Awesome soil under big bluestem

WoodsTea 6a MO(6a)

Yesterday I planted a Viburnum dentatum in a back corner of the yard. I had transplanted a bunch of big bluestem into that area this spring as a place holder, and had to dig out some to make way for the shrub. Underneath was the best soil I have ever found it my yard: dark and crumbly. The shovel plunged into it with hardly any effort.

Besides the action of the bluestem roots, I think it's also the result of a layer of homemade compost I put down on it last fall, as well as a fairly rainy year that has kept that soil moist and I think has aided the process of humus formation.

That compost took so much effort in 2014 that I skipped it this year. The bulk of the browns in it were shredded oak leaves, then I made a deal with a local coffee shop and picked up five gallon buckets of coffee grounds, potato trimmings and eggshells every few days to add to it, turning it at least once a week until around July. After that I mostly left it alone except a turn or two when I had a cool morning free. At the end the volume of compost didn't seem like much compared to everything that had gone into it, which was a little discouraging although not unexpected.

Seeing that soil yesterday makes me think I might have a go at making compost again next year -- and that I'm going to plant more big bluestem.

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texasranger2

W. T. I ordered 8 more Big Bluestem 'Red October' from SRG. The one I planted last fall is in dry, poor soil and its standing stiffly vertical and tall, even the leaves are stiff and upright. In fact, I like it so much I ordered these 8. I'm hoping the soil doesn't get too rich because the ones I saw by a gas station in a prepared planting area are huge solid green plants with longer curved leaves and each plant is quite bushy.

I prefer the stiffness and color of the Red October(so far) and time will tell if they improve the soil or not. Not too much, I hope. My guess is the amendments you added has done more than the roots of the bluestem but the roots probably break it up and will make it less compacted over time.

The best looking little bluestem I see in the wild is growing out of sandstone outcroppings along the roads. Fact is, I imagine the only reason there is Bluestem growing at all there is because the soil was so poor as to be unplow-able so the bluestem was left in place. Sad state of affairs but that looks like the reason judging by what I see because wherever there is a large bank of red sandstone there is always L.B. growing like exclamation marks looking as happy as can be and like it belongs there. The richer soil was mostly taken up by farms or if abandoned is now choked with ugly alien grasses that have taken over. Compared to the native grasses, its tall, coarse, weedy and quite ugly.

I read that the selections of Little and Big Blue are made based on their ornamental features while the seed for those recommended for ranchers are selected based on nutritional values recommending them as the best kinds for forage. Interesting. Makes me feel a bit better using the ones sold for ornament. I can't believe how much diversity in form, height and color there is in the different types of Little Blue I'm growing. Its amazing.

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wantonamara Z8 CenTex

I think the range bluestem for ranchers also takes in the region and the ability to withstand foraging and trampling. I heard that often there is more diversity in the rancher mix. Often they are taken from a specific type of area. I know there are also conservation mixes that are collected in certain biological areas and they contain the most diversity but it would be attuned for a specific area. I think I am repeating myself

I am attracted to the Red October. I am thinking it might like the pocket of clay that has collected on one side of my shop. The soil is deeper there. Have SRG come down on price any? I need to wait because I am headed to New Mexico maybe and that would cause a complication. My sister might be blowing me off,....GRRRR so I might not be going. I guess I could go with someone else.

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wantonamara Z8 CenTex

oops, I missed it. SRG is all out. Darn it. Why didn't you tell me SRG lowered it to $4? I know, I know. not your job.

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texasranger2

Plants just arrived. Nice, robust, one foot tall plants with good roots, thick top growth with some tinges of burgundy, they were packed well as usual. They had a special fall planting sale coupon for 25% off along with that $4.99 price last week. There were about 85 plants available when I ordered a week or so ago, with the extra markdown I bet plants went quick. I called to add 2 more plants to my order, Jude answered and said its been a very popular seller when I told her how much I liked it. The one I planted last year has such deeply purple tall stems that they almost appear black right now and it contrasts nicely against a tall type of powder blue little bluestem growing close by, I'm adding three more plants to go with it. They are supposed to turn bright red later on. I'm hoping to get some strong vertical with red in a couple of group plantings, the second grouping will be in front of three large 'Northwind' switchgrass plants --- reddish in front of olive green with yellow seed heads.

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WoodsTea 6a MO(6a)

The big bluestem I have is from one of the local native nurseries, not a specific cultivar. Big bluestem is quite happy in fairly rich mesic-to-dry soil (a mollisol like we have in my area) as long as it gets lots of sun. I don't think it generally works too well spaced out in amended soil -- it's not really one of those things that looks best as a big graceful giant clump like Miscanthus. Better to have drifts of it interplanted with a lot of other stuff so that there is plenty of competition and each plant's growth is restricted and slower.

Unfortunately I don't really have the space for such a thing. Where I've got it planted now I will eventually have shrubs (spicebush, viburnum, witch hazel) that can provide more year-round screening from the neighbors in back and that will appreciate being near the rain garden.

I think of big bluestem as a real big sky kind of plant. In October I like to visit a certain prairie out in central Missouri to look for my favorite flower, downy gentian. I love being out there on a big sweep of treeless hillside and seeing sunlit big bluestem against a brilliant blue fall sky, with the wind-rustle of dry grass all around.



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texasranger2

There is a filling station with an ornamental garden island area in front that has about 9 big bluestem in the middle part. They are planted in a straight row. I imagine its filled with typical garden soil like contractors typically put in for planted areas. The plants are very big, medium green and IMO kind of weedy looking compared to most ornamental grasses. I'd describe them as plain, boring looking, solid green grass with untamed, rather thick long curved leaves all summer. Its definitely not something that would make me run out and buy some and the only reason I noticed it and clued in that its big blue is because last fall I noticed the seed heads, otherwise it was nondescript all summer. The big blue I've seen in fields looks 100% better than these plants artificially grown as a row of ornamental clumps because like you describe, its the open sky effect in fall when you notice the towering stems and the grass is putting on its show.

The Red October BBS I tried out last fall down on the strip had very stiff leaves that don't curve and they've shown some red all summer, otherwise they are very deep green with beefy looking leaves about 6 to 8" long. Now they are really coloring up and the stems are dark, very bold and stiff rising perfectly vertical above the low growing stiff leaves at the base. Maybe its a combination of this particular cultivar along with the fact that it is in dry lean soil but I really like the looks of it especially growing alongside with that unknown little bluestem type I got seeds of from the museum here. Its easily as tall as the big blue and is very light powdery blue. It doesn't look like any other bluestem I have, the exceptionally tall bloom stems have longish stiff pointed leaves running up the sides of them and the light color is dramatic. Some have stems that want to lodge a bit and I break those unruly ones off at the base. I'm experimenting with them in this dry lean area, I'd expect these tall LBS would lodge badly in good garden soil.

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WoodsTea 6a MO(6a)

TR, heading a little off topic here, but do you see much variation in the leaf width on your various little bluestems? I've got a couple I put in this year whose leaves are noticeably thicker than my other LBs. At first I wasn't sure they had been labeled correctly. Previously I had always seen it with very fine-textured foliage.

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texasranger2

WT, I have some that have very thin leaves and others with thicker leaves. Some have shorter leaves and others longer leaves, the length can vary a lot I'm noticing.

The volunteers that came up from Blue Heaven seeds seem to be two distinct types. Some look exactly like the Blue Heaven plants I bought from SRG which means deeper green, thicker leaves which are also shorter which turn almost turquoise in summer, then they send up red stems that have delicate seeds which are spaced out far apart compared to other types. The other type have longer leaves, most are bluer, but some are greener in color and they put out a different looking seed stalk -- there are more stems per plant and the stems are closer together, are taller & earlier, they bloomed a month sooner in fact. Some tended to flop later on after being upright while others stay upright but we had such a wet spring that might be a factor. Most have stayed upright.

Some volunteers from The Blues have very thin leaves but most look like the parent plants and all are blue (but not anywhere near as blue as that unknown type I got seeds of from the plants growing at the museum). Those differ only slightly from one to the next, every now and then there is a greener one Most of 'The Blues' are flopping now but not what you'd call lodging, its like the weight of the tops is too much for the stems so they sort of lean somewhat.

I'm confused on some of mine. I planted some seed and I now have no idea which kind it was or where it came from. You start getting confused after a while on which is which.

The 5 Los Lunas BS plants I ordered from High Country Gardens don't look anything like the pictures on the website. They are quite tall, about 4ft or a bit more, they bloomed early and are now lodging pretty badly. I plan to move them to a different spot but then I start to think all that early rain is partly to blame. Everything grew so fast early on and these bloomed the earliest of all, as early as July.

I noticed the earlier a bluestem plant blooms, the taller it gets and the more likely it is to flop. Gravity only lets them get so tall I imagine. Some plants that are side by side will bloom at different times so the location doesn't seem to factor in and I wonder if they are varying because they are seedlings from the plants I bought so they are showing different genetic qualities?

