October 01, 2015

The Back Page: Lessons from a Prairie

Jonathan Scoll

Lessons from a Prairie

Tired of tending our suburban lawn and looking for ways to reduce the resource consumption of our backyard, my wife and I decide to plant a prairie. We don’t know precisely what’s involved, but a local company offering “prairie restoration” can guide us through the process. Its specialist sprays out our turfgrass and reseeds with what he says is a mix of native grasses and forbs (flowers) specific to our area.

In a few weeks, up come crabgrass, creeping charlie, thistle, dandelion, and every other lawn weed—and nary a single prairie plant. Patience, counsels our specialist. We wait.

Year two brings masses of black-eyed susans—a transitional species explains the specialist—and little else. In year three, all we have is bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), an unbroken purple carpet, followed by a bumper crop of ugly seedheads, delighting the birds if not us.

Year four repeats year three. The specialist confirms our worry. Maybe Monarda wasn’t right for your place, he concedes. Too aggressive—it’s taking over. After he attacks it with Roundup, our “prairie” looks worse than ever. He assures us things will improve after a burn the following spring. Burning, it seems, is essential to prairie renewal; in nature, grass fires restore nutrients and encourage plant growth.

He’s right. Out of the fire-blackened stubble next spring sprout little bluestem grass, sideoats grama, Indian grass, and bottlebrush grass. In May, new prairie flowers appear: golden alexanders, boneset, blue vervain, followed in July by milkweed, New England asters, grass-leaved goldenrod, and ironweed. But some flowers of earlier years, like daisies, unaccountably disappear. Clearly, a prairie is a species battleground.

The weeds refuse to surrender. While familiar lawn pests are now gone, their ranks are filled by alien invaders from midwestern farm and pasture: foxtail, hoary alyssum, bladderwort, dock and reed canarygrass, along with bluegrass seeded from neighbors’ manicured lawns.

By year six, our permanent reality is settled. While our prairie takes no sprinkling or fertilizing, it requires weed control, reseeding, and periodic burning. Much of the labor must be mine, but we will need our specialist’s pesticide and prairie burning expertise indefinitely.

New houses spring up nearby. Around them, nursery trees, shrubs, and flowers are dropped into place and mulched, and sod unrolled—all in days or even hours. Such landscapes may lack the cachet of things native, but once in, they look finished, permanent. At times, I feel envy.

In August of year six, I seek out a true prairie remnant near the small town of Waubun, in northwestern Minnesota, which has fortuitously escaped plow, cow, and bulldozer. Wading through its complex of forbs and chest-high grasses, I am struck by my presumption in attempting to duplicate it.

This summer of year seven, standing in the midst of my own (finally) thriving wildflowers and grasses, as redwings scold overhead, bees buzz alongside, and unseen things rustle underfoot, I sense a different truth. My little prairie is more than botanical nostalgia. It is a humbling display of a plant domain whose laws are imperfectly understood and where accommodation, not mastery, is the gardener’s only choice.

Jonathan Scoll

Jonathan Scoll is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment.