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Native Plants in the Home Landscape

Weed Laws Need Not Worry About These Small Prairie Gardens

Native Plants in the Home Landscape by Keith Gerard Nowakowski
A common complaint from many enthusiasts and supporters of native plants in home landscapes focuses on the weedy, messy appearance. It’s true; some native plants require large spaces and can certainly consume a small yard in a very short period. Keith Gerard Nowakowski advocates for the use of native plants in home landscapes, but he does not encourage removal of all of your lawn to create a wildflower meadow. That’s not the intent of this book.

  • Can you create a nicely landscaped planting bed while using native plants? 
  • Do you have to fight the weed laws to create a native prairiescape? 
  • Yes and no. 
  • Are you new to working with native plants and/or landscaping? 

If you have an interest in developing a small prairiescape at home, this is a valuable resource that will introduce you to some basic information on working with native plants.

Native Plants in the Home Landscape is a how-to-create-maintain-and-enjoy-a-native-plants garden book. It emphasizes the tallgrass plant community of the upper Midwest that includes portions of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, and tiny bits of northern Indiana with isolated remnants in Michigan. Tallgrass Prairies are complex ecosystems and Chapter One, A Tallgrass Prairie Timeline, introduces us to the story behind the prairie. We learn about what continues to shape prairie ecosystems: weather and fire,

What are the benefits of using wildflowers and native plants?

Most of us who have been working with native plants can answer this in our sleep. It’s almost our mantra. But if you are new, in Chapter Two you will learn about diversity, maintenance, irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide use, seasonal changes, and sense of place. The good news is that fertilizers and pesticides are unnecessary in native prairiescapes.

My favorite concept, Sense of Place, creates an identity for your yard. A northwest Illinois or central Iowa garden should not look like every other garden across the country. It can have it’s own buzz with a mix of native materials. Prairie plants are not weeds, this is a misconception, they can be incorporated into a design the same as marigolds, sedums, or any other commercial, mass-marketed plants. And the good news is that there are nurseries in our areas that sell exciting seeds and plants.

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Chapter Three
digs in with some valuable tools, regardless of your experience with native plants and gardening. Where do you go for information? Do you use nursery catalogs for information, or do you know of local groups that can assist? Field guides also help identify what grows locally, naturally. Have you considered hiking some natural areas that claim to have remnant or restored tallgrass prairie sites? Do you take notes and photograph what you find? When doing this could you also evaluate the sites where you locate desirable plants? (Don’t dig them out or remove the seeds—unless you’re really experienced they won’t survive.) What about buying from local native plant society sales instead? You also need to assess your own site before beginning to select plants. This assessment must include some evaluation of your soil. This is what Chapter Three offers and these suggestions sound like fun. Of course, taking a day or two to go hiking with a camera might be so enjoyable you forget to return to your landscaping project.

Chapter Four identifies plants of the tallgrass region that includes wildflowers, grasses, sedges, ferns, shrubs, and trees. Yes, there really are trees on the prairie, but the way the wind blows you have to wonder how they ever got started. This chapter is obviously the longest. Each page has two plants described, complete with high quality color photographs. Plant details are provided in a table format for each plant and each is accompanied by a few additional thoughts. The plants were chosen for commercial availability, visual appearance, seasons of interest, ease of care, and suitability to a SMALL residential site. Even though they are native, they can still be escape artists and quickly take over your garden leaving you discouraged and eventually dealing with an unmanageable front yard. Your neighbors would soon be calling the weed police. Consider the plant’s manners and aggressive nature before bringing it home.

So, what are his recommendations? Butterfly milkweed, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, purple coneflower, spring beauty, woodland geranium, Virginia bluebells, and foxglove beardtongue are some of the wildflowers. Grasses include little bluestem, Indiangrass, and prairie dropseed. Small woody plants: dwarf fragrant sumac, pasture rose, winterberry holly, and elderberry. I love elderberry, but watch out, it can become a tad overpowering. Older stems might require some periodic pruning.

If you are really new designs might help, especially when accompanied by an artist’s rendering of a mature image of the design. This section offers plans for a woodland garden, streamside garden and three others. Each has an artist’s rendering, a plan, and plant list. The plant list includes the name of the plant, the numbers required for that particular plan, and the plant’s height, spread, spacing, and bloom time. I’ve found experience helps with planning and design, but this helps avoid some of the errors commonly encountered by novice landscapers. (We all start somewhere at some time.)

The final chapter concludes with installation and maintaining your home landscape. Clean and prepare your planting bed—you really don’t have to dig out all the grass, there are other ways to approach that task. A few plant sources, helpful websites, bibliography, and index completes this book.

My Thoughts

The idea of creating smaller, island-type gardens in the yard appeals to me as much as removing every inch of grass. This book was the result of Keith Nowakowski’s thesis at the University of Illinois. The mix of graphics, photos, charts, and text is well balanced, the language is easy to understand, and the content is obviously aimed at beginning native plant landscapers. This book is created for the northern Tallgrass Prairie region of the Midwest and will be a valuable resource for anyone intending to develop a first prairie garden.


Originally published on Epinions at © pestyside, 2014