Little Blue

File:4th Place - Coyote in Little Bluestem in Red Hills (7469132472).jpg

Coyote in Little Bluestem in Red Hills
by Greg Kramos

“A child said, what is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands; how could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he. I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.”

–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

NCDC USA Drought Map
by Richard Heim

Rain, rain, rain. We’ve had rain on several days the past few months but the Earth is still thirsty! The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) released September through December’s Palmer Z drought index numbers and 52% of the upper Midwest, Plains, and Western half of the United States are still experiencing drought conditions. Despite the lack of moisture this season, Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, a native perennial bunchgrass, thrived.

A plant’s metabolism is partially responsible for its survival during extreme weather conditions. Perennial grasses can be classified as either C3 or C4 plants. Classification as a C3 or C4 plant is determined by the metabolic or biochemical pathway the plant uses to capture carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. While the C3 pathway is present in all grass species, the additional C4 pathway evolved in species adapting to very wet or dry habitats. 

The C3 and C4 metabolic pathways are very different from one another. Each pathway is associated with a plant’s growing requirements. Little bluestem is a warm season, sun-loving, short grass species with preference for mesic to dry growing conditions and a C4 metabolism. Much like the weather of 2012, extremely dry growing conditions were experienced during the Great Drought of the 1930s. In 1932, Weaver and Fitzpatrick noted that Schizachyrium scoparium was more drought tolerant than some other prairie grass species found in the plains of North America. More recently, Hake conducted physiological field studies confirming the species-specific drought tolerance of Little bluestem. 

Little bluestem

Little bluestem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Global climate change has brought about conditions of drought, high temperatures, and increased levels of nitrogen and carbon dioxide providing C4 plants, like Little bluestem, with a distinct advantage over those possessing the C3 metabolic pathway. In spite of its toughness, Little bluestem’s clumped foliage is delicate and beautiful. Slender, erect, blue-green stems or culms appear in August and reach 2-3 ft. tall by September. The alternate, 1/4 inch wide and 10 in. long leaves are located on the lower part of each culm. In late fall, the culms and leaves turn a rusty-red color and are topped with white tufts of shining seeds. 

Spikelet

Spikelet

The tufts of shining white seeds or spikelets form on 1 1/4 to 3 in. stalks or racemes the end of each culm. Several pairs of spikelets occur on opposite sides of the raceme’s central stem. Between the central stem of each spikelet, long white hairs are produced. Two pairs of spikelets are produced; a sessile, fertile spikelet and a sterile spikelet. The fertile spikelet is about 1/4 in. in length and the sterile spikelet is 1/8 in. in length. Each fertile spikelet produces a single elongated grain. The floret’s anthers are brown to reddish brown and the stigmas are pale purple in color. 

Below the ground, Little bluestem possesses a dense and fibrous root system. Reaching 5 to 8 ft. in depth, the predominantly vertical roots provide both erosion control and protection from drought. Little bluestem has a symbiotic relationship with the fungus, arbuscular mycorrhizae, which improves its supply of water and nutrients. In return, Little bluestem transfers 20% of its plant fixed carbon to the fungus. In light of its erosion control and drought tolerance characteristics, Little bluestem is often used in conjunction with other C4 grasses for prairie restorations and revegetation of abandoned cultivated lands. 

Little bluestem in winter

Little bluestem in winter

An adaptable grass, Little bluestem thrives a wide range of soils and tolerates  harsh growing conditions but prefers neutral to slightly basic sites with deep, shallow, sandy, fine-textured and rocky soils that are characteristically medium to dry, well-drained, and infertile. The plant thrives in full sun but will tolerate light shade. Little bluestem readily seeds itself. Caution should be exercised when planting it in small areas with ideal growing conditions since reseeding can result in Little bluestem becoming the dominate species in the garden. 

Growing conditions, including climate and soil type, have an effect on the geographical distribution of a grass. The Little bluestem range extends throughout all of the lower 48 states except Nevada and are most prominent in the Great Plains and open canopy of the eastern United States. More state specific plant locations can be found on the USDA’s Schizachyrium scoparium distribution map. Common throughout Illinois, Little bluestem’s native habitats include hill, gravel, sand, loam, and clay prairies, scrubby barrens, rocky slopes of thinly wooded bluffs, sandy savannas, hilltop glades, dunes, gravel railroad right of ways, and abandoned fields. 

Little bluestem’s vast geographic distribution also plays an important role in various ecosystems throughout North America. It is the food source and/or cover for songbirds, upland game birds, ground birds, mammals, and insects. During the winter in Illinois, Little bluestem seeds are favored by the Field Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Slate-Colored Junco, and other small songbirds. Other Illinois avian inhabitants such as the Prairie Chicken, Sharp Tailed Grouse and the quail use the foliage of Little bluestem as nesting material or cover. The foliage of Little bluestem found in Illinois is quite palatable to bison, cattle, White Tailed Deer, and other mammalian herbivores. Ecologists have identified an invaluable relationship between the Little bluestem and insects. Insects are abundant in prairies, providing an ample food source for others higher up in the food chain, birds in particular. Little bluestem’s leaves are the food source for butterflies, skippers, grasshoppers, spittlebugs, leafhoppers, thrips, and beetles. In Illinois, the native grass provides nutrients for Atrytonopsis hiannaHesperia leonardusHesperia meteaHesperia ottoeHesperia sassacusNastra lherminierPolites origenes, numerous grasshopper species,  Prosapia ignipectusFlexamia delongiLaevicephalus unicoloratusIllinothrips rossi, and Aniostena nigrita.

Commonly found in prairies across North America, the ornamental, native bunchgrass, Little bluestem, plays an important role in ecological restorations. Not only does it provide a food source for many native fauna species, it is also a drought resistant native grass, particularly suited for survival in our changing environment. Weather extremes are the new norm throughout the world. This phenomena seems to be born out in an unseasonably warm and dry year in Illinois. Our winter this year has also been warm and dry. In fact, the 2012 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Climatic Data Center recently stated that the recent year’s weather “…is consistent with what we would expect in a warming world.” Clearly environmental adaptations are necessary for ecosystems to remain sustainable in a warming world. This report will require all gardeners, even native gardeners, and prairie restorationists will need to adapt their plant selections to accommodate the climate change. I plan to do my part to help create a more sustainable landscape by planting a few more Little bluestems in my garden!

Related articles

Resources:

Coucher, T., “Little Bluestem: Schizachyrium scoparium.” Field Guides, eoL: Encyclopedia of Life Learning, Harvard Univerity. N.D. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Maricle, Brian R. and Adler, Peter B., “Effects on precipitation and photosynthesis and water potential in Andropogon gerardii and Schizachyrium scoparium in a southern mixed grass prairie.” Environmental and Experimental Botany. 16 Mar. 2011 Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

Schizachyrium scoparium (Mich.) Nash.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. University Texas at Austin. N.D. Web. 12 Sep. 2012.

Hake, D. R. etal.,”Water stress of tallgrass prairie plants in central Oklahoma.” J Range Management, Mar. 1984. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Little Bluestem.” Illinois Wildflowers. N.P. 2002. Web 10 Nov. 2012.

Steinberg, Peter D. ” Schizahyrium scoparium.” Fire Effects Information System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. 2002. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.

” Plants Profile, Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture. 2002. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

“State of the Climate Drought Annual 2012.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.

Weaver, J. E. and Albertson, F. W., “Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas”  Agronomy Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1936 Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

Weaver, J. E. and Fitzpatrick, T. J., “Ecology and relative importance of the dominants of the tallgrass prairie.”  Botanical Gazette. 1 Apr. 1932 Web. 1 Oct. 2012.

“What are C3 and C4 native grass Species?” NSW Government, Department of Primary Industries: Agriculture.  N.D. Web 1 Nov. 2012 .

The Heat is On

Sea of Gold

[The Prairie] seems to be a constant contradiction of itself. It is delicate, yet resilient; it appears to be simple, but closer inspection indicates that it is extremely complex; it may appear monotonous, but it is diverse and ever-changing throughout the seasons.

– James Stubbendieck

Dry Dry Dry

Dry Dry Dry Photo by Andreas

Here in the Midwest, especially northern Illinois, the summer’s excessive heat and humidity have wreaked havoc on my newly planted native plugs. The National Climatic Data Center  (NCDC) has described the 2012 climate patterns as a drought. Drought is very difficult to define, nevertheless, “[c]ommon to all types of drought is the fact that they originate from a deficiency of precipitation resulting from an unusual weather pattern” (Enloe). The NCDC uses the Palmer Drought Index for annual drought comparisons. The balance between moisture demand also known as temperature driven evapotranspiration and moisture supply in the form of precipitation are the variables used to measure the Palmer drought indices. Short term moisture conditions for the current month are recorded as the Palmer Z Index, while long term moisture conditions are portrayed with the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI) and Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). More specifically, the PHDI and PDSI represent the current month’s cumulative moisture conditions integrated over the last several months.

Drought Map for July 2012
by Richard Heim

U.S. Drought Map for August 2012
By Brewer and Love-Brotak

Illinois Drought September 2012
by Brian Fuchs

At the end of June, the NCDC reported that 55% of the United States was affected by “moderate to extreme drought” and 33% of these were experiencing “severe to extreme drought”. On of July 26th 2012, the NCDC reported that 63.9% of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions based on the Palmer Drought Indices. At the time of this post, The NCDC has reported that 63.2% of the lower forty-eight states were still experiencing drought conditions despite the some much-welcomed precipitation deposited on much of the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio. Despite the recent wetter and cooler temperatures here in Illinois, the crops and my native plugs have been devastated by this summer’s heat and dry conditions. Nevertheless, blooming two to three weeks earlier than normal and experiencing a shortened bloom time, my established natives have continued to thrive.

Carolyn Harstad, author of Go Native! Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest has noted that native plants, once established, are more likely to survive and thrive because they have adapted to a region’s climatic swings. The climatic adaptation of deep and extensive root systems by native plants has reduced their need for supplemental watering, fertilizing, and chemical maintenance. Artificial fertilization and herbicide use all contribute to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a force currently degrading our environment through the destruction of natural resources. Scientists have shown that environmental degradation results in climatic extremes or global warming. While some will say droughts and temperature extreme are all part of nature, one thing is for certain, prairies have the resiliency to rebound and diversify in harsh temperatures and hydrologic conditions. Chris Helzer, an ecologist, director for The Nature Conservancy, and blogger on The Prairie Ecologist has cited a fascinating article about the 1934 drought entitled, Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas by prairie biologist, J.E. Weaver detailing the drought response of prairie plants. After reading this paper, I believe the continued survival of my established native plants during the “Drought of 2012”  supports both Weaver’s and Harstad’s observation that established native plants are equipped to withstand climatic stress.

Plugs newly planted in May on the steep, southern facing slope for the most part have all succumbed to the climatic extremes of the excessive temperature and dryness. While I am aware that new transplants require consistent watering and weeding during their first year of growth, the planting site’s topography coupled with the lack of rain, and the inability to access creek water were more than either the plants of I could manage. However, there is hope. Just like Dibol and Doverspike reported in their posts, “Drought of 2012″ and “Plant survival in harsh drought conditions” of Prairie Nursery’s blog The Native Plant Herald, my established creek side prairie garden has bloomed. The garden composed of  Lanceleaf CoreopsisButterflyweedPurple ConeflowerBlack-eyed SusanYellow ConeflowerRough BlazingstarOx Eyed Sunflower, IronweedCrooked Stem Aster and New England Aster seem unaffected by the drought and extreme temperature this summer and flowered magnificently. Little BluestemPrairie DropseedSwitchgrass, and Sideoats Grama, all deep rooted grasses, planted among the forbs also look healthy and have begun to produce fruit. Fruit, sustenance for the the fauna has been produced in spite of the inhospitable weather conditions.

Creek Side Survivors

Pale Purple Coneflower

The essence of a gardener is hope and faith. The hope continues based on Helzer, Muller, and Weaver’s experience that established plants that have succumbed to a year’s climatic extremes re-emerge in the coming spring, stronger and healthier than ever. The butterflies sipping the nectar of the New England Aster remind me that they are symbolic of resurrection. The butterfly forms a cocoon, appears dead, only later to emerge more beautiful and stronger than before. Perhaps even the plugs will be reborn, too. Only time will tell. I have faith, it is supported by my hope that my native plant garden will recover from the Great Drought of 2012.

Yellow Coneflower and Crooked Stem Aster

Related articles

Resources

Dibol, Neil. “Drought of 2012.” The Native Plant Champion: Restoring balance to our landscapes and living spaces. Prairie Nursery. 11 Jul. 2012. Web. 29 Jul. 2012.

Doverspike, Sarie. “Plant Survival in harsh drought conditions.” The Native Plant Champion: Restoring balance to our landscapes and living spaces, Prairie Nursery. 9 Jul. 2012. Web. 29 Jul. 2012.

Enloe, Jesse. “Drought Termination and Amelioration.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. N.D. Web. 6 Aug. 2012.

“Greenacres: Landscaping with Native Plants.” Great Lakes, United States Environmental Protection Agency. 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 20. Jul. 2012.

Harstad, Carolyn. Go Native! Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, In. 1999.

Helzer, Chris. “The Great Drought (Again).” The Prairie Ecologist. N.P. 29 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

Mueller, Irene and Weaver, J. E. “Relative Drought Resistance of Seedlings of Dominant Prairie Grasses.” Agronomy Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1942 Web.1 Sept. 2012.

Phillips, Jack. “Drought Spreads, Half of US Counties Now Disaster Areas.” The Epoch Times. 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 5 Aug 2012.

Plume, Karl. “Drought eases in U.S. Midwest, worsens in northern Plains.” Reuters. 30 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

“Summer 2012 Drought Update.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 26 Jul. 2012. Web. 27 Jul. 2012.

Weaver, J. E. and Albertson, F. W., “Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas”  Agronomy
Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1936 Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

Bluejackets to Jello

Ohio Spiderwort Bloom

Bluejacket bud

Ohio Spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis, also called Bluejacketis a beautiful native forb that produces one bloom each morning. These forbs bloom constantly and profusely from May through July. The flower of the forb is innately sensitive to the day’s rising temperature and each bloom shrivels, essentially dissolving, into a gelatinous fluid by midday. This sensitivity also allows the flora to act as an environmental indicator, responding to air quality and radiation. The spiderwort’s petals change color from blue to violet in reaction to air quality, with the degree of color change an indicator of the amount pollution in the air. As previously stated, this forb is also a sensitive to radiation, and has been used to detect very low radiation levels in its immediate environment. In response to radiation exposure, the forb’s blue stamens turn pink.

Tradescantia ohiensis

Tradescantia ohiensis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This species of spiderwort is a clump-forming, herbaceous native perennial that grows up to 3′ tall with dark bluish-green, arching, unbranched, leaves. Each 1.75 inch wide and 18 inch long vertically-channeled, alternate leaf appears as if it has been folded in half lengthwise as one of a possible eight nodes along a round, smooth or glabrous central stem. The .75 inch to 1.5 inch in diameter, three-petaled, blue flowers occur in a small cluster on the stems at the top of the plant. The forb flowers from late May into early July in the midwestern states and goes dormant in late summer. Each spent flower produces several, tri-sectioned seed capsules that when mature, split into 3 sections, to produce 3-6 oval, brown seeds per capsule. The forb’s root system is thick, fleshy, and fibrous, sending off occasional offshoots nearby making it ideally suited for propagation via root division.

An adaptable plant, Spiderworts tolerate a wide range of growing conditions but prefers moist to medium wet, well-drained, acidic, sandy soil in full sun to part shade. Their leaves respond to harsh weather conditions, competition from other plants, or age by developing brown blotches or becoming yellow in color. Caution should be exercised when planting the Spiderwort in areas with ideal growing conditions since they tend to self-seed and can become somewhat aggressive competition, forming colonies and crowding out other nearby natives. However, it must be noted that when planted in shady conditions, flower production may be less profuse.

Growing conditions, including climate and soil type have an effect on the geographical distribution of a plant. The Ohio Spiderwort is geographically distributed from Ontario south to eastern Texas and eastward to include populations in the midwest as well as northeastern and southeastern states. More statewide specific distribution can be found on the USDA’s Tradescantia ohiensis distribution map. Common throughout Illinois, Ohio Spiderwort’s native habitat includes moist to mesic prairies, black and bur oak savannas, limestone glades, thickets and woodland margins, moist or riverside meadows, and roadside or railroad ditches. Widely scattered, these plants sometimes appear in sizable colonies in disturbed areas. In nature, the Spiderwort is a companion to Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indiangrass as well as Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Bee Balm, Golden Alexander and Pale Purple Coneflower.

Pollination is vital to the survival both the native flora and fauna of an ecosystem. Pollination ecologists have identified several invaluable relationships between the Ohio spiderwort and native fauna. Perhaps the most important relationship is between the forb and bees for they are the predominate pollinators of these flowers as well as most flowering plants. Bees, specifically the long-tongued bees, honey bees, bumblebees and Halictine bees feed on the Spiderwort’s nectar and in the process carry pollen from one Spiderwort flower to another flower of the same species, leading to successful pollination of the forb. Other fauna such as Karner blue butterfly, Syrphid flies, Leaf beetles, White-tailed deer, Cottontail rabbits, Box turtles, snails, and various species of birds use the Spiderworts as a food source, feeding on stray pollen, foliage, or seeds. The non-toxic foliage, particularly its flowers and stems, are added to salads and said to have a flavor similar to asparagus.

Commonly found in prairies, the beautiful Ohio Spiderworts play an important role in ecological restorations. Not only does it provide a food source for many native fauna species it also acts as gauge in determining the health of a habitat. Plant a few spiderworts in your garden to help establish a sustainable landscape!

Resources

“Bumblebee Behavior.” Bumblebee. N.P. 1997. Web. 12 Jul.2012.

“Tradescantia ohiensis Raf.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. N.D. University Teas at Austin. N.D. Web. 12 Jul. 2012.

“Tradescantia ohiensis Rafinesque.” Flora of North America. eFloras,  Missouri Botanical Garden & Harvard University Herbaria.  2008. Web. 7 Jul. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Definitions and Line Drawings of Botanical Terminology.” Illinois Wildflowers. N.P. 2002. Web 6 Jul. Web. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Flower-Visiting Insects of the Ohio Spiderowort.” Illinois Wildflowers. N.P. 2002. Web. 6 Jul. Web. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Ohio Spiderwort.” Illinois Wildflowers. 2002 N.P. Web 6 Jul. Web. 2012.

Ichikawa, Sadao. “Somatic Mutatiion Rate in Tradescantia Stamen Hairs at Low Radiation Levels: Finding of Low Doubling Doses of Mutations”The Japanese Journal of Genetics . 47 (6) 1972: 411–421. Web.

Tenaglia, Dan. “Tradescantia ohiensis Raf.” Missouri Plants.  N.P. N.D. Web. 11 Jul. 2012.

Nature’s Origami

Nature’s Origami
photo untouched

One of the first spring flowers to bloom in my native plant garden are the intricately formed Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. Also known as Eastern red columbine or Wild red columbine, this flower presents itself proudly as an elaborate assembly of yellow petals, stamens, and pistils surrounded by upturned, red petals and spurs. The five, outer, red petals extend backward to form tubular, nectar-filled spurs that collectively resemble an origami fortune-teller game or cluster of five doves perched around a fountain. In fact, the flower’s common name comes from the Latin word, columbinus, which means “dove-like.” The relatively large, one and a half inch long dove-like flowers, presented as individuals or in groups of 2 to 3, are supported by slender, round, green to reddish green, glabrous stems. Along its stems, past the basal leaves, the mature plant produces long petioles with alternate, ternately compound leaflets. Obovate in shape, the 3-inch long and 2 inch wide, glabrous leaflet is further divided into round-toothed, secondary lobes. This 1 to 3 foot tall, sparingly branched, native plant has short fibrous root system, and as a result, this hardy perennial is short-lived, lasting three to five years. However, all is not lost, since Columbine prodigiously regenerates itself by self-seeding!

Self-seeding Columbine

In Illinois, Columbine flowers from early May to mid June. Two weeks after the flowers have emerged they will go to seed. Once ripened, the seed dispersed by man or nature is easily propagated. Propagation occurs via wind-driven self-seeding or by a purposeful gardener who has collected and stored the fruit for later, fall planting. Hand sown seeds should be scattered on the soil’s surface and lightly tamped. Cold-moist stratification treatment is required for over-wintered seeds stored for spring planting. Summer seeds left to self-seed will germinate less profusely than those sown by hand and pressed into the soil. All seedlings, whether they were self-sown or scattered by man, usually flower the second year following germination.

A prolific progenitor, Columbine, specifically genus Aquilegia, made its way into North America via the Bering land bridge that connected the continents of Asia and North America during the Pleistocene period some 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, and rapidly spread throughout Alaska and the North American continent. As the columbines moved across the continent, new species evolved in response to their new environment and pollinators. These new Columbine species developed characteristics that were similar to their original features, yet different. The evolved columbines produced different shaped and colored flowers, as well as different positions for presenting their flowers, sepals, and spurs than their ancestors. Overtime, the Columbine’s genes changed. These new genes, responsible for both the initial evolution of nectar spurs and subsequent plant diversification, helped the plants physically adapt and respond to their new pollinators. The plant’s structure evolved to control which pollinators could facilitate its reproductive success. Pollination was accomplished only by insects or birds that possessed an appendage long enough to retrieve the nectar from the spur. Nectar retrieval resulted in an insect’s or bird’s body becoming pollen covered from the flower’s anthers positioned above the spurs. Pollen transferred from one Columbine plant to another plant occurred to complete the cross-pollination process. Today, in their current habitats, the Red columbine’s pollinators of choice are the Columbine Duskywing, Ruby-throated hummingbirds, Short-tongued halictid bees, and butterflies, as well as the Boer and Hawk moths.

