Saturday, July 30, 2011

Are Prairies Practical to the Average Joe?

I was at my cousin's house yesterday. He's on 5 acres that form a slight slope with the bottom being a slight wetland area. He mows his entire property in an hour or two with one of those professional-looking riding mowers but can't do the wetland area for various reasons. The ground is to uneven, some woody snags here and there, some of the plants while low growing form woody thickets, it floods and fills a small pond area after rainfall. I don't blame him for not wanting to mow but his idea is to let it go wild so it turns into a slight woodland. I'm not 100% behind that idea.

At least the Field side has a boat.
So I explored his property for an hour and at the end he asked me what I thought. My response, "Well you have a great view from the house, your neighbor's horses are pretty to watch, I love this wetland area and how it's just teaming with life, but the rest of your property bores the hell out me."

My cousin isn't into plants, he has no knowledge that natives are better than non, and I wasn't in the right company to explain otherwise. My dad was also walking with us and he has a habit of "correcting" me. Actually it's more like voicing the opinions of late night infomercials. It's the kind of logic that changes the dynamic of the conversation onto something else. For example he believes nothing in the world can grow without fertilizer. Want to grow something in the middle of the desert? Just dump some fertilizer and your tropical oasis will magically appear. He doesn't understand that a lot of plants love growing in conditions that aren't bursting with nitrogen. Anyhow...

The overall issue my cousin has is owning to much land. He wants to install an in-ground pool with hot tub that waterfalls into it, but at the same time he's thinking about getting a few horses. He might eventually put an addition on his home, will probably need a barn for the horses or whatever other livestock he plans on keeping, and at the same time knows nothing about managing so much land other than to mow the lawn. Plant wise, he's planted some saplings but doesn't know what half of them are. To top that off, towards the end of my visit, he said he has the money to fund any sort of projects or ideas I have about making low maintenance planting. 

For starters, before leavings I corrected him about a tree he thought highly of. He wanted a tree just like the one out front of his parent's home, and thought it was a Magnolia so he planted one. In actuality his parents have a Japanese Flowering Cherry, a double flowering one I think. So he was a little bummed about that.

That last part about wanting ideas for low maintenance planting really stuck with me on the ride home. The most obvious solution I think would be to install a Prairie seed mix but he has some nasty, evil looking weeds around his home!

Solanum sp.
I have no idea what this little vine is but I gasped when I saw those thorns coming out from under the leaf vanes. One dug into my finger pretty bad when I went down to touch it. I was really caught off guard about there being thorns under the leaves.

Solanum sp.

I really want to recommend my cousin plant a seed mix with a lot of forbs in it so doesn't just look like the side of his house. We'll explore that later. The thing holding me back though is the abundance of weeds like the one above around his property. Thistle and pokeweed are the least of his problems. There are so many types of thorn covered vines around I'd be afraid that they'd seed themselves into the mix from the wind and take over. The thing about managing a backyard prairie is mowing/haying can only suppress so many weeds, not everyone is open to the idea of burning, and asking to barrow the neighbor's cow just sounds silly. In short, I feel I should consult an expert before recommending this as an option.

The benefit to installing a prairie is he'd only have to mow it once a year, but still have to do the perimeter of his fence as well any open lawn areas. I'm certain he's open to the idea of setting fire to the yard, I'd say he's attempted to do that once or twice from the look of his fire pit. Considering he's in farm country maybe borrowing some livestock, or even charging them for the survive could be done too, but their hooves would tear up his property a bit. These are all fairly big jumps for the average person to make.

He didn't know what Milkweed was before today, and he has probably the prettiest specimen of Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed, I've ever seen growing in his wetland.

I wish I'd taken this picture at a slightly lower angle to take the focus off the grass behind the milkweed more.

It was just this one milkweed growing among this short grass. There were other Swamp Milkweeds about but this one stood out more than all the others.

It has a single stem, which I've never seen happen. And look how thick it is compared to my hand. The result was the thing being thicker than what the norm is all over the whole plant. All of the stems were engorged much thicker than they should be. It was enough to make me think twice about my ID. Other specimens in the wetland were more towards the norm though with multiple stems and closer looking to what most nurseries sell.

Pollinators were all over this thing. There were lots of Monarchs flying around but they were to busy having sex to be laying eggs it seemed. No caterpillars or nibbling at all, though I'm sure that'll change tomorrow.

Mist Flower, (The real one this time!) Eupatorium coelestinum, had a few patches here and there. I could see growing this for the sweeps of color their clumps offer.

What I think is Common Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, was also growing there. Normally I don't like bonesets but this one was more like a white flowering Joe Pye Weed (same genus).

A neat looking kind of Wild Mint, Mentha sp. I think, also caught my eye. There weren't a whole lot of pollinators around it, which is shocking for a mint plant! but there is a lot to be said about the form and pattern all the stems create.

They spread by rhizomes I'm sure.

Cloudless Sulphurs, Phoebis sennae, were dancing around some Purple Coneflowers. This wasn't in the wetland at all. He has these planted as part of the landscaping (... I suspect something the former owners put in).

Fritillaries were also flying about both in the wetland and up by the house. I suspect the abundance of thistle and other unnamed host plants around have been supporting the population.

So I'm left with the conclusion that if all this wonderful nature can grow around his house without any care at all, then despite the weeds it should be worth it to install a prairie. And if he hates that idea then I'll just tell him what to buy and where to plant it!