Thousands of miles from the prairies of the American Midwest, the gardening avant-garde of Europe has long admired “prairie gardening,” nurturing plant communities grown in a matrix of grasses, appreciating every stage of bud, flower, and decay. It sure beats looking at uncovered soil, fertilizing the unwilling, and staking the overfed. And yet in real prairie country, the old, imported model of lawns, flower beds, and clipped evergreens continues to dominate.
What a relief then that forward-thinking garden designers like Benjamin Vogt (who lives in Nebraska) are becoming harder to ignore. With his company Monarch Gardens, Vogt brings micro prairies to the suburban Midwestern landscape, and in his new book, a follow-up to the popular A New Garden Ethic, he makes the case that the “new pretty” is native, hyper-local, and highly functioning as an ecosystem. As the esteemed entomologist Douglas Tallamy notes on the back cover, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design is “a cookbook for prairie restoration”—in other words, easy to follow but requiring some advance preparation.
Photography courtesy of Benjamin Vogt.
Vogt writes in a detailed yet utterly engaging way about the history of prairies, our interaction with them, and their generally positive reaction to stress and fire. It’s a type of grassland management that translates well for home gardeners, but we need to first really understand what we are dealing with. Doing the research and being more attuned will result in fewer problems, which are mainly born out of received wisdom of what a garden should be. “The point of all this is to find guides to gardening with nature and not against it by using endemic plant communities,” Vogt writes. “If we understand the region we grow in, and the native plants therein, we will have a much better idea of how to garden, and how to manage that garden.”
After thorough research of your local ecosystem, followed by the design and implementation of a scaled-down version of it (with many FAQ’s answered by Vogt along the way), it becomes clear that garden design that is nature-based and prairie-inspired is easier to look after than its formal counterpart. Plants are allowed to express themselves and move around from one season to the next. However, in real prairie country (and as Vogt points out, this is all over America) a relaxed garden can be translated as a lack of care. This being a useful book, we are advised on how to respond to the disapproving neighborhood association and are reminded that courtesy is a helpful tool in shifting paradigms.
Prairie Up can also be used as a glorified glossary of the many terms that ecological gardeners bandy around without explaining. For instance, layers. A garden without them, eg. a monoculture, will be more difficult to keep going, whereas a layering of ground-covers, mid-level structural, and taller architectural plants means that “a plant at each layer is living at its niche, doing what it evolved to do.” In a highly functioning ecosystem, underground layering is just as varied, with taproots, bulbs, corms and rhizomes, and fibrous roots each existing in different soil profiles, without competing. “The more root diversity we have, the more life we create in layers.”
Vogt explains several design approaches to this kind of landscape, and makes a strong case for growing in a matrix. This is simpler than it sounds, the matrix being the ground layer, or “green mulch,” from which flowering plants emerge throughout the summer. It’s a forgiving environment: “In a matrix, the occasional weed is less likely to get noticed or cause a problem due to plant density.”
“A prairie restoration typifies what self-organized plants can teach us as we bring a little wildness home,” argues Benjamin Vogt. “Bringing these plant groupings down to scale while increasing floral density is what natural garden design is all about.”
Prairie Up By Benjamin Vogt is published by 3 Fields Books, University of Illinois Press.
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