So I wanted to share a little something I’ve been working on: my prairie plants pilot project. 

A few years ago, I got turned on to growing native plants instead of the usual garden variety greenhouse plants. Native plants are the species that co-evolved here in Illinois along with native insects, fungi and soil microbes. They are adapted to our climate, and they’re a critical part of the food web that supports birds and other wildlife. And they are gorgeous.

99% of the Illinois prairie has been lost. Birds and insect populations have dropped. After seeing Benjamin Vogt speak at the 2019 Wild Ones West Cook conference and reading his book, I decided to turn my own garden to all native plants.

In 2020, I tried growing milkweed, obedient plant, and pecan trees from seed, just by winging it and refrigerating the seeds over winter, then planting them in March. My crop failed completely. 

So I thought, why not read a guide? 

In fall 2020 I picked up and read and re-read this fantastic manual from Indigenous Landscapes.

In November, I collected seeds from a New England aster in the neighborhood, and penstemon seed from my mom’s garden and my own garden. I also bought local native plant seed from Prairie State Nursery, because I wasn’t sure of the quality of the seed I collected.

I started these species:

Allium cernuum Nodding onion

Asclepias incarnata Swamp milkweed

Dalea purpurea Purple Praire Clover

Echinacea pallida Pale Purple Coneflower

Eryngium yuccifolium Rattlesnake Master

Heliopsis helianthoides False Sunflower

Monarda fistulosa Beebalm

Oligoneuron rigidum Stiff Goldenrod

Parthenium integrifolium Wild Quinine

Penstemon digitalis Foxglove Beardtounge

Rudbeckia fulgida Black Eyed Susan

Symphyotrichum laeve Smooth Aster

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae New England Aster

Verbena stricta Hoary Vervain

Zizia aurea Golden Alexander

In February and March, I stratified the seeds in moist sand in my refrigerator, following Indigenous Landscape’s guide.

And I bought 1,000 deep pot containers from Stuewe and Sons in Oregon, along with their holders.

When the seeds were ready to be planted, after 30 to 60 days of stratification depending on species, I made a planting mix blend using Sunshine Grow Mix #4 from Brew and Grow and buckets of finished compost from Healthy Soils Compost. To this I added mineral fertilizer from Bionutrient Food Association, and vermiculite to hold water.

I wanted to use my own home compost that I’ve been building and using for 12 years, but I think it might contain invasive jumping worms.

Filling 1,000 pots took a long time and a lot of mix! I settled on filling 50-75 a day, and spread the seed planting over several weeks in April and May. I had some good help from my nephew too!

In late April, I was very happy to see that some species had successfully germinated. April was so cold, and early May not much better. It took a while before the plants started growing. But they grew!

My most successful species is the one I had the highest hopes for: Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed. I got my first swamp milkweed plants several years ago from my mom. I wasn’t too interested in them and planted them as an afterthought. In their second year, they bloomed like crazy, and I had many monarch butterflies and many other butterflies and bees that I had never seen in the garden before. It’s such a beautiful, fragrant plant, and it’s food and housing for some many wonderful insects. I saw my first monarch chrysalis that year, and it was really among the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.

I had some other species germinate and grow very well:

Dalea purpurea

Echinacea pallida

Heliopsis helianthoides

Monarda fistulosa

Parthenium integrifolium

Penstemon digitalis

Rudbeckia fulgida

Symphyotrichum laeve – a surprise late emerger!

Verbena stricta

The others didn’t do so well. Maybe the seeds will germinate after another year in the ground. Maybe they wanted a longer or shorter stratification time, or to be planted earlier or later. The seeds are still in the pots and just might emerge next spring. 

So out of 1,000 pots filled, I think I got a good 750 plants. I was able to reuse most of the unsuccessful pots, planting overflow Asclepias incarnata and Monarda fistulosa.

I’ve been giving away flats of plants to friends, community groups like the Edgewater Environmental Coalition and the Thorndale Community Garden, and selling a few of them too. This has been a fun experiment, and I’m thinking about where to go with it in the future. I’d love to connect with like-minded folks and talk about how we could expand native plant use and how we could support the relationships between plants, insects, birds, soils and humans.  

© 2021 Steve Gustafson