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University of Minnesota Extension

Planting and maintaining a prairie garden

What is a prairie?

Prairies are ecosystems that grow where the climate dictates limited rainfall, hot summers and cold winters. Plants growing in prairies are typically non-woody, or herbaceous plants. Trees are rare in a prairie and are confined to wet areas or along rivers or streams.

  • Prairies are dominated by grasses and usually benefit from periodic fires.

  • Prairie soils are rich in organic matter from the decomposition of plant material, especially the fibrous roots of grasses produced in previous growing seasons.

  • A native plant is one that was growing naturally in a specific area before white or European settlement.

  • A wildflower, also called a forb, is a native plant that is not a grass and grows without human care.

  • Non-native plants are sometimes called "exotics" or “introduced”, whether they were introduced hundreds of years ago by settlers and travelers, or recently purchased from a mail order nursery catalog.

Residential prairie or prairie garden

A residential prairie or prairie garden is a smaller site, typically 1/4 acre or larger, which has been planted with native grasses, sedges and wildflowers.

  • It reflects the original grassland vegetation dominant in the Midwest prior to European settlement.
  • It is a low-maintenance landscape that encourages a diversity of plant and animal species.

The importance of prairies

  • Prairies provide a place for many diverse plants that support a wide range of birds, butterflies and other native wildlife. Without suitable prairie habitat, many birds, insects and butterflies are reduced in number and are in danger of becoming threatened and extinct.  

  • Homeowners can plant prairie gardens in an urban or suburban area that can be part of a larger ecosystem that will provide suitable habitat for many native plants, insects and birds.

  • Over the years, a prairie may take less time and money to maintain than a conventional lawn, with reduced use of irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers and mowing.

  • Even though prairies were not native landscapes in all of Minnesota, a prairie garden or restored prairie can be grown in most areas of the state.

Prairie history

Prairies are divided or classified by height, which is determined by yearly rainfall.

  • In the eastern part of the Midwest, including Minnesota, is the tallgrass prairie.
  • Further west is the mid-grass prairie.
  • On the western edge, in Colorado, is the shortgrass prairie.

Prairies were once dominant from Ontario south to Texas, and from Colorado and Montana east to Indiana.

  • In Minnesota, tallgrass prairies thrived in the southern and western parts of the state, while pine and spruce coniferous forest dominated the north and northeast.
  • Maple and basswood deciduous forests covered most of the east central and southeastern part of the state.

Planting a residential or prairie garden


For additional help in establishing and maintaining your prairie, consult private restoration or landscaping companies and the Department of Natural Resources.

Mary Meyer, Extension horticulturist and Julie Weisenhorn, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2019

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