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Continued: The accidental prairie advocate

  • Article by: CONNIE NELSON , Staff Writer
  • Last update: October 26, 2010 - 3:23 PM

Lynn Steiner isn't what you'd call a native plant nut. She clearly prizes prairie plants, but the soft-spoken author is the master of the measured approach. Though she's been writing almost exclusively about natives since 2003, she's never gone in for the hard sell. She doesn't denigrate non-natives (which she refers to as cultivars or traditional landscape plants) or insist that a good garden is all native or nothing. Her new book, "Prairie Style Gardens" (Timber Press, $34.95), is a practical guide that focuses on the native grasses and perennials that do best in a back yard.

We talked to Steiner about the "relaxed" nature of prairie plants, her take on non-natives and what's growing in her own Stillwater area garden.

Q How did you get into gardening?

A I saw this program on public TV about a horticulture program at the U on cold-tolerant blueberries. Something just clicked with me. I thought, "Wow, people can really make a career of studying and growing plants."

Q And you've made a career of writing about plants.

A I feel very lucky to have been able to marry my two loves - gardening and writing, and to throw in photography, as well.

Q You've been focusing on native plants for almost a decade. Why?

A I always was fascinated with what I called wildflowers. Walking in the woods, I'd say "Oh, I wish I knew the name of that plant." But it wasn't until I was asked to write a book about native plants ["Landscaping With Native Plants of Minnesota"] that I really got into them. I read books, searched the Internet, studied prairies. It was a real self-study. And the more I learned about them, the more I fell in love with them.

Q You had a master's degree in horticulture, so you already knew a lot about plants. What about natives piqued your interest?

A It opened up a whole new plant world for me. Here was this palette of plants that grew here, were hardy here, and then I learned how threatened their natural habitat is, how they support butterflies and bees and other pollinators. So much has been written about cultivated plants. This was me getting to discover on my own.

Q Do you think native plants are underappreciated?

A Of course. A lot of them don't have selected cultivars with fancy names. Some people just love those fancy names. And they don't have a big company behind them promoting them, marketing them.

Q Are the plants themselves less showy?

A Some natives tend to be more relaxed. They've evolved to be survivors. Some of them are tall and lanky and not as easy to use in a typical landscape. The flowers are smaller and they don't bloom as long.

Q Judging from your books, you're not a prairie purist. Why?

A I'm more of a realist. I don't think the horticulture industry is going to stop producing cultivars and I don't think people are going to start planting nothing but natives. My approach is to focus on which plants we can bring into the landscape successfully.

Q Do you have cultivars in your own garden?

A I certainly have a lot of non-natives in my own garden. I know so much about so many plants, I couldn't cut myself off from them. But I don't have any plants that could become invasive. You'd be surprised how many plants can grow out of control -- barberry, amur maple, miscanthus. I start to get preachy about invasives. Let's stop planting plants that we know are escaping into the environment.

Q But aren't some natives aggressive?

A Sure, some can be aggressive, but not any more so than some cultivars. Some natives are prolific seeders, so I'm ruthless about weeding out seedlings. I also deadhead some plants in small places. I don't do it a lot because the seed heads can provide food for birds.

Q Is there any reason someone shouldn't plant natives?

A Don't grow native plants because you think they're going to be no-maintenance. Natives can be lower maintenance once they're established, but they're not no-maintenance.

Q A good portion of your book is dedicated to detailed plant profiles. Was that difficult to produce?

A I'm such a plant person that this was the most fun part of the book for me. Almost every plant in the book I'm growing or have grown. I took all the photos for the book myself and many of them are from my garden.

Q I know this is a hard question, but do you have any favorites?

A How can you not love butterfly bush? And then there's prairie smoke, nodding onion, blue-eyed grass, shooting star. In the grasses, I'm in love with little bluestem. And the spring ephemerals -- bloodroot, maybells, hepatica -- I just live for those first weeks in early spring.

Q What one thing do you want a reader to take away from your book?

A When it comes time to choose a plant, go to the list of natives first. You'll perpetuate the species, you'll provide habitat for butterflies and bees, and you'll reconnect with our heritage.

Connie Nelson • 612-673-7087

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