Urban prairie envy


I’m not the owner of this house, nor am I the designer of the pictured front yard, but I do admire  the knowledge,  commitment and creativity of whoever made this garden.

I came across this house on a random trip around town while driving down a street that I may not ever have seen before.  Finding it is a testament to a friend’s practice of purposely driving unusual routes from point A to point B on occasions when you’re not in a hurry. I was with the aforementioned friend and we took a detour for him to show me a small hidden park in Manhattan.  This house was a WBC (wow!-brake!-camera!) event—defined by a moment when you are stunned by a garden while driving, suddenly slam on the brakes, and take a photo out the window to document the vision of the gardener.

Here is everything we’ve been talking about in natural landscape: a smaller, minimal-carbon-footprint house, a front yard of ornamental grass that needs mowing only once a year (composed primarily of what I think is Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’), and a few native perennials to brighten up the edges (notice the Rudbeckia remnants at lower right).  It seems to be right out of the recommendations of such influential texts as Sara Stein’s Noah’s Garden. I didn’t go creeping around the house, but there is likely only a very small back yard surrounded by some woody areas. I took this photo knowing I’d blog about it, all the while hoping that the owner wasn’t calling the police about the stalkers taking pictures from the road.  (The house number was eliminated from the picture.)  They’ll get a visit soon enough, however, from the Garden Tour group with an eye towards being a future tour site.

I love this landscaping and this house (particularly since our empty-nest home seems suddenly too large), but I also know that I can’t do this on the Flint Hills prairie that I live on. This property is relatively safe, surrounded as it is by miles of paved crossing roads, but imagine this yard and house out on the Kansas prairie (or in Southern California) with a grass fire moving towards it.  Yikes!


  1. Sorry, I’d have to at least give whoever did this a penalty for unimaginative overuse of ornamental grass. Whoever landscaped the Corning Museum of Glass did basically this same thing, and now the grasses have escaped and reseeded all over the adjacent areas. It’s unimaginative landscaping, and it has the potential to be both invasive and dangerous (in case of drought and/or fire). Points off!

  2. I’ve always admired the CMOG plantings when I visit there, especially in fall, but did not know they’d become a nuisance.

    • Eliz – If you look across the road and down the street, you’ll see that phragmites (or whatever the hell it is) everywhere. At least, it was that way when I was there last year. Perhaps (and hopefully) it’s been cleared out since. But it certainly looked to me like it was spreading out of control!

  3. I see phragmites everywhere all over New York and beyond. You’re saying that ornamental grasses planted by homeowners or landscapers are a reason for their spread? I’m not sure about that.

    • Eliz: I’m here to say that this homeowner planted several varieties of ornamental grasses about 20 yrs ago and they have spread like crazy: to neighbors’ yards, to other plant islands in my own yard, and to an adjoining park. I don’t know the species but I know they reseed.

      • Perhaps you’re thinking of Miscanthus sinensus, Pam?
        I don’t believe Karl Foerster is an invasive.

        I like the prairie look of this yard
        …and the different colors in different seasons.

    • I do think that landscapers are responsible for a lot of invasiveness. When you put 20 or 30 of the same plant in one commercial installation as Corning did, there’s bound to be a lot of escapees. No, it’s not the homeowner with one or two plants in the yard. But when it’s a monoculture, which appears to be what this particular home has going, yes – I think that grass is going to get around. And in the interest of full disclosure, as they say, I pretty much detest ornamental grasses in any quantity beyond one plant. To my eye it’s simply boring.

  4. I admire this planting, simply for it’s use of color and texture, which I find very pleasing. Not so sure about the shrubbery crowding the house itself in the background–I’d have to take a closer look–but otherwise, it seems like a nice drought-tolerant, low maintenance yard.

    As for fire safety, the grasses would burn quickly and be done, but with a mown perimeter, the house might actually be better off than if there were lots of shrubs and trees planted in the yard. We had a raging wildfire in my region this very-dry year in an area with few trees, but lots of dried grasses, and not one of the 200 houses in the burn zone was damaged–the grass fires died out quickly, leaving nothing to burn. But conditions are different everywhere.

  5. So tired of seeing this grass EVERYWHERE. It could not be more overused. In my city it’s in public boulevards, parks, college campuses, public gardens, almost every business frontage (courtesy of “pro” landscapers who use Karl, barberry, some spiraea and then call it a day). So to me this landscape is boring. I AM inspired by the modernistic design, but there’s no reason it can’t be a native grass — little bluestem comes to mind, among others. It’s another example of unimaginative landscaping, regardless of the design, and of less help to wildlife than using natives would be (what skipper can lay eggs on Karl?).

