Pond Project: Planning for pollinators – plant grass

The backbone of my pond naturalization project will be little bluestem. One of the most widely distributed native grasses in North America, it is tough and adaptable, handsome, and companionable to all the showy flowers anyone could want in a meadow or eastern prairie. It is not nearly as tall as big bluestem, so you can look out over an expanse of little bluestem. It is not as fussy about soil fungi as lovely Indian grass, so you can start with little bluestem and let it create the soil into which you can plant fussier plants in subsequent years.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a neat bluish-green clump for most of the summer.

Little bluestem seed awns.
Little bluestem seed awns.

It starts to elongate its flowering stalks in late summer, getting about mid-thigh high in most soils. It really comes into its own in late September and October when the leaves turn red and the seed awns are fluffy and white and catch the slanting autumn light. It is great winter fodder for herbivores. Bison like little bluestem hay, and so do domestic rabbits.*

Little bluestem thrives in dry and sandy soils, which is what we have got. I won’t put it in the damp soil next to the pond – that is the future home of blue flag iris, swamp milkweed, and cardinal flower. The dry, sandy surround of the pond – remember this is an old farm pond, not a naturally occurring wetland – will be planted in a flowery butterfly-attracting meadow of, yes, little bluestem.

pond from houseIn this photo, the pond is the second dark streak above the right gate post. The sumacs in front of and to the left of the pond will be removed and the little bluestem meadow planted in their place, thus allowing the pond area to be seen from the house. The dark streak disappearing into the outbuilding at the right is the spring-fed creek into the pond. We plan to add flowers such as tall meadow-rue and great blue lobelia to this area. There are some woodsy wildflowers in this part, but much has been lost. Cows, and in later years horses,  grazed here, and even though farm animals have not been kept here for decades, native meadow plants (other than common milkweed) have been slow to come back. They have to compete with the now established n0n-native pasture grasses, and there are not enough seed sources. The native vegetation areas which were left intact are woods. The lichenous glades between the oaks on the dry hills, which would have once held savanna/grassland species, have been grazed into an impoverished state. Impoverished in species and in soil fertility. These soils once grew, and where they were left intact, still grow, massive maples and stately red oaks and dense stands of hemlock. Where the soils were turned to standard European-style farming practice, they now struggle to support common juniper and lichen crusts. I am counting on little bluestem and some companion prairie legumes to rebuild the soil for wildflowers. I have confidence in little bluestem.

Bumblebee on butterfly milkweed.
Bumblebee on butterfly milkweed.

Planning a meadow garden for butterflies and other pollinators can quickly become complicated. With the crises in domestic bees, and the realization that wild bumblebees, whose numbers are diminishing, do millions of dollars worth of pollination services, there is a large and growing literature about pollinators on-line. We know habitat for butterflies must include the correct larval host plants as well as diverse nectar plants. Squash pollination is done by moths. Yet more pollination is done by flies and even beetles. Dipping into the butterfly literature, I find different plants provide nectar at different times of the day. (I knew that – I have watched early morning butterflies beam in on field thistle, ignore the Liatris and ironweed they love by mid-day.) Different plants have nectars of differing richness, pollens of differing protein content. Bees and butterflies all have their preferences but I haven’t got a spread sheet program set up, nor can I even imagine one, that would sort out all the pollinator nutrition slots and turn it into a garden plan. What I am going to do is plant little bluestem.

Little bluestem is a grass. It’s flowers are minute (tiny purple bottlebrushes that would make good mascara wands for dancing mice) and it is wind pollinated. What has it got to offer to butterflies? True, there are some skippers (little brown and buff and orange butterflies) whose unobtrusive green caterpillars eat native grasses, and I hope this garden can accommodate them. Mostly, what I trust little bluestem to do is create the conditions in which other native plants, including the nectar-providing flowers, can flourish.

Like other prairie grasses, little bluestem is a clump former.

Little bluestem.
Little bluestem.

Wildflowers can get established among the clumps, and rabbits and weasels and ground-foraging birds can create paths between the clumps. Like other prairie grasses, its deep fibrous roots create topsoil. Like other prairie grasses, it stays upright over the winter, holding the snow on the land and providing shelter for small animals. This is all so unlike the behaviour of the pasture grasses which are now a near mono-culture just beyond the fence. They form a dense creeping mat in which no native flower seed has a chance and they mat down into a mush over winter.

I have some other flower seed conditioning in the fridge: showy tick-trefoil, and butterfly weed, and foxglove penstemon. I will start them into little plants to place this year in among the little bluestem plugs. I didn’t plan this very well. They are just the seed I happened to have. I didn’t know I would be doing this project when the seed was ripening and available for collection last year. I have purchased some seeds for the showiest species, like cardinal flower. I hope to get the cardinal flower started early enough that it will flower this summer. The attraction of hummingbirds to cardinal flower always impresses the heck out of clients. It impresses the heck out of me. Plant cardinal flower: get hummingbirds, more every year.

Cardinal flower.
Cardinal flower.

Eastern columbine and wild bergamot, field pussytoes and blue-eyed grass grow on the farm. We will distribute their seeds into this newly available space. I will find seed for easy things like black-eyed Susans and scatter handfuls among the little bluestem clumps. I’ll source seeds for grey goldenrod – shouldn’t be difficult. I know I’ll want to add some sky-blue aster. If we want to add something special after the meadow is thriving, we can dig up a clump of little bluestem and create a space for, oh say, Seneca snakeroot. (I have a dream.) There will always be room for another little bluestem somewhere else. An ecosystem which supports all the nutritional needs of bees and butterflies knits itself together. The garden planner or property owner doesn’t need to know all the details, which are impossible to know any way. Give the land little bluestem and add back the native plant diversity as and when you can.

* I am Domestic Rabbit and I approve this message.

Beatrice

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Published by

Trish Murphy

Artist: botanical, still life, and natural history illustration. Garden designer: native plants and naturalistic gardens