UWA Campus Wildflower Wonderland, Black Belt Prairie Garden, coming to a rolling boil

and first, you add a roux..

Its been a full year since I’ve had a chance to visit the University of Western Alabama Black Belt (BB) Garden. And what a wonderful thing, to walk these floral collections, with my good friend and prairie-partner-in-crime, Gail Barton. Gail and I started our study-work here many years ago, when we’d organize annual trips into the Black Belt Prairie region to ride the backroads, hunting for remnants of this ancient complex vegetative system, trying to learn the characteristics and the quirks of its plants. We would drive til we saw some prairie indicator plant and then slow down the truck to determine weather the spot was sufficiently loaded with cool plants to stop and rustle around. The most interesting thing we saw in all of our trips may be the Cemetery just north of Livingston on highway 39 that has a prairie all wrapped-up in headstones…. We’d originally started doing this many years before in and around Gail’s old stomping grounds, near the city of Starkville Mississippi, where she was raised. One of our frequent stops was the MSU Entomology Department’s Osborne Prairie, a leased piece of land with a high quality natural area just east of town. We ended up spending time studying in the Sumter County Alabama area too simply because it was closer to Meridian (Gail’s home) and because it had lots of available remnants. We didn’t realize just how much prairie was in Sumpter County til’ we were awarded the opportunity to build the BB Garden. Most people in Sumter County don’t realize that there is prairie in their county but I am here to tell you, there’s plenty still of it left. Sumter County is rich with natural flora. It just hasn’t yet been destroyed.

We were contracted to design and develop the prairie garden using only species found within the county lines of Sumter County. Dr. Richard Holland, President of the University, concieved the idea of the Garden and brought us aboard to assist him with this effort. We executed the work for the garden, beginning in June 2012 and ending in Early 2013.

For nearly a year, each month, Gail and I would meet and spend a day or so with Sam Ledbetter, the Horticulturist at the Garden who happens to be a life time resident of the County. We would have a growing season to scour the county, hunting for species to collect seed or cuttings from. Our goal was propagating for high conservatism, providing a prairie landscape high in species richness and species biodiversity.

We have succeeded in creating gardens that are incredibly diverse, ones that tell a story and that touch the emotions. Its a great garden, no doubt.

The famous Wiggins, Mississippi native and 1930’s baseball Hall of Famer “Dizzy” Dean once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it!”

Well, I am here to tell you, these are the best restored prairie gardens in the state of Alabama. They are loaded with species very uncommon in gardens, and some, rare in the county and state. Most importantly, they contain the genetics that when you walk by, scream out at you, “hey! I’m Sumter County, Alabama, Black Belt Prairie! Just sayin’!”

black belt garden

above: the garden can be seen in the google earth shot above as a triangle in the center of the frame, sectioned by paths. click on it to enlarge it.


Me (Ed Norton) on left, with Gail Barton, Sam Ledbetter, and UWA BB Garden Director Steven Liverman in the garden, June 2014

There is a super-duper collection of Blazing Stars here. We found species we had to get identified. And all of the Silphiums known to exist in the county are here, present and accounted for. There are seedlings of Silphium laciniata, the Prairie Compass Plant, scattered across this one acre landscape. Seedlings of Echinacea pallida, too. Gail and Sam grew these from seed.

The most special plant found would be the Side Oats Gramma grass. Gail got just a tiny population in one location along the Tombigbee River. She got a fraction of a handful of seed and grew seedlings to transplant.


above: at left, just after final seeding in November 2012.  right, June 2014


above: large clumps of Black Belt prairie grasses form dense textural patterns across the garden.


looking south…


above: Liatris, Blazing Star


a legume member propagated from an Epes, Alabama prairie. I forget the name, but its a high conservancy species sometimes found in large numbers near chalk outcrops.


a monarda, possibly a fistulosa X punctata hybrid?


Eryngium, Button Snakeroot


Spiral Orchid


Narrow-Leafed Mountain Mint


Indian grass and smaller Little Bluestem grass


Looking west in the southeastern-most prairie patch


seedlings and blooming Compass Plant, Silphium laciniata, are scattered about


above: the fuzzy, full foliage of Helianthus silphioides just before bolting to bloom. Thanks to Dr Brian Keener for the ID on this plant which was a riddle to the rest of us.


