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Green Thumbs: Ever convert lawn to native plants?

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Green Thumbs: Ever convert lawn to native plants?

Postby auntgoodness » Mon Apr 16, 2007 11:28 am

I'm converting a sloped section of our lawn from grass to prairie grasses and wildflowers, trying to use mostly native plants. Any of you greener forons have some tips for me?

I already killed the grass by smothering it all last Summer with fabric and I turned it a bit with a fork this weekend. It's still pretty clumpy, but I've read that tilling is bad for the soil so I'm not really sure what to do next. Till or no till? Garden Weasel?

Also, any recommendations on seeds would be great too. My wish list includes echinacea and asters and side-oats grama to start.
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Postby shelly » Mon Apr 16, 2007 2:56 pm

I have killed a bunch of my lawn and put in plants. Instead of killing it with plastic, I usually smother it with mulch and newspapers, and then plant plants the next year. I think it is important to be sure all the grass is dead/removed so that you arent weeding grass out of your prairie for years. You could sift through it to remove remaining grass roots.

I wouldnt worry about the chunks too much as long as you are sure they have no remaining live grass bits in them. Just remove or break up the large chunks. You might have to sit there and whack them against the ground to remove most of the soil and then compost the rest.

I like the Prairie Nursery Catalog for explanations about which prairie plants go best in which environments. They have specific plants for clay versus sand and wet versus dry and sun versus shade. This is where i would go first to get an idea of which plants would do best on your site.

A sloping site might mean you will have drier soil, since the water won't pool there, unless it is right near a building or something.

Knowing if you have clay versus sandy soil is important too for which plants might thrive. I know Prairie Nursery has their "clay busters" plants for heavy clay, and they also have recommendations for sandy soil.

Once you plant your plants, I would recommend lots of mulch, to keep the weeds down until the prairie plants get big. I use shredded bark and it seems to work pretty well.

In my yard (southern exposure, heavy clay) the plants that are doing the best are: Echinacea, little bluestem, new england aster, prairie dock, rosinweed, ironweed, wild petunia, joe pye weed, yellow coneflower, side oats grama, and penstemon. The plants that didnt do so well for me include prairie dropseed and the prairie clover (were eaten by rabbits!).
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Postby auntgoodness » Tue Apr 17, 2007 8:01 am

Lots of great info and the Prairie Nursery How-To section is huge. Thankya, shelly!
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Postby juanton » Tue Apr 17, 2007 9:34 am

A couple of questions:

Are there any city ordinances that cover this sort of lawn to prairie conversion? I looked at the city website for a bit, but ended up getting frustrated at the site itself.

How do you keep the prairie grass and wildflowers from spreading into adjacent yards?

I would love to do this to my front yard, yet I fear what my dick head, red neck neighbor would do if his golf course started getting a little rough.
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Postby shelly » Tue Apr 17, 2007 10:04 am

I am not sure about city codes since I have only done my backyard not anything in the front yard. I do know there are height restrictions about what you can put into the terrace, for visibility reasons. I think it might be a situation where you can do mostly what you want as long as no one makes a complaint. And since plenty of people are putting in rain gardens in the front of their houses, with many of the same species, I imagine the city favors this type of planting. That is not to say though, that a neighbor couldn't make a very big fuss about it. Someone to ask might be someone from the Madison Chapter of Wild Ones, the native plant organization, I think they have been pretty active in the rain garden thing.

As for plants spreading, I doubt they would get into lawns much, as the lawn grass roots are already developed and the constant mowing would keep them down anyway. I think they could get into adjacent landscaped areas, but only the ones that are prolific seeders would probably be an issue. In my yard, some asters, columbine, and coreopsis have seeded around the yard.

I also forgot to mention that the Friends of the Arboretum native plant sale is May 12 from 9 am to 2 pm at the Arb. People there could probably answer your questions better. One warning, even though it starts at 9, in past years there has already been a line of about 75 people waiting, it is very popular.
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Postby eriedasch » Tue Apr 17, 2007 12:10 pm

juanton wrote:yet I fear what my dick head, red neck neighbor would do if his golf course started getting a little rough.

