Our little slice of heaven: prairie plants and otherwise

Our yard is split up into five habitat types. The first is the dog pen, which consists mostly of the plants that have managed to withstand the spastic cavorting of our dogs. Second, is Kim’s vegetable garden, which is big and beautiful and full of goodness. Third, we have countless flowers around the house and other strategic points, which are a combination of native and non-native plants, designed both for maximum color and attractiveness to pollinators. Fourth, we have the “soccer yard”, which is a patch of mowed bluegrass just big enough to allow for the use of soccer balls and frisbees, but small enough that it draws complaints from the kids (despite the presence of a large city park a block from our house). That bluegrass area has abundant white clover and dandelions, by the way, left on purpose for the many insects that appreciate them. Finally, we have the prairie gardens. There’s a big one along the alley and a smaller one on the corner of the two streets that run past our property.

This is part of the more cultivated-looking parts of our yard, which includes a lot of native local-ecotype plants, but also cultivated varieties of natives and non-native plants.

Some of you might be shocked to read that my yard isn’t fully prairie. After all, I’m the “Prairie Ecologist” – I should eschew the evils of watered and fertilized yards and convert everything to native habitat. I get that, but there are extenuating factors. First, I have kids and dogs, both of which like to roam around and play games in our yard. Since I like both the kids and dogs, it’s nice to have them close by when they play, and to play with them. Second, prairie gardens can be a lot of work, especially during their first few years, and we’ve only been in this location for five years. Third, there are other plants Kim and I enjoy besides native prairie species, and that’s ok.

Yes, prairie gardens use less water and fertilizer than traditional yards, but they also require a lot of weeding and tending – throughout their life, but especially while they are young. They are just like any other restored prairie in that way. Instantly converting our entire big corner lot to prairie and managing it would consume much more time than we currently have available. Prairies are also less compatible with kids playing soccer and other similar games than a mowed patch of bluegrass. Right now, that’s an important factor in our decision-making.

We do have some full native prairie garden plots. this is part of the bigger one, out along the alley. It’s big and messy and wonderful, and full of all kinds of native insects too.

Next, I’m sure some of you are disappointed in me for having non-native plants our flower gardens. That’s fine. Here’s the thing, my wife has a horticulture degree and one of those brains that can create beauty in a seemingly effortless way. She has transformed this yard into something I’m really proud of, full of year-round color and texture, and loaded with butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Our zinnias, for example, have so many painted ladies, swallowtails, and silver-spotted skippers feeding on them it stops passing pedestrians in their tracks, not to mention how much fun we and our kids have watching them. Those zinnias and other non-native plants are accompanied by cultivated varieties of native plants, including black-eyed Susans, cardinal flower, pasque flower, and others, as well as lots of local ecotype native plants like Canada anemone, skunkbush sumac, little bluestem, and many more.

These little hover flies are all over the yard, but seem to especially be drawn to spiderwort flowers.
I learn a lot from observing nature in our yard. Lately, I learned that these long-legged flies are predators. I had no idea until I spotted this one with an ant in its mouth, which led me to do more research. Really interesting little creatures!

As our yard matures, and Kim continues to tweak and add to the flowers and plants in the landscaping, it’s becoming a real showpiece in the neighborhood, though Kim doesn’t design it for anyone other than us (ok, mostly herself, but we all enjoy it). People stop and ask questions about the plants they see – usually the native ones – while complimenting the yard in general. This is despite the dandelions and clover in the mowed yard and the fact that ours is not the kind of manicured lot most of those passers-by live in. We’ve created a kind of compromise/transitional landscape around our house, which includes lots of native plants and provides a great deal of value to pollinators and other insects, but still fits within what most of our neighbors think is attractive and acceptable.

Ironweed is really attractive to the hundreds of painted lady butterflies in our yard right now, but so are many other flower species, including non-natives.
This skipper is one of many species enjoying our ironweed patch along the alley.

Again, our yard is designed to make us happy, which is the way it should be. Our kids like it too, though the soccer yard squeezes them a little when they want to play a big roving game of ball tag or other land-intensive games. (“Go to the park!!” I say.) We didn’t create our landscaping to make a statement, though we are also conscious of its value in that way.

I think it’s great when people convert their entire yards to prairie vegetation. If that makes them happy, it’s a fantastic way to save water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Native plants in urban and suburban landscaping also helps normalize those species and draws attention to prairies and their value. Maybe most importantly, it allows people to become familiar with plant (and insect) species that they might encounter if they happen to walk past or into an actual prairie. That sounds like a small thing, but I think it’s among the most important conservation strategies we have. Many people see prairies as flat boring patches of grass, and a lot of that is because they don’t recognize anything of interest there. If they walk into a prairie and start seeing species they’ve previously met, it’s a lot easier to see beauty and value in a place they’d otherwise dismiss as foreign and uninteresting.

I learned what plume moths were from seeing them in our yard. This one is resting on a cultivated variety of black-eyed Susan near the house that grows bigger flowers and less floppy overall structure than the local ecotype versions we have in our prairie garden.
I’m not sure what bee species this is on hoary vervain, but we’ve seen quite a variety of bees in our yard, including some that are specialist feeders on plants like penstemon. It’s incredible to me how they can find their host plant in such a fragmented environment, but it also gives me hope for their survival.

