VOICES: Little Prairie on the House

Native planting has a substantial buzz here in the Miami Valley — and it isn’t just the pollinators humming. Many folks are realizing that yards, landscapes, and other managed outdoor spaces can be much more rewarding than simple cultivation sites for monocultured turf grass, which is expensive to maintain, bears a high carbon footprint, and requires poisonous chemicals that pose serious hazard to wildlife, pets and human beings.

Open spaces and ornamental beds present an opportunity to foster habitat and create carbon sinks, which are valuable resources and services from environmental, economic and social perspectives alike. Natural areas including forests, prairies, and wetlands offer protection from increased precipitation, extreme temperatures, and high winds — all current impacts of climate change. While it is important that parks and conservation agencies protect large areas of vital habitat and carbon sink, it is also imperative that these practices extend to neighborhoods, areas of business, and other communal spaces. Diversity, in every facet of life, equals strength and resilience.

Prairie species provide an excellent pathway to the journey of biodiverse, native habitat integration. Ohio’s prairies are home to some of the most stunning flowering plants on Earth and they are adapted to the heavy clay soils predominant in our region. They have deep roots which absorb stormwater runoff and make them drought resistant, so they work well in bio-swales and rain gardens as well as drier upland.

Deep-rooted carbon storage is a specifically important attribute as well. Although forests typically store more carbon overall, prairies contain a higher percentage underground, where it is more resistant to storm damage, wildfire, and other impact. These deep roots and soil ecosystems serve to capture myriad other nutrients including nitrogen as well.

Most of these prairie species prefer full sun to part shade so they make excellent additions to the spaces most homeowners like to landscape around their house perimeter. Prairie forbs (flowering plants) and grasses can be easily integrated in a careful, calculated manner without completely overhauling existing landscape. This approach isn’t all or nothing. Non-invasive, non-native plants are still welcomed. Many of us certainly enjoy seeing daffodils and tulips in the early spring, often in the same ornamental beds as prairie species.

Prairie species can be planted from seed, bare root, or potted stock, like most ornamental species. The Miami Valley has several native plant centric nurseries which are a great first stop, and there are numerous online catalogs that will ship and are a good option for large quantities of seed or bare root specimens that are harder to find.

Deciding what to try first may be an overwhelming prospect. There are many choices and doing some research is recommended to determine what kind of look and functionality is desired. Because many prairie species are host and nectar plants for butterflies, a butterfly habitat garden is an excellent framework for a first-time native habitat gardener. Swamp Milkweed and Butterfly Weed are both great host plants for Monarch butterflies, easy to establish, and provide fantastic purple and orange blooms respectively. Golden Alexanders are a native host plant for Black Swallowtail. University of Kansas promotes a Monarch Weigh Station program that is an excellent guide to monarch centric habitat.

Nectar-bearing prairie forbs will provide food for many beneficial insects and hummingbirds, and seeds to be enjoyed by local and migratory birds in the late summer, fall, and even winter. There is interest year-round. Some time-tested species which are easy to find and establish are Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea, Bee Balm Monarda fistulosa, Blazing Star Liatris spicata, Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta, Foxglove Beardtongue Penstemon digitalis, Lanceleaf Coreopsis Coreopsis lanceolata, Blue False Indigo Baptisia australis.

Those wishing to scale up and take the next steps may consider creating pocket prairies with densely planted forbs and grasses, usually from seed or plugs. This approach is completely possible in a maintained yard setting but does take some careful preparation and planning. Intentional patches of prairie can be designated with dug edges, stone, brick block, or even fencing. It is generally recommended to maintain municipal right of way in accordance with local codes and to be mindful of property boundaries with neighbors. Well maintained borders allow for “rewilding” without the apparent “wild” and can present native prairie as a gorgeous landscape feature instead of unkempt lawn.

Converting existing landscaping to native, or native-inclusive, is a wonderful way to acclimate to this type of gardening and hopefully a catalyst for further home scale ecological restoration. The National Wildlife Federation offers a home certification program that is easily attainable yet full of meaningful actions, and the recently launched Promise Garden challenge through Dayton Regional Green (DRG) offers a gamified way to begin or continue this endeavor. Habitat stewardship is a powerful way for anyone to explore their own place in nature and give back to their illustrious cohabitants.

Tim Pritchard is the Sustainability Manager for Five Rivers MetroParks, an avid gardener, outdoor enthusiast, and ecological restoration advocate.

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