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.

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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.

Sun & Rise Over Run


May Apple: Sun - Full to Partial Shade, Soil Moisture-Dry to Medium

In the previous post, Tend the Soil , I focused on one of the three primary factors that affect plant growth in restoration projects, soil conditions. As previously noted, evaluation of all three factors is essential in the creation of a viable restoration plan; the other crucial influences on prairie plant growth are sunlight and site slope topography.

A critical factor to consider when selecting plants for a restoration area is the sunlight exposure. Six to 10 hours of sun a day are needed to sustain prairie plant growth. Some species require full sun to thrive whereas many woodland plants do best in the shade of a woodland tree canopy. Other native plants have the ability to grow in areas with a wide range of sunlight conditions.  According to the Prairie Nursery, sunlight conditions can be divided into four basic levels:

1) full sun: direct sun all day to at least one half day of full sun;
2) partial sun: direct sun for no more than one half day, shaded for at least one half day;
3) partial shade: little or no direct sun, with diffuse light from the edges or through a canopy of tree leaves creates partial shade conditions; and

4) full shade: no direct or diffuse light reaches the ground. A dense canopy of trees completely shades the forest floor. The forest also minimizes wind speeds, protecting woodland plants from excessive drying or physical damage from high winds. The shade of sugar maples, beech, basswood, and dense conifers typify full shade conditions. (Diboll 5)

Ox Eyed Sunflower: Sun- Full, Soil Moisture -Dry, Medium, or Moist

Prairie plant species that have adapted to conditions of high light intensities, heat, wind, and even hail grow in full sun. Native plants that have adapted to growing conditions with low light intensity, but require protection from temperature changes, high winds, and hail thrive in full shade. Plants that prefer the intermediate sunlight conditions between full sun and full shade or partial sun can often tolerate full sun growing conditions in a garden situation that provides some shade or protection for part of the day. Sun-loving plants on the other hand, do not thrive without sufficient sunlight, and therefore, cannot be planted in shady areas. Similarly, shade loving plants only grow in tree canopy protected areas and usually cannot tolerate full sun. Shady prairie areas should be planted with native savanna or woodland species. Both Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery offer seed mixes and pre-designed gardens to fit a site’s sun and soil conditions.

Sunlight intensity and soil drainage are also affected by the land’s slope and aspect. Slope refers to the steepness of the land’s surface and aspect refers to the geographical direction the slope faces. No matter what soil type, hilltops and steep slopes tend to be drier than depressions and valleys. In general, slopes increase the rate of the soil’s water drainage affecting the overall soil moisture available to the vegetation.

It is important to note, the greater the slope, the faster the soil drainage, which results in drier the soil. South and west facing slopes will be hotter and drier due to exposure to direct sun and winds in spring and fall for at least part of the day. East facing slopes will generally have more moderate soil conditions, receiving only the cooler morning sun. Cooler and wetter conditions are seen on north facing slopes because they receive direct sun for only a short period of time in mid-summer.

Four unique groups of prairie plants have been created based upon the hydrology or soil moisture level in which the natives grow best: Dry, Medium, Moist, and Wet. These are defined below:

  • dry soils are soils extremely well-drained sandy or rocky in nature and do not hold water and tend to dry out rapidly;
  • medium soils are well drained, loamy and clay-based soils that do not experience standing water;
  • moist soils tend to be damp and may have standing water for a few days in spring or fall. However, the  soil’s surface usually dries out by late spring or early summer, while the subsoil remains moist; and
  • wet soils are damp almost all year round, even in mid-summer. Spring usually brings flooding to wet soils, with standing water remaining  for a week or longer in early spring, but for only a few days in the summer.

A list of prairie and savanna flora associated with soil moisture gradient in the adjacent diagram can be found in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Technical Bulletin number cited below or here. Prairie Nursery also has assembled a list of plant species categorized by soil moisture requirements.

To determine the hydrology and moisture level of the soil, observe site and determine whether the natural state is dry, medium, or wet in nature. Observe the area after rainfall and note whether the site forms puddles, retains water, or  water drains quickly. Decide whether the site in a low-lying area or upland. Make note of any river, lake, or spring is located on the site and its proximity to your restoration site. Compare the sites characteristics to the moisture levels given above to determine the site’s moisture level. Performing a percolation test is an alternative to the previously suggested subjective, soil moisture evaluation.” Water drainage should be one-quarter inch per hour or faster for dry or mesic prairie plants to do well. Plant wet prairie species if your soil drains slower than that. If you have areas that are consistently wet, plan to plant wetland species in that area.” Finally, species moisture requirements differs greatly between dry prairie, mesic prairie, wet prairie, and wetland habitats; select species that will thrive on your site.

