Curtis Prairie

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The Curtis Prairie Arboretum is located in Madison, Wisconsin. Curtis Prairie is the oldest prairie restoration project and its success hinged on the knowledge of a few conservationists and the hard-working attitudes of hundreds of workers.

For the second installment of meadow month, I thought I’d talk about one of the most famous meadows in North America.  Famous not only because it was such a successful restoration project but also because one of the most famous conservationists, Aldo Leopold, played a significant part in its creation and success.

Before the Prairie
Prior to the creation of Curtis Prairie, the area (a 25-hectare plot), located in Madison, Wisconsin, had a long history of agricultural use.   It was first farmed in 1836 and after running through eleven owners in twenty-four years, it was purchased by the Bartlett family who began to farm it regularly until 1920.  A rotation of corn, oats, and pasture were planted on two-thirds of the property where excessive moisture did not make plowing dangerous. One section was left as it was found and another mowed down regularly.

Between 1920 and 1926, the land was left untouched.  The Bartletts were finished with cultivation and it wasn’t until the land was sold to a veterinarian in ’26 that it was once again used.  This time, however, there was no farming: thirty-five horses used the entire 25 hectares as a pasture.

University of Wisconsin
In 1933, the land was sold to the University of Wisconsin and by 1936, the Curtis Prairie restoration project was underway, having recruited Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps to help with the labour.

The Civilian Conservation Corps dug, hauled, and planted many of the species that are currently living in Curtis Prairie. The severe droughts experienced during this era were a persuasive factor in Roosevelt’s support for the project as the importance of environmental health gained recognition.

And that’s where our good friend, Aldo Leopold, comes in.  He was part of the first planting which took place over four years from 1936 to 1940. As a supervisor, it was Leopold’s job to oversee the project in terms of best practices and make decisions about plant species.  During this first planting phase, clumps of prairie were dug up from railway right of ways and other areas destined for construction.

Between 1950 and 1957, a second major planting took place.  Seeds were planting using a variety of methods – everything from hand planting large seeds to broadcasting smaller seeds after a prescribed burn.

The Curtis Prairie is just one prairie restoration at the University’s arboretum…an arboretum that spans over 500 hectares.  Pretty impressive.

Learning Along the Way
The Curtis Prairie isn’t just the oldest restored prairie but a scientific research site.  Over the past 78 years, students and researchers from the University of Wisconsin have been studying how best to seed a prairie, restore farmland, burn a meadow, reduce alien species, prepare the soil, and reduce negative plant competition.

Burning the Curtis Prairie was a learning experience in the beginning. Today, the prairie is burned each spring to combat invasive weeds and encroaching trees and shrubs.

It is research that has been done at the Curtis Prairie that helps us at Wildflower Farm not only plant meadows here but help you with your meadows and meadow-style gardens.

If you have ten minutes, I encourage you to watch this stunning video with landscape architect Darrel Morrison.  He talks about Curtis Prairie, Aldo Leopold, and Jens Jensen and how the three have impacted his design work.  It really makes you look twice at a prairie or a meadow and think harder about growing your own.

How many native wildflower species can you identify in this video?  Let us know in the comments below!

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Meadow Month

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The late fall meadow is a vast expanse of drying grasses going or gone to seed and plenty of spent flowers dried and gone to seed. Some of the flowers stand tall, like these Echinacea seed heads and others go to seed beneath the protection of the grass.

 

Last week I introduced Meadow Month.  For this week and the next three, Miriam and I will be discussing concepts related to meadows: why they’re important, famous meadows, how to have (and personalize) your own,  and hopefully you’ll learn something new along the way.

Fall is a great time to get out, look at, and photograph meadows.  Of course, summer time meadows are filled with blooms, but the fall meadow is when the grasses really shine.  Take some time to search for a meadow in the next few months.  I encourage you to take a moment while you’re there just to listen to the birds and rustling grass stems.

 

 

Now…let’s get started…

What is a meadow?  Simply put, a meadow is an open area with no trees but filled with a dense combination of grasses and flowers.  Ideally, these are native grasses and flowers but often times, non-natives will sneak in.  Typically, grasses will outnumber flowers.

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A particularly floriferous section of a small meadow that sits at the edge of Wildflower Farm. Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) and some non-native but naturalized Queen Anne’s lace.

