Weeds will probably be the primary problem during the establishment of the garden. The most practical method of weed control is hand weeding. This is a slow and laborious process, but most plantings will be small. This process probably will have to be repeated several times during the first few years. Learn to recognize the prairie plants as they begin growth to avoid pulling them up. Waiting for one or two days after a rain before pulling weeds may make this job considerably easier.
Staking will probably be needed for some plants that will grow tall and lanky in the absence of competition. These could include some of the asters, compass plant, goldenrods, and the big grasses. Plants will also grow tall and lanky if they are watered or if fertilizer has been applied to the planting.
Pruning during July will be beneficial to certain plants like New England aster because it will produce a shorter, more compact plant. Other asters may also benefit from the same procedure.
Aggressive species such as sand love grass, oxeye false sunflower, New England aster, and others must be carefully controlled so they do not take over the planting. This problem can be partially corrected by cutting the seed heads off of the plants so no new seed is introduced into the planting.
Thatch removal needs to be completed on these prairie gardens every year. If local regulations will permit the use of prescribed fire and it can be accomplished safely, this is the most efficient method to remove the dead tops. If fire can't be used, the dead tops should be cut off with a weed eater and raked off of the planting. This should be done during the dormant season before the prairie plants initiate growth.
Pests and diseases will not be a major problem in managing the prairie garden because most prairie plants are free of pests and diseases. Spraying may also kill desirable insects.
Mulching with cypress wood or bark will help to prevent frost heaving during winter, help conserve moisture, and reduce competition with weeds. Mulching with wood or bark will also greatly enhance the appearance of the planting during the growing season, helping to dimish the "weed" perceptual problem. Do not burn your mulch up during a prescribed burn.
Exotic species such as sweet clover or Kentucky bluegrass can invade the planting and seriously diminish the vigor of the plants and their general appearance. Infestations of these plants and others can be controlled by hand pulling or the use of a good hand tool such as a hoe or cultivator.
Herbicides that are safe to handle and environmentally friendly can be used to treat problem perennial weeds. The applications should be done with a sponge type applicator to avoid injury to desirable plants.
Rodents may cause problems in the planting by eating the fleshy roots and corms of blazing stars, compass plant, prairie dock, or prairie clovers during the winter months. Keeping the thatch off of the planting through prescribed burning or cutting will help, but be vigilant of signs of small mammal activity.
Fertilizers usually will not be used in the prairie garden. Applications of fertilizers often cause the plants to grow tall and lanky, or produce a considerable amount of growth which detracts from the planting.
It is a good idea to have experienced help with you if are planning your first prescribed burn. Burning is the most practical method of maintaining a prairie garden, but it may not be the most suitable method for your site for other reasons. The direction of the prevailing wind or proximity to neighboring buildings may restrict burning on the site. Remember that the fuels, particularly the grasses, will be highly volatile at this time and will burn quickly with a lot of heat. Refer to the section on prescribed burning in the prairie restoration part of this manual.
If prescribed burning is not an option available for use in your prairie garden, cutting or mowing may prove to be a satisfactory substitute. One of the best tools to use in cutting the dead vegetation on the prairie garden is a weed eater. These power driven tools cut the vegetation quickly and efficiently. It can then be raked off of the site and used in a compost pile. Although a power mower may be used to cut the vegetation, it is not as good at cutting as a weed eater due to the height of the taller prairie grasses and wildflowers.
The indiscriminate use of herbicides in the prairie garden is discouraged because the possibility of injury to desirable plants is too great a risk to take. It is quite true that very specific herbicides have been developed that will control certain weeds and not harm prairie grasses and some wildflowers, but these herbicides may be best used for large sites where expensive landscape size plants have not been used.