The Conservation Value of Backyard Prairies

I’m often asked for my opinion of prairie gardens and other backyard habitat projects.  I’m far from an expert on landscaping (ask my wife!), so I’ve been hesitant to talk too much about the topic.  However, I do have some thoughts about how these small urban habitats can contribute to prairie conservation.  Since there are a lot of ways to think about this, I’d love to have others to chime in with their perspectives.

This prairie garden has a nice diversity of plant species.

This small prairie garden of mine has a nice diversity of native plant species, all of them from local seed sources.  Is it helping conserve prairies or prairie species?

For what it’s worth, I think there are at least three aspects of conservation value to consider: Reduction of Impact, Contributions to Species Conservation, and Education/Awareness.

Reduction of Impact

There’s no question that using native plants as a replacement to lawn turf can reduce inputs and impacts to the environment – assuming, of course, you mow, water and fertilize those native plantings less than you would a bluegrass or fescue yard.  Lawnmowers are a relatively large contributor to air pollution and require fossil fuels. Watering lawns uses a valuable resource that pulls from wetlands, rivers, and/or aquifers and that could otherwise support wildlife, food production, and drinking water. Fertilization of yards contributes to water quality issues far downstream.  If a significant number of people converted their yards to native grasses and wildflowers it would have a very measurable and important impact on the world.  After all, the acreage of lawns in the U.S. is about three times the acreage of irrigated corn.

As a photographer, one nice perk of a backyard prairie garden is that I don't have to travel very far to photograph wildflowers and insects.

As a photographer, one nice perk of a backyard prairie garden is that I don’t have to travel very far to photograph wildflowers and insects.  Bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata).

Contributions to Species Conservation

I don’t want to seem like a wet blanket, but I think backyard habitats and other urban plantings contribute very little to the direct conservation of prairie plant and wildlife species.  There are a couple reasons for this.  First, prairie gardens are much to small to be used by birds, snakes, or other vertebrates that rely on true prairie habitat.  They are also physically isolated from prairies, so most of those animals couldn’t get to prairie gardens even if they wanted to.  The same is largely true for invertebrates.  There are exceptions, but for the most part, the invertebrates found in prairie gardens are generalist species that can make a living in many different types of habitats, including prairies, but also roadsides, old fields, tame grass pastures, and many others.

This leads to the second reason I think prairie gardens have limited value for species conservation.  Prairie animals, including invertebrates that use prairie gardens as habitat are generally not species that need conservation help.  That doesn’t mean prairie gardens aren’t valuable to those animals; prairie gardens provide great value to INDIVIDUAL animals that use those gardens as habitat.  For example, the bees that use my prairie garden survive only because of the nectar plants my neighbors and I provide for them.  However, it’s hard to argue that prairie gardens are helping to save those species because the bee species in my gardens are generally not at risk anyway.  The prairie species most in need of conservation don’t or can’t use prairie gardens for habitat.

Soldier beetles are very common insects.

Soldier beetles are very common insects.  I enjoy seeing them in my prairie gardens, but I’m not contributing to the conservation of their species – they don’t need my help anyway.

One exception to these points is that prairie gardens could conceivably contribute to the conservation of some migratory species.  Butterflies and moths, for example, that migrate long distances might have a better chance of survival because of prairie gardens can act as an oasis in an urban desert.  For that to be the case, of course, those migrants have to be able to FIND those oases, which is pretty unlikely when there are only a few here and there.  I doubt that prairie gardens are making much of a difference to migrant prairie species right now, but it’s a contribution that could be important if the popularity of prairie gardens continues to increase.

You might argue that prairie gardens can be valuable for plant conservation if they include rare plants that are declining in their native habitats.  Theoretically, that’s possible, but I don’t think most prairie gardens include truly rare plants (they are typically hard to cultivate).  In addition, having rare plants in a garden doesn’t do much to support wild populations, which are what we should be concerned about trying to conserve.  Also, there have been cases in which rare plants have been removed from native prairies and transplanted to prairie gardens, which is obviously not good conservation – unless those native prairies were on the verge of destruction.  There is, however, at least one way in which prairie gardens could support rare plant conservation, and I’ll talk about that later.

Education/Awareness

Contributions to the education and awareness of the public might be the strongest conservation value of prairie gardens and native urban landscaping projects.  Prairies suffer mightily from a lack of public awareness.  I would guess the majority of people in prairie states have never been in a prairie, and probably think they’d be bored out of their mind (or carried off by snakes) if they ever went to one.  Prairie gardens and other landscaping projects that use native prairie plants can help bring prairies to the people.  Making prairie plants recognizable to our neighbors through prairie gardens means that if they ever do get to a prairie, they’ll have at least some sense of familiarity with it.  In addition, looking at pretty flowers and watching the number of insects, especially big showy ones like butterflies, on those flowers can give people at least a small sense of the beauty and importance of prairies.  Prairie gardens can be a gateway to prairie conservation.

