PLANTING THE FOOD PRAIRIES

This post is part 2 of 2 of a series where I reflect on our food prairie design and planting in the Sprout garden.  I hope it inspires you.

18 APRIL | TUESDAY PRE-CLASS 7:30–9:20 Am

The blank slate of the food prairies!  How exciting!  

The blank slate of the food prairies!  How exciting!  

I arrived the morning of planting at 7:30 am to set up for my Herbaceous Plants class that would help to install the food prairies as part of their class project.  Hunter, one of my incredible student apprentices, prepped the food prairie beds the week before.  He had cleared them of any debris and small weeds, broadforked them, and then leveled them.  They looked fresh and ripe for planting in the glow of sunrise.

The first task I tackled was to mark and string the boundaries for our planting grid in the prairies.  The inspiration for this tactic was a photo I saw online of one of Piet Oudolf's installations where a massive grid system was laid on the ground.  In Illustrator, I had overlaid the students' design with a grid that partitioned each food prairie into eight 4' × 4.25' quadrants and then printed each species layer.  This paper grid would correspond with the one I was hammering into the ground to simplify plant placement for the students.  I printed several of these so that the students could use them as guides.  I installed stakes to mark the intersecting lines and used twine to demarcate the boundaries of our quads.  John and Rock, two other amazing student apprentices, arrived just in time to help with the stakes and string.  We outlined two of the four prairies for a demo before it was time for class to start.  I had students in class help on the other two.  

 
The food prairie design for the structural layer (plants listed above the design) and seasonal filler layer (plants listed below the design) is a kaleidoscope of color.  Here the four quadrants separated by thick black lines are shown together instead of as their separate beds for ease.  Circles approximate—and let me stress approximate as some species will spread—the final plant size.   

The food prairie design for the structural layer (plants listed above the design) and seasonal filler layer (plants listed below the design) is a kaleidoscope of color.  Here the four quadrants separated by thick black lines are shown together instead of as their separate beds for ease.  Circles approximate—and let me stress approximate as some species will spread—the final plant size.   

 

The other thing I did before students arrived was place stakes with species names on them in the garden.  That way, when students brought the trays up to the garden, they could put each species in its corresponding place.  The labels helped us be very organized as I knew trouble finding small plants or accidentally grabbing the wrong plant could cause chaos.


18 APRIL | TUESDAY CLASS 9:30–10:20 am

I knew it would rain.  I had been planning the food prairie install for a year and a half, and the reoccurring fear I had was that some stalled front would dump 10 inches on us all week. 

I walked into the classroom to get the students, and the minute we walked outside, the wet stuff began to fall.  It wasn't a monsoon.  More like a light shower, barely above a mist.  However, the students didn't complain besides the occasional, "I'm cold."  

I sent a few students to get the plant trays, and I stayed on Sprout hill to help others begin laying out the stakes and string.  Most everything we planted was either a 3.5 inch pot or smaller save for a few species that we dug and divided. 

Once the grids were finished, I began to show students how to read the plans from our design.  I indicated that a plant needs to go roughly where it was on the design in its appropriate grid, but to the exact inch was too tedious.  Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury say in Gardens in Time and Space location matters less than the plant pallete as these designs can and will change over time. 

The food prairie grid and food prairie design for Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'Raydon's Favorite' (aromatic aster).  The red, purple, green, blue, and orange circled plants on the left correspond with the circled plants in the design on the right.  As you can see from the plant placement on the left, students were very adept at finding each propagule's final spot.    

The food prairie grid and food prairie design for Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'Raydon's Favorite' (aromatic aster).  The red, purple, green, blue, and orange circled plants on the left correspond with the circled plants in the design on the right.  As you can see from the plant placement on the left, students were very adept at finding each propagule's final spot.    

Plants goin' in the ground!  

Plants goin' in the ground!  

I also told the students to not walk on the beds.  I knew with around 20 species to install and 12–14 students helping there would be lots of soil compaction.  Therefore, I encouraged them to use stepping stones as landing pads.  I must compliment them.  They were very diligent about caring for the soil, even when I wasn't looking.  :-)  

These plastic stepping stones helped us prevent excess soil compaction.  

These plastic stepping stones helped us prevent excess soil compaction.  

Since the class was only an hour, we did a trial run installing two species.  The rest would wait for lab.  I was immediately impressed with the students' collective ability to read and interpret the plan.  They worked in pairs and helped each other find where plants went. 


18 APRIL | TUESDAY LAB 1:00–2:50 pm

For lab, we were able to hit the ground running since the grids were in place and most of the plants were on site.  I made comments about it not raining, to which some of the students griped that I was jinxing us all!  Fortunately, it didn't rain another drop for the whole project.

