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by Jean Gramlich

Vern Stephens, co-founder of Designs By Nature LLC in Laingsburg, a nursery and landscaping company, spoke on using natives in landscaping at our July meeting. Before starting the business he was a grassland and invasive species specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He runs a 40 acre farm with no pesticides and fertilizers and never waters. He matches the plant to the soil type and lets nature take its course. He recommends using the Prairie Moon catalog as a cultural guide.

Natives have evolved in our climate – the cold and the drought as well as the poor quality soils. They can out-compete weeds. Native grasses sequester carbon and have extensive root systems (up to 15 feet) that help to control erosion.  Flowers and grasses, such as little bluestem and prairie dropseed, together provide diversity. Pollinators prefer an area 3-5 feet wide with the same flowers. Prairie plants provide winter thermal protection and a food source for wildlife as well as nesting habitat. Prairies can absorb 7” of rain per hour. Before European settlement Michigan had 2.3 million acres of prairie, and 99.2% of that has been lost.

Site preparation for a prairie can be done in a number of ways, but he recommends a combination of burning, cultivation and herbicide. The pH should be between 5.5 and 6.5. Remove the existing vegetation by burning, and follow up by cultivating 2” deep. Herbicide whatever comes up after that, then plant and mulch. Monitor for weed development.

Prairies should consist of 30% grasses and 70% wildflowers, both host and nectar plants for butterflies:  one wildflower plant per square foot and one grass plant per 3 square feet. Seeding is slow but cheaper; while plugs grow faster and quart pots faster still.

In spring remove litter by burning or mowing before green-up. On large plantings consider removing 1/3 of the litter per year.

There are many lists of grasses and wildflowers which are native to Michigan’s prairies. As per above the Prairie Moon catalog is a good place to start. Vern Stephens can be reached at and 517-651-6502.