One of my all-time favorite insects is the camouflaged looper.

One of my all-time favorite insects is the camouflaged looper, which decorates itself with bits of the flowers it eats.  I’ve seen it only twice – and both times were in prairie gardens.  You can read more about it by searching for “camouflaged looper” on the home page of my blog.

Not only are prairie gardens educational for those who are otherwise ignorant of prairies, they can also be helpful for those of us who know prairies pretty well.  I have learned a tremendous amount about prairie ecology from watching my own backyard gardens.  I get to study many aspects of plant species interactions, for example, including the strategies each species uses to reproduce, spread, and compete with others.  I have also improved my skills at insect species identification by getting to see, catch, photograph, and study the insects I see in my own backyard.  My prairie garden is a nice microcosm of a prairie, with obvious limitations, that I can use as a place to experiment and learn. Prairie gardens are excellent classrooms.

How to Increase the Value of Your Prairie Garden

Prairie gardens reduce the impact we have on the environment and can be terrific tools for raising awareness about prairies and their need for conservation.  I don’t think prairie gardens do much for the direct conservation of prairie species, but only because of physical limitations such as size and isolation.  Despite those limitations, prairie gardens are an important part of the broader prairie conservation movement, and I encourage anyone who has a backyard to try out a small prairie planting.  You might be surprised how much you learn!

If you really want your prairie garden to contribute toward conservation, here are three ideas that might help.

  1. Use local-ecotype prairie plants and a diversity of species. 

Native species are much better for pollinator insects than many cultivars and hybrids.  Using native species with local genetics can help ensure that the plants grow well in your garden, but also can support nearby seed companies and conservation groups that sell seeds and plants.  Ask the retailer you buy plants from what the genetic origins are.  If they can’t tell you, see if you can find another retailer who can.  In some states – not so much in Nebraska – there are multiple good options for buying local ecotype plants and seed if you go looking for them.  Another great option is to harvest your own seed (with permission from the landowner) from a local prairie.  It doesn’t take much seed to supply a backyard garden.

Native bees do best on native wildflowers.

Native bees do best on native wildflowers.

2.  Harvest seeds from your plants and contribute them to someone who can use them for a restoration project.

This is something I’d like to see happen more often.  Prairie restoration projects often have a list of plant species for which seed is hard to come by in the wild.  Some of those species are rare, but others just don’t make much seed – or drop the seed quickly – making it difficult to harvest much from wild populations.  Other species are just difficult to find because plants are small and have been overtopped by taller plants by the time their seed is ripe.  If you know of restoration projects near you, consider contacting their staff to see if you can help them out by growing and harvesting seed from some of those plants.

3.  Make your garden a showy advertisement for prairies.

Talk to your neighbors about your prairie garden and why it’s important.  Offer yourself as a resource if they have any interest in following your lead.  If your garden is near a public sidewalk or road, consider putting up a small sign that says “Native Prairie Plants” or even a few signs that identify individual species.  You might also consider adding certain showy-flowering species just because you know they’ll attract the attention of passers-by.  Much of the potential conservation value of prairie gardens depends upon getting enough of them across towns and cities that their cumulative effect becomes significant, so advertisement is key.

.

Other Tips:

One lesson many of us have learned about prairie gardens is that some plant species work best in large areas where their ability to spread quickly is not of concern.  Strongly rhizomatous species including many grasses, perennial sunflowers, asters, goldenrods, etc., can quickly take over a small garden.  I have removed many of those species from my own gardens, replacing them with bunchgrasses and wildflowers that don’t spread as quickly.  I’ve kept a few “spreaders” in the garden, but am pretty aggressive about yanking many of them up each year to keep them thinned out.  Several friends and I trade plants (and advice) back and forth as we try to figure out the best mixtures for our respective gardens.

Managing aggressive plant species is not the only challenge facing prairie gardeners.  For example, wildflowers in gardens tend to grow taller and leggier than in more highly competitive prairies, sometimes causing them to flop all over as they outgrow their ability to hold themselves up.  You can tie them up, of course, but I also do quite a bit of “grazing” with clippers throughout the season to keep plants knocked back and force them bloom at shorter heights. 

I also wrestle with whether or not to allow plants to make seed.  I let some go to seed because I want to harvest from them, but I chop flowers off others before seeds ripen so I don’t have to contend with numerous seedlings the next year.  There’s no right or wrong way to do any of this, it’s just important to recognize that prairie gardens will not always behave the way you want them to without your strong guidance.  Mulch or no mulch?  Water during dry periods or not?  Mow/rake at the end of the season or not?  Lots of options, lots of consequences – and lots of opportunities to learn from each of them.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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51 Responses to The Conservation Value of Backyard Prairies

  1. brvogt says:

    Agree on all your issues of species conservation. Surprised I do, but it’s true. What we need are MORE prairie backyard gardens, and although that won’t solve the problems you address, it may help far more than just scattered backyard prairie gardens — sort of like a prairie park idea replacing the lawn park idea we have now. Sure, we still have fences and roads, but we can and should connect to, oh, places like Pioneers Park here in Lincoln and Spring Creek Prairie 7 miles southwest.

