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The prairie returns in backyard gardens
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Black-eyed susans are spread across Carol Pike's backyard prairie in suburban St. Cloud. Pike replaced a 2,000 square foot area of her backyard with native prairie grasses and flowers. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
More Minnesota gardeners are turning to the state's native plants to spruce up their landscapes. The hearty flowers and grasses that once graced Minnesota prairies are sprouting up in small backyard gardens around the region. Some homeowners even replace their entire thirsty grass lawns with the drought-tolerant plants. While landscaping with native plants has advantages for gardeners and the environment, experts say it requires hard work.

Glenwood, Minn. — Corn and soybeans cover much of the glacial hills of west central Minnesota. But just south of Glenwood, surrounded by the modern day crops, there's a greenhouse. And inside, native prairie plants are taking root.

Gene Stark and his family run Glacial Ridge Growers, specializing in organically-grown plants native to the midwest.

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Image Gene Stark in the family greenhouse

Once, prairies covered most of upper Midwest. Biologists estimate less than 1 percent of the prairie is left. Bringing back some of that prairie, at least in people's backyards, is part of Gene Stark's goal.

Stark has been in the greenhouse business for 30 years, but decided he wanted to give gardeners something besides the local shrubs and needy garden plants. So a few years ago he began raising hundreds of types of native prairie plants.

Now he's selling the plants at several co-ops in the Twin Cities, and at the St. Paul farmers' market.

"Business has been pretty good. I think there's a lot of interest. We do a lot of education and talk to a lot of people about native plants," said Stark. "Some people are just beginning to see the benefits, and the beauty, and the kinds of things they can do. Others come to us and know a lot about native plants, and are looking for specific things that they need in their landscape."

The Starks are trying get more people interested in prairie plantings. They cite several advantages to using native plants. They don't require fertilizer or much water. And once they're established, they essentially take care of themselves.

When Carol Pike, 70, decided to turn a portion of her suburban St. Cloud lawn into a piece of prairie, she went all out.

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Image Coneflowers in the suburbs

Pike seeded a 2,000-square foot area next to a wetland behind her house with grasses and flowers native to Minnesota.

"I don't know why I did it. It was just interesting to me, the beauty of it, learning about the grasses. I just love walking through it. It brings back a time from the past," Pike said.

Pockets of wildflowers like black-eyed susans and coneflowers, peek through tall stands of buffalo and cut grass.

This piece of private prairie is now in its second year. Even though Pike has studied prairie plants for years, she didn't realize the work ahead of her.

"When I'm weeding it, I often think of my grandmother who lived on a farm, and she's probably thinking, 'What is she doing weeding the prairie?'" Pike said.

Pike's advice for gardeners looking to grow their own chunk of prairie is to start small. She says they should work a few established native plants into their garden at first, and then expand from there.

Carl Hoffman with the Stearns County Extension Service agrees with that go-slow approach.

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Image Carol stalking weeds

He says prairie gardens require their own special attention. Some bigger tracts of prairie even need a yearly burn to keep them healthy.

"I don't want to sound pessimistic about wildlife planting -- they're beautiful. But I do want people to do research before they embark on this type of landscape plan," said Hoffman. "They should know about weeding, they should know about mowing, they should know about burning them off, so they should know there's going to be some maintenance involved."

Hoffman says using native flowers and grasses is growing in popularity among gardeners.

And while homeowners might hesitate at taking on big prairie projects in their yards, more of them are bringing back a small piece of Minnesota's past by planting native gardens.

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