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Deep Eddy West

All very interesting about the volunteers... OOps this is me Watonamarra but I guess I am showing up on hes Houzz moniker. I am on his computer.

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WoodsTea 6a MO(6a)

I would think that even if you assume the little bluestem volunteers are sprouting from seed that's dropped from the closest plants, they potentially could be pollinated by any of the other LBs in the area.

The prospect of managing this (sourcing, selecting) over a period of many years is fascinating to me. There is something about buying named cultivars that I'm not 100% excited about. I think it's the idea of replicating the same genetics everywhere (e.g. 'Karl Foerster'). It seems like a bad idea ecologically. But if you've got multiple, non-sterile named cultivars, plus some others that have been sourced locally, over the years these will combine and give you a more diverse population that you can select your favorites from.

I would definitely order some Schizachyrium scoparium 'texasranger2' if you ever get to that.

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wisconsitom(Zone 4/5)

Absolutely agree with your sentiments re: cultivar use only, Woods. I take that into the area of trees too....we should be working with more seed-grown stuff, not strictly grafted or vegetatively derived stuff. Great point, and one which needs to be heard more often.

+oM

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texasranger2

Thats just crap. If I was attempting to establish a meadow or prairie on an acreage or planting grasses for forage, I'd order PLS of a local genotype and rent a seeding machine. As it is, the marketed grasses selected for form, color and ornamental features such as resistance to flopping, is a better choice for a city landscape IMO. I want to keep the place looking neat. well planned and visually attractive. This is a challenge to do when working on a pocket prairie on an inner urban small yard. Its very easy to end up with a wild looking, overgrown mess that will bring the neighborhood down on a persons head with fines.

As far as ecological factors go, my little area (an urban yard mind you) isn't much of a drop in the ocean in the bigger picture so I refuse to feel guilty or inferior on the Native Plant Scale of Purity no matter how often that needs to be heard. The yard in question is water-wise, requires no fertilizers running downhill into the stream down in the park like the rest of the block nor does it contribute to environmental pollution due to gas powered lawnmowers like most yards around here do.

If I planted the local genotype switchgrass from seed collected as opposed to ones like 'Northwind' or 'Heavy Metal' which can only be grown from division and do not come true from seed, I'd have clumps that are gigantic by now. I love seeing them on the side of the road but unfortunately I do not have the space.

The Blue Grama marketed under the name 'Blonde Ambition' was a chance discovery as many grasses being marketed are. It wasn't discovered right here in Oklahoma but its still native grass and so are the big and little bluestem grasses I'm growing. I bought some of these plants as opposed to seed, possibly to my discredit.

The bluestem grass sold by nursery's under the commercial name 'Blaze' is one and the same as the Aldous variety which is also sold as PLS seed. Originally seed for this named type was collected in The Flint Hills of Kansas and was released by the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station in 1966. Personally I have no problem with that. Similarly I have no problem with the two grass varieties I purchased that were tested developed and marketed by the Los Lunas Plant Materials Center and I find their efforts admirable in both cases.

We have discussed this viewpoint before. I really cannot see the sense in being a slave to the idea of planting only local genotypes from collected seed born out of some kind of self imposed discipline in the quest for purity. It seems utterly ridiculous to stubbornly attempt that considering the reality is, the landscape I create is not natural by any stretch of the imagination even if it was all grown from seed sowed by myself.

Making this idea seem even more ludicrous, the Trugreen truck was parked right across the street yesterday spraying the neighbor's lawn like they do every year and there was some other truck up the street doing the same along with everyones sprinklers going full blast to keep the lawn grass green here since we have been dry for a month now.

BTW, Karl Forester is a non native grass. In any event, I seriously doubt it is being replicated 'everywhere' to the point of making it a bad idea ecologically speaking, even if it is popular and agreeably overused in landscaping when natives would be more refreshing to see. On that note, Miscanthus bothers me a lot more than KF.

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WoodsTea 6a MO(6a)

Right, I completely agree with you about the different situation in urban yards, as we have discussed previously. I'm slowly coming around on it.

My yard certainly has plenty of examples of seed-grown prairie plants with bad form (especially grasses: big bluestem, switchgrass, sideoats grama). Some of this is because I'm putting short and midgrass prairie plants into a too rich/moist site, but I can also see that certain named cultivars in the same conditions are clearly outperforming them.

Thinking about it just now I realize that as much as the ecology concern, it's also about a distaste for mass consumerism. I really like the way 'Karl Foerster' looks - it's not really too different from that 'Thin Man' Indian grass you like (except the color). I just hate how I see it everywhere. It reminds me of how every Kansas yard in the 80s seemed to have the same combo of barberry, yew, and golden euonymus. That being said, most of these cultivars of native plants that we discuss, even popular ones like 'Blonde Ambition', aren't very common in my area yet. I almost never see them except in public/commercial settings. Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah' is probably the one I see the most.

