Prairie Plants for Clay

Prairie Plants for Clay

Part of Ep. 1903 Plants For Clay & A Garden That Rocks

Wisconsin is "blessed" with lots of clay soil.  It's high in fertility and retains moisture well, but not all plants thrive in it. We visit the UW Green Bay campus where Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery shows us a group of prairie plants that just love clay.

Premiere date: May 11, 2011

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley Ryan:
This is compass plant.  It’s a great prairie plant if you have clay soils.  I’m at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay.  I’m with Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery.  Neil, you planted this entire prairie on clay and it’s quite old, right? 

Neil Diboll:
1980. 

:
So this a mature prairie. 

Neil Diboll:
Yes. 

Shelley Ryan:
Well, clay is an issue for so many of us gardeners, including myself.  Why is clay such a problem? 

Neil Diboll:
Clay is a problem, because the soil particles in clay are very fine and they pack very close together.  So there’s very little room between those particles for air and moisture. 

Shelley Ryan:
And plants need air. 

Neil Diboll:
Plants need air, even the roots.  You know you don’t think of plants and carbon dioxide but the roots need oxygen and they need water.  If you have a tightly packed clay the water can’t get down through it and the air can’t get through it, so the roots can’t breathe and they can’t get water. 

Shelley Ryan:
So they rot. 

Neil Diboll:
They rot or they just don’t make it because it. 

Shelley Ryan:
They just shrivel up and die. 

Neil Diboll:
Exactly. 

Shelley Ryan:
You’ve got an example of what the clay looks like here in fact. 

Neil Diboll:
Yes, these are the soils originally here.  You can see this is the subsoil.  It’s a clay. 

Shelley Ryan:
That’s the clay. 

Neil Diboll:
When I planted this prairie 30 years ago, there was a little bit of topsoil.  You can see this darker range here.  There was four or five inches of topsoil.  But this has all been added by the prairie roots in the last 30 years. 

Shelley Ryan:
The prairie plants actually improved the soil, right here. 

Neil Diboll:
Exactly, because of the extensive root systems of the prairie.  The prairie grasses, you have roots that can go four, five, six or even eight feet deep.  Some of the flowers, like the compass plant, can go ten feet deep or deeper.  They just bust through that clay, and every year they just add a little more organic matter through their root systems. 

Shelley Ryan:
That’s why the early settlers loved farming on old prairies. 
Neil Diboll:
Because it had this incredibly rich soil. 

Shelley Ryan:
Top soil. 

Neil Diboll:
With all this organic matter and topsoil, they got bumper crops without adding any fertilizer. 

Shelley Ryan:
Well, you called this kind of a clay buster.  Let’s talk about some of the other ones then that, as gardeners, we don’t have to-- As we talk about these, tell us which ones are not just good for prairies, but also maybe just in a garden setting. 

Neil Diboll:
Sure, absolutely.  Another plant that’s closely related to the compass plant is called prairie dock. 

Shelley Ryan:
Oh, I love that one. 

Neil Diboll:
It’s a beautiful plant.  Similar flowers with these huge leaves that can get up to three feet tall.  They look like big elephant ears and they’re real raspy. 

Shelley Ryan:
They sound like sandpaper when you rub them. 

Neil Diboll:
Exactly, or when they blow in the wind.  Absolutely. 

Shelley Ryan:
Those are both Silphiums, right? 

Neil Diboll:
Yes, Silphium laciniatum and Silphium terebinthinaceum. 

Shelley Ryan:
Both of those would work in a garden setting as well as a prairie. 

Neil Diboll:
Yes, they’re very well behaved.  Some of these plants are well behaved in the garden, some of them are better for the meadow. 

Shelley Ryan:
Warn us when we get to those. 

Neil Diboll:
Absolutely. 

Shelley Ryan:
Behind you, you’ve got one of my favorites. 

Neil Diboll:
This is bergamot.  This is in the mint family.  Actually the leaves of the bergamot are used to flavor Earl Grey tea. 

Shelley Ryan:
Oh, that’s right, one of my favorites. 

Neil Diboll:
The flowers are absolutely gorgeous.  What also is nice, they’re deer proof cause deer don’t like mints. 

Shelley Ryan:
Really?  I didn’t realize that. 

Neil Diboll:
When the flowers are gone, they have these beautiful, architecturally beautiful seed heads that make great dried arrangements. 

Shelley Ryan:
So whether it’s in a dried arrangement or sitting out in the back yard, it’s interesting. 

Neil Diboll:
Absolutely. 

Shelley Ryan:
One of my favorite grasses of all times. 

