Planting Prairie

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

Lawn, lawn and more lawn-acres of lawn! A huge expanse of crewcut green is pretty in an uncluttered, minimalist kind of way, but it sure soaks up water and chemicals, not to mention hours and hours of your leisure time. "You grow it to mow it," as they say, but what else can you do with a yard?

Planting a small area with prairie plants on your property might be the answer. Once it is established, you never have to mow or water it. All year long it provides a changing tapestry of eye-pleasing color. As a bonus, a prairie also attracts and supports wildlife.

"Prairie" is a French word meaning "meadow." It's the name early French visitors used for the extensive grasslands of the central United States and Canada. Prairies lack trees and shrubs. The bulk of their biomass, or living weight, consists of a variety of hardy grasses. Prairies also contain multitudes of wildflowers.

Before European settlement, about one-third of Missouri-nearly 15 million acres-was prairie. Most of our prairie lands were in western and northern Missouri. However, scattered prairie openings were found in the Ozark and Bootheel regions. Our state's largest metropolitan areas, St. Louis and Kansas City, were each about 40 percent prairie.

Prairies contain some showstopping species, including big bluestem, tall blazing star, compass plant and pale purple coneflower. Though spectacular, these individual species are only a few of more than 800 species of prairie plants. This vast diversity provides wildlife with a storehouse of nectar, seeds and forage. The showy prairie wildflowers also attract a variety of equally showy butterflies.

The largest prairie animals-bison, elk and wolves-no longer run free in Missouri, and the prairie's avian poster child, the greater prairie chicken, is rare and declining. Still, there are many bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, and insect species that continue to use prairie habitats. These include dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, prairie kingsnakes, western chorus frogs, ornate box turtles, prairie voles, cottontail rabbits and white-tailed deer.

What to plant

Missouri's tallgrass prairies historically supported hundreds of species of plants. Any given acre of that natural flower bed may have contained 50 or more different kinds of plants.

The standard approach for establishing a prairie plot of any size is to plant seeds of various prairie grasses and wildflowers. We suggest using seed, but potted or bare-root plants, available from most native plant nurseries, offer a viable way to establish wildflowers in

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