Conversational Prairie 101

--Our house will be built to the right and a little farther back than the barn.  All those lovely, non-native pine on the right have a date with a chain saw.

--Our house will be built to the right and a little farther back than the barn. All those lovely, non-native pine on the right have a date with a chain saw.

Because our little barn is a timber frame structure covered with slabs of oak weathering to a silvery patina, I like to think it looks like it belongs where it is.  (See my post, Building our Timberframe Barn here .  But when it was being built, the site looked like a war zone.

--Tearing up the earth and pouring concrete is not my favorite part of building.

--Tearing up the earth and pouring concrete is not my favorite part of building.

I’m bracing myself for another battleground scene when we build our house in 2012.  The house will be dug deeper into a steeper slope, and our master plan calls for clear cutting a small grove of pine blocking the southern exposure.

The site has been selected with consideration of every green building factor that we are aware of to create the smallest possible carbon footprint.  Ultimately the whole landscape will look very different than it does today — it will be restored to something that would be a lot more familiar to a buffalo striding out of a time capsule from 1800.

That buffalo would have pushed through prairie grasses nodding in the breeze, and that is what my time-traveling pal will find on the sunny sides of the house.  I can’t ask the buffalo what to plant, but I often check in with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, and last weekend Doug and I attended their 2009 Native by Design workshop.

This year’s keynote speaker was Darrel Morrison, one of the pivotal native plant landscape architects.  He trained at the UW Arboretum 42 years ago and then in 1997, he designed the Arboretum’s spectacular Native Gardens.

He is currently working on a native woodland garden for the University of New York City.  It was heartening to hear him say that the Class of 2008 opted for a native restoration as their gift instead of wide screen TVs, which was another one of their choices.

Morrison has been responsible for a lot of native plantings replacing mowed lawn in corporate and public landscaping.  He observed that a good way to turn executives resistant to prairie burns into converts is to hand them the drip torch and let them start the burn.

After drawing a line with fire, magic marker is never the same.

After drawing a line with fire, magic marker is never the same.

It is a scarily compelling feeling to draw a line with fire.

He also designed a native setting for the outdoor sculpture at Storm King Art Center in New York , which is now on my list of dream gardens to visit.

Morrison is inspired by environmental psychologists Steven and Rachel Kaplan, authors of The Experience of Nature.  They break landscape down into

  1. Mystery (like a lane bending out of view)
  2. Complexity (the foundation of any natural site)
  3. Coherence (Man – the pattern finder)
  4. Legibility (reading how to move through a landscape)

He also said he likes to create a foreground enclosure with a long sunlit view in his designs.  “People feel good about this,” he said.

I should think so.  What a magic combination:  a sense of shelter with a sense of endless possibility. And that is exactly what we are aiming for in our own house and landscape design.  Snug little house, with that long, sunlit view.

Morrison shared his thoughts standing by a Prairie Swale he created at the Arboretum, where rain water from the center’s roof washes over the ground on its way to the rain garden beyond.  He was inspired by a moist area in the Avoca Prairie.

--Darrel Morrison explaining his design work at UW Arboretum.

--Darrel Morrison explaining his design work at UW Arboretum.

To create his signature broad patterns of mass and space he cranks up the music.  “It really gets things going,” he said.  He designed this Prairie Swale to pianist George Duke’s mellow composition Muir Woods Suite.

Now I’m considering what music I will use to design my own yard.  Please, share your suggestions.  What music would you design prairie landscape to?

Morrison played with more than sweet jazz and Sweet Black-eyed Susan as he designed this swale.  He balanced complexity and coherence to create sweeps of plant life.  In any one zone he let one or two species dominate, and then blend into the next zone, creating the sweep.

--Sweeping Prairie Swale designed by Darrel Morrison

--Sweeping Prairie Swale designed by Darrel Morrison

Though Morrison keeps plant profiles all in his head, he suggested beginning designers make a chart of when plants bloom, and what their fall foliage is like to better choreograph the color.  “Or,” he said, grinning mischievously, “just put plants together that naturally grow together and see what they do.”

Ultimately, “seeing what they do” is what makes any gardener grin.

I’m glad I have several more years to build my prairie vocabulary – it’s a very subtle language.  At this point I’m researching on line, in libraries, at workshops and then taking everything I learn back to my land, where I listen closely to what it is saying.  It has something new to tell me every time I open my eyes and ears.

In three years, when the bulldozers back off, I hope to reply in fluent Prairie.

Please do let me know what music you would prairiescape to.

I’m looking for ideas.

2 replies

  1. Just ran across your blog. Looks really interesting. A note on prairies: My wife and I have 3 small prairie gardens on our property (sure beats mowing a sterile lawn). I have learned that growing prairies is an act of Christian faith: faith that the prairies will eventually develop. We planted a prairie in the fall of 2002 and the next year it was just a mess of weeds. Gosh, we must have blown it somehow. Applied Roundup and tilled and got rid of it, then reseeded fall of 2003. In 2004 we got pretty much the same result: our major plant species was plantain! Oh the heck with prairies!

    But over the next several years the plantain disappeared as the grasses and flowers developed. What one needs to understand is that during the first several years the prairie plants are setting their roots. Then the above-ground parts start to appear. One may understand this in the abstract, but “on the ground” it is hard to appreciate. We are still seeing new plants each year. This year, for example, we have a lot of New England aster. We haven’t see that before, and after 5-6 years.

    I thoroughly enjoy both the grasses (little bluestem, turkey feets [big bluestem], side-oats grama, Indian grass) and the flowers. Each year the prairies get a little bit better.

    Good luck with your prairies. Just be patient and over the years you’ll get a whole lot pleasure from them.

    • Thanks for your feedback and word of warning. Yes, am starting to realize that talking Prairie is talking very slowly. Morrison has done a lot of his smaller prairies starting with costly plants and a lot of volunteer weeding labor to boot. I have not had much success yet with the seeds I have gathered in one part of my land and attempted to introduce in another. I have had a little more success with seedlings that I either started indoors or purchased, but they always seem to turn out to look like candy to the many alert and hungry deer that hang out in the vicinity. Good luck to us all!

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