My Prairie Plot Thickens



It would be a stretch to call our reconstituted former hay field a prairie. What we have is a beautiful contrivance—a make-believe prairie.

July 1, 2014
July 1, 2014

Contrary to popular belief, Central Kentucky never had any prairies or savannas. The Inner Bluegrass was a deciduous forest with maple, bitternut hickory, ash, elm and walnut with “dense canebrakes” of native bamboo.

Any openings would have been created by herds of buffalos, until Native Americans made clearings and white settlers started building strip malls and car lots.

Now there is a prairie—of sorts. It’s the first of its kind on Knox Lane in Salvisa, Kentucky.

There are plenty of installed prairies or meadows—whatever you want to call them—scattered around Kentucky. Nearby Shaker Village has over 1,000 acres in native grasses and perennials.

Georg Uebelhart, somewhere in Kansas 1997.
Georg Uebelhart, somewhere in Kansas 1997.

I first visited real prairies in Kansas and Nebraska in late May 1997 with my Jelitto colleague Georg Uebelhart and with Larry Vickerman, formerly of the Dyck Arboretum in Hesston, Kansas, and now with Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, Colorado.

Larry gave us our first introduction to these remnants that had escaped development and the moldboard plow. The Great Plains are beautiful. I was immediately seduced. Baptisia minor can do that to a man already smitten with the botanic world.

Baptisia minor in Kansas.
Baptisia minor in Kansas.

The following year I was invited to speak to the Hardy Plant Society in Eugene, Oregon. I wanted to share my new love. I pitched a proposed talk: Plants of the Great Plains. They took the bait.

Two minutes into the slide show, I knew I was dead in the water. I tried desperately for the next hour to convince the audience that Post Rock, Kansas, was as thrilling, for sheer plant enjoyment, as England’s Chelsea Flower Show.

They weren’t buying it. I could read it in their eyes: Where were the towering English delphiniums? I thought they’d be fascinated with the humble Delphinium carolinianum subspecies virescens that I saw growing in a ditch in the Kansas Flint Hills.

I bombed.

Unadilla, GA

I understand, now, why the audience looked at me so quizzically. The common approach to driving across Kansas is to step on the gas and hightail it out of there. I can only guess that none of Oregonians had every stopped in Kansas except, perhaps, for a Pecan Roll at Stuckey’s.

Or, I realize now, it is possible: My talk was dull as dirt.

When I started itching for my own Fruited Plain four years ago, I called nurserywoman Margaret Shea of Dropseed Nursery in Goshen, Kentucky. A do-it-yourself prairie was new to me. Well, not entirely new, but Margaret helped bridge many of the gaps.

Margaret Shea on January 25, 2011.
Margaret Shea on January 25, 2011.

I was earnest at the outset of our new, two-acre prairie adventure. I wanted to sow only native provenance seeds, sourced from wild areas in the region, but eventually I started to stray. It’s all such elaborate mimicry, anyway.

I veered off course in 2013 and planted seeds of Baptisia minor, collected from a site in middle Tennessee. Asclepias verticillata and Rudbeckia triloba ‘Prairie Glow’ came from Jelitto Perennial Seeds. (There are perks for being on Jelitto’s payroll. I have the key to the company’s extensive inventory of nearly 4,000 seed items.)

First bloom on June 1, 2013
First bloom on June 1, 2013.

I hadn’t drifted too far from my original intent. The sown species were still all Kentucky natives, although they weren’t strictly local provenance.

I’m excited about this fourth year. I’ve learned a lot. I love my native flora and am very protective of what grows on the farm. But, as a gardener, I grow what interests me. And this means native and non-native trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs are all welcome inside my big tent botanic revival.

My conscience is clean. There’s no doubt that I have added substantially to the potential for pollinators, butterflies and that this naturally benefits everything within our flight of fancy.

But there are non-native misfits, not of my doing, growing on the farm as well. I’m battling garlic mustard and making some progress. There’s considerably less of it than when I started. I wish I could say I’ve whipped wintercreeper and bush honeysuckle into submission, but that may never happen. I am trying, but there’s still a lot of it.

Our prairie is not gardenesque. Nothing is staked or clipped. Still, it’s nonsense to think you can simply cast seed onto bare dirt and get anything but a smidgen of it to germinate.

Margaret Shea on July 22, 2014.
Margaret Shea on July 22, 2014.

Our prairie wasn’t cheap to develop, and it required several hours of work each week during the first three years to get it established. (Don’t let anyone kid you that there are teenagers around, willing to lend a hand for a little spending money.)

The prairie is not static: It will look different this coming season from the way it looked last year. Well, that’s true of our gardens, too, but the prairie will be mostly on its own from here on. I’ll continue to spot-weed a little bit, burn it every few years, but by and large, seeds will blow around our little prairie and a very small percentage might—if we’re lucky—germinate and carry on. And the black locust, boxelder and walnut seedlings can’t be burned out. I’ll have to contend with them.

What else have I learned?

The burn on January 19, 2015.
The burn on January 19, 2015.

I had an awakening with our first burn—with the help of my good friend, the landscape architect and pyro pro, Mac Reid. I discovered that I am a pyromaniac. The burn was very exciting. I’d like to burn a prairie every night.

And I’ve crossed a threshold.

Not only is the notion of a prairie in the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky a lovely manipulation, there is no way—I repeat no way—to get rid of a few unwelcome species. In the first three years, I did what I could do with Canada thistle, Johnson grass, chicory, Queen Anne’s lace and burdock, but nut sedge can’t be budged.