Next spring I plan to bring in more proven cultivars and focus more on form. Still, I like to think that in the long term I can work in seed-grown plants and make my own selections.

I'd also like to build my own furniture, but I might not ever get around to that.


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WoodsTea 6a MO(6a)

Maybe it's just a type of snobbery, like I want to have a yard that's more native than anyone else's. If so I need to get over it.

Several times this year I have had a cart going at SRG with stuff like Carex 'Prairie Fire' or Penstemon digitalis 'Dark Towers', but then I balk before I finish the purchase.

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texasranger2

WoodsTea, personally I'm cheering the fact that natives are being mass marketed -- improved, named or otherwise--- I don't care. Its long overdue but best of all it gives average Joe and Jane Doe the Good Housekeeping seal of approval which a lot of people seem to need in order to feel they are planting accepted landscaping choices and safely following the pack. This introduces natives to mass consumers which is ecologically positive.

It also goes a long way in reversing the prejudicial notion of many native plants being considered undesirable weeds which must be sprayed and seeing them unfit as legitimate and even attractive garden choices. Its a good trend which I hope keeps up, I don't give a damn what stupid names they choose to tack onto them or how they market them as long as the trend keeps bending in this general direction.

I also appreciate being able to finally purchase them rather than stalking the roadsides with cars whizzing past me or taking a chance of trespassing and getting in trouble or (my favorite) being lectured against collecting from the wild by someone here, which I might add, has happened to me on GW more than once.

It won't bother me one single bit to see little bluestem, big bluestem, gama grasses or indian grass and various natives hitting the shelves and online nurseries and being over planted in a frenzy of mass consumerism to the point of over-kill.

I love the Prairie Fire carex. I ordered 12 plants last fall and they look fabulous in my single consistently wet area in the courtyard where the air conditioner drains. I got chastised on a wildlife forum a couple years ago since that water source was not 'natural' and it didn't count. OK, sue me for cheating.

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texasranger2

Here is a good example of what happens with these grasses we are seeing show up. You get a common native grass like seep muhly and you add on a really catchy and descriptive name conjuring up romantic thought and images like 'Autumn Glow' or 'Undaunted Ruby'. Those names are strictly for marketing purposes but its still just plain ole wild native Seep Muhly aka Muhlenbergia riverchonii no matter what name they choose to call it or how its marketed. How many people will fork out cash for Seep Muhly compared to the number of people who will buy 'Autumn Glow'? For some reason they first marketed it as 'Autumn Glow' but then a couple years later it was changed to 'Undaunted Ruby'. I might add, my Seep Muhly was daunted this spring with all the rain and its looked pretty punk the whole year, its ability for autumn glowing is also affected but I think they will pull through.

Seep Muhly Grass

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WoodsTea 6a MO(6a)

I put three of those in this summer after seeing it in your hell strip pictures, btw. They're in one of the hottest locations in my yard, interested to see how they perform next year.

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texasranger2

I like this site and check in regularly to see how the different grasses perform. This is where I initially got interested in S. scoparium 'Blue Heaven'.

Concerning S. nutans 'Thin Man' there isn't anything online to check but time will tell how vertical and upright it actually is. I'll believe it when I see it with the 3 I ordered from HCG, I hesitated but in the end decided to take the chance.

There have been several types of grasses and other natives I've tried and then culled out as not really adding much to the overall for different reasons.

From what I can tell, Big Bluestem is fairly new to the native grass market as plants recommended for ornamental purposes. If I was just looking at the local ones growing wild around here it would not be on my list of grasses to add because of space restrictions and ornamental qualities. That one I bought last year was purchased as an experiment and compared to the ones I mentioned which are growing at the filling station, there is enough difference for me to personally prefer 'Red October'. The trials showed the bluer ones like 'Lord Snowden' don't have the intense red coloring that the deeper green ones have. I am needing some red for contrast against other colors. I have learned by trial and error its the contrast in color and textures that makes this kind of landscape work or not work. You have to learn to mix plants well and make careful choices.

For behavior, form, color and just good looks Panicum 'Northwind' would be hard to beat. I really like all the variation of switch grasses offered.


hthttp://grasstrials.com/posts/page/5/tp://grasstrials.com/

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texasranger2

Hmm, don't know why that last link failed. I'm trying again.



http://grasstrials.com/posts/page/5/

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