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State of the Prairie (July 2019)

As many of you know (and may have seen), I’ve been hard at work building a prairie in our front yard. We’re blessed with a big suburban property and have dedicated about a quarter acre to start this project. Although it isn’t an iconic state like Iowa or Kansas, central Ohio did have more than a few patches of tallgrass prairie prior to European settlement in the 1800s. Coincidentally, prairie is a French word meaning “meadow.”

Here on the eastern edge of the grassland range, we have tallgrass prairie. The Rocky Mountains form the western boundary of the American prairie, and the arid environment created by the mountain rain-shadow defines the area of the shortgrass prairie. In between is (you guessed it) the mixed-grass prairie; thus, the height of your dominant prairie grasses are determined by average rainfall. Our prairies grow on unusually rich soils, which explains why just 0.1% of prairie remains untouched today after conversion to farmland.

Prairie is also defined by what is absent: trees. Fast-moving, very hot fires are intrinsic to grassland health, as are grazing bison and elk, neither of which are tree-friendly. You’ll find plenty of perennials and even some hardy shrubs, but a tallgrass prairie is up to 80% grass. Wildflowers and other herbaceous plants form the other 20% of plant material. Here at the Columbus Garden School, we focused on five grasses: big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, sideoats grama, and Indian grass. Our ratio of grass to flowers is closer to 50:50 by plant volume. We’ve been incredibly lucky to obtain dozens of wildflower transplants. (Most we grew ourselves but many were donated.) Our ratios may be off, but our diversity is fabulous!

Which brings us to the WHY. We’ve got two acres at CGS and we could grow almost anything we choose. Why prairie? Short answer: to restore diversity -- of plants, microbes, insects and other wildlife -- to our corner of Columbus, OH. As a landscape designer with 20+ years of experience, I’ve watched my industry become more narrowly focused on a handful of non-native plants that are cheap and easy to propagate. The problem is that these plants offer almost NOTHING of value to native wildlife. I could -- and often do -- go on and on about the tangents of this issue, but my most important point is this:

If each of us made the effort to add native plants BACK into the areas surrounding our homes, businesses, churches, etc., we could change the world. Diversity matters.

We have enough room for a prairie at CGS, so that’s what we’re doing on the southwest corner of our property. We’re also adding lots of native trees, shrubs, and perennials throughout the property so YOU can come and see what might work in YOUR yard. Stop by for a visit, join us for a class on native plants, and let us know what you need to be a successful gardener!

Stay tuned for additional blog posts on how we built our prairie - and tips to help you build one, too.

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