Late August for a native plants gardener in sandy northwestern Wisconsin is show time. This is when I smile and say: OK, what we have here is the native plants equivalent of a fireworks display. The big bluestem and Indian grass are six feet high and the little bluestem and sideoats grama grasses are four feet high. There’s an in-your-face aspect to tall grass prairies, even the little patches in the middle of a pine-oak forest.
When I began my native plants project, I didn’t necessarily anticipate this tall-grass look. I did plant lots of little bluestem partly because it seemed like a shorter, more polite garden species; the wilder and crazier big bluestem wandered in on its own. I did scatter Indian grass seed that I’d collected on my walks in the area, but I didn't think it would actually grow.
It did grow.
My tall grass prairie still needs to fill in before it achieves true prairie stardom, but I fully expect it to do that in a few years, even in our droughty, nutrient-free soil.
Today I have close-up photos of a few plants from the sunny, tall-grass side of our yard. Not only are these plants fun from a porch-gazing distance, they’re pretty cool – maybe even a little weird -- a few inches away.
The first is big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). I was struck by how un-blue some parts of the grass were:
And here's the black eye from a black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta):
One of my favorites, blazing stars (Liatris aspera). The petals of the blossoms look almost capable of reaching out and gobbling up that ant:
And last, Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). The first part of the Latin name means 'poor imitation of sorghum' and the second part means 'nodding.' For the first forty years I walked the logging roads in these woods, I never noticed this species of grass. But now it pops for me. Indian grass is a tall beauty, but for this photo, I focused on the way the seed heads nod, or flop sideways, a contrast with the vertical pines in the background:
Happy and safe Labor Day to all!
A couple of scientists with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have started a podcast. Why not? Everybody else has. Theirs is called Prairie Pod and here's the link:
On the podcast, they chat about how to grow a prairie. The podcast is aimed at land managers who are restoring prairies or planting new ones, and I am no land manager. But still, I'm a native plants gardener and I can learn a lot from smart people, so I listened. I learned that the sunny, or prairie, side of our cabin yard should have at least four types of species: cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses, forbs (plants with flowers) and sedges. The scientists also talked up legumes, the plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.
I have plenty of warm-season grasses, plenty of forbs (because who doesn't love flowers?), plenty of legumes (ditto, love my wild lupine and sweet fern), but I'm short on cool-season grasses and sedges.
Everybody who plants a sunny native plants garden focuses on warm-season grasses and so did I when I started this whole project about five years ago. Warm-season grasses are the kind that are slow to get going in the spring and reach their full grassy splendor late in the growing season. Here's a photo of one of my big bluestems (Andropogon gerardii) with some bee balm behind it:
And sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) -- the first photo from last year and the second from this summer:
And little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), my favorite and everybody's favorite:
But I didn't really know anything about cool-season grasses, so I didn't plant any. Cool-season grasses start growing earlier in the season when the soil is still cool. I learned from the Prairie Pod scientists that they're valuable because they can compete more successfully with all the cool-season invasives that are itching to invade and wreck everything. I have plenty of those, crab grass and fescue among them.
I do have at least one cool-season grass in the yard, but I never planted it. It came up all on its own. And for the longest time I didn't know whether I should yank it or not. Now I've identified it as June grass (Koeleria macranthaand). It has a lovely round shape:
After listening to the podcast, I looked and looked for a nice little list of cool-season prairie grasses on the internet and couldn't find one. I had to call a native plants nursery and the woman who answered the phone seemed a little flummoxed. No one has ever asked that question before, she said. See? Cool-season grasses are somehow below the radar. She eventually offered a few suggestions and I'm going to plant a few of them this year and next, grasses like prairie brome (Bromus kalmii); and bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix). Those should grow well in our sandy soil.
Next post, I'll write about sedges, another neglected piece of my prairie puzzle. My ignorance of sedges is unfortunately as vast as the number of sedge species.
I'll end this post with a few photos of the prairie side of my yard from this past week:
Just a quick post to mark the wild strawberry crop in our cabin yard. Five years ago, I planted about a half dozen strawberry plants and they spread like crazy. There are enough berries for a strawberry pie -- if only I wanted to pick that many! Think I'll just pick a few and leave the rest to the chipmunks.
I might have been wrong about how hard it would be to attract a pink lady’s slipper to my native plants yard. I thought it would require the skills of a master gardener or a cosmic convergence to attract this gorgeous orchid.
Now I’m thinking benign neglect helped as much as anything. I’ll explain in a bit.
This weekend I discovered three young pink lady’s slipper plants (Cypripedium acaule) in our cabin yard. They’re coming up at the edge of a grove of red pines, just shy of the bluff overlooking Lake 26. They have no flowers yet and it might be years before they’re mature enough to flower. Below is a photo of one of them. The young lady's slipper is in the lower right.
