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Archive for June 25th, 2009

Before I begin today’s topic, I just want to post another Bouquet You Can Only Have if You Are a Gardener:

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I picked this in about five minutes wandering around the place today.   I did not pick any of the lilies or day lilies that are blooming right now, so this is an excerpt of the news of the day.   This particular bouquet consists of zinnias, three kinds of echinacea, crocosmia (the red branch), liatris, coral bells, three colors of yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, and a frond of lady fern.  There’s plenty else going on out there, I just stopped when I had a nice vaseful.

So, the question on the floor is, “Why would you restore a prairie?”   What is so great about it, and why would one go to all the trouble and expense to do it, anyway?   When we went to visit our friend who lives in Wisconsin and is going about restoring 4.5 acres of medium/tall grass prairie savannah, I posted about the process a bit.

I am a member of the Missouri Prairie Foundation.   I have become disenchanted with the large “conservation” organizations, who seem to take the money you send them and use it to pay lobbyists (who apparently aren’t very effective, considering we still have aerial wolf hunting, etc.) and buy more mailings to ask for more money.  So a few years ago I was looking for an organization where the money I sent would actually be used to accomplish something.   I came across this group at a plant sale, and once I checked them out I knew I had found a charity I could donate to wholeheartedly.

So, the big question is, why would you care about prairie anyway?  What is so great about it?   And why isn’t an overgrown field or a suburban garden just as good?

The answer to those questions lies in one word:  biodiversity.

A suburban garden is quite often a very beautiful place, with gorgeous flowers, beautiful trees, and healthy shrubs.  An overgrown hayfield has lots of grass and some flowers, it looks verdant and like a great place for wildlife to live.   Up to a point, this is true.

But an overgrown hayfield is usually one, maybe two kinds of grass interspersed with a few tall weeds like fleabane, daisies, and horsenettle.  And an ordinary suburban garden looks for all the world like a colorful desert to the native herbivores that make up the main meal dish for many birds.   The herbivores are the bottom of the food chain, and if they aren’t there, the food chain isn’t either.

We gardeners are not always kind to the herbivores in our gardens.   After all, WE want the plants to look beautiful, and one thing a garden herbivore does is eat holes in the plants.   Sometimes they eat the whole plant.

When I got my latest Prairie Journal, they had some wonderful articles about how to establish a native plant garden.   There was a side bar in the article that I found to be so interesting, I am going to quote it extensively.  It explains much better than I can why we should care.

“The table below provides hard data that show how important native species are as host plants for butterfly and moth larvae, which are in turn important pollinators and food for birds and other animals.

Native landscaping advocate Dave Tylka prepared the table by selection data from extensive lists prepared by Dr. Doug Tallamy and K. HJ. Shropshire.   Tallamy, who is professor and chair of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, is also author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.  . . .Tallamy and Shropshire chose Lepidoptera as surrogates for all insect herbivores for two reasons.   Published host plant records for this group of herbivores, though far from definitive, are more complete than are host records for other insect herbivores.  Moreover, lepidopteran larvae (caterpillars) are disproportionately valuable sources of food for many terrestrial birds, particularly warblers and neotropical migrants of conservation concern.   Tallamy and Shropshire restricted their focus to moths and butterflies that develop on plant genera occurring naturally or planted ornamentally in the mid-Atlantic region of North America.”

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All of a sudden I like goldenrod a lot better.  I still love hostas even though they aren’t much use to the native butterflies and moths.

Another question is,”Why is a prairie so much better than an overgrown field?”   There are some wonderful photos on the National Geographic site of prairie grass with 10 foot long roots. Typically, hay field grasses are not nearly so deeply rooted, so they are not as drought tolerant as the native species and they also do not hold the soil as well.  Soil erosion is a major problem world wide, and it is in our own best interests to keep it to a minimum.

There is another issue as well.   Imagine your lawn grown tall.   That is the way an overgrown field typically will look.  This is an overgrown field:

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Now observe this photo of the prairie as it grows.

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Notice that there are spaces between the forbs (flowering plants) and the bunch grasses.  When the prairie grasses get bigger, the bunch enlarges but the grasses sort of cascade around the bunch and there are spaces down under there.

Now imagine that you are a baby quail or prairie chicken.   When you are newborn, you are a precocial bird, which means you must run around and forage for your own food (like a chick or a duckling) rather than waiting in the nest for your parents to bring it (like a robin).   Granted, you are still under the supervision of your parents, but you have to get out there and find your dinner yourself.   You are approximately the size of the end of an adult human’s thumb, with legs the size of toothpicks.  The closely packed grasses of a hayfield are almost impossible for you to fight your way through in your quest for food.  Additionally, when dew falls, if the grasses are packed together you will become wet and die of hypothermia and/or drowning. In a prairie, there are spaces for you to get between the grasses as you hunt and you can shelter under the overhanging grasses to stay dry when the dew falls.

Again, the story is all about biodiversity and how to promote it, with a strong dose of understanding how to keep soils healthy and protect them from erosion.  That is why in my opinion it is worth maintaining the prairies we do have and, wherever possible, increasing the extent of the prairie ecosystem.

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