Tips and Tricks for Growing Prairie Plants in Your Native Plant Garden

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Intro: Did you know that for many of our most commonly grown native wildflowers and grasses, 2/3 or more of the plant is underground in the form of roots? Or that you can reduce weeding requirements in your native plant garden by understanding the root systems of different plants that you are growing? Or that there is now a resource that can help you avoid mistaking a native plant in your garden as a weed and accidentally pulling it?

Shannon: Hi Everyone! Before we get started, I want to thank all our supporters on Patreon. Each month, they go above and beyond to financially contribute towards making the Backyard Ecology blog, podcast, and YouTube channel possible.

If you would like to join them, you can do so for less than the cost of a cup of coffee or a meal at your favorite fast food place. Or, if you would like to help out but prefer to make a one-time donation, then that’s also possible and greatly appreciated. I’ll have links in the show notes for both those options.

Today, we are talking to Hilary Cox and Neil Diboll. They are the authors of the newly published book, The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants. Neil is also the president and consulting ecologist of Prairie Nursery, which is located in Wisconsin.

Hi Neil and Hilary. Welcome to Backyard Ecology. Thank you for talking with us today.

Neil: Thank you, Shannon. Great to be on.

Hilary: And welcome to all of you.

Shannon: I am really looking forward to today’s conversation because it’s all about gardening with and growing native plants, which is a topic that I love to talk about. And it’s one that I know my listeners also really enjoy. So, I’m confident this is going to be a really fun conversation.

We’re going to talk about your book some, but we’re going to hold off on that for a few minutes. First, let’s talk about some of your personal experiences growing native plants in your own gardens.

We live in a time where we have literally a world of choices on just about anything, including what species we choose to grow around our homes. Traditionally, most of what we plant in landscape settings are the ones that have been brought here from other parts of the world. And while growing native plants around our homes has become more common, it’s still not the norm.

So, I think it’s always interesting to learn why people chose to grow native plants when they have so many different options. Will each of you share why you choose to grow native plants?

Neil: Sure, I’d be happy to. I started gardening in first grade, trying to grow vegetables in our compacted clay soil in St. Louis. Needless to say, it was an utter failure because I didn’t know anything about gardening. So, I gave up.

Then I learned about double digging and composting. So, I dug this giant hole in our backyard and filled it with leaves from all over the neighborhood and layered it with, you know, 12 inches of leaves and a couple inches of clay until I had this 3 foot high mass grave in the backyard.

My parents were like, “What are you doing?”

“Well, I think this is going to be a good garden.” The next year I planted it and it was a phenomenal vegetable garden. And suddenly I was vindicated.

Now, a 3 foot tall mound settled down to like a foot and a half and then it continued to settle. So, it wasn’t this, you know, giant mess. But it was an incredible garden for two decades because of all those leaves.

So now I realize, “Hey, I can garden!” But I never really did anything with native plants except the occasional collection of maple seeds and oak acorns. Then I was a teenager and I left home so I didn’t really grow anything.

I went to school to be an environmental scientist and I got waylaid into prairies because I was fascinated by this rare ecosystem. It was almost extinct because it had been all plowed up for agriculture. I really started reading about it and going to these prairie remnants and found it absolutely fascinating.

I wanted to establish prairie at the arboretum at the university where I had just graduated, and I was fortunate enough to have that opportunity and began seeding prairies. I had no idea what I was doing.

I read all the literature, but remember this was the dark ages. This was in the late 1970s. The technology was sort of there, not really well developed, but good enough to be able to get some pretty decent prairies established.

Then the opportunity came up to run Prairie Nursery in 1982. I jumped at that. Of course it was way ahead of the curve and all the plants that I sold were weeds and nobody wanted to buy them. And I basically lived in a trailer and starved. It was an interesting process, but I didn’t give up even though I wanted to a thousand times.

I said, “These are the plants of the future. They make environmental sense. They make economic sense. They make ecological sense. These are low maintenance. They don’t require fertilizers. They don’t require irrigation. They create habitat.”

There really was no discussion of carbon footprint, but there was certainly discussion of pesticides and water quality, etc. It just made sense in the future, especially with water limited resources, to use native plants.

That’s kind of what got me started – this love of this underdog ecosystem that was almost extirpated. Basically, it was except for very, very small little areas. There was only like 0.1% of the eastern tall grass prairie that remained by the late 20th century.

So, that really fascinated me. And once you learn about the structure of the roots and the community and the interactions between the plants themselves, not to mention all the different insects and invertebrates and everything that’s involved in the food web, it’s an absolutely fascinating ecosystem. And I was hooked and been doing it for 45 years.

Hilary: And I was lucky enough to drive through Konza. I went to Konza Prairie on my drive home to see some of that original 0.1 or 0.01 percent of original prairie undisturbed. It’s amazing when you do get into that environment.

I have come to using native plants from an entirely almost opposite direction from Neil. Obviously, my accent tells you I’m from England. And England is the country that has possibly introduced the highest number of non-native plants to its environment of any country in the world.

I was used to using whatever plants would grow in the kind of soil that we had. Until we moved to Delaware. The first winter we were there the temperature went down to zero, which is something that doesn’t happen in England. Some of the plants that I had wanted to grow didn’t like that very much.

So, I started looking around to see what would grow. I visited some of the bigger gardens around the northern Delaware area. Of course, we have Longwood. We have Chanticleer. We had the DuPont estate. And I also went and talked to Sir John Thouron’s gardener, Scotty, I think he was called.

