Native Prairie Plants for Birds

Native Prairie Plants for Birds

Part of Ep. 304 Early Winter Garden Care

Discover a great diversity of colors, textures, and heights with Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery near Westfield.

Premiere date: Sep 30, 1995

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
Prairies and prairie plants are becoming increasingly popular in Wisconsin gardens and it's easy to see why. I'm with Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery near Westfield, Wisconsin. Neil, these grasses are just gorgeous. This bluestem is just glowing this time of year.

Neil:
Yeah, this is little bluestem, which is one of my favorite prairie grasses because it has a really nice bluish-green color in the summer. In the fall, it turns a lovely crimson orange-yellow-green mix. Then finally moving all the way into crimson for the winter. So this grass helps give the prairie, really, four seasons of interest.

Shelley:
You've got a whole field of it planted here.

Neil:
Yeah, in this situation, I've got about a half an acre. And, maybe ten years ago you would think I would just plant that to turf grass or something like that. And then, mow it every week or every two weeks. Then, fertilize it so you can mow it some more, and so on and so forth. But, what more and more people are doing is they're saying let's rethink our landscapes and the way we're interrelating with nature. And, why not restore some of the native plants, like the prairie plants and create a situation that's good for the environment, encourages birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, saves us time and, eventually, saves us money.

Shelley:
Well, my favorite reason, still, is simply to look out my window. Even in January, that's pretty.

Neil:
This is beautiful in the winter, especially with a little snow mixed in. You have this red coming out of the snow. It's absolutely gorgeous.

Shelley:
Let's look at some of the other plants that we're likely to see in native prairie.

Neil:
Great!

Shelley:
What about the concept of plant community? That these co-exist?

Neil:
Well, if you look at the prairie, it really is a very specific plant community which is a mix of different flowers and grasses together. And what we're doing is basically copying nature and saying, "how did nature make a prairie?" We take those elements and then we can maybe stylize them a little bit, but basically maintain the ecological integrity of that plant community. So, we mix grasses with legumes-- the nitrogen-fixing, native plants, like the prairie clovers and others like that and asters, goldenrods, all kinds of different flowers mixed with the grasses. Together, they work to squeeze out the weeds through their root systems. So, we're letting nature do the work for us. We work with nature instead of against her.

Shelley:
That's great.

Neil:
And, Shelley, here's a perfect example of the diversity you can pack into a relatively small area on your prairie.

Shelley:
You've got a lot of stuff, just right here in this two or three feet.

Neil:
Yeah, just a few square feet. And, here we have the sky-blue aster which is a late bloomer. Here we are in October and it's still blooming.

Shelley:
So, asters, in general, are late bloomers.

Neil:
Yes, September, October

Shelley:
Most of them.

Neil:
You get that kind of fall finale in your prairie with the asters.

Shelley:
OK, what about the plant in front of it, then?

Neil:
This is a really unusual plant and it's very rare in Wisconsin. This is wild quinine which has beautiful pure white flowers in July and August. And now here, later in the season, it's starting to turn kind of a grayish color.

Shelley:
Yeah, but these seed pods-- these seed heads are beautiful by themselves.

You can do a lot with this. Another seedhead, and this is another rare plant, pale purple cone flower. This also has beautiful flowers in June and July. Then you have these nice little seed heads that you can use for dried arrangements. So, you get double duty out of your prairie. You can enjoy the flowers in the summer and then bring in the flowers as cut flowers, or bring them in as dried seed heads.

Shelley:
Or just leave them out here and enjoy them outside your window, too.

Neil:
Exactly.

Shelley:
Now with rare plants like these, we don't-- how do we recommend people grow them?

Neil:
Get your own seeds from a reputable source. There are some people who still think it's appropriate to go along the roadsides and dig plants which is a good way to kill plants. And, I think it's illegal, too.

Shelley:
Especially with a rare one like these.

Neil:
Definitely illegal with these. They'll put you in jail.

Shelley:
OK, that'll take care of that question then. All right, another one, this one doesn't have a seed head or anything, but it's a striking plant-- just the leaves.

Neil:
Yeah, this is compass plant. This is a baby, it's only five years old.

Shelley:
This is five years old!

Neil:
Yeah, it's very slow growing, but the plant can live 40, 50, 60 years. Nobody really knows how long they live, but they're very very long lived. It's called a compass plant because the leaves tend to orient themselves north-south.

Shelley:
So, could I use this if I was lost in the prairie?

Neil:
Yeah, possibly. (laughing)I wouldn't recommend it, but typically, it will line up north and south.

Shelley:
It really will.

Neil:
They'll have seed heads. When it's mature, it'll get six, seven, eight, ten feet tall.

Shelley:
Oh, wow. Now, you had said that this site that we're on had some problems with it. That's why a prairie was such a good solution for you. This is basically bedrock.

Shelley:
That's the problem.

Neil:
This prairie is planted on a little bit of soil over some dolomite bedrock. One of the reasons that a prairie is a great solution for a problem situation is that they're drought tolerant. They're able to tolerate all kinds of difficult conditions. So, by selecting the right plants that will grow on the site, I can get all kinds of flowers and grasses with not a lot of work.

Shelley:
And on top of solid rock, too.

Neil:
Exactly.

Shelley:
Well, you know one of the things that I think I like of the prairie are the diversity of colors, of textures, and the heights. Now as you said, the compass plant will get ten feet tall. Are there grasses that will match that kind of tall flower?

Neil:
Yeah, there are and that way you can mix them with taller plants and some of the taller grasses. In fact, one of my favorites is right back here. This is indian grass. The tall one about five or six feet tall.

Shelley:
With the bronzy seed heads almost? They're beautiful.

Neil:
Yeah, exactly, they're bronze, spear-like seed heads. It's gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. That'll hold up pretty well, all the way up to early winter and then it will drop its seeds. Typically, the stems swill stay erect over the winter.

Shelley:
What is the more oat-looking grass in front of it, the one that's shorter.

Neil:
Oat, exactly, side-oats grandma. It's about two to three feet tall grass. It's one of the shorter prairie grasses. Indian grass was placed in there specifically to give kind of vertical punctuation to that landscape.

Shelley:
Kind of a statement that way.

Neil:
Yeah, exactly, so you get the flowers all summer. Then in the winter, you get these grasses mingling together creating their own landscape. It's really like two landscapes in one.

Shelley:
Well now, I still see a late-season bloomer, the goldenrods.

Neil:
Yeah, this is, Shelley, goldenrod and it's still going on. And you can see all the insects that are still using it. Look at all the butterflies in there that are still pollinating. This is a very, very important late-season nectar source for a variety of beneficial wildlife.

Shelley:
And so we're providing seeds, we're providing shelter, color for us. Just about everything we need.

Neil:
And the birds eat the seeds in the fall and the insects that are attracted to the flowers during the summer are one of the prime foods for young baby birds.

Shelley:
So, lots of reasons to plant a prairie.

Neil:
Lots of reasons.

Shelley:
Great, thanks, Neil.

Neil:
Thanks, Shelley.

EPISODE SEGMENTS+

Funding for The Wisconsin Gardener is provided, in part, by The Wisconsin Master Gardener Association.