PRAIRIES OF ILLINOIS


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WHAT TO PLANT?

When you begin your prairie garden one of the first questions that will develop is "What do I plant?" If your planting is small and confined to an area of your yard, use plants instead of seed. Plants or plugs can be placed in the exact spot that you want them. Seeds have the tendency to germinate where they were not planted. By using plants, you are also assured of a vigorous plant that will provide many years of enjoyment. Mature prairie plants are also much easier to distinguish from weed seedlings when they begin to grow than are the seedlings of prairie plants. The material in this text is intended for the backyard gardener.

When deciding what plants to include in your planting, first determine what plants were present in the prairies of your part of the state if your objective is to mimic local prairie types. Include plants that will be in bloom throughout the year, but be sure to include plants that have interesting leaves, fruits, or growth forms. Plants with good fall color will greatly enhance the beauty of your planting.

The few native prairie remnants that we have must be protected and preserved. Plants should never be dug from the remnants unless they are about to be destroyed. Unfortunately, the digging of plants from the wild is becoming more and more common. This practice diminishes the quality of the prairie remnant and prevents others from ever having the opportunity to enjoy the plants in the prairie setting. Many nurseries now sell both seed and plants at reasonable prices.

When planning your prairie garden, do not forget the grasses. Grasses form the matrix of prairies, and they provide contrast with the flowers and growth forms of the prairie wildflowers. Grasses also provide the gentle wind-created movement that is appealing to the viewer. This is one way of communicating nature to visitors of the prairie garden. Two of the best native prairie grasses for landscaping are northern prairie dropseed and little bluestem. Little bluestem also has a silver or glaucous color form which is a strikingly beautiful plant. The growth form of prairie dropseed is reminiscent of a water fountain. When these grasses are used they should be placed in the planting so they can be easily seen and appreciated.

Grasses, goldenrods, asters, coneflowers, cacti, and other prairie plants can be divided by cutting the clump into several separate pieces, making sure that each separate piece has buds and roots. These divisions are then planted like seedlings in the prairie garden. Using this procedure will increase the number of plants and reduce the cost of the project.

WHEN TO PLANT?

Prairie plants are mostly warm season plants that do not begin their growth until warm weather arrives. If your planting is small and you have decided to use plants instead of seed, try to plant in April or early May before the hot weather of summer arrives. Although there is little growth above ground, the root systems of prairie plants initiate growth at this time. This is also the time of year that precipitation is most abundant, increasing the chances for survival of the seedlings.

Fall is generally not a good time to place prairie seedlings in the ground. From past experiences, many of these will not survive the winter. Others will heave and the crowns will be exposed, resulting in their death. Straw or some other type of mulch can be used to cover the plants to prevent heaving, subsequent exposure, and death.


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