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Spring Issue





Gardening with Prairie Plants

Gardening with Native Prairie Plants

For Conservation & Backyard Wildlife

By John P. Morgan (Click links to see images.)
John Morgan of Prairie Habitats Inc.
John Morgan in front of a successful prairie planting.

Landscaping with native species for wildlife is becoming more and more popular. In an effort to inform Manitobans about some of the issues and rationale behind this movement, the following article presents some food for thought.

What is a native plant? Native species are those that occurred naturally in an area at the time of settlement and were not brought in from other areas of the country or other continents. Some plants are so common in Manitoba now that many people mistakenly consider them natives: smooth brome grass, crested wheatgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, quack grass, Canada thistle, dandelion, and wild oats are all Eurasian imports that have no natural place here.

Europeans brought dandelions with them to North America. All of our worst lawn, garden and agricultural weeds are non-natives. In North America these plants lack the natural pests and diseases that they had back in their native ranges, so they run wild! Check out our article on Dandelions in the Summer Issue. (The Editors)

An authentic native prairie garden involves the planting of a diverse mix of species native to that particular area, with the seed collected as close as possible to the planting site. Grasses are an important component of the mix along with various native legumes and other broad-leaved wildflowers. Locally collected seed stocks are crucial to maintaining what is left of the biological diversity of native prairie species.

Natural prairie is a mixture of grasses and wildflowers.

What about the many so called "wildflower" mixes available from many stores and seed companies? They often are accompanied with colourful advertising promising an "instant" meadow that will reduce maintenance and attract butterflies. The origins of nearly all these seeds are outside of Canada from large commercial flower farms in the United States and Europe. They may be wildflowers somewhere, but they are not native to Manitoba.

California poppies, bachelor buttons, and birdsfoot trefoil have no place in a Manitoba prairie garden. These non-native seed mixes often contain species that may aggressively out compete more desirable native plants. We have even seen a popular canned mix with seeds of purple loosestrife!! Most companies do not care where their seed and plant material come from. They only want to make a sale. If you care and want to make a difference, use local Manitoba native seed and plants. Ask your supplier questions about the origin of their seeds. If they do not know or care, or the seeds have not been collected in Manitoba, look elsewhere.

Gardening with native Manitoba species makes us partners in a very important environmental mission - that of conserving the local genetic stock of the prairie that has all but disappeared in the face of "progress". Manitoba's tall grass prairie (See Tall Grass Prairie in our Summer Issue) is virtually gone - less than one percent of its original area remains intact today at places like Living Prairie Museum, Tolstoi and Oak Hammock. Barely 4% of southwestern Manitoba's mixed grass prairie remains. In just one person's lifetime, we have nearly obliterated native prairie flora from our province.

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Keeping alive prairie plants by providing a place for them to grow is an important contribution to ensuring these scattered prairie remnant's genetic stocks never become extinct. New medicines or food crops could well be waiting to be discovered in these plants. If they all are lost, however, we will never know what benefits may come from this rich, ancient prairie heritage. Where would we be today if some careless past society had wiped out the wild ancestors of domestic wheat, corn or rice?

Indian Breadroot was an important food plant for aboriginal peoples. Could it be a future agricultural crop?

Another reason to restore native plants is their attractiveness to wildlife. Many rare and endangered species depend upon native plants. They provide additional habitat for numerous butterflies, songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl and mammals.

Native milkweeds are the only food for monarch butterfly caterpillars in Manitoba.

Monarch butterflies, have become increasingly rare over the past decade due to loss of their breeding and wintering habitats. The only plants they will lay their eggs on are native milkweeds, which coincidentally are some of the most attractive native garden flowers. Other natives such as the spectacular meadow blazingstar provide important sources of nectar for monarchs. Native sunflowers are magnets for goldfinches. These colourful summer residents simply love the high quality seeds provided by narrow leaved sunflower, and beautiful and rough false sunflowers.