These spectacular pink orchids thrive in our acidic soil, but they need some help. The lady’s slipper seeds are teeny and hold no nutrients inside to help a young plant get started. They rely instead on a particular fungus in the soil to bring them food. The threads of the fungus attach themselves to the seed, break it open, and pass nutrients to the seed. When the orchid plant is more established, the fungus extracts nutrients from its roots. It’s a sweet deal for both orchid and fungus.
In my yard, I recognized the plant for its two leaves that seem to emerge from the ground with no stem. The leaves are a little fuzzy and have several parallel veins in them
Going forward, the plants will need not just a special fungus, but also bees to pollinate any flowers that appear. So now I’m rooting for fungus and bees. I will also continue my practice of benign neglect: create a great space for native flowers and grasses and then pretty much leave that space alone to see what happens.
A few links for more information:
Yesterday we drove up to the pine barrens, a wild and beautiful place in northern Burnett County that sand and fire helped create. When I see the barrens, I feel as though I'm looking into the past, and, of course, I also see a heavenly place for wildflowers.
Here's how "the barrens" began:
When the last glaciers were melting ten thousand years ago, rivers poured from them and dumped and sorted quartz sand over a million acres of northwestern Wisconsin. Today people call this million-acre swath of sand the Northwest Sands Ecological Area, or Northwest Sands for short. Today's pine barrens (and by the way, Lake 26) lie in the middle of this big swath of sand.
As the ice disappeared, trees like pines and oaks started to move in, but wildfires frequently swept across the land and the native Americans who eventually settled in the area probably also set fires to promote game and berry habitat. This created a savannah-type landscape in some areas. When federal government surveyors came through in the 1850s they described the landscape in northwestern Wisconsin (including the area around our lake) as "barrens," that is, relatively bare of trees.
Wildflowers love the barrens. Phlox (pink) and wood betony (yellow) were blooming this week.
The state of Wisconsin owns about 6,000 acres of pine barrens near the Namekagon River and maintains the brush prairie ecosystem with regular prescribed fires. Below is a photo of a patch the state burned a few years ago. The burned area is to the left of the road.
If you're interested in visiting the barrens, here are directions:
From Danbury, WI:
1. Hwy 35 north to Hwy 77; turn right or east on Hwy 77 to Namekagon Rd 13.6 miles
2. Turn left or north on Namekagon Trail Rd and cross the Namekagon River and drive up Namekagon Trail Rd to St. Croix Trail 5.9 miles
3. Turn right on St. Croix Trail
4. Turn left on Dry Landing Road and the barrens are to your right.
And here's a link to a map of the barrens:
For more information about the barrens, contact the Friends of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area. Here's a link to their website: http://www.fnbwa.org/newhome
For years, my mother told us that marijuana grew in the roadside ditches in Burnett County. She pointed out a low, dark-green shrub in the sunny areas alongside the roads. “See?” she’d say with triumph and mischief in her voice. “Marijuana!”
We believed her. But after we bought the cabin from my parents and started spending more time in northwestern Wisconsin, critical thinking skills started to kick in. Really? Marijuana? And by the way, my mother never tried to smoke it.
I discovered that the low shrub is a native plant called sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) and not only is it NOT marijuana, it’s not even a fern. Below are photos of the two plants: first marijuana (courtesy of Commons Wikipedia) and then sweet fern.
You can see a vague resemblance.
I discovered sweet fern is related to wax myrtle and bayberry, plants with fragrant leaves, and sweet fern’s fragrance is reason alone to try growing it. It thrives in -- you guessed it -- nutrient-poor soil like ours, and one reason it can survive here is because it can fix nitrogen. I think of legumes when I think of nitrogen-fixers, but sweet fern uses a different bacteria than legumes use to turn atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form of nitrogen for itself and everybody else in its immediate neighborhood. In other words, sweet fern enriches the soil around it.
I didn’t know any of that when I decided I had to have sweet fern in my cabin yard. I just liked the look of it – kind of prehistoric (plus, it had the marijuana back story). Now I have two sweet fern plants, both purchased from Out Back Nursery near Hastings, MN. I planted them on the north side of our cabin, which is the sunny side. A couple shots of it:
Actually our land is adjacent to county land, and I planted the sweet fern plants just across the line on county land. I figure I have now increased the value of public land, but I doubt my act of generosity will prompt the county to show its gratitude by lowering our taxes.
For the most part, I’m just hoping the plants will grow big and strong and lead a quiet, shrubby life. They might need luck as well as adequate rain and all the usual things plants. need because life is hazardous here. A few years ago, the county foresters brought in a bobcat to cut down a few dead trees that were in danger of falling on our cabin. In the process, their bobcat squashed my (their?) sweet fern flat, but the plant came back the next spring, no problem.
Here’s a link to the Out Back Nursery. http://www.outbacknursery.com/index.htm
I associate cool, rainy, cloudy weather with Memorial Day weekend, but that's not what we got this year. It's 7 p.m. on May 28 and it's still 85 degrees and sunny. The thunderstorm last night delivered .10 of an inch of rain, not much.
