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Why Native Grasses and Prairies


Backyard prairie with native grasses, shrubs and forbs.


By Emmy Ulmschneider and Debbie Roland, Master Gardeners

This will be the first in a series of articles on our native prairie grasses that can be used to enhance your yard. But first we need to know a bit more about prairies. Prairies are our heritage and we have celebrated them in song from “God Bless America” to “Home on the Range”. Prairies once stretched form Texas all the way into Canada covering 170 million acres. Today, less than 1% of this once vast ocean of grass remains. This rich landscape, dominated by deep rooted prairie grasses was plowed up for cropland and growth and in the 1930’s, during the severe drought of the Dust Bowl, without the stabilizing, deep roots of prairie grasses, our rich prairie topsoil was blown away.

Today prairie plants, and in particular prairie grasses, are making a comeback not only here in the United States but as valued additions to gardens and landscapes around the world. They are being planted for their beauty and the qualities that made them survivors on the prairies. In addition to their strong, deep roots which hold soil together and prevent erosion, they are tolerant of drought and temperature extremes, two conditions that are becoming more prevalent in West Texas. They do not need supplemental water or fertilizers, and they are pest and disease resistant. They are natives, they know how to survive. In addition, they cycle nutrients, store carbon, and provide habitat for native wildlife! All this from a simple grass! Although we have lost the prairies of the past, today we can all experience the benefits of prairies. A prairie can be any size from a pocket prairie tucked away in a small downtown open space, to a meadow front yard, to a prairie restoration on ranches. All of these are becoming more common.

So why prairies? Well, they require less water, less work, and give more life to a landscape. I love to watch the movement of large prairie grasses in the wind or look for the butterflies, lizards, and birds that shelter under or around them. In addition to their physical abilities to improve our soil and provide habitat, they connect us to our heritage out here on the Llano Estacado. Because of the interest in using prairie grasses as design elements in upscale gardens such as the Highline Garden in New York City, there are so many online and print references to help create a prairie that fits your size and lifestyle.

So, get online, revisit the PBMG blog, go to the library, and do your homework before the Permian Basin Master Gardener Plant sale! Check out these amazing prairie grasses and other prairie plants to see how they are used from a backyard patio to a front yard meadow.

If you have questions, call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700.

Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at westtexasgardening.org. Click on “Resources”.

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