Columbine’s Spurs

Eastern red columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is usually found in habitats with light shade to partial sun, moist to dry drainage conditions, and loamy, rocky, or slightly sandy soil. Once it becomes established, a mature plant can tolerate full sun as long as the air temperature does not exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Rocky open woodlands, wooded slopes, sandy savannas, sparsely wooded stream bluffs, shaded limestone cliffs, and glades, fens, bogs, logged woodland clearings, and thickets along railroad tracks are the preferred environment for Columbines. Current geographical distribution of Aquilegia canadensis is from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, south to northern Florida, western Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. Other columbine species in this genus occur in the Western states. This flora is native to eastern and central North America, an endangered species in Florida, and the only species native to Illinois.

Each year, the origami shaped columbines herald in the coming of the spring wildflower season. Whether the Red columbine resemble a cluster of five peace-filled doves or an origami fortune-teller game, one thing is for certain, they represent nature’s ability to adapt. Moreover, change is something we hope can facilitate survival in a somewhat inhospitable world.

Intricacy of Evolution

Related articles

Resources

Anderson, J. “Aquilegia canadensis L.: red columbine.” Plants Profile, Natural Resources Conservation service, United States Department of Agriculture. 2002. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

“Aquilegia Express: Columbines Natural History.” Celebrating Wildflowers, U.S. Forest Service. 5 Mar. 2012.Web. 10 Jun. 2012.

“Aquilegia Express: The Columbine Flower.” Celebrating Wildflowers, U.S. Forest Service. 5 Mar. 2012.Web. 10 Jun. 2012.

Aquilegia canadensis L.” Native Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, The University of Texas at Austin. 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Wild Columbine.” Woodland Wildflowers of Illinois.  2004. Web. 12 Jun. 2012.

Kramer, Elena and Hodges, Scott A. “Dramatic Diversity of Columbine Flowers Explained By a Simple Change in Cell Shape.” Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Jun. 2012.

Massey, Jimmy R. and Murphy, James C. “Leaf Parts.” Vascular Plant Systematics. 1996. Web. 15 Jun. 2012.

Rook, E.S. “Aquilegia canadensis.” Flora, Fauna, Earth, and Sky: The Natural History of the Northwoods, 26 Feb. 2004. Web 11 Jun. 2012.

Black Energy: cultivar of life

Black Energy

“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.”

Aldo Leopold

Most living things depend on the Earth’s skin, soil, for life. Soil is made up of native rocks (45%), organic material (5%), air (25%) and water (25%) but its essential components are clay minerals, humus, as well as plant and microbe metabolites. Plants rely on soil for mechanical and life support, a thermal buffer, a habitat that provides its essential symbiotic organisms, as well as a source of water, toxin neutralizer, and nutrient supply. Clay minerals along with small plant and microbe metabolite molecules provide most of the soil’s nutrients. These chemicals are vital for the conversion of sunlight into energy for plant metabolism, which is responsible for growth. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are the three major plant nutrients. Soil nutrient levels are determined through soil testing.  Soil analysis will provide the levels of pH, N, K, and P in the soil, as described in a previous post, Tend the Soil .

Plants absorb nitrogen from the soil through their roots in the form of either nitrate ions or ammonium ions.  The absorbed nitrogen is used by the plants  for incorporation into amino acids, nucleic acids, and chlorophyll. Excess nitrogen, can result in rapid, lush growth and a diminished root system. Prairie plants depend on their extensive root system for survival so excess N levels should be avoided.

Many restoration ecologist have also found that fertilizers, specifically increased nitrogen, N, promote competitive invasive species growth in prairie restoration projects. Prairie plants do not need additional nitrogen so there is no need to fertilize them. However, plant growth can be improved with the use of inoculants (microorganisms) but seek the advice of your prairie seed supplier before adding these to your soil.

Soil particularly high in nitrogen can be amended by incorporating organic matter, like straw, into the soil. Cultivation of the organic matter into the soil will reduce the excess nitrogen available to weed and invasive plant seeds. It is however, important to make sure the organic matter is herbicide, grass, and weed seed free. Contact your local University Extension Service for more information on nitrogen reduction in soil.

Clay or humus rich soils act as chemical buffers for a wide variety substances present in the soil that might be responsible from an unfavorable pH. The soil’s buffering property can be either an asset or a detriment to soil depending on how much acid, alkali, pesticides, oil, water, and ions stored in its reservoirs.  Positively speaking, these buffers stabilize the soil against abrupt chemical or physical changes that may adversely affect a plant’s growth. However, the buffers can also store large amounts of undesirable substances, resulting in chemical alteration of the soil’s properties.  Remediation of chemically altered soil properties is a difficult and lengthy process requiring the addition of lime and sphagnum peat or organic mulch for acidic and basic soils, respectively.

Salts containing calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), and potassium (K+), and sodium (Na+) cations are commonly found in soil. The earth’s crust is often the origin of these salts. However, salts also result when rocks weather and their dissolved ions have been carried away by water and deposited on the soil’s surface or accumulate in underground water. Fertilizers, organic amendments, and water runoff also add salts to the soil.

Soil salts dramatically affect soil structure, porosity, and plant-water relations. Decreased soil and plant productivity are a result of increased levels of soil salts. Specifically, seeds will fail to germinate or germinate slowly, and plant growth will be slow and stunted in high salinity soil. High salt concentration in soil will cause the plants to wilt and die, no matter how much they have been watered, because the plant- root salt ion concentration becomes unbalanced, interfering with its ability to effectively draw water from the soil.

Salt affected soils are commonly found in areas where evaporation exceeds precipitation and resulting dissolved salts accumulate, or in areas where runoff or vegetative changes have caused salts to leach and accumulate in low-lying places or areas with low water tables. Soil testing that includes a detailed salinity analysis is required to determine what type of salt build up, if any, is present in your soil. Contact your local University Extension Service for more soil testing information. In Illinois, contact one of the following soil testing labs for information regarding salinity testing capabilities, sample collection protocol and remediation recommendations.

With soil salinity results in hand, one will definitively know whether their soil is salt affected. If the soil analysis reveals a high buildup of salt concentration, the soil will fall into one of three salinic categories: saline, saline-sodic and sodic. The easiest soils to correct are the saline soils; sodic soils are more difficult. Accumulated salts can have adverse effects on soil function and one of the following means can accomplish management and soil remediation:

  • improving soil drainage;
  • leaching salts from the soil with excessive watering;
  • applying mulch to reduce evaporation rate of the soil’s water content;
  • chemical application to reduce the exchangeable sodium content in the soil; and
  • combination of these methods.