They told me the plants that would survive. I was seeing them growing naturally. I was seeing them growing in people’s gardens, although they didn’t necessarily know they were native. And I began to realize there was something behind this.

I had also worked in Austria from 1973 to 1976 at a think tank where I met the people who are now America’s top ecologists. One of them, he’s actually called the granddaddy of ecology. And I began to learn about ecology and the impacts of the human race on our environment.

So, this all began to connect up when we moved to Delaware. Then we moved to Indiana and that first winter it went down to -27. I didn’t know it could get that cold. You just sort of don’t realize this.

We brought plants with us from Delaware in pots and healed them in, in the soil, because we moved in September / October. In spring, the plants that survived in those pots healed into the ground were almost all prairie plants. So, that was when I began to really start researching about the prairie plants.

Eventually, I ended up working as a horticulturalist at what was the Art Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana. We created, or recreated, the formal garden there. We used 2/3 native plants in a formal garden, and it was up to me to maintain them befitting a formal garden. So, then I began to learn about the plants, about their roots, about their form, their habits, and that is where I started taking off.

Much earlier, back in England, I had this concept for a book. I used to be a librarian. I had gone looking for a book when we first started gardening in 1979 that would show me what plants that were already in the ground looked like. And that book didn’t exist. So, Delaware…that book still didn’t exist. Indiana…that book still didn’t exist.

Not very long after we were in Indiana, I met Neil. Actually, that first annual conference from the Native Plants Society. He was the keynote speaker, and I loved what he was talking about.

Then I became a garden designer as well as the horticultural job, which was part time. The mandate from one of my clients was to bring as many creatures, as much wildlife as possible, to his downtown Indianapolis property which was a heating and air conditioning business.

I called Neil because it had been a coal yard. So, this was my first bio remediation of a brownfield, basically, and I needed help with that. Well, there was the expert. Then eventually, having got to know him even better, I put forward this idea of this crazy book of having pictures of the plants coming through the ground. Then we went on to the seedlings, the leaves, the whole thing, and that’s how I came to native plants.

I’m also equally expert in using woodland shade plants, because my clients mostly in Indianapolis and around, they have wooded lots. So, I had to know both of those environments.

Shannon: Those prairie remnants, when we can find them, can be amazing. I’ve seen a few in the eastern U. S. and, they are so rapidly disappearing.

Neil: I’ve noticed that in the last 40 years, remnants that I used to visit in Pennsylvania and other places, they’re gone. They’ve been developed into homes or stores or whatever. And they’re just gone. Just like what happened in the Midwest, but there are even fewer in the East. They’re very precious because there are so few to start with.

Shannon: Yeah, and like where I, grew up and in the area that I live now. Historically, when you go back to the oldest historical records, they talk about it being mostly open. And now it’s a lot of woods, more than anything, because it’s grown up.

Neil: It’s interesting. In the Midwest, where there were prairies… when Native peoples were removed and the fires ceased, the management techniques that native people used to keep it open for better hunting and easier travel in the winter and year-round, there were grubs of trees. Trees that had been burned back to the ground, but were never killed. So within 30 years, it’s grown up to a forest.

People say, “Well, there was never prairie there.” In fact it was, but in one generation it had converted from an open prairie into a young woodland. So, people without that perspective from 1830, 1840, 1850… if they’re looking at it in 1880, it’s completely different.

We still see that now. We see prairies being invaded by brush and trees. Remnants that are not managed are still being invaded by woody plants.

Hilary: And prairie gardens that we have planted like a small prairie if it’s not maintained those woodies come right in.

Shannon: Oh, yeah. You see it in old field situations, too.

Neil: Exactly. So, there’s management associated with a larger area, which we’re really talking about gardens, not about large meadows. But if meadows are not burned or mowed on a regular basis or winter grazed, like goats or something – there are options for that, then they will succeed into a woodland fairly rapidly, especially in the East where you have higher rainfall. So, there’s a necessity for constant disturbance to maintain prairie meadows.

But gardens, as Hilary pointed out, you can create a beautiful perennial garden, an English border garden, out of native prairie plants. Actually, stunning gardens and just manage them the same way as you would a perennial garden for the most part. Well, a little bit of difference because your prairie gardens typically will have, depending on your style, a component of grass.

Most perennial gardens, even though you’ve seen a lot more use of grasses in gardens, a lot of people still don’t want grasses in their gardens. But grasses are typically an important part of a prairie ecosystem, but it does not mean that they necessarily have to be members of your prairie garden if you want just flowers.

Hilary: I often got a client who did not want grasses in their perennial border. I would manage to select a piece of ground further away, where it was more out of sight because they felt that grasses were untidy and floppy and whatever, and I would put the grasses out of their way.

Then we would start planting some of the other plants that were multiplying. We’d divide them and put them in with the grasses. Eventually, with some of my clients anyway, they actually began to appreciate them.

Shannon: Yeah, I think grasses are one of those things that, like you said Hilary, you either like them or you don’t. But sometimes they grow on you a little bit. I always fell into the “don’t” category, but they are definitely growing on me, even in the landscape situation.

Hilary: I hated them. I hated grasses. Back in England, I did not want the grasses in my borders. It took me living in the Midwest. Then driving, actually to Tucson, to really understand what the grasses were about.

Neil: You know, this is an important aspect of a prairie garden design, and it applies also to prairie meadows where you’re using seeds. One of the great attributes of the prairie grass is that they have dense fibrous root systems that occupy the surface soil.

Where do weeds become established? They become established in open soil. The grasses with their very dense, thick roots help to occupy that surface soil. Thus, minimizing the amount of open soil where weed seeds can germinate and grow. So, they really do help to control weeds. As I tell people, make the plants do the work for you.

If you understand, not just the foliar zone where taller plants can shade out weeds, but also equally important, if not more so, is the rooting zone. The average prairie plant has approximately 2/3 of its living biomass, living material, underground. You only see a third of it. In some cases, you may only see 20 to 25% of it above the ground, because the rest of it is underground as roots.

So, you want to understand the root systems and plant them complementary. For instance, if you have a tap rooted plant, like a butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa, or some of the Baptisias, the wild indigos. These often are subject to invasion around their bases because they’re tap roots and there’s nothing surrounding the soil. You can use low growing grasses around these species to help control that, but they don’t overtop the flowers. They work with them. Cooperatively. But you want to make sure you use short grasses, not tall grasses which of course would over top them.

So, the whole design of a garden when you’re working with prairie plants is not just above ground, but equally important or more so is below ground, which then allows you to have a lower maintenance garden less subject to invasion by weeds, trees, etc.

Shannon: I love that idea of letting the plants do the work.

Neil: You know, I don’t believe in unnecessary work. If I can figure out a way to do less work and get the same benefits, I’m going to do it. That means you got to do a little planning up front and understand the physiological characteristics.

In our book, we make sure to show people the different types of roots. Then we discuss how you actually work with these different plants, not only at the foliar level, but at the rooting level when you’re designing the garden. So, you look at the whole picture from the outset. And… I always recommend start small.

Start small and experiment and see what you like and see what works. Remember, even with the best estimates sometimes a certain plant, even though you think you matched it up to the right situation, sometimes it just doesn’t like it there. Even though you’ve done all the homework and looked at the soils and the drainage and the pH and everything, every once in a while they just don’t want to cooperate.

So don’t plant a hundred of something. Plant five or ten, or whatever, and just test them out. Then try different combinations. That’s all part of the fun.

Shannon: Or sometimes they like it more than you thought that they were going to like it because they didn’t read the book as to what they were supposed to do.

Neil: That’s exactly it, Shannon. I like to say you know, “Sometimes the plants forget to read the book.” You know, it’s so true, isn’t it?

So, you make your best estimates, but it’s always fascinating to see what the plants actually do. And sometimes they do almost defy you in either their failure or in their incredible success. But that’s all part of the process.

Hilary: like my Echinacea purpurea in my garden in Indianapolis that put itself into the shade of a huge silver maple we had there. It migrated from the full sun at the end of the border right up to the top where the shade was, and that’s where they stayed.

That was one of the things about working with prairie plants was figuring out that they decide for themselves what’s best for them. We can do our best, and as Neil says, you learn about the root systems, you learn about the soil they need, you learn about the light that they need. We do the best we can, but they will then tell us if that’s not right.

Neil: And a surprising number of prairie plants will grow in partial shade. In fact, many of them grow in savannas and woodland edges. So, there’s a little more flexibility in many of these plants where they’ll grow in 50 percent sun, direct sun, some even less. They’re not necessarily obligate sun plants. Many of them will take a fair amount of shade, so they can be used in a variety of situations, not deep shade, but partial shade or dappled shade.

Shannon: There’s definitely different types of shade, and especially here in the eastern U. S., those savannas were much more common, I think, than out in some of what we traditionally think of as prairie states out west.

Neil: You know, we’re not talking about shade gardening so much, but it is related because some of these plants will grow in partial sun conditions. There’s a concept that is used commonly in ecology and in forestry… that is the leaf area index of a given species of tree, which means basically how many layers of leaves do I have from the top of the tree down to the ground.

Oaks tend to have a relatively low leaf area index of 2 to 4, maybe 5. Whereas sugar maples have a leaf area index of 7 or 8, which just casts a much higher shade on a scale of 1-10. Walnuts also tend to be moderately low. Of course, you have the issues of juglone with walnuts, but a lot of native plants are actually quite resistant to juglone, but you want to be careful with that one.

So, you have different levels of shade under different types of trees, different species, because of the density of their leaves or thickness of the layers based upon the canopy down to the ground. Then of course, as Hilary pointed out, if the tree is limbed up you get a lot of indirect sun, and sometimes direct sun on the south, southeast, or southwest side of the tree. Well, you’ll get a lot of sun, so it’s not really in the shade, especially if the tree is limbed up. So, there’s a lot of flexibility here with a number of these plants.

Shannon: Exactly. And your advice about starting small is so, so important too. I know it’s hard sometimes. I’m one of the worst, I would say, about getting over eager and wanting to do everything at once. I’m always telling the people I’m working with and coaching and teaching and helping, “Don’t do what I do, do what I say. I break the rule on myself all the time and I know better…”

Hilary: Yes.

Neil: Yes, and sometimes much to our chagrin, but you know, that’s how we learn. It’s always good to learn small. Then go big, once you know what’s going to work best.

Shannon: Exactly. And to be honest, I kind of hesitated when I first heard about your book. I was like, “Oh, that’s nice. Too bad it isn’t for here.” Because I really expected with it being prairie plants for it to be focused on more of the Midwest and West – the traditional prairie states – not where I’m at in the eastern U.S. and some of these smaller savanna prairie barrens that were here.

