A Large Backyard Prairie

A Large Backyard Prairie

Part of Ep. 601 Landscaping with Wisconsin Wildflowers

Discover the prairie in an urban neighborhood in Madison.  Landscape architect John Diekelmann has transformed his backyard into a work of art using native Wisconsin prairie plantings.

Premiere date: Feb 28, 1998

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
You may find it hard to believe, but we're in a very urban neighborhood on the west side of Madison. We're in the back yard of John Diekelmann. And John is one of co-authors of a book on natural landscaping. John I think you conquered natural landscaping here. This is incredible! We should admit though, you have a yard that's a little bigger than most urban homeowners have.

John:
Yeah, it's almost 2 acres. And actually, we bought it for that very reason. When we did move in, it was all lawn and two large vegetable gardens. It took me four hours to mow it.

Shelley:
That's a lot of work.

John:
If I wasn't a prairie convert before, I certainly was after that exercise.

Shelley:
Well, is this something that occurs just by stopping mowing?

John:
No, it really doesn't. There's only one-tenth of one percent of the praire left in the Great Plains. One has to acrively pursue planting this, either by seeds or started plants or both.

Shelley:
I would imagine that not having to mow would be one of the major reasons for planting a praire like this.

John:
Well you're exactly right. Of course, there's strong environmental reasons to minimize mowing, as well as personal reasons. But another strong reason for me, is as a landscape architect, I like to think of this as art. And it's an art that suggested a different batch of possibilities.

Shelley:
Well, it has a beauty that seems to be almost year round. I mean, we were here in mid-summer visiting you, and I can not believe the changes from then until now in late fall.

John:
Exactly, and as you can see there's a variety of light and shadow and plays of color. And even, you notice the grass blowing in the wind-- it really is called a sea of grass.

Shelley:
It's beautiful.

John:
So, there's a dynamic quality to the landscape that many other landscapes really don't have.

Shelley:
What's another reason to plant prairie like this?

John:
Well, I think a very important reason for me is it's a way of giving thanks over thousands of years. The prairie plants are the very plants that have built the soil that our agricultural plants thrive on. So, the prairie is our history and it probably is our future in some respects.

Shelley:
Okay, let's talk about maintenance. You don't have to mow, so I assume it's a low maintenance all around.

John:
I'm lucky, I can burn. We burn once a year and with that, the prairie is able to squeeze out weeds.

Shelley:
And the initial establishment is pretty easy or...?

John:
It's just a difficult as any perennial garden or even a vegetable garden.

Shelley:
It's a lot of work, then.

John:
It's a lot of work. But again, one doesn't need to burn. One can mow once a year, and that's still a lot less work.

Shelley:
So, once it's in, that's about it?
John:
Pretty much. The size of this yard allows me to have over 400 species of native Wisconsin plants, both forest and prairie.

Shelley:
That's a lot of variety.

John:
It really is. And if you recall from the summer, we had the vivid red-orange of butterfly milkweed.

Shelley:
Beautiful colors.

John:
It was. And remember the big bluestem?

Shelley:
In the summer, it's a very green stately grass.

John:
That's right. And you can see it now beginning to change to fall color here.

Shelley:
Look at the difference.

John:
Of course, again, the size of the yard enables me to have more larger plants.

Shelley:
And who would guess, fall color on a grass? That's beautiful.

John:
And I think most grasses don't have fall color. But typically, the prairie plants do.

Shelley:
And there are other benefits to some of the diversity you have here.

John:
Well, there's some really interesting things. One, if you recall, bergamot. Again, beautiful lavendar flowers. I've seen birds actually shake the seed heads of bergamot out onto snow.

Shelley:
So, they're harvesting it?

John:
They're harvesting it. They know exactly what to do. They shake the seeds out onto the snow and eat the seeds off the snow.

Shelley:
Are there lots of prairie plants then that provide seed for the birds?

John:
Just about all the prairie plants, I think, birds will utilize. Especially the thistle we talked about. They're very popular with goldfinches.

Shelley:
Now, I do not think of thistles as a prairie plant. Is this a native plant?

John:
This one is. The weedy thistles are actually introduced species. This is a biennial, but it's not weedy.

Shelley:
Okay. One of the other things that I always think of-- and I hear prairie enthusiast saying that with a prairie you get four seasons of color, from frost to frost. It seems like there are flowers in here long after my perennial bed has just given up.

John:
Exactly, that's a good point. Especially in conjunction with
the grass colors, the deep blues of the gentians and the asters are quite spectacular in the fall.

Shelley:
And even compass plant, I think, has some fall color to it.

John:
Compass plant on occassion can turn a transparent yellow that's really nice. And then, you get it backed up with bronze grass colors and it's as nice a color combination as you could hope for.

Shelley:
So, there really is something to enjoy year round in a prairie.

John:
Exactly.

Shelley:
That's Great. Thanks John. Isn't this a great reason to put a little bit of wildness into your own backyard?

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