Minnesota native shares how to convert lawns to prairie scapes

Poetry professor turned prairie advocate and author Benjamin Vogt pinpoints a moment in his Minnesota childhood that influenced his current passions. As a boy, exploring a wood near his home in the yet-to-be-developed western suburbs, he was reveling in the quiet when a flock of geese flew overhead.

“The sound of the wingbeats, the calls, woke something primal in me,” he said.

Vogt gained a reputation — and following — for his philosophy on ethical gardening and innovative ways to approach home landscaping.

Now he’s getting ready to release a book, “Prairie Up! An Introduction to Natural Garden Design,” on Jan. 24, outlining practical steps and detailed plans for creating gardens that nurture various species — not just the humans who tend them.

We spoke with Vogt, who now runs Monarch Gardens design firm in Nebraska, about why he’s an advocate of prairie-style landscaping, sought tips on how to get started — while co-existing with neighbors and homeowners — and why a technique called “matrix planting” is effective.

Q: You want people to “rethink pretty.” Where do they begin and how do they benefit?

A: We were all raised to think lawns are pretty, but they’re only pretty for one species. In a time of climate change and mass extinction, we have to think about the diversity of plant species. If we’re not doing that, if we’re not doing something that resembles nature, that helps foster wildlife, we’re not really gardening.

If you’re ready to convert your lawn to a prairie garden, your lawn is already a kind of prairie space. Remove the lawn and you’re ready to go.

Besides the practical and aesthetic, you’re rewarded with cleaner air and water. You’re preventing runoff and you’re rebuilding the soil.

Q: Many people would like to plant natives but worry about what the neighbors will think. How can they overcome this concern?

A: Less is more. Start simple, maybe making deeper foundation beds with more native plants. Limit the number of species you use and make sure to plant in masses. Don’t let it get overgrown. Add those things that show cues to care like a path, bench or arbor.

Q: You and your local weed inspector are familiar with each other. What tips do you have for dealing with a homeowners association (HOA)?

A: Ha! I wouldn’t say we’re actually friends. However, he recommends using signs, lots of signs to explain what you’re doing, to show that it’s intentional. For HOAs, know your bylaws and have a plan. Hire a designer if you need help clarifying any issues people might have.

Q: Your book has lots of detailed instructions, helpful lists and design plans but some parts of the book seem beyond the beginning gardener. What advice do you have for them?

A: I don’t want people to get discouraged. With a lawn you water, fertilize and mow, that’s easy. It’s a known quantity.

With a prairie garden, it will change and evolve; that’s part of the beauty of it. You will have to learn how to guide it as you go. Once again, start simple, do your research and eventually add more plants. My book shows how to match plants to the site and more importantly match plants to each other. Use this book as a leaping-off point.

Q: You use a technique called matrix planting. How does that work?

A: A layered landscape mimics natural ecosystems and creates more habitat. You start with a base layer of bunchgrasses and sedges that act as a ground cover. Within that, you add masses and drifts of flowering plants that evoke the look and feel of prairie.

Q: There’s a drone shot of your neighborhood in the book showing yours as the sole prairie garden among a sea of mown lawns. How do you plan to win their hearts and minds?

A: When it comes to change, we are a slow species. These gardens are an act of social justice and any social justice movement takes a long time to gain momentum. But you have to stand up and do something, even if it’s a cry in the darkness.

When people drive by my prairie garden their perspective is forever changed and maybe their perspective will start to shift, ever so slightly.

The hardest part about these gardens is not the planting of the plants, but standing behind the garden and being an advocate and seeing it through. Anything you love, anytime you want to see change, you have to fight for it.

Rhonda Hayes is a Twin Cities-based Extension Master Gardener, writer and author of “Pollinator Friendly Gardening.”

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