What are they good for?  Ecologically speaking, meadows are extremely significant.  Not having trees and being open in terms of sunlight, meadows offer a different ecosystem than, say, a forest.  Having native flowers and grasses offers habitat, protection, and food for a distinct group of species that are radically different from those you would find in a beachy dune setting.

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Grasses and flowers grow together. Often, flowers will grow in clusters as one seed head will drop many seeds in close proximity to itself. The result is a natural swath – in this case, a swath of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

The combination of grasses and flowers occupy different levels of the soil, holding it in place when rain and wind would easily move soil down the same hill if it were bare.

How does a meadow occur?  In nature, meadows are the result of recurring fires or other disaster.  The species that grow in a meadow are tolerant of these disasters and, often times, the disaster is how the meadow stays healthy.  A fire will rip through a dry meadow in the fall, burning away alien species that cannot withstand the temperatures and tree seedlings that would compete for resources.  The native species, however, may burn to the soil level, but will bounce right back in the spring.

What species are attracted to a meadow?  It will depend heavily on where you live but you can expect a wide variety of songbirds looking for nesting opportunities, seeds from grasses and flowers, and protection from predators.  The number of insect species attracted to a meadow is incredible as they look for food, shelter, and a place to lay eggs.  Some insect species have very specific relationships with certain plants (the classic monarch-milkweed example).  If the meadow is located in a more remote area, you can expect deer, rodents, owls, and sometimes large cats to use the space for food, protection, and sleep.

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The cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) will attract birds and plenty of insects. The birds are attracted to the seeds in the fall but throughout the year will use the water that collects in their cup-like leaves.

The benefits of a meadow landscape are huge in terms of ecosystem services.  They filter water, house numerous species, hold and protect soil, and keep out invasive species.  Aesthetically speaking, they are beautiful in their own right and even more so if you think about the benefit they bring to the natural landscape.

Your Meadow, Your Garden
You don’t need a vast expanse of land to grow a meadow.  Of course, if you have a large space, you should probably consider it.  For the rest of us, the meadow-style garden is a great way to create a stunning space with minimal work.  The close-knit community of grasses and flowers that is a true meadow keeps weeding to a minimum and watering once established to nothing.  Imagine, a garden that looked great and didn’t need more than 20 minutes a year of maintenance.

A meadow doesn’t have to be a huge expanse. But if you have one, wouldn’t you want it to look like this?

Like a large-scale meadow, a meadow-style garden is planted in the fall. The seeds need winter and winter (fall) sowing can be a fun experience.  One you can share with the younger generation to teach them the details of seed germination and patience.

If you are not too picky, we can offer you a predetermined mix chosen by you to match your soil conditions.  If you’d like certain species, you can use the seed selector tool to determine which species will work for your area.  You will need to know a little about your soil and the sunlight your area receives for both options.  Our meadow growing instructions should be able to point you in the right direction.

Start thinking about it now.  If you want to grow a large wildflower meadow, some planning is needed.  If you want to start introducing native plants into your garden and slowly convert it into a meadow-style garden, start your plants this winter for planting next year.

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Seed Science for the Non-Scientist

I’m not sure about the entire continent of North America, but here in Ontario, summer seems to just be getting started.  Looking at the forecast, though, it’s looking like it’s going to be a short one.  Don’t let this warm weather fool you, fall is here and soon it will be winter.

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This black-eyed Susan opened up a few days ago – seems this fly has found a comfy little resting place.

Exciting things happen in the winter: the weather cools (with varying degrees of intensity depending on where you live), birds migrate, and some stick around to gorge themselves at feeders and standing wildflower seed heads.  The seeds that don’t succumb to avian ingestion fall to the ground and are pushed into the soil by autumn rains and winter snows.

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The seeds from these spent black-eyed Susans will provide food for tiny birds and some will fall to the ground, waiting for spring to germinate. Even though black-eyed Susan seeds don’t need to go through winter, they can definitely handle it.

And here’s where it gets exciting.  As spring rolls around, the weather is, let’s just say, unpredictable.  Pleasantly warm days, freezing nights, rain, snow, freezing rain, and then sun.  Temperatures swing back and forth from February to the beginning of May where I live in Ontario. And while I may find it difficult to dress myself in the morning to ensure I’m neither overheating nor frozen, those tiny seeds that fell in the fall are taking it all in stride.

