The nasty drought of 2021 wasn’t the region’s first and it likely won’t be the last. Is nature calling us back to a simpler prairie landscape that suited the Upper Midwest well for millennia, surviving through thick and thin?

A lush, green lawn with children playing tag in grass-stained jeans is a beautiful picture. Also delightful is a rolling prairie where native grasses dotted with wildflowers ripple in the wind. If climate makes it difficult to maintain the water-thirsty green lawn as we know it, should we seek the graceful beauty of the prairie instead?

Dexter Perkins decided to try, and four years ago converted his Grand Forks, N.D., yard into a natural prairie-type landscape. Perkins, who works for the University of North Dakota’s Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, encourages others to follow suit, and shared the story of his prairie in a recent interview.

Black-eyed Susans and purple clover in the backyard. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum
Black-eyed Susans and purple clover in the backyard. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum

Q: What prompted you to turn your yard into a prairie landscape?

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A: We constructed the only LEED Platinum-certified house in the Dakotas, Montana or Wyoming, and there are only a couple in Minnesota. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.) Our house meets all the highest green building standards, and planting only native vegetation is consistent with LEED goals.

Beyond that, we are nature lovers, and we like yards and gardens that look natural, and where things are not in rows or in structured beds. Why have a turf lawn that needs mowing and other maintenance? Why not have a wild yard that requires less work?

The front yard is wild and doesn't require mowing. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum
The front yard is wild and doesn't require mowing. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum

Q: Did you install the prairie yard yourself?

A: Most of the original work was done by Prairie Restoration Co., which has since become part of Minnesota Native Landscapes. After the initial work, we have done all that is needed.

Q: How did you choose the plant material?

A: We looked at the Minnesota Wildflowers website, which has great information and photos. We made a long list of things we wanted and in total put in about 140 plant species. We have seen 110-120 flowering so far. Whenever we look hard, we find new ones that we did not notice previously. Not everything needs to be seeded; plugs are better for some plants, seeds for others.

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Q: How long did your prairie landscape take to develop?

A: Planting was done in midsummer and not much happened that first season. The next year saw many different flowers but with limited diversity. It really began to look like something after two growing seasons, but there were few grasses until the third season. And it evolved further in the fourth season with new flowers and grasses showing up.

Purple Asters bloom in the prairie landscape. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum
Purple Asters bloom in the prairie landscape. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum

Q: What are some of the challenges?

A: This project was surprisingly simple. The big challenge for me was that it required several years of patience. We also needed to decide whether we cared about getting rid of all weeds. We have not done a great deal of weeding, except at the beginning, and the prairie sort of takes care of that for itself.

The literature told us that the prairie vegetation would take over and out-compete the weeds if we were patient. But we were not. The first year, dandelions and black medic were plentiful. We could not stand it, and cut the dandelions at ground level and put one eyedropper of glyphosate Roundup on every stem. We also pulled plantains and thistles, but if I had to do it again, I would give them the drop-of-Roundup treatment. We really have not weeded much at all this year.

A blue flag wildflower blooms in the prairie landscape. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum
A blue flag wildflower blooms in the prairie landscape. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum

Q: What advice would you give to others wishing to create a prairie yard?

A: First, just do it. It’s easy and you will have no regrets. To start, kill everything with chemicals or a tarp or mat. This is recommended by many, but we did not do it. That’s probably why dandelions and other weeds were such a nuisance at the beginning.

Second, create mini-ecosystems. Develop very low spots where water collects and higher spots where water drains quickly. Create some sandy areas. Finally, plant as many varieties of plants as you can; you don’t know what will thrive and what will not.

Q: Any other comments?

A: Each year things are different. Not only does the prairie change year to year, but different plants thrive at different times. We keep records of when all the different types bloom and it’s cool to chronicle the changes.

Our prairie had no problem with dryness and heat this summer, and there was no need to water at all! I think it’s safe to say we have the prettiest prairie in the region, and I would encourage others to go native with their yards as well.

Prairie grasses in the yard. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum
Prairie grasses in the yard. Photo courtesy of Dexter Perkins / Special to The Forum

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.