So you're interested in converting some of your lawn to native Minnesota prairie, and enjoying the benefits that come with it. Where do you even start? Consider this your native prairie planting crash course.
In Part 3, two native gardening experts — Bre Bauerly, habitat specialist with Minnesota Native Landscapes, and Julia Vanatta, who is on the education committee of Wild Ones Twin Cities — provide some hardy plant suggestions and offer tips for getting started. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.
You've done all your site prep, timed your sun exposure and checked soil drainage. Now it's time for plants. Here are some general tips to ensure you get off on the right foot.
Look for clumpy
Some native plants will spread slowly, forming new clusters as they grow. "For beginner gardeners, things that are clumpy are going to be easier to manage," said Vanatta. Plants that spread via rhizome (underground, horizontal root systems) can spread unpredictably and be difficult to control, so opt for clumpy grasses like Little Bluestem and Prairie Dropseed, or plants like Purple Prairie Clover to keep things manageable.
Prairie grasses are a must
"Not everybody likes grasses in a planting garden bed," said Bauerly, "but with natives, grasses are very important." They fill the space between plants, help with weed suppression, and provide support for tall, delicate flowers — making them easier for pollinators to visit.
A native prairie garden is at its best, visually and ecologically, when it contains plants that bloom at different times, covering from early spring through the fall. Not only will your garden always have a splash of color, but pollinators will thank you, as you're providing food and shelter for insects, birds and other wildlife.
Give the plants space
"If something says it needs 18 inches, give it 18 inches," Vanatta said, noting plants can often get much bigger than you anticipate. One good tip: Try to find that species out in the wild or in another garden when it is mature. That will give you a sense of its long-term growth.
Fancy names can be misleading
If you want a true native garden, look for plants that are marked with their basic and scientific name, and nothing else. Avoid those plants with a fancy variety name attached, Bauerly said. That could indicate they are not pure, native-grown options.
Don't neglect shrubs
A lot of people put in smaller plants, then add shrubs later. Vanatta suggested going the opposite direction, and making a shrub the foundation of your garden. That helps ensure you'll have various stories — from the canopy to the ground — filled in.
Embrace the natural look
You can give a native prairie area a sense of intention by following basic organizational rules (plant in groups of three or five, choose one large plant to serve as the focal point, put smaller plants up front), Vanatta said. But a bit of messiness is unavoidable in a native prairie. "It will naturalize over time, and that’s part of what happens with native plants," Vanatta said. "And you need to allow that in your prairie. It’s really hard to control them like a manicured garden. You need to give them permission to be what they are, and learn to accept that as the aesthetic.”
Plant species suggestions
There are hundreds of native plants to choose from in Minnesota. Here are some choices Bauerly and Vanatta suggested for a first-time lawn-to-prairie conversion:
- Black-eyed Susan: Beloved, but can have a short lifespan, Vanatta said.
- Coneflower/echinacea: Multiple species to choose from.
- Wild Columbine: A good spring bloom, Bauerly said.
- Large-flowered penstemon (pictured): One of multiple penstemons to consider.
- Meadow blazing star: A late-summer bloom and "monarch magnet," said Vanatta.
- Goldenrod: Can choose from gray, stiff or other goldenrod species; Bauerly said it gets a "bad rap" because it blooms at the same time as ragweed.
- Wild indigo: A great protein source for bees, according to Vanatta.
- Golden Alexander: Good option for a spring bloom, said Bauerly.
- Little bluestem: A popular prairie grass option, turns bronze in the fall.
- Prairie dropseed: Another good grass option, fruits late summer into fall.
- New England or Sky Blue aster: Pairs well with goldenrod in the fall.
- A native seed mix: Some native plant suppliers, including Bauerly's employer Minnesota Native Landscapes, offer seed mixes (often with clear, descriptive names) as an option.