're off to a great start! I know it's 4 years old, but prairies take eons to evolve, so you're really just starting.

I just dug up about 250 square feet of lawn for a "trial prairie". I got some native grass and wildflower plants and am scouting out some seed. I'm glad you mentioned the aggressive nature of Gray headed coneflower - I was thinking of putting that in. I actually got some "Prairie coneflower" seeds from a seed company; is that the same thing?

One thing: please, please, please TRY to forgo spraying with chemicals!!! It's so bad for the soil and YOU! Believe me, I'm not preaching, because I did it 'till a couple years ago. But, it's really evil stuff.

Happy and gentle gardening!


    Bookmark   June 2, 2003 at 7:14PM
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rod_95(5 se WI)

I was relecting recently upon my 3 year old and 2 year old prairies. Like you, I was impatient starting and regret not having done more weed preparation. In year 2, I accidentally allowed some weeds to go to seed, which is giving me some problems in my 3 year old patch now.

Early this spring, I sprayed my prairie areas with Round-up (sorry, working 60-70 hours per week makes round-up a necessary evil) and had positive results reducing the early spring weed count. It did have a marginal impact upon several of the early risers like nodding onion and downy phlox.

Although I seeded grasses from the beginning, I wish I had seeded more. Overall, I think I under-estimated how much seed was required to achieve a decent balance. I could use more bluestem, dropseed and indian grasses throughout.

Early surprises this year included second year prarie violet blooming, last year's second year pale spiked lobelia was a pleasant surprise and finally the wild white indigo growing large enough for identification.


    Bookmark   June 2, 2003 at 10:29PM
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Hope your treleasei made it...and hope you bore in mind that they go dormant very early (by June for sure). They're lovely and I wish I had some more :)


    Bookmark   November 18, 2003 at 7:38AM
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Hello Geoff (my brother and youngest son spell it that way, too):

Congratulations on your successes and on your lessons learned!

Grasses will start from seed among established forbs, but it takes several seasons for them to get big enough to easily recognize. You could work in grasses into some of the larger bare spots by planting in pot-grown individuals. So a few seeds directly into a gallon or half gallon pot in spring, water and feed lightly, then plant in September while there is still a bit of growing season left and some early fall rains to help them get established. I've had good success with planting thusly-grown prairie plants in early fall here in the St. Louis area.

D. Barron has experience about as far away in the other direction from you. Maybe he will pitch in on this, too.

Also note: Spring burning favors grasses and fall burning favors a more forb rich display in the following growing season.

    Bookmark   November 28, 2003 at 11:35AM
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froggy(z4/5 WI)


doctorant is right, grasses just gonna take time.
my guess is that they are there in accurate #'s and just need time to develop. im sure u went with a decent seeding co and bought the required amounts.

its fine. lay back and enjoy it a little.


    Bookmark   November 29, 2003 at 11:17AM
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