Friday, March 28, 2014

Prairie Garden Spring Maintenance

The dead growth in the Prairie Garden is removed each spring.  I used to do an occasional spring burn, but abandoned that management technique because of the potential threat to the overwintering pupae of the state endangered Unexpected Tiger Moth, Cycnia inopinatus.  Now I mow and lightly rake, which greatly reduces the threat to the pupae tucked away in the leaf litter at the base of their larval food plant, Butterflyweed.

Red flags act as warnings to use caution with the mower in certain areas.  I’ve learned not to trust myself to remember every little obstacle hidden in the tall grass.

The plants would grow even if I allowed this dead material to remain.  The reason for removing the top growth is to facilitate observation of the various growth stages of each species.  Getting to know the plants at different times of the year was my primary motivation for creating this garden.

Even though the grass looks impenetrable when viewed from a distance, it actually has many openings that allow sunlight down to low growing plants.

It only takes a few passes with the brush mower to get things cut down.

What’s left looks pretty brown.

A closer look reveals a lot of color being displayed by early season growth.

Western Sunflower, Helianthus occidentalis, begins growth early in the season.  Even though Western Sunflower will grow to a height of six feet or more, most of the leaves remain at ground level, so the plant must make full use of early season sunlight before it becomes shaded by neighboring plants.

This is Hairy Bittercress, a weedy non-native that I first found here about 20 years ago.  It is now everywhere around the yard.

Hairy Bittercress thrives in bare, disturbed earth.  Large ant mounds provide an ideal growing environment.  All of my yard mounds harbor this weed and the plant is beginning to show up on ant mounds in the fields.

Fortunately, most of the greenery in the prairie garden is due to growth of native species.  These are the basal leaves of Gray-headed Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata.

Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, is coming along nicely.  A morning low of 11 degrees doesn’t seem to have done any damage to the leaves.

The population of Round-podded St. Johnswort, Hypericum sphaerocarpum, keeps shifting its position around the garden.  Clumps of plants live for two or three years and then die.  There are always new plants coming up somewhere else to take their place.

Prairie Dock has hardly made it out of the ground, but something has already nipped off the first leaf.  Deer browse heavily on this plant in the early spring, but ignore it later on.  I imagine that more suitable forage becomes available as the season progresses.

I suspect this to be the work of an Eastern Cottontail.  There seems to be a rabbit’s nest in the garden every year.  Usually she digs up some plant that I’m particularly sorry to lose.


  1. Thanks for the Hairy Bittercress ID. I have tons in my yard each year and never got closer to an ID than Pennsylvania Bittercress, which wasn't quite right.

    Love your comment about rabbits,it's just what they do.

  2. Hi Sara. I'm glad the ID was helpful to you. I also had trouble pinning a name to this plant when I first saw it.