for Piet’s sake!

The Prairie Inspired Garden

In 2010, I was able to make a much anticipated trip to New York, New York, for a family wedding event. Tops on my list of places to see while I was there of course was the High Line, the internationally famous public garden, said to be “the most Instagrammed place on Earth”.

The High Line is exactly that, an old abandoned elevated industrial rail line on Manhattan’s west side that runs along the Hudson piers. As the rail sat unused for about 30 years, a self-seeded prairie-like landscape developed and became the subject of a photographer Joel Sternfeld’s creative interests. He spent a year photographing the many parts of the line, capturing a collection of images that would later be used to sell the idea of transitioning the rail to a linear public park.

A cracker jack team of designers and horticulturists was assembled to further develop the idea, including the very capable Netherlands based planting designer Piet Oudolf – he was most instrumental in choosing plant approaches and plant lists. The result is a garden that’s a hybrid between a natural prairie garden the English border garden. Oudolf used native prairie grasses and perennial wildflowers but he included many many horticultural selections of native species, and also some species that are not native to the Americas. Even the non native species look at home amongst the prairie plant drifts. The planting lists for the gardens are long, and made up mostly of herbs and grasses, with some plantings of small trees and shrubs, and vines and bulbs.

The design emphasis of the High Line is on low input, drought tolerant species that save on resources, something to consider when your garden is a mile and a half long.

The design approach is rather simple, using mass plantings of species that contrast in color, texture, and form  – species that are tough and hold their own in the landscape. By using so many different species, the designers planned for an unfolding landscape, month to month, much like the continuous interest a natural area relict prairie would provide. The result is simplistic, but rather beautiful, any time of the year. The substance of the garden design and its overall horticultural appeal is significant. It is said that 5 million people visit the High Line each year.

I visited during the month of January so I saw the gardens at their weakest. I was still very much impressed with them. I could still identify most of the plants.

Mr. Oudolf is a much sought after garden designer famous for his work with grasses and perennials. He promotes the perennial plant garden and points out that winter-frosted perennials and grasses have character, too.

He has designed the High Line gardens to mimic the American prairie, with grasses as bones of the garden, the cloth that the garden color is woven into. The gardens are perfectly attractive to pollinator species including butterflies, skippers, dragonflies, native bees and wasps, honeybees, and so forth.

Speaking from my perspective, grasses are used much like the evergreen shrub is in an English border garden; as a back drop for color, as a contrasting element – a whispy feature that highlights and refracts light, enhances and contrasts colors and textures. Grasses come in many shapes, sizes, and textures, but grasses are colorful, too. Switch grass may not be just right for every garden but there is no denying this plant has a bold presence. It starts off as a medium textured foliage emerging in late spring, subtle and unassuming. By mid-summer, its knee high – dense and robust. By fall, it is chest high, mostly rounded in form, and starting to produce its fine textured seed panicles, which crown the tops of the foliage mass with a smokey-mist effect. When first frost comes, the green linear leaves turn a clear crisp tan color, a very dramatic change that carries through the winter. Four different cultivars of Switch grass are used in the High Line gardens. Little Bluestem grass, a shorter, more vertically inclined plant is used extensively through the plantings. It has a contrasting blue foliage in summer and turns a reddish-ochre color in winter. The very popular and extraordinarily stylish Calamagrostus X Karl Foerster is another among the 30 different grasses that are used in the project altogether. Over 150 species of perennials accompany the grasses.

The practicality in using grasses is their sheer ability to sustain themselves with little or no care. Plant them and pretty much forget about them, though they generally need cutting back in late winter just before the new growth starts, generally in April or May. Grasses enable you to have twice as much garden with half as much care. If you’re planting the right grasses, they will likely last longer than you will – they’ll out live you!

Not all grasses are created equally. Some ecotypes (regionally local genetic strains) do not adapt permanently and can decline and fade from the landscape over a few years time. Try to source seed collected locally so the plants are more able to survive in our unique Gulf-influenced environmental extremes. After all, its best to be successful the first time around – unless of course you like failure.

The prairie inspired garden is becoming more accepted in horticultural circles. With so many species adaptable to this idea, the design possibilities are practically limitless.

