Prairie Delights

Just back from Minnesota where I was shooting for a new book with fellow Lawn Reform Coalition member Evelyn Hadden, and spent my free time looking for prairies.  OMG!  OMG,  O-M-G . . .

Crow-Hassan Park, prairie reserve

The Crow-Hassan Park Reserve is part of Three Rivers Park District, a regional park for the Minneapolis area.  I did not expect to find beautiful wild prairie so close to the city, I was completely prepared to drive hours into the wild.  The reality of native prairie though, is that there are no big expanses of prairies left, so you are just as likely to find a small remnant near a city as you are next to a cornfield in the middle of nowhere.

I look for prairies and glades and meadows whenever I travel, always on the lookout for garden ideas that are natural and sustainable.  This first photo I took, in a clearing  with willows, sumac, and goldenrod ready to bloom could be a garden scene in any northern clime, and I began to realize I had stumbled on a very special place.

I have attached a web gallery of Crow-Hassan at the end of this post and will not here keep gushing about finding a prairie at peak bloom.  Instead I will go through a photo process of photographing grasses in the wild.

Grasses are the key component of any prairie or meadow, and knit together the ecosystem.  But they can be hard to photograph.  They are wispy and almost invisible until they begin to flower, and even then they do not scream out in the landscape.

Crow-Hassan Park, prairie reserve

This is a wonderful part of the Crow-Hassan Preserve where the prairie comes up against the woodlands.  Wonderful not just because there are more diverse plants or because can get more ideas for home gardening (imagine the woods as a house) but wonderful because the woods provide a dark background.

The mass of Switch Grass is just beginning to flower in the left of the photograph but is lost in the scene.  My job was to picture the grasses so they could stand out in the landscape.  Grasses are the key element in all my meadow garden photos so I need to make them look good – the camera always lies ya know.

switch grass, Crow-Hassan Park, prairie reserve

The best way to get any plant to stand out, is to isolate it somehow from its surroundings.  In this case, the dark woods provided a nice foil for the tall flowers.  So I got down low in the grass and used a wide lens to show the whole scene of Rudbeckia, Monarda, and Panicum together in front of the woods.  Nice; we get a sense of scale and the grass now has some presence but it doesn’t really seem like a garden scene.  I want to get more color and drama.

Now I use a longer lens, compress the Black-eye Susan and Bee-balm, stay low in the grass, use more of the dark woods and compose the photograph so that there is no wasted space.  Notice how the negative space around the grass flowers is nicely balanced with the color of the prairie flowers.  It just seems to work.

Rudbeckia and Panicum in prairie

I was lucky that it was a still morning, with almost no wind so that I could set up my tripod and get good depth of field.  And of course the tripod allows careful composition so I could consider how to use the whole frame.

Sometimes though, it can be really tough to use the tripod.  Full sized tripods are not built to get really, really low.  But that is what I needed to do to photograph the short Purple Love Grass* under the taller rye at another part of the prairie.  I splayed the tripod legs completely open and laid on my belly to get this.

* In my original post I mistakenly identified this as a Muhly grass.  Thanks to our watchful readers I am able to correct this Eragrostis spectabilis (purple love grass).

Muhly grass in prairie

I then stayed in the grass, dreaming of meadows; a prairie delight.

Crow-Hassan webgallery

About Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

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13 Responses to Prairie Delights

  1. cameron (Defining Your Home) August 9, 2010 at 8:19 am #

    Another informative post. I’ll browse your gallery to see more of the photos.

    Thanks Cameron. I hope this venture off into landscape photography has some lessons for garden photography too. – Saxon

  2. Evelyn Hadden August 9, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    Saxon, you have captured the spirit of the prairie so well! It is a many-layered landscape, with little jewels waiting to be uncovered… a few bright red leaves of the sumac just beginning its autumn change, an understory grass like a low purple fog, the budding goldenrod with a hint of yellow. Thank you for sharing these!

    Thanks for dropping in Evelyn. Wish I could see that Sumac when it really turns color. You will be seeing more prairie photos form me … Saxon

  3. Benjamin August 9, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Hey, I’m from the Twin Cities and had no idea this was there. It’s by the airport, right? Guess I have another reason to visit my folks. Here in Nebraska we have a few nearby untouched prairie remnants–800 acres (where I got married, and where wagon ruts from teh Oregon Trail still exist) and 500 acres, both within a 30 minute drive.