Along those lines, converting entire lawns to prairie can really help bring attention to native plants. However, any inclusion of native plants in landscaping projects can do the same thing. In our case, we’ve scattered native plants into landscaping that includes other flowers and plants people are more familiar with. Whatever works, right? If our yard helps people become more familiar with black-eyed Susans, wild bergamot and other wildflowers they might see in prairies, I feel good about that. And if other people decide to sprinkle some native flowers into their yard as a result of what they’ve seen in our yard and many others like it, that’s a conservation success. Each of those people will become more familiar with native plants, along with the insects that visit them. As a result, prairies will seem less weird, more welcoming, and something worth caring about.

Interestingly, when I sat down to write this post this morning, my plan was to write about all the interesting native insects I’ve been seeing on our prairie plants around the yard lately. My brain went in a different direction once I started writing, but I already had the photos ready to go, which is why this post is full of images of insects on the native flowers in our yard. While accidental, that selection of photos also supports one of my points. Despite our yard having lots of non-native plants, our prairie gardens and scattered native plants are attracting and supporting those native insects and doing good. It’s also important to note that while some horticultural varieties of flowers don’t provide value to pollinators, others do. The butterflies, bees, flies, mantises, lady bugs, and countless other insects on our zinnias, sage, and dill agree.

I photographed this tiny Reakirt’s blue butterfly last week. It was the first time I can remember seeing this species in the yard, but we always have lots of its close relative, the more common eastern-tailed blue. Along with monarchs, painted ladies, and many other migratory butterflies, Reakirt’s blues provide a great example of how urban flower gardens provide valuable islands of habitat for these long-distance travelers.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a yard, I hope it brings you joy. Converting your whole plot of land to prairie can be a wonderful way to learn about prairie, reduce water and chemical use, and evangelize at the same time. If that kind of conversion brings you happiness, you should do it (though maybe convert it a little at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed by weeds). At the same time, there are other ways to incorporate native plants into your yard without going whole hog. Ensuring that you have pollinator-accessible flowers blooming throughout the year, allowing dandelions, clover, and other plants to persist in your bluegrass lawn, and providing patches of bare ground and old wood for bee nesting can all be valuable. You can create a diversity of life around you and feel good about the result. It’s working really well for us.

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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.

13 thoughts on “Our little slice of heaven: prairie plants and otherwise

  1. What a great way to combine your personal/family needs and care for the prairie environment. I suspect you live farther east than I do and have a wider range of natives you can grow with minimal intervention. I live on the high plains prairie of western Nebraska, but find I can grow a lot of wildflowers. I started with the harder-to-reach areas where I planted almost all native species. Don’t have to water. There was an old white-rock parking lot where I managed to break things up enough to seed buffalo and gramma grasses, and boy you’re right! What a chore to establish. This year, a wet year, I’ve only watered once and never mowed. Many other native species of grasses are moving in. It’s great!

  2. Could your wife redesign my gardens? I love going native, but I do NOT have the creative design mind, and therefore, my gardens never look “nice.” I’d love to get some help, but over the years I have never been successful in finding someone to help me out – no matter where I have lived!

  3. Oh, what a tremendously helpful post. I’m comforted reading that you have some non-natives in your pollinator garden. I’m curious – do you have any advice about striking a balance between shade trees and sunny pollinator spots in your garden? It seems you can’t have both, and figuring that out continues to be a mystery.

  4. Chris,

    Love your writing. Looking forward to hearing about Square Meter project tonight. I was in one of your educational classes in Kearney years ago with Anne Hubbard. Since then I’ve established a prairie and spreading the word on the wonders of prairie grass and flowers. Thank you for lighting that fire years ago through your teaching and your book.

    Kind regards,

    Sheila Fitzgerald


  5. I made a meadow in my front yard that looks kind of messy. I like those marigolds but not sure they would tie it all together like they do in your garden. Maybe I’m suffering from orderly garden withdraw.

  6. I’ve taken the hybrid yard approach too. No pesticides or herbicides on the mowed parts. Plenty of birds foraging on the lawn. I like the thought of them not getting a chemical-laden meal from my yard.

  7. Apartment life’s turned me into a garden-appreciator rather than a garden-grower, and I appreciate everything I see here. I’m also by nature a both/and sort rather than an either/or type, and it pleases me to see both natives and non-natives thriving together so beautifully.

  8. The skipper is a male sachem (Atalopedes campestris). The prominent black patch at the base of the forewing beneath is a diagnostic feature. The plume moth is probably the morning glory plume moth (Emmelina monodactyla).

  9. I keep looking for rusty patched bumble bees, so I can say my garden is benefiting conservation. I finally found one with a rusty patch, but it turned out to be a brown-belted bumble bee. I do have lots of butterflies, especially monarchs, and hummingbirds. However, in the scheme of things my garden probably is not making a difference for rare species. I enjoy the garden. However, I now spend much more of my time volunteering to manage habitat rather than working on my home garden.

  10. This is lovely! I’ve been working on converting chunks of my otherwise non-native yard into prairie plants, and it’s both expensive and effortful. I’ve put in ~100 plants this year, which has cost ~$300+ and many many hours of planting and tending to get them established.

    One notable detail I’d add: if you want to get certified as a pollinator friendly yard (through UNL Extension) it may not even be possible to do with native plants alone! The certification requires 5+ species that bloom in each of 3 seasons, selected from a specific list of pollinator-friendly species, and many of the native varieties are sister species to the listed varieties. So my heuristics for selecting new plants to add to our yard are selecting those which are native or pollinator-friendly as top priorities, and a few species that we just happen to like for aesthetics or sentimental reasons (like lilies of the valley).


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