  6. Hahaha! Once again, you can’t win on Garden rant!
    Lots of comments criticizing typical landscapes and now that we’ve got something a little different – BAM! Its just not good enough.
    I like that planting. It works in its context.
    I can’t grow that Calamagrostis very well in the heat, but I don’t have a good native grass that is as uniform and useful for this kind of massing either. I wish I did.
    Oh, and, its kind of important to recognize that different genus, species and selections of grasses act differently – just like all plants. Making a blanket statement about “grasses” being “invasive” is silly. You would say that about trees? Don’t plant trees because mimosa is invasive?

    • David, I suppose I didn’t express myself clearly on this, and I apologize for that. No, I’m not making a blanket statement that “all” grasses are invasive. I’m not a horticultural neophyte by any stretch. However, you have to admit that a number of grasses are, or can be, invasive in certain situations. My main point is that, in my opinion at least, they’re vastly overused and frankly, boring to look at. In a mixed border, they can be a great statement, but a huge expanse of the same grass with nothing else alongside it is a monoculture, and that’s usually a recipe for many things such as (possibly) invasiveness, disease and pests.

      • Oak maple and elm are all pests in my garden. They seed everywhere and comprise the majority of my weed pulling. Are trees invasive?
        And claiming that grasses are boring is kind of subjective isn’t it? My farm garden includes acres of mixed grasses and forbs in what would be probably called a “meadow” type planting scheme (NOT Tara turf!). Shouldn’t a meadow have grasses?
        And, also, I think that the term “monoculture” implies something far more vast than a swath of the same plant in a small urban garden.
        Gardens should be able to express artist license.

        • I just think the owner of this property tried to grow something of value, but just wasn’t educated enough to make the right choices. Heck, I was a big buyer of nectar producing plants when I started and neglected the hosts. That changed as I read up.

          I imagine if he or she had a bit more education and understood that the yard had little wildlife value, he or she would take the next step.

          Now, Tallamy states that oaks support 532 Lepidoptera species, so, to any of these 532, the oak is not invasive. And, I’m sure they’d appreciate it over that grass. I enjoy seeing the garden through the eyes of the 532. To them, I’m guessing, the grass is like one of those velvet paintings being sold in the Exxon parking lot.

          The oak tree is like a Vermeer.

        • In a time of climate change and mass extinctions, artistic license takes on a whole new meaning. Gardening is no longer just for humanity, and to think so continues to privilege what’s brought us to a mess of trouble we’re just now beginning to feel — and to understand. And frankly, I have always found my artistic je ne sais quoi more fully challenged, pushed, and able to grow when I have “limitations” — seen it when I was in art, then writing, and now garden design.

          • I completely agree about limits pushing design. But I don’t think gardening is the cause of climate change and mass extinction. It’s not even a drop in the bucket.

          • David — I didn’t say gardens cause climate change, but they sure are a drop in the bucket of the 6th extinction. More to the point, gardens make us AWARE of the larger mechanisms we’ve put in motion that cause climate change and extinction — when we privilege ourselves over other species we lose a lot, physically and metaphysically. Gardens CAN contribute more to helping species adapt to climate change — we do have 40 million acres of lawn — and native plants are key in that consciousness. I know we’ve never seen eye to eye, but I try anyway.

          • Benjamin if you knew me better yhen you would know that I have a huge environmental ethic and in that we don’t disagree. We love the same thing – just differently.
            My garden and my farm are both hosts to a vast number of native plants and animals and I always, always work with natural systems and land forms when I’m designing a garden.
            The thing is, I do this because it’s what interests me. I have a friend who designs very controlled Italianate gardens with allees and boxwood parterres and fountains and statuary. The whole business is too stiff and sterile for me but he loves Italy and the renaissance and this is his passion and he should feel free to express that passion in the gardens he creates.
            I do think that garden as an art form is a seperate thing from nature and while it does strike a communicative relationship between human and nature, it is primarily the stuff of the human spirit. Nature doesn’t need gardens. We do.
            In that spirit I say gardeners should garden however they want and connect themselves with the better angels of their nature. That’s got to be good right?

  7. Been doing Tara Turf for decades. Discovered in Europe. Their gardens never stopped using low/medium/tall mixed meadows. Tara Turf is local to every site. In combo with woodland the ideal of high/low density is created.

    I sense you don’t know what they are for?

    Not for eco, drought, low maintenance etc. Landscapes with potager & meadow & ornamental plantings produce maximum crop yields. Up to 80% more yield than agriculture alone. While not harming groundwater, enriches soil, sustains insect & wildlife while creating community amongst humans.

    In the past this was called, ‘survival’. We are reaching this point again.

    Wendell Berry has been writing of these topics, specifically, for decades.

    If he’s new to you, I guarantee you’ll get hooked to him !!! http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2012/mayjune/feature/excerpts-the-writings-wendell-berry.

    The topic of this post is a step in the right direction, but why recreate the wheel and accept an imperfect version? The wheel has been created, and is easily copied into gardens anywhere.

