A GARDENING LIFE: Neil Diboll

Prairie is a familiar and much-used word in our American vernacular. Every third grader reads Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. A Prairie Home Companion is National Public Radio’s popular Saturday night destination. Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style is one of the defining influences of 20th-century American architecture, furniture, and design. And new subdivisions all across America are named for the prairie’s romantic and historical association—Prairie Run, Prairie View, Prairie Heights. This all begs the question: If the concept of prairie is so popular, why are there so few actual prairies left?

Neil Diboll has a plan to change that. A prairie ecologist and nurseryman, Diboll has worked ceaselessly to raise awareness about prairie plants and ecosystems and to further the cause of prairie restoration. Diboll’s influence emanates from his company, Prairie Nursery, which specializes in the production and sales of native prairie plants. Located in Westfield, Wisconsin, where swaths of eight-foot-tall big bluestem once defined the landscape, Prairie Nursery sells prairies, plant by plant and seed by seed, all through the mail. (In addition, on-site sales are made to prairie-plant aficionados who make the pilgrimage to the nursery in search of prairie standbys such as butterfly weed, bottle gentian, and prairie blazing star.)

Prairie Nursery, started in 1972, keeps 45 employees working full time at the height of the season (27 work the year round). In the early years, the nursery was dubbed the “weed farm” by neighbors, but locals in the area began to sit up and take notice when Diboll expanded nursery operations by buying nearby farms. Even Diboll’s harshest critics eventually had to concede that 300 acres under cultivation and more than 30 years in business might mean you’re on to something.

Diboll, who grows locally with global ambitions, has been preaching prairie a long time. With a hearty laugh he says, “I studied ecology when it was still a science, before it became a religion.” But when he talks prairie, Diboll’s voice takes on a gravity that tells any listener that he considers its revival a serious and life-changing matter.

As a sought-after speaker on the subject of prairie restoration, Diboll talks with ease about prairie history and its roots in the American landscape. In his view, any garden, regardless of its size or location, can have a piece of the prairie dream. He calls his talking points on why everyone should plant a prairie the five E’s: (1) Esthetics—prairie plants offer beautiful flowers and plant forms; (2) Ecology—because prairies don’t require chemicals to flourish, they are kinder to the environment and to the wildlife that call the prairie home; (3) Energy—conservation-minded prairie plantings don’t require mowing or produce clippings; (4) Economic—prairie plantings are not greedy consumers of herbicides and fertilizers; (5) Emotion—prairies offer gardeners a way to reconnect with nature and an opportunity to give something good back to the earth.

On this last point, Diboll is especially passionate. “We’ve divorced ourselves from nature,” he says. “The prairie allows you to reconnect with nature and participate in the natural world.” His assertion is that when a gardener plants a prairie, regardless of the size, he or she is doing something small but significant—it’s an individual’s way to make a difference on the earth.

Diboll’s speaking engagements on the topics of prairie plants and restoration have taken him to such gardening bastions as the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Kew Gardens, and the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Additionally, his prairie designs and installations have appeared in many public spaces including the Brookfield Zoo and Sears World Headquarters.

Diboll has dedicated his adult life to preserving native plants by offering natural landscaping ideas that are both beautiful and life-sustaining. Any fan of the prairie knows where this obsession springs from. Look at a prairie, and it’s easy to be distracted from the beauty of the plants by all the other activity that’s going on: butterflies flitting from flower to flower, songbirds swooping in for seed-feeds. It’s a whole happy ecosystem living and interacting under the canopy of blue sky. A prairie is the original low-maintenance garden—the way nature planned and seeded it hundreds of years ago.

“Gardening as ecological restoration… this is why I do this,” Diboll says. “And for the joys and wonders. The most rewarding part of my job is when our customers tell us that their prairie has changed their lives—that it’s made them appreciate the world around them.” 

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