For those of us who live in urban areas, designing a small prairie garden is a good way to bring the prairie home and 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.
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!
There really isn’t a lower limit to the size of these plantings, nor is there any particular shape that they need take. They can be more or less formal, based on your aesthetic tastes, your neighbors’ receptivity to native plants, plant availability, ease of maintenance (more formalized plantings will need more maintenance), etc.
The text below is courtesy of Jaime González, Community & Equitable Conservation Programs Director, The Nature Conservancy in Texas.
Building a Pocket Prairie:
Step 1: Select and Assess the Site
- Light: Selecting a site in full or mostly sunny condition is important. Pocket prairies placed in semi-shady or shady areas either get ‘leggy’ or don’t thrive.
- Soil: Soil type and depth can vary depending on what part of the state you live in and what conditions are local to your site. To learn more about your region of Texas, visit TPWD’s Texas Ecoregions and Texas Almanac’s Soils of Texas sites.
- Size: Select a pocket prairie size that can be maintained by your team. The smaller the team, the smaller the area should be – particularly if this pocket prairie is in a highly visible place.
- Border: All urban pocket prairies should sport an intentional border. Borders can be made up of mulch, stone, metal or plastic edging, etc. You can create intentional borders by juxtaposing well-groomed lawn with a pocket prairie and separating these two textures with one of the edgings mentioned above.
- Assess: One of the great joys of creating pocket prairies is to see life rebound on a formerly blank landscape. Consider documenting all the life found on your planting site before you begin its transformation. One way to do this, particularly if you are not a biologist or naturalist, is to document your observations using the iNaturalist app. Experts will offer you identification suggestions and as your pocket prairie comes to life. And you can continue to add species through your iNaturalist project.
Step 2: Prepare the Site
Remove Unwanted Species: Ridding the lawn and other aggressive species is a critical step. Oftentimes the sod or existing vegetation will need to be killed and/or removed to allow new plants to grow and thrive. There are a variety of ways to get rid of turf and other undesired species:
- Organic Herbicide: An organic herbicide can be made with orange oil, 20% vinegar, and dishwashing soap. Here’s a recipe. This route will probably require 3-4 treatments and may be ineffective with tough plants like bermudagrass.
- Soil Solarization: A good summertime project is to a kill grass using the power of the sun without the use of herbicides. The basic idea is to mow the area short and maybe even do a light tilling. Afterwards, place some thick plastic sheeting on top of the area, and the summer sun kills the covered grass. Click here for more info.
- Chemical Herbicide: As a last resort, we sometimes must use herbicides like glyphosate (Roundup) if the site is loaded with a very hard-to-kill grass like bermudagrass. Sometimes two treatments are necessary during the growing session. Don’t try planting any plants/seeds for at least two to three weeks after herbicide treatment.
- Planting native seeds into a bed of bermudagrass or St. Augustine with the hope that natives will outcompete or “shade out” these exotic grasses is not a successful strategy and has led to much failure and frustration.
Step 3: Select Your Species
Select as many locally-adapted prairie natives as your budget will allow. It is good to use a combination of both seeds and live plants if possible.
- Obtaining seeds: Seeds can be purchased through Native American Seed. If possible, try collecting seeds from local prairie species as they become available.
- Look for live plants at local Native Plant Society of Texas and other plant sales. Or buy from nurseries that grow natives to your area.
- Why include grasses? For maximum diversity, mix both native wildflowers and native grasses. Grasses serve a variety of functions: (1) they anchor and give structure to the planting, (2) they provide roosting opportunities for birds, dragonflies, and lizards, (3) their deep root systems help drain away excess water and (4) they serve as a caterpillar food source for a few local species, which are in-turn a food source for birds.
- Decide on a grass-to-wildflower ratio: What often determines which species you choose is the look and feel of the planting you’d like to see. On a natural local prairie, grasses dominate and make up to around 60%-70% of the plant community. Yet, in urban pocket prairie plantings we often dial the grasses down to between 30-50% to give the planting more room for colorful wildflowers.
- Nine Natives: Another option is for you to start with a smaller plant palette. This concept is called Nine Natives. Collectively, these nine species have a long bloom cycle, complement each other aesthetically, don’t get too tall, and serve a wide variety of wildlife throughout the year. Click here for more details.
- Bluebonnets & Texan Heritage: Plant Texas Bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) in your new pocket prairie if possible. While this annual wildflower is not a tallgrass prairie species, it carries a lot of cultural weight and will help to build a bridge of understanding between your neighbors and your project. The prairie is the landscape that gave rise to Texas icons like barbecue, cowboys, rodeos, and more. Take advantage of this unique habitat-culture connection!
Step 4: Plant Your Pocket Prairie
Planting day is the start of a new phase for your pocket prairie. A good goal is to involve neighbors, family members, students, scouts, civic or religious groups, kids, etc. You want buy-in for your project, so remember to start from the beginning!
- Seeding: Distribute your purchased and wild-collected seeds over the planting area. The seeds need to make contact with the soil. Sometimes it helps to mix the seeds with a sand. Then have your helpers stomp the seeds into the clean seed bed, or use a water-filled roller rented at a home improvement store.
- Live plants: Plant live plants 2-3 feet apart to allow for growth. A quick rule of thumb is 500 live plugs per acre for wild prairie restorations, but use as many live plugs as you can to jump start your project.
- Seed Balls: Want to engage your team and get more planting materials for your pocket prairie? If so, consider making seed balls. A quick rule of thumb is to make one seed ball for each square foot of planting area. These should be made at least a day ahead and allowed to dry. Instructions can be found at wildflower.org.
Step 5: Make and Record Observations
Enjoy your prairie! One of the joys of creating a pocket prairie is seeing wildlife and indigenous plants quickly reappear where once they were gone. Creating a record of what’s returning can give your project added meaning and can help you tell your pocket prairie’s story. It can also give you good ideas about what is still missing and what you might plant to entice birds, insects, or other creatures you would like to see.
Share your observations:
- iNaturalist: iNaturalist and the iNaturalist app are a quick, fun, and geographically accurate way of recording what you find. They are also fantastic for giving suggestions of what you are seeing based on other local observations, taking a little of the guesswork out of species identification. Posting observations to iNaturalist.org also allows you to be a citizen scientist, helping the whole community crowdsource scientific observations of what is living in our region.
- Facebook: Creating a photo album or even a whole page dedicated to your pocket prairie is also a good way of both teaching about and monitoring your project. St. Julian’s Crossing Wildlife Crossing and White Oak Pocket Prairie are two good examples.
Pocket Prairie Resources:
- The Lady Bird Johnnson Wildflower Center has a helpful article on pocket prairies. Read more…
- The Nine Natives Garden is a way to get started. Read more…
- For the Houston School Yard Pocket Prairie story, click here.
- Join the community on the Pocket Prairie Teachers Facebook page!
Native Plant Resources:
- Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT) native plant resources
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s native plant lists
- Check out NPSOT’s From Nuisance to NICE! article.
- Or take a native landscaping class like NPSOT’s Native Landscaping Certification Class.
- Local native plants are those listed as such in county maps of either USDA Plant Database
Classic Resource Books:
- 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.