Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Are Prairie Gardens Really Low Maintenance?

Whoever said prairie gardening was low maintenance must be crazy. (Don't scroll up and read the header for this blog!) Sure, prairie gardens do not require weekly maintenance like lawns need mowing, but they do require some maintenance to keep them in control - particularly in a suburban setting where cut turf grass is the standard.

Most of the time, the maintenance on my prairie is minimal. I walk around the prairie on a regular basis and remove any weeds as soon as I notice them. I do not fertilize the prairie other than a foliar feeding of liquid organic fertilizer once or twice a year, if that. Watering is kept to a minimum. Other than water that fell from the sky and hand watering of new transplants, I have not watered my prairie this year. My goal is to keep the plants on the green side of dormancy through the summer. 

The photo above shows how my front yard prairie looked Saturday morning. The flowers that covered the prairie in the spring are faded and seed heads are ripening. Many of the plants have grown rather large - much larger than the same plants grow in natural areas. In short, the prairie looks a little weedy. No maintenance is actually needed, but since the front yard prairie is out there for the world to see, I feel an obligation to keep it looking as neat and maintained as possible, without taking away the natural look.

Selectively tidying up a prairie requires considerable bending, stooping, and squatting for this six and a half foot tall prairie gardener. (Where are the buffalo when you need them?) I use sheep shears to cut the thin flower stems of the four nerve daisies, Tetraneuris scaposa, to keep them neat and blooming throughout the summer. 

Hand pruners are useful for cutting back mealycup sage, Salvia farinacea, from a height of around three feet to just a few inches tall. This hard pruning will encourage regrowth and additional blooms, particularly in late summer. The black sampson coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia, blooms in the spring and then begins to die back to a few leaves. I trim off most of the flower heads and toss them around the prairie to start additional plants. I leave a few flower heads on the plants for the birds, although I have never seen any birds feeding on them.

Most of my prairie plants are more than happy to spread by seed. Most of them are easy to pull out by hand when their numbers need to be thinned. Others, like cutleaf daisy, Engelmannia peristenia, and bush sunflower, Simsia calva, have stout tap roots and must be dug out. I am working to remove both of these from the front yard prairie.

So, after a few hours of trimming, pulling, and digging in the blazing sunshine, the prairie looks a little more maintained than it did a little earlier. I did not cut back everything though. The Gaillardia in the foreground is an annual. I need to allow the seed heads to mature in order to produce seeds for next year.

The big red sage, Salvia penstemonoides, just started blooming. Eryngo, Eryngium leavenworthii, and gayfeather, Liatris mucronata, will not start blooming for another month or two. The little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, is starting to get some height and will become the dominant plant on the prairie in the coming months.


Prairie gardening is not maintenance free and maybe it is really not low maintenance either. My prairie gets about three days of intense maintenance each year. The first time is in late winter to clear everything to the ground for a new season. The second day is in early summer, as described above, to remove some spring growth, and the third time is in late fall after the first frost to trim back most of the flowering perennials. Most of the rest of the year I can enjoy the prairie. At least I think I will once I stop coming up with new ideas for changes to the prairie. Right now I am thinking of ways to make the prairie even lower maintenance. Any suggestions?

1 comment:

  1. I think it looks good either way...but agree that the "cleaned-up" version is tidier...which is always a bonus when the neighbors have to look at it ;-) I love all the seedheads...they add another layer of depth to the garden...especially those Gaillardia ones...so fuzzy and light-catching. I love seeing the progression throughout the season...that's what makes your garden so dynamic!

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