Early Spring Prairie Garden

Early Spring Prairie Garden


After the slowest-starting spring in memory, we were suddenly fast-forwarded to summer; then back to March!  Only in the Midwest does the temperature go from 50 to the high 80’s in a day to the 40’s within a week!


The prairie is slow to wake up–the first to bloom are plants that in nature grow in dry prairies. This is a picture of my entry walk that I planted the year after I moved into my house–1998.


I combined Prairie Smoke and Shooting Star and edged the outside curve with Heart-leaved Meadow Parsnip for a spectacular May garden.










But designing gardens is not like arranging furniture in your living room.  Gardens are dynamic–some plants seed themselves about, some increase by rhizomes, and some die.

At some point the border of Heart-leaved Meadow Parsnip didn’t come back.  I’ve tried to replicate it, but with no success.  And then in the last few years the Prairie Smoke original plants fizzled out and sent out rhizomes with tiny plants at the end.  The tiny new plants have yet to flower, so I bit the bullet and bought 10 new gallon-sized plants.  (It’s difficult to plant plugs into an established garden–they are overwhelmed by the larger, mature plants.)


The Shooting Stars have proved to be the most lasting of the original planting, increasing in size every year.  But I decided to add to their number and bought 10 new gallon-size plants of those, as well.











Here is a picture of my garden from last year


Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) is stunning for several weeks.  Its 8” stems bear a trio of upright, urn-shaped, rosy flower buds that rise above  a clump of toothed, fernlike basal leaves in late March or early April.A few weeks later, five narrow bracts open like a star from the middle of the now nodding buds.

Then in May and June, it gets even better–the buds open wide and spill out misty, feathery mauve plumes up to 2” long, which give it a hazy smokey appearance and its common name.


Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon media) do indeed resemble their namesake, or, less romantically, badminton shuttlecocks.  Everyone should have them in their garden, but they need to be grown with friends.  They are an ephemeral–their flowers and leaves will disappear by summer, leaving only the dead flower stalk. They grow in sun or part-shade, prairie or savanna.



See how well the two plants combine at the Chicago Botanic Garden.



Plant as many plants as you can afford.


This is at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where the philosophy seems to be “More is More”.

My liking for gardens to be lavish is an inherent part of my garden philosophy.  I like generosity wherever I find it, whether in gardens or elsewhere.  I hate to see things scrimp and scrubby.  Even the smallest garden can be prodigal within its own limitations…

V. Sackville West

The Illustrated Garden Book

Let this be our guiding philosophy.  The small early flowers don’t make much of an impact unless planted by the dozens.  If you can afford only a dozen Shooting Stars, plant them together, either in a sunny spot with Prairie Smoke, or a partially shaded situation along with Jacob’s Ladder and Wild Geranium.

See my book, Design Your Natural Midwest Garden, page 4 and 5  for more about my entry garden and these two extraordinary flowers.


I’m still planting the new plants–first it was too dry; then it was too wet; then it was too cold!  I’ll send new pictures as soon as I get them in the ground.



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