Developing a Residential Prairie
A residential prairie is a site 1/4 acre or larger which has been planted with native grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. It reflects the original grassland vegetation dominant in the Midwest prior to European settlement. It is a landscape which encourages a diversity of plant and animal species. Following establishment, it becomes a low-maintenance landscape.
Tools and Equipment:
- Rototiller, harrow or disc
- Herbicide sprayer and protective gear
- Power rake
- Drop spreader or seed-drill
- Sod roller
- Flail-type mower
- Native plant seed suitable to the site, approximately ½ lb. per 1000 sq. ft.
- Sawdust, peat moss, clean sand, or vermiculite, 1 bushel per 1000 sq ft.
Select a site with the following specifications:
- Has full sun
- Is on the east, west or south side of buildings
- Does not have a long history of weedy vegetation or seek professional help for preparing such a site
To avoid fire danger:
- Locate the prairie at least 30 feet from buildings
- Separate the prairie from buildings with an area of gravel, concrete, turf, or irrigated beds
- Prune live and dead branches of nearby trees at least ten feet above the ground
Check on local weed ordinances before developing a prairie. You may need to apply for variances.
Some prairies look more "naturalized" then other landscapes. Discuss the prairie with neighbors to inform them of the changes and that the site is being maintained.
Prairie plants are adapted to specific soil types and moisture levels. To select appropriate plants for your prairie:
- Determine whether you have sandy, clay, or loamy soil.
- Determine the soil pH. For assistance, contact your local county extension agent or soils lab.
- Determine the soil moisture level of your site.
- Dry - draining readily with no standing water.
- Mesic - medium moisture with some puddles after rain.
- Wet - wet soil throughout the season, with standing water in spring and fall.
- Prairies consist of 80% grasses and sedges, with 20% wildflowers (also called forbs).
- Include a mixture of warm-season and cool-season grasses. Warm-season grasses are green in the heat of summer and dormant in spring/fall; cool-season grasses are green in spring and fall, and dormant in summer.
- A "nurse grass" which germinates quickly may be added to help the prairie during establishment.
- Wildflowers for the prairie may be selected to include a variety of bloom times.
- Prairie seed companies will create seed mixes appropriate to your site conditions. Consult with local seed dealers to determine the correct mixtures and amounts. (See Resources.)
- "Seed-in-a-can" wildflower mixes are not recommended, as they will not have the correct plant species for your site.
- Removing all existing vegetation is essential to prairie development. New prairie seedlings are not able to establish if they are competing with existing vegetation. Weeds and turfgrasses must be removed.
- Glyphosate (brand names Roundup or Kleenup) is considered a safe chemical for removing vegetation on prairie sites, and is the recommended method. Follow directions carefully and wear protective gear.
- Wait 1-2 weeks after applying glyphosate. When existing vegetation has died, the soil should be tilled with a rototiller, harrow, or disc to incorporate dead material. If a seed drill is used in planting, tilling may be eliminated.
- After tilling, the site should be raked, either by hand or with a power rake.
- The best time to sow is in the spring between May 15 and June 20. Seed may also be sown in fall, between mid-October and freezing.
- Even seed distribution and good seed-to-soil contact are essential.
- Seed may be broadcast by hand:
Mix seed with slightly damp sawdust or peat moss as a carrier.
Use one bushel of carrier per 1000 sq. ft. of area.
Fling seed in a broad arc to spread evenly.
- A spreader may be used:
Mix seed with clean sand or vermiculite.
Make passes in two different directions.
- For larger areas, mechanical planters can be used, including:
Tye drill, Truax drill, Rangeland drill.
- Following sowing, seed should be rolled with a sod roller to improve soil-to-seed contact. Be sure to roll when soil is dry.
- Wildflowers are generally planted one to two years after grasses have been sown.
- Wildflowers are generally sown from seed on larger sites, as this is most economical. Plants will take two to five years to establish and bloom.
- Wildflower seedlings may be planted also. Transplants are more expensive, but establish and bloom quickly.
- Wildflowers may be clustered near paths and residences for best color in these areas.
Care After Planting:
- Weed control in the first two years of a prairie is essential.
- Control weeds by mowing regularly in the first year at a height of 4-6 inches. Mowing at this height will reduce weed competition without harming new prairie grasses and wildflowers. A flail-type mower is recommended.
- The prairie should be mown when weeds reach a height of eight inches. Do not allow them to grow taller.
- Weeds should not be pulled by hand, as this disturbs new prairie plants.
- At the end of the first season, do not mow down the year's growth.
- At the beginning of the second season, the prairie should be mown to the ground.
- After the prairie has been established for at least three years, it should be maintained with controlled burns or mowing.
Controlled burns are recommended for larger sites.
Burning in April or early May is most advantageous.
Check with your local fire department to obtain information and required permits.
For assistance in establishing and maintaining your prairie, contact:
Center for Urban Ecology & Sustainability
University of Minnesota Extension
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
For a list of companies in Minnesota specializing in prairie development and prairie plants, contact:
Minnesota Native Wildflower/Grass Producers Association
Roy Robison, 651-488-3142
For catalogs of prairie plants, contact:
Prairie Moon Nursery
Prairie Wild Enterprises
(507) 423 - 5575
Balmori, Diana, F. Herbert Bonmann, and Gordon T. Geballe. 1993. Redesigning the American Lawn, A Search for Environmental Harmony. Yale University Press.
Daniels, Stevie. 1995. The Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives to the Traditional Front Lawn. Macmillan, Inc., New York, NY.
Kyhl, John F., Mary H. Meyer, and Vera A. Krischik. 1997. Establishing and Maintaining a Prairie Garden. Minnesota Extension Service, University of Minnesota.
Meyer, Mary, H. Roy Robison, and Donald B. White. 1995. Plants in Prairie Communities. Minnesota Extension Service, University of Minnesota.
Packard, Stephen and Cornelia F. Mutel. 1997. The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook. Island Press, Washington, D.C..
Pauly, Wayne R. 1998. How to Manage Small Prairie Fires. Dane County Park Commission, Madison, WI.
"Planting Prairies and Wildflowers." Spring 1997. Living on a Few Acres Update. Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability, University of Minnesota.
Shirley, Shirley. 1994. Restoring the Tallgrass Prairie. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, Iowa.
Wildflowers and Native Grasses. 1998. Prairie Nursery, Westfield, WI.