Native species have the advantage of thousands of years of adaptation to Manitoba conditions - soil, water, climate, and light levels. By a process known as natural selection, they have evolved a variety of mechanisms to cope with everything that nature can throw at them. Drought, extremes of heat and cold, short growing seasons, early and late frosts have little effect on native species because they have evolved with them.

Most plant species presently used in Manitoba for landscaping and wildlife habitat are horticultural and agricultural varieties native to Europe and Asia. Few have any natural adaptations to Manitoba conditions. Many of them require intensive maintenance and constant replanting to survive.

A typical planting of annuals, requiring lots of effort, water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.

In contrast our native species often require extreme environmental conditions that would kill other non-native plants. They literally thrive where others cannot. Instead of requiring costly inputs of time, labour, pesticides, and fertilizers, native species, once established, seem to thrive on neglect. This makes them ideal for wildlife habitat, low maintenance landscaping, restoration of disturbed natural areas and for tough and beautiful alternatives to manicured and biologically sterile expanses of Kentucky bluegrass lawns.

A native prairie garden can complement an urban setting.

There also is the undeniable excitement in growing something that gives us a sense of both our natural and cultural history. These species were important in the ecology of the diverse grasslands that once covered southern Manitoba. They nourished bison in uncounted numbers and waved in the sunshine of ten thousand summers. They provided sustenance for native peoples, and figured prominently in their medicine and spiritual beliefs. Early settlers depended upon them for food and raw materials. Growing native prairie plants not only helps us establish roots in the soil, but also roots with our past.

"The Forks" prairie planting enhances the ambiance of this important historical and cultural site in Winnipeg.

Native prairie plants, with their deep root system and perennial nature, also are ideal for soil conservation plantings. Native species are tolerant of and adapted to a wide variety of soil types. There are native prairie species for dry, wet, saline, heavy, and light soils. Native species formed and conserved rich prairie soils over millennia and now are being looked to play an important role here again.

For landscape architects, commercial and government agencies, native species offer a practical alternative to conventional, high maintenance landscaping of public places, industrial areas, parks and road rights-of-way. In today's era of declining budgets, native plantings are easier to justify to cost-conscious clients and taxpayers. They also contribute to the image of environmental awareness and sensitivity that today's "green" marketplace and society demand. Providing increased wildlife habitat for public viewing is another benefit to these agencies.

Aesthetically, native prairie wildflowers and grasses provide at least as much colour and attractiveness as conventional landscapes. Beginning in early spring, and lasting through September frosts into winter, native prairie species provide an ever-changing carpet of shape, colour and texture. From the furry mauve prairie crocus poking through April snowdrifts, through the jade green lushness of mid-June grasses and snowy anemones, to the radiant blazing stars of summer, and from the graceful fall splash of bright goldenrods and purple asters, to the subtle golden tan of the winter prairie garden, native plants provide a natural show of unequaled beauty on our Manitoba landscape.

Gaillardias in a garden setting.

Planting prairie also has significant positive economic advantages. Costs for planting prairie are very competitive with traditional methods. Long-term maintenance costs for prairie plantings are virtually nil as the perennial native plants take care of themselves. All that is required is an occasional cutting back of the old growth, and vigilance to ensure non-native weeds do not creep in. Expensive, environmentally damaging regimes of constant watering, mowing, and fertilizer applications are not required.

So, if you believe in conservation and attracting wildlife to your yard, you can do both admirably well by using native Manitoba plants. You will not only have a beautiful landscape, but will be doing your part to ensure these increasingly rare plants never become extinct.

Thanks for learning about Gardening with Native Prairie Plants! Bye for now.

John Morgan is owner of Prairie Habitats Inc. John is a pioneer in the field of natural landscaping and a champion of all things prairie in Manitoba.


Prairie Habitats Inc.

Box 1, Argyle, MB, R0C 0B0

phone (204) 467-9371, fax (204) 467-5004,


If you enjoyed this article then you might like:

Butterfly Gardening | Mixed Grass Prairie | Versatile Violets | Pink Lady's Slipper

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