Native Prairie Grasses and Flowers

Bernie Angus, WCROC Landscape Gardener

One hundred years ago, the entire western third of Minnesota was native prairie.  Today, only remnants remain comprising less than 1% of the original acreage.   Minnesota plants are considered indigenous if they were here during the Public Land Survey (1847-1907). 

Native plants are growing in popularity because they are adapted to local climate and soil conditions, and once established, require little care.  The pollen, nectar, and seeds produced by native plants benefit local wildlife and attract birds, bees and butterflies.  Native plants also have deep root systems that help reduce erosion.

Most native prairie forbe seeds need a cool, moist stratification period so fall planting may be beneficial.  The seed may also lay dormant in the soil until the conditions are right for it to germinate if planted at another time.  Ideal planting time for native grasses seed is between May 20 and June 20th for western Minnesota. 

Native Prairie at the WCROCNative prairie grasses and forbes have evolved over a wide range of climatic conditions and will tolerate a range of soil and moisture conditions.  Most require full sun.  In locations where conditions are extremely dry, some species of native plants will perform better than others. Once established, most native plants can withstand droughty conditions.  Soil void of perennial weeds is a necessity before planting.  Soil prep for native grasses and forbes would be very similar to planting a vegetable garden.

Established native grasses and forbes rarely need fertilization or irrigation except during establishment or extreme drought or sandy soil.  Once they are established they will live indefinitely unless disturbed or conditions become overly severe.  There are basically no insect or disease problems in native plants.  There might be an insect that attacks a plant in any given year, but the garden as a whole would not generally be effected.  If there is lack of flowering, the existing dead vegetation may be suppressing the plants and should be removed.  There are no special requirements for winter survival once established. 

Division of native plants is generally not recommended because they have an extensive root system making it difficult to get enough of the root system in order for the plant to survive.  It is possible, but not recommended.  

The availability of native plants and seeds has increased dramatically.  Many local nurseries and garden centers may carry some native plant species.  There are also many nurseries throughout Minnesota that specialize strictly in native plants.  Some of these nurseries have a wide selection of seeds available as well.  An important question to ask the nursery is where the seeds originated because some seeds or plants may not be adapted to the geographic area where they will be planted.  Native seeds and plants are more likely to survive if they are of local origin.  It is best to plant locally collected seed.  Seed originating in Minnesota is preferred.  Seed originating outside of Minnesota may not be adapted to survive our local climatic conditions.  Please note that digging plants from public lands is illegal and in most cases the plants won’t survive.