Common Prairie Plants for Gardening in Louisiana


Little Bluestem grass
Yellow Indian grass
Split Beard Bluestem grass
Elliot’s Bluestem
Elliot’s Indian grass
Narrow Leafed Bluestem
Sporobolus junceus
Dicanthelium sp
Panicum anceps
Love grass
Winter Bent grass
Toothache grass
Purple Silky Scale grass
Aristida purpurascens
Tridens flavus
Triden strictus
Triden ambiguus
Eastern Gamma grass
Big Bluestem grass
Bushy Bluestem grass

WILDFLOWERS (perennials)

Baptisa alba
Baptisia nuttalli
Baptisia spherocarpa
Baptisia bracteata
Coreopsis linifolia
Coreopsis pubescens
Coreopsis tripteris
Coreopsis rosea
Coreopsis lanceolata
Tephrosia onobrychoides
Monarda lindhiemeri
Monarda fistulosa
Monarda citriodora
Monarda punctata
Pycnanthemum tenuifolia
Pycnanthemum albescens
Silphium gracile
Silphium integrifolia
Silphium laciniata
Scuttellaria integrifolia
Eryngium yuccafolia
Eryngium integrifolium
Tradescantia virginicus
Penstemon digitalis
Penstemon laxiflorus
Sabatia gentianoides
Callirhoe papaver
Rudbeckia texana
Rudbeckia grandiflora
Rudbeckia hirta
Rudbeckia subtomentosa
Bigelowia virgata
Liatris squarrosa
Liatris squarrulosa
Liatris elegans
Liatris spicata
Liatris acidota
Liatris pycnostachya
Erigeron philedalphicus
Erigeron strigosus
Boltonia asteroides
Eupatorium hyssopifolium
Eupatorium serotinum
Euthamia leptocephala
Euthamia tenuifolia
Lobelia puberula
Erythrinia herbacea
Physostegia digitalis
Rhexia mariana
Pityopsis pilosa
Solidago odora
Solidago rugosa
Solidago tortifolia
Solidago nemoralis
Solidago sempervirens
Echinacea pallida
Echinacea purpurea
Helianthus mollis
Helianthus angustifolia
Euphorbia colorata
Salvia azurea
Barrens Silky Aster
Amsonia tabernaemontana
Asclepias lanceolata
Asclepias obovata
Asclepias incarnata
Asclepias longifolia
Asclepias perennis
Asclepias rubra
Asclepias syriaca
Asclepias variegata
Asclepias verticilata
Asclepias viridiflora
Asclepias Viridis
Asclepias tuberosa

Where to Visit Prairie Gardens in the U.S

University of Wisconsin Arboretum, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Ws.

North Carolina Botanical Garden, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

Crosby Arboretum, Mississippi State University, Picayune, Ms.

Where to Visit Prairie Gardens in Louisiana

Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society, Eunice, La

Cajun Prairie Gardens, Eunice, La

Allen Acres B and B, Pitkin, La

St Landry Parish Visitor’s Center, Opelousas, La

Duralde Prairie Restoration, Duralde, La

Caroline Dorman Nature Preserve

LSU AgCenter Research and Gardens, Hammond, La

City of Mandeville Wildflower Conservation Area

City of Hammond – Chappapeela Park, Hammond, La

City of Monroe – Kiroli Park, Monroe, La

City of Covington – Blue Swamp Creek Nature Trail, Covington, La

Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology, University of Lafayette, Lafayette, La

Hamilton Hall, University of Lafayette, Lafayette, La

City Of New Iberia, Mr. Al (the Live Oak) Prairie, New Iberia, La

*the list provided is focused on Louisiana natives – consider other endemics native to your locale when developing your own garden lists – though many of the species listed here are generalists and not site specific

For more information on educational classes regarding native grasses and wildflower identification and culture, contact Dr. Charles M. Allen at


* this article written for December issue of Louisiana State Horticulture Society


cool lawn color from Oxalis at a New Orleans’ Lake Lawn funeral home

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A Green Meadow in Folsom

I have had a blast since last July working with Mr. and Mrs. Doug Green of Folsom, assisting them in the design of their now-planted prairie-meadow project. They have developed a home site on six acres of land just east of town.

