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Special Report Featuring Prairie Restorations on Sustainable Yards in Spaces Magazine

“Check out this great article recently featured in Spaces magazine about a suburban couple’s wonderful experience with their sustainable prairie landscape.”

Sown from a lifelong love of the “Little House” story, a suburban prairie not only thrives but helps show others how they can bring more sustainability to their own surroundings.

Publications: Spaces Magazine
Author: Chris Hewitt
Date: July 7, 2014

Photo by Chris Hewitt

Pa Ingalls would have felt at home in the Plymouth yard of Fred and Marcy Schramm. That's because their house on a prairie was inspired by his "Little House on the Prairie."

“My husband was reading a gardening magazine and he said, ‘You could have your own prairie,’ ” recalls Marcy, a lifelong fan of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books about growing up in the Midwest. As an adult, she has done residencies at schools, introducing students to artifacts and stories about the pioneer way of life.

The prairie idea appealed to the Schramms, who had re-landscaped their yard twice in 30 years and were looking for a new way to use a space that always attracted rabbits and lightning (goodbye, four trees) while rejecting whatever shrubbery they planted (see you later, burning bushes).

 

 

Prairie came to the Schramms in two pieces. In 2002, after hauling in seven truckloads of half soil/half sand to supplement their prairieunfriendly clay, the Schramms hired Prairie Restorations, a Princeton company with a branch in Scandia, to plant seedlings and a variety of grass and flower seeds. The Schramms put in an X-shaped path so they could wander through their yard and see what was happening there - and, voila: Prairie!

Well, not quite "voila" Turns out there is more to installing a prairie than simply retiring your lawn mower. The Schramms watered and weeded their yard for two years, until it began to achieve a state of balanced wildness. By 2006, it was ready to appear on a landscape tour, on which many of the 300 visitors asked what was happening with the front yard — which, at that time, was a pile of dirt dug up for a city project.

"Ron Bowen (president of Prairie Resto) said, 'How about if we put in more prairie?' " says Marcy, who was so fond of the 2002 project that she didn’t need much convincing. "I said, 'Why not?' "

With both phases of prairie now adding up to 7,500 square yards, the Schramms have a yard they love to spend time in but don't have to spend much time on (small, sodded areas, which set off the prairie, take Fred just eight minutes to mow). According to Erin O’Leary, who coordinates Prairie Resto's "Sowing It Back Together" program, it’s more than a pretty place to hang out.

 

 

"Sowing It Back Together" is about persuading homeowners to convert parts of their lawns to native plants. The Schramms have done it in a big way and at some expense, but O’Leary notes that SIBT sells kits to convert 500 square feet for just $450.

The benefits of prairie practically sell themselves: Native plants help butterflies and bees (birds, too — last year, several seasons of effort paid off for the Schramms when bluebirds visited). The plants, which drive roots as far as 10 feet down, prevent erosion. They help purify water and prevent run-off of fertilizers and other chemicals. They don't require watering (the Schramms haven’t watered since year two but their prairie remains green because of those deep roots).

"If we can convert just 500 square feet per house, we have created a network of food sources, of habitats and beauty that small animals and pollinators can use to hopscotch across urban areas," says O'Leary.

Marcy has come around to that way of thinking, even if her initial interest was purely for looks.

"I like to walk through to see how the plants are changing, which ones the bees and butterflies are hovering around," says Marcy, who feels especially connected to Laura Ingalls Wilder when "the grasses get to six or seven feet tall. It does feel a bit like the olden days, and you wonder how pioneers got through all of that tall grass."

That connection may be why Marcy is so vigilant. O'Leary says most owners find that, after a burn-off at the start of the season, they only need three or four checks a year. But Schramm — who likes to "fuss" - can be found in her prairie most days, looking for weeds or species that are getting out of control. Along the way, she has developed some favorites.

"Dropseed is just stunning. People will say, 'I'm putting in some hostas,' and I say, 'Plant dropseed, instead. They don't do anything but behave. Every fall, I give them a haircut and they come right back the next year."

But when Marcy talks about her favorites, she also remembers how pretty the prairie smoke is in the spring, followed by the bluettes. Or how, in July, the whole yard seems to turn to shades of purple and white. Or how, at the start of the season,the grass gets burnt off and little green plants start peeking through the darkness.

The neighbors like it, too. Marcy says she has never had problems with anyone wondering what’s going on in her yard, partly because the more traditionally manicured lawn at the curb makes it clear the tall grasses are a decision, not laziness.

"I talked to some people who are very into native landscapes and they live next-door to someone who never has a blade of grass out of line - and the city has been caught in the middle," O'Leary says. She says shifting to native plants is an education process, both for municipalities struggling to create water and weed ordinances that make sense and for neighbors who need to learn about the benefits of native plants.

Once they learn, O'Leary says, they are sold. As was she when she joined Prairie Resto a year ago, after having been an interior designer for many years.

"I worked extensively in the suburbs. But, now, a horror to me is an area with a ton of development," O'Leary says.

 

 

"When I drive to my job in Princeton, I'm looking at the orange butterfly weed in the ditches and the wood ducks and the bees. I'm reaffirming every day that we want to feed the birds and the turkeys, that we want to help people experience different types of butterflies and songbirds."

All of that was second nature to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, of course, but it's becoming increasingly common for present-day homeowners, a new kind of pioneers who are choosing to set their little houses on prairies, too.

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