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The coating on a lupine seed.

You see, seeds are born with a hard coating that protects the precious internal organs.  A seed with an intact coat will not germinate, it simply cannot.  But then along comes the heave-ho of early spring.  This force of nature, when things freeze and thaw over and over again breaks down the coat, telling the seed it’s time to get growing.  Literally.

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Cutting into the lupine seed, you can see that the outer coating is its own separate entity, easily sliding off the actual soft seed. Cold, wet conditions facilitate the breaking down of the seed coat.

But enough of that – you have wildflower seeds to grow or maybe you want to have some to grow.  What’s the best way to get them started?

Step 1: Acquire seeds (Wildflower Farm has over 100 types of wildflower seeds and native grasses).  Use the Seed Selector Tool to pick the ones that will grow best in your area.

Step 2: Read package instructions.  Some wildflowers don’t need cold, moist stratification (the overwintering method above) and others need up to two years of it just to break down the seed coat.

Step 3: For those that need winter, and if you have winter (with snow or even a period of cold rains), plant the seeds in pots and set them outside.  Let the snow and rain fall on them; the warm and cold temperatures expand and contract the soil, deteriorating the shell.  If you don’t have winter, mix the seeds into moistened soil in a Ziploc bag.  Put the whole thing into the fridge for 6-8 weeks.

Step 4: Outdoor pots can remain as they are until you see the tiny green shoots start to poke through the soil surface (these are called cotyledons).  Let them grow until their first true leaves (the second set) have come in then transplant them to their own container.  For the seedlings in bags, after their 6-8 week stint in the fridge, dump the soil into a container (or containers) only a few inches deep so you are not burying the seeds beneath too much soil.

Step 5: Wait.  Some seeds take quite a while to germinate and others only a few weeks.  Don’t give up on them.  Place the containers where they can receive sun and rain. Water every few days if it does not rain.

Step 6: Once the plant has grown a decent root ball, it may be transplanted to the garden. Water it well for the first few weeks to help drive the roots downwards.

Step 7: Enjoy the foliage this year and the flowers, next.

Steps 4-7 will be spring-time events but I didn’t want to leave this as a cliff-hanger (it’s suspenseful, I know!).

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Coneflowers are still blooming here, too. And who doesn’t love seeing them in their glory?

 

Introducing Meadow Month

This post is the beginning of Meadow Month.  At Wildflower Farm, we create standard and custom seed mixes so that you can create your own meadow. The seeds need the winter process I described above so fall is the time to start planting.

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The fall meadow is a mixture of spent and new blooms, grasses and goldenrod, wind blowing through drying stems like music at the orchestra.

Not so fast, though.  Planning and prep is 90% of the work in creating a meadow and over the next few weeks, we will discuss how to go about planning for a meadow and why you should really think about starting one (even if it’s small).

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And the seasons they go round and round…..

miriam large(!)sept 18 018For reasons that really don’t matter, I was in a snitty stressful place this morning. Nonsensical mutterings and stressful sighs peppered my walk out to the flower fields. I first encountered some late blooming Black-Eyed Susans and straightaway cut them into my bucket, my spirits immediately lifting a rung. Then came an 80 foot row of Purple Coneflowers in various states of exquisite deterioration. large sept 18 015

 

 

 

 

I honed in on their giant orange coneheads, funky pink petals and even scored a goodly number in perfect states of bloom.

Perfect Purple Coneflowers in the seed production field at Wildflower Farm

Perfect Purple Coneflowers in the seed production field at Wildflower Farm

Once again in a matter of moments I was back in the zone; that heady cross between concentration and meditation that comes over me when I garden deeply . I never mean to lord it over you dear reader that I live in paradise. I just want you to understand the depth of my gratitude for this life; this beauty.large sept 18 005

Here then are late blooming wildflowers and native grasses gathered over the last few days. We are expecting our first frost tonight. Just as nature does, soon we’ll be seeding our wildflowers…..

Rough Blazingstars bloom in the fall.

Rough Blazingstars bloom in the fall.