Then I listened to you guys on another podcast and one of you said something about pictures of seedlings. And I was like, “Oh, wait a minute….”

I think a lot of people, when they get started with native plants, they kind of assume that everybody that’s already growing native plants was born with some kind of innate knowledge of, “Oh, this is a native plant and this is how you grow it.” No, no, no, no, no, no…. We all started at the beginning.

I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve pulled butterfly milkweed seedlings that were in their first or second year because they don’t look like they should be butterfly milkweed. They have no milky sap. If you’re weeding too early in the season, they look like they should be a weed. And everybody I know has done the same thing. Lance leaf coreopsis, is another one I used to pull all the time as a seedling. It reminds me of plantain.

So, knowing that you had the seedling pictures, I was like, “Okay. I know the ones I know, but there’s still other species I want to grow.” So, I started looking at your book some more and there’s some species that are further west, but a lot of these species are still native to where I’m at as well. So, yeah, I really love that.

Then the whole thing with the roots was just added bonus. When I got the book, I was like, “Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, this is well worth it!” Because like you said, Neil, paying attention to those root zones is something that we don’t do as often and it can be so valuable.

Hilary: No, it’s not what gardeners are trained in. They just don’t really work with the roots, and yet they’re a vital, important part of a plant.

Neil: It’s interesting because a lot of the Midwestern prairie plants actually do extend pretty far east depending on the species. Not all, but a surprising number of them actually do go out to Virginia, New York. Some go to Massachusetts and lower New England. There’s quite a diversity. And many plants extend down into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. So, it’s a pretty broad range as far as where many of these species, not all, but many of them cand be found.

And you were talking about the seedlings. As Hilary pointed out briefly, the inspiration of this book was that her clients were pulling up mature prairie plants as weeds as they were coming out of the ground after they’d been installed the year before.

That’s when she said, “Neil, we have to do a book where we show the mature plants emerging in the spring. So, people don’t pull them up.”

And I thought, “Yeah, okay, who’s going to buy that? Ten of our closest friends? Like, who’s going to buy a book like that? That’s crazy.”

But we started off on it. Then it led to, “well, you know, people need to know what the leaf looks like…” So, we took pictures of the leaves. And then, “well, if you’re going to do a book on flowers and grasses, you should at least show the flowers.” So, then we took pictures of the flowers. “Well, you know, we really should show the whole plant. Let’s get pictures of the whole plant.” “You know, something that you never see in flower books or identification books is the seed heads. Let’s take pictures of the seed heads.” “Oh, look at this. When the seeds are immature, they look different from when they’re mature. We better take pictures of both stages in some cases.” “Oh, and you know, something that people always ask me about is what do the seedlings look like? Okay, we better take pictures of the seedlings.”

Before you knew it, we were taking seven different photos. From the seedling to the emerging plant of a mature plant, to the leaves, to the flowers, to the plant, to the seeds, to the immature and mature seeds. But that’s really the heart of the book – an identification book for people that want to know what their plants are like at every stage of their development.

Shannon: Yes. And I love that. I mean, it’s really like three or four books once you start digging into it, all crammed into one. But like you said, the heart of the book and what I found so valuable is all those pictures and then your descriptions of them, because you do have all those details that you don’t always find in a gardening book or in a flower book. Details that you have to go and hunt for in about 50 different sources, if you’re lucky, to find. But you have them all nice and neatly packaged together in the book.

Hilary: And I do want to just say that I’ve just looked through the range maps. The majority of the plants in here are native to the Northeast and the East, as well as to the Midwest and further west. So, the majority of them in the book are relevant.

Shannon: Yes, and that is extremely helpful. And I think part of it is, too, that it seems like you picked some of those species that are more commonly available because it is the gardener’s guide. So, you have to be able to get them.

Hilary: That was deliberate.

Neil: We made sure to also include some, I won’t say obscure but “not common” species that many people are interested in. Some of which are actually very difficult to propagate. We wanted to make that point that here’s this plant, but here’s what little is known about propagation.

They’re almost all doable, but some of them are not available because seed is extremely difficult to harvest or produce or whatever. But for the average person that has access to it, or maybe has some on their property that they want to collect the seeds from, then we wanted to make sure and provide them with information on how they could propagate the plant to expand their own populations or friends or whatever. So trying to put as much in there as possible.

There’s always some species that we really would have liked to include, but 148, that’s pretty good. We could have put another 10 or 12 in there, but there just got to be a point where you have to stop. And you’re right, it is like three or four books in one, as we know, because it took us 22 years to do it.

Shannon: Definitely a work of love. And I love the fact that it’s the book that you wanted but didn’t exist. I love the way Hilary is phrasing it. I think those make the best books a lot of times because they’re serving a need.

Neil: Well, you know, Shannon, there’s a reason why this book didn’t exist, because you’d have to be absolutely out of your mind to do it.

Hilary: And we are both crazy.

Neil: And if we weren’t when we started, we certainly are now. But it was a labor of love, and we hope that it’s useful for lots and lots of people. And so far, people have said that it’s been very helpful to them.

Hilary: I had one person come up to me at the native plant society annual conference in Indianapolis. She wanted her book signed but her book was so full of markers that it was almost twice as thick. Then I had to try and sign it and as you’re writing you can feel the wobble as it goes over all the bumps in all the pages underneath.

