Build a Pocket Prairie
What is a Pocket Prairie?
A typical pocket prairie is a small (often under 1 acre), urban planting featuring plants native to the highly imperiled coastal prairie ecosystem of Texas and Louisiana.
There really isn’t a lower limit to the size of these plantings nor is there any shape that they need take. They can be more or less formalized based on your aesthetic tastes, your neighbors receptivity to native plants, plant availability, ease of maintenance (more formalized plantings will need more maintenance), etc.
Step 1: Select and Assess the Site
Light: Selecting a site in full or mostly sunny condition is important. Pocket prairies placed in semi-shady or shady areas either get ‘leggy’ or don’t thrive.
Size: Select a pocket prairie size that can be maintained by your team. The smaller the team, the smaller the area should be - particularly if this pocket prairie is in a highly visible place
Border: All urban pocket prairies should sport an intentional border. Borders can be made up of mulch, stone, metal or plastic edging, etc. We often create intentional borders by juxtaposing well-groomed lawn with a pocket prairie and separating these two textures with one of the edgings mentioned above.
Assess: One of the great joys of creating pocket prairies is to see life rebound on a formerly blank landscape. You should consider documenting all the life found on your planting site before you begin its transformation. One way to do this, particularly if you are not a biologist or naturalist, is to document your observations using the iNaturalist app. Experts will offer you identification suggestions and as your pocket prairie comes to life you can continue to add species through your iNaturalist project.
Step 2: Prepare the Site
Removed Unwanted Species: Ridding the lawn or other area of invasive grasses/plants is a critical step. Oftentimes the sod or existing vegetation will need to be killed and/or removed to allow new plants to grow and thrive. There are a variety of ways to get rid of turf and other undesired species
Organic Herbicide: An organic herbicide can be made with orange oil, 20% vinegar (Southwest Fertilizer and some other stores carry this), and dishwashing soap. Here’s a recipe. Just know that this route will require probably 3-4 treatments and may be ineffective with super weeds like bermudagrass.
Soil Solarization: A good summertime project is to a kill grass using the power of the soil. The basic idea is to mow the area short and maybe even do a light tilling. Afterwards a black, thick plastic sheeting is placed on top of the area and the summer sun kills the insulated grass. Click here for more info.
Chemical Herbicide: As a last resort, we sometimes must use herbicides like glyphosate (Roundup) if the site is loaded with a very hard to kill grass like bermudagrass. Sometimes two treatments are necessary during the growing session. Don’t try planting any plants/seeds for at least two to three weeks after herbicide treatment. ***Planting native seeds into a bed of bermuda grass or St. Augustine with the hopes that natives will outcompete or "shade out" these exotic grasses is not a successful strategy and has led to much failure and frustration***
Step 3: Select Your Species
Obtaining seeds and plants
Select as many locally adapted prairie natives as your budget will allow. It is good to use a combination of both seeds and live plugs if possible. Seeds can be purchased through Native American Seed or Wild Seed Farms . If possible also join in a seed collecting trip to local prairie. Lan Shen (firstname.lastname@example.org) hosts many seed collecting trips and can connect you with an upcoming event.
Live plants can be purchased at the Houston Audubon Society’s Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Joshua’s Native Plants, Morningstar Prairie Plants, and sometime Buchannan’s Natives Plants.
Each fall the Native Plant Society of Texas – Houston Chapter also hosts a Wildscapes Workshop (September 22, 2018) were a variety of natives can be purchased. They also host a series of Native Landscaping classes each year.
The Houston Arboretum also hosts quarterly plant sales.
Why include grasses?: We often advise going maximum diversity in our plantings, mixing both native wildflowers and native grasses. Why grasses? Grasses serve a variety of functions (1) they anchor and give structure to the planting (2) they provide roosting opportunities for birds, dragonflies, and lizards (3) there deep rooting systems help drain away excess water and (4) they serve as a caterpillar food source for a few local species and sometimes also provide bird food.
Decide grass to wildflower ratio: What often determines which species you choose is the look and feel of the planting you’d like to see. On a natural local prairie, grasses dominated and make up to around 60%-70% of the plant community. Yet, in urban pocket prairie plantings we often dial the grasses down to between 30-50% to give the planting more room for colorful wildflowers.
Nine Natives: Another option is for you to start with a smaller plant palette. Over the last three years Katy Prairie Conservancy, Coastal Prairie Partnership, Native Prairies Association of Texas – Houston Chapter, and landscape architecture firm Clark Condon Associates has developed a concept called Nine Natives. Collectively, these nine species have a long bloom cycle, complement each other aesthetically, don’t get too tall, and serve a wide variety of wildlife throughout the year. See the video below for more details.
Bluebonnets & Texan Heritage: We would encourage you to plant Texas Bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) in your new pocket prairie if possible. This species may or may not be native to Harris County (some references list it and others don’t) yet, as you know, this prairie native carries a lot of cultural weight and will help to build a bridge of understanding between your neighbors and your project. The prairie is the landscape that gave rise to Texas icons like barbecue, cowboys, rodeos, etc. arose. Take advantage of this unique habitat-culture connection!