Gail shows off her man-made chalk out-crop, inspired by a commercial development filling with chalk soil fill. She simply asked to borrow some.


Looking south from the Campbell House, the outcrop in the distance on the right


Big bluestem grass growing large above mass of Little Bluestem grass


Monarda and Grey Coneflower in some areas are quite colorful


Little Bluestem grass sod and Compass Plants at my feet, growing in the Garden with Sumter County blood.

It looks like our collecting at Mr. Miller’s prairie hayfield just up highway 80 from the college paid off since tens of thousands of adolescent little bluestem and Indian grass plants cover the ground, in some places forming a thick dense sod. The grasses are as thick as thieves. They make up a dominance across the ground plain that is to me divine.

Most people would overlook the garden as a place to be mowed, but I understand that it is being used for biology classes.

It was a fantastic opportunity to be able to help in preserving and nurturing these fine and numerous plantings.

If you get a chance, check in when you’re going through Livingston. The garden is five minutes from the Interstate-20 Livingston exit, thirty minutes east of Meridian Mississippi. Come see the ‘organized wildness’ we’ve created!

living on the edge!

I had the good fortune to hear James Hitchmough speak about his favorite subject at a conference in January. Dr. Hitchmough is Professor of Horticultural Technology, Department of Landscape, Sheffield University, Great Britain. At one point, he was talking about trying new and different things in landscape and he said “all of the exciting stuff that happens is not in the normal center, but on the edge…”.

My good friend Charles Allen often famously says “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!”. He usually follows this up with big belly-laugh.

In Louisiana, our “cutting edge” is usually twenty or forty years behind everybody else’s.

In the upper Midwest and Northeastern U.S., landscape designers regularly incorporate sedges, as grass-like plants, particularly for wood edge meadow plantings and for woodland ground cover, when designing with natural systems, designing for biodiversity. I’ve thought about Charles and James and their “edge” remarks a few times this week since I was planting what is, I believe is the first purposeful sedge meadow planted in the region, right here at the Ponderosa.

Its not a big planting at all, just about twenty feet by ten feet: a small “edge” garden. Small or not, it should, in time, reveal some interesting things. We will see.

While working with Philadelphia prairie hipster Larry Weaner on the Lafitte Corridor project in New Orleans, I was introduced to the concept of using these fine ornamental plants in instances where grasses can’t be used. The Lafitte project has three acres of sedge meadows designed into the landscape as rainwater run-off retention basins, designed to capture and filter the water. This was done because of the infestation of Torpedo grass and Johnson grass that exists on the project site.

The sedge meadow I planted is a red-neck prototype intended to be a model for promoting the use of this problem solving idea. Here at my place, it allows me to plant a garden of good plants where I couldn’t otherwise. You see, I have forty different flavors of bad weeds here and this approach helps me work past my weed problems. Kind of like a twelve step program works for winos. After all, the first step is admitting you have a problem, huh? For example, I have, in some parts of the yard, the awful Skunk Vine, a plant that can take over a lot of land really quickly and all but make it disappear. I can spray a selective herbicide over the garden and not hurt sedges but will kill the dickens out of the Skunk Vine. Yay!!!! This way, I can eliminate the old nasty, stinkin’, no-good skunk vine.. Thats a big deal when you are otherwise stuck with doing battle with such a brute forever.

Sedges are numerous in species anywhere you go in the eastern U.S.. Many forms to choose from….but I have my favorites.

