So a few years back, y’all may remember a post I made about the coolness of the oak-savannah that used to grow in my neck of the woods, the now-vanished “Piedmont Prairie.”
I was bound and determined to try and restore some of the native prairie plants to my neck of the woods. (Why? Good heavens, why wouldn’t someone want to do that? There used to be BISON in my yard! Show me a yard full of Knockout roses and liriope that compares in any way to bison. Seriously.)
I had, as it happens, a hillside. An embankment. A big slanty chunk of space, with pine trees at the top. It was all scraped twelve years ago to make a lot for the house, and what was left was raw clay subsoil. It was so bad that there weren’t even weeds. This seemed like a great place for the legendary clay-busting powers of the prairie. So, armed with a plant list from the botanical garden, I chopped holes in the clay…yes, chopped, with a mattock…and plugged in my grasses and my forbs and watered them faithfully the first spring and waited for the amber waves of grain.
The second year nothing happened. I didn’t expect it. The second year, they’re supposed to be growing roots. A few plants bloomed, but most of them stayed hunkered down. The hillside looked pretty awful, but that was fine. I expected it.
The third year is when things get good. Sleep, creep, leap, as they say. The third year, I was gonna have grass! And flowers! And wildlife! Goldfinches would cling to the swaying stems! Butterflies would flit ‘mongst the flowers! It would look like the opening shots of Little House on the Prairie, except without small children running around!
And now, O readers, because I feel it is important to be honest about our failures as well as our successes, I will admit to you the truth.
That’s my prairie.
Not quite the resounding success I was hoping for.
Three years, and it’s still ugly, scraggly and sad. It’s not even terribly good for wildlife. (If it were, I’d call it good enough, but nobody’s getting any benefit out of this. Goldfinches are embarrassed to be seen here. There is a brief splurge of pollinators when several individual plants bloom, but they are isolated specimens in a sea of nothing much.)
When it became obvious, earlier this year, that my original planting was a bust, I did what I always do in times of great mental adversity—I started pacing back and forth in front of it, trying to figure out Where Things Had Gone Wrong.
After about five seconds of this, I realized that it was probably the dirt.
More accurately, it was the lack of dirt.
There’s a half-dozen species on the prairie planting that I grow elsewhere in the yard, and where they appear elsewhere, they are spectacular. They grow with deranged enthusiasm. I have to fight them back with a chair. They are growing in Real Dirt. (Topsoil, mulch, mushroom compost, some cow manure from the local CSA, coats of pine needle and oak leaves..in short, my usual cobbled together sheet-composted garden bed.) There is exactly one species that grows better in the clay hillside than it does in Real Dirt. (In case you’re curious, that species is Texas onion. I could perhaps turn the entire hillside into Texas onion, but that seems excessive.)
On the hillside, they are growing in subsoil that is 100% pure, rock-hard clay. People quite literally dig this stuff up and throw pots with it. Locally, even. Clay takes water slowly and holds it forever, so rain run-off doesn’t have a chance to sink in, and the end result is a miserably hard baked surface most of the year, and in a few brief days of spring, a soggy mess.
Plants need air as well as water. Dense clay is nearly airless. If the clay was so compacted that the roots couldn’t take up any air, would they even try to dig down through it?
The ability of prairie plants to bust up clay is legendary, but I suspect I had put a little TOO much faith in it. This stuff didn’t even have WEEDS. If it was so dead that weeds couldn’t get a foothold…well, that’s some pretty rough stuff. I live in the South. The lushness of our landscape is legendary. What had the developer done—dump Agent Orange on the hill?
I paced some more.
Really, when you think about it, it’s a testament to how tough these plants were that they lived at all. The cup-plant, that marvelous clay-buster, had even managed to put out a second stem. The tall tickseed had doubled in size. The Echinacea pallida never even thought about flower, but it was still alive.
Hmm, hmm, hmm.
There was a small chunk of the planting that didn’t suck. That was, in fact, the first bit I did, and the only bit that had gotten any soil amendments. I had dumped a couple of bags of crappy topsoil and some mulch on top of it. It looks like this:
This consisted of a shrubby St. John’s wort and some narrow-leaf mountain mint, with a rattlesnake master clump over on the far right. Given a bare inch of bargain basement loose dirt and some bark chips, they had tripled in size from their original planting. These and the Texas onion are the three plants that bring pollinators rushing into the planting. (After which they slink away, avoiding eye-contact, like Southern Baptists in a liquor store.)
This is also the only section of the planting that I have ever had to weed. The rest of the planting is still largely devoid of life, except for very occasional winged elm or pin oak seedlings popping up in the middle of the clumps of little bluestem, and rare bits of bermudagrass wedged around the edges of a transplant. (Yes. The only place that gets weeds is where I have loosened the soil enough to plant the original plants. This stuff is like asphalt.)
The soil locally, when treated right, is extraordinarily productive. This soil had not been treated right. This wasn’t even soil. The soil had been scraped off and probably sold. This was like trying to grow plants on the surface of Mars.
If I were willing to stick it out another four or five years, perhaps the plants would finally bust up the soil enough for a seed or two to take. I am relatively confident, in fact, that they would. These plants are obviously mind-blowingly tough.
However, I am not willing to wait another four or five years. Some of these plants don’t live that long. I might get hit by a bus. North Carolina could be eaten by bears. Stuff happens.
Well. If at first you don’t succeed…
I set up edging at the bottom of the bank, extended the whole bed by about three feet, filled that in with topsoil, mulched it well, and planted in a dozen specimens of prairie plants that have done well elsewhere in the yard. (Now at least I’ll have something to look at.) The existing prairie plants got a handful of mushroom compost and some bark mulch to tide them over. Next spring, I’ll apply the same treatment that works so well on my other beds—a layer of compost followed by a layer of mulch. I have read many books that tell you how low-maintenance prairie plantings are, and how you don’t need to fertilize them, but I suspect that the authors of those books are working with actual dirt, not the Devil’s Fruitcake or whatever this is.*
If I were starting from scratch now, I’d probably at least mulch the heck out of everything right after planting. Mulch is a great panacea, and might hold some of the moisture in long enough to be useful to the plants. If I had the budget, I’d bring in some top soil first—not a huge amount, since I wouldn’t want to precipitate a minor mud-slide, nor encourage shallow rooting, but enough to provide a little bit of a boost for my new plants, something for them to grab onto, while they’re digging down. Judging by my own experience, that little bit makes all the difference. (I know when planting over a lawn, people will cut out the sod and flip it over, then lay it back down. I think that’s probably a similar effect. It gives the plants SOMETHING to work with.)
These are tough plants. I don’t think I appreciated quite how tough.
As for whether my new method will work…well, I’ll report back in 2015, and let you know how it’s going. (And if it doesn’t work by then, I will try something ELSE that involves prairie plants, because by god, I am going to have amber waves of nano-bison or whatever the hell it is or die in the attempt!)
*Devil’s Fruitcake would be a great band name.
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