In these two consecutive posts, we’ve learned that three main factors determine the growing conditions for a plant; they are 1) soil, 2) sun, and 3) slope aspect. Soil, sun, and slope of the site must be evaluated when selecting plants, since all three of these essential factors determine whether plants will flourish in a certain location. Once a site’s growing conditions have been determined, site specific plants can be selected to match the site.

Related articles

Resources

Cochrane, Theodore and  Iltis, Hugh. Soil moisture gradient and the effect on species composition. Atlas of the Wisconsin Prairie and Savanna Flora, WDNR Technical Bulletin No. 191, 2000. Web. 15 Apr 2012.

Diboll, Neil. “Designing and Planting Your Prairie Garden.” Prairie Nursery, The Productivity Source, LLC., N.D. Web. 13 Apr. 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.

Kilde, Rebecca. “Going Native: a prairie restoration handbook for Minnesota land owners.” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Section of Ecological services Scientific and Natural areas Program, 2000. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

“An introduction to using native plants in restoration projects.” National Park Service, N.D. Web. 14 Apr. 2012.

Smiley, Thomas E. and Martin, Thomas R. Soil Drainage Analysis and Treatment Considerations. Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories Technical Report. N.P. N.D. Web. 15 Apr. 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.


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.

Ecotype Native Plant Selection

So why use locally grown native plants in restorations? Naturalist, John Muir understood the underlying reason when he said, “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it is attached to the rest of the world.” I believe Muir was referring to the fact that flora do not grow in isolation from the other organisms around them, rather they are essentially connected to the other living things in their habitat. These interactions enable organisms to co-evolve as contributing members of their ecosystem. Native and invasive plants do not co-evolve with one another but rather compete for the ecosystems resources. In previous posts, I’ve written about invasive and native plants. I’ve defined an invasive plant as an organism that has been inadvertently or purposely introduced by humans, whereas, a native plant is one that has grown and evolved naturally in North America in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human intervention. More specifically, a native plant is one that has grown in communities of a particular geographic region with other plant species all whom have adapted to having similar soil, moisture, and weather conditions, as well as evolved defenses to protect themselves from diseases and pests found in their habitat. These local or regionally grown plants and seeds are considered local ecotypes.

Natural landscapers and prairie restorationists advocate the use of plants and seeds in native plant gardening derived from local ecotype materials. Local ecotype plant materials originate in, and are native to, a 250 mile radius in one’s geographic region. Others believe that the geographic range for local ecotype is smaller than a 250 mile radius. In fact, some if not most, restoration ecologists believe a more accurate geographic range is established by utilizing the concept that geographic regions have ecological boundaries or ecoregions. These ecologists/biologists believe it is better to use plant materials from one’s ecoregion, even if it is outside your state, rather than to use a source from a different geographic region inside your state. Nature Conservancy’s map of Terrestrial and Marine Ecoregions within the U.S. is best framework of determining one’s ecoregion and the corresponding ecotype plant materials to be used in a restoration project.

Nature Conservancy's Terrestrial and Marine Ecoregion Map

Doug Tallamay, author of Bringing Nature Home, points out that native ecotype plants insure the biodiversity of a local region through their support of the insect population, which ultimately sustains the native fauna. As informed gardeners, we can help to create a sustainable and biologically diverse ecosystem by selecting and installing the appropriate ecotype plants.  These plants are suitable for one’s ecoregion, rather than the commonly known hardiness zones and help to attract more native wildlife, which ultimately helps to restore, preserve, and sustain the habitat. So as you design your prairie garden and select the native plants, choose wisely plant ecotype materials because every single plant in “…nature is attached to the rest of the world!”

Native plant suppliers within a 250 mile radius of northeastern Illinois:

Resources:

Tallamy, Douglas A. Bringing Nature Home: how native plants sustain wildlife in our gardens. Oregon: Timber Press, Inc. 2007, Print.

Nowak, Mariette. “Why Hardiness Zone, Native Ranges, and Ecoregions?” Wild Ones, 1 Feb.2010. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

“Native Plants-Getting it Right.” Wild Ones, Lake to Prairie Chapter, 14 Nov. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2011.

Go Wild: Suburban Garden Restoration

Why not just let nature do its thing? Over time agriculture, urbanization, as well as the introduction of exotic and invasive species have impacted the land. Quite frankly, we  have man-handled mother Earth and the environment is no longer in its “natural” state, “letting it be” is not an option. The non-native plants we’ve introduced into our gardens compete with the natives depriving them of space and nutrients. These alien species have altered ecosystem in such an invasive manner that their hostile takeover has given rise to temporary or permanent changes to the biological environment.

Change is difficult for all living things. Change requires adaptation to a new way of living. When lives are interconnected to one another, change can be difficult or even impossible. All living things are connected in the food web of life. Entomologists and wildlife ecologists suggest that a change in the available food sources within an ecosystem cascades down the food chain creating an environment that no longer supports some native species. Without a healthy, diverse, native species, loss and resource endangerment will continue.

photo by Paul Geiselhart

Native Sustenance photo by Paul Geiselhart

At the hub of the food web are plants. They are vital to the continued existence of most other creatures on Earth. Plants provide most of the oxygen living things breathe as well as the food they eat. Plants transform the sun’s energy, through the process of photosynthesis, into food for the plant’s consumers. Some consumers, especially native insects, have not evolved to eat, pollinate, or reproduce using the alien plants of their altered habitat.

Birds and many other native creatures rely, indirectly or directly, on native plant species for food and shelter. The fate of the higher level wildlife in the habitat’s food web is dependent on the native insect population. Habitat destruction and species loss have a direct and undeniable correlation. As landowners and gardeners, we can make a substantial contribution toward restoring ecological balance if we design our landscapes to accommodate native plants and animals.

Heron's Catch photo by Jim Schuler

Restoring balance to the habitat requires that  we remove the invasive plant species from our site, so that as we reconstruct the plant community the native plants are afforded the greatest opportunity to thrive. Eradication of invasives can be accomplished by mowing, smothering, tilling, burning, or herbicide application. Unencumbered germination and seedling development of local ecotype seeds is required to reestablish the health and biodiversity of an ecosystem.

Local ecotype native plants not only provide a food source for animals they also use their extensive root system as a natural filter to purify one of Earth’s vanishing resources, water. Whether from a creek, rain runoff, or groundwater, water needs to be conserved and protected. Restoration efforts made by residents, businesses, and the public sector to prevent sediment and rain runoff has been shown to reduce area erosion, flooding, and improves water quality. Reduction of impervious surfaces and lawn size are two ways to minimize flooding and its negative impact on the riparian community.

Native plants restore balance to the ecosystem and add beauty to the land. Native host plants also improve the food and habitat resource base needed support native wildlife. Gardens composed of natives plants conserve water and protect the soil from erosion as well as exposure to herbicides and fertilizers. The benefits of landscaping with native plants or naturescaping are many and the disadvantages few. Most importantly, naturescaping gives suburban gardeners the opportunity to “go wild” in their effort to sustain the local ecosystems.

Recommended reading:

Tallamy, Douglas A. Bringing Nature Home: how native plants sustain wildlife in our gardens. Oregon: Timber Press, Inc. 2007, Print.

Wasowski, Sally. Gardening with Prairie Plants: how to create beautiful native landscapes. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 2002, Print.

The Golden Late Bloomer

Prairie Coreopsis

What a treat, Prairie Coreopsis, aka Stiff Coreopsis, Coreopsis palmata Nutt., produced bright golden-yellow flowers right up until November despite the fact that its bloom time only extends until August. As the temperatures dipped, the uniquely shaped, oppositepalmately three-lobed leaves have begun to turn an orange-purple color. A prolific bloomer, this native forb kept on flowering even during the dog days of summer providing sustenance for bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and beetles. Not only an entomological delicacy, this overachiever also provided a mammalian treat for the herbivorous rabbits, ground hogs, and deer.

The Prairie Coreopsis spreads via underground rhizomes forming a dense mat, which makes it excellent for stabilizing slopes. We have installed these plants on the upper shoreline zone of our restoration project. Not a finicky native plant, the preferred habitats of this forb include mesic to dry moisture conditions and soil types ranging from black soil prairies, sand prairies, gravelly hill prairies, thickets, rocky upland forests, to Black Oak savannas. Seems like this easy to grow plant could be incorporated into many native gardens across the United States. For more information regarding Prairie Coreopsis and its geographical distribution visit the United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service web page.

Coreopsis at Nachusa Grasslands Preserve

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