The sedge I’ve worked the most with is Carex glaucescens, or Clustered Sedge. Its a bad-ass grass but not a grass at all, really. Its blue toned in color and grows in a fairly vertical form and has fine to medium textured, strapped foliage with unique flowering parts that are delightfully (relatively) ornamental. The ultimate hieght of this is thirty inches and the width, about eighteen inches. I grew this plant for years in my nursery even though no one would buy it. I, however, have always liked its charm and character and I would “work-it-in” when the client was looking the other way. Super-cool pics of it @ the link, below


Carex vulpinoidea, or Brown Fox Sedge is a most desirable plant for gardening with poor, perennially moist to constantly wet soils. Really, its a beautiful thing, y’all! This plant is perfectly rounded in overall form, about 30 inches tall and four feet around. The foliage is very fine textured and deep, dark green. The flowers are not particularly showy but the fruit bearing stalks are. The golden brown fruit color contrasts nicely with the wispy-hair strapped leaves. I noticed this attractive grass-like plant on the property here several years ago because it was so graceful and green in the harshest part of the winter. I have come to appreciate it greatly. Nice plant.


click to enlarge the photo of Fox Sedge, above.


above: the fruit-bearing terminal of Fox Sedge

Both Brown Fox and Clustered sedge are what I would call evergreen sedges since they do not have a period of dormancy,  …just transition.

Carex flacosperma, or Blue Wood Sedge is another. I originally got a start of this plant many years ago from my plant-friend Lynn Libous-Bailey of the Mississippi Delta who got it from Dr Charles Bryson, the regional expert on Carex and Cyperus. This sedge has an attractive  glaucus-blue foliage color and is found here growing occasionally on this remnant Pine flat-woods. The fruit of the plant is nut-like and comes packaged in elongated clusters. The height on this one is about four or six inches and the width, about 18 inches around. Saweet!


above: Blue Wood Sedge in winter time


scaly, nut-like fruit of Blue Woods Sedge arrives in late spring

These three all bloom and fruit in the spring. Of the three, only two are “evergreen” and have substance in the summer garden (C. glaucescens and vulpinoidea). Flacosperma disappears in summer and comes back magically come October. FYI, Carex, here in the Gulf South, have a backwards dormancy period, typically going dormant in the hottest part of the summer, returning when the days become shorter, in early fall. They are in their glory in the dead of winter when most plants are taking a long siesta.

So, the deed has been done. The seed has been sown. And I will manage and watch closely, this garden, over time. I will let you (all three of you) know what does or doesn’t happen in the mean time.

au revoir!

Note: all of the Carex species I have worked with/have mentioned here have been positively identified by Dr. Charles “the Sledge of Sedges” Bryson. Thanks, Doc!

tending to a forest

The first time I visited the Black Creek Seed Orchard, Tate Thriffley drove me in his air-conditioned Forest Service truck. He unlocked the steel gate and in we went, driving past the first orchard of pines.  We were looking to see if this field could become a collection site to harvest source-certified seed for this forest’s restoration. We moseyed along chatting about what we saw and then we’d stop and with a close eye try to figure out what plants we were seeing. We got out of the truck a few times and made some short loops into the landscape in knee-deep vegetation. I was looking at meadow species, but more carefully scanning for invasive species that might render the site off-limits as far as collection goes. You only want to spread the good seed around, not the bad.


Black Creek Seed Orchard is one of the many unassuming treasures of the DeSoto National Forest, and there are many. The seed Orchard grounds have been maintained by mowing for all these years but there was never a plow layed to it. The Orchard has been in existence since the Forest was established in the 1930’s, used for producing seed of different southern Pine species. The near by maintenance facility has on-site,  a pine cone drying contraption that is massive and there are other impressive and wonderful facilities there to do big foresty things with. The Orchard itself is a total of maybe one hundred and fifty acres of mature tree plantings with several hundred acres of open fields surrounding the tree plantings (I was told its about seven hundred acres).  In these surrounding fields are some of the most wonderful associations of meadow plants. The vegetation there has a very significant level of integrity. The dominance in species changes from one area of the field to the next. By species dominance, I mean the plants that are most common through a given area. And the number of high-conservancy species of wildflowers and native grasses is something to see. While working there, I often want to lead into a Julie Andrews-inspired rendition of The Hills are Alive, with the Sound of Music……    Its really hard to resist. The only thing missing besides the song is the Alpine peaks in the distance (oh, and in the case of Monday’s weather, the cooler temps of the Alps were definitely missing).


above: the walls of my office yesterday


above: With aromatic fragrance of monumental proportions, Sweet Goldenrod (Solidago odora), permeates the air of the wide-open fields of Black Creek Seed Orchard, DeSoto National Forest, north of Wiggins, Mississippi. This time of year, the landscape is colored with golden yellow drifts, punctuated with purples, blues, and whites, and a seemingly endless number of plants. The closer you get to the ground, the more you see (click photo to enlarge).  When we collected here in July it was a different-looking landscape then and when we collect again in November it will have changed yet again.

