Create a Natural Prairie Garden By Repurposing Old Lawn Soils

The first settlers of the American prairie could not farm the land. First they had to strip away thick sod layer to expose this extraordinarily fertile soil. Sod was so dense, the slabs were stacked into earthen houses known as “soddies” on the open range. But the sod held more than grass, it was its own natural prairie garden that included a wide range of large prairie perennials.

Wild Meadow - Photo by Maureen Gilmer

This is the origin of our easiest and most magnificent perennials. Among them are purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, blazing star and Joe Pye weed. All of these evolved to live in concert with our native bunch grasses to create prairies that range from very dry (mesic) in the south and the verdant tallgrass prairie in the north. There is no better model for switching out your lawn to a beautiful, natural prairie garden that lures wildlife and provides vital backyard habitat.

The problem is that turf grass lawns are a heavy feeding monoculture that depends on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to maintain its beauty. Strip away this turf and what’s left beneath is ground worn out by chemical fertilizers much like the cotton fields of the South that were so lean newly freed African Americans could barely eek out a living. These worn out soils starve the microbes to death due to lack of organic matter. That’s why it’s so important to beef up that former turf grass ground to make it more fertile and supportive of a natural prairie garden.

Whether you’re planning a prairie, food garden or a new landscape, that soil must be very well amended if it is to grow a variety of plants again. You’ll want to provide amendments that do three things: boost nitrogen, introduce new microbes and provide plentiful organic matter to feed the microbes.

Echinacea and Bee - Photo by Maureen Gilmer

Because turf grass acts as a barrier, this heavily compacted ground has not experienced new organic matter for many years. Your first step is to turn every inch or rototill to aerate the ground. Then add Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, which are rich in humus. Be generous with these rich materials and work them in as deeply and thoroughly as you can. Remember, this is food to grow your microbe populations.

To compensate for nutrient deficiencies, particularly nitrogen, use potent organic fertilizers. To really boost the nitrogen levels in year one, use fast acting alfalfa meal. Then add a good all-purpose fertilizer to increase your phosphorus and potassium levels. Finally, distribute Black Gold Earthworm Castings for its heavy load of microbes ready to feed on all that new organic matter.

Bluestem - Photo by Maureen Gilmer

The sooner you apply this prescription the better your new, natural prairie garden will perform. With each month that passes it will grow progressively more fertile. You can plant the beautiful perennials and grasses right into the newly amended soil, or start a new food garden right in your own ground.

This preliminary soil work is vital for anything you plan to grow in lieu of lawn. Such a formula turns secondary earth into first class agricultural soil much like that ground that grew the first incredible bumper crops of corn and wheat. So whether you wish to look out on a flowering prairie or a garden filled with organically grown vegetables, all that’s required is to rehabilitate the soil and Mother Nature does the rest.

About Maureen Gilmer

Maureen Gilmer is celebrating her 40th year in California horticulture and photojournalism as the most widely published professional in the state. She is the author of 21 books on gardening, design and the environment, is a widely published photographer, and syndicated with Tribune Content Agency. She is the weekly horticultural columnist for the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs and contributes to Desert Magazine, specializing on arid zone plants and practices for a changing climate. She works and lives in the remote high desert for firsthand observations of native species. Her latest book is The Colorful Dry Garden published by Sasquatch Books. When not writing or photographing she is out exploring the desert on her Arabian horse. She lives in Morongo Valley with her husband Jim and two rescue pit bulls. When not writing or photographing she is usually out riding her quarter horse.

Leave a Reply

Content Disclaimer:

This site may contain content (including images and articles) as well as advice, opinions and statements presented by third parties. Sun Gro does not review these materials for accuracy or reliability and does not endorse the advice, opinions, or statements that may be contained in them. Sun Gro also does not review the materials to determine if they infringe the copyright or other rights of others. These materials are available only for informational purposes and are presented “as is” without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including without limitation warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement. Reliance upon any such opinion, advice, statement or other information is at your own risk. In no event shall Sun Gro Horticulture Distribution, Inc. or any of its affiliates be liable to you for any inaccuracy, error, omission, fact, infringement and the like, resulting from your use of these materials, regardless of cause, or for any damages resulting there from.