Prairie Gardening

For those of us who live in urban areas, designing a small prairie garden is a good way to bring the prairie home and to provide much-needed habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Some of you may have been inspired by Doug Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home.” We encourage everyone to reduce those large lawns and start adding natural areas.

The Houston Chapter of NPAT, Coastal Prairie Partnership and Katy Prairie Conservancy created a fun and informative process to help you start thinking about, and planting simple gardens composed of just nine species of native prairie plants. This project was developed for coastal prairies, but can be adapted to other parts of the state. Work with prairie plants that are adapted to your region and are beneficial to wildlife, particularly pollinators.

To learn more about your region of Texas, visit TPWD’s Texas Ecoregions page.

Nine Natives Gardening Challenge

Get started by studying the Nine Natives booklet prepared by Clark Condon Landscape Architects. You can download a copy here:

Although the Nine Natives booklet’s recommendations are for the greater Houston area, the ideas can be used anywhere. “From the beginning the partners expressed an interest in making the Nine Natives concept something that other groups and the general public could use as a starting point to innovate around the use of native plantings in Houston and beyond.” —Jaime Gonzalez, one of the original developers of this concept.

Katy Prairie Conservancy, Clark Condon and the Garden Club of Houston collaborated on the Nine Natives Garden at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

We hope that when others use the Nine Natives concept, they will stay true to the basic premise of recommending only non-cultivar versions of local native plants, because these plants provide the most benefit to local pollinators and wildlife.

STEP 1: Choose several native species that are potential candidates for a Nine Natives Garden. Have fun researching those species and then winnow your list down to just nine natives – using a maximum of four species of grasses.

For ideas and inspiration, look at other native plant gardens in your area to get to know the size and shape of the plants. If you are in Houston, visit the Nine Natives Showcase Garden at the Houston Museum of Natural Science outside the Cockrell Butterfly Center. This garden is a great example of what a Nine Natives garden can look like.

This prairie garden belongs to Michael McDowell. He writes the Plano Prairie Garden blog.
Some handy online references:
These books are classics:
  • Landscaping with Native Plants of Texas by George Oxford Miller
  • Native Texas Plants: Landscaping Region by Region by Sally and Andy Wasowski
  • How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest by Jill Nokes
  • Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope by Doug Tallamy.

Or take a native landscaping class like NPSOT’s Native Landscaping Certification Class.

Sketch a simple design like this sample from Clark Condon.

STEP 2: Sketch a simple garden design. The goal is to create a simple garden that will meet the following criteria:

  • Native to the geographic area.
  • Not a cultivar (cultivars can be used in the garden, but would not count as one of the Nine Natives.)
  • Commercially available – either the seed or potted plants
  • Be highly beneficial to local wildlife
  • Adapted to average local soil, moisture, and sunlight
  • Have a high chance of persistence (won’t fade away over time)
  • Will be compatible in urban or suburban settings

Once you’ve got your nine natives picked out, delete all the other species on your spreadsheet. Then draw a bird’s eye view of your garden design.

STEP 3: Plant your garden!

  • Prepare your bed. For the best results, remove existing vegetation. In a smaller area, you may want to dig them out. Or use solarization by covering the area with clear or black plastic until the vegetation dies. This works best in summer on the really resilient plants. Multiple layers of newspaper or cardboard can be used. Mowing and chemical removal is an option in larger areas. Tilling is not recommended as it can bring undesirable seeds to the surface.
  • Plant your seeds or small potted plants. Fall in Texas is the best season for starting a garden. If you are using transplanted plants, you’ll need to provide extra care to get them established. Even native plant gardens require some care to become established. Make sure the garden gets adequate moisture in the beginning. No need for fertilizer, and definitely no pesticides!
  • Watch your garden and get to know your natives as they grow up. Keep after undesirables and trim plants that become tall too fast, so the shorter plants can get enough light.

Send us your stories and photographs of your garden!

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a good place to look for inspiration. wildflower.org

Pocket Prairies

There is an interest in creating small-scale prairies of one acre or less. These provide a very important ecological niche in what is often a sterile urban environment. Even small natural areas are helpful for insect pollinators. Pocket prairies also can become teaching tools for adults and children who’ve never experienced a prairie up close–one of the best ways to experience a prairie, in our opinion.

Check out the Half Pint Prairie on The University of Texas at Austin campus!