Step 4: Plant Your Pocket Prairie
Planting day is start of a new phase for your pocket prairie. A good goal here is to involve neighbors, family members, students, scouts, civic or religious groups, kids, etc. You want buy in for your project so remember to start from the beginning!
Seeds: Distribute your purchased and wild collected seeds over the planting area using directions from the seed vendor. Afterwards have your helpers stomp the seeds into the clean seed bed or use a water filled roller rented at a home improvement store.
Live plants: You should then plant live plants 2-3 feet apart to allow for growth. A quick rule of thumb is that we typically use 500 live plugs per acre for wild prairie restorations. Yet, use as many live plugs as you can to jump start your project.
Seed Balls: Want to engage your team and get more planting materials for your pocket prairie? If so, consider making seed balls using the directions in the video below. A quick rule of thumb is to make one seed ball for each square foot of planting area.
Step 5: Make and Record Observations in Your Pocket Prairie
One of the joys of creating a pocket prairie is seeing wildlife and indigenous plants quickly reappear where once they were gone. Creating a record of what's returning can give your project added meaning and can help you tell your pocket prairie's story. It can also give you good ideas about what is still missing and what you might plant to entice birds, insects, or other creatures you would like to see.
Great places to put observations
iNaturalist: iNaturalist and the iNaturalist app are a quick, fun, and geographically accurate way of recording what you find. It is also a fantastic app for giving suggestions of what you are seeing based on other local observations, taking a little of the guess work out of species identification. Posting observations to iNaturalist.org also allows you to be a citizen scientist, helping the whole community crowdsource scientific observations of what is living in our region.
Facebook: Creating a photo album or even a whole page dedicated to your pocket prairie is also a good way of both teaching about and monitoring your project. Here are two excellent examples:
Step 6: Tell Your Pocket Prairie's Story
Before planting your pocket prairie you may want to ask your neighbors opinions about what might connect with them to your projects and if they’d like to be involved. Telling you pocket prairie's story is critical. It can turn what is perceived to be a mistake into a celebration.
Name Your Pocket Prairie
Things with names becoming entities. Things without names become vunerable. That is why each of Katy Prairie Conservancy's Prairie Builder School and Park site have a name. These names often eventually appear on Google Maps and other mapping programs, further weaving them into the geography of the neighborhood!
What should I name my pocket prairie?
Rules of thumb
Allusions to Texas or Texas pride work very well
Naming a pocket prairie after a beloved person or environmental hero works well
Naming a pocket prairie after a school mascot works well
Types of Messages
Some folks respond to how pocket prairies help wildlife
Some folks respond to how pocket prairies are small examples of the ancient prairies that once covered most of Houston (attached) and likely their neigbhorhood
Some folks like that grasses absorb lots of water (resiliency)
Some folks like the fact that there are many other pocket prairies around town. You are not asking them to be guinea pigs.
Some folks like a story combining several elements.
Types of Messengers
Signs: Signs are a good first step in interpreting your prairie. If you are going to make your own sign make sure to use plenty of colorful photos and fewer words. Also make sure to get printed on outdoor plastic (like the choroplast used for political signs) or on brushed aluminum. You can also buy signs from the Native Plant Society of Texas - Houston Chapter when available.
Videos: You can use a QR code on your sign to connect to a video on YouTube or another video provider. The video below and right was produced and incorporated into a sign for Hermann Park's Whistlestop Prairie.
Tour Guides: If you are creating a sizable pocket prairie in an urban park, consider leading periodic tours. Live tour guides can be highly effective a connecting your audience to the pocket prairie.
Step 7: Maintain Your Pocket Prairie
Maintaining a pocket prairie is often the key to its survival, acceptance, and ultimate celebration. Click here for a seasonal maintenance guide.
Here are a few quick tips:
Mow the plantings at least once a year. This is typically done in late December or early January or once all the seeds have been eaten by wintering birds. Please plan to mow or weed eat the planting at a height of about 8” to avoid scalping the grass. If you want the planting to be a bit shorter in fall, you can mow the planting in early June (at around 8-10" or so). This will also stimulate grass growth.
Deadhead any spent flowers throughout the year
The first 8 months, or so, of your project will involve regular weeding while your desired species take hold. Make sure to remove all unwanted grasses, sedges, and vines regularly because they can quickly smother a planting.
Remove any invasive species that pop up. How do you know what an invasive species is vs. a native that you want?
Perhaps your best bet is to create a "project" for pocket prairie on iNaturalist.org and upload your observations. There’s a whole army of folks out there will to help identify species and iNaturalist has a very robust suggested species function as well. You can also reach out to a local prairie group like Katy Prairie Conservancy, Coastal Prairie Partnership, or Native Prairies Association of Texas and share photos of species you'd like to identify.
Step 8: Teach About Your Pocket Prairie
KPC has been a leader in using pocket prairies to connect K-12 and college students to Houston's rich prairie heritage, science, language arts, history, and more through its Prairie Builders Schools + Parks program.
HERE in Houston.org's Coastal Prairie Module: Looking for resources to teach about local prairies? We’ve got you covered. Click here for more teaching materials.