Neil Diboll:
Big bluestem.  This is the classic prairie grass.  This was the grass that gets eight or nine feet tall.  Sometimes it’s called turkey foot because you see it has this three pronged. 

Shelley Ryan:
It looks like a turkey foot. 

Neil Diboll:
Looks like a turkey foot.  You can see, notice it’s blooming.  Most people don’t think of grasses as flowering.  But in fact they are flowering plants. 

Shelley Ryan:
This one is flowering. 
Neil Diboll:
But they’re just reduced.  You can see here are the male stamens now distributing their pollen. 

Shelley Ryan:
Again you get the beautiful blue color of the stems which I just think is lovely.  But again for winter interest, this thing can handle most snow, up to the real heavy snow. 

Neil Diboll:
Yeah, it will turn this beautiful bronze.  You can there’s a little precursor here.  In it’s fall color in October, after the first hard freeze, it will turn a really nice bronzish red.  It will stand up until you get a heavy snow. 

Shelley Ryan:
As delicate as it is, clay is okay? 

Neil Diboll:
It loves clay. 

Shelley Ryan:
Cool.  That makes me happy.  What about this? 

Neil Diboll:
This is ox eye sunflower.  This a great plant for the prairie meadow.  But as it’s says on it’s report card, does not play well with others. 

Shelley Ryan:
Ah, okay. 

Neil Diboll:
It tends to self sow, so this is not a plant we would use in the garden. 

Shelley Ryan:
Too agressive. 

Neil Diboll:
Exactly.  Because it will come up everywhere.  But if you put it in a meadow in limited quantities along with many other species, then it’s just fine. 

Shelley Ryan:
So it needs competition basically. 

Neil Diboll:
It needs competition, exactly. 

Shelley Ryan:
Then you’ve got a taller yellow one. 
Neil Diboll:
Yes, a close relative.  This is the yellow coneflower, Ratibida pinnata.  You see here it’s in the bloom stage.  Here it’s just starting to open.  And here it’s going in to seed.  It’s sometime called gray headed coneflower and you can see here the old man starting to go bald with his gray head. 

Shelley Ryan:
Let me see that.  I never heard it described that way.  That’s great.  Now I think this is the one I see the gold finches on all the time too in the fall. 

Neil Diboll:
Gold finches will eat these seeds as well as many of the other seeds.  You know, a lot of people think of birds just eating seeds, but more importantly, the number one food of baby birds, as well as many adult songbirds, are insects.  The prairie is unsurpassed at attracting insects. 

Shelley Ryan:
So, plant prairie plants, you going to get birds and baby birds and insects and everybody’s going to be happy and eat lunch. 

Neil Diboll:
And butterflies and dragonflies, and all kind of beautiful birds. 

Shelley Ryan:
Hummingbirds? 

Neil Diboll:
Hummingbirds as well.  Absolutely. 

Shelley Ryan:
Okay, another one of my absolutely favorite plants is right there. 

Neil Diboll:
Yes, the rattle snake master? 

Shelley Ryan:
Eryngium yuccifolium.  I love that name. 

Neil Diboll:
Isn’t that a great name?  It says rattle snake master.  People say well does it attract rattle snakes?  Well, we have almost no rattle snakes in Wisconsin.  In the southwestern part of the state a few.  But the root was brewed as a tea and was used as an antidote for rattle snake bite by Native Americans. 

Shelley Ryan:
See now I’d heard that they called it that because the early settlers thought as they went over the plant in their covered wagons, the sound sounded like the rattle snake tail.  That’s the story I heard and I’m sticking to it.  Now you’ve got another area over here where it’s really sinking.  And you’ve got, it look like culver’s root in there. 

Neil Diboll:
Yes.  This is a swale area and it’s a moisture area.  The culver’s root likes a little bit moister soil.  In fact, 20 years ago, 10 years after this was planted, there was no culver’s root in there. 

Shelley Ryan:
Really? 

Neil Diboll:
I planted everything here from seed.  I distributed all the different species evenly.  Rather than trying to second guess where they were going to grow, I said look just plant them and let them figure it out.  It took 10 years for the culver’s root to show up. 

Shelley Ryan:
And it showed up where it’s happiest in the low area where the moisture is. 

Neil Diboll:
Exactly, and right above that, you can see more bergamot, which will also take quite a bit of moisture, but in this situation it’s a little bit better situated on the slightly upland areas above the moist soil. 

Shelley Ryan:
Hey, Neil, this is great.  Some of these are going to look great in my prairie and others are going to look great in my garden beds, and in clay.  Thank you. 

Neil Diboll:
Thank you. 

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