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Taking prairie into your urban landscape

There is a big difference between Willa Cather’s prairie and the backyard urban prairie — and it’s more than acres versus square footage, size and scale or poetic prose.

Deciding to add some prairie to your yard is often about personal aesthetics and sometimes wanting to make an environmental change as well.

Mark Canney, park and garden designer of Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department, contends there are many influences that shape our horticulture preferences. In a recent seminar at Finke Gardens and Nursery on the topic of prairie landscapes, he cited travel as one. And in Nebraska, that might be as simple as a road trip to the Sandhills.

In taking a more artistic approach, consider your favorite paintings — in Canney’s case, “The Prairie is My Garden,” by artist Harvey Dunn — or classic literature, such as “A Lantern in Her Hand,” by Bess Streeter Aldrich.

On a less cerebral level, a homeowner might decide to go this route because he liked a neighbor’s take on prairie in their landscape or had seen bits and pieces of prairie on the University of Nebraska East campus or at the new Union Plaza at 21st and Q Streets.

Trademarks of prairie landscaping include the constant seasonal change of the plantings and a diversity of texture and form. Canney defined prairie plantings as needing moderate rainfall and included grasses, shrubs, tough perennials and wildflowers.

Rethinking landscapes is in many homeowners’ plans after last summer’s drought. Luann Finke said the possibility of water restrictions is in the forefront of her customers’ planting requests.

“We’re retro-fitting some sunny spots,” she said.

In established neighborhoods where trees cast a lot of shade, prairie plants are not going to work as well.

Waterwise plants are usually a part of a prairie-style planting and offer ecological diversity, according to Canney.

Native plants (those which were original to our area) and native introductions (not necessarily original, but with similar growing requirements) are obvious picks for this kind of landscape. And the great thing about native plant material is that it has survived over the decades, so it is a pretty sure bet to make it despite our erratic weather.

Looking at pros and cons of prairie planting will help decide how much — or little — you want to add to your yard.

Here are the pros:

* Heat (and cold) tolerant

* Low maintenance

* Ever-changing

* Economical (if you use seeds)

And the cons:

* Some view it as unattractive or messy-looking

* Slow to establish (plan on three years)

* Out of place in your neighborhood

* Many prairie plants are very tall or very full

There are a variety of ways to add prairie plants. Although grasses are a part of the prairie, they are only one of the options for use in your yard. Flowering perennials contribute color. Shrubs add form.

Some considerations include the scale of your planting — is it a tiny corner of your garden or the entire width of your lot? Then step back and take a look at the planted area from a distance. The color palette you select may decide which plants are chosen and how they are organized.

Starting on a very small scale — just dipping your green thumb into the prairie style — may be easier to do with one-gallon plants, as opposed to seeds, suggests Canney. Set them out and rearrange, until you have exactly what you want.

Here’s an example of a plant material for a small area with recognizable prairie style, using nine one-gallon plants. It could include three taller switchgrass plants; two shorter grasses, such as blue stem; and four one gallon perennials — one each that blooms in early spring, late spring, summer and fall. Examples Canney suggests are a pasque flower for early spring, baptisa for later spring, a coneflower for summer and an aster for fall.

If you are headed in the prairie-style landscape direction but can’t quite picture it in an urban setting, go to Union Plaza at 21st and Q Streets. In addition to a large swath of prairie grasses that run along the bike path, there are several smaller planted areas to check out, said Canney.

In the Assurity Overlook mound, for example, an assortment of Amsonia, sand cherry shrubs, purple prairie clover, Missouri primrose and shrub roses are planted in an orderly design.

Nearby, there are large concrete planters that have a prairie vibe with grasses and other perennials.

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