    The educational value is through the freaking roof. When I talk about native prairie plants to use in gardens you can see light bulbs turning on above people’s heads (that may be my lack of sleep though). Talk about a liatris that attracts butterflies and you have a gateway drug to thinking about larger ecosystems. Talk about a drought tolerant aster, a milkweed, bam! And if every school had a prairie garden? Well, every school SHOULD have one. Every church, too.

    As far as spreaders and self-sowing, we need to accept a different viewpoint on what a garden is. Too often we demand it stay looking a certain way, that plants stay where they are, that nothing changes. This is not how nature works. We need to find joy and wonder in how the plants die off or thrive, how they find the exact space in your garden that they seem to prefer. If you don’t like a seedling somewhere, yank it out of gift it. We need to let a little wildness back into our gardens; but that does not mean a prairie garden is necessarily messy or unkempt. With the right plants and design I believe we can use prairie plants in any way — formal, modern, cottage, whatever. I grow my own plants now, and I put out a sign (which now has a dirt bed behind it ready for prairie seeding): http://deepmiddle.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-activist-garden-sign-is-up.html

    Thank you for addressing this topic!

  2. chad says:

    Chris- I like this topic of backyard prairies and gardening with native plants. Ive been looking at doing some of that in my own backyard as a new home owner, and dont like the idea of buying annual plants every year, plus i enjoy some of the native species. im looking at doing a dormant seeding on my garden in the next couple weeks, but havent solidified the species i plan to plant. do you have any recommendations of species you have had success with? I live in North Platte so some local species I would prefer. Im also hoping to plant some species that bloom in all 3 bloom periods throughout the year.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Chad – lots of good options for you out there. Some of your choices depend upon whether you want short or tall species and whether you want a cultivated-looking garden or a little patch of prairie. I would definitely take a look at junegrass, spiderwort (T. occidentalis), shell-leaf penstemon, prairie clovers, black-eyed susan, etc. I’d stay away from goldenrods and asters. Stiff sunflower is great as long as you don’t mind it spreading and are willing to thin it… You might look at the Prairie Restoration Guide PPRI put out – you can download it from PrairieNebraska.org and check the seed mixture lists that start on page 36.

      • chad says:

        sounds good! Thanks ill take a look. i am wanting a variety of tall and short species. im thinking species such as blanketflower, blackeyed susans, purple coneflower, gayfeather, and some variety of sunflower. Thanks for the tip on stiff sunflower. ANother idea ive been debating is whether to mix all the different seeds together and then scatter the mix in the area, or to plant it species by species in little sections keeing species seperated (for now). Have you done it both ways? and if so, noticed any difference in plant success?

        • Chris Helzer says:

          Both ways can work. It’s hard to maintain a monoculture without a lot of work, so that’s something to think about. The species will work hard to mix themselves up, so you might want to use mulch or something else to help slow that process. In terms of sunflowers, stiff is a great one, and the most appropriate for your site, probably – just be aware of its personality! You might think about mixing seeds, but making a few mixtures rather than just doing the whole garden one way. As one example, in the photo of my garden I showed on the blog, I put shorter species near the street and taller back by the fence. It hasn’t stayed purely that way, but i do like the idea of it.

      • brvogt says:

        I hear bad things about stiff goldenrod, but in my thickly-planted & mulched 1,500′ garden I’ve not seen one seedling in 6 years. Same goes with asters, and I have about 10 aster species. Just another take — maybe I’m lucky, maybe there’s something about an urban garden, I dunno.

  3. Carol Rice says:

    Recently, Doug Tallamy (“Bringing Nature Home”) has talked about creating corridors to connect the fragments of native areas, allowing wildlife to move back and forth between remaining natural areas. Backyard prairie gardens (or shade gardens) could contribute to the effort to create these corridors, particularly as they serve as examples to neighbors.

    (Tallamy has more focus on habitats with native woody plants and the numbers of lepidoptera they support, and the resultant benefit to birds and carnivorous invertebrates.)

