4 quick tips for a prairie-inspired landscape (and why you need it)

With snow surrounding us in Iowa (and lots of other places), I’m dreaming of summer landscapes. To me, the most quintessential summertime style is a the prairie-inspired landscape. This style takes its cues from the vast grasslands that used to cover most of Iowa, blending grasses and flowering perennials into a graceful, ever-changing scene. A landscape design inspired by prairies reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the frontier she and her family traveled. If you’re thinking of a natural-looking, sustainable landscape design that’s easy on the budget and low maintenance, skip the over-used shrubs and play around with prairies for a change.

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Red Fern Landscape Design is based in central Iowa, and I love the wide open spaces and beautiful views that are unique to this part of the country. I strongly believe in the idea of a “sense of place” - meaning, your surroundings should correspond with where you’ve settled. Pine trees and stone walls in New England; palm trees and brick walkways in Savannah - you get the idea. Well, here in Iowa we used to have endless prairies - tall grasslands sprinkled with flowers and dotted with occasional groups of trees. When you can use that landscape as an inspiration for the garden spaces in your own yard, you’re connecting with your surroundings, with history, and maybe even with Mrs Wilder herself.

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  • Low on funds for your landscape? Prairie-style gardens are less expensive than shrubs and evergreens.

  • Like birds and wildlife? Prairie-style gardens will welcome them in.

  • Love native plantings? These gardens can use plants that are found right where you live.

  • Want to limit pesticides? These gardens hold up to pests and disease.

  • Tired of mowing grass? This low-maintenance option will simplify your yard work.

  • Want to have a unique landscape? Builder-basic gardens are EVERYWHERE. Prairie-inspired landscapes are a great alternative.

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Not every household has tons of grass to give up, and that’s okay. A prairie-inspired landscape can look great right along your house foundation, softening hard lines and changing with the seasons. Not everybody wants evergreens or shrubs that look exactly the same, month after month. Prairie grasses and perennials go from tiny new growth in the spring to tall, powerful plants by late fall. In between, you have blooms and foliage to look lovely and even offer cut flowers, too.

So how can you create a prairie-inspired landscape at your own house? Here are a few things to think about.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT PLANTS.
Know your sun and shade patterns, how wet the area gets, and how tall things can grow. Put the right plants in the right places. Need help? Check out my favorite ornamental grasses to get started. Along with the grasses, combine coneflower (Echinacea) and Russian sage (Perovskia) in the sun or Autumn Bride coral bells (Heuchera) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum) in the shade.

GET LOOSE.
Prairie-inspired landscapes don’t need to be buttoned up and perfect. Use broad sweeps of plants. There’s no need to follow the “plant in 3s and 5s” rule. Be loose with your plantings. You’re not going for confetti, but you’re also not going for a rigid, formal arrangement. This planting at the Brenton Arboretum is very simple and clean, but still wild and energetic.

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EMBRACE CHANGE.
Really what I mean is, be okay with mess and death. Yep. Prairie-style plantings are all about flowers that have finished blooming (that’s when you get the seed heads!) brown leaves (that’s how you have fall color and winter interest!) and change. Your garden will look completely different in early spring from mid summer. Blooms come and go, plants grow up tall, and different parts are focal points. Here in Iowa, we only have about a 6-month growing season. Rather than blank landscapes the other half a year, enjoy dried seed heads and a range of tans and browns from the foliage of your plants.

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INCORPORATE SOME NATIVE STONE.
We aren’t talking about an actual prairie, but a prairie-inspired landscape design, right? So you need some structure. Maybe it’s edging for the planting bed, or a seating wall, or a full patio - either way, choose native limestone or sandstone to keep the “sense of place” going strong. If you lean more formal or modern in your own personal style, use hewn blocks or cut flagstone to get some clean edges and sharp lines. If you’re more organic and casual, use natural edge or tumbled stone for flagstone walkways or seating walls. Pea gravel is wonderful for paths or patios - it’s soft underfoot, has a delightful crunch, and fits in with the wild garden you’ve created.

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Comprised mostly of perennials, a prairie-inspired garden is cheaper to install than shrubs and evergreens. You get color, movement, and changing texture all year long from the grasses and flowering plants. If you’re intrigued a the idea of a more wild, original landscape, check out our FREE prairie-inspired garden plan! Designed as a square garden space, you can copy just half of it to use for a foundation planting, or take out the center and add in a patio with prairie-style planting surrounding it.

The FREE download includes a scaled planting plan & plant list so that you can get busy this spring creating your own prairie-inspired landscape!