Little bluestem meadow in autumn

Little bluestem and other native plants around the pond.
Little bluestem and other native plants around the pond.

The native grasses and wildflowers we planted around the pond this past summer have done very well. Quite a few flowered in their first year and I was able to collect seeds from little bluestem, Indian grass, hoary vervain, and showy tick-trefoil. Although I did not have enough little bluestem plants to complete all the areas I wanted to plant, I am delighted by the shape of the meadow as it winds down for winter. The reddish foliage of the little bluestem is standing upright, doing exactly what one wants a native bunch grass to do, that is, to provide food and cover for wildlife and to hold the soil.

There is some black plastic draped around the pond edge yet. It is starting to be brittle from more than a year of UV exposure and looks awful. We have moved it around, and will employ it again in the spring in its tatters for yet more weed-killing solarization. I cannot think of any other way to tackle the non-native forage grass (Phalaris?) which dominates the moister areas here.

Monarch caterpillars on young swamp milkweeds in newly-planted swale.
Monarch caterpillars on young swamp milkweeds in newly-planted swale.

I continued to plant the swale area throughout the second half of the summer and into the fall. Almost as soon as the swamp milkweed plugs were in the ground, monarch caterpillars appeared on them. We had two generations of American painted lady caterpillars feeding on our field pussytoes and plantain-leaved pusstoes. I planted several dozen white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) seedlings in diverse damp places and a big patch of pink turtlehead (C. lyonii) at the front of the swale planting. I have high hopes of Baltimore checkerspot butterflies finding my young turtleheads after seeing one Baltimore in the area this summer.

Big bluestem grass and other vigorous native plants have been planted on this slope.
Big bluestem grass and other vigorous native plants have been planted on this slope.

The bank between the vegetable garden and the farm lane (to the pond) was planted in September in a big push to get seedlings into the ground in time to root well before winter. For this sloping site I planned a “tall grass prairie” of tall, vigorous species: a backbone of big bluestem with other good doers like wild bergamot and wingstem. They seemed to have taken but there will not be enough fuel here to have a weed-suppressing spring burn next April. I suspect that this planting will require a certain amount of patience, imagination, and faith in native plants next summer. Note to self: Plan to burn in spring of 2016 and don’t fret.

Antenarria
American painted lady caterpillar on plantain-leaved pussytoes.

Although native grasses are wind-pollinated, and thus not usually considered important for pollinators, they are the host plants for several species of butterflies and nearly all the skippers. Because we have black locusts (NOT my doing and a big problem), we have lots of locust-dependent silver-spotted skippers. We also saw lots of Hobomok skippers and a few satyr butterflies last summer. I hope our skipper diversity will improve as I add more native grasses.

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. Continue reading Pond Project: Planning for pollinators – plant grass

Pond Project: Water-willow

After several years hiatus, I am again growing native wildflowers for restoration projects.

Pond this winter.
Pond this winter.

This year I have a farm pond restoration project. A pond that was dug about thirty-five years ago has become obscured by staghorn sumac to the point where it can no longer be seen, or even visited without a machete. Nothing much else native has come in to colonize it. The idea is to remove the sumac along most of the shore and replace it with diverse native vegetation.

Of course, the scope of the project grew during the winter, after seed collecting season had finished, so the species I am growing for this year are limited to those I happened to have plus a few I needed to buy, minus those that are too fussy to germinate. Once again my refrigerator is home to plastic baggies filled with damp paper towels, wherein seeds that require cold stratification are getting a cool, moist approximation to winter.

A species I have never grown before, Decodon verticillatus, seed purchased from Gardens North, is tiny, requires light to germinate, and needs three months cold stratification – according to the package, which in this case I will trust. Kristl Walek, the owner of Gardens North, is practical and experienced, and I have been able to find almost no other information on growing D. verticillatus. Thus, the seed had to be sown on top of a flat of damp potting soil, bagged up to keep it moist, and put in a refrigerator. I persuaded the client to put it in his refrigerator, so it is not taking up space in mine. (Note to self: do this more often.) Because I didn’t put in my Gardens North order until late February, the flat won’t come out into the warmth and light until June 1st. That’s fine. There is little point trying to push the growing season with natives, especially ones you don’t know well. Chances are seeds in the wild would not begin to germinate until the ground around them warmed thoroughly, perhaps in late May.

I am trying to think of the common name for Decodon verticillatus and the only name I can come up with is water-willow.

Seriously? Water-willow? The plant likes moist soil, has pretty purple-pink flowers all along its herbaceous stems, which arch and trail gracefully, making it perfect for planting at the edge of a pond. It is not at all related to the woody willow family of shrubs and trees. Perhaps it is the misleading common name which has prevented this plant from becoming popular. (Or perhaps it is just another example of the way North American horticulturists ignore North American plants.) I own a lot of books about gardening with native plants and I just got a whole bunch more books about ponds from the library, and none of them even mentions D. verticillatus.

Decodon verticillatus: Pelee Marsh
Decodon verticillatus: Pelee Marsh

I first saw this pretty plant years ago in Pelee Marsh, and because I had seen it in the deep South and not elsewhere, I  just assumed it was a Carolinian species. Then I saw it again, a lot of it, on a Field Botanists of Ontario trip to a wetland  well north of Kingston, on the Frontenac axis. Range maps put water-willow growing well up into southern Quebec, so it is suited to my Zone 4b project. I don’t know why it is not seen more places. Perhaps it is one of those plants whose distribution is just mysteriously spotty and sporadic. Or perhaps the practice of managing water-levels in cottage country for boaters rather than the native inhabitants has eradicated water-willow from places it once grew. I am sure it is doing fine, deep into swamps and marshes, but it would be nice to see it from time to time from a canoe on a day paddle.