Planning & Designing Your Prairie Meadow
Site Prep Basics | Soil Types | Site Selection | Tall & Short Prairies
We strongly recommend including native grasses in your meadow. Their dense root systems help to squeeze out the weeds, making the prairie meadow truly low maintenance. Grasses provide support for the wildflowers, as well as cover for birds. The grasses warm autumn colors of gold, orange and bronze extend the meadows interest well into winter.
Site Preparation Basics
(For detailed site preparation instructions click here.)
Proper soil preparation is the single most important factor in the success of your prairie planting. The planting area must be completely free of weeds. Existing weeds will compete with the prairie seedlings for nutrients, water and sunlight. If not controlled, they can delay or prevent the growth and maturation of your prairie. Whether you're planting seeds or transplanting plants, adhere to the following guidelines to ensure good results.
The first step in soil preparation is to eliminate the existing vegetation. All weeds and grasses on the site must be killed, using smothering, cultivating, herbiciding or combination of these techniques. If using herbicides, we recommend using a broad spectrum, non-persistent herbicide such as glyphosate (ie. Roundup, Ranger or Kleenup).
If you prefer not to use herbicides, you can employ smothering, smother cropping, or cultivation. A variety of implements are available to prepare your soil using cultivation. A sod cutter, rototiller, tractor-mounted rototiller, rotovator, or farm implements such as a plow, disk or harrow may be used, depending on the size of the area to be planted.
(For more information on Soli Types please click here.)
Soils can be divided into three classifications: sand, loam and clay. Great variation occurs within the basic groups, but these categories suffice to describe where a given plant will grow.
Sandy soils, referred to as “light” soils, contain large soil particles that are loose and easy to work. They allow water to drain readily and typically are low in nutrients. Sandy soils tend to be more acidic than more fertile loams and clays.
Loamy soils are “intermediate” between sand and clay. Composed of many different sized soil particles, they combine fertility, moisture-holding capacity and good drainage. Easier to work than clay and better consolidated than sand, loamy soils make an excellent medium for growing most plants.
Clay soils, known as “heavy” soils, consist of very small, tightly packed soil particles, and tend to be hard to work. They are generally rich in nutrients, have a high water-holding capacity and can be very productive.
Prairies and meadows require sunny, open sites with good air circulation. A minimum of one half day of full sun is necessary for most prairie plants to thrive and bloom. Any sunny, level site is suitable for a prairie meadow.
On hills, south-facing slopes receive more sun than level ground, are hotter and drier, and well suited to prairie meadows. West-facing slopes are subject to desiccation from prevailing westerly winds and the hot afternoon sun, and are also good sites for prairies. East-facing slopes are good candidates as well. Steep north-facing slopes are protected from the sun, stay cooler and moister and are usually not well suited to prairies. Prairie flowers and grasses will also do well when planted on the east, west and south sides of a building in full sun. The north side is too shady for prairie, and better suited to ferns and woodland wildflowers.
Prairie meadows are often recommended for planting over septic fields and mound systems. The roots of the herbaceous perennial flowers and grasses apparently do not grow into the pipes and do not pose a threat to their function. An added benefit is that the deep-rooted prairie plants can utilize the wastewater and the nutrients contained in it, preventing them from entering the ground water. You can help recycle your wastewater with native plants!
Be careful if aggressive, weedy plants are located adjacent to your future prairie site. Some plants can creep into your meadow by means of underground rhizomes, while others have seeds that can blow in on the wind. Problem neighbors include Quackgrass, Smooth Bromegrass, Johnsongrass, Canada Goldenrod, Tall Goldenrod, Canada Thistle, Grey Dogwood, Sumac, Buckthorn, Tatarian and Japanese Honeysuckles and Multiflora Rose, to name a few. If there is an old field next to your prairie, expect some incursion by unwanted visitors, some of whom may attempt to make your prairie their home! To prevent this problem, maintain a mowed strip 5-10 feet wide between the prairie and the old field, and mow the adjacent fields every summer in late July, before the plants go to seed.
|Beware of attempting to establish a prairie on sites that have a long history of weedy vegetation. Extensive site preparation will be required to kill off existing weeds growing on the site, and also to reduce the weed seeds that are harbored in the soil. This typically requires one to two full years, using Roundup herbicide, smothering, cultivation, or a combination of these methods. Please refer to the section on Site Preparation for specifics on converting old fields to prairies.
Tall and Short Prairies
You may want to plant some areas of both tall and short prairie to create two different landscape effects and habitat types. Place the tall prairie to the back and short prairie in the front to create a layered effect. Be aware that if you plant tall prairie to the west or north of your short prairie, the ripening seeds of the taller plants may blow into the short prairie to the east and south. Eventually your short prairie may become a tall prairie, as the invading seeds from the tall plants grow and mature.
For a prominent display of wildflowers, plant them with the shorter bunchgrasses, such as Little Bluestem, Prairie Dropseed and Sideoats Grama. These low-growing, clump-forming grasses allow the flowers to show off better than when planted with tall prairie grasses.
For tall prairies, an excellent combination is Indiangrass and Little Bluestem, mixed with various flowers. These two clump-forming grasses leave plenty of room for the flowers. (Wildflower Selection Guide - Grasses). Large, robust flowers should be planted with the tall prairie grasses, such as Big Bluestem, Indiangrass and Switchgrass. Please refer to our Prairie Seed Mixes for details.
Beware of planting only one type of flower in an area. Most flowers do not have sufficiently thick root systems to squeeze out weeds by themselves. They require help from other flowers and grasses. Tap-rooted flowers seem to grow better and produce more flowers when growing together with clump-forming grasses.
The complementary root systems of the prairie flowers and grasses work together to squeeze out weeds. By occupying different parts of the soil, these plants coexist as a tight-knit plant community. The inclusion of a wide variety of native flowers and grasses is the secret to creating low-maintenance flower gardens that require little chemical input and less work than typical flower beds. By understanding plant behavior and working with nature, the plants will do most of the work for you. Carefully follow the procedures on the next few pages, use quality seeds and plants from Prairie Nursery and let Mother Nature do the work for you!
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