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Turn your yard into a prairie paradise for pollinators

Grasses, small white flowers, and yellow flowers with brown seed heads grow beside a lake at sunset.
Phineas Pope
Native Yellow Coneflowers grow alongside Queen Anne's lace and grasses at Gray's Lake Park in Des Moines.

Iowa’s altered landscape

Iowa’s landscape has drastically changed from a couple hundred years ago. Less than 0.1% of Iowa’s native prairie is left. Pockets can be found in tiny plots around the state, pushed aside by cities, suburbs and millions of acres of farmland. But some Iowans are trying to reverse the prairie’s plight, one back yard at a time.

“[Many native species] are just barely hanging on in these little patches [of prairie] and they’re very vulnerable because they’re so isolated, but the beautiful thing is we can actually do something about this,” said Grant Nordby, a gardener growing a native lawn in Cedar Rapids.

Nordby and other gardeners around the state are on a mission to convert their turf grass lawns that go largely unused into little prairies that create habitat for wildlife, support pollinators and are perfectly suited to Iowa’s climate. And they’ve seen results fast.

A pollinators paradise

“Nature just opens up, the book opens up… It becomes a very interactive environment the moment that you start getting out in the yard,” said Andy James, co-creator of the Backyard Conservationists Instagram page.

Andy and his wife, Katie James, have seen a remarkable increase in biodiversity since beginning their native lawn journey, including the presence of endangered native pollinators like the rusty patched bumblebee.

Because of Iowa’s prairie problem, there’s a distinct lack of food resources for native pollinators. Supporting them with native plants gives endangered species habitat and diversifies Iowa’s pollination options.

Some gardeners choose to show their support in the form of pollinator or butterfly gardens. These smaller, stand-alone gardens can include non-native plants and are meant to solely attract insects. But native lawns like Andy and Katie’s are another great way to attract all kinds of pollinators and beneficial insects.

Getting started on transforming your own yard into a mini prairie is surprisingly simple. Andy and Katie say all you need is a small patch of garden, approximately four feet by four feet, to start experimenting with native plants.

A black and yellow bee rests on the orange stamen of a purple coneflower. Other purple coneflowers can be seen in the background growing between green plants.
Katie & Andy James
Katie and Andy James have seen many native pollinators since planting a native lawn.

How to get started

Native plants are much more resilient than most garden plants people are familiar with, so anything goes in terms of where you start planting — even the strip between your sidewalk and the curb can make a great garden if your local ordinances allow it. Nordby recommends working with plants you can find in the garden center first: Purple coneflower, black-eyed susan and milkweed are often easy to find.

“We started with some of the basics in a portion of this patch that it was hard to keep anything else alive in … and they just flourished in that spot and we built out from there,” said Nordby.

Once you’ve tried out some native plants and are ready to level up, you can plan your lawn or beds out like any other garden, with tall plants toward the edge of your space or walls of your house and small plants in front of those.

If planning isn’t your thing…

That's okay! Encouraging biodiversity with native plants gives you leeway to be messy/ You can let dead stems linger and allow your imagination (and your garden) to run a little wild. The most important thing is to have a diversity of native plants that will last from spring to fall, which includes blooming plants for bees and butterflies as well as leafy plants for caterpillars and other bugs to munch on.

When to start planting

Most native plant seeds require cold stratification —a period of cold temperatures that breaks their dormancy cycle and tells them it's safe to germinate — before they’ll grow. For this reason, late fall into early winter is a great time to plant prairie seed. However, the same effect can be achieved in the refrigerator a month or so prior to sowing them in the spring.

If you want more information on planting, take a look at this guide from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. 

Managing your mini prairie

As your garden takes off and expands, it may start to feel like it’s swallowing you whole. Prairie plants can get tall and competitive, and if you’re not careful your yard might become a monoculture of mammoth flowers fit to give your neighbors a fright. Some prolific plants can even migrate into your neighbors’ yards.

The key to managing your garden — and complaints from the neighbors — is being proactive. This starts with checking local ordinances relating to planting before you start. Then, once your garden is planted, make sure you’re removing growth throughout the year to mimic herbivores, pulling up noxious weeds and informing your neighbors about your native plant project. Putting up signs in your yard can also be a great way to inform, educate and even inspire your neighbors and passersby.


Growing native plants is a learning experience, and there are plenty of resources to help you along the way, including plant identification apps, books and your county conservation office. Before jumping into planting, consider curling up with one of the following resources and learning a little bit every day.


Andy and Katie used the Picture This app when they started to help them identify what native plants they were seeing, but there are plenty of other plant identification apps like PlantNet and iNaturalist to choose from.


Rebecca Kauten, a scientist in residence at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, recommends Doug Tallamy’s books, specifically Bringing Nature Home, which discusses sustaining wildlife with native plants. If you want to establish prairie plants on a larger scale, she recommends Carl Kurtz’s A Practical Guide to Prairie Reconstruction.


For digital natives, Kauten recommends the Minnesota Wildflowers website to look up different species and learn the basics. You can also find resources and assistance through your county’s conservation office, or check out the ISU Horticulture Extension website for an introduction to Iowa native prairie plants and other guides.

Sumner Wallace is an intern for IPR’s digital team. Sumner grew up in Iowa City, but now attends Oberlin College in Ohio, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and Media Studies with a minor in Chemistry. She has also worked for Little Village Magazine and The Oberlin Review.