Gardening for the Future

Out here in the Plains prairie resotoration is a sort of buzz phrase for people like me. Suddenly, visions of a horizon to horizon ocean of grass and wildflowers, dotted by herds of bison, rush like irish coffee to the brain. I swoon with warmth and alcohol. Oh, prairie. Marry me.

Yet prairie restoration in such terms is self defeating—perhaps any restoration, just given the name “restoration—” is doomed to failure; not for a lack of imagination, but for too much. In a recent post by Chris Helzer, who manages prairie along the Platte River in central Nebraska for The Nature Conservancy—he says the following about our expectations for recreating what was once here:

“Where this kind of prairie restoration falls flat is when we expect too much from it. It’s really easy to find glaring differences between the restored prairie and what we know or think used to be there – soil characteristics are different, insect and wildlife species are missing, plant species are too common or too rare, etc. These “failures” have led some people in conservation and academia to become disillusioned with the whole concept of prairie restoration.”

My “prairie” garden on a suburban / agriculture edge

Helzer goes on to say that restoration of prairie—and perhaps any ecosystem, small or large—should not be seen as creating historically-accurate environment, but a landscape that provides for the natural systems to do what they do. Pollinate. Raise young. Provide food for other species. Et cetera. He looks at it as when a city is flattened—the new buildings can’t be historically accurate, they just need to go up; the focus is on making sure people can get back to their daily lives, that the city provides them with what they need to live.

Autumn and the winter birds are scouting out cover. They’re in there. Trust me.

As I think about my small 1,500′ of native plants, I suppose I never tried to recreate anything historically accurate, but it was in the back of my mind as I used natives. In the end what I have is a garden. A garden by its very definition is something artistic, it is a vision, an interpretation, it has a human hand in it to some degree. Of course, a wildlife garden may have a bit less of human influece, but it’s still very much there. I don’t have a prairie in my backyard (I wish!), but I do have a thriving ecosystem providing pollen, nectar, insects for young birds, cover, and so much more for the many life stages for tons of species. I’m at the end of a small forested flyway near a catch pond, as well, so I know the importance of my space. I know the importance of native plants in a desert of lawns and corn fields.

Bittersweet — one of the last insects & blooms for the year.

Helzer ends this way: “if we’re going to successfully restore the viability of fragmented prairies, we can’t afford to waste time and effort worrying about whether or not we’ve matched pre-European settlement condition, or any other historical benchmark. Instead, we need to focus on patching the essential systems back together. After all, we’re not building for the past, we’re building for the future.”


Don’t Miss! Benjamin Vogt’s Books:




© 2012 – 2014, Benjamin Vogt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. says

    Bengamin, in a recent talk on the topic of urban meadows I expanded the Department of the Interior continuum of treatment approaches (preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, & reconstruction) to include a fifth approach: reimagination.

    I used this phrase to explain that when we garden with natives, especially in urban settings like Baltimore, we are not working to recreate what would have been here but rather to reimagine what could be here.

    We are creating something new, but letting that new thing be guided by what we know about what used to be.

    I think you and Helzer have captured that very well. Thanks for writing on this topic.
    Vincent Vizachero recently posted..Creating An Urban Meadow with Native Plants

  2. says

    that is a wonderful image. The city is down and we rebuild for the future! With our wildlife garden – I didn’t battle to find the right plants for renosterveld, I simply planted South African wildflowers, and shrubs and trees – and the wildlife lives here now.

  3. Sue In Austin says

    Benjamin – well said! Gave me an entirely new prespective on what it means to provide habitat in a suburban setting. Yes – exactly – we are providing those little “arks” of viability for as many critters as we can. Native plant past ecosystem purity is not really the point, is it? You have given me another strong talking point for the many events where we Travis Audubon/ Urban Habitat members offer advice to those who want to attract more birds to their yards. Our job as urban /suburban humans is to provide the ‘basics': food, shelter, water, and a place to raise young. Upon that principle we can hang a large variety of natives and well-behaved adapteds that serve as wide a variety of insect, avian, reptilian, and mammalian species as possible. And, Taaa-Daaaa, we can do it with garden arrangements that are attractive to a wide variety of humans (increasing the probability of habitat gardens being installed and maintained). It is not about the past (restoration for its own sake) but about the future (co-habitation of all of us species) going forward into ever-changing and challenging environmental circumstances.

  4. says

    I took note of that post, too. I thought it was particularly apt, as I slowly try to restore some semblance of prairie on our little parcel. Truthfully, I have no real idea WHAT was all here before European settlement. There are no remnants of prairie in the nearby area that haven’t been grazed to within an inch of their life…that is if there’s any native prairie left around here at all. Herbicides have been sprayed to get rid of “weeds” in pastures (“weeds” equaling any non-grassy plant in far too many eyes). And, of course, most of the local landscape has been plowed up and planted in annual crops for decades. So I spread seed, usually hand collected from ditches within 10 miles or so, and hope that any plants that come up have done so because they “belong.” Each year my prairie-pasture looks a little more diverse, a little healthier (within the confines of the drought, that is), a little more alive. I figure anything I do is better than nothing!
    Gaia gardener recently posted..There’s Always Something New

    • says

      Anything you do is better than corn! Helzer really made me rethink, in a way, my hopes for an acreage and the restoration I’d like to do. The restoration is about wildlife, plain and simple–and that often means native plants to the ecoregion. Just as I’ve done in my modest backyard.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Re-Planting Lincoln’s Union Plaza

  5. says

    If you build it, they will come!

    I crack myself up when I get a new post in my inbox, because I can usually guess within the first sentence of each post who wrote it.

    I don’t comment all the time (hazard of getting posts via email,) but just thought I’d pop in and say hey, Benjamin. You do good work, and your garden is beautiful and valuable in every season. Thank you for being such a proponent of native plants and natural landscapes. You rock. And you write well too. But then, you knew that. Cheers!
    Linda recently posted..Holiday Wreath Giveaway!

  6. says

    Great thoughts, thank you! It is easy to get stuck in the mire if shoulds and end up with the outdoors looking the same as 10 years ago. Just plant it, put down native seeds, root a few pluckings…a little bit of action goes a long way!

  7. Rondi Anderson says

    I volunteer at a National Historic Site that is attempting to be as period correct with their landscape. Finding the balance of having a functioning landscape and making it a “real” prairie which isn’t possible on 4 acres is a challenge mentally. Celebrating a new plant and animal as a major achievement and more importantly sharing it with someone that visits really makes it worth it though. This is the focus I hope to bring to it this coming season.

  8. Dee says

    Excellent article Benjamin. This has given me a new way to look at the direction my garden is going in. I’m not a biologist or trained in how the environment was before the European settlers arrived. However, I can provide the local wildlife with food, shelter, water, host plants & a place to raise their young. Every time I read an article on this website, I learn something new that I can put into practice.
    Your garden looks very nice!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge