I have been thinking a lot about prairie landscapes and using natives in our landscapes. For Father’s Day, I went hiking at the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve by Strong City, KS. This prairie is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and there is always something blooming, from March to November. However, in our landscapes we often forgo the idea of something different always blooming for always blooming. We look for individual plants that will bloom for months, such as roses, daylilies, and coneflowers, instead of choosing plants that will successively bloom throughout the growing season.
The prairies around us should serve as a reminder to how to build up our landscapes, with wildflowers and grasses that complement each other. However, it would be good to remember that foundation plantings with plants spaced evenly apart and lots of spaces between them are not complete landscapes. A landscape is such an area that both transforms the overall property and provides outdoor “rooms” that create a sense of privacy and well-being. The prairie landscape does just that, but on a larger scale: with swales and valleys, hills and ravines.
If we take time to look at the world around us, we can develop an idea of how to create such space and beauty by developing layers of plant communities. In a natural setting, each foot of space has many different species in it. Starting with grasses in multiple quantities and species will develop a backbone for the addition of wildflowers. Many times I see people adding wildflowers to their beds in hope for more pollinators and beauty, but they need to add the grasses for structure, insect cover, and ground cover.
Grasses provide structure and character with their differing movements, colors, and seedheads. Bluestems bend and sway with the wind, switchgrass stands tall, and dropseeds and gramas dance with their delicate seedheads. Insects will use the density of grasses for cover and many bees pollinate the flowers. Skippers, wood nymphs, and many moths use a variety of grasses to raise their caterpillars. Prairie birds like sparrows, meadowlarks, and plovers nest and raise their young amongst the grasses. In the prairie, you will see wildflowers blooming, but in pockets here and there among the grasses, with grasses being the overall community leaders.
Jump on in and create, plant grasses and wildflowers together, mix and match and diversify. Plant lots of varieties that bloom at different times and with various colors, heights, and textures. You do not need three plants to bloom for six months if you have thirty plants that bloom in stages for nine months.
Create, design, imagine, diversify.