 

Rattlesnake Master in the foreground and Showy Goldenrod in the background.

Rattlesnake Master in the foreground and Showy Goldenrod in the background.

Sky Blue Asters

Sky Blue Asters

 

Rudbeckia triloba or Brown Eyed Susans

Rudbeckia triloba or Brown Eyed Susans

New England Aster

New England Aster

Stiff Goldenrod with a soft blue background of Little Bluestem native grass.

Stiff Goldenrod with a soft blue background of Little Bluestem native grass.

Big Bluestem's blooms resemble turkey claws.

Big Bluestem’s blooms resemble turkey claws.

And the seasons they go round and round.

And the seasons they go round and round.

 

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Change is hard…or is it?

Most of the people who call into Wildflower Farm to discuss Eco-Lawn want to know one thing right off the hop:  I have a water-sucking, summer-browning, mow-intensive lawn already, what am I supposed to do with it?

When we advise them to simply cut their current lawn as short as possible, lay down a bit of compost, spread Eco-Lawn seed right over top then sprinkle on some compost, they are flabbergasted.  But, for most people, that’s the process.  It’s not instant but overseeding in spring and fall for a few years will get you to 100% Eco-Lawn.

Photo: http://www.extension.org/pages/27488/preferential-flow-of-manure-in-tile-drainage#.VBBj5GNF_Pw

Photo: http://www.extension.org/pages/27488/preferential-flow-of-manure-in-tile-drainage#.VBBj5GNF_Pw

 

For Those With Clay
If the soil in your lawn area is compacted clay, there is a little bit of extra work.  Compacted clay is nearly impossible to penetrate.  Water, roots, and insects all have a tough time getting through.  In these cases, if you want to grow a lawn (of any kind, not just Eco-Lawn), you will need to loosen the top three inches of soil, add an inch or two of compost then rake to even out the surface.  In loosening three inches of soil you are likely going to bring weeds to the surface so fall prep and seeding is suggested.

 

 

 

Photo: http://www.angieslist.com/companylist/us/mn/plymouth/diversified-drainage-reviews-195190.htm

Photo: http://www.angieslist.com/companylist/us/mn/plymouth/diversified-drainage-reviews-195190.htm

 

For those with Poor Drainage
If you have an area that absolutely never dries up, no lawn will work.  If it dries up for at least a few weeks in the summer then Eco-Lawn will work well for you. If it stays wet I suggest you plant some water loving wildflowers (like Joe Pye Weed, Culver’s Root, Red Milkweed, Golden Alexander, and New England Aster).  Check  our  Wildflower Farm Seed Selector Tool for a complete list of wildflowers for soggy sites.  If you really want grass there, consider putting in some drainage tiles to divert water away from this area.

 

 

 

Some Helpful Hints
As you’re prepping the soil (removing weeds, churning up heavy clay, etc), remember to rake everything smooth.  Because unless you want lumps and bumps everywhere, a smooth seed bed is necessary to start with.

Fall is the ideal time to overseed and to start brand new lawns.  The temperatures are cooler (and not getting any warmer for a while), there is generally ample rainfall and morning dew (minimizing the watering you have to do), and there is less competition from weeds as most wait until spring to germinate. Check out our seeding times chart for your ideal fall sowing window. Or just remember to plant when temperatures are consistently between 55 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 10 – 25 degrees Centigrade.

Extra watering at the drip line will help Eco-Lawn's roots grow and avoid competition with the tree.

Extra watering at the drip line will help Eco-Lawn’s roots grow and avoid competition with the tree.

Eco-Lawn works very well under trees in deep shade.  The key to establishing Eco-Lawn  under trees is to water well at the DRIP LINE of the tree.  Watering at the base of the tree is a common misconception. The drip line (or where the major water-sucking roots exist) is located below the edges of the tree’s canopy.  You see, trees extend their most needy roots to reach where water from a rainfall will land as it drips off the tree’s outermost leaves.

 

 

 

There is so much more information and many more helpful hints on our website and if  you’re thinking about switching over or starting from scratch, I encourage you to give it a read.  Still not convinced?  Contact us and we’d be happy to help.