Phosphorus, P, the last of the three major plant nutrients to be addressed in this post is also found in soil and water, as well as all living things. This essential nutrient is required by plants and animals for proper energy utilization. Plants use dissolved orthophosphate from the soil. Usually, soil P levels are naturally low. Extreme P deficiencies, determined by soil testing, can be remediated with the addition of either inorganic phosphorus containing fertilizers available from treated rock phosphates or organic phosphorus sources found in animal manures. However, caution must be used when adding additional phosphorus to the soil because industrial and municipal point source discharge and agricultural and urban nonpoint source runoff of phosphorus has resulted in an explosion of competing, nonnative plant populations and algal blooms on nearby streams, lakes and rivers.

 All plants have the basic nutrient needs of nitrogen and phosphorus.  F. Stuart Chapin has found that the nutritional characteristics of wild or native plants are similar to those required by herbaceous crops from fertile habitats. The growth rates for both groups are relative to their nutrient supply. However, native plants respond to moderate nutrient stress through increased root absorption to compensate for the limiting nutrients as well as developing an increased root to shoot ratio, a decreased photosynthetic rate, and decreased reproductive output.

Chapin has found “…where light and water are not unduly limiting, extremely nutrient-deficient sites are dominated by slowly growing stress-tolerant species, nutrient-rich sites by rapidly growing competitive and ruderal species, and intermediate sites by a combination of the two and by plants with intermediate characteristics.”  Native plants have adapted to infertile soils, in fact, this environment is acceptable for these stress-tolerant species, whose slow growth rates are maintained by their low nutrient absorption. Native plant species have the ability to maximize soil nutrients by maintaining a large root biomass and symbiotic relationship with the fungus, mycorrhizae. The slow growth rate of the native plants enables them to maintain nutrient reserves, which helps them to survive periods of low nutrient availability. That being said, it is best to review your soil testing results with your local University Extension Service for soil remediation recommendations.

Soil Testing

Soil Samples

Soil testing results for several sample sites of our restoration project were as follows:

Sampling Area ID #

Date of Sample

Type of Plant Growth

pH

Nitrogen (N)

Phosphorus (P)

Potassium (K)

Feel Test

Comments

1

4/3/12

dandelions, natives, buckthorn

7

low

low

very high

humus odor, fibrous but silky, sticks together when moist

loamy organic

2

4/3/12

dandelions, natives, buckthorn

7

very low

very low

high

floury texture when dry, clod forming

loam

3

4/3/12

Bishop’s wort, natives, buckthorn

7

low

low

very high

dry, clod forming

loam

4

4/3/12

Vinca, thistle, day lily

7

low

low

very high

dry, barely forms to clod when moist

sandy loam

5

4/3/12

Red osier dogwood, grass

8

low

low

high

smooth texture, forms ball when wet

clay

Based on the testing results above, the soil of our restoration site was treated for low nitrogen. To amend the low nitrogen levels, native Purple prairie clover plants, that naturally add nitrogen to the soil, were planted in the restoration area. In addition to treating the low nitrogen content of the soil, the low phosphorous level was also addressed. A small amount of cow manure was added to each hole dug for a native plant plug in a sampling area of the restoration sight. Soil remediation is only recommended when soil testing results indicate an extreme nutrient deficiency that would jeopardize the root development of native plants. Before amending your soil consult your local University for remediation recommendations.

Resources
Buckholtz, Daryl D. and Brown, J.R. Potassium in Missouri Soils. University of Missouri Extension, Oct. 1993. Web. 14 May 2012.
Chapin III, F. Stuart. “The Mineral Nutrition of Wild Plants.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 11. (1980), pp. 233-260.
Carroll, Steven B. and Salt, Steven D. Ecology for Gardeners. Timber Press, Inc. Portland, Oregon. 2004.
 Everhart, Eldon.  “How to Change Your Soil’s pH.” Horticultural Home and Pest News. Iowa State University, University Extension. 6 Apr. 1994. Web. 1 May 2012.
 McCauley, Ann.  Jones, Clain. and Jacobsen, Jeff.  “Basic Soil Properties.” Soil and Water Management I, Montana State University Extension Services. 2005. Web. 2 May 2012.
Provin, Tony. and  Pitt, J. L. ” Managing Soil Salinity.” Texas A & M University System. AgriLife Extension. N. D. Web. 19 May 2012.
Sharpley, Andrew. Daniels, Mike. VanDevender, Karl. Slaton, Nathan. “Soil Phosphorus: Management and Recommendations.” University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.  University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Services. N. D. Web. 19 May 2012.
Schulte, E.E. and Kelling K.A. “Soil and Applied Potassium.” Understanding Plant Nutrients. University of Wisconsin-Extension, Cooperative Extension. N. D.   Web. 18 May 2012.

Tend the Soil

To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.

– Mohandas K. Gandhi

By definition, restoration ecology is the process of improving degraded land through the removal of invasive species and improving soil conditions to create a stable, bio-diverse ecosystem. In the previous post, Restoration in ProgressI cited Glass’ post, Thoughts on Restoration Management, where he suggests restorers tackle the underlying cause(s) for the habitat’s invasive species by tending to the soil. Tending and understanding the soil in a restoration area requires a soil analysis.

The primary factors affecting plant growth in a restoration garden are 1) soil conditions, 2) sunlight, and 3) site slope. Evaluations of all three factors are essential in the creation of a viable restoration plan. Within each of these primary factors, there are subcategories. A soil’s texture and drainage, structure, pH, and nutrient levels are the four factors that comprise its soil conditions.

 A soil’s texture and drainage falls into one of four categories, sandy, loam, clay, or organic. In the field, soil texture can be determined using the Feel Test. The Feel Test is accomplished by rubbing the moist soil between the thumb and fingers several times. The test requires that the experimenter determine whether the soil holds together when moistened, as well as describe the soil’s texture.

Sand as identified by the Feel Test has course particles that will not stick together, even when moist and feels gritty. Soil that falls under the Sand heading is made up of large mineral and organic particles. This course textured soil is typically of poor quality, well-drained, dry, acidic, and low in nutrients and water-holding capacity. Only Shortgrass prairie plant species will thrive under such arid conditions. Prairie Moon Nursery has put together a prairie seed mix for this type of soil, one having sandy texture and fast drainage.

Loam as defined by the Feel Test forms clods and feels like flour when it is dry. When moist, the loam feels silky and easily sticks together. It is a medium textured, rich soil that has good water holding capacity and good drainage. Loam soils provide an excellent medium for growing a variety of native trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses.

Clay as characterized by the Feel Test feels slick and smooth, lacking a gritty texture due to its small, smooth particles. When clay is wet, it can be shaped into the form of a ball because of its high water holding capacity. However, when a silt component is present in the soil mixture, some clay may feel floury. Clay is a heavy soil type that tends to have poor drainage and air movement but is usually quite fertile.

Organic soil as classified through the Feel Test feels spongy and has a fibrous texture. Organic soils exhibit a very distinctive odor and color. Decaying vegetation and other organic matter are responsible for the soil’s odor and color. Organic soils contain a high proportion of muck or peat, which occur naturally in wet areas like swamps, bogs, and marshes. Due to its fibrous nature, the soil holds large amounts of water and nutrients. Even when drained, the soil can still hold water like a sponge. However, once dried, the soil can be difficult to “re-wet.”

Sand, silt, clay, organic matter, minerals, air and water particles are the primary building blocks of soil. Soil structure is the arrangement or combination of soil particles into porous compounds called aggregates. Pores and cracks separate the aggregates. The soil’s overall structure is determined by the aggregates shape, which in turn affects water and air movement through soil. Air, water, and humus are necessary components of a soil that is to sustain life and perform other vital soil functions. The four basic aggregate shapes include granular, blocky, prismatic, and platy structure. Granular soil structure arrangement, the structure of choice, provides adequate water flow, which promotes seed germination. Soil structure, unlike texture, is not permanent. Cultivation practices such as plowing and tilling can help the gardener obtain a granular topsoil structure in the beds.

Another alterable soil condition is pH. The acidity or alkalinity of soil is measured in pH units. In chemistry, as well as in other applications, pH is defined as the negative logarithm of the hydrogen ion concentration. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. The neutral point of the pH scale is pH 7. As the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil increases, the soil pH decreases becoming more acidic. Soil is increasingly more acidic from pH 7 to 0 and more alkaline or basic from pH 7 to 14. Soil pH, a critical soil condition variable, controls many chemical processes that take place between the earth and plants.

Plants need soil nutrients in order to thrive. Soil pH controls decomposition activity by nitrogen producing soil microorganisms in addition to regulating nutrient availability by controlling a mineral’s chemical form within the soil. The optimum pH range is between 6 and 7 for most plants. Soil pH that is either too acidic or too alkaline, is not conducive to nutrient transfer therefore, the soil nutrients remain undissolved and are not absorbable by the plant. Optimal soil pH levels provide nutrient rich soil that produces not only faster growing plants, but ones that are more pest and disease resistant. Adjustment to the soil’s pH is necessary when the pH level is greater than a plants’ preferred range. Guidelines for adjusting soil pH can be found here. Keep in mind, changing the pH depends on a number of factors including current pH level, your soil’s texture, and the material you are using to amend the soil.

All restoration sites must have a minimum threshold level of nutrients for vegetation to establish and become self-sustaining. Seventeen essential plant nutrients are required self-sustaining growth. The three most important nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium can be restored by treating the project site with a variety of treatments, including topsoil, mulch, compost, as well as organic or commercial fertilizer.

Most native plant species prefer soil conditions with limited nitrogen availability, whereas, invasive species thrive in soils with increased fertility (Morgan 1994). Site soil analysis will help the prairie restorationist decide what repairs are required. The goal of soil repair is to make the soil ideally suited for native plants and undesirable for invasive species growth. Ultimately, knowledge of the site’s soil texture, composition, drainage, acidity, and mineral density, will help prevent the disappointing restoration results that can occur when a site’s soil is inappropriate for a native plant garden.

How to Take a Soil Sample

Step 1: Obtain representative soil samples from the site areas where plants are to be grown. The soil should not be overly dry or wet. Each test area should be representative of a region’s unique growing characteristics, which may include soil type, drainage, slopes, and/or sunlight conditions.

Step 2: Take a garden trowel and go down 6 to 8 inches, in a garden area measuring 3 ft. by 3 ft. In plots greater than 10 ft. by 10ft., featuring the same growing characteristics, multiple soil samples from 6 to 10 different areas of the garden should be collected. These soil samples should be mixed together in a large ziploc bag and labeled for easy identification.

Step 3: Empty an area’s bagged and tagged soil contents into a clean container. Remove the plant debris and mix the soil together, crushing any lumps larger than pea size.

Step 4: Spread the soil out on a sheet of paper and let it dry overnight.

Step 5: Obtain a Mosser Lee Soil Master or another soil testing kit from your local garden center. (Sending soil samples to a local University extension office for evaluation is an alternative to do it yourself soil testing kits.)

Step 6: Run the pH, Nutrient, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium tests on the soil samples. Obtain and record the test results on the Mosser Lee record sheet. Check the Mosser Lee’s vegetation pH and nutrient reference guide for species-specific nutrient and pH preferences. For more detailed information regarding the appropriate soil remediation recommendations, contact a nursery professional, or garden Cooperative Extension Service with the site’s soil testing results.

Resources

Brouwer, C., Goffeau A. and Heibloem M. Introduction to Irrigation, International Institute for Land Reclamation and Improvement. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1985 Web. 28 Mar. 2012.

Curtis, Peter. Restoration Ecology, Peter Curtis Group. Ohio State University. N.D. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.

Diaboll, Neil. “Step By Step Site Analysis Procedures for Developing a Native Landscape Plan.” Prairie Nursery, The Productivity Source, LLC., 2012 Web. 24 Mar 2012.

Dunne, Niall. ed. Get To Know Your Soil. Landscape For Life: based on the principles of the sustainable site initiative. Brooklyn Botanic Garden N.D. Web. 25 Mar. 2012.

Morgan, J. P. Soil Impoverishment: A little-known technique holds potential for establishing prairie. Restoration and Management Notes 12 :55-56.1994.

“When Good Soil Is Bad.” Wildtype: design, native plants, & seeds, ltd. N.P. 2011 Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

“Understanding Your Soil.” Prairie Nursery, The Productivity Source, LLC., 2012 Web. 24 Mar 2012.


Restoration in Progress

Prairie Smoke

Prairie Smoke (Photo credit: pchgorman)

During the past three decades, public interest in prairie restoration has grown significantly. The motivations to participate in ecological restorations vary; for me, working to restore a piece of the prairie, both as a volunteer steward and as an individual, provides a source of spiritual renewal. Not only am I spiritually, but also physically renewed in the process of reclaiming the land and building a piece of the prairie. Sweat equity is a rejuvenating tonic!

An ecologically sound and thriving prairie landscape is built using a complex and diverse plant community comprised of many different species of grasses and forbs. In fact, restoration ecologist, Roger C. Anderson has identified the four components required to recreate an ecologically sound prairie.

Four ingredients necessary for ecological restoration
to be successful include: (1) a vision of what the ecosystem
being restored should be like when the restoration is finished,
(2) an understanding of the ecological processes needed to
restore and maintain the ecosystem, (3) knowledge of the
specific restoration skills and management practices that
are needed, and (4) public support for goals of ecological
restoration and confidence in the principles that form the
scientific basis for restoration. Research can contribute to all
of these components (Roger C. Anderson).

With these four elements in mind, one must also consider that “…each restoration site is unique in terms of its original ecological attributes, kinds, extent, duration and  intensity of human disturbance, and management activities, each restoration solution must be unique” ( Stephen Glass). After thorough ecological assessment of the site, the first physical restoration step requires the removal of invasive plant species from the site. Stephen B. Glass, a restoration ecologist, believes a restoration plan that “…ignores the fundamental causes of the pest species invasion and just treats the symptoms,” will result in a continually frustrating battle between the restorer and the invasive species. He suggests that when one tackles the underlying cause for the invasive species prevalence in a habitat by treating it like a “repair job.” Look at “…what you know, what you don’t know, and what you will need to learn to solve the [restoration] problem” (Glass). Specifically, look for an “… altered hydrology, or soil disturbance, or increased soil fertility. If the underlying cause is not dealt with, then continued frustration and [re-occurrence of invasive species] will be likely” (Glass).