She had really grasped the use of the tables. She was working backwards into the guide from those tables, and it was phenomenal. I’ve not seen anything like that.

Neil: Yeah, there’s a wealth of information and tables of information that really is not available anywhere else. I mean, you can go out and find it, but it’s not in one place.

We wanted to make it easy, like we talked about with the root types. In some cases we have relatively good ideas of the pH range, which is mostly unknown. We only know the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of them that we have no data. It’s just a question mark. But it still helps people with certain types of soils to plant this one because it won’t grow in your acid soil, or it won’t grow in your alkaline soil. And, what types of pollinators are attracted for everything from honeybees to bumblebees to beetles to parasitic wasps, which are really important in IPM (integrated pest management) to keep pests at bay. So, a ton of information in there, not to mention just the normal stuff about plant height and flower color.

Another thing that’s in there is plant longevity. How long does this plant live? We don’t have any annuals in there, but there’s a few biennials, which of course would live for 2 years. Then we have short lived perennials that live 3 to 5 years. Then we have early successional perennials that are 5 to 10 years. Then we have mid-successional perennials that generally live 10 to 20 years. And then we have the Methuselah plants that live 20 years to who knows how many years – 50, 80, 100, nobody really knows. I know some plants that are over 40 years old that I planted.

Hilary: My clients weren’t interested in plants for their longevity, except for the value they were going to get out of it. So, you plant this plant, how long is it going to live in their border? And that’s what we’ve answered by doing that. So, some people are going to go out looking for plants that live longer.

Neil: We know people who are doing that. And that means you don’t have to replant things in 5 years or 10 years. Assuming everything goes according to plan, as we all know is always the case in every garden.

Shannon: I love the wealth of information you’ve got in there and those tables. And I like the fact that you’ve got it both places too. You’ve got it in with the field guide portion of the book. So, if you’re more drawn to that or you’re just trying to focus on one plant, you can look at everything there. Or you can go to the tables and sort through that way too. I mean, you really did put the information in multiple ways to make it easy for how ever your brain works. Because I know everybody’s brains work differently.

Hilary: Right. Yes, exactly.

Neil: Our goal was to create what we hope is a relatively timeless resource. And, you know, hopefully the book will outlive the authors. I mean, good books do. Maybe we’re just being a little self-congratulatory, but I think that if you really create a good reference book that provides people with lasting utility, that it will be something that people use for decades.

Shannon: I think this book is going to be like that.

Hilary: I hope to see it in many libraries.

Shannon: Yes.

There’s so many different directions we could go here with this conversation, but Neil, you mentioned at the beginning that one of your top tips for somebody starting out is to start with smaller areas. And, those bite sized areas are really important, especially when you’re getting started because they give you that instant gratification and success.

What are some of your other tips for somebody getting started growing native plants in those smaller garden sized plots?

Neil: Well, I’m a firm believer in experimenting. Don’t assume anything. And that comes largely from learning to grow plants from seeds.

So, when I got into this it was fairly new. There was a lot of information out there. It wasn’t like, you know, we invented all this new stuff. There was a lot of basic information that you could go by, but there’s always little tricks and stuff that someone hasn’t tried. And you can experiment and try. But, it really depends upon your taste as far as what kind of garden you’re going to create.

So, I would say to people… Understand the ecology of the plants. Understand the physiology of the plants and how they interact, both at the root level and the foliar level like we talked about. But don’t be afraid to experiment and create your own style, because there really isn’t any right or wrong. Now, you can talk about color theory and issues like that, which I think to the human eye, yes, you could have right and wrong. So, you know, is there any right or wrong? I don’t know. It depends on what you like.

There’s so many different ways you can do this. A lot of people don’t like yellow. Okay. You can create beautiful pastel gardens with lots of whites because if you look at the colors of the prairie plants, the most common color is yellow. The second most common color is white. And whites blend beautifully with the blues, the purples, the pinks, etc. So, you can create these really nice pastel gardens.

And you can create different gardens on your property. So, they’re not all the same. You can experiment and then you can try different grasses. You know, I’m an ecologist. The mantra of ecologists is diversity, diversity, the more the merrier. However, in the garden and to the human eye, that doesn’t always work, especially if I’m using grasses.

My two go to grasses for prairie gardens are prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis, and little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium. Why? Because they’re shorter, lower growing grasses that allow the flowers to show off. They’re long lived – it’s uncommon for them not to live at least 20 25 years or longer. So, you’re not replanting them. They’re generally well behaved, although little bluestem likes to get around by seed. Prairie dropseed is very conservative and does not self-sow rapaciously like some grasses. And they provide you with nice fall color and structure.

But what I have found, and I think most gardeners would agree with this, is that when you mix those two together side by side they don’t read well. They look better, frankly, in a monoculture because they’re very structurally different and actually their fall colors are different. So, again, it depends on what you like, but mass plantings of individual grasses with a wide variety of compatible flowers generally looks better to the human eye than it does mixed. But you can put them side by side. So, you have a small monoculture of prairie dropseed with flowers and a small monoculture of little bluestem with flowers.

Then you can have color echoes where you’ll have some of the same species in both groups, some of the same flowers mixed with the little bluestem and mixed with the prairie dropseed. But then you can use some other plants, generally because little bluestem will grow a little taller than the prairie dropseed, you can put some taller flowers in with a little bluestem, particularly in the background. So, you can mix it up and create all these different effects.