During my first visit we discussed his ideas and looked at where our activities should be focused. The focus area in total is about three acres, most of the ground north of the homesite. We walked about, identifying existing vegetation on the ground. We discussed working with the tree plantings that he had established and so forth and so on.

When Katrina blew through in 2005, it layed down all of the mature pines on their property. So Doug got busy, replanting trees in what was then a fairly barren, mowed field. There are oaks and maples and some other native hardwoods now that have grown nicely, nutured by their owner. Doug told me right-off, that his intention was to plant Long Leaf pines to further fill the area with a loosely arranged tree canopy, creating the image of the natural Pine savannah-type landscape. This was right up my alley. I liked all of his ideas.

As we walked the grounds, I was looking for bad weeds, since they can cause an adjustment in the design and in the planting schedule. But there were no bad ones to be found! In fact the vegetation on the ground plain was quite “clean” of weeds. Most of what was there was good, early succession stuff. The only offender was some carpet grass which I considered to be only a nominal miscreant.

Then it was off to the drawing board for me, to design an awesome pyrogenic(fire dependent) landscape. I am no landscape architect (but I play one on TV, ha!). However, after 30 years, I can deliver a half-decent hardcopy conceptual, albeit in magic marker and crayola.


above: This was my first valiant attempt. Kind of simplistic, huh?: a loop of mowed walking trail surrounded by prairie-meadow and a great lawn area adjacent to and extending from the house. The yellow is meadow. The green is lawn. Ho, hum. Yawn. click on the photo to enlarge it.

Doug liked that and asked if I would further develop the idea, so I produced a more complex, five-legged-drunken-octopus/terantula-looking thing. The dark green areas are walking trails and lawn area, the yellow is meadow and the light green is wet meadow, pitcher plant bog/ pond cypress/ upland mix. Its a little bit “busy”, but there are some nice forms. The ideas are solid.


I really like the overall concept here, but I backed off of the complexity a bit and whittled it down some to a more refined study. A more simplified trail system with more interior “spaces” or “garden rooms”, subtle “enclosures” about the landscape, for the purpose of creating more intimate spaces in what is otherwise, something comparable to a very large Broadway stage.


above: In this, the green is mixed, wooded plantings added to further the idea of enclosure and providing cover structure, so important in attracting wildlife. The yellow is meadow, with uncolored paths and open spaces of lawn.


above: this final drawing is what the Greens settled on. It provides for the mixed tree and shrub plantings that will generate somewhat naturally with minor assistance from humans. We may plant some things in the mixed woody plantings but will hopefully experiment with using stakes hammered into the ground, so that songbirds can perch and drop seeds of Black Cherry, Holly and other mast producing trees. We’ll manage the ones we don’t want out, and leave the ones we like, and move the stakes once trees are bird-planted.

Doug was determined to do the work himself or at least as much as he could. For this, I was grateful. Whenever a client has a hand in the construction process, the project is much more likely to persist.

We weighed options for preparation and he chose the non-herbicide route since the “weed competition” was fairly docile and so, he began plowing in about August or September. He did repeated plowing using a disc harrow and eventually, over time and through persistence, produced a decent seedbed for sowing. When planting time came to plant, it was really wet so he ended up finally getting the seed out during a “dry spell” in mid-January. What he seeded was an incredible array of species collected from a high quality pine herbaceous association. A really substantial seed mix. Best I’ve ever collected for pine species.

green 2

This is how it looks from 1000 feet up in the air(click to enlarge). Its cool stuff, ya’ll!

He will plant Long Leaf pines next year since time got away this year. And maybe we’ll get enough fuel by January or February next year to light that sucker up! Fire in the hole!!! Saweet!  That aught to raise the eyebrows of the neighbors…. 🙂

Best of all, Doug asked me early on about hardscape and major drainage work near the front of the house so I suggested he talk to Johnny Mayronne, a noted landscape architect, preeminent plantsman and all-around good guy from the Covington, Louisiana area, just south Folsom.

John is fully on the team now and he has come up with some incredibly smart and attractive ideas. I knew he would. I will keep you posted as to the progress we make, incrementally, as it happens.

Doug is writing his own blog on the project @ this link: