We are never ones for dogma, especially when it comes to landscapes and native plants, which is why we dig this post on the Plano Prairie Garden blog. A bona fide prairie lover, he writes on why prairie gardens are not 100% maintenance free. It’s a refreshing read that acknowledges the grey areas within the quest to infuse more native plants of the prairie into the landscape. Read here.
We’ve just returned from Palm Springs, where we had a chance to soak in some good old-fashioned rays, and check out some fantastic and not-so-fantastic desert landscapes. A recurring theme amongst the landscapes there was the introduction of ornamental grasses, which is a fantastic endeavor. Pink muhly, deer grass, and pennisetums abounded. Unfortunately, it was apparent that not one of the gardeners maintaining these grassy landscapes knew how to care for the grasses; most of the grasses we saw had been hacked back to unsightly buns, pillars, and scrappy mounds, in a vain attempt to tope them out. Landscape design in Southern California is tricky, as most of the maintenance is done by low-skilled gardeners who are underpaid and overworked. In any case, much time and money could be saved if the gardeners were provided a quick and dirty lesson in ornamental grass maintenance, which is that you leave them alone, save a solid chop to the ground in fall. We as designers need to somehow forge better communication ties between us and those who will maintain the landscapes we design, otherwise we’ll just end up with sad-looking grassy buns and ratty pillars.
Boliou Hall overlooking prairie restoration at Carleton College
An ongoing conversation on PRAIRIEFORM has centered around the recurring persona non grata of maintenance, and how landscapes of increasing botanical complexity are oftentimes poorly maintained (which then begs the question of, Is there a point?). One of the more successful examples of a lawn-to-prairie conversion on a large scale is the Carleton College campus, where, since 1978, the college in conjunction with the Cowling Arboretum, has been turning over swaths of the outer areas of the campus into restored prairie, and oak savannah. There will ultimately be 140 acres of restored prairie within the lower arboretum along the campus grounds. Within the more formal areas of the campus, planting beds now consist almost primarily of uber-en-vogue-but-reliable prairie faves: schizachyrium scoparium, diervilla lonicera, and sporobolus heterolepis. What is most noticeable within these restorations and plantings is that they have been impeccably maintained – through skilled weeding, and prescribed burns. Rather than use merely run-of-the-mill lawn maintenance crews, students, and staff at the Arboretum play an integral role in the maintenance of these prairie and savannah zones.
The juxtaposition of these wilder zones against and within the formality of the campus and its architecture could not produce lovelier results. They firmly root the campus in its place and have graduated the campus away from the tired English-garden approach to planting where every campus outside of New England attempts to trick you into thinking you actually are in New England. For the botanical-historical-curious who are in Minnesota, who are Minnesota-adjacent, or who might be visiting Minneapolis, a daytrip and stroll through the Carleton College campus is well worth the journey.
A recently installed wildflower meadow at Old Rough, Kirkby Knowsley, by Landlife
There has been much ado of late over wildflower meadows, prairie restorations, and the conversion of existing turfgrass lawns into less-resource-consumptive cousins. The rustic visual allure of the wildflower meadow is infectious, and its promise of using fewer natural resources – not the least of which being water – and ability to attract wildlife, make the meadow a seductive alternative to conventional turf grass. Even colleges and universities with their traditional quadrangle layout are reconsidering just how that quad is rendered green. Despite the seeming allure of the restored meadow or prairie, we need to take a look at what lies underneath and behind the end product.
It should be remembered that we are creating these meadows and prairies in a modern world of botanical hitchhikers and transplants, many of which can outcompete the dear meadow and prairie species we want to see flourish. While weeding out these invaders may be manageable on a small scale, the task becomes increasingly complex as the scale expands. Duke University recently ripped out large portions of its lawn and replaced them with “native meadows.” While the intial installation showed promise, over time weeds moved in, and the ever-increasing complexity of the planting areas and the task of discerning what was a weed and what was not proved too complicated for maintenance crews. The meadows were subsequently ripped out and replaced with turf and trees once again. Yes, it can, and should, be argued that maintenance crews need to be retrained to be able to identify new and unwanted landscape denizens vs. the species originally intended for the space. However, the amount of resources in both time and money required to do so are more than what many institutions are willing to pay.
The lovely Highline, a meadow/prairie planting with a multi-million-dollar annual maintenance budget
Then there is the simple issue of year-round visual appeal. Peak bloom time for wildflower meadows and native prairies tends to be in mid- to late summer. Outside of this period, the meadow or prairie can appear unkempt to many an eye accustomed to a more conventional landscape aesthetic. Additionally, as time wears on, the ratio between grasses and flowering perennials tends to shift towards significantly more grasses than perennials, thereby limiting the show of botanical fireworks most featured in photos of these retorations.
Aesthetic concerns aside, what we are most interested in tackling vis-a-vis the discussion over native meadows, prairies, and the wilder-looking landscape, is the question of whether we are in effect creating ecologically friendly islands of hyper-maintenance and skill amidst a sea of resource-consumptive lawns and landscapes that require minimal skill to maintain. Our attempt in asking this question is not an effort to pooh-pooh the idea of the native meadow and the restored prairie, but rather an attempt to understand how these restorations and installations can be replicated at a large, macro-scale without requiring inordinate amounts of labor and skill to maintain. There are countless examples of low-water and native landscapes that simply become overgrown and neglected due to poor and unskilled maintenance. If we are going to have any hope of seeing wilder landscapes become a part of the urban landscape on a macro level, we are going to need to move beyond the pure propaganda that native = low-maintenance, and figure out how to devise approaches to maintenance that are equally as efficient as they are effective. Perhaps the humble proposal of a nationwide program of weed identification is a place to begin.
For those who aren’t familiar with the territory of landscape in Southern California, we will let you know this: Almost every landscape is tended to by hired gardeners. Some know a thing or two about plants; many do not. What for newcomers comes initially as a godsend – the opportunity to have a green landscape year-round – quickly becomes a burden. And so enters the hired gardener. That the gardeners are generally underpaid and without any sort of horitcultural background translates into a very limited plant palatte that can look good and survive under their care. And when it comes to trees, the cardinal rule of never lopping off the leader trunk (as this is essentially the spine along which the tree grows) is broken every day, by the hour.
PRAIRIEFORM is not in the business of forcing people to take an interest in tending to their own landscapes; it is, however, in the business of working with skilled gardeners who can ensure that your landscape is cared for properly. An exquisite landscape design means nothing if the subsequent maintenance on it is shoddy at best, especially because one of the most rewarding, soul-satisfying aspects of a landscape is watching it evolve across the seasons and through the years.