But generally speaking, the grasses look better to the human eye in a monoculture, which runs contrary to the mantra of ecology where you want to have diversity. But if you have them next to each other, you’ve got the habitat and you’re covering the basis. But I would really recommend to people, if you’re doing a prairie garden, especially a small prairie garden, do not, under any circumstances, use the tall grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass. Stay away because not only do they tower over everything else, they will self-sow till the cows come home.

You will rue the day that you put those tall grasses in your garden, with the exception of larger spaces where you are using big, bold plants like Baptisias, the wild indigos that can get 5-6 feet tall or the Silphiums, like Compass Plant, Prairie Dock, Cup Plant, that can get 8-15 feet tall, where they can fight it out with those big grasses. But remember, those grasses like to get around. So, for a small garden, avoid them at all costs. Use those shorter grasses.

If you have a drier soil, there’s a beautiful grass, sideoats grama, Bouteloua curtipendula, which doesn’t persist well on heavy soils or rich soils, but it does persist well on dry soils and rocky soils. So that’s another wonderful grass. So, you have options.

There’s some sedges that people use as well. They’re not as showy. But there are some sedges like Bicknell’s sedge, and a couple others that are low growing, but they’re just simply not as showy as the grasses. We didn’t really focus on any sedges – we only included one sedge in the book.

But, monocultures of grasses generally look better. Stay away from the tall grasses. And mix them up with lots of flowers for interest. Now, another little trick is if you really like grasses, you can create rivers of grasses, like winding rivers of grass, and you can include flowers with it. For instance, you can put a river of little bluestem winding, 5, 7, 8 feet wide, and then on both sides you can put prairie dropseeds. Now you have this river of one grass inside a river of another grass on each side. Then intersperse it with flowers.

That, of course, would be on a much larger area. So, now you’re using your grasses to their strengths where they’re textural. And then you get the fall color, and you have the red river of the little bluestem ensconced in the golden side slopes of the prairie dropseed.

Hilary: I’ve done a similar thing, Neil, using prairie grasses on both sides and then using different blue colored flowers as the river. So that during spring, summer, autumn, you get that blue flow between the banks of the grasses. Short grasses, again. You don’t want them to be the tall ones.

Shannon: And even with the tall flowers, you’ve got to watch them, especially like with the Silphiums. That’s another mistake I’ve made. I planted cup plant in an area that was a large garden. It was like 20 by 30 feet and I thought, “okay, 5 cup plants. I can handle that.”

Yeah… no. 7 years later it’s a full bed of cup plant. They’ve invaded everything around them and taken out johnsongrass. I love it because it’s by the house and it’s close enough that I get to see it out my bedroom window and it brings in all the critters. But one of these days I’m getting rid of all those and moving them someplace else, because I want more than cup plant there. And it’s too tall for the space anyway.

Neil: If you want to move cup plant, you better get a backhoe.

Shannon: Uh, yeah, I know. That’s another reason. I know I’m in trouble. So, I’m just like, “Okay. I’m going to ignore that one for now.”

Neil: Cup plant is such a great wildlife plant, but it knows no bounds. But, its cousins, Silphium laciniatum compass plant, and Silphium terabenthinaceum, prairie dock, are quite well behaved.

So we can’t paint all the family members with the same brush, because cup plant is totally different behaviorally. And of course the birds love the seeds, so they spread it around too. But wow, you want to attract insects, birds, etc, cup plant is unsurpassed. But, as it says right on this report card, it does not play well with others.

And as you point out, probably not something you want in a garden of any size, especially a small garden. So put it way in the back, but even then the birds will bring it elsewhere in the yard. So, be careful with that cup plant. I usually don’t use it.

Hilary: I actually had almost a hedge of it from my front gate along the driveway, Neil. I don’t know if you remember. And it never went anywhere. I never got seedlings in my perennial border or anywhere else on the property. It just stayed there in that border.

Neil: That’s strange because you have perfect soil for it too.

Hilary: Oh, I know. I had that 2 feet of prairie soil, black prairie soil.

Neil: And that just goes to show you just never quite know what the plants are going to do or why they do it. So, in a situation where you’re sure they would just love it, they may not. In other places where you don’t think they’ll grow, maybe they might just find themselves at home. Obviously, you want to make the best choices based upon what are their known habitats, but still it’s always interesting to see how they actually respond to every situation.

Shannon: Exactly. Hilary, do you have suggestions for doing more formal beds because you said that you did these really big formal gardens? I know that’s something a lot of people are always struggling with is how to make the native plants look nice in a more formal setting, even if it’s not strictly formal. But still, you don’t want them to go wild and crazy a lot of times in your front yard or right up by the house.

Hilary: Right. So, the ones that we had in the formal garden were things like the Hibiscus moscheutos, that were the anchor in the corners. They’re the big plants. And then further forward, we had some of the asters, and then we had Penstemon digitalis and the irises. They’re always good and tidy, and this is what you’re looking for.

We did make the mistake of planting Boltonia all around the center of the whole garden. We had to yank that completely because it attracted so many bees that it could be a danger to the public, so we were told to remove it. Of course, it did also get to 6 feet and it took up most of the path all the way around the fountain, so we weren’t too unhappy about removing it. But yeah, you make some mistakes. And you figure out which ones react well.

Obviously the Echinaceas are really good in a formal garden. Of course, in a formal garden, you are maintaining it. You are deadheading. You’re making sure that everything looks tidy. If there are dead leaves, you remove them. But otherwise, most prairie plants will do really well in that situation.

