Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Planning a Prairie Garden

A guest post by Anne Stine, one of our Hubbard Fellows:

It just recently turned cold out, which means I’ve started daydreaming about next year’s garden.  I am a native plant enthusiast, and I have decided that I’ll be planting a prairie garden filled with my favorite flowers that I’ve learned with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska over the past six months.  I’ve poured through the internet searching for propagation information and bloom times.  I want to make sure I have a continuous bloom period, both because it makes for pleasant viewing and because I want to provide native bee habitat across the growing season.  I also need to know which seeds require stratification or scarification. Because I am me, I made a spreadsheet of all this information (at the bottom of this post).

Who wouldn't want flowers like this in a garden?  Blue lobelia and cardinal flower in The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

Who wouldn’t want flowers like this in a garden? Blue lobelia and cardinal flower in The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Ultimately, I want my garden to be a great pollinator resource filled with unique native plants. If it attracts birds and butterflies too, that’s a huge plus. Lastly, if it’s going to survive my schedule, it needs to be low-maintenance.  I am pleased to note that gardening with native plants can fulfil all these objectives.  My table of appealing native plants, though not comprehensive, will help me design my garden to satisfy these requirements.  I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on favorite native plants and propagation tricks.

Happy plann(t)ing!

Click on the tables below to see a larger/clearer version of them.  Or click HERE to see the same information in a PDF format.



*Information on propagation, soil moisture requirements, and bloom period gathered from the USDA Plants Database, Native Plant Database, and the Missouri Botanical Garden Plantfinder Database.


15 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Planning a Prairie Garden

  1. I have a copy of Prairie Propagation Handbook from Wehr Nature Center Whitnall Park Milwaukee County WI Department of Parks. by Harold W Rock. First Publish in 1971 my addition is from 1981. address 9701 W College Ave Franklin WI 53132. i found a couple used ones for sale on internet. Glenn

  2. I’ve always appreciated the great data on native prairie species at Prairie Moon Nursery’s website — beautiful photos and LOTS of details on species, including germination codes. And they sell source-identified local ecotypes, from 70 suppliers in the upper midwest region.

  3. Hello Ann, Please tell us where you will be planting the garden (in Nebraska?) and the garden’s size. You have the full range of moisture preferences in your wish list. The readers will need information about the amount of sun (hrs/day), aspect (south slope, north slope?), and the degree of moisture in the soil of your proposed garden site.
    You can bury pond liner to increase moisture retention for growing plants that like wet feet in yard that has good drainage. Also, locating moisture loving plants by a down spout can sometimes work. For the plants that like dry soil, you can mound up the soil and add rock and gravel. This reduces the moisture holding capacity of the soil making it dry faster.
    My biggest suggestion is to make sure your plants are not competing with tree roots. You can periodically cut any tree roots that have invaded your garden by pushing a long spade into the ground around the edges. Alternatively, pond liner will help keep tree roots from sucking all the moisture out of a garden bed with wetland plants. I like to make a drain in the pond liner so the top 3 inches of soil are not completely saturated, unless you are growing emergent plants.
    Many of the plants you have listed would likely be too aggressive for a small garden setting. If you want to include them, I suggest planting them individually in big pots so they cannot over take all their neighbors.
    If you are making your garden in an area that was formerly lawn, then you will have to kill the grass. You could apply glyphosate to kill the grass, but dandelions tend to not be killed easily by this herbicide. I think plants do not grow as well for a period after glyphosate has been applied. I think the best way to kill the grass is to smother it with fall leaves. Since fall has past, you could use cardboard to keep the grass from getting light. A plus of using cardboard is it is biodegradable.
    These are my best suggestions at the moment. Once the readers have more information about your site, we can give you advice about individual species.

  4. Newspaper is also good for smothering an area of grass. It looks as though you could sow most of these plants now to give them the cold conditioning they need, if you have an area already prepared, but maybe you’ve already got snow cover. In that case, sowing in pots or trays and putting them outside to germinate with the spring thaw works well. Good luck!