    “influential texts as Sara Stein’s Noah’s Garden.” Stein is a nice start but without the depth of Wendell Berry.

    Many comments, above, are merely about landscape design aesthetics. There is true depth in the bigger picture of historical gardens being the best gardens for ‘now’.

    When a gardener has the epiphany of taking their landscape from amusement to stewardship we all win. At it’s lowest form I should mention my chickens taught me more than my college degree in horticulture. Bless those girls !

    The science of how plants interact with our bodies is increasing and fascinating. Gardening without the full plethora of historical knowledge is literally harming our health.

    Saw a designed garden in the Scottish lowlands decades ago, it was my showstopper. A tiny perfect replica of a scene from the Scottish highlands ! Stopped and took ‘slides’. The homeowner was away, I knocked on their door wanting the meet the coolest gardener I’d ever come across.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  8. I have loved gardening for 40 years and always love thinking about what’s new and on the horizon. Urban Prairie is a new concept for me, and one I like thinking about. Thank you for posting this. I can see that the manicured lawn and the “Better Homes and Gardens immaculately kept gardens” are becoming a thing of the past – thankfully. Everything has its cycle. It seems we’re moving toward a more realistic/ natural approach to our immediate environments. Thank you…very interesting.

  9. Why is it ok to do a mass planting of tulips, daffodils, bamboo, etc (essentially a monoculture), but not grasses, which often grow en masse in the wild? I know I will probably get the book thrown at me with this question, but I am interested in what people will say.

    • Not only is it acceptable to mass grasses it’s kind of commonplace and sensible to do so! Designers Oehme Van Sweden took the garden world by storm a couple or three decades ago with their visionary and satisfying residential plantings that often utilized thousands of grasses in bold drifts. Their plantings helped revolutionize garden design and kick off the “new perennial” movement that is utterly en vogue today and is often associated with the beautiful work done by Piet Ouldolf in such high profile projects as the Highline in NYC and the Lurie garden in Chicago.
      The massing of grasses and other perennial plants is often intentionally evocative of natural meadows and marshes and, as a design element, is practical and dynamic in ways that many other conventional plantings can’t be.
      It’s also worth saying that grasses are relatively inexpensive and tough, making them very useful in large plantings and easy to maintain when resources are limited.

  10. I may be in the minority but I do like the aesthetics of this garden (yes, I enjoy the minimalist look). I’m a sucker for very tidy, moderately sized patches of monocultures. If I had a large space I might end up with a patchwork quilt look – a patch of nothing but pink muhly grass, a patch of nothing but echinacea, a patch of nothing but liatris, each surrounded by a foot wide border of smooth, very square, concrete

    But in a small garden (like the one pictures) I could never grow that way. I want too many different things! I could never show the restraint for such a simple planting scheme.

    Plus, it would never attract the native pollinators and I’m all about insects in the garden (and birds, and toads, and frogs and whatever else wanders in).

  11. The photo fairly screams “Nobody home.” And further suggests when the owner is home (after dark and on weekends), there’s not much interest in what’s going on out there. They clearly have neither kids nor dogs, in a neighborhood equally devoid of kids and dogs. They replaced grass that needs mowing with grass that doesn’t. Yay, I guess. Real life is a lot messier.

    • Hmm Joe, are you familiar with the neighborhood? Perhaps an elderly person lives there–kids and pets gone, with a need for a low-maintenace yard. Maybe they were even watching out the window…I could go on wth my suppositions. However, you may be right; is that a For Sale sign in the foreground by the walkway, or a campaign sign? Either suggests participation in real life, right?

      This house turns out to be a bit of a gardening Rohrscach test!

      • Anne, you’re right of course. That was a knee jerk reaction to a snapshot of a scene that suggests sterility and stasis, but in fact is constantly changing over the seasons. I should know better as a commercial grower of a dozen different grasses as ornamental cuts. I guess I was just trying to justify my own very messy environment. Damn, I hate being wrong.

        • Haha Joe, we’re both right in our ways–I can see how all that grass might even make it look like the house has been neglected, to some. And, it IS Garden RANT, after all!

          And I have a hunch (from reading your description in another post) that I would like your “messy environment” very much–it’s more in keeping with my own temperament/lifestyle.

  12. I just want to applaud the owner of this home for planting SOMETHING. I am really not terribly concerned about it being just a big swath of grass with a few shrubby things around the house. That’s more than we can say for a lot of “regular” people these days. They planted something that works for them and that they (I assume) enjoy. HOORAY! That is what gardening is all about.

    I personally love the ornamental grass plantings at the Corning Museum of Glass. It is still there and looks good after many years. So many more creative/diverse plantings are done in parking lots, parks, etc and ultimately fail because no one plans on/budgets for maintaining them after they are installed. The designers planted something at CMOG that works with little maintenance and is still thriving.

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