Shannon: Yes, kind of knowing the personality of the plant and what they will do – are they going to spread like crazy or get too tall and floppy. Then picking and choosing.

Hilary: The Callirhoe wine cups make a lovely ground cover around the base of some of the taller prairie plants. And, I found that it was easy to manage. The geraniums – they’re really easy to manage too.

Shannon: Yeah, there’s lots and lots and lots of options out there.

Neil: You know, something I think it’s important for people to understand is the difference between ecology and horticulture.

Hilary: Yes, big difference.

Neil: And this pertains to gardens, meadows, etc. But if we look at horticulture, horticulture is basically the process of selecting quote, unquote “improved plants.” Plants that have characteristics that humans would prefer, whether that’s larger size tomatoes, or better disease resistance, or different colors of leaves, longer blooming time, larger flowers, etc. Now in that process, when you’re selecting for one or maybe two characteristics, you could potentially lose other characteristics that could be beneficial from an ecological standpoint.

As an ecologist, we look at maintaining genetic diversity, which should then allow plants to be more adaptable to a changing climate because you’re not selecting for anything in particular, instead you’re making sure that you preserve as much of the gene pool as possible. So, the plants have as much genetic flexibility in a rapidly changing world, such as we find ourselves now. And it’s interesting because this has direct implications for nativars, native selections that are being produced because they have different flower colors or a variety of different reasons such as size or whatever.

Studies by Dr. Doug Tallamy with his graduate students at the University of Maryland have shown that the vast majority of these nativars that are on the market are actually inferior as far as their ability to provide pollen and nectar for pollinators.

Hilary: That’s not actually quite true. We did this panel on nativars a couple of weeks ago and Doug gave us some other studies to look at.

Neil: Oh, so he’s got some updated information.

Hilary: For instance, there is an Echinacea cultivar that attracts more pollinators than any other of the Echinacea species. That’s not the only one, but that’s the example I can come up with right now. Also, many of the nativars equal the species in attracting pollinators.

They are not sure if the nectar they’re providing is providing the correct nutrients. That’s a study that hasn’t been done.

Neil: Some of his earlier studies indicated that of the species studied, only one out of, I think it was a dozen, were actually superior to the open pollinated species. Now, maybe he has new research since then.

Hilary: There is new research.

Neil: There were some that were equivalent, but the vast majority of them were inferior as far as their ability to sustain pollinators. So maybe he’s got some new information with some new nativars.

Hilary: Mt. Cuba has done some more studies and there’s a professor at, I think it’s Michigan University.

Neil: Well that’s great. And you know there’s no reason why plants can’t be bred for superior pollen and nectar as well.

Hilary: Right.

Neil: So, it’s not, it’s not a one-way street. But I know that Doug’s original research with some of his grad students showed that I believe only one of a dozen nativars was actually superior to any of the straight open pollinated species and most of them were inferior. Although again, I’m sure there’s more research, as you point out.

Hilary: Yeah. And they have definitely found out that colored leaves are no good. They don’t support the larvae that would be on, like with Diablo the Ninebark, the purple leaved one, doesn’t do the job that the actual species does in supporting the larvae.

Shannon: Which makes sense because to get the different colored leaves, you’re changing the chemistry of the leaf.

Hilary: Anthocyanins.

Neil: Yep. Yep.

Shannon: Yeah, so, I mean, it would make sense that they wouldn’t be adapted to being able to eat and digest that. Plus, I think, some of the research I’ve read, it changes the contrast of the flower color against the leaf color and that contrast I’ve read can be important for bee vision and bees noticing the flowers.

Hilary: Yeah, exactly.

Neil: Interesting.

Shannon: It gets to be really complicated. So, even if some nativars are maybe… “better,” we’ll say at attracting pollinators, it doesn’t mean that all are better or worse.

I think it goes back to the whole thing with ecology. “It depends” is the best answer and we can’t test every single cultivar out there either. So, in absence of data and research on a specific cultivar, I’m like Neil, I tend to side on the straight species, unless I have an absolute reason to do otherwise.

Hilary: Oh, so do I. In fact in our short panel, we explain where we think that nativars are appropriate and where we think nativars are inappropriate.

Shannon: And I agree. There are places for nativars and I’ve even recommended them to people before, especially when I was talking about grasses. For example, I was talking to somebody who wanted to do a nice little pocket prairie type planting in the middle of town, in an urban area, and it was a commercial place.

So that means, okay, everything’s got to play very, very nice with each other. They already had some ornamental grasses. So, I was like, “Why don’t you put a native grass here?” And I suggested specifically one of the cultivars of little bluestem that stays shorter. Because, I mean, little bluestem tends to stay shorter, but if you get the one wrong individual, it does have the genetic potential to be 6 feet tall and it wouldn’t work there. So, when you’re buying 1 or 2 plants in that formal setting, get something that you know is going to work.

Hilary: And then the other place where they might be appropriate is if a gardener were looking at planting a non-native, which you’ve just been talking about, like an ornamental grass. It would be more appropriate to have a nativar than to have that non-native plant. So, you know, it’s just a matter of, right now we have to make decisions that, um, can be difficult.

Neil: You know, another thing about garden acceptance is context. What a lot of our customers at Prairie Nursery do is they will just cut out an area in their lawn and put in a prairie garden. It’s surrounded by lawn, so it looks like a regular perennial garden. It’s not like it goes from the sidewalk to their house so their whole yard is wild.

