The prairies of Midwest America now cover less than 1% of their original area but, as Maryalice Koehne reveals, their restoration has become a national obsession, driven in great part by the work of one man, Neil Diboll
Perhaps itís our heritage from the famous three - Jens Jensen, Frank Lloyd Wright and Aldo Leopold - that makes Wisconsin gardeners so keen about native plants. In fact, Leopoldís 1934 restoration of the 64-acre Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin is the oldest in the United States and the Wild Ones, an organization devoted to promoting the use of indigenous plants, began here in the 1970s and has spread nationally like a prairie fire.
Fanning these fires of prairie restorations is Neil Diboll, well known internationally for championing the use of prairie plants, native trees, shrubs and wetland plants in contemporary American landscapes. Once the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie covered most of the Midwest but now, with less than 1/10th of 1% remaining in "small tattered fragments", it is one of the rarest plant communities in the world. Rainforests are commonplace in comparison, he argues.
When Diboll recognized the beauty of hardy prairie plants back in the 1970s, he experimented with mixes of prairie grasses and forbs suitable for different sites, soils and climates. Then he found ways to nurture, propagate and harvest seeds and plants. Now his Prairie Nursery in Westfield is a Mecca for information, supplies and professional help.
On a recent walk through the restored prairies surrounding his rural home near Pardeeville, itís easy to see why such restorations make sense. The beauty of the grasses that form the foundation of the plantings would be sufficient for a landscape plan but the texture and colour of the white penstemon, false sunflowers, wild quinine, stiff goldenrod and pale purple coneflowers add breathtaking notes. Butterflies flit about, bees buzz and birds chirp as Diboll stoops to pull one invasive goldenrod species and says, "There, Iíve done my weeding for the year." Thatís a far cry from local gardenersí laments in this season.
However, setting up such a stand of prairie plants is not a hit and miss operation. Diboll devised five steps for successful prairie meadow establishment. These are adaptable to even small backyards. First, he selects a sunny, well-ventilated site and studies the soil and growing conditions. Heís absolutely sure all weeds are killed before choosing wildflowers and grasses to match the conditions of the site. After deciding whether to plant seeds or plants (preferred for small areas), post-planting management is crucial for the first two years. Then, flowers and grasses should be established and in the third spring Diboll burns off his young prairie meadows. Where burning is not feasible, mowing suffices.