  4. mary evans says:

    All you say seems true. But don’t you think that increasing prairie gardens and other native plants in urban area increases species diversity within those areas? Maybe they’re not the species that must have a prairie environment to survive, and maybe they’re not the species that need conservation support. But I would hope that prairie & native gardens increase the species diversity within the urban environment. I would see that as a benefit.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Mary,

      You’re right, prairie gardens can increase plant diversity and help support a more diverse natural community of invertebrates in towns and cities. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for that. I’m just trying to keep expectations realistic. The biggest benefit of that higher species diversity is probably the fact that people living in those towns will get to SEE more diversity. There may be some minor benefits in terms of garden pest control, etc., but frankly I doubt it’d be measurable. That’s not a failing, just a limitation. In general, the species that need the most conservation help won’t be helped much by prairie gardens (directly). They need conservation work to be done in and around the prairies they depend upon. I think prairie gardens can lead to improved conservation work at those “real” prairies, though, and we should do what we can to facilitate that. Trust me, I’m a fan of prairie gardening – it’s why I do it in my own yard!

      • mary evans says:

        In terms of conservation value, what you’re saying makes perfect sense. But I will say this, if it’s not peoples own backyards, they don’t feel as strongly about it. Maybe this all falls under the ‘raising awareness’ benefit. But here’s how I would put the importance of backyard native gardening into persepective:

        I personally know families who have advanced degrees in marine biology and forest ecology who use single-use plastics without a second thought. They DO care about pollution, they are environmentally ‘aware’, and they probably do cry when they see photos of marine animals that die with bellies full of plastic. But it’s not in their life. They have kids, they live in cities, they are disconnected from the problem.

        It’s not only important (for raising awareness) that efforts are actually part of peoples lives, it’s crucial. It’s crucial that people lives are touched and that they care.

        The closer nature conservancies are to our backyards (in actual proximity) the more people will feel them as part of their lives. A combination of natural areas, conservancy or what-have-you, in closer proximity to urban dwellers and communities that support backyard habitat would be more successful, in my opinion, than huge areas of land far away from everyone.

        Conserving smaller land areas, closer to more densely populated areas could help. Nature preserves that are adjacent to places where people affect their lives directly.

        So I guess I have to wonder: Do land conservancies necessarily need to be so huge and far away?

        • Patrick says:

          Mary, two of your comments struck a chord with me. The first is the story of a couple who worked for the park service and bought my old house, in which I constructed a prairie garden in the corner of the yard. I thought they would keep and enjoy the prairie garden given their profession, but I learned it was too much for them to keep up so they turned it back into lawn. Go figure. The second is the notion that more effort should be made to protect undeveloped land near unban areas and use them as focal points for ecosystem reconstruction/restoration. Getting folks involved in these activities close to home is what develops pride in place and advocacy for more far-reaching efforts. It was at an urban nature center that I first learned about prairie reconstruction and vegetable gardening. Of course, the cost in establishing such areas in an urban setting is steep compared to more rural areas, but the large numbers of lives touched I think is worth the cost.

        • Patrick says:

          Mary, also just today, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation announced a project that resembles the kind of effort you had in mind, but surrounding the issue of water quality. Could be a useful model to follow. See:
          http://www.inhf.org/news.cfm?action=article&page=0&id=3e113420-9ec2-4a3c-85b3-84f01361194a

        • brvogt says:

          Mary, I’m working on a book which addresses much of what you say here. I agree 150%.. Well said!

  5. I love this post! I will be hearing more on the topic this weekend at Iowa’s honey producer convention. I’m always looking for more information as I get asked about native plants as a nature lover and a beekeeper.

  6. So the dream is that every backyard in America becomes the owner’s personal contribution to the habitats near them. In your area, they extend the prairie, or become a little piece of the corridor. In the southeast, I would love to see every backyard be a little piece of the puzzle that makes up our native habitats in this region. A bog garden, some native woodland understory shrubs, or maybe sandhill species in a sandy backyard that won’t grow anything else anyway. There are so many creative opportunities just waiting for us. Backyard gardens quilting America back together.

  7. Stephanie W says:

    I disagree too about the pessimism about species conservation, and I think there is a growing awareness about native plants and their value. The message that we all need to contribute and help rehabiliate our local ecosystems is growing. If everyone (homeowners and also non-homeowners) in the US knew about their importance to the future of plants and animals, things would change drastically. As a small case in point, we moved into a house that had been wet meadow (I know, bad), but instead of maintaining a large lawn, we stopped mowing and the meadow grew back. And Harris’ Checkerspots found the Aster umbellatus growing, and a population of them returned to the area. There were enough areas around us that still had their habitat and host plant though. So, in our yard, before I knew what they were, we created a corridor; now if only all of my other neighbors had done the same, the butterflies would be a much more stable population, and I would bet this scenario is true for many other populations of creatures. If we created our yards as extensions of surrounding natural areas, we would be making a huge difference. We should strive to communicate that message instead of throwing up our hands and saying that we are little islands that do not matter. The price of pessimism is too huge.

  8. Brent Lathrop says:

    Great subject and ripe for the Extension city curriculum and right on target concerning the benefits of the movement. As Chris may remember I’ve experimented with yard prairies for over 35 years in Tall grass, Short grass, high elevation, good and lousy soil and growing environments and you can always find your source plants nearby. Over time nature as always teaches you what works and what doesn’t. And the last benefit is the opportunity to reintroduce allergies (a.k.a. hay fever) back to the city folk after their new developments have cleared out all those nasty native pollens!

    Brent

    • James C. Trager says:

      Your last sentence propagates a common fallacy, Brent, namely that anything with flowers causes inhalation allergies. The truth is that if you can see the flowers, it is almost certain that it will not cause allergies, because their pollen rarely becomes airborne, but if the flowers are small and green and inconspicuous, as those of many vacant lot and roadside weeds, they are wind-pollinated.

  9. Alison Krohn says:

    Chris, thank you for this post. I don’t have time to fully flesh out my thoughts on this but I have a couple of observations and concerns to add. First is scale. The scale of most yards is insufficient to recreate “prairie” as we know it. Second is microclimate: all of the buildings, neighboring trees, vehicles affect air circulation and lignin development? in some of the larger grasses (back to scale issues). I’ve had local ecotype big bluestem that escaped our cleaning operations into the garden and flop over even though the parent plants withstand 50 mph+ winds at the farm! Only drifting snow can force it down at the farm. Meanwhile sand love grass that I used for mulch has thrived and looks great even in our clay soils.
    My concern is the urban heat island. Urban neighborhoods like mine are dense, have a high ratio of asphalt, concrete, and roof to green space and need shade to ameliorate the cumulative impacts of these materials in the summer months. My question to you is this: in an urban environment, what is the most efficient way to reduce my contribution to global warming/climate change? A large tree? Or a bit of prairie? Our lot is about 0.2 ac. I’ll share our solution if you request it!
    As for conservation of species, you are right but I think we can’t underestimate the importance of education and symbolic-aesthetic gestures.

  10. Patrick says:

    Love the post, and share your opinions, Chris. I will add that my prairie garden has instructed me on which prairie plants are favored by voles, and which are not (to my chagrin!). Voles cleaned out my ground plum and pasque flowers, as well as my liatris, and eventually consumed my baptisia. However they seem to leave some of my other prairie legumes alone, including bush clover and lead plant. I’ve seen thirteen lined ground squirrels climb into a cup plant to get to the seeds, and many kinds of sparrows forage in my garden during migration. I have also observed that rabbits will eat the seed pods of Illinois bundle flower in the winter. Most of these animal-plant interactions would never been seen on a prairie, but can be observed out of the kitchen window because you’re looking out so often. This is one of the real joys of prairie gardening.

  11. James McGee says:

    Hi Chris, since you have written about using local ecotype seed and harvesting seed from prairie gardens for use in local restoration efforts, I wanted to include the following correspondence for your reader’s consideration.

  12. James McGee says:

    Ecologist: XXXX, our volunteer coordinator, shared with me that you are interested in seed collection. And, that more specifically, you are interested in collecting, propagating, and sowing seed of species lower in supply, but potentially high in demand (i.e., our rarer plants).

    My response: I am actually not very interested in collecting seed of rare species. This usually involves too much paper work to interest me. Also, the habitat requirements of rare species are usually too restrictive for my purposes.
    The species I target are common, have been demonstrated to succeed in restorations, but are difficult to collect. Some are often difficult to locate after blooming, for example Yellow Star Grass. Others have capsules that explode when the seed ripens. My best examples would be the violets and phloxes. I also put some effort into species that are not difficult to collect, but that are often ignored. A good example of these would be the sedges.

    Ecologist: I wanted to inform you that this is NOT a priority of our volunteer seed collection program. Volunteer seed collection is done in groups on established workdays with District staff; not on an individual basis. Furthermore, the seed is to be used only on District sites, and not on private property. Collecting seed off District sites for personal use is not allowed and/or tolerated. If caught, you will be given a warning or fine. The District uses seed only; we do not propagate seed and grow-out plants for our restoration projects.

    My response: It is unfortunate that the XXXX County Volunteer Program is not more developed. Lake County has a nursery that propagates for the purpose of restoration. Even my municipality has a small native plant nursery to propagate for the restoration of City parks. The Illinois Nature Preserve Commission even suggests creating a seed garden so repeated collections do not have to be taken.

    http://dnr.state.il.us/INPC/VMG/Illinois%20Plant%20Translocation%20Policy.pdf

    Ecologist: Our efforts are focused on collecting seed of more common native species that are readily used in our standard seed mixes. Our rationale for this approach includes: 1) several, large populations of these species exist so collection locations are easy to find, 2) having volunteer groups in large populations does not put the population at as much a risk for overharvesting, and 3) these species tend to be much easier to become established in restoration planting; an important aspect considering the District has ~25,000 acres of land to preserve, manage, and/or restore.