Rufus in the snow on January 24, 2015.
Rufus in the snow on January 24, 2015.

When I burned the prairie on a still night in January I learned that the annual weedy foxtail is a great fire starter. So the foxtail is here to stay.  And I doubt nut sedge can be shaded-out by other, taller species like compass plant, goldenrod, switch grass or asters, but time will tell.

Alcea rugosa
Alcea rugosa

I’m relaxing my rigid ban on planting non-native Kentucky species in our prairie. I’ve always had a soft spot for hollyhocks. I asked Jelitto to send me 100 grams of the Russian yellow hollyhock, Alcea rugosa. I sowed it around the prairie in March.

The current count stands at one sown non-native species.

I don’t think the hollyhock sowing constitutes contentious immigration reform.

I hope I can make a happy home on the prairie for a longtime Russian friend.


  1. I love living in Nebraska, surrounding my remnant prairie and fighting for them, talking about them around the country, gardening with the plants and learning about my adopted home. Have you ever read Chris Helzer’s blog? ( He works for TNC and is a great prairie manager and writer. He, too, faces the fact that you can’t beat back every exotic weed, and trying to restore prairie is one of the most difficult things a person could do — from fire and grazing management, to seeding rates and plant diversity, to drought, to….

    • The primary obstacle to long-term maintenance of prairie is natural succession. In absence of annual fires or heavy grazing, prairie will naturally succeed to shrubs and ultimately to forest. Ironically, most of these early succession plants and trees are native. Does it make sense to destroy one native plant to save another native plant? Not to me. Here’s an article about one such effort:

      Prescribed burns pollute the air, contribute to climate change by releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere, and often cause destructive wildfires. Here’s an article about the damage being done by such burns:

      • Mary, you make some good points. At the very least, with my prairie contrivance, I’m trying to give the old hay field a break. If I did nothing, it would grow-up in ironweed, golden rod and the not so good — Johnson grass, Queen Anne’s Lace and chicory. This would be followed by box elders (native), bush honeysuckle (bad!) and maybe some oaks and walnuts – if the bush honeysuckle doesn’t prevail. There are arguments for letting the best (strongest) species prevail. This thought still scares me because I’m worried it would be 2 acres of bush honeysuckle. So, rightly or wrongly, I’m being very manipulative with my make- believe prairie. Elsewhere on the farm I am planting native trees. And down near the Salt river I’ve planted the native cane, Arundinaria gigantea. The native bamboo was once very abundant, here in central Kentucky, but is now pretty scarce.

        • You must do as you wish on your own property. My points are relevant to similar projects on public land. However, I’m sure your neighbors may have something to say about the fires you set. Also, you probably have local ordinances about air quality to contend with, which is as it should be.

          In any case, we all have our aesthetic preferences, which dictate our choices in our gardens. When we attempt to impose those aesthetic preferences on public lands, it often becomes an issue if the methods that are used to impose those preferences are damaging the environment.

          • I called the Fire Department ahead of time. The fire burned very quickly (20 minutes) and smoldered for another 30 minutes. I heard no complaints. Some of the neighbors came to watch.

      • Here’s a quick and easy answer — grassland birds are the #1 declining group in America, and most of them don’t like trees within site of where the breed or nest. Fire was a natural part of prairies, so to have them now makes total sense — especially in are fire-suppression-happy and big-ag existence.

  2. “But, as a gardener, I grow what interests me.”
    As the ultimate invasive species (Homo gardensianus), this is so true! Whether your interests are growing natives or flashy big box store flowering annuals. Although I have to say Allen, 2 acres of prairie/meadow fudges the definition of “gardening”, in my humble opinion!
    What you’ve done is lovely. I have no doubt Mother Nature and the plant world will have their ways with you and your prairie, however!

  3. My hat off to you, friend!

    Immensely impressed both with what you’ve done and with your love and respect of plants. And also being able to maintain and post on these blog sites! They are another kind of WORK just in themselves.

    But you’ve conquered the techniques and you have a passion for what you’re doing. Good luck ahead!

  4. I love this idea of a native species prarie.

    Another garden blog I frequently read eats the garlic mustard she finds on her botanical/wild food walks in New York City. I don’t know what it tastes like, but she eats it a lot. Sounds to me like a good practice of turning an invasive, non-native species into a food source while getting rid of it, similar to what has been tried with the nutria in New Orleans and the snakehead elsewhere.

    • Mea, thanks. I’ll give the garlic mustard a try next year. I haven’t seen any in the last few weeks on our place, but it’s going to seed elsewhere around Kentucky. I’d never thought of nutria but it sounds more palatable and leaner than groundhog. I haven’t seen snakehead on any menus but I’ll be on the lookout.

        • Thank you, Jennifer. It would be fun to go on a walk with Marie Vilojen in New York sometime. I stumbled across the native corn salad, Valerianella radiata, here in central Kentucky, last year. I’d not seen it before. Tasty foliage — like lettuce. It was growing in some moist bottom land on our farm. It flowers a week or two after daffodils and sets seed within a few weeks.

  5. Great effort, and as always I love your writing. It is not true that teenagers can’t be found who will work in the gardening for a few dollars, but it’s ridiculous the lengths we go to for them. Finding jobs that they are willing to do, driving them where they want to go when they’re done. We reluctantly dropped the great worker we had a couple summers ago when it dawned on me that he had me driving him to and from his drug pickup spot at the end of the day.

    • Thanks, Moses. I am a terrible photographer. I’m not very patient, but I do what I can with a Canon PowerShot SX 210 and an IPhone 6.

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