The native plants in my yard are well adapted to the curve balls that the climate throws here in Burnett County, but I'm sure they'd love a little rain. In spite of the dry weather, things have greened up and started flowering. The east yard looks much better than it did a month ago. The green is provided mostly by the oak sedge (see my previous posts) and wild strawberry plants, which are an amazing ground cover plant for this area. There are plenty of other plants in this shady part of my yard, but the sedge and the strawberries are the most prominent and the most durable.
Here's a closer look at the wild strawberries. Best things about the strawberry plants: the deer don't bother with them, they produce fruit you can eat, and they're cute!
When I first planned the yard, I figured bushes would look best against the foundation, so that's what we planted -- snowberry and dwarf bush honeysuckle, both native to this area. Unfortunately, the bushes haven't done that well and I'm not sure why. This growing season, my main goal is to transplant bracken ferns (Pteridium) from our woods and then buy a few more ferns to fill in the big gaps left by the pathetic bushes. Below is a photo of some the ferns I've planted so far; the bracken is the one with the bare stem and the fronds toward the top (it's the fern you see all over the woods here) and the fern in the foreground is so far unidentified but it seems happy!
And below are a few more photos of the flowers blooming right now. The first is birdfoot violet (Viola pedata); the second is wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), a plant that spreads readily by seed, but not by transplanting. And the last is a protected plant in the state of Wisconsin, the lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule). I photographed this pink lady's slipper in a nearby secret location. Someday I hope this beautiful native will bloom in my yard, but it needs just the right ingredients, and that's a story for another blog post.
Happy Memorial Day!
Happy Mother's Day to mothers everywhere!
When we arrived at the cabin a few days ago, I was looking forward to seeing which plants were flowering in the yard. And I found a few. This white flower is bloodroot. My bloodroot must have tagged along with a clump of wild ginger that I transplanted a few years ago from my brother-in-law's yard.
And below is the wild ginger, which is also flowering right now. The pink flowers are low to the ground and easy to miss.
But I was most eager to see whether the oak sedge (Carex pensylvanica) was flowering. And it definitely is. This time of year, it’s easiest to distinguish the sedge from the grasses I usually yank (like fescue and crab grass) because of the way it flowers.
Those wispy yellow tops (a highly technical botanical term) are actually the flower. I rarely think of grasses and sedges as flowering plants, but they are. And these flowering tops are pretty distinctive. I've become a sedge fan and I'm starting to see them everywhere. It's like when you buy a red car, you start seeing red cars everywhere.
Five years ago, I learned about oak sedge from Cheryl Clemens, who once served as a native plants consultant for Burnett County (not sure if she still does). Cheryl visited us – free of charge – after we had torn down our old cabin and built new. Our yard was a great big sand pit after all the excavation work. The sight of it was a little daunting. We worried that one thunderstorm would send our real estate downhill into our neighbor’s yard. They were probably worried too.
Cheryl advised us how to start our native plants experiment. She first told us about oak sedge, which is becoming a no-mow lawn substitute around the country.
She pointed it out to me in the woods and I was pretty embarrassed that I’d never paid much attention to this little native grass growing everywhere. In Burnett County, it grows mostly in the woods, but it can tolerate full sun as well.
This is what an oak sedge lawn is capable of looking like (the photo is from the Minnesota Wildflowers website):
That's what I'm shooting for -- we're a long way from that.
Oh, well. But every year, it spreads, and it’s tough as nails. The deer don’t eat it and the harsh conditions here – cold winters and droughty, sandy, nutrient-poor soil – don’t faze it. But one thing I’ve learned about planting natives: the mix of plants changes a little bit every year. And if our wild-strawberry patches outcompete the oak sedge, I’m good with that!
Here’s more info on oak sedge:
This is my inaugural post for Wild about Sand. It's a blog about growing wildflowers and native grasses in the incredible glacial sand of northwestern Wisconsin.
I'm entering my fifth growing season with the native plants at our cabin. It took about three or four years before the yard was more green than brown. Growing native plants takes patience, but the plants typically reward patience with durability.
Today is sunny, windy, and about 66 degrees. There's still ice on the lake, but already green plants are coming up in the yard, which is still overwhelmingly dead-looking.
Below are photos of some of the earliest spring plants in my yard. Some of these natives were green all winter. Like pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellate):
And ground cedar (Diphasiastrum complanatum):
Others came up right after the snow melted, like Pennsylvania sedge, or oak sedge (Carex pensylvanica). The oak sedge is my workhorse grass -- it's the latest no-mow grass that people are trying, and for some reason, it loves sand. It looks a little lonely here amongst the dead leaves and pine needles from last year, but it really fills out later in the season. I transplanted lots of oak sedge from elsewhere on our property and also bought some from native plant nurseries like Prairie Restoration and Landscape Alternatives in Scandia. It's pretty easy to find.
That's it for today -- a beautiful day at the lake. Now if the ice would just melt!
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