Create Your Own Naturescape

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

Use nature as your model, and you can design an enchanted landscape on your property.

When planting a "naturescape," patience and dedication must be emphasized. Once established, this space of subtle, resonant beauty brings you back to the rhythm of the seasons and provides a retreat for yourself, your family and friends. It will also be a magnet for butterflies, birds and animals.

Native grass conjures up the vision of a waving prairie. At one time, much of Missouri was home to the major prairie grasses: big bluestem, Indian grass and little bluestem, plus grasses adapted to grow in shady woodlands.

Plants like prairie grasses that have evolved in our environment and on our soils will thrive if they are managed properly. Plants that come from other countries are not adapted to our particular climate and soil and usually require more time and effort.

For small flower beds of native plants, you can purchase bare root plants and set them out in a prepared area in early spring. This gives nearly instant results, since you're planting two- to four-year-old plants.

For a larger area, however, it is less expensive and laborious to start the native grasses and wildflowers by direct seeding. The result takes longer, but it's a wonderful opportunity to watch the succession from annual weeds to a diverse and natural landscape.

The steps in starting native plants from seed are site selection, ground preparation, seeding, proper maintenance and patience. These steps are the same, whether starting a sunny prairie meadow or a shady glen.

Site selection

The site you select for prairie grasses and wildflowers should get as much direct sunlight as possible, with a minimum of six hours for the best flowering. Choose a site with well-drained soil. Shaded sites are suitable for woodland plants. They need soil with lots of organic matter and should not be too heavily shaded.

You can improve the soil by incorporating composted leaves or other organic matter and cutting low limbs of overhanging trees. Regardless of where you plan to establish your naturalized area, talk to your neighbors about what you are doing. They will appreciate knowing you haven't just abandoned the site. When the plants begin flowering, the neighbors will enjoy them as much as you.

Ground Preparation

Most native plants are long-lived perennials that spend their first years establishing deep root systems with little flowering above ground. Native plantings tend to look weedy the first few years. Although you will see some flowers starting in the second or third growing season, a native planting with bunches of native grasses laced with wildflowers takes four years or more after planting the seeds.

With that length of commitment, take extra care in site selection and ground preparation. It's easy to rush through this stage and start planting as soon as possible, but extra care spent preparing the site will cut down on the time needed later to control problem plants, exotic and native. Allow at least one full growing season devoted to ground preparation.

If you're starting with ground that was recently in tillage, you may only need to till the ground periodically through the growing season. It's helpful to know which crops and herbicides were used, since wildflower seedlings cannot tolerate some herbicide residues.

If your site is an old field or pasture with existing non-native vegetation, such as tall fescue or smooth brome, and perennial natives, such as tall goldenrod, all plants should be eliminated. You can remove existing vegetation by cultivation, solarizing or using a non-selective, short duration herbicide containing glyphosate (Roundup, Ranger or Kleenup).

The warmer weather in October is the most effective time to eliminate fescue using an herbicide. Always follow label directions exactly when using any herbicide. Remove the litter by raking or burning where permitted.

Spot herbicide application or light tillage throughout the next growing season helps to eliminate emerging fescue seedlings and perennial weeds. Native seeds need a firm seed base and exposed soil to germinate.

You may also remove existing vegetation by solarizing or smothering the area with large sheets of plastic or tarps, anchoring the edges and leaving the covering for the entire growing season.

While you're waiting for the ground to be ready, there is time to decide what species you would like to plant and to find sources for the seed. Contact sources shown here to talk about what you wish to plant. They are knowledgeable about native plant seed and will help match the right species to your site.

Most people find medium height grasses, such as little bluestem, prairie dropseed, broomsedge and sideoats grama, more suitable for backyard plantings, and use the tall grasses as accent plants. Add the tall grasses, like big bluestem and Indian grass, to the medium height grasses for larger plantings and acreages. Grasses for shady areas include wild ryes, bottlebrush grasses and river oats.

Avoid using cultivars of the warm season grasses, such as Cave-in-Rock switch grass, Kaw big bluestem or Cheyenne Indian grass because they have been selected for grazing. Their vigor can be overwhelming in naturalized plantings.

The time spent with ground preparation also allows ample time to order seeds. Make your order well in advance of planting time to ensure getting the species you've chosen. Consider including cool season grasses, such as wild ryes, with the warm season prairie grasses. They may be a little harder to find but will balance the planting by providing green browse for wildlife in spring and fall.

Contact native seed sources ahead of time, so they will have these species available for you at planting time. When ordering, keep in mind these seeding rates:

  • 5-10 pounds of pure live grass seed per acre
  • 10-20 pounds of wildflower seed per acre

The seeding rate for smaller plots is one ounce of seed (grasses, wildflowers or a mixture) per 250 to 300 square feet.

When you are looking for seed sources, visit with the nursery to learn where the seed came from. The closer the source of seed to your area, the better adapted the plants will be to your particular climate and soils. There are an increasing number of seed sources within the Midwest. A list of these sources is available from the Conservation Department.

If you wish to add grasses or wildflowers to your planting that aren't available commercially, collect seed from nearby areas. Collecting native seed is not as difficult as you might believe. As you become involved with the native species and become aware of flowering times and seed set, you will notice plants flowering in other locations. Make notes on their locations so you'll remember where to return to collect the seed. Collect a limited amount from sizable populations and only with permission of the landowner.

Seeding

Sow native grass seed between mid-December and early May. Native wildflower seed should be sown after frost in the fall up to the end of January. Native wildflower seeds have built-in dormancies, and spending the winter in the soil helps overcome these germination inhibitors. For example, pale purple coneflower seeds require two months of cold, moist stratification to germinate. The seeds need to be moist and chilled for that length of time.

By direct sowing, the seeds are in place when the temperature and moisture are right for germination the following spring. Chances are all of them won't germinate the first year; some will wait two years or more before emerging. Native seeds have many strategies, such as the delay in germination to ensure survival.

Smaller areas may be hand broadcast. This allows flexibility in species distribution for variety and interest. Mixing the seed with vermiculite or sand gives a larger volume, which helps distribute the seed better. Visually dividing larger areas into smaller sections, then broadcasting with the divided seed mixture helps you seed the entire area uniformly.

Follow all hand seeding with a light raking or dragging a weighted section of chain link fence. The seeds need to be firmly in contact with the soil but not sown too deeply. Winter freezing and thawing will mix the seeds with the soil to the correct depth.

Larger areas may be planted using a tractor and drill specially designed for sowing native seed. These planters are generally available at local soil and water district conservation offices listed in directories under the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

If you'd like to identify the seedlings, sow a small amount of your mix in a nursery flat of sterilized soil. By learning what the seedlings look like, you can determine which plant is a "weed" to be pulled and better judge the success of the seeding. Later, the seedlings can be transplanted into the planting. Even the first fall, prairie grasses turn beautiful shades of rust or beige, so you can easily spot them after the first frost.

Maintenance

Water the planting from mid-April to the end of May, if the soil is extremely dry and rainfall is low to ensure better germination. Depending on the site, annual weeds may look like the dominant vegetation. When the plant growth gets 10 to 12 inches tall, mow with a rotary mower to a height of 6 to 8 inches two or three times during the first growing season.

This will keep the weeds from shading the slower growing native perennials. Remember, they are spending their first season establishing a deep, drought-tolerant root system. You may need to mow once or twice the second growing season, depending on how well the natives are growing.

In subsequent years, your native planting needs to be maintained by mowing or, where permitted, prescribed burning. Prescribed fire is a management tool that helps keep out woody growth, recycles nutrients and stimulates native plants to grow and flower. Use it under the proper conditions with equipment, water, assistance and respect.

Once established, native plantings only require occasional weeding of exotics brought in by wildlife and periodic clearing, either by burning or mowing and removing the litter. This should be done every three to four years in late winter to early spring. If you leave native vegetation standing during winter, it provides valuable cover for wildlife, and the bronze winter colors of the native grasses brighten gray winter days.

The reward for your dedication and patience will be a place that will remain wild. It will be a place where you can watch butterflies sipping nectar from coneflowers. Who knows, maybe you will catch sight of deer dolphining through your native grasses.

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