    My response: I would not call the product of sowing a few easy to collect species ecological restoration. I have seen the near monocultures of Big Bluestem that result from sowing seed that is easy for large groups to collect. A restoration should, to quote the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission, “resembles high quality remnants of the same natural community type in the same natural division in terms of species composition.” If you are not obtaining seeds of species that require focused effort by individuals, then you have not restored the ecosystem.

    Ecologist: If you are interested in collecting common species in a group setting, I would encourage you to sign up for the volunteer seed collection program. I understand that is not specifically what you are interested in, but you would be helping make an environmental difference in XXXX County.

    My response: I live too far away to volunteer for XXXX County in the above capacity. I can only justify the commute if I am working on a specific project.

  13. James McGee says:

    The above was not a dialog, but merely my response to a single e-mail from a county ecologist. My suggestion to custodians of public land is when someone offers to help you with restoration efforts, you should not threaten to have them arrested and fined.
    Sincerely,
    James

    • Patrick says:

      Truly a disappointing commentary on the state of mind of some of the land managers out there.

      • James McGee says:

        What is really disappointing is how much my restoration efforts have been set back by people with the above mind set. It is really hard to do much when all that is available for seed collection are small scraps of land that only escaped development because of their proximity to railroad tracks. Typically, these scraps of land are very small. Everything too close to the railroad tracks gets sprayed regularly with herbicide. Anything that is big enough to be worth saving has been protected and is off limits for seed collection. It is quite a catch 22 that county ecologists always tell you to use local ecotype plants, then threaten to fine you if you ask for a little seed for a restoration effort or your personal garden.
        Sincerely,
        James

  14. Jason Rehling says:

    Hi Chris. I have enjoyed your site for some time but this is my first comment.

    My backyard “prairie” consists of about 50 forb species and 15 grasses of local origin. The main value I have seen is pollinator conservation. My backyard prairie is alive with numerous species of bees on many occasions. Many are bees I just don’t see on nearby non-native plants. I have not noticed this level of pollinator activity at a nearby TNC prairie but I suppose its due to my prairie being “forb concentrated” and not having a true prairie texture.

    Of secondary value to me is the easy seed source for my other projects, a living classroom right out the door for my son, and of course the simple aesthetic enjoyment.

    My wife still thinks its kind of a mess but she’s coming around slowly!

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Jason – sounds like you’ve got a great prairie! I agree, I see higher concentrations of bees in my little prairie gardens than I do in nearby prairies, and I think your explanation is the most likely one. Limited options brings all the bees into a few flowers.

  15. Karen Hamburger says:

    I have just recently dipped my toe in the pool of brining native plants in to urban environments by raising plants ( with Mr. Helzers generous support) and selling them at my local farmers market.
    The biggest hurdle I encountered with people is the belief that one needed a large plot of land for a prairie garden. Also that prairie plants are aggressive weeds.

    I found that getting some one to start with just one plant opens up the door to some very encouraging conversations. I have had several inquires hoping to get more plants next year.

    I am also given to understand that neighbors, associations and city officials can cause problems with those of us that like to grow “weeds”. Since my garden is in my back yard, I have not encountered this but have visited with people who have.

    I am in the process of starting a pollinator garden in my front yard. It is my goal to use this garden for education so I am curious if I will attract any of this kind of attention! If I do… I am ready for them!

    Now I don’t believe that I am saving the world with my little gardens but for the few little ones that find a home with me, I know I am making a difference to them and that is what really matters to me.

    Good post Chris!!

    Karen

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Great comments, Karen. I appreciate all the work you’re doing – in your yard and at our sites!

    • James McGee says:

      Hi Karen, My suggestion is that you take pictures of the garden when all the flowers are blooming. This way, when the community weed officer drags you in front of a judge you will have a defense. They won’t care about the fact that the plants are native. It is all about proving the qualitative determination of whether or not you’re planting is aesthetically pleasing.
      Sincerely,
      James

  16. I agree with Karen Hamburger, pollinator or prairie gardens (or native plants) should not be confined to the backyard!!! In an urban environment, the sun might be right in the front or on the side….municipal and community officials are slowly relenting about what is grown in yards now, although it is a slow process of education. Good post, thanks.

  17. James C. Trager says:

    There are so many thoughtful comments already posted that I have little to add, but a couple of things.
    – Comments about urban heat islands and such led me to think that hypothetically, some conservation value may be gained in prairie gardens by the unintended selection of any free-breeding plants in the gardens to deal with urban conditions. It seems the prospects are pretty good for a warming planet, and plants that can thrive in the urban garden may have some edge in wamer rural settings to come.
    – I’m not sure what they would be in Nebraska, but here in east-central Missouri, we have several asters and goldenrods, available in the local native plant trade, that are relatively well-behaved and slow growing. (Can’t think of any sunflowers, though.) And they can always, as you say be “grazed”, or put otherwise, be subjected to gardening, or horticulture.

