“Nature is always sitting there waiting to help us, but we have to do the work. Nature is probably the greatest teacher we’ll ever have … the earth and nature.” ~ Dave Davies
Where The Deer and Fungi Play
As the hot, steamy Summer 2019 droned on, visions of pocket prairie danced in my head. Two months went by with very little rainfall, an empty slate of a prairie staring back at me through the cool of indoors. It would have to sit. I committed to Texas Master Naturalist training, and it was simply too hot and dry to plant anything.
Both the prairie and I would have to be patient for a little while.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
‘Brown’ Cover (Aug – Sept)
A recommendation by the Katy Prairie Conservancy to use 6-mil plastic film was a good one. From May on, we had at least one deer family (doe, twin fawns) run through daily, occasionally the whole hoofin’ herd. Thick plastic withstood all the frolicking right up until the 9th week of daily UV bombardment when it started to crack and curl. That’s when we knew it was time to take it all up and move on to the next phase. The grass was as cooked as it was ever going to be.
Twin Yard Fawns of 2019
You may be familiar with a key principle of soil conservation: Nature abhors a vacuum. Covering the soil is so very important after killing grasses. Open soil wants to have something growing in it, and mulch simply slows that process down significantly. To be sure, grasses — the most resilient plants on the planet — will always be trying to make a comeback.
The process of stock-piling a variety of grasses and forbs in one-gallon containers began straight away. Natives were sourced by individuals or native plant nurseries (run by Texas Master Naturalists no less!). Coastal prairie natives are not available in big garden stores; any plant labeled Texas Native may be native to some other region of Texas but not the unique and imperiled coastal prairie ecoregion. Buyers, beware.
While we waited for planting day, any emerging grasses were to be removed with a fork-spade. The entire plant would have to go, stolons, root nodules and all. These were mostly sedge, but occasionally a bermuda popped up as well. Luckily, St. Augustine, a shallow-growing turf, was easily killed with the power of the sun.
Very few grasses popped up at all, a testament to good ground cover.
Around the septic system rotors, however, saprophytic fungi were abundant and reliable. These are fungi species who break down the carbon-based material (chipped trees) we placed as mulch. They had plenty of work to do, and lots of carbon to munch!
Cute Little Umbrellas
Post-sporelate ‘Cat Vomit’ Fungi
But it’s not just the decomposers we want. The mycorrhizal fungi is there too, laying in wait for new plant roots to colonize. Once the fungi-root relationship is reestablished, that’s when we’ll see Nature’s magic for all that it is.
Planting – One Gallon Starts
Tropical storm Imelda came and went, leaving us the gift of a giant wheelbarrow full of rainwater, caught in a short gully-washer. Rainfall is what healthy soil desires, not tap water from the hose. Rain contains all the nitrogen plants need, none of the added salts that microbes loathe.
A $100 waterfall pump is a convenient tool; just submerse it in the water, run the extension cord, then plug it in whenever you want water on demand.
Rainwater Harvest and Submersible Pump
Positioning Plants, Removing Mulch
Round 1 Planting 10/3/2019
Once materials were staged, it took all of an hour for just one person (me) to plant a dozen one-gallon pots. The clay soil broke up easily using the spade-fork, turf detritus and added organics working in tandem to do what we might call ‘the hard work.’
I prefer the fork-spade over a shovel, a kinder alternative. In my experience, earthworms don’t regenerate when they are cut in half; they die. Mama Nature — through living soil beings — does the job of soil repair so much better, so much more efficiently than I could ever do. Mechanical aeration with a machine is even worse; not only does it burn gas and hurt your ears, it wipes out all your soil beings in one fell swoop. If your goal is healthy soil to promote healthy plants, don’t do that.
The second planting a month later had far more plants, but two people (my husband and I) made the chore go faster, one with the hole-making, the other with the planting/mulching.
Note to self: two people working in tandem on a sunny day is faster and much more fun.
40 More Pots, Repeat Planting
Round 2 Planting 11/3/2019
Getting the big grasses established over the winter is the main reason for planting starts rather than seeding the whole prairie. Some forbs — wildflowers — are planted among them so that the prairie looks pretty quickly, for my neighbors’ benefit.
The mulch keeps carbon readily available for microbes, in addition to keeping the once-invasive grasses (St. Augustine, Bermuda, Sedges) from providing unnecessary competition. As the grasses grow, the mulch breaks down, leaving a shaded prairie where invasive grasses have a difficult time coming back.
- Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
- Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
- Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides)
For the rest of the work, I’ll be on my knees.
Planting a prairie entirely with starts would break my small budget. At $5-8 per pot, I limited myself to, at most, 50 pots on the large plot. The rest would be seeded. Without a mechanical seeder or ‘seed drill,’ this chore will be done by hand.
Native American Seed Company offers a fine coastal prairie mix. It didn’t have all the forbs I wanted, but I could make up what was lacking by collecting seed from local native prairies, planting in between.
Coastal Prairie Mix
But you can’t expect seeds to sprout unless they make contact with the soil. The 4″ cover of mulch must be moved aside. I did this by making little soil ‘crater pocks’ staggered every three feet, the mulch stacked a little higher in between each plot. Extra mulch is piled right nearby, ready to be placed back as needed, as the seedlings get taller and more established. You want to keep the soil covered as much as possible.
(I like to much three times as seedlings grow. You can read about my process here.)
Mulch Pushed Aside
1 foot Diameter
Patted Down, Not Buried 10/3/2019
Seedlings Coming Up
The Makings of a Prairie