By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

So you’d like to go native this year, reclaim your front yard for nature and escape the servitude of mowing, weeding and fertilizing.

(Photo: Native American Seed)

But the thought of tearing up that vast gnarly plain of turf and crabgrass you call the front lawn makes you want to hide in the nearest hammock.

No worries. Start with a smaller project that will still sustain wildlife without draining your time. Our friends at the Native American Seed store suggest that you start with a “Pocket Prairie” — a little slice of native grasses and flowers will add interest, feed bees,  birds and butterflies, and provide shelter for small animals. It will take up only a corner of your yard, and perform all those nature support services 24/7, while you watch TV or create gourmet meals inside.

What we’re saying is, you won’t have to mow or water this little homage to prairies past. And that won’t be hard, because you’re going to start with a patch of ground ten or 20 feet long and about the same distance across, just enough to make a difference without creating a project that you’ll abandon for that hammock.

Oh, and when your HOA asks, “Say what!!?” You can call this colorful, textural burst of taller grasses mixed with prairie blooms a “garden.” That way no one will claim that you’ve violated the rules about your overall turf height and type.

Well, maybe they’ll still complain, but you’ll have a plausible defense.

If you live in the Southwest, or even the Midwest, where drought has been an increasing issue, you may not even have to fight the guardians of conventional turfdom. Look around you, in states like Missouri, Illinois, and across the Midwest, native gardens with prairie flowers like Black-eyed Susans, Salvias and flowering grasses are being installed in public places and in newer housing developments.   

In Texas, a bill pending in the legislature would forbid Homeowner Associations from stopping residents from creating water-efficient landscaping. The law, if passed, would give homeowners the right to “xeriscape,” which means installing plants and landscape features that require little or no water. The Pocket Prairie, because it uses native grasses and flowers, falls into this category. Not only do natives do a better job of feeding the region’s butterflies and birds because they offer plant varieties to which wildlife is adapted, by definition they survive easily on the natural rainfall of the area.

To get the best advice on installing a Pocket Prairie, we spoke with Znobia Wootan, a plant and sales expert at Native American Seed who writes for the company’s Living Natural First magazine. Here’s the Q & A:

Q: Do you need to take out the existing turf?

A:  Yes. It’s very important because all of this is from seed and you have to water it, and when it’s mixed in with an existing grass with an existing root system, the turf that’s there is going to grow faster. To give the Pocket Prairie seeds a head start, you have to have bare ground.

Q:  What size should my Pocket Prairie be?

We sell a Native Trail Mix that already has the grasses and flowers. The smallest packet of that ($5) will cover a 20-foot-square area, or provide double coverage for a 10-foot-square area.  It’s a mix of grasses and wildflowers, where your flowers bloom in the spring and the grasses set up their seedheads and bloom in the fall, so it’s a nice little mix.

You need to plant it some place where you can see it, so you can enjoy the butterflies when they come to it.

[Note: You can buy similar wildflower mixes as well as native grass mixes from other vendors. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a non-profit, has compiled this database of seed retailers and wholesalers.]

 Q: Why do you sell the grasses and wildflowers mixed together?

A:  A pocket prairie is a mixture of flowers and grasses. People just don’t realize the importance of grasses. They provide food for these birds.  Food and shelter. Cup grass, a native prairie grass, provides a millet-type seed for birds. It also provides shelter for butterflies. Here [in Texas] the wind can be ferocious. Cup grass can get pretty big. Also switch grass and Eastern Grama provide shelter from hawks.

Q: How tall do these grasses get?

A: A lot depends on the water. That determines how tall they get. They can be shorter or taller. Switch grass is pretty tall, it can get to 8 to 9 feet tall. [Tall-growing switch grass, however, is not included in the  Native Trail mix, which contains grasses of varying and moderate heights, such as  Buffalo, Blue Grama, Prairie Wildrye, Texas Cupgrass and several more. These the grow along the ground and up to knee high.]

Q: When should I plant — spring or fall?

A:  You could plant in spring or fall. If you plant now, in spring, the grasses will germinate and come up. The flowers will come up in the fall, but might not bloom until next year.

Some of the flowers that might bloom in the firsts season include lemon mint, Indian Blanket, Plains Coreopsis. They’re annuals. They can germinate now and will produce seeds by May.

Q: What is the best timing?

A: The best time to plant is before a rain. If you plant in spring gives you the longest growing season. You can still do it in fall, you get faster germination with warmer ground, but the growing season is shorter. Don’t plant any later than 8 weeks before first frost.

Q: Once I scatter the seeds and lightly cover them with soil how do I keep them from washing away in the rain?

A: You can use an erosion control blanket. We use curlex, an aspen wood fiber. That’s better than hay, which can bring in unwanted seeds.

It also works on flat ground to control evaporation. You need wet seeds. You should water daily and even twice a day if it’s windy. Then once they’re up, you can wean it off. But you should water for good establishment for about 8 weeks, starting out every day, then going to every other day and ending up with every three days.

After that,  you water whenever the plants look stressed, especially if you want flowers.

Q: What about fertilizing these native flowers?

A: No, they don’t like it.

Q: Do you need to border this garden, and what about the neighbors, will they end up with wildflowers that they don’t want because of seed drift?

A: Yes, you may want to border it to prevent invasive turf from coming into it, and to make sure that the lawn people don’t mow it.

But the neighbors, if they’re on a regimen of mowing and weeding, I don’t think it will matter. Nothing will get started in their lawn.

Q: What if I really don’t think my neighborhood is ready for this?

A:  We have a Thunder Turf, a substitute for standard turf that works better for people in HOAs that need to follow restrictions. If they’re having trouble because they have a height restriction, then they should find plants that will grow under that.

Beyond that, a Pocket Prairie will grow anywhere in the prairie and in any part of Texas.

Q: Speaking of Texas, can I mix Bluebonnets in?

A:  Yes! Bluebonnets are a little taller [than some native prairie flowers] but we get few complaints about them. It’s a Bluebonnet, it’s so pretty.

Q: So you can really create your own mix, for what you want and if you live North or South?

A: Yes, and there are many prairie flowers that grow almost anywhere, like Black-eyed Susans.

Q: Is this becoming a more popular approach to residential landscaping; are people calling to ask about it, and are they wanting to help wildlife?

A: Yes, we’ve got people on hold right now! Some people are wanting to help birds and butterflies. But for others the wildlife is a bonus. Mostly people who call say they’re just tired of watering and fertilizing and mowing.

The majority of our urban customers say they’re tired of watering constantly, and for a lot of them, the drought killed their grass anyway and they don’t want to put back what didn’t survive.