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.

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.

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.

 

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!

Fall Planting: No Mow Grass

I’m just like everybody else in suburbia; I like the lush, green look of a manicured and chemically supported lawn, but hate the time consuming up keep. After spending several, sweltering hours cutting our one-acre lawn I decided there had to be a greener way to achieve the optimum suburban lawn. As if through some divine sign, later that night, while thumbing through the Prairie Nursery catalog, dreaming of fall planting, I came across No-Mow grass seed.

Prairie Nursery’s No-Mow grass was billed as the “ecological alternative to a traditional high maintenance lawn.” When I read the following growing characteristics:

  • requires little water and maintenance once established;
  • forms a dense sod that chokes out weed growth;
  • fertilization or herbicides are not required for optimum performance; and
  • grows in locations with full to partial sun
I was sold on No-Mow grass. Gung ho and ready to join the grass roots, suburban, No-Mow movement I was now in search of a test plot on my own parcel of land. An experimentalist by heart and training, I finally decided after some background research on incorporating the No-Mow as part of our prairie/riparian restoration plan.

Part of our prairie restoration plan included the installation of a three- foot wide walking path and potential firebreak through the prairie garden. I was convinced after reading about No-Mow’s attributes that the grass would provide the perfect ground cover for the path between the native plant plots. Not only was this ground cover alternative naturally permeable, but it required no maintenance! One additional, potential benefit was that No-Mow might also to survive a controlled prairie burn, a method of prairie restoration maintenance. It was time to start planting.

The optimum planting season for No-Mow is fall, between the end of August and the end of October. I ordered my seed and anxiously awaited its arrival. As I waited, I worked on preparing the seedbed using the methods outlined in a previous post titled, Invasives BegonePrairie Nursery’s fall planting instructions suggested that tilling of the seedbed was unnecessary. Despite their recommendation, I turned and raked the soil by hand while awaiting the No-mow’s seed arrival.

Before Invasive Removal

Down to Bare Soil

Fortunately, for me, Illinois’ weather remained unseasonably warm through the end of October because that is when I finally got around to sowing my No-mow grass seed. I broadcast the seed by hand, liberally covering the soil. Next, I gently hand raked the soil to cover the seed with earth. After covering the broadcasted seeds, I proceeded to lightly, overseed the top of the planting area via the “Johnny Appleseed” method. Finally, I walked repeatedly over my newly seed path to firmly implant the seed into the soil.

I watered daily and waited. Approximately ten glorious days later, I began to see a green haze above the surface of the soil. Mission accomplished seed germination was successful! Once germination was complete, I reduced my watering tasks to a biweekly event and enjoyed the continued growth of my tiny No-Mow seedlings. I’m now well on my way to establishing a low maintenance green path in our prairie restoration project.

No-Mow Seedlings

No-Mow Path

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

Crimson Switch Grass

Who knew that Switch Grass, Panicum Virgatum, a perennialturns a brillant crimson color in the fall! These grasses are absolutely gorgeous against the browns and ambers which predominate the fall prairie tones.  Started from seed and planted as seedlings, these one year old plants were installed to stabilize a hillside. Switch Grass is commonly used to prevent soil erosion because its deep fibrous root system extends into the soil to a depth of ten feet. A comparative root depth diagram can be seen on Minnesota’s DNR web page. Deep soil penetration of the Switch Grasses’ root system acts as a natural herbicide by blocking weed growth, as well as, increases the soil’s fertility, permeability, and organic material!

Switch Grass

Switch Grass is of fairly hardy stock, tolerant of prairie soil conditions ranging from moist to dry. The grass requires full sun to part shade for optimum growth. This tufted grass, a native of North America and a dominant species of the Tall Grass Prairie, grows to about 36 inches tall and 20 inches in diameter with seed heads reaching to a height of five feet. The Switch Grasses’ large size and upright growth also provides wildlife protection and nesting sites. The attributes of this native plant help to sustain the prairie habitat. Both man and nature can reap ecological benefits by planting a few Switch Grass plants here and there.


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