My job is to walk through the creme de la creme of the Ash fields all day. Its a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Jim McGee my partner in crime follows, steadily steering the very slow moving prairie seed harvester. My job is to watch for obstacles to the machine and to look for Gopher tortoises or tortoise burrows (yes, I said Gopher Tortoises). Some of the borrows have previously been marked with PVC pipe. When I see a new one, I mark it quickly with flagging tape and keep moving on, guiding Jim along. Its hard to see from the tractor driver’s seat with the harvester in the way and we are required by contract to watch closely for the turtles so I am Jim’s other set of eyes.


above: At the end of our day we drove down to where we’d earlier spotted a nearly solid stand of Narrow Leaf Bluestem (Schizachirium tenerum) and Pine Land Dropseed (Sporobolus Junceus). C’est magnifique! My wildest dream comes true…..    🙂

There were lots of other dominants in our earlier collections for the day, like Prairie Gailarlia (Gailardia aestivalus), Bearded Skeleton Grass (Gymnopogon ambiguus), Slim Skeleton Grass (Gymnopogon brevifolius), Button Snake Root (Eryngium yuccafolia), White-Leafed Mountian Mint (Picnanthemum albescens) and Multibloom Hoary Pea (Tephrosia onybrychoides). 

We are processing the seed with tender loving care and will store it with the rest of the seed in our section of the very amazing “Cadillac” seed storage facility there at Ash.



Its always tundra-cold in the Cadillac seed storage unit. About seventy pounds of our July collection which was dominant in Tephrosia and New Jersey Tea, in two canisters, tagged and ready to go!


above: about a thousand pounds of high-end botanical bliss!

Meanwhile Tate and his colleagues at DeSoto have been busily planting the last year’s crop of nine different dominant-collections of seed, creating more turtle and cockaded woodpecker habitat

It’ll be a good thing to one day walk the fields with Tate when the new plantings have all up-and-grown.

for an insight to the way-cool restoration happenings at DeSoto, just click on the link. pretty neat stuff.

Click to access R8_NFsMS_De_Soto_Final_CFLR_Proposal.pdf



happy cows on the prairie

In the sleepy town of Meaux, Louisiana is a farm that has been in the family for generations: eight generations, to be exact. The Blanchet’s ( pronounced Blonshet) have toiled the soil here for a long time, so long that the oldest house on property was constructed by hand and with walls insulated with a technique using Spanish moss and mud (called bousillage). That’s old, folks!

The farm is in the heart of Acadiana, just north from Abbeville, a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico, where Tall grass prairie once reigned over miles and miles of treeless land. This area of the state was referred to as the Great Southeastern Prairie of Louisiana. Nice name, huh?

The Blanchet’s run a cattle farm on the land today. Its a farm worked by the family using an environmentally friendly approach. After all, they have to live up to their company motto, “It’s Only Natural”.

They’ve been in the process of going chemical-free and that’s why they called me. They know that native prairie is the answer to high maintenance exotic forage grasses and the chemical fertilizers and insecticides they require to grow.

They wanted a specific request. They wanted diverse native prairie but wanted it to be a planting heavy on the four biggest prairie grasses: switch, gamma, big bluestem and indian.

So we got busy.

Coordinating with the partners in the project, a plan was devised and the production of grass plants started. The idea was to plant nursery-grown plants of these species and then sow a diverse mix of Coastal Prairie seed that will grow to help build resilience into the planting from pressure from grazing. It is a good model, the blending of prairie and grazing livestock. The Bison once used the vast grasslands for grazing and studies show that the combination of fire and patch grazing on diverse prairie can actually benefit biodiversity within the stand.

At this point were are closing in on completing fifteen acres, with 35 more to do.