We started by digging a few structural-layer plants like Asparagus officinalis (asparagus) and Rudbeckia maxima (great coneflower) we propagated in the ground for the install.  At first, I checked the students work against our design, and once I saw they were able to follow the design, I let them work on their own.  Overall, we were able to install 13 species today, and we got the majority of the structural and seasonal filler layers installed. 

The chaos of creation

The chaos of creation

Teamwork makes the dream work.  

Teamwork makes the dream work.  

 
Photo from the end of day 1.  From this overhead shot of two food prairies in the midst of our cut flower and vegetable beds you can appreciate how the grid system helps students visualize where plants go.  

Photo from the end of day 1.  From this overhead shot of two food prairies in the midst of our cut flower and vegetable beds you can appreciate how the grid system helps students visualize where plants go.  

 

20 APRIL | THURSDAY CLASS 9:30–10:20 am

This morning, we continued to plant other components of the seasonal layer.  We also started planted dynamic fillers like Gaura (Oenothera) lindheimeri 'Sparkle White' (Lindheimer's beeblossom), Oenothera biennis (evening primrose), and Gaillardia aestivalis var. winkleri (Winkler's firewheel), and I had a few students start plugging in Carex cherokeensis (Cherokee sedge) that would comprise the groundcover layer.  

After I got them started, I climbed on top of the building and sneaked a few aerial shots.  

 
Hehe, they didn't even know I was on the rooftop for a while.  

Hehe, they didn't even know I was on the rooftop for a while.  

 

From the rooftop, I saw Donna McCollum of KTRE filming students planting, and I came down to greet her.  I was excited that she came out to feature these perennial projects our students were installing at SFA.  Plus, the students were planting these garden beds the week before Earth Day, and they were able to discuss the sustainability of the plantings for the clip.  She asked me some questions, and then she interviewed several of the students.   Here's her segment if you'd like to watch

A rare photograph of me teaching as Donna McCollum films a piece on the food prairie plantings.  Photo by Hunter Walker.

A rare photograph of me teaching as Donna McCollum films a piece on the food prairie plantings.  Photo by Hunter Walker.

Donna McCollum of KTRE interviews SFA Horticulture student and Team Sprout member Hunter about the food prairies. 

Donna McCollum of KTRE interviews SFA Horticulture student and Team Sprout member Hunter about the food prairies. 


04/25 | TUESDAY CLASS 9:30–10:20 am

The food prairies were really becoming full of flora.  Today, our main objective was the matrix layer—Carex cherokeensis, Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama), and Sisyrinchium angustifolium (blue-eyed grass).  At this point it was mainly filling in open spaces that we hadn't filled yet with other flora, and we mostly completed two of the four food prairies this morning.  Also, towards the end of the hour, I had a student begin plopping Narcissus × odorus (campernelle) bulbs into the food prairies according to our design.  

Bouteloua curtipendula plugs lay scattered in vacant areas in the food prairies.  

Bouteloua curtipendula plugs lay scattered in vacant areas in the food prairies.  

 
Even a broken leg doesn't stop students like Cierra from helping plant!

Even a broken leg doesn't stop students like Cierra from helping plant!

 
Reagan smooths soil around Sisyrinchium angustifolium.  The sun came out long enough for the plants to open their beautiful blue flowers.  

Reagan smooths soil around Sisyrinchium angustifolium.  The sun came out long enough for the plants to open their beautiful blue flowers.  


04/25 | TUESDAY LAB 1:00–2:50 PM

We picked up where we left off this morning on the groundcover layer.  And, just like that it was finished!   

Wa-hoo!  The food prairies are planted!  

Wa-hoo!  The food prairies are planted!  

Or, should I say it's just begun since they will change and evolve over time? 

Later in the week, a few of my student apprentices applied a thin layer of mulch to reduce weed germination.  Of course, we want the plants to grow thickly enough to shade the soil so weeds won't have much of a chance, but this initial covering will help the installed plugs gain a solid footing.  

Watering in the students work.  We removed the grid overlay after the install was finished.  

Watering in the students work.  We removed the grid overlay after the install was finished.  

In the end I believe that this type of planting is great for students because of the randomness to it.  They were very capable of following the design, and if they didn't put the plant in the exact spot, it's ok. In total with everyone's help, I roughly calculated that we invested approximately total 80-90 hours in the project for planting and installation.  

SFA students happy to be finished and happy to have a positive impact on the world.  The food prairies will add beauty to the garden and provide habitat for a number of beneficial insects.  

SFA students happy to be finished and happy to have a positive impact on the world.  The food prairies will add beauty to the garden and provide habitat for a number of beneficial insects.  

Now, we wait and watch as the food prairies burgeon with growth.