A Plant’s New Year’s Resolutions

CHAANG.flowerJan. 1, 2016

Certain people claim that plants have feelings. I’m not sure whether they are sentient or not, but if a native plant were to make a New Year’s resolution perhaps it would be one of these:

  • be healthy (grow to my full, lush potential)
  • be productive (produce abundant seed/fruit)
  • overcome stress (deal with adversity without wimping out)
  • use water more efficiently (use what I have well)
  • be attractive to pollinators (be fit and attractive for my pollinators)
  • be grounded (my roots will hold me firm in spite of forces that attempt to push me down)
  • be self sufficient (stand firmly on my own without leaning on others too much)
  • provide sustenance to other creatures (be a source of nourishment to my environment)
  • interact with other plants in a positive way (being supportive, not crowding them out)

Plants are amazing teachers.


Native Wildflowers in the Vegetable Garden

dotted blazing star

Seed catalogs arrive daily and it’s time to plan this year’s vegetable garden. Vegetables plots are enhanced by adding wildflowers, especially natives that attract native pollinators, contribute to biodiversity, and provide both color and texture.

Many native plants are edible and/or medicinal and can add to your harvest. 

cleomeContinuous blooms will assist with pollination while adding to the beauty of a garden. Plants that bloom in different seasons often live together in small areas so incorporating multiple species in or near your vegetable garden will not only reward you with long periods of flowers but assist in attracting pollinators to your vegetables. Biodiversity also contributes to the improvement of soil health, stabilizes soils, provides nutrient storage and assists in mitigating chemical and water pollution. 

scarlet giliaSpecies that get along well with others in a vegetable garden include those that do not reseed freely and have fibrous rather than rhizomatous roots that might take over. While many Montana native species prefer poor soils, those that tolerate extra water and lush soil conditions (such as those found in well tended vegetable gardens) will outperform those that don’t. It is important to work with plants that will be right for your garden area.

black-eyed SusanHere are some of the most well-behaved native wildflowers that will tolerate growing in a vegetable garden. 

Early summer bloomers:

arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamhoriza sagittata)
hairy goldenaster (Heterotheca villosa)
lupine species (Lupinus spp.)
round-leaf alumroot (Heuchera cylindrica)
showy Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium pulcherrimum)

Midsummer bloomers:

black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
*blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata)
blue columbine (Aquilegia coerulea)
*clarkia (Clarkia pulchella)
nodding onion (Allium cernuum)
Rocky Mountain biplane (Cleome serrulata)
Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus)
*scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata)
showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus)
wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

*these will continue to bloom all summer with water

Late summer bloomers:

dotted blazing star (Liatris punctata)
Hooker’s evening primrose (Oenothera elate)
pale purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)
purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)
sunflower species (Helianthus spp.)
yellow prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

Clarkia, Hooker’s evening primrose and Rocky Mountain beeplant are annuals that will reseed. The rest are perennial.

We offer these native wildflowers at BNP or look for them at your local nursery (ask if you don’t see them) and at annual Montana Native Plant Society sales in your area.

Restoring a Native Grassland

grassland of rough fescue

rough fescue

In the pasts few years there has been a surge in the number of landowners removing weeds from their property and striving to restore their land to a healthy plant ecosystem. In spite of the best intentions, home owners sometimes end up with disappointing results, especially when relying on landscape professionals that are are familiar with non-native species but often lack knowledge of native species. This post may help.

First, when planning to restore your grassland determine your goal for the land – pasture or grazing land, native habitat or something else. Native grasses are not particularly adapted for grazing and non-native species may be more productive.

Next conduct a site analysis to determine growing conditions and identify species present prior to selecting species for revegetation.

An analysis of a site includes identification of:

    • sun
    • aspect
    • wind
    • soil type
    • water availability for establishment
    • elevation.

Once these are known, consider which grass species fit your site in terms of:

    • sun tolerance
    • wind tolerance
    • soil preference
    • water needs
    • temperature requirements
    • height
    • growing habit
    • aggressiveness
    • reseeding habits
    • root systems
    • drought tolerance
prairie junegrass in bloom

prairie junegrass

Right plant, right place’ is still on of the best mottos to use when considering how to restore a grassland. Selecting plants that are commonly used in restoration projects may or may not meet your goals for your site.


Many seed companies sell cultivars. Cultivars are plant varieties produced by selective breeding or genetic modification for a particular desirable characteristic that is maintained through propagation. These may or may not look like the plants you see naturally occurring around you. My preference is not to use cultivars unless I cannot obtain unmodified native seed.

Cultivars are usually notated in a set of single quotation marks after the botanical name.  For examples Festuca idahoensis ‘Siskiyou blue’.

While there are many native grass species in Montana, not all are available commercially.

Grassland communities vary across ecosystems. Selecting species that are part of plant community similar to yours ensures both a natural look and a successful balance of species (where no one species outcompetes another.)

Taking time to identify the grasses in your area is well worth doing if you want your grassland to look natural! You may be surprised at how many species there are in a small area. Planting a variety of species will fill in root niches, allow a succession of bloom times, and create a natural look.

many stems of bluebunch wheatgrass

bluebunch wheatgrass

Native grasses found in Montana: (note: botanical names are essential!)

Achnatherum hymenoides – indian ricegrass (syn. Oryzopsis hymenoides)

Achnatherum nelsonii – Columbia needlegrass

Achnatherum occidentalis – western needlegrass (syn. stipa occidentalis)

Achnatherum richardsonii – Richardson’s needlegrass (syn. Stipa richardsonii)

Aristida purpurea – purple three-awn

Bouteloua curtipendula – side-oats grama

Bouteloua gracilis – blue grama

Bromus marginatus – mountain brome

Buchloe dactyloides – buffalo grass

Calamagrostis rubescens – pinegrass

Danthonia unispicata – one-spike oat grass

Deschampsia caespitosa – tufted hairgrass (syn. Deschampsia cespitosa)

Elymus canadensis – Canada wildrye

Elymus elymoides – bottlebrush squirrel-tail

Elymus glaucus – blue wildrye

Elymus lanceolatus – thickspike wheatgrass (syn. Agropyron dasystachyum)

Elymus smithii – western wheatgrass (syn. Agropyron smithii, Pascopyrum smithii)

Elymus trachycaulus – slender wheatgrass (syn. Agropyron caninum, Agropyron trachycaulum, Elymus violaceus, Agropyron latiglume, Agropyron subsecundum)

Festuca campestris – rough fescue (syn. Festuca altaica, Festuca scabrella)

Festuca idahoensis – Idaho fescue

Hierochloe odorata – sweetgrass

Hordeum jubatum – foxtail barley

Koeleria macrantha – prairie junegrass (syn. Koeleria cristata, Koeleria nitida, Koeleria pyramidata)

Leymus cinereus – great basin wildrye (syn. Elymus cinereus)

Poa secunda – Sandberg bluegrass

Pseudoroegneria spicata – bluebunch wheatgrass (syn. Agropyron spicatum, Agropyron inerme)

Schizachyrium scoparium – little bluestem (syn. Andropogon scoparius)

Sporobolus cryptandrus – sand dropseed

Stipa comata – needle and thread

Stipa viridula – green needlegrass (syn. Nassella viridula)

grassland with blue grama

blue grama

Once you decide on your species list (a minimum of 5 or 6 species) the next step is to obtain them.  Seeds and containerized plugs or mature plants are all options.

Seeds are the least expensive and best for large areas. On small acreage plugs or containerized plants may be interspersed throughout the seeding area to give the look that things are establishing, to provide some shade for germinating seeds and to produce a new crop of seeds within the first season. Grass seed typically runs about $3/oz. Seed size varies considerably. Three ounces of large seed is many fewer seeds than three ounces of a tiny seed. You will need to base quantities on the number of live seeds per ounce rather than weight.

Plants are obviously more expensive but give instant gratification and help prevent erosion. Plants provide shelter for newly geminating seeds and produce their own crop of seed during the first season to add to you new plants.

Provenance is important. Try to obtain seed/plants sourced from as close to where the property is located as possible. Local seed/plants will be adapted to your area but it isn’t easy to find. Collecting your own seed is ideal if you have the time and place to collect. Be sure to get permission to collect on someone else’s property.

Where to obtain native grass seed.

http://www.westernnativeseed.com/grasses.html  CO good selection but many cultivars

http://www.graniteseed.com/products/seeds/grasses-and-grasslike-species UT/CO great selection but you have to know what is native and what isn’t

http://www.wildhorseseeds.com/Native_Grasses.html MT mostly cultivars

http://www.outsidepride.com/seed/native-grass-seed/  OR appropriate mixes, good selection

Cenex – Mountain West Cooperative stores also carry some native grass seed.

Collecting Native Grass Seed

Idaho fescue seeds

Idaho fescue seeds

Native grasses are ripening quickly this year as hot temperatures dry them out. Many species are now ready for collection.

For those wanting to add grasses to their gardens or wanting to establish bunch grasses instead of lawn, now is a good time to head out with a small paper bag or two in hand.

rough fescue grass with seedheads

rough fescue

Gathering grass seed is pretty painless. Grab the stem and swipe upward gently pulling off seed and letting it fall into the paper bag. Any seeds that don’t come off easily are not ripe. Ripe seed will have a small (2mm) dark spot inside the seed. If you gently pull apart the seed you should see the blackish seed nestled between the two pieces of the outer seed. If you wait too long in the season seeds will have dropped out and all you will collect is chaff.

prairie junegrass

prairie junegrass

Collect enough seed for your project but be sure to leave enough seed for plants to reproduce and to feed birds and small animals. Make sure to get permission before gathering seed on someone else’s property.

indian ricegrass seedheads

Indian ricegrass

Cool season grasses currently maturing include:

  • prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha)
  • Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis)
  • rough fescue (Festuca campestris)
  • Richardson’s needle grass (Achnatherum (Stipa) richardsonii)
  • Needle and Thread (Stipa comata)
  • Western needle grass (Achnatherum occidentals)
  • Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides)
Richardson's needle grass drooping seedheads

Richardson’s needle grass

Store seeds in the paper bag and store in a cool, dark place until fall. Plant grass seed either in fall (lightly covering with compost or a thin mulch like pine needles) or in the spring after it warms up. Be sure to give germinating grass plenty of water to get roots established. Several weeks of regular watering is usually necessary depending on weather. Once grasses have begun to establish monitor moisture and provide supplemental water when things get dry.

What I wish I could tell people building a new home:

piles of logs

material storage may smother plants

The process of building a house is often destructive to the immediate environment.

It takes forethought and prevention (plus a firm conviction) to preserve the plants and habitat around your home from destruction by equipment and thoughtlessness.

If you want to rescue any of your native plants, dig up what you can and transplant them into containers or relocate them prior to breaking ground.  Tap-rooted species can’t be transplanted without going to extremes but many fibrous rooted species can be easily moved.  Replanting mature plants will shorten the time it takes to revegetate the area around your new home.

Once the soil is disturbed it is vulnerable to weeds.

Vigilance is your key to preventing wholesale weed invasion. Remove weeds as they appear.  Try to prevent equipment that has been in weedy areas from working on site until it has been properly cleaned.

tractor working in construction site

equipment causes compaction

Once your native soil is compacted by equipment and foot traffic the complex microbial systems within it are unable to function and the soil is essentially dead. Compaction is your worst enemy.  Keep contractors and equipment within bounds – they won’t like it, but do it!  Most plants can’t grow in compacted soil.  Roots can’t breathe in compacted soils.

Scraping off the topsoil to use it later usually kills whatever plants, seeds and micro-organisms are growing in it.  That said, bringing in topsoil from somewhere else is always a bad idea – you are bringing in someone else’s weeds, so it’s best to use your own topsoil whenever possible – just know it will need rejuvenating to get it going again.

Protect your trees! Trees may be small now, but they will provide shade, wind protection and privacy for your home as they grow.  Keep equipment from damaging them!

You chose to build your home in a spot that appeals to you.  Protect that spot as much as possible!

Moss Lawns – the Green Alternative?

Moss Lawns – the Green Alternative?

As concerns about drought continue to rise, many people are looking for drought tolerant alternatives to grass lawns or looking for plants that can tolerate growing under trees where grass will not grow.  If you have trees that provide shade you probably have a great site for mosses!

There are 153 species of mosses found in Montana and while not all of them are appropriate for use as lawn substitutes, many are! We tend to think of mosses as delicate and needing very moist conditions but mosses are surprisingly drought tolerant and take very little maintenance once established.

Why would I want a moss lawn?

  • year-round color
  • adds beautiful texture to shady spots
  • does well with most shade-loving shrubs and deciduous trees (especially maples) 
  • good for erosion control
  • helps retain moisture and nutrients in the soil
  • very low maintenance once established – takes care of itself – you just keep the leaves and needles off of it
  • no need for noisy, polluting lawn mowers

Is my yard a good candidate for a moss lawn?  Yes if you have:

  • soil: mosses are very adaptable to most soils including compacted soils, clay and compost; some aren’t too happy in sand but others tolerate it
  • shade: although a few species are sun-loving, most mosses prefer shade – partial to full shade

moss grows everywhere

Isn’t it too hot and dry?

Start looking around where you live, you will probably be surprised to find mosses growing not too far away. They are one of Earth’s oldest types of plants for a reason – they are very adaptable. Mosses need water droplets to reproduce and spread, but they can live for long periods of time without water – they are tough! 

While mosses tolerate periods of drought they prefer some moisture.  So is it too hot and dry where you live – probably not if you can give them shade and some supplemental water.

Will moss tolerate traffic?

  • yes, and it actually benefits from some foot traffic once established; in the early stages avoid walking on it and use stepping-stones or a walkway
  • does not like quick stops and skids that break the stems – not good for the kid’s running games
  • probably not too useful where the dog creates a path running along the fence

How big an area should I start with?

With most plantings I suggest starting with a small manageable area, but because moss is so slow-growing I recommend selecting an area as large as you can keep regularly watered (ie moist) for several months.

What is the best place for moss?

  • shady places –  a few moss species like full sun, but not most
  • sites with light traffic – no quick stops and running and no dog paths
  • under trees

How do I prepare the soil?

Mosses aren’t too fussy about soils, but they thrive where soils are a bit acidic (pH 5.5).  A simple soil test can tell you if your soils may need some amendments to reduce alkalinity or acidity.  If your soil’s pH is higher than 5.5 lower it with skimmed milk powder, powdered sulfur, or rhododendron fertilizer. Be sure to lightly water in any powdered amendments.

Soil preparation includes clearing the soil of weeds, grass, conifer needles and leaves where you want the moss to grow. If you prefer a smooth, flat moss lawn take time to level the area, otherwise leave bumps and lumps to become part of the picture.

Water your soil well prior to planting.

Pleurocarpous moss

Pleurocarpous moss

What kind of moss is best?

There are two general types of moss: Pleurocarpous and Acrocarpous. Consider using a mixture of both types and even mixing mosses of different colors.

Pleurocarpous type mosses spread horizontally over the ground and tend to grow quickly and constantly making them desirable for carpeting.


  • Fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum)
  • Erect-Fruited Iris-Moss (Distichium capillaceum)
  • Juniper Haircap-Moss (Polytrichum juniperinum)
Acrocarpous moss

Acrocarpous moss

Acrocarpous type mosses tend to grow in clumps that develop before it spreads horizontally. They are slower growing and need to dry out periodically and thus are more drought tolerant than Pleurocarps.


  • Fire Moss (Ceratodon purpureus)
  • Bottle Moss (Amphidium lapponicum)
  • Broom Moss, Rock Cap Moss, Windswept Moss (Dicanum scoparium)

Where do I get moss?

There are suppliers on the Internet and perhaps your local