Kansas City, Mo. – Prairies and flowery woodlands once covered most of western Missouri. A living piece of the past can be grown at home, and the easiest way is to take a small and simple approach to gardening with native wildflowers and grasses. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) can connect people with prairie plants that work in small landscape plantings.
Native wildflowers and grasses are adapted to local climate and soils, which along with deep roots, helps makes them hardy through Missouri’s weather variations. However, they are not maintenance free and may need some help getting established. Once growing, a native plant restoration makes an interesting plot to watch plants emerge in spring and change through the seasons. Blooms on wildflowers, a variety in colors and textures in grasses, all are part of the show. But natives also are good hosts for pollinators such as birds, bees, beetles, and butterflies that benefit gardens and are interesting to watch.
Here’s a prairie patch that’s easy for young and old to establish in a home garden plot. They can provide history and biology lessons, too, when combined with books and online information.
- Pick a corner of the yard for a triangle shape, maybe three or four feet deep. Or pick out a circular spot elsewhere in the yard, or a rectangle. Don’t make it too big. Use found stone or wood to make a border edge.
- Unfold a cardboard box or layers of newspapers over the plot. Punch holes in a pattern with even spacing between planting spots.
- Order native plant seedlings from companies specializing in providing species found in Missouri prairies and woodlands. The Missouri Prairie Foundation can connect gardeners with plant sources through its Grow Native! web page, https://short.mdc.mo.gov/Znn. Gardeners will also find a wealth of tips and information at the site. Many of the commercial growers also offer colorful and highly educational catalogs with information on plant heights, bloom times, and soil moisture requirements.
- What to order? First, note how tall plants grow. For the triangle shape, put tall plants in the rear and the shorter growing species in front. For circles or squares, place tall species in the middle and surround them with the shorter plants.
- Suggestions for a first garden. Big bluestem is a tall growing and iconic native of the tallgrass prairie. The turkey-foot-shaped seed stem is eye catching in late summer and fall. A caveat, big bluestem in good soil can top six feet in height. Some gardeners might want to make a shorter species such as prairie dropseed the backrow grasses.
- Next in height, moving shorter, purple prairie coneflowers or some variation of coneflower species are showy in growth and blooms and do well in garden plantings. Little bluestem makes a very ornamental bunch grass and provides gorgeous golden-red color in autumn. Coreopsis with yellow blooms is a reliable first-year bloomer. Purple poppy mallow will grow along edges and provided colorful blooms.
- When your mail-ordered plants arrive, plant them according to height in the soil where you punched holes in cardboard or paper. Water well. Cover the cardboard or paper and soil near plants with mulch. Leaves from the fall compost pile will work, or use commercial mulch made from native trees. The cardboard and mulch will block sunlight and keep unwanted grasses and weeds from intruding. By the time the prairie garden is growing well, the cardboard and paper will decay into the soil. Keep your plants watered well in drought times. Once they mature in a few years, however, they can stand dry weather. Though adequate moisture keeps all flowers and grasses hearty and healthy.
- Some plants may not survive. Replace as necessary the next year. Perhaps try a new variety if a particular species seems to struggle in your soil. Remember, it can take a few years for prairie plants to sink their roots deep into the soil and fully express their growth. You may need to install a short fence to keep rabbits from eating small plants. Planting a native garden takes patience and time but is very rewarding.
Native prairie plantings can be as large and complex as a gardener wants to tackle. Some people do varied plantings as they become enamored of prairie ecology. But simple works, too. Even a small garden plot with natives will add color, be fairly easy to maintain, and help native birds and butterflies.
For more information about native plants for landscape gardens, visit https://short.mdc.mo.gov/Zc8. To learn more about Missouri’s prairie plants and ecosystems, visit https://short.mdc.mo.gov/ZxM.