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Bringing Patches of Prairie to the City

By: Sandra Nelson; Images Sandy DeFoe

My neighbor stopped by the other day to tell me how much she loved looking out over our prairie planting from her kitchen window. “Every week,” she said, “there is a new burst of color. Your garden is constantly changing and giving me a new view to enjoy. It makes me happy,”

Swallowtail on purple coneflower

Living in the heart of our city, I had wondered what the reaction was going to be when we killed the grass and replaced it with a prairie. Many of the homes in this older, established neighborhood (including hers) sport traditional landscapes with perfectly balanced foundation plantings, precisely edged sidewalks and lush, well-manicured lawns. 

Our patch of front yard prairie is the polar opposite. With all the different shapes and forms, it throws symmetry out the window. Exuberantly growing groundcovers consistently creep over its original boundaries. There is absolutely no pretense of a lawn. Instead, there is a little piece of the past coming to life before our very eyes, and it's helping to restore the environment in so many ways.  groundcovers on sidewalk

One of the most obvious benefits is the fact that prairies support diversity. Within a healthy, thriving prairie there is a wide variety of plant species. Tall, whispering grasses are intermingled with a multitude of blooming plants that come and go throughout the growing season. Shorter grasses and groundcovers act as fillers and support as they add to the ever-changing face of the prairie. Drifts of color are evident, but no single variety dominates the landscape. Each species serves a unique purpose, but all work together in a finely tuned relationship that keeps a prairie planting viable for years.

Not just a haven for plants, prairies sustain diversity in wildlife too. The native plants in a prairie bolster native insect populations .Beneficial pollinators like native bees, wasps, butterflies and moths are drawn to the nectar of plant species they have evolved beside. Nutrients in the native nectars are the exact ones the local insects need to thrive. Researchers are beginning to believe that insect populations not only increase when native plants are accessible, but they also become more efficient and effective at pollinating. More effective pollination means better crop production!

   goldfinches on flowerheads     Prairie plantings also attract more birds than a traditional landscape. Throughout the summer months, hummingbirds feed on prairies plants like cardinal flower and evening primrose. Towards late summer and into the fall, the seed heads of many of the prairie flowers and grasses become a delicacy for both native and migrating birds like finches, chickadees and doves. All season long, birds feed on the rich insect populations that a prairie provides. Those same birds then in turn provide a service to the environment by carrying seeds to other areas, keeping plant species alive. 

The native species common in prairie plantings tend to be strong, healthy plants. Their root systems often run deep, sometimes as deep as 15 feet and are adapted to the soil type of their locale. Since they have evolved to get what they need from their immediate environment, natives don’t  depend on commercial fertilizers to thrive. Harmful insects rarely bother native plants, so applications of harsh pesticides aren’t necessary. Fewer chemical applications mean fewer toxic chemicals leaching through the soil into our groundwater systems.

Once established, native plants require little, if any, additional watering; they are more drought tolerant than most introduced ornamentals. With climate change reducing the amount of rainfall in many areas, these drought tolerant plants offer gardeners colorful options that stand up well to the harsh conditions of blazing sun and drying winds.   


A lawn needs to be mowed regularly to maintain its well-groomed appearance. Mowers, blowers, trimmers and other lawn maintenance equipment tax our air quality, adding pollutants to the air we breathe. The EPA estimates that “gas mower emissions account for as much as five percent of the nation's total air pollution.”  A Swedish study revealed that using a lawn mower for one hour has the same carbon footprint as a 100 mile trip in an automobile. 

The noise pollution from lawn maintenance equipment also has an impact on the environment. Several studies have shown that long term use of outdoor equipment can lead to permanent hearing loss and sleeping disorders for humans.  dead bees Sound pollution also reduces biodiversity since wildlife tends to avoid places with consistent loud noises. Breeding patterns are altered, and populations of both animals and insects decline.   



Prairie plantings however, whether large or small, are kinder to our air and to our ears since they require only minimal maintenance. At first, a planting may need consistent weeding and mulching.  prairie As time passes and the plants begin to grow, even those chores lessen. The native plants that make up the prairie form dense groupings that eventually stifle weeds and stop invasive species from creeping in.  Nature itself becomes the caretaker.



My neighbor didn’t realize it, but her comments perfectly summed up the heart of a prairie  -- everchanging bursts of color and texture and life that beckon you to stop, be still and see what’s in front of you. A small patch of prairie can bring big rewards. It connects you to the natural world, calls up a sense of place that brings peace and reminds you of how important it is to care for the earth. I’m glad that we brought our patch of prairie to the neighborhood. Perhaps you should too.

urban prairie