Prairie is Oklahoma's natural heritage. It’s an indigenous ecosystem that has perpetually conspired to feed, awaken, heal, balance, and benefit the planet for millennia. Prairie is a literal grocery store and pharmacy for humans and wildlife alike, and you are smackdab in the middle of it. Growing a prairie habitat garden is a life-affirming opportunity to (re)connect with nature and open your heart to receive the infinite health and wellness derived from a relationship with the natural world.
Learning to observe nature, honor non-human life forces, and love the land engenders humility, an innate sense of stewardship, and even self-love.
A stunning community of wildflowers and grasses once blanketed every square foot of the Central Great Plains. Yet we Oklahomans sometimes fixate on our challenging weather conditions and difficult red soils, leaving us gardeners feeling defeated before we even get started. With a little information, it’s possible to harness Oklahoma’s perfectly-conditioned harsh climate and iron-rich clay soils to sustain a beautifully dynamic, cost-effective, and water-efficient landscape called the Urban Prairie garden.
Urban Prairie gardens are also the best sustainable landscaping for urban-dwelling Okies. The historical development of Oklahoma City’s neighborhoods has created urban heat islands and overly compacted soils.
Believe it or not, they are perfectly suited for Urban Prairie gardens and just so happen to keenly replicate the ideal setting for prairie to prosper. The Oklahoma Historic Preservation Standards and Guidelines and the Oklahoma City Office of Sustainability both praise the benefits of this type of gardening, for reasons similar to my own.
Here’s why I love Urban Prairie gardens:
1) Native prairie grasses and wildflowers create habitat for a host of pollinators--including butterflies and bees--which make possible more than 70% of human food crops. Info about what to plant, where to buy plants, and more can be found at Okies for Monarchs and the Nature Conservancy.
2) Healthy ecosystems boost biodiversity. Creating an indigenous garden attracts helpful insects, which in turn attract birds and small mammals that eat them.
3) Oklahoma’s native prairie plants (think grasses, wildflowers, and thicket shrubs) have evolved over centuries to not only survive these harsh weather conditions and extremes, but to thrive in them. As a matter of fact, the root systems of these plants extend down into the soil over three times the height of the actual plant, firmly anchoring them to resist heavy winds, tornados, and even blue northers.
4) Prairie plant communities seasonally germinate, grow, bloom, and go dormant in tandem with natural rainfall and hydrologic cycles of the Central Great Plains, so additional irrigation is not necessary. The penetrating root systems also allow the plants to reach deeper water sources and persist in natural conditions.
5) Studies are showing that home gardens that incorporate exclusively native plants translate into $2,200 per year in cost savings, because they use 77% less water, create 66% less waste, and require 68% less labor than traditional gardens composed of non-native plants and vast lawn areas.
6) Forget about soil amendments, composts, and fertilizers. In a prairie ecosystem, the plants, microbes, invertebrates, and small mammals symbiotically transform the soil naturally over time, not the other way around. Even more amazing, the same wildflowers and grasses that grow in Oklahoma’s clay soils are also growing in Colorado’s gravelly soils, demonstrating their resourcefulness.
7) Perhaps start by converting a portion of unsustainable lawn-scape into a prolifically flowering prairie garden, complete with butterflies, bumblebees, and hummingbirds. Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, try joining forces with the neighborhood in creating a continuous habitat corridor of prairie that seamlessly interconnects all yards with a thriving ribbon of living landscape.
In order to re-envision community, we must re-envision our own backyards. It is within that intimate outdoor space where people and plants, families and flora, prairie and concrete meet that we gain inspiration, find personal restoration, and renew our interdependent relationship with the natural world.
Jamie is a landscape architect.