    • James McGee says:

      Hi Mr. Trager, I agree that many dry prairie species of aster, goldenrod, and even sunflower are well behaved. Examples include Aster sericeus, Aster laevis, Aster oolentangiensis, Helianthus occidentalis, and Solidago ptarmicoides. You may not be familiar with Helianthus occidentalis since I believe it does not quite make it to your area. In more mesic prairies I like Solidago speciosa. In wet calcareous prairies I like Solidago riddellii. If you have the space many more options become available.
      Sincerely,
      James

  18. pugeretto says:

    My Prairie Plant Garden is on the corner of our 11/2 acre corner lot, so the entire neighborhood has been able to see the plants on a daily basis as they are on their daily walks or strolls with their kids. The location is also on a fairly steep slope, so it was never a good spot for mowing grass.
    I have lots of Asters and Showy Goldenrod, among the fall flowering plants, and not only do I love the colorful look, but so do bees and butterflies, including Monarchs. So, every year I have expanded, made mistakes, but basically letting this area evolve on it’s own, and by that I mean letting the garden self-seed because of erosion and previous wash-outs due to snow (plows) and heavy Spring rains. Getting plants to knit closely together.
    I was wondering if there are studies on the effects of road salt in the winter, because this corner is also where the plows push the snow, and it is a heavily salted corner because it is on a hill.
    Just walked outside with my pug, and the birds were flying in and out of the area.
    Crystal Lake, IL
    @Spiderwort52 on twitter

    • James McGee says:

      Road salt is death to most native plants. This actually has become one of the top ranking conservation problems. Our sloughs are now solid stands of Typha (cattails). Our flood plains have been overtaken by Phalaris (Reed Canary Grass). Every roadside and most wetlands seem to have giant stands of Phragmites. These invaders all take over an area after development brings in salt.
      Sincerely,
      James

  19. Danelle Haake says:

    Great post and responses! I must say, though, that I am surprised that whole categories of environmental and ecological benefits have been overlooked.
    SOIL
    Urban soils are notorious for being heavily compacted, damaged ecosystems. Following the use of heavy equipment during construction, builders lay sod which, given time, might establish a 1-to-3 inch layer of semi-organic soil. Enter the diverse prairie garden with a mix of course and fine root structures that will penetrate deep into the subsoil, slowly add organic matter, and break-up the parent soil material. But lets not forget, the soil is not only where roots live. There is a diverse group of invertebrates, bacteria, and fungi that form a community in the soil. In many cases, these communities have been heavily damaged by urban use of equipment and pesticides, but I imagine that the periodic transplant of even common species from an older prairie will begin to revitalize this community.
    WATER
    There was mention made that prairie gardens reduce the need to water the landscape; however, there is also a flood (pun intended) of stormwater benefit. Stormwater is a big deal in many urban and suburban communities, particularly in areas that have been seeing more frequent and/or more intense storms that are causing flash floods. The improved, more organic soil of a prairie garden (or a rain garden with native wet-prairie plants) is able to act as a sponge to hold rainwater. As the older roots die, they provide open channels to allow stormwater to flow into the subsoil and enter the groundwater system – a tremendous benefit in many regions. A well-established prairie garden may also slow the flow of the water over land, reducing erosion and capturing soil that is already in transit and possibly absorbing other pollutants that may be coming from a rooftop or parking area. In the end, with enough gardens, these stormwater benefits can provide additional baseflow, cut peak stormflows, reduce in-stream erosion and downcutting, reduce suspended sediment loads in streams, prevent nest-smothering of fish, and on and on…

  20. Jonathan Soll says:

    Another plus – If you BUY prairie seeds you are helping to support nurseries that are producing natives, heping make all speceis more affordable and available for restoration.

  21. Angela Anderson says:

    Ditto! I have had a native prairie and woodland garden for many years now in my city back yard, love to discover the critters that visit or take up residence, love to watch plants move around trying to find the best place to grow. I forage on berries, mushrooms and black walnuts all in my 150′ by 50′ yard.

  22. Jessica Salesman says:

    Great post – by Chris and everyone else. I don’t have too much to add – my experiences have been somewhat similar. My husband and I bought our house in 2006 and by 2007 I had already begun adding natives to the established planting beds (and removing the invasives at the same time…). As a biologist, it was a way to bring ‘work’ home with me, since we live in town and are surrounded by ag fields. Each year I do a little more (sometimes more than a little) to expand and add to the gardens. In 2010 we converted more than 100 sq ft of front lawn (nearly half of it!) into a prairie garden and just this fall added another 200 sq ft adjacent to the planting strip that bordered the back porch. Its less to mow (not that we mow often anyway – and our yard is small) and I love all the insects – butterflies, bees, and fireflies, etc. – the gardens just hum with activity during the growing season. Like Chris, I have been able to study them up close and personal and take wonderful pictures – I have started an informal project to document the insects I find in my planting.

    I have also found trouble species – wild strawberry and partridge pea! I won’t eliminate them, but I do have to work to keep them in check. I’m also experimenting a little with the grasses by adding some hemi-parasitic plants (wood bettony for example) to see 1) if it grows and 2) if it will help to reduce their vigor a little. I do suggest to anyone who would like to do it to check the town ‘weed laws’ or other ordinances first to see what kind of issues they may encounter. Ours ban black-eyed susans and milkweeds (written in the ’60s, farmers apparently didn’t like them); I have both, but have not had any issues to-date – only complements – and lots at that! Great way to meet the neighbors when you don’t have kids ;) At least where I live, the ordinances are not enforced unless someone complains – same goes for the mow-your-lawn and shovel-your-walk or we’ll do it for you and charge you for it rules we have here as well. If no one complains, no one gets a nastygram.

    Again, great article and one I plan to add to my arsenal of information!

  23. Mike Suiter says:

    Chris – I’ve been thinking the past few years about putting a sign up for my one acre “backyard” prairie. It is highly visible from the circle and a lot of people driving and walking stop for a glance. I could put a QR code that people could scan and find more information about it on my website. Maybe even invite people to walk the path.

    I will say it does get noticed. My retired neighbor said one day a lady showed up with a backpack and walking through it while we were at work.

  24. Ed May says:

    Hi Chris, I would have to agree with your assessments that the best result from using native plants in our gardens is that they require less water and really no chemicals. I don’t like using chemicals at all in my yard/garden so I’ve planted more and more native plant material over the years. I enjoy watching the goldfinches getting seed from my purple coneflower and rudbeckia. I think the promotion of native plant materials gardeners can dispel some myths and educate people on alternatives to the highly intensive, more English style gardens. But I have to share a story. Several years ago I got tired of trying to keep a patch of bluegrass growing in the summer heat so I tore it out and replaced it with blue gramma grass. It was a rather large stand along the street. One day when I was pulling a weed or two in the patch, a neighbor drove by. Their yard is highly manicured and labor/input intensive. He yelled as he passed, ” how are those soybeans coming”? I guess not everyone appreciates our natives. Ed

  25. hkb10 says:

    Hi Chris, great coverage of this topic. I’ll echo what a previous commenter said in relation to scale: a single garden may not provide all the needs for all species throughout their life cycle, but for species who require less space, a single garden might make a measurable difference in their abundance and diversity, while collective “patchwork” or “network” might make a large difference. With respect to species conservation, I wonder, for example if an increase in pollinators associated with pollinator gardens could benefit plant reproduction in nearby natural habitat or if the density of flowers in these gardens could act as a “sink”. I realize the focus of this blog is prairie conservation, but within the context of habitat gardening in general, ecosystem services are another potential benefit that are definitely in need in urban areas. Folks have previously mentioned soil and water aspects, I’ll add pollination services—betting that gardens with a prairie and a vegetable component will see higher yields/area than those without the prairie and though you are skeptical, perhaps some beneficial biological control as well, but again, likely a matter of scale.
    I’ll end with one anecdote from my Master’s research: I worked with home gardeners to study bee abundance and diversity in relation to gardening techniques and characteristics of the surrounding landscape. During a survey of her garden, one of my volunteers made a confirmed siting of a Western bumblebee–thought to be extirpated from our state and unseen for over a decade. While her observation could have been written off as a fluke, in the following year she has since observed more than one individual of this species. Given that her property is not surrounded by an abundance of native habitat, it’s hard not to at least entertain the idea that she is contributing to the conservation of this species.
    And because I wrote about this topic for the BioDiverse Perspectives Biodiversity Challenge this week, I’ll share that: http://www.biodiverseperspectives.com/2013/10/28/thepowerofone/

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Hillary,

      A great example of an exception to my thoughts about contributions to insect species conservation. I’ve got several bumblebee species frequenting my prairie garden too, but no rare ones. Their large range and generalist feeding habits would make them great candidates for benefitting from prairie gardens – just as you showed in your example.

  26. Pingback: Ruminations on Tree Planting and Prairie Conservation | The Prairie Ecologist

  27. Nice write up. Note that urban native-plant gardens can help the federally endangered rusty-patched bumble bee. Many of the more recent observations come from small patches of habitat in the urban environment.

  28. c says:

    Volunteers in the Chicagoland region have been propagating and re-wilding rare plants in their backyards for decades.

  29. Pingback: The So Called Ecological Garden – The Dirty Sneaker

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