    • Snow seeding would be another alternative, if the garden area is already prepared. It’s best to choose a day that is not windy to seed on top of snow, and hopefully, just prior to another snow fall. This technique has been very successful.

      I also want to endorse the recommendation of the Prairie Moon website. There are many wonderful features, including the “plant finder” and collections for specific purposes or habitats.

  5. Just a couple comments Ann, having had a prairie garden for many years with two different homes. First, I think you are missing out if you do not include grasses in your mix. I’ve had good experiences with side-oats grama, little bluestem, and dropseed. These won’t fall over like the taller grasses. My experience with penstemon grandifloras is that it is relatively short lived and doesn’t do well with competition, so be prepared to replant or replace it. I also notice you left out goldenrod species. Although they can be clone formers and sometimes are agressive, they do well in the garden and really attract insects. Another one I’ve had good luck with is Culvers root. It’s been a reliable, long-lived perennial that is not agressive and attracts tons of insects when in bloom. Just a few thoughts. Oh, and forget about it being low maintenance, especially if you plan to directly sow seed in the garden. Also, over the years, you will get saplings taking root just like the ones you’ve been working to remove from the prairie. This is not meant to discourage you…it’s not any more work than most other gardens, but not significantly less either. Gardening is a journey, not a destination, so embrace and enjoy the journey. It’s so worth it!

    • Hi Patrick, I think native gardens take a lot of work in the beginning, but the amount of work needed becomes less over time. All I currently do with my native garden is take an extra long bread knife and cut off all the dead stems in the fall. I sometime cut back things that have over grown their bounds or remove small tree seedlings. All considered, after the garden has become established it really is low maintenance. A mature native plant garden typically requires much less maintenance than lawn.

  6. Hey Ann

    Like your spread sheet. But you need to add soil requirements. The lobelias like rich moist soil but the shell leaf penstemon likes poor dry well drained soil. There for would not be compatible in the same garden. Site requirements and bed preparation are a very important part of planning a prairie garden.


  7. Anne,

    I have planted four native pollinator/prairie gardens over the past three years – plus a whole bunch of native plants at home. Three of those gardens have been at schools and one has been at a local children’s museum.

    I don’t have much experience planting from seed. Working with elementary age students (and wanting an immediate impact) I tend to plant plugs or other small plants. I like your broad selection of plants for sequential blooming, but you may have to adapt your selection depending on soil moisture and/or available sunlight.

    I agree with Patrick’s comment about adding grass to the mix – especially since so many butterflies (Skippers) and other species use grass as their host plant. A few other suggestions for plants would include adding a Blazingstar (Liatris), Vervain (Verbena), Goldenrod (the genus formerly known as Solidago), and possible an Anemone species. I also like adding Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) as a groundcover under the tall plants – bees love it and you can eat the resulting fruit so it’s a double bonus.

    Good luck!

    -Mike LeValley

  8. I enjoyed this post, the spreadsheet, and also the comments you’ve gotten so far. I live in Lincoln, on a small corner lot. I have been planting more and more native plants, many that are on your list, and some that others have mentioned, such as the grasses and liatris, which is one of my favorites, and the bees love it. I get most of my plants from the arboretum. The seeds that I bought from Prairie Moon and planted last fall did not germinate this spring. One was the cleome. I grow the non-native annual, but was hoping to replace it with this native one. I’m hoping some come up next spring.

    I hope spring gets here soon, so we can get back out there and dig!

  9. More milkweeds. Culver’s root, many Liatris species, side oats grama, little bluestem, Vervain. My first bloom is pasque flower in early to mid April here in Lincoln, and my last aromatic aster into November. I’d suggest ironweed and a number of Baptisia species (queen bumblebees feast on baptisia in early May as they feed new hives). Here’s what I got going on:


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