In a previous post, Invasives Begone, I outlined the steps for land preparation in the restoration process. Therefore, once the invasive plants have been dealt with, the seedbed prepared, the next step is to reconstruct the plant community. Native plants are given the greatest opportunity to thrive if local ecotype seeds or plugs are used to reestablish the health and biodiversity of an ecosystem. After the seeds or plugs have been planted, the rest of the first growing season is spent watering and weeding the seedbeds. The second season requires spring removal of dead plant material and weeding. The first blooms are likely to appear during growing season two or three.

Below, I have linked two videos that exemplify a restoration in progress. The prairie restoration demonstration video produced during the 2010 Chicago Lawn and Garden show does a great job of illustrating the steps of the restoration process.

How to Restore a Prairie

The second video also does a nice job of showing the annual progression of a Minnesota prairie restoration garden.

My North American Tallgrass Prairie Restoration/garden

Related articles

Resources

Anderson, Roger C. History and Progress of Ecological Restoration in Tallgrass Prairie. Pp. 217-228. Chapter 13, INHS Special Publication 30: Canaries in the Catbird Seat, Univ. of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana 2009. Print.

Glass, Stephen B. “Thoughts on Restoration Management.” WingraSprings, N. P. Web. 6 Mar. 2012.

To Sow or to Transplant: that is the question

"Faith in a Seed"

 “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Henry D. Thoreau

Ah, the faith we put in a seed that once dispersed by man, animal, or the elements provides the potential to restore or birth a prairie. Prairie gardens can be established by humans in one of two ways, by either directly sowing native plant seeds or transplanting native plant seedlings into the ground. Sowing native plant seeds directly into the earth’s surface is the least expensive way to add native plants to a garden. Growing native plants from seed however, is a slow process.

Here in the Midwest, the process begins with the sowing of the dormant seeds during months of January and February, when the ground is bare or is covered by just a few inches of snow. Small gardens are amenable to either hand broadcasting or mechanical seed dispersion using a drop seeder. When a small amount is seed is to be dispersed, more even seed coverage of the planting area is achieved when  the seed is mixed with inert material such as wet sand, cottonseed hulls, or wet sawdust. Seed coverage calibration can be determined using false sowing. False sowing is accomplished in the following manner:

  • place a measured volume of inert material it into an empty gallon container;
  • put the container at your side, start walking while reaching into the container with the other hand and grabbing a handful of the material;
  • with the wind at your back, sling the seed in a sweeping motion out in front of you; and
  • once you have run out of the inert material, estimate the “seed” coverage on your site by multiplying the width times the length of the distance you covered with the inert material. 

Now, with the seeding coverage determined, thoroughly mix the seed and the matrix together. Begin sowing the seed onto the finely raked, clod and rock free area. Rake the seed into the soil’s surface or press the seed into the soil by walking on it, and then cover it, preferably with fine soil or sand. Once seeding is completed, one waits. One waits for the earth’s temperature to warm, the snow to melt, and the appearance of spring seedlings to rise above the surface of the soil. One continues to wait as the seedlings develop.

During the first few years of development, most of the plant’s energy is expended on developing an extensive root system rather than producing flowers. The first year is all about vigilant weed control and watering. Maintenance of the developing native, plant seedlings is required during the first year to reduce competition for space, light, and water from the faster growing weeds. Knowledge of seedling native plant seedling identification is paramount to successful maintenance during this crucial growth period. A seedling identification resources are available through this link and this link. Spring of year two requires the removal of residual native plant vegetation and more weeding. And, if one is lucky, the second summer brings the first flowering of the juvenile, native plant! Year three brings a repeat of the spring cleanup process and dependable summer blooming of the adolescent, native plant. In subsequent years, a mid-spring burning or mowing helps to ensure the continued health of your prairie garden.

An alternative to growing native plants from seed is to purchase transplants or plugs from local ecotype nurseries. Ecotype Nurseries for the northern Illinois region,identified in an earlier post, are linked here. The purchase of plugs or transplants can be an expensive proposition; however, costs can be minimized by purchasing the smallest plants. There are several benefits of using plugs in native prairie gardening. Some benefits include: the fact that these young plants grow more quickly than seeds, often blooming the first year after being transplanted, plugs can easily be planted on slopes where sowed seeds would be likely washed away in the winter melt and spring runoff, they allow the native plant gardener to design and plant a landscaped garden, transplants can be easily added to existing native prairies without disturbing the existing plants, and they are more easily identifiable than seedlings sown directly into the soil.

Materials for indoor sowing

Native plant seeds sown and labeled in tray

Seeded, labeled, & covered tray

Seed trays under grow lights

In an earlier posting, we established that our prairie restoration location involves a creek side slope; therefore, transplanting native prairie plant plugs is the method of choice for establishing our garden. As a cost saving measure, the first week of March, we started seed trays with some native grass seeds. The native plant seeds requiring dry stratification were sown indoors in the following manner:

  • clean, three-inch deep, plastic, partitioned seed trays, with drainage holes, were filled 2/3 of the way full of sterile or good quality potting mixture;
  • a couple of seeds were placed in the each partitioned area;
  • the seeds were pressed into the soil to a depth equal to its diameter, and covered with potting mixture or sand;
  • the seed tray was labeled using a Sharpie on Popsicle sticks or tape, marking the tray with corresponding plant name;
  • to encourage germination, the soil of the seed trays will be kept consistently warm by placing the trays on top of heat mats or by using grow lights, fluorescent lighting, or heat lamps for 12-16 hours daily;
  • the newly sown seeds are to be watered as needed to maintain “soil” moisture and to promote seedling germination;
  • a humidity dome or plastic wrap was placed over the container to slow evaporation;
  • the trays should be checked daily for signs of germination. At the first sign of seedling development the cover is to be removed to promote air circulation;
  • seedling development is dependent on keeping the plants well watered. Water the seedlings with warm water from either the top or the bottom of the tray;
  • thin the new seedlings as soon as their first “true” leaves appear. Cut off,  rather than pull out, the weakest and spindliest seedlings at soil level, to increase the strength of the strongest ones;
  • transplant the flat grown seedlings into larger pots when they have acquired four leaves. This step can be eliminated if the seeds were germinated in partitioned seed trays;
  • once the seedling has four leaves, it is time to prepare the young plants for transplantation into the ground. One week prior to transplantation, place the young plants in a shaded, sheltered part of the garden for a few hours each day, gradually increase the daily their sun exposure. It is important to remember that during this hardening off period, the young plants should be moved back indoors each night unless the ambient temperature is going to stay above 50°F at night; and
  • finally, once fully acclimated to the elements, dig a hole in the soil twice the width and one-half inch deeper the length of the plug. Using a plastic knife, gently cut around the edges of the container and lift the seedling by grasping its’ leaves, not the delicate stem. Insert the plant into its intended location, firm soil around the seedling, and water immediately. Repeat this process for all the seedlings.
Once all the young plants are safely tucked away in the earth, remember to sprinkle them generously with water. Continue to nurture the plants for the first three years according to the steps outlined above in paragraph four of this post. Minimal maintenance is required beyond this timetable. Allow Nature’s hand to disperse the annual native seeds through the air, belly of a bird, or runoff trickle for “every plant can be born again in every seed” (Robert D. Richardson, Jr.).