    No, Crow-Hassan is in Hennepin County, about 45 minutes NW Minneapolis. Still big enough to feel lost in…. Saxon

  4. Susan Harris August 10, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

    Good job@!

    Susan – Thanks for the shortest GGW comment of all time… – Saxon

  5. Mr. McGregor's Daughter August 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    Wait – stop – that’s Muhly grass growing in Minnesota? I thought it was hardy only to zone 6. Is somebody going to propagate that for us Northern gardeners?
    (BTW, thanks for the prairie photography lesson.)

    I posted these photos before confirmations, but someone told me there was a short grass Muhly in MN, though Nan is probably right (next comment) that it is a love grass. Will follow up – Saxon

  6. Nancy J. Ondra August 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    I believe it’s purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) in that last shot, MMD.

    Thanks Nan. I will confirm and correct as needed. I hate having bad information. The camera may always lie, but the writer should not . . . Saxon

  7. Billy Goodnick August 10, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    As I’d expect, beautiful words and images, topped off with a big scoop of camera talk. Loving it all.

    Too kind. Thanks for dropping in Billy – Saxon

  8. Evanne Hunt August 11, 2010 at 8:56 am #

    The Prairie Enthusiasts, a non-profit org dedicated to protecting our remaining native prairies and oak savanna, leads over 50 field trips each year.

    The guided trips are free and open to the public. They are great opportunities to see grassland birds, take great pictures of native flowers, and learn the names of our native plants.

    Join us! With chapters in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, there is bound to be a field trip near you.

    Evanne – Thanks for dropping by. “Free and open to the public” field trips ?! Sounds great. In case anyone did not realize they could click on your name to get more info about The Prairie Enthusiasts here is the link – Saxon

  9. Donna August 11, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    The prairie photos are great. Loved the photography tips. I learned a new trick about photographing a landscape, but how early did you shoot? The lighting was perfect. Thanks.

    Light is so important and usually I try to start at dawn, The very first shot was taken about an hour after sunrise as the first light rose high enough to light that little glade, but the others were not taken until 9 or 10. But early enough so they are still in the shade of the woods. There are no strong, hard shadows to deal with, only the naturally dark area of the woods. – Saxon

  10. Donna August 11, 2010 at 2:33 pm #

    Thank-you Saxon. I will try to take some shots tomorrow morning with your advice. I took some of my city prairie this afternoon while it was slightly overcast. Not the pretty flowers of your prairies, but the plants all my neighbors are spraying with herbicide. I am going to post them on my blog to show how some of these plants actually can thrive/survive in these conditions. Then show them in context to the environment they inhabit. So sad. My main objective was to find just one Monarch this summer. Thought this lot may have one. Still on the hunt.

  11. healingmagichands August 13, 2010 at 7:10 am #

    Wonderful photographs, Saxon. Of course. I enjoyed reading your description of how you got those grand images, and the whole time I was thinking “Boy, I’d like to see him do that here!” Where I walk my dog on a regular basis has a beautiful field that the previous owner was transforming into a tall grass prairie meadow. You go right ahead and lie in the grass there, hon, I’ll stand back and watch. Come back and talk to me in a couple of days and let me know how all those seed ticks and chiggers feel!

    I have been back home more than a week and am still itching from the no-see-ums that the native Minnesotans seem immune to … – Saxon

  12. healingmagichands August 14, 2010 at 7:26 am #

    Poor Saxon! We all must suffer for our art. . . At least you can console yourself that if you ever come to the Ozarks, we here are NOT immune to the ticks and chiggers. . .

  13. Sylvie from South Africa August 23, 2010 at 3:49 am #

    Beautiful and lush. Our African plains and savannahs are so harsh in comparison.

    Would love to visit the savannahs of South Africa some day. Many of our own native grasslands are much more sparse, but even the deserts and shortgrass prairies are beautiful after the rainy season though seldom lush, like these tall grass prairies in Minnesota, close to the Canadian border. – Saxon