Plant Your Own Private Prairie
Sidestep the rigid rules of traditional garden design and take a walk on the wild side
A curving path of crushed shell invites guests to meander through this prairie-style planting of purple and white coneflower, spiky hair grass, billowing switch grass, yellow sneezeweed, and 'Giant Bronze' fennel.
Tired of tidy hedges and perfectly edged flower beds? Consider loosening up with a prairie-style garden. This great American landscape, like its close cousin the meadow, plays to a love of wide-open spaces with an exuberant mix of forms that more staid plant combinations just can't match.
True prairies, found in the West, are largely populated by native warm-season grasses, like switch grass, that thrive in arid summer conditions. Meadows, more often found in the East, can be damp or dry, and often include a greater concentration of colorful native perennials, like black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower, alongside cool-season grasses that grow in spring and fall. In both cases, plants that do well in these environments prefer full sun and thrive on neglect—so they're hardier and more drought-resistant than most other garden plants.
Prairies and meadows have in common a wild, naturalistic look that is as much about texture as it is about color. These spaces feel rugged yet inviting, begging you to take a stroll—one reason they are often favored in urban settings these days. Heavy on native plants, they naturally attract butterflies, birds, and bees that appreciate the cover grasses offer, as well as the nectar and seeds flowering perennials, like coneflower, provide. But nonnative, noninvasive plants, like Russian sage, can also benefit wildlife and complement the prairie plant palette.
Whichever uninhibited garden style you prefer, planting a broad swath or just a smaller border does require a little know-how. The first factor to consider when it comes to plant selection is size. In traditional garden design, taller plants stand behind shorter ones for easy viewing. But nature produces a less manicured mix. So, starting with grasses, pick a few species for your palette, and plant each in eye-catching drifts, mixing various heights as you go.
Pay attention to bloom sequence, too. There's no sense in planting something only to have its flowers overshadowed as a larger plant gains in size. Choose smaller-scale plants—like hair grass or 'Walker's Low' catmint—that bloom early in the season, after which they can give way to bigger bloomers like Russian sage in mid-to late summer. Warm-season grasses work well for hiding the spent blossoms of earlier-blooming perennials.
Last, consider plant form. Fine-textured grasses create the bones of the garden, giving meadows and prairies their atmospheric softness. They also bring subtle color and movement, rustling to life in the slightest breeze. Grasses can be low, mounding, or tall and upright, while most flowering perennial blooms can be categorized as stars, spikes, or spheres. Fine stars, along with grasses, should be most prevalent in the garden, while spikes and spheres act as dramatic accents.
Though the aesthetic may appear carefree, planting a prairie garden does entail a bit of maintenance. In a true prairie or meadow all available spaces are filled with plants, but that takes time. Many of the players follow the "sleep, creep, leap" timetable: little movement their first year, some growth the second, followed by a burst in the third. Weeds find it easy to camouflage themselves in a prairie-style garden, making a spring application of mulch important. A top dressing of compost is the only fertilizer new plants need.
Many prairie plants self-seed, developing into drifts that move in the wind. Once the growing season is over, pruning encourages young plants to fill in. The best time to cut plants back is late winter, promoting a flush of spring growth.
These rustic gardens have a casual feel but reveal greater detail the more time you spend looking at them. While your yard might not be as large as the wide-open West, even a small prairie-style planting can give it a dose of playfulness—and that's something any backyard gardener can embrace.