Native Iowa prairie plants require little maintenance, are resilient, and provide food and shelter to local wildlife. When choosing trees, shrubs, and plants for your yard, look first at natives. Our native Iowa plants can easily provide brilliant color in a garden throughout the year. Hundreds of plants are native to Iowa—one is certainly available to suit your needs.
What is "Native?"
Native plants are considered to be species existing in Iowa at the time of European settlement. While the activities of indigenous people did affect the region's ecosystems, it wasn't until the mid-1800s that large-scale habitat alteration and the introduction of non-native plants began to significantly change Iowa's natural landscape. Prior to this time, over 85 percent of the state was covered in prairie grasses and flowers.
The Many Benefits of Prairie Gardens
Iowa wildlife and insects evolved in concert with native plants, thus their population is strengthened because they have adapted to the plants unique shelter and food characteristics. A stronger wildlife and insect population means your yard contributes to the overall strength and diversity of the environment so it is better equipped to handle problems.
The roots of many native prairie plants are thick, fibrous, and can grow to a depth of 15 feet. These plants are designed to slow water and allow it to slowly infiltrate into the ground rather than gushing straight into our urban streams and rivers. This action also cleans our water and improves our soil quality making our environment healthier for us and wildlife.
Iowa has some of the most fertile soil in the world. We owe this precious resource to prairie plants that created it over the course of thousands of years. By planting natives, you help to improve the soil quality in your yard.
Many believe that the soil was built from plant matter decaying on top of the soil. The mass of most prairie plants, however, primarily exists below ground. It is the dying and decaying of these the roots that actually builds the soil.
Resilient and Low Maintenance
Native plants demand almost no maintenance, fertilizer, irrigation, or disease control because they have thrived in Iowa weather conditions for thousands years.
Iowa State Extension Native Landscaping Publications
Iowa Prairies: Biological Communities - IAN203
Iowa's Spring Flowers - IAN301
Introduction to Iowa Native Prairie Plants - SUL18
Prairies as Outdoor Classrooms - SUL19
References and Resources for Prairies - SUL20
Restoring Iowa Prairies - PM1351G
Select Native Plants
Use these publications and tools to find the right native plants for the right place.
Living Roadway Trust Fund - Native Plant Search
Pollinator Partnership - Plants for your Region
Steps to Establish a Prairie Garden
Planting prairie from seed requires the removal of all turfgrass. Avoiding the use of chemicals to kill the turfgrass requires some work and patience.
- Cover the area with cardboard and landscaping fabric for about 5 months.
- Once the grass is dead, use a metal rake to get the area to bare soil. Prairie seeds require direct contact with soil to grow successfully.
- Mix the seed with sand to ensure even distribution.
- Broadcast the seed and sand. The best time to broadcast prairie seed is in early winter, just before the first snowfall.
Designate a "Natural Area"
The Iowa City weed ordinance requires the following of property owners:
- Grass is maintained to be less than 10 inches tall.
- Noxious weeds are removed or controlled.
- Public walkways are clear of obstructions.
Since prairie grasses are typically over 14 inches tall, an area of your property can be designated as a "Natural Area".
A Natural Area is an area of land allowed to retain native plant material in a natural prairie state.
- Natural Areas can be of any size.
- Natural Areas need not be mowed, but all noxious weeds must be removed or controlled and public walkways must be cleared of obstructions.
- A 10 foot mowed buffer must exist between the area and neighboring properties.
- A map of the area, a list of plants, and a maintenance plan must be submitted to the city for approval:
Director of Housing and Inspection Services
410 Washington Street
Iowa City, IA 52240
More information about designating a Natural Area: