Last November, I set out to establish buffalograss a different way than I have traditionally done. Normally, I have areas prepared this time of year for buffalograss seeding. May and June are considered the best time to plant buffalograss because it is a native warm season grass. It needs to be planted when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees.
In South central Kansas, it is recommended that seeding of buffalograss be completed no later than August 15. Later seeding is not very successful because the newly germinated seedlings do not get fully rooted before winter. That has been a good rule of thumb, but requires so much water in the summer to get the seeds to germinate.
With this new approach, one plants the buffalograss seeds along with annual ryegrass in the fall or early winter. In theory, the annual ryegrass, a cool season grass, will germinate and hold the soil through the winter. The buffalograss seeds will work their way into the soil with the natural freeze/thaw of the soil throughout the winter. These seeds will then germinate the following spring on their own with annual rainfall and warm 60 degree soil temperature.
The buffalograss is starting to germinate. I have not irrigated it this spring, which is a huge time and money saver. Over the next few weeks, I will monitor it for dryness. Beneficial and timely rains have allowed the seed to germinate on its own. Essentially, this process mimics the natural seeding process.
We are mowing the annual ryegrass weekly. It is important to keep the canopy open so the sun warms the soil, allowing the buffalograss seeds to continue to germinate. The seeded annual ryegrass will expire on its own as we move into warmer summer temperatures. As the ryegrass dies, the roots continue to hold the soil. Buffalograss will then be able to spread and fill in the area through the rest of the summer.
What I would do differently
Reduce the seeding rate of the annual ryegrass: It is recommended that you plant 3-4 lbs./1000 sq. ft. I would only seed 2-3 lbs./1000 sq. ft. The seeds will still germinate to hold the soil through the winter, but not be so dense that they shade out the buffalograss seeds in the spring.
Plant buffalograss seed first and slightly cover it: I had some buffalograss seed float off the soil as I established the annual ryegrass seed last fall.
Start the process earlier in the fall after the first freeze (October 15): It would have been better to get the annual ryegrass established with slightly warmer temperatures, but not so warm that the buffalograss seed germinates.
I will continue to monitor the progress of the buffalograss planting. For smaller areas this seems to be a viable alternative to the traditional buffalograss planting. There are additional costs with the purchase of the annual ryegrass seed, but you save so much time and water compared to the traditional seeding method. Look for another update on the buffalograss seeding in a couple of months as the buffalograss begins to spread.
Micro chips, new cars, used cars, houses, lumber, bikes, bike parts, energy,. . . and native plants. People really want these things right now. As vaccinations liberate Americans from their COVID hermitage, we get to see many distinct examples of high demand leading to short supply.
We learned during our recent Spring FloraKansas Plant Sale – when we moved ~16,000 plants over a four-day period – that there is a really high demand for native plants right now. Folks have spent more time in their home landscapes over the last year and are looking to practice ecological landscaping in levels we’ve never quite witnessed. It is fun for our staff to see this high demand for plants that please both wildlife and the people who plant them. FloraKansas is at the top of our list of events that help Dyck Arboretum of the Plains fully engage our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.
But our staff also experienced the stressful side of high demand and inadequate supply, as many wholesale plant orders either didn’t arrive as planned or came incomplete with numerous backorders occurring. Like never before, we had to scramble and pivot to convince members to consider options B, C, and D of a particular grass, wildflower, sedge, shrub or tree to replace option A that wasn’t in stock.
We typically order most of our native and adaptable plants for our FloraKansas sale from wholesale providers that can produce the number of plants we need much more efficiently and cost effectively. However, during times like these when wholesalers are unable to meet demand, our thoughts turn to a couple of different methods of production on our own.
Digging and Transplanting
When a plant thrives in a given location and establishes a substantial root system, it will flower, set seed, and distribute new seedlings to its nearby surroundings. It will also often spread vegetatively via roots and develop a larger diameter crown. Both of these forms of reproduction offer us and you the opportunity to produce new plants.
Here at the Arboretum, weeding beds of grasses and wildflowers offers many opportunities to dig and transplant seedlings to new locations. Our grounds manager and horticulturalist, Katie Schmidt, is always plucking native wildflowers and grasses that are spreading where she doesn’t want them and either transplanting them to new locations or bolstering our plant sale.
I like to divide older, established plants and move divisions around my yard. This establishment of new beds in my never-ending quest to reduce square footage of lawn takes physical effort, a good soil knife, regular watering in the first year, mulching and lots of weeding. But I enjoy the process, end result, and seeing the wildlife it attracts.
Seed Collection and Germination
Our Dyck Arboretum Prairie Window Project reconstructed prairie was planted in stages from 2005 to 2010 with local ecotype seeds. The 120+ species planted include many great wildflowers, grasses and shrubs that are not always commonly available through the landscaping trade or even through our plant sales. This reality, and subsequently an opportunity, became apparent to me as I observed and photographed the following flowering species over the last couple of weeks following our sale.
I will be watching over the next few weeks for these species to be setting seed and monitoring the right time to collect these seeds. With proper storage (i.e., cool, dry place in paper bags), stratification (i.e., cold/wet treatment for 60-90 days for most species), and hopefully good germination in the greenhouse next spring, I hope that we will be able to offer these species to you next spring.
You too can be on the lookout for seed from unique and interesting species to add to your landscape, and you don’t need to follow the labor intensive approach just outlined. Simply scatter your collected seeds into your intended planting area in the fall and let nature (i.e., gravity, freeze/thaw action, precipitation, and typical winter conditions) do the work for you. While the outcome of this approach is less certain than options described above, it is certainly easier and can add an element of surprise to your gardening adventures.
As stewards of our landscapes, we need to be constantly vigilant as we monitor for problematic weeds and invasive species. We have some usual culprits such as bindweed, bermuda grass, Johnson grass and Bradford pear trees. However, I have noticed another subtle spreader that is quite attractive but quite pushy – Dame’s rocket.
For years, I have been monitoring a growing population of Dame’s rocket in one of our bordering hedgerows. It is beautiful right now with its bright purple blooms, but don’t be fooled. This desirable plant will wreak havoc on the natural environment if left unchecked. Larger populations will even threaten the survival of native plants and degrade habitat and water quality.
Dame’s Rocket in full bloom
Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) is a tall, annual, biennial or short-lived perennial, which produces either white, pink or purple flowers in the April and May. It was introduced to North America in the 1600’s from Eurasia. The attractive blooms have made it a garden favorite. It is often seen in roadside ditches, hedgerows, older farmsteads. However, in recent years, Dame’s rocket has gone rogue, moving from yards and garden plantings into adjoining landscapes.
From the Mustard family (Brassicaceae), this weed resembles tall garden phlox in height and color. However, Phlox is in the Phlox family (Polemoniaceae). Perhaps the most distinguishing difference between the two is that Dame’s rocket has four petals, while phlox has five. As part of the mustard family, it produces an abundance of seed. These seeds are dispersed by mammals and eaten by birds. When the seed pods ripen, they shoot seed in all directions, including the coats of wildlife. These mammals unknowingly spread the seed to nearby waterways, hedgerows, pond edges, and maybe your landscape. Dame’s rocket is reported in most states equal or north of Kansas longitudinally. It is reported as invasive in CO, CT, IN, MD, MI, NJ, PA, TN, VA, WI, and WV.
Dame’s rocket spreading from it’s original colony
Dame’s Rocket is closely related to other problematic weeds of the mustard, family such as garlic mustard, hedge mustard, wild radish and yellow rocket. All of these weeds are prolific and opportunistic, infesting field margins, woodlands, open grassland and wetlands. It appears to have allelopathic tendencies (the ability to produce chemicals that prevent or reduce the growth of other plants) similar to garlic mustard. With these tendencies, Dame’s rocket and garlic mustard will quickly form dense monocultures within a few years, pushing out other desirable native plants. As has happened to our little planting, it quickly colonizes by spreading in every direction.
Controlling Dame’s Rocket
To control Dame’s rocket, pulling before it produces seed is the best option if the population isn’t too large. Make sure to remove the whole plant roots and all. Discard the plants in the trash.
Spraying is another option with a 2,4-D product. A systemic herbicide applied as a foliar spray can be effective. Herbicide is best applied to the basal rosettes (low round clumps of leaves) in late fall or early spring, when other plants are dormant. Always read and follow the directions on the label when using herbicide. Any plan must also be mindful of desirable native plant species and habitat conditions in a targeted location that may be vulnerable to herbicide uses. This is a reason to spray as a last resort. Cutting or mowing can also prevent seed production and spread until other management techniques can be initiated.
Over the past few years, I have changed my tune regarding Dame’s rocket. As beautiful as Dame’s rocket may appear, it is an invasive species with the potential to damage entire natural ecosystems. I used to say, it is doing no harm growing in the hedgerows. Those are just waste areas that need a little beautification, I thought. Then I started seeing it in other small populations away from the original colony. Be on the lookout for it and take action before it spreads and really becomes a problem in your landscape or your neighbors landscape.
“ . . . most of us rarely give any thought to the fact that the ground beneath our feet is a complicated, ever-moving tangle of rocks and animals and plants and water and chemical compounds that rivals the ocean as a wild, dark mysterious, and inscrutable realm.”
Many of us garden for wildlife, choosing native plants that provide vital shelter, food and habitat for a diversity of species. However, the soils in which our native plants grow also play an important role in the success of our native gardens. Soil is alive! Let’s dig deeper into this “wild, dark, mysterious, and inscrutable realm that is soil.”
Soils are a medium for plant growth, anchoring roots, and also soaking up the nutrients, water and air that plants need to grow.
Soils store and filter water. The pores between soil particles, created by roots and animal tunnels, capture and hold precipitation, where it is available to plant roots. The water-holding capacity of soils is also important in reducing erosion and flooding. Soils also filter water, degrading and removing contaminants as it moves downward through soil layers to become groundwater.
Soils recycle and store organic material. Bacteria, fungi, insects and a host of other organisms decompose once-living plants and animals, producing organic material that can be used by living plants and animals for growth, maintenance and reproduction. Organic materials also store carbon, sometimes for centuries! This function helps mitigate climate change.
Soils are habitat for wildlife. From large to small, many animals burrow, nest or hibernate in soil. Animal movements in soils contribute to soil health by continually aerating, churning and mixing.
Soils are an engineering medium. Humans use large amounts of soil for construction and engineering projects. Little construction could be done without soils.
Soils are composed of both living and non-living elements. Non-living minerals and rocks – soil particles of silt, sand and clay – intermingle with living elements to produce a unique mix of physical, chemical and biological properties that vary from region to region.
A teaspoon of healthy soil holds more living organisms than there are people on earth – 700 billion plus. Moreover, there are more different kinds of living organisms in the soil under our feet than there are living on top of the ground, from the microscopic to large insects. Together these soil organisms form a complex food web that makes life more livable for all of us.
Let’s take a look at some of these “little things that run the world.”
Bacteria. Microscopic soil bacteria are by far the most ubiquitous organisms living in soil. Bacteria play important roles both in decomposition, and in fixing nitrogen.
Free-living soil bacteria
Rhizobial bacteria live in nodules on the roots of legumes (pea and bean family), converting atmospheric nitrogen into compounds that the plants use. In return, rhizobium receive sugars from the legume – a symbiotic relationship.
Rhizobial nodules on the roots of a legume.
Protozoans. Living in the water film surrounding soil particles are single celled protozoans. As predators, decomposers and consumers of bacteria, protozoans are important in nutrient cycling.
Single celled protozoan between soil particles
Fungi. Soil fungi are diverse in shape, size, form and function. Some are single-celled, others are multi-cellular. Most are beneficial, contributing to decomposition and nutrient recycling.
Mycorrhizae on roots. Note the web-like extensions that absorb water and nutrients from the soil.
One noteworthy group, the mycorrhizal fungi, live symbiotically with roots, enhancing nutrient and water uptake in the roots. In return, mycorrhizae receive sugars. More than 80% of the plants on earth have relationships with mycorrhizae.
Tardigrades. Also known as water bears, tardigrades are as big as the period at the end of this sentence. Tardigrades are predators and omnivores.
Tardigrades generally live in leaf litter and the top 1-inch of soil.
Nematodes. Nematodes can be predators, fungivores, bacterivores, omnivores, or plant parasites. They also disperse bacteria, carrying and excreting bacteria as they move through the soil. Nematodes tend to be found in water films within soil.
Mites. Mites are important predators and decomposers. They break leaf litter down, making it available to smaller organisms. Mites are abundant and diverse and can be found from the soil surface to deeper soil layers. Depending on the species, mites feed on everything from bacteria, fungi, algae, and dead plants and animals, to insect eggs, nematodes, other mites and springtails.
Soil mite diversity
Dwarf millipedes. Dwarf millipedes are decomposers, fungivores, herbivores and scavengers. Moving through pore spaces in the soil, they are typically found around roots.
Springtails. Springtails come in all shapes and sizes. They feed on dead plant and animal materials, often in the top layers of soil and in leaf litter. They are so named because of their tail-like structure that enables them to jump a short distance. As decomposers, they contribute to nutrient availability in soils.
Earthworms. Earthworms are perhaps the best known of soil creatures, and their contributions are well-known: mixing and aerating soils, and distributing nutrients and minerals in their waste.
Worldwide there are more than 7,000 species of earthworms.
Centipedes. Centipedes are predators, and they are fast runners, sometimes chasing their prey. They eat earthworms, and other insects, large and small, injecting venom to paralyze and kill their prey.
Centipedes can be found in shallow to deep soil layers.
Spiders. As predators, spiders are important in controlling other insect populations. Underground dwelling spiders also contribute to soil mixing and aeration.
Wolf spiders live underground. Females can carry up to 100 young on their backs.
Beetles. The tiger beetle is just one of a host of insects that spends the larval stage of its life in soil. Both larva and adult are predators. Larval tiger beetles are predators, feeding on other insects on the soil surface. Tiger beetle larval burrows can be 18” deep.
Tiger beetles are fast-moving hunters, chasing prey on the ground surface.
These are just a few of the millions of organisms that live in the soil under our feet. All are important in maintaining healthy, productive soils.
Here are four tips to support underground wildlife, large and small, in the soils in your garden:
Disturb the soil as little as possible. Tilling and digging disturbs and damages the soil food web.
Grow a diversity of plants. Different species of plants add and remove different compounds from the soil, creating more diverse conditions for the organisms living in the soil
Keep living roots growing in the soil for as much of the year as possible. Roots feed living organisms in the soil.
Keep the soil covered with dead plant material. Mulch not only protects the soil from drying out fast, but it also feeds the decomposers, which are then eaten by other living things. If you want healthy soil, you should not see it very often!
Soil wildlife makes your prairie garden grow. Protect it!
Hopwood, Frische, May and Lee-Mader. 2021. Farming With Soil Life: A Handbook for Supporting Soil Invertebrates and Soil Health on Farms. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. https://www.xerces.org/sites/default/files/publications/19-051.pdf