I wonder if said neighbor is that concerned with how you feel about him/her dumping chemicals, pestisides, and fertilizers (i.e. contaminating the water table) on their yard in order to get lawn to be of golf course quality?
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Postby juanton » Tue Apr 17, 2007 2:06 pm

eriedasch wrote:
juanton wrote:yet I fear what my dick head, red neck neighbor would do if his golf course started getting a little rough.

I wonder if said neighbor is that concerned with how you feel about him/her dumping chemicals, pestisides, and fertilizers (i.e. contaminating the water table) on their yard in order to get lawn to be of golf course quality?


He's not concerned about those sort of things. This is the same guy who sprayed round up on my side of the fence, the same side of the fence my dogs like to run on.

Everytime I see the Chemlawn or pesticide warning signs in people's yards, I just cringe.
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Postby zelda » Tue Apr 17, 2007 2:34 pm

The site for Wild Ones: http://www.for-wild.org/ (lest you end up where you didn't intend to go.)
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Postby auntgoodness » Fri Apr 20, 2007 9:25 am

Here comes another gorgeous weekend, and more questions!

Did you guys start your plants from seed? If so, did it take three years for you to see real results? I love the idea of seeds, but I don't have much experience with them.
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Postby shelly » Sat Apr 21, 2007 8:55 pm

I did start some of my plants from seed, I think Echinacea, little bluestem, and sideoats grama, and coreopsis. It is definitely not like growing veggies or annuals, you gotta be patient. I think in the first year the plant grew to about 4 inches tall. The next year they grew to about 15 inches tall (and the Echinacea flowered in the second year) and the third year they looked like plants you might buy from a garden store. I think some of them are definitely easier than others, my impression is that grasses and composites are easier to germinate and grow from seed. Many require a cold stratification step, which slows things down even further.

I guess I didn't have a large enough space to really benefit from it. A packet of seeds might cost $2 and a plant $3, of course you get many plants from one packet of seeds, but I wanted more variety, so I prefer to buy one or two of lots of plants than have a lot of plants of only a few species.

If you are going the seed route, I would suggest starting them in pots or a nursery bed, so you can baby them. Then plant them out in the fall.
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Postby snoqueen » Sat Apr 21, 2007 11:09 pm

I've put prairie plants in my yard though nowhere near as methodically as shelly. I just have a few comments:

-- some are nearly invasive if you don't keep up. I have seen cup plant, for instance, pretty much take over parts of a yard. It's a beautiful plant, attracts interesting birds and insects, but it gets more than 15 feet tall and you don't want it EVERYWHERE. What plant gets invasive and what doesn't is a function not only of the plant, but of the specific little place it is growing. And if they like what you have to offer they're nearly impossible to dig out because the roots go clear to China.

-- prairie dock is a favorite of mine with its large interesting leaves at the base and later its tall, bare stalks bearing yellow flowers way at the top. Mullein is another favorite, and if you have good soil and compost, it'll get as much as 12' tall and will come back a third year (it's only supposed to be a biennial). Just be careful where you put these big guys because you also want to leave space, sun, and visibility for the littler ones. Growing one big plant as a "specimen" works well; think of big gorgeous mullein like a Christmas tree in the midst of much smaller plants.

-- do not neglect to put in woodland plants and flowers if you have a shady place. They are often not as tall and overenthusiastic as prairie plants, and are especially lovely in early spring (like now).

-- I loved butterfly weed but mine didn't make it. I will try again. I like leadplant, too.

-- yellow yarrow is straight-stemmed and attractive, but for my money purple and white yarrow are weeds. The latter two are so invasive if you decide to continue mowing a part of the yard, they'll happily keep growing at 1 1/2" inch height. Don't even bring them home is my advice.
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