a recipe for raising pepper and salt skippers

I dropped by the Repentance Park project in Baton Rouge yesterday on my way back from prairie work in Eunice. It turned out to be yet another highlight of my four day trip. The Indian grass that was planted in December as plants that barely had barely any substance, have blossomed into a very substantial element in the landscape.

I was just a minor player in the project, advising the associate, Joseph James, of Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architects, Watertown, Massachusetts, who worked closely with Jennifer Harbourt of Reich and Associates Landscape Architects, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Gabe Vicknair of the City of Baton Rouge, to produce a working concept.

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The design for the park was beautifully done, drastically simplifying what was there before: a glitsy concrete waterfall-monolith garden. The idea behind the new design, I believe, was to open-up the space and make it more of a central open-space between the Natural History Museum, the Convention Center, City Hall and the Old State Capitol. The park can now be used as lawn for kids to play, a sitting area for relaxation, a small outdoor concert area and an area for kids to get wet and cool off in the water-jet play area on a hot summer day: all the while functioning as a green-space connection between the much-used public buildings that surround it.

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Joe and I hammered out the details of executing a planting of what is not on the typical plant list regionally: Indian grass. The Indian grass was used for an area that required a plant that would permanently stabilize the very steep slope that dropped dramatically from the park’s central walkway and a plant that would require the very least amount of maintenance.

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above: Indian grass meets lawn and walkway

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above: an image of the slope with a Cereal Rye cover-crop (April).  Another image, as the Rye was finishing-up and laying over as mulch (June) with Indian just getting started. And yet another of the Indian grass in full-glory after the Cereal Rye has withered away (yesterday, August).

I collected seed of Indian grass from the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society’s restoration site and passed it on to Gail Barton(Yardflower, Meridian, Mississippi) who is skilled at germinating the seed of the plant. She, over the years, has found the precise window of time that is crucial to getting the seed germination to occur. She shifted the seedlings into one inch plug trays and pampered them until it was time to ship them out. It took about a year altogether to grow the plants.

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above: slope before planting

I picked the plants up from Gail in November and delivered them on to George Francise, who was the magician-contractor who did the soil work, planting and management part of the project. And a stellar job he did!

Joe and I designed the Indian grass plugs to be planted, with a cover crop of Cereal Rye (Secale cereale L.) to be seeded immediately after planting the Indian grass. The Cereal Rye is a grain-grass plant that is less leafy and more vertical in growth than common Rye grass and doesn’t shade out, starve for sunlight, the plants it is growing with. But the Cereal Rye also functioned as a temporary soil stabilizer / erosion control plant until the Indian grass got going. It functioned as a mulch when it died and it also was pretty green in winter, adding a little texture, color and form contrast to the lawn and dwarf Carrisa hollies nearby.

The Ceral Rye was a big hit when it went into bloom (inflorescence). It provided a temporary pastoral image while the Indian grass got settled in, rooted and ready for summer growth.

Summer brought the intense heat and sunlight, which is a requirement of Indian grass. And the Indian responded to this. The soil that was obviously a really good processed soil, from somewhere local, I suspect. It provided a good medium for the Indian roots to grow.

In June, I had dropped in to check on the planting and was quite happy with how things were but it was clear that a fertilization application was in order. I suspect that that was done because when I stopped in yesterday, the Indian grass was something to see! As my Dad and Mom always said: it was a sight for sore eyes. The grass was mostly three or four feet in height and in some cases, reaching to six feet, with terminals getting ready to form its much-anticipated flower spikes. In a month it should be an even more dramatic sight to behold as the fluffy yellow plumes emerge atop the stems, and sway in the late summer breeze.

The genetic diversity expressed in the plants is something of interest to me. Not one plant looks like another with different heights and different leaf forms and different leaf color. This is, I am sure, a planting like no other around: 3200 indian grass plants in one planting, functioning as a purposeful landscape element but it will also have the unique ability of providing a larval host source for the Pepper and Salt skipper butterfly.

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All indications are the plant will be there a long while, having been so well cared for in the landscape. It will not only produce seed that will drop and seed in bare areas between plants but it will also spead clonally to eventually cover the vacant spaces on the slope, creating a solid stand of vegetation.

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above: the pepper and salt skipper butterfly should find it good living at the Park. Its tiny and fast!

good day!

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One thought on “a recipe for raising pepper and salt skippers

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