Pronghorning: Maintaining a wildlife garden like a native

Winter texture and color in my native bunchgrass/wildflower “unlawn.” (Native granite butterfly drinking basin by Richard Cabe.)

This time of year, when straw-colored bunches of fine-textured native grass wave over a thin layer of snow in my yard, along with silver-gray and chocolate brown seed heads of last year’s wildflowers, people often ask me how I maintain my eye-catching “unlawn.”

“It’s easy,” I say cheerfully, “I pronghorn it.”

And then I grin at the puzzled looks.

“Pronghorn?” someone asks.

“Yup,” I reply. “I act like a pronghorn antelope, and graze the whole yard by hand in late winter.”

I wait respectfully for mouths to close and astonishment to pass. Someone inevitably asks what else I do to maintain the yard, and that gives me my opening.

“Nothing,” I say cheerfully, and then explain that my yard is a restored native dryland meadow, a self-sustaining natural community of the very species of bunchgrasses, wildflowers and naturally dwarf shrubs that would have grown in what is now my yard before the westward-expanding railroad established this small town in 1879, platting streets and lots across the wind-swept mountain prairie.

I don’t mow my my native wildflower-grassland: in our high-desert environment, with ten inches of precipitation in a good year, the blue grama and other native grasses are naturally short, their fine leaves growing no more than six to eight inches tall and their feathery flower stalks reaching a foot or so high.

Pasque flower, the earliest wildflower to bloom in my native grassland in spring.

I don’t apply Weed-N-Feed or Scotts MiracleGro either. Native plants do best in unamended native soil–it’s what they’ve adapted to over millennia, so why wouldn’t they? Fertilizer and other amendments cause them to grow bigger, but die sooner.

Ditto for pesticides: I take care of any weed problems by hand, using a dandelion digger for deep-rooted perennials or old-fashioned yanking for annuals. The hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators that visit the wildflowers in droves in summer thank me for not poisoning their food.

I explain that I only water rarely, in serious droughts (like the year we received just over two inches of moisture all year long), or if a national garden tour is coming to visit.

At about that point, the questions usually circle back to, “What’s pronghorning?”

To “pronghorn”: verb Maintain a native grassland the way the native grazers did.

Pronghorn antelope grazing a blue grama grassland in late winter.

In my case, I explain, that means acting like a grazing pronghorn antelope. When I researched the ecological history of this formerly blighted industrial place, before my late husband and I restored its sparse native mountain bunchgrass with the dotting of wildflowers, I found that it was a windswept grassland favored by pronghorn antelope for winter and early spring grazing.

These skittish wildlings no longer graze in town, so every spring, I pretend I’m a herd of pronghorn and “graze” our restored grassland to keep it healthy, cutting back last year’s dried grass flowers and wildflower stalks clump by clump, and hand-thatching the bunches of grass with a small rake. Without that annual cutting-back, the grass bunches get too dense and the wildflowers get buried.

It’s a lot of hand work, a lot of squatting and clipping and hand-thatching, but it only takes me a couple of days once a year. And my effort is rewarded by the treasures I find as I cut back last year’s dried flower stalks and seed heads, and save them to spread on other parts of our property still in need of restoration.

No bigger than a golf ball, this Mammilaria cactus puts on an outsized crown of blooms to attract flies and other early-emerging pollinators.

Treasures like the tiny native nipple cactus (Mammalaria species), revealing its crown of pink flowers. Or the early blooming pasque flower, with their parabolic-reflector-shaped blossoms that concentrate the sun’s rays and reward early-flying pollinators with a dose of warmth.

So if you see me sitting out in the midst of my native dryland meadow yard this time of year, hand-raking my blue grama clumps and grinning foolishly at a wildflower I’ve just discovered hiding in a dense clump of grass, don’t worry. I’m just happily pronghorning my yard, anticipating delights to come.

My “unlawn” showing off in summer.

Want to know more? Check out these two great resources for designing and maintaining your own native “unlawn”:

John Greenlee’s The American Meadow Garden and Native Plant & Wildlife Garden’s own Catherine Zimmerman’s The Meadow Project

© 2012, Susan J. Tweit. 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.

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    • says

      Donna, Isn’t it lovely to find those spring treasures when you “graze” your meadow? I guess you can only call it “pronghorning” if pronghorn are the native grazers in your area. Of course, since that use of the word came out of my imagination, we can decide to apply it more widely if you like it… ;~)
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Finding forgotten treasures

  1. Cindy says

    I’m glad I’m not the only “screwball” that “hand grazes”. Never thought about it that way before. Thanks for amusing & informative post!

    • says

      Cindy, I think hand-grazing or whatever name you give it, is the best way to keep in touch with the community of interrelationships that make up our wild gardens. So from my point of view, we’re just ahead of the trend… ;~)

  2. says

    I spend the first week of the early spring outside with a hand rake, stirring up the matted leaves that I piled around my garden the autumn before. I loosen and poke and am filled with joy when I discover those tiny shoots working their way up from a winter spent under the cold soil. It is a lot of work, but it fills me with happiness to uncover such treasures. I don’t really need to graze, just stir. But from now on I will think that I am “pronghorning.” I just love that word!
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Reader Appreciation: Genevieve Schmidt

  3. says

    Carole, Living in a landscape that is grassland by nature, and shortgrass prairie at that, I simply don’t have the leaf litter you do (and if I did, my natives would suffocate under it because that cover of leaf litter wouldn’t decay in our desert climate–it would simply desiccate in place!). Still, it’s interesting to realize how similar our native garden-tending is, despite the huge differences in bioregion and environment. The biggest similarity is the best one: the joy we find in seeing life return to our wild gardens as spring comes. Lucky we are to be so connected to the cycles of life–and renewal–of this beautiful blue planet…
    Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Celebrating Love

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