Although I have nothing against that. To me that’s fine, but you don’t want, you know, grasses tickling the neighbors as they walk by the sidewalk. So, obviously you need to have some respect for that and leave a 3 foot strip of lawn if you’re going to have a prairie garden near the sidewalk.

Hilary: It’s that human perspective of the mown grass looks neat and tidy so anything that is contained within it is acceptable. That’s, how our human brains see it.

Neil: So that tends to have less resistance from the neighbors and actually a lot of people think that those are beautiful gardens. They don’t even know they’re prairie plants. It’s just a beautiful flower garden. So, you can avoid all that storm and drama of the neighbors like, “Oh, why do your flowers and grasses come right up to the sidewalk?”

“Well, they don’t. They’re in my yard and they’re a nice little contained area.” And it works very well.

Hilary: That’s the way to do it in a homeowner’s association situation.

Shannon: Yes. definitely. Well, this has been a lot of fun and very educational. Is there anything else you would like to share with us? Because I know you guys could probably talk about all kinds of different topics with this forever, and I know I could go on forever, but…

Neil: I think we can put this in the context of “Think globally. Act locally.” You know, you look at the world and you go, “What a mess. What can I do?” And on a global sense, it’s overwhelming.

But on a local sense, you can plant native wildflowers, prairie plants, shrubs, trees, et cetera, which will provide habitat for caterpillars, pollinators, etc. And you can do your thing. And if a thousand people do that, and a million people do that, and a hundred million people do that, suddenly you’ve got a change.

Hilary: You’ve got the Homegrown National Park that Doug Tallamy talks about. Where if everybody did plant some natives, we would have more acreage than all the national parks together.

Neil: So, that’s something that the individual can do. And it’s fun. So rather than be depressed, do something. Do something positive and enjoy yourself at the same time. And this is something you can do.

Shannon: Exactly. And I know I’ve talked to people who are like, “I can do my yard, but nobody else around me is. So, does it really matter?”

Well, 1) you have bite sized “snacks” for any pollinators that are in the area. And 2) for many of our small insects – small bees and other insects – they may only be able to fly a few hundred yards, which means that your yard could be their entire world. And anytime you’re holding the entire world of something in your hands, I think that’s a pretty big difference that you can make.

Hilary: Yes.

Neil: And it’s not uncommon for neighbors to see these gardens and say, “Wow, where did you get those beautiful plants?”

“Oh, here. Call these people. That’s where I got them from.”

And then they spring up in other locations because they’re beautiful. And who doesn’t like beauty in the world?

Shannon: Exactly.

Hilary: It’s like the pebble in the water and the ripples.

Neil: So, there’s opportunities for us to do things on a small scale that can ripple out and become bigger and bigger and better.

Shannon: And everything’s got to start somewhere. So be the pebble.

Neil: Be one of those acorns that grows into a mighty oak.

Shannon: Thank you guys so much for taking the time to talk with us today. And if people have questions or want to get in contact with you, is it okay if they email you?

Hilary: Certainly.

Shannon: Great. I will have your contact information and a link in the show notes to your book. Your book is definitely one that I recommend. There’s so much information in there. And like I said, the pictures and the description of the plants’ root zones and the tables in the back, in my opinion, are well worth the cost of the book. I mean, I am so glad I bought it just for those things alone, and there’s other good information in there too, but those were like, wonderful to me.

Neil: That’s great to hear because that’s why we did this. Thank you, Shannon.

Shannon: Oh, you’re welcome. And then most of our listeners are in the eastern U.S. but I know we have listeners throughout the country. And Neil, you’re at Prairie Nursery and you guys ship both plants and seeds. So, I will include a link as well in the show notes to Prairie Nursery for people who are looking and want to check that out as well.

Neil: Wonderful. Thank you so much.

Shannon: Alright, you’re welcome. Well thanks again and have a great day.

Hilary: You too.

Shannon: Bye. Bye.

I appreciate Neil and Hilary taking the time to talk with us today. Their enthusiasm and expertise in growing native prairie plants shows and their new book is such a wealth of information, especially the field guide section and the tables. If you’ve ever accidentally pulled one of your native plants because you didn’t recognize it or you are looking for detailed information about growing native prairie species, then I recommend checking out The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants.

And if you would like personalized help growing native plants and creating the best possible pollinator and wildlife habitat on your property, then I encourage you to take a look at our Backyard Ecology Community. The Backyard Ecology Community is an ongoing program for busy homeowners in the eastern U.S. and is designed to help you improve, maintain, expand, and enjoy your pollinator and wildlife habitat.

Until next time, I encourage you to take some time to explore the nature in your yard and community.

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Episode image:

  • Viceroy butterfly on beebalm.
  • Photo credit: USFWS, public domain

Are you a busy homeowner in the eastern U.S. who is already attracting pollinators and wildlife to your property?

Do you want to do more but don’t know what to do next or how to do it?

Do you wish there was a supportive place to ask questions, celebrate your accomplishments, gain encouragement when you’re feeling discouraged, and have fun geeking out about nature?

The Backyard Ecology Community is for busy homeowners in the eastern U.S. who want to improve, maintain, expand, and enjoy their pollinator and wildlife habitats. We empower our members with the skills and confidence they need to be good stewards of their land while also having time to enjoy what they create.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at

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