Do you have a sunny plot of land you’d like to convert into a native prairie habitat? A pocket prairie is a mini prairie habitat that can support native plants and plenty of pollinators. Creating one as part of your home landscape is easy. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen introduces nine tips for starting your own beautiful pocket prairie.
Prairies are natural communities filled with a wide assortment of grasses and wildflowers. Historically, prairies covered approximately one-third of central North America, from Canada to southern Texas, and most of the central United States. Prairies supported vast numbers of wildlife, including insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and an array of mammals. Very little of the original wild prairie remains today.
Native prairie plants are generally well-adapted to a wide range of environmental conditions, including heat and cold. These plants are specially adapted to live in sunny, open landscapes with a lot of wind. Native prairies typically had very few trees, except perhaps along riparian borders. Naturally occurring wildfires were essential in helping manage prairie ecosystems by reducing competition and returning nutrients to the soil.
A pocket prairie is essentially a miniature prairie habitat. It can be as small as a raised bed or can fill your entire yard. Include a variety of flowering native plants to support pollinators and birds, and various plant sizes and structures with different colors and bloom times to maximize year-round enjoyment.
You can grow a mini prairie simply because it is beautiful, but there are many other benefits.
- Wildflowers support butterflies, native bees, and other pollinators and beneficial insects.
- Create wildlife habitat for birds and other small animals.
- Native plants can improve soil health.
- Perennial prairie plants don’t require extra watering, pesticides, or fertilizer
Anyone with some sun in their yard can start a pocket prairie. You don’t need to dedicate your entire landscape to this project, although you can if you want to. Any amount of space you have will reward you with beautiful plants, birds, and valuable pollinator habitat.
Let’s dig deeper into simple steps you can follow to create your own thriving pocket prairie ecosystem.
Step 1: Identify Your Space
Transform a portion of your garden or replace some turfgrass.
Where will your prairie be located? How much space do you have available for this project? You can make the mini prairie as large or as small as you want, but remember that a larger plot will require a correspondingly larger workload. A small plot is simple but won’t have the same diversity or flexibility as a larger plot.
It can go in your front yard, backyard, or side yard. Dedicate a part of your existing garden, or convert part of your turf grass into a well-balanced habitat. Look for a place with decent sunlight and soil. Once your prairie plants get established, they will light up your landscape with showy splashes of color.
Step 2: Study Your Space
Understanding important details about your garden space enables better plant selection.
The more you know about your garden space, the better you can select the right plants to grow there. Knowing the following information will help you identify a great site for your planting and help you choose the most compatible plants.
- Hardiness Zone – Study a map to learn which USDA plant hardiness zone you live in.
- Soil pH – Most prairie plants will do best with fairly neutral soil, around 7.0.
- Soil Type – Most prairie plants appreciate average-quality, well-drained soil.
- Soil Moisture – Most prairie plants appreciate dry to medium-moisture soil.
- Sunlight – Choose a space that receives at least six to eight hours of sunlight daily. Most prairie plants love plenty of sunlight and won’t thrive in the shade, although some tolerate partial shade.
Create a Design
Populate your space with attractive, enduring perennials that support pollinators.
Look at the size and shape of your available gardening space. Try to visualize what you want your pocket prairie to look like. Do you have room for a larger assortment of plants of many different sizes, or a smaller space for just a few super-showy plants to maximize curb appeal? Fill your space with beautiful, long-lasting, pollinator-friendly perennials you will enjoy growing.
Sketch out a few ideas for how you’d like to fill the space. Look at some pictures of other pocket prairies and native prairie grasslands to get ideas. Consider other features, such as a bluebird box that can attract a family of bluebirds to your yard.
For a smaller plot, place smaller plants towards the front and larger plants towards the back so you can see them all at once. For a larger plot, you can create a more homogeneous assortment that will look truly prairie-like.
For areas prone to waterlogging after rain, opt for plants that thrive in wetter soil.
You can choose a variety of your favorite prairie grasses and flowers or buy a seed mix that’s ready to sow a colorful display. Include a variety of native flowering plants and grasses.
A few easy-to-grow prairie favorites to get you started include:
- Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
- Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Lance-leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
- Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)
- Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Pay attention to your site-specific growing conditions. Choose the best plants for your site based on sunlight, soil drainage, and soil moisture levels. For example, if part of your plot is low and holds water after rain, choose plants for that site that prefer wetter soil. If another portion is high and dry, place your most drought-tolerant plants in that spot.
Prepare the Space
In order to ensure the success of your prairie planting, it’s crucial to prepare the plot effectively.
Preparing your prairie plot will make a big difference in the final success of your planting. Before starting new seeds or plants, remove any competing grass or weeds. Also, remove any invasive species in the area. You don’t want your prairie plants to compete with them to survive.
To best prepare your soil for planting, loosen the soil throughout your plot. If you can do this well before planting, wait a few weeks, pull the sprouted weeds, and rake the soil surface again.
You will be amazed how many weed seeds are stored in the soil and continually try to sprout. After turning the soil and removing the weeds a few times, your plot is ready for seeding or planting.
Choose Your Growing Method
Perennials cultivated from seeds typically require around two years to achieve flowering maturity.
Growing from seed is easy and economical. Many prairie plants grow easily from seed, even for beginners! Growing from seeds is an easy way to acquire various colorful native plants, including many that aren’t readily available from garden centers. Perennials grown from seed typically take two years to reach flowering maturity, so you must be patient with this method.
You can also buy plant starts from a nursery specializing in native plants. Buying individual young plants is more costly than buying packets of seeds, but it’s a much quicker way to add flowering plants to your garden. Planting a young perennial in the spring often yields a flowering plant within the first year.
If you want the best of both worlds, try growing some plants from seed and others from nursery stock. You will have the widest selection of plants and some instant greenery to fill in the space while waiting for your slower seeds to sprout and mature.
Opt for early spring or fall when transplanting potted plants to minimize transplanting stress.
You need a bit of patience for this phase. Seeds take time to germinate and grow into sizable plants, and young plants take time to fill out into mature size. This is also an exciting step because you finally get to watch your pocket prairie take shape.
The best time of year to start seeds is in the late fall. Many prairie flower seeds require a period of winter dormancy and stratification to sprout in the springtime. Generally, you can allow nature to take its normal course after sowing the seeds outside. They are naturally programmed to sprout at the right time. You should see tiny seedlings emerge in the spring.
The best time of year for transplanting potted plants is early spring or fall. Avoid planting in mid-summer, if you can, because summer’s heat makes it a difficult time of year to start new plants. Choose a cool, overcast day to plant and thoroughly water new plants to help minimize transplanting stress.
Gradually expand your plot over time to make the project more manageable.
It may be tempting to convert your entire yard into a prairie all at once. I would encourage you to start small. Increase the size of your plot over time to make your project more manageable.
Choose one corner or strip to begin your planting. Create a long-range plan to visualize how each stage will look and how your planting arrangement will ultimately look. Start with one small area, prepare that area, and select your plants as you normally would. Each year, add just a little more, one block at a time, until you reach your final goal. There’s no single right or wrong way to proceed with these steps, so long as you prepare your soil and choose compatible plants.
Maintain Your Plot
Using herbicides not only eliminates weeds but also harms nearby prairie plants.
Once you have researched, selected your plot, and started growing your plants, you’ll have to do a bit of regular maintenance to keep your garden looking great. Weeding will be one of the most important maintenance tasks you perform. Hand pull, rather than spray, any weeds you see. Spraying herbicides not only kills the weeds but also any surrounding prairie plants.
At the end of each season, you can leave any standing dead vegetation, some of which may remain attractive throughout the winter. However, by late winter or early spring, it’s time to prune back dead vegetation to make way for fresh green growth. Add a layer of mulch throughout your plot to help regulate soil moisture, suppress weeds, and protect your plants’ roots in the winter.
Frequently Asked Questions
Prairie plants are excellent candidates for raised bed gardening. If you are working in an area with difficult soil or other challenging conditions, raised beds are a great choice to help brighten your landscape. Start with one bed or create attractive displays using multiple beds. You can fill them with high-quality soil, and you don’t have to worry about the extra work of removing grass or tilling up your lawn. Check the soil moisture in your raised beds regularly, as they tend to dry out faster than in-ground plantings.
If you want to create the most positive impact on the local environment, yes, try to stick with native plants whenever possible. Native species are best adapted to the local growing conditions and typically don’t require extra watering, pesticides, or fertilizers. Birds and beneficial insects are also specially adapted to use native plants. It’s okay to incorporate a few non-native species into your prairie as well, so long as they are compatible and aren’t invasive species.
As long as you live in a favorable climate, approximately USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 to 9, you can still grow a pocket prairie. You don’t have to live in a place where prairies historically existed to have a positive impact on the environment and the animals that live there. Plus, this type of garden is easy to grow and beautiful, and you can grow one just about anywhere!
It is relatively simple to start your own pocket prairie. Convert a sunny section of your yard into a beautiful, thriving mini prairie ecosystem for tons of beauty and enjoyment. Choose the right plants to fit your conditions, plan a design, prepare your soil, and then you’ll be ready for planting. Keep the area well-weeded to ensure your special plants grow well and multiply. You and the local wildlife can then appreciate your efforts all season long and for many years to come.