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Starting a backyard prairie

Add a natural touch to your landscape. Now is the time to sow most wildflower seeds.

Coneflowers blooming in prairieNorth Dakota is a prairie state. Our climate and soils are perfect for prairies. So why not grow a patch of prairie in your backyard?

Backyard prairies add a natural touch to landscapes. The plants put on a dynamic display of colors and textures as they emerge, bloom and fade.  As a bonus, your prairie will attract all kinds of butterflies and birds to the backyard (bottom photo).

Successful prairie establishment is not cheap and it’s not easy. It requires careful site preparation, improving the soil, and selecting proper plants.

Now is the best time to start a wildflower prairie. I know this for a fact since the best gardener in North Dakota sows her wildflower seeds this time of year. Who’s that? Her name is Mother Nature, of course.

The wildflowers grown by Mother Nature are now ripening. Soon the seeds in those flowers will drop to the ground. These seeds will germinate next spring.

Prepare a good seed bed for your prairie. In most situations we need to kill the existing vegetation. Butterfly on goldenrodGlyphosate (Roundup) works well because it will kill the vegetation down to its roots. The plants will die within two weeks. Cultivate the land when the vegetation dies and prepare a smooth soil bed. Consider working in an inch of compost to enrich the land.

Many wildflowers do well in North Dakota. Popular choices include purple and yellow coneflower (top photo), goldenrod (see bottom photo), New England aster, white false indigo, ox-eye sunflower, prairie blazing star, compass plant and black-eyed susan. Wildflowers can be established from seeds or transplants.

Most backyard prairies use low-growing grasses as the foundation to the planting. These grasses choke out weeds that emerge between the wildflowers, provide physical support for the wildflower stems, and accentuate the beauty of the wildflowers. The grasses will turn gold in fall and can be attractive through the winter months. Popular low-growing grasses include little bluestem, sideoats grama, and prairie dropseed. These grasses are best for urban landscapes.

Tall grasses may be considered in rural landscapes. These grasses provide seeds and protective cover for wildlife. Popular choices include switchgrass, big bluestem and Indian grass.

Make sure you get your seeds or plants from a northern source. Such plants will adapt better here.

Besides classic seed mixes, specialty mixes are available for sandy or clay soils, wet or dry sites, woodland edges and septic fields. There are mixes that attract butterflies and mixes that repel deer. More information on establishing backyard prairies is available from seed suppliers including Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery.

 

Written by Tom Kalb, Extension Horticulturist, North Dakota State University. Published in the NDSU Yard & Garden Report, September 1, 2014. Photos were made available under Creative Commons licenses specified by the photographers: ellenm1 and Putneypics, The information given herein is for educational purposes only. References to a company, commercial product or trade name are made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the North Dakota Extension Service is implied.

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