Special Reports

Restoring the prairie one backyard at a time

Last summer, we were getting estimates to fix the pump to a waterfall by our deck. One worker from a local nursery looked at the pump, gazed across our backyard and told my wife: "For a little extra, we'll also come in and clear out all these weeds for you."

We didn't hire that company. It also didn't surprise me that someone whose employer specializes in plants didn't recognize the Kansas native grasses and wildflowers in full summer bloom.

As we've cultivated our backyard prairie for the past five years, we've had to explain and educate people on the beauty that grows naturally around them. The same time we began our project, police in the suburb of Bel Aire mistook maximillian sunflowers for marijuana. We have a whole patch of those plants. Sunflowers, that is.

It started when my wife, Gaye, complained that she hadn't had much luck with plants in our College Hill backyard. I had always wanted to do a native plant landscape, because I heard they saved water, enriched the soil, prevented storm water runoff and attracted wildlife such as birds and butterflies. If nothing else would grow, we figured, prairie plants would.

"Native plants are more adaptable to our hot, dry conditions, so you don't have to mow and do all the maintenance you normally would," said Mike Haddock of Kansas State University, whose web database of grasses and wildflowers has served as valuable research.

Gaye will argue about the maintenance part, especially after the great Johnson grass fiasco of 2006 -- now legend around our house. As we were trying to get the prairie established, I mistakenly thought the invasive Mediterranean grass was native Kansas, proving I also can mix up my weeds and wildflowers. I can still remember hearing Gaye's sniffling through tears as we uprooted patches of the white-striped grass. Now, we can recognize Johnson grass from its first sprig, or in a field from a moving car.

Environmental friendliness isn't always easy. It's taken years to get the backyard established. I look at it this way: it took about a century for European-born immigrants to destroy the vast prairies and get all medieval on us with grass lawns. Problem is, it's hotter and drier here than in Europe, so we have to spend lots of time and money on watering and pesticides. Native plants don't need that. It's also going to take some time to make up for decades of fescue invasion. So be patient.

You do have to weed. You can water wildflowers to keep blooms longer. But you don't have to water and there are fewer weeds every year. I only mow once a year -- with a pair of hand sheers. I cut back the plants, when the ranchers in the Flint Hills are burning their ranges. So far, the City of Wichita hasn't given me permission to set my backyard on fire, which would help control the weeds. I know this, because I've asked.

From the start, I worried about being fined for not mowing my yard. I registered my backyard with the National Wildlife Federation. Yes, you can do that. The NWF sent me a sign, which I posted above my meters to signify that, no, I didn't forget to mow my lawn. This was by design.

Turns out, it's just fine with the city if you grow native plants.

"Native plantings improve sustainability in a neighborhood tremendously," said Kay Johnson, the city's director of environmental initiatives. "For one thing, you're not getting the emissions from the constant mowing that occurs in the summer. It just has to be managed. You can't just decide to stop mowing. You need to have a plan and select the proper plants."

The tough part: finding prairie plants.

Experts say don't dig them out of the wild. It surprised me, however, that I couldn't find more than the occasional at local nurseries, which seem to concentrate on exotic plants.

I found a couple of invaluable resources to sustain my search for Kansas natives.

Kevan Hodges, owner of Prairie Earth, drives in a truckload of native plants from Elk Falls to sell each Saturday at the Kansas Grown Farmers Market, 21st and Ridge Road. Kevan has supplied us with so many hardy plants that he now greets us by first name and asks about our children.

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains near Hesston holds plant sales in May and June. It also has an extensive online plant database. The arboretum has been a great source for buying native grasses. It also has landscaping designs, with plant lists.

Don't let the names fool you: sneezeweed, coneflowers, beebalm and lead plant actually make for quite a showy garden.

Warning: You'll learn that Kansas is a much more beautiful place than most realize. And you'll discover these are not "weeds."

"One way to get past the weed label is to realize how valuable these plants were, in the way American Indians and early settlers used them for food and for medicinal purposes," Haddock said.

Using the online plant databases from Kansas State and Dyck Arboretum, I planned out a diverse array of wild flowers and grasses and that bloom at various times of the year. A variety of plants will also help attract birds and butterflies.

After a couple of years toiling on our backyard prairie, we took a trip to New York City. As I was walking toward the Empire State Building, Gaye called, telling me to meet her on a street corner, a short New York walk away.

Standing in front of an upscale apartment building, she pointed to the landscaping and said: "Look, switchgrass."

There, in front of ritzy address in Midtown Manhattan stood a professional landscape of plants growing in our Wichita backyard.

Weeds, indeed.