 

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“Sod off!”

keep-calm-and-sod-off-16I’ve started watching a new show on Netflix.  Suggested for me because I’m a devout Sherlock fan and watched the excellent, but gruesome, Hannibal series, was a show called Luther.  Being a British show, you get to hear some of their quirky lingo, some of which my Grandmother (born and raised in England) still uses today despite being a Canadian citizen for close to 50 years.

So last night after a day unpacking from a short summer vaca, picking the tomatoes that ripened while I was away, and hand-pollinating my corn, I sat down with some blueberry pie and resumed where I left off in Luther – episode three.

I’m half-way through the show when the head of the police department yells at Luther, the main character. “Sod off!” she says as he walks out the door.

And then it occurs to me. It’s time to overseed my lawn! And also, since when is yelling at someone about grass supposed to be threatening?  But that’s a debate for another day.

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Choosing Grass Seed

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An interesting look at the history of the lawn (I know, I know, interesting and lawn history in the same sentence seems, well, impossible. Trust me though, it’s a good read).

There is SO much choice out there today.  Years ago when the ‘lawn’ became a thing (see American Green for the details) there wasn’t much variety in either species or retailers.  Today, though, it can be daunting.

My advice: know your space, know yourself, and know the company.

Know Your Space
In short, this means the soil, sun, and moisture your area receives.  Use this to gauge the type of product you should be buying.  Some work well in only certain conditions while others are much more versatile.

Know Yourself
What do you want?  How much time do you have to devote to your lawn?  And then there are those pesky water rates (which are only increasing, by the way).  What kind of product are you looking for – something that looks great when the sod is rolled out and terrible when a typical summer drought swings by; or something long-term that has a better chance of survival during that same drought?

Know The Company
Who are you buying the seed from?  What guarantees can they make?  What do other people say about them?  Do they have a good reputation (environmentally, socially, etc)?  What other products do they sell (i.e. can you tell they’re making a conscious effort to be environmentally responsible throughout the company)?  Do your homework and take what you read on the Internet with a grain of salt – remember, anybody can say anything they want online.  Call the company and speak with someone about their products.  If no one answers, maybe take that as a sign.

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Here are a few things to consider:

1. Coated seed is just half the seed for a greater price.  You’re paying for half seed and half coating. (Psssttt, it doesn’t actually perform any better than non-coated seed).

2. Price matters…sometimes.  Look at the ingredients listed on the bag: if you’re paying a heck of a lot more for something the company calls, “Other”, put the bag back.  If you don’t know what’s in the bag, put it back.  Good grass seed should be all grass, no weeds and no filler.  A good quality grass seed will be a little pricier but you’re paying for the product, not stuff put in to make the bag look fuller.

3. Look for certification.  Yes, grass seed can be certified and this bounces right back to the price debate above.  Certified seed is more expensive but you’re paying for quality.  Certified seed undergoes yearly testing to determine germination rate and how well it performs under various circumstances.  If the germination rate is below 85%, the seed does not meet standards and will not be certified.  So when you buy certified, you buy quality and there are numbers on papers to prove it.

4. Don’t think you can’t switch over.  You may have a lawn now or you may not.  Your current lawn situation may be somewhat disheartening and it only gets worse when your water bill comes.  Don’t think you’re stuck with what you have – there are options!

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And now for the shameless Eco-Lawn plug…

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I’m not going to tell you it’s the best product out there because, as I said earlier, anyone can write anything on the Internet.  I am going to tell you that thousands of people across Canada and the US have been extremely happy with their Eco-Lawns.

These people enjoy less watering, green grass in August, and the extra time they have to do the things they really want to be doing because mowing the lawn every Saturday is not on their ‘to do’ list.

Eco-Lawn has a long list of benefits that range from your bank account to your watershed and repeat customers are more than happy to tell us they’ve converted their neighbours to Eco-Lawn just by growing it out front where it can be seen.

If you want the super short, ‘putting green’ lawn, Eco-Lawn is not for you.  If you want something sustainable, non-GMO, and low-maintenance that will save you time in mowing and money in watering and fertilizing, consider Eco-Lawn.  Or at least consider reading a bit more about it and about seed certification.

And, cut or uncut, it doesn’t look half bad.

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In the end, you will choose the product you believe is the best and I sincerely hope you are happy with your purchase, no matter what it is.

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