We started by collecting divisions of the plants from as many Cajun Prairie eco-types as possible. Eco-types are mature plants that are individual, unique seedlings that have matured. These grasses grow in large masses and sections were painstakingly dug and then delivered to the nursery to be divided and potted into one gallon nursery containers. As much soil on the roots of the grasses as possible was kept to attempt to keep beneficial fungi and seedlings of other prairie plants alive in the interim period, in the nursery. At the same time seed was being sown of indian grass, again for the purpose of achieving a high level of seedling / genetic diversity.

These plants were planted in the field over two successive springs (2012 and 2013).  Along with that, an area was designated to sow seed to establish a few acres of mono-culture stands of switch and gamma grass in the field using a conventional seed drill with seed bought from the LaCassinne Company, a land mitigation bank that processes and sells pure live seed of switch, gamma and brownseed paspalum (Hayes, Louisiana).

Steps were taken to prepare the field prior to planting and then in November of 2011, the drilling was done. In April of 2012 and 2013 the nursery grown plants were planted in and all of the plantings have done marvelously, thank you, rain!

We will use a controlled burn as a preparatory step to plant and then seed will be there to grow and move around on its own accord, as it does naturally. Annual burns will be done for several years to establish the field and then they’ll probably lengthen the cycle to two or three years to experiment with what works best for them. We’ll begin work on another section perhaps, sometime after we’re done with this section but even if we don’t do anything, the prairie will spread to the other sections, in a matter of time.


this aerial shows the entire 50 acre field, a rectangle to the left of the “coullee”, the drainage ditch represented by the green arc of trees). if you click on the photo you can see that the center of the rectangle has another rectangle within it. This is the planted field. you can make out the wetter areas which are in green. the linear, line-like objects are shallow cuts for drainage in what is flat ground and heavy soil. The field is fenced with electric fencing to keep livestock from grazing it.




The Blanchets raise goats and use them to help manage exotic trees like Tallow (Sapium sibiferum) instead of using herbicides. Goats eat anything where as cows are sometimes picky eaters.




The Blanchet Family: Ben, Cat, Anne and Bob and their tennants



one of a few loads of plants grown by Rick Webb, of Louisiana Growers



switchgrass ready for the planting hole. Good job Rick!!! Dr. Susan Mopper, director at The Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette helped us with some of the growing of nursery grown grass plugs from seed, too. Go Team Prairie!!!!!!




Andy Dolan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s State Private Lands Coordinator, a friend and colleague, consulted with me this past week at the site and was pleased with the progress he saw and advised on our strategy for seed planting. Here’s Andy with an Indian grass plant just starting to bloom.




This is what we all hope will transpire in a short time. These are Big Bluestem grass plants, three years old planted at Dr. Malcolm Vidrine’s Cajun Prairie Gardens, Eunice, Louisiana. Dr. Vidrine has an extensive collection of Big Bluestem eco-types of various colors and forms in the gardens. You can imaging the difference in biomass between this plant and say Bermuda grass. And the nutritional and palatability value of Big Bluestem is off the charts and it is peaking in growth in late summer and fall when exotics are declining and worn out. photo by Malcolm Vidrine



The diverse seed mix will partially come from this field, the Cajun Prairie restoration site in Eunice. Between the Big Bluestem and the Blazing Stars it should make for some happy and fat and sassy cows. Dr. Charles Allen, photo by Tom Hillman



above: Stuart Gardener examines emerging Gamma grass. The Blanchets sponsored a discovery trip for Stuart and I to go visit Gary Fine in Thibodaux, Louisiana to see what he was doing with native grasses and to see how his work was useful to our project. I was like a kid in a candy store seeing Gary’s cool fields. This was in March 2012. Stuart assisted us with his valuable knowledge of establishing native grasses in Blanchet’s pastures. He is the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Area Range Conservationist for Louisiana. Dr. Fine is a retired prairie master, I believe, a plant breeder, and is continuing his work in retirement at the Nichols Farm.



Dr Gary Fine and his oh-so-fine fields


for a really helpful and well done booklet by University of Tennessee, Knoxville on planting warm season grasses for forage see this link or get a hard copy. I use it as a reference often.

Click to access PB1752.pdf

for more on the Blanchets and their prized beef sales see their website



and go plant some grasses!