A Prairie from Scratch

Ah, August.  With the arrival of midsummer in the deep south, we can actually garden again without just hauling water to and fro.  Fall seeds are arriving, new growth is starting to appear on sun-scorched plants following a few afternoon showers, and my mind is dwelling on upcoming garden projects.  Forefront on my list is a prairie.

When we bought our house almost a year ago to the day, one of the acts that excited me the most was the creation of a prairie.  But, why?  Why return a 1/8th acre of clipped turf to wild?  These are a few reasons that immediately came to mind.  

  1. As I’ve written before, I love grasslands.  Call it primal or call it high culture, but a waltz amongst the panicles and the floral tapestry of the wild is enchanting.  
  2. I want to learn.  I want to get a hands-on education in making designed plant communities in the southeast.  This planting will become a living lab to practice different designs, combinations, and approaches.  Can I really plant directly into turf?  How can I achieve color or interest every week of the year in east Texas?  What will be a thug, and what worthwhile will need encouragement?
  3. A prairie will reflect the genius of the place.  Drive down our roads, and you see Liatris, Asclepias, Vernonia, Rudbeckia, Baptisia, Gaillardia, Delphinium, Hymenopappus, Echinacea, Callirhoe, Penstemon, and more all growing in a matrix of short grasses.  Why not concentrate this wild and have it right out my door?    
  4. I love seeing the wildlife flit and flirt across our micro-farm. It takes me back to my childhood chasing frogs at sunset or the first chrysalis I ever discovered.  Creating habitat for fauna of all kinds makes me feel like I’m doing good in this world, and as Noel Kingsbury recently argued is a core element of the designed plant community concept.  
  5. Karen wants a prairie, too.  (No, really!)  I realized I've made her a bit of a mulch snob when she comments on far apart spaced plants and the wasted space between. 

My mind has iterated through different locations on the property.  At first, I wanted the planting to be in our backyard surrounding a towering water oak, mainly because early on we were spending hours on our backporch.  But, with time living here, I eventually realized that to the west of our house beside our driveway would be the best location.  The spot is a beeline straight from our kitchen window, and standing at the sink I find myself gazing out and imagining what will be in bloom or seed.  The site gets full sun save for the last few waning hours of the day when shade is cast by a mature water oak and a teenage Taxodium.  The site slopes slightly to the west in a terrace-like fashion, and the lay of the land is perfect for catching morning light as the sun lifts above the distant thicket in the summer and the house later in the winter.  Also, the prairie will be visible from the road so that people will see the crazy things that plant doctor is doing.  

The space is rectangular and runs the western length of our driveway.  It’s about three times as long as it is wide, tapering a bit with the curve of the asphalt.  The length of the prairie warrants a vista, and I know I want to frame the view and have something at the north end draw one’s eye from the south where the road is.  Our edible patch is just beyond the prairie, and perhaps I can create a focal point near this space.  Not sure what yet though.  

The biggest question I’ve wrestled with this spring and summer is how to create an immersive experience in the prairie.  How do I design it to be tangible and imbibed?  Paths are the obvious answer and will allow the interaction with the plants from a variety of angles.  I considered different layouts including parallel lines, turf spaces that ebb and flow in size surrounding a sea of taller foliage, and even doing geometric shapes like the orchard plantings at Le Jardin Plume.  Finally, I decided on a curving path that winds through the area and eventually circles back on itself.  When the grass is tall, I envision curves hiding what’s next and creating a sense of mystery.  I’ve also envisioned resting spots along the path throughout the prairie made by circles where chairs and tables will allow one to stop and enjoy the creation.  

Like a light pencil on a blank canvas tracing guides for a greater work of art, I’ve used my riding mower to mow lines for various projects at our house to begin shaping spaces, and I’ve used the same approach with our prairie.  Yes, it probably sounds like hillbilly horticulture, but it works.  I set the mower blade a bit shorter than the rest of the grass and mow the lines I want.  Any errors of my ways will grow back.  Living out in the country affords me the opportunity to play around in ways in which a city dweller might receive a citation or gawks.  With the prairie, I mowed the path I had in mind.  I walked the length of it stopping and pausing to view certain perspectives and to see what I liked or didn't.  Then, the outline is there for several days to allow the mind to absorb, mellow, and consider different scenarios.  After a couple of runs, I’ve about got the path where I want it.  To create resting spots in the prairie, I stop along the path with the mower and start circling outwards till I feel the space is large enough.  Eventually, I will put a peg in the center and measure a circle with string.  

  Just some scribblings.  So that you could better see the paths and resting areas that I mowed, I colored them in on my iPad.  This view is looking north toward our fenced in edible patch, and you can see how the length beckons for shorter plants that will create a nice vista over the prairie.  

Just some scribblings.  So that you could better see the paths and resting areas that I mowed, I colored them in on my iPad.  This view is looking north toward our fenced in edible patch, and you can see how the length beckons for shorter plants that will create a nice vista over the prairie.  

To give the planting legibility, I will keep the turf next to the drive way.  Two mower passes from the drive gives me a swath about 8–10 feet wide .    This area will also allow people space to park along our drive when we have several visitors.  

The side of the prairie that runs along our western property line will be planted with woody species, mostly evergreens to complement the Quercus and Taxodium already there.  We’ve known we wanted a privacy wall since we moved, and the verdant height will serve as a foundation that will help the front flora pop.  A lone Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ is the start of more to come.  

The other woody species I want to add will help to further frame the prairie.  On the north and south ends, I want to plant fruit tree species to create an edge habitat, the height and spacing of which will quickly taper to a full sun planting in the center of the garden.  The north will get a mostly full circle of hybrid Asian/American persimmons I’m dying to try here in east Texas around one of the resting spots I mentioned earlier, and the south will get a groove of pawpaws.  

The other big question that I’m pondering is should the turf stay or should it go?  When Thomas Rainer spoke for us back in April, I showed him the area to be planted, and he asked me if I was going to plant directly into the grass and let the forbs and taller grasses take hold.  I told him I didn’t know, and I have since ruminated on that question.  I’d like to kill off everything because that gives me a clean slate.  But, the turf is dominated by centipede grass with some dreaded Bermuda scattered about.  That spawn of Satan I will be killing.  But, the centipede may act as a great groundcover to allow the transplants to get established and prevent various weeds from germinating.  

I’m saving the rest of the plant list for another post.  The cast of characters is still a work in progress and will likely be for the life of the planting.  I will say that the garden will be planted in phases, and I've already identified the north end as the first phase.  I’m in no hurry.  I’m propagating species here either by division of plants that I buy or find in the wild or from germinating and growing seed.  

In closing, I'll say all good prairies need a name.  I’ve chastened this area Prairie Lark, a play on words of one of my favorite avian species, the Eastern Meadowlark.  And, besides describing a passerine, lark also means "a source of or quest for amusement or adventure” and “to engage in harmless fun or mischief”.  

It's a perfect word for creating a prairie from scratch—an adventure with a little bit of fun and mischief mixed in.