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


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.

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


Nitrogen (N)

Phosphorus (P)

Potassium (K)

Feel Test




dandelions, natives, buckthorn




very high

humus odor, fibrous but silky, sticks together when moist

loamy organic



dandelions, natives, buckthorn


very low

very low


floury texture when dry, clod forming




Bishop’s wort, natives, buckthorn




very high

dry, clod forming




Vinca, thistle, day lily




very high

dry, barely forms to clod when moist

sandy loam



Red osier dogwood, grass





smooth texture, forms ball when wet


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.

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.
%d bloggers like this: