Gardening with Native Plants in the Upper Midwest: Bringing the Tallgrass Prairie Home

Gardening with Native Plants in the Upper Midwest: Bringing the Tallgrass Prairie Home

by Judy Nauseef

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Want to have a garden that is both beautiful and biodiverse, satisfying and sustainable? In this book, long-time landscape designer Judy Nauseef shows gardeners in the upper Midwest how to restore habitat and diversity to their piece of the planet by making native plants part of well-designed, thoughtfully planned gardens. In contrast to most books about gardening with native plants, Nauseef provides specific regional information. Working against the backdrop of habitat and species losses in the tallgrass prairie states, she brings years of experience to creating landscapes that recall the now-vanished grasslands of the Midwest.

Nauseef emphasizes the need for careful planning and design to create comfortable, low-maintenance spaces that bring homeowners outside. Her designs solve problems such as a lack of privacy, shade, or sun; plan for water use; replace troublesome nonnative plants with native plants that attract pollinators; and enable homeowners to enjoy living sustainably on their land. Colorful photographs of projects around the Midwest show the wide range of possibilities, from newly created gardens using only native plants to traditional gardens that mix nonnative with native species. Whether you have a city yard, a suburban lot, or a rural acreage, there are ideas here for you, along with examples of well-designed landscapes in which native plants enhance paths, patios, pergolas, and steps.

Providing information on planting and maintaining native plants and prairies as well as seed and plant sources, organizations, and public arboretum and prairie sites, this book enables every gardener to master a new palette of plants and landforms. However small our personal landscapes, together they can slow the loss of many species of plants and wildlife and bring native flowers and grasses back where they belong. Ecologists, landscape architects and designers, master gardeners, landscape contractors, teachers, and home gardeners—everyone dedicated to conserving and improving our environment—will benefit from Nauseef’s approach. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609384081
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 04/15/2016
Series: Bur Oak Guide
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 132
Sales rank: 1,112,637
File size: 44 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Judy Nauseef has been a professional landscape designer for more than twenty-five years. A certified fellow and past president of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and an Iowa Nursery and Landscape Association certified nursery professional, she has won awards from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and the Perennial Plant Association. The owner of Judy Nauseef Landscape Design, she lives on an acreage in Johnson County, Iowa. For more information see and 

Read an Excerpt

Gardening with Native Plants in the Upper Midwest

Bringing the Tallgrass Prairie Home

By Judy Nauseef

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2016 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-408-1


Native Plants and the Landscape

Gardeners continually search for opportunities to make their gardens more interesting, beautiful, and productive. The many magazines and books selling off the shelves with the word "garden" or "gardening" in their titles show that this is true. The landscape sections of Internet sites Pinterest and Houzz have thousands of users. Shoppers look for new styles or plants to make their gardens special. Now, native plants bring those possibilities to the gardener. For a landscape designer, native prairie, woodland, and wetland plants bring exciting options and solutions to design projects.

Native Plants

Our native species are "those that were long-term members of the Midwest's original prairies, woodlands, bottomland forests, and wetlands," according to ecologist and writer Cornelia F. Mutel. I like Mutel's definition because it is simple, and for those involved in the restoration of woodlands and prairies it works well. The discussion of native plants continues in the community of ecologists, designers, and others. In addition, in the Midwest, despite the predominance of agricultural land, the idea of what is native is not complicated. Illinois landscape architect and ecologist Jack Pizzo defines a native plant as an indigenous species that is normally found in a part of a particular ecosystem. These are straightforward definitions that work well in the Midwest. A definition from Dick Darke and Doug Tallamy in their book The Living Landscape emphasizes a plant's functionality: "a plant or animal that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community." They write with familiarity of the eastern United States and its large areas of forest.

Not surprisingly, for the gardener and designer, these definitions seem hard to apply. We are choosing plants for gardens and hoping to attract bees and butterflies, but we do not really have a functioning ecosystem. We are often starting with a few square feet or a few square yards. Pizzo reassures us that every little bit counts even though a native landscape horizon to horizon may be the goal. Just getting started is the key. Designer and writer C. Colston Burrell explains that native plants need an ecological niche; they need to have a context. We sometimes have to construct that context. We can do this with a well-planned design (photo 1).

In my home landscape, I have the luxury of space to experiment with many kinds of plants and to develop designed gardens over time. When I work with clients, my role includes creating a garden that will work for them. When they come to me requesting a native garden, my job is clear. Without this directive, I look for ways to include native plants and to design with a concern for conserving resources.

Gardeners are known for finding a plant they must have, bringing it home, and wandering around the yard looking for a place to plant it or sticking it in the first available spot they see. This happens with all kinds of plants: annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees. And now it is happening with native plants as they have shown up in garden centers and catalogs. Even as the chance to add beauty to their yards fuels the acquisition of more and more plants, gardeners should learn about a plant's needs and habits and make a plan before purchasing anything. My goal is to help the consumer choose each native plant carefully and prepare for its arrival.

Gardeners in the Upper Midwest have challenges to meet. The growing season is short, winters are cold, and summers are hot. Snow cover may or may not be adequate to protect plants from freezing and thawing patterns. Ice storms and tornados occur every year. More recent challenges have appeared. A growing deer population, new pests, more frequent flooding and drought, and more extreme temperatures add to the stress of the garden and the gardener.

Native plants are new, well not really new, tools to meet these challenges (photo 2). They developed over centuries and in the process created the most fertile soils on the planet. These tallgrass prairie plants' roots grew many feet into the ground, making it friable and nutrient rich as roots decomposed. In addition to the well-known benefits of living in the Midwest — friendly people, clean air, hopefully improving water quality, good schools — the legacy of the tallgrass prairie enriches our lives if we will recognize it. The term "sense of place" may be overused now by garden designers, but it means a gardener recognizes that native plants naturally belong in gardens. It is similar to how vintners describe their wine, as tasting of the land on which the grapes were grown.

Numerous books and other resources are available on the history of the tallgrass prairie, prairie restoration, planting new prairies, prairie management, and sustainable landscape practices. There are many books of native plant descriptions, which are included in the resources at the back of this book.


In addition to being a tool for the gardener to achieve beautiful and thriving gardens, native plants in a landscape will make it better for humans and other animals and insects that inhabit our world. These plants help keep rainwater on-site, which reduces runoff into lakes and streams. They attract insects that feed on them and create cover for birds and beneficial insects. They reduce maintenance by decreasing the need for watering and weeding. The garden becomes a lively place where we work and play. The benefit that native plants bring to the landscape is a diversity of plants, insects, butterflies and dragonflies, frogs and toads, turtles and snakes, and small mammals and a gradually improving soil.

The subject here is really sustainability, possibly an overused word with no clear meaning. However, looking at the work of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, we find ideas and a framework for action. This collaboration between the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the United States Botanic Garden, and the American Society of Landscape Architects in conjunction with a diverse group of technical advisers and stakeholder organizations developed a rating system and reference guide similar to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) ratings for buildings. According to the Sustainable Sites Initiative website, "The central message of the Sustainable Sites Initiative program is that any landscape — whether the site of a large subdivision, a shopping mall, a park, an abandoned rail yard, or even one home — holds the potential both to improve and to regenerate the natural benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their undeveloped state." Gardeners and landscape designers are part of this movement.

Native Plants in Gardens

The process of learning about gardening with native plants includes becoming familiar with the history of where we live, how our communities came to exist, and how we can enrich our environment. Youmay aim for a totally native garden, but your first step is to become familiar with how to use native plants. Incorporate native plants into your existing garden or a plan for a new garden. In many situations combining native and nonnative (also known as exotic) plants enhances both. But beware: Certain exotics are known to be invasive in the Upper Midwest. Avoid using those plants. Invasive plants spread through their roots and seeds, smothering native plants and destroying habitat. Some exotics may require more water or pesticides than we are willing to use.

Even native plants suit some areas better than others. They may be aggressive, meaning they grow quickly and use all available space, overwhelming their neighbors. These are not a wise choice for planting in a garden. They are appropriate for areas of prairie or disturbed ground, or match them with plants with similar growth habits. Native plants work well in poor soils, such as those around newly constructed homes. Garden soils tend to be rich with nutrients that the gardener has added, and for some native plants this is too much and they will flop. Learning about their preferences and needs will help you create a successful garden.

Garden designers assess sites by looking at their problems and possibilities. In areas of high deer populations, we look for deer-resistant plants. In exposed, cold, sunny areas, we look for exceptionally hardy plants. Many native plants fall into both of these categories. Some tried-and-true nonnative plants such as lilacs and peonies fit into this category as well. These plants evoke old farmsteads representing hardy, persevering families. They have a place in our gardens today. Landscape architect Jens Jensen advocated the use of native plants based on his observation of what grew best in the areas where he worked. He recognized that certain plants such as lilacs and peonies held important associations in gardeners' lives. Frank Waugh wrote in 1917 that landscape architects when designing in the natural style used many indigenous species but did not exclude "the common lilac and homely apple tree." He calls the natural style a fundamental garden form. This style is dependent on the native landscape.

The agricultural landscape that surrounds us has its beauty as well. The fields lie on the same contours and horizons that held the prairies. The farmyards, farm buildings, and fields are my borrowed views today (photo 3). There is a rich resource of shapes, colors, texture, and line for the designer to use. Waugh writes, "This agricultural landscape, however, has an effective appeal of its own. It is not unfair to say that it is quite as beautiful as the native landscape which it has supplanted." Today we know that the loss of the native landscape has had a deleterious effect on the environment. We have lost more than the beauty of the prairie.

Bringing native plants back into the landscape is one way to help restore our damaged environment while at the same time creating gardens where we will spend time with our families. From my point of view, this presents a perfect opportunity to improve and enrich our community and our own lives.


Some History of the Midwestern Landscape

In preparing to write this book on using native plants in gardens, I have been reading and rereading many sources. Understanding the historical context of the midwestern prairie has helped me define the form of the book. Soon after I moved to Iowa in 1983, I bought and read John Madson's Where the Sky Began. His book was my introduction to the prairie and the landscape that once was and is no more, except in tiny remnants scattered around the state. The sense of loss Madson conveyed has stayed with me. Many people before me have felt the same loss and have written and worked with the goal of understanding our past and improving our future. Candace Savage writes, "The more we love this place as it is, the more we feel the pain of what it so recently was." She goes on to say that it is not too late to learn to understand the natural world that affects all of us.

Explorers and Settlers

Early explorers and settlers had known the treed landscape of the eastern part of the United States. When they made their way west and crossed the Mississippi River, they were astounded by the wide, treeless expanse. The new view had a beauty not known to them before and was intimidating to many. It was beautiful and frightening at the same time, with too much sky and too much light. These explorers had known only woodlands. This response is the reverse of my slightly claustrophobic reaction when visiting areas of the East Coast after living in Iowa for over thirty years. It is the feeling of being enclosed by rather than freed by the vegetation and topography.

In 1817 George Flower wrote of reaching "the entrance into one of these beautiful and light expanses of verdure ... the beautifully indented outlines of woods and the undulating surface of the prairie." In 1839 Judge James Hall wrote, "The scenery of the prairie is striking and never fails to cause an exclamation of surprise."

Here travelers are using the term "prairie" as a familiar name for the landscape. The early French explorers who left eastern settlements and explored land to the west and southwest used the term, which in France and Quebec meant "meadow." One of them, Louis Joliet, reported about his 1683 exploration. Expecting treeless land ravaged by fire, he found prairies where settlers would not need to spend years clearing ground but could on the day of arrival put a horse- or ox-drawn wooden plow into the ground. A French explorer in 1761 wrote of southern Wisconsin, "The grass is so very high that a man is lost amongst it." We have come to refer to this large expanse as grasslands.

Others could not become comfortable with the expanse. Charles Dickens wrote of the prairie, "It was lonely and wild, but oppressive in its barren monotony. I felt that in traversing the Prairies, I could never abandon myself to the scene." Washington Irving wrote in the late 1830s, "There is something inexpressibly lonely in the solitude of the prairie."

As settlers moved west, following the explorers, they discovered the prairies. Tallgrass prairies covered Iowa, northwestern Indiana, and the northern two-thirds of Illinois. They reached into southern and western Minnesota and eastern portions of the Dakotas and Nebraska and into Missouri. These prairies had an impact on the new inhabitants. They wondered at the brightness of the open landscape, its qualities of light and space. John Madson quotes an early journalist: "The gaiety of the prairie, its embellishments and the absence of gloom and savage wildness of the forest, all contribute to dispel the feeling of loneliness which usually creeps over the mind of the solitary traveler in the wilderness." Others reported, however, the times of monotony and dread during the winter. Living on the prairie certainly required a fair amount of fortitude.

During their progress, the settlers encountered groves of trees in Michigan and Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa. The widely spaced oaks created natural parks, known as savannas, the mostly open oak woodlands with only a few trees per acre. A traveler in the mid-1880s wrote: "Lost as I was, I could not help pausing frequently when I struck the first bur-oak opening I had ever seen, to admire its novel beauty." These transition zones between woodlands and prairies hosted a large community of plants and are a landscape feature valued greatly today. They served as summer camps for Native Americans and home sites for settlers. Settlers as they traveled west observed eastern trees becoming scarce and a new mixture of trees becoming common.

Often, though, the break between woodland and prairie was abrupt, without open groves. Madson writes that a person in ten steps "passed from one world to another, across what was probably the sharpest, clearest boundary between any of the major floristic provinces of the New World." The trees of the prairie grew along waterways and on ridges. The grassland was filled with potholes, marshes, and open lakes. The prairie land rolled and undulated.

The Prairie Style

In 1906 Jens Jensen wrote, "The meadow is the bright spot of the North, reflecting light and sunshine. It has forever become an indispensable part of the home of the North — the only place in the world where real home sentiment exists." Wilhelm Miller wrote about the prairie spirit in landscape gardening in an essay of that name in 1916, stating that the new style of the "Middle West" included landscape gardening and is founded on regional character. This regional character "grows out of the most striking peculiarity of middle-western scenery, which is the prairie," flat or gently rolling and treeless. He wrote that on the prairie you can see the whole horizon. This style of gardening fits the scenery, climate, and other conditions of the prairie. It emphasizes conservation, restoration, and repetition, with respect for the beauty of native vegetation. Miller cites Jens Jensen as the first designer who took the prairie as a "leading motive." Miller went on to write about the horizontal line as "the fundamental thing in the prairie style of architecture," giving credit to Frank Lloyd Wright. He hoped this new method of expression would spread from Michigan and Ohio to South Dakota and Kansas. This was an exciting time for architecture and landscape architecture as a prairie style developed.

Why were there so few trees on the prairie? People assumed the reason was poor soils. Any ground unable to grow trees could not be fertile. Now we know that glaciations and changing climate created the conditions for prairie. The glaciers refined soil bases that held mineral wealth. The woodlands were usually on ridges or along rivers and creeks. Jens Jensen writes about the woodlands of Illinois, "There is tenderness in the deciduous forest that the conifer forest does not possess." He disparages parks and home gardens planted with imported trees.


Excerpted from Gardening with Native Plants in the Upper Midwest by Judy Nauseef. Copyright © 2016 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Preface 1. Native Plants and the Landscape 2. Some History of the Midwestern Landscape 3. Why Bring Native Plants into Our Gardens? 4. Planning the Garden 5. Combining Plants 6. Residential Prairies and Woodlands 7. Planting and Maintenance Resources Index

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