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Ongoing Maintenance and Rewards of a Prairie Garden
January 12, 2006 by Evelyn J. Hadden

	thriving prairie
Grasses and forbs weave a tapestry of habitat on the prairie.

At the time of this writing, my prairie is about to enter its fourth year. Overall the rewards far outweigh the work it demands, and indeed it has demanded very little. I perform no regular maintenance, just seasonal weeding forays.

The weeding is ongoing in the sense that every year there are weeds, but the kinds of weeds are changing and their numbers are drastically reduced from the first year's large crop, which grew up on bare soil. I expect weeding work to continue to taper off, though an annual check for opportunists will always be important preventative maintenance.

The only plants that I still perceive as possible threats are reed canary grass and Canada thistle. So far I have used no herbicides, only manual weed control strategies, and I remain hopeful that a stable prairie community can develop without chemical intervention. [I would appreciate hearing from any readers who've successfully discouraged Canada thistle without chemicals.]

As for supplemental watering, I wetted the soil after sowing seed, and during one Spring I also watered every couple of days for two weeks after seeding to encourage germination. Otherwise, I haven't watered even during late summer droughts. Many prairie natives wilt during the droughts in order to conserve water, and once rain comes, they perk up again.

Prairie Moon Nursery, my seed supplier, advises mowing or burning annually to keep the weeds down for the first 4 to 8 years, and after that, mowing and raking off the clippings in very early spring every few years. I'm keeping the weeds down by hand-pulling them, so I haven't yet burned or mowed.

The goal of periodic burning or mowing/raking seems to be keeping dead plant matter from building up at ground level. I plan to see what species mix develops before I set up a mowing or burning regime, as the particular plants will determine the need.

Every spring, during my first couple of weeks of daily wandering through the prairie, I pull off the noticeable dried stalks and break them into smaller pieces and throw them back down on the ground. I scatter any seeds in bare spots, or store them for later use, or take them over to my new berm and scatter them there, or save them to give to friends.

This work takes very little extra time. I do it gradually as I wander, and I spread it out over days, and I feel no sense of urgency about it. It's like tidying a room as you're walking through it. But it's more appreciative than that, more like petting a cat that has climbed into your lap.

Prairie gardening seems to be the best kind of gardening: a random, leisurely attendance to a variety of chores, taken in easy blocks of time and combined with daydreaming, exploring, examining, and general communing with the place and its plants and animals.

Rewards of Prairie Gardening

For me, one of the most satisfying aspects of making and tending a prairie has been its low cost, both in terms of money and in energy, as well as its construction from "waste" materials. There is also the thrill of seeing such a diverse community of large plants spring up from seeds that I simply scattered around. Add to that the satisfaction of tangibly improving the health of the soil, and thereby the landscape.

The biggest reward has of course been the plants and animals, as any prairie enthusiast will understand. Those of you who haven't met many prairie plants, their unique and fascinating personalities are sure to captivate you, not to mention their ability to attract local wildlife. Prairies are the liveliest of natural places, humming and buzzing and furrowing in the breezes, with different plants rising up at intervals of a few weeks, transforming the look of the landscape several times over the course of a year. Other prairie stewards say that each year is better than the last... I can't wait.

See related articles at LessLawn:

Abundant color photos, case studies of planted prairies, and plant profiles for the prairie gardener or restorer:
Gardening with Prairie Plants: How to Make Beautiful Native Landscapes

For an introduction to many aspects of prairies -- covering ecology, natural history, lives of key animals & plants -- this book's flowing prose and beautiful photos convey a surprising amount of substantial information:
Prairie: A Natural History

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