Related articles

Resources

Thoreau, Henry D. Faith in a Seed. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. Print.

Smith, Darryl, Williams, Dave, Houseal, Greg, and Henderson, Kirk. Tall Grass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010. Print.

Wilson, Jim. Landscaping with Wildflowers: An Environmental Apporach to Gardening. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1992. Print.

“When to Seed Your Prairie.” Prairie Nursery, The Productivity Source, LLC., 2012 Web. 29 Feb 2012.

“Prairie Seeding Procedures.” Prairie Nursery, The Productivity Source, LLC., 2012 Web. 29 Feb 2012.

Winter Habitats

Goldfinch Photo by Doug Greenberg on Flickr

We’ve had our first snow here in Northern Illinois. While many people love cold weather other dread it, nevertheless, we all us seek refuge from it in the warmth of our homes. Fauna are also forced to find places in their habitat to keep them protected from the weather. Prairie landscapes provide not only shelter but also food  and nesting sources for the winter creatures.

Once the feeders are empty, birds forage on their own to find food in their habitats. There are many native trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs that provide nourishment for the birds with their fruits, berries, or seeds in the fall and winter months. Below is a brief list of some native flora and the food source the provide as well as the fauna that they feed.

 Common Plant Name

Food source

Nesting (N) or Shelter source (S) or (GS)

Attracted Fauna

Black-eyed Susan

Seed

American Goldfinches, chickadees, nut hatches, sparrows, towhees
Blazing star

Seed

Finches and sparrows
Prairie coreopsis

Seed

Goldenrod

Seed

Plant= insect (S)

finches, pine siskins, yellow-rumped warblers, indigo buntings
Joe-pye weed

Seed

Fluff=bird (N)

chickadees, wrens, titmice and juncos
New England Aster

Seed

Leaves= bird (N)
Purple cone flowers

Seed

American Goldfinches, pine siskin
Wild columbine

Seed

sparrows
Wild Geranium

Seed

Mourning dove and bobwhites
Big blue stem

Seed

Plant

Plant=birds & waterfowl (S) Insects (S)

Plant = deer forage

Seed=Songbirds

Plant=Deer and small mammal

Little blue stem

Seed

Plant= birds (GS)

Songbirds, upland game birds, small mammals
Side oats grama

Seed

Plant

Plant=bird (S)

Seed=Songbirds and small mammals

Plant=Deer

Switchgrass

Seed

Plant = bird & small mammal (GS N)

Seed=Songbirds and small mammals
Buttonbush

Fruit

Seeds

Plant=Bird (N) Fruit=WaterfowlSeed=Insects, beaver, muskrat
Nannyberry

Fruit

Plant=Bird (N) Gray catbird, common flicker, American Robin, eastern bluebird, cedar waxwing
For humans, prairie plantings add visual interest to the winter landscape. Even the smallest prairie gardens can make a difference in whether small creatures survive winter, whereas larger restorations support the wintering of a greater number of fauna. These plants and animals and chose this habitat as their home and we should try to save or restore it. As a bonus for our efforts, we get to enjoy their company, along with the diverse landscape in which they inhabit. So this spring, as you are planning your garden, plant with a purpose!

The Rain Barrel is Offline

BWCA by Nicole

We’ve vacationed in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area many times and I’ve always left there feeling at peace and one with nature. Usually, as we head further south, towards home, I’m jostled back into the present by the thought of how the changing climate will impact these pristine waters. I realize that despite the BWCA’s seemingly unending water, it is not an unlimited resource. In fact, the Earth’s water supply is rapidly becoming a vanishing resource. As concerned citizens, we must conserve water since it is necessary for all living things to be sustained. We can all do our part by recycling the raindrops.

We recycle with a seasonal rain barrel. We collect the rainwater that falls onto our Illinois rooftop and down our gutter system in a 55 gallon rain barrel from spring to late fall. Each fall, at the first sign of a hard freeze, we close down our rain barrel to eliminate problems associated with freezing water. Some northern rain harvesters contend that taking the rain barrel offline in the winter is unnecessary if the spigot is left open and the water completely drains from the rain barrel, as well as the hoses. I am more comfortable disconnecting the rain barrel during the winter, knowing I won’t have to fret about whether the rain barrel has survived winter’s harshness well enough to weather a spring downpour without producing a flood around my foundation.

It’s a simple process to close down the rain barrel for the winter:

  1. Prior to the first hard freeze, disconnect the flexible downspout so that it is no longer configured to flow into the rain barrel.
  2. Return downspout system to its original configuration by placing the flexible downspout connector into the previously removed downspout section of the aluminum gutter.
  3. Direct the downspout’s flow away from building’s foundation.
  4. Drain the water from the rain barrel and hoses.
  5. Remove and store the screens and hoses.
  6. Turn the rain barrel upside down or cover the top to prevent water accumulation, which can lead the rain barrel to freeze and crack.
  7. After the spring thaw, return the rain barrel to its online configuration by reversing the aforementioned steps.

Flexible Connector

Rain Collection

Barrel Drained

Rain Barrel Offline

Rain Barrel in Winter Position

Covered for the Winter

Spring brings a lot of rain in the Midwest. Sometimes it brings flooding, too. Flooding is the result of an increase of impervious surfaces covering the ground. With fewer places for rain to be absorbed, it rapidly makes its way into our local watershed and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The reduction of stormwater runoff into any watershed correlates to less pollution and sedimentation down its waterway path. As one might suspect, the runoff problem is only getting worse as climate change creates torrential rain deluges followed by longer periods of drought. Lack of rain requires everyone to conserve our water resources more vigilantly since rain is the origin of all our freshwater resources. Rain barrel use is one way we can reduce our dependence on municipal water supplies and sewage treatment centers, while lowering our household water bills. Rain recycling also provides a source of chemically free water for gardening. If your’re not convinced yet of the merits of a rain barrel, consider Benjamin Franklin’s insight about our vanishing resource…” When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” Trust me, if you depend on a well for water and you’ve had to have the well drilled deeper to increase your household water pressure, you know first hand the cost of water!

For the converts, below you will find so valuable information regarding procurement and installation of your very own raindrop recycling system or rain barrel.

Where to find or how to make rain barrels

  • Rain barrel are readily available at most home improvement and gardening stores. Starting prices for a basic rain barrel is about$70. Lowes, Menards, Home Depot, and Ace Hardware all carry rain barrels as part of their store and online inventory.
  • Another great source for rain barrels is your local forest preserve district. Many Forest preserve Districts offer rain barrel sales in the spring.
  • From Illinois’ Governor, Pat Quinn: a Where to Buy Rain Barrels web page.
  • For DIYers, Garden Goddess, Rebecca Chesin, has created a straightforward rain barrel construction guide on her web siteThe Rain Barrel Project.
  • HGTV also has step by step directions for rain barrel construction.
  • Tom Butzler from Penn State Cooperative Extension has a great online video on How to Make Cheap Eco-friendly Rain Barrels.

Rain barrel installation

  • Step by step rain barrel installation instructions can be found on the blog, Rain Barrel Guide.
  •  A video, as well as written instructions for How to Install Rain Water Collection system is available from This Old House.

More rain barrel information

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