Lose The Lawn In Order To Gain A Prairie

With good planning, follow-through and, yes, patience, you can have a (nearly) maintenance-free pollinators' paradise prairie in about three years.

by Susan Brackney
PHOTO: courtesy Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The bag of seed I ordered must’ve weighed close to 30 pounds. It’s enough custom prairie mix to transform most of my half acre from patchy lawn to native prairie. The seed mixture includes more than 20 types of grasses and wildflowers intended to thrive in my moderately moist or “mesic” southern Indiana spot.

I’m at the very beginning of what likely will be at least a three-year process. Truly, this project will take a lot of effort, but I think the personal and environmental benefits will be well worth it. And I’m not alone.

Increasing numbers of people are replacing some or all of their thirsty, labor-intensive lawns with meadows or prairies. (What’s the difference? Technically, a meadow is a wetter area made up mostly of wildflowers and other non-grass plants. A prairie, on the other hand, contains an abundance of native grasses with a smattering of wildflowers mixed in.)

Why Bother With a Prairie Yard?

Once successfully established, deeply rooted prairie plants are able to withstand both drought and flooding much better. Prairies also attract and support all sorts of bees, butterflies, songbirds and other wildlife.

And then there’s the matter of mowing. With spring rains and warm weather, many lawns grow profusely enough to require weekly trims. (Now, I realize some folks love to mow, but I’d rather spend my time in other ways!)

Last but not least, some research suggests that tall-grass prairies sequester more carbon than our forests do. This could help to mitigate the effects of our current climate crisis.

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The Right Plants

To make it all work, you need to choose native grasses and wildflowers that are best-suited to your location’s hydrology, weather and microclimate. (If you aren’t quite sure where to start, ask your local native plant society for guidance, or try these state-by-state Natural Resources Conservation Service listings.)

For my part, I consulted Heartland Restoration Services which suggested I go with grasses like little bluestem, prairie dropseed and Virginia wild rye, among others. As for my prairie wildflowers? Lance-leaved coreopsis, yellow and purple coneflowers, and false sunflower are just a few that should turn up after planting.

Read more: You should plant a tallgrass prairie on your farm!

Preparing Your Place for Prairie

Besides picking the right plants for the job, carefully preparing the planting site is critical.

“The more competition you can remove from the equation for whatever seed or plant you’re putting in, the more successful those seeds or plants are likely to be in establishing themselves,” says Nathan Pugh, director of restoration services at Heartland Restoration Services, Inc.

Ideally, you want a “blank slate” in which to plant—that means having no existing lawn or weeds getting in the way. For small areas, Pugh suggests using tarps for a month or so during the spring or fall. “[Tarps] just smother that space and block light access for any of the grass that’s growing there or any weeds that are popping up,” he says.

When used judiciously and according to label instructions, a one-time application of glyphosate can also work well since it will kill the above-ground vegetation as well as its below-ground roots. “If the grass that you killed off was fairly dense, allowing that to break down a little bit or being able to scrape it off the surface so that you get to the soil is optimum,” Pugh says. “You want that seed-to-soil contact to allow for germination to be the best it can be. But, if you’ve got a really thick grass layer in there and then you try to put the seed down and it’s just laying there on top of the grass clumps, you’re really not accomplishing much of anything.”

Weed-whack or mow any thick layers of dead vegetation. Then, he continues, “Do a light raking [with] a rock rake…. Just scarify the soil a little bit on top without fully turning it over.”

Vigorously hand-digging or rototilling the soil are both non-starters, since these actions bring dormant weed seeds up to the surface.

Seeding, Protection & Patience

The size of your prairie may help to dictate the seed-sowing method you choose. In small areas, you can easily spread seeds by hand or use a crank-style seed spreader. Larger sections may call for a push spreader or tractor-fitted seeder.

After sowing is complete, watch for your seedlings to emerge—and watch out for nibbling creatures. “If you live in a subdivision with a retention pond and geese frequently populate the area, the geese will just eat everything,” Pugh warns.

Depending on your location, deer and rabbits can also sheer off the tops of newly germinated plants. Still, rather than surround your space with costly fencing, consider trying one of the liquid rabbit and deer repellants currently available.

Once the plants take off, a little random foraging shouldn’t be a problem. But you will need to remove any weedy interlopers you find before they have a chance to compete with your prairie plants.

“Patience is a key part of being able to manage these areas,” Pugh adds. “Up front, it looks a bit barren, but it will eventually fill in. Then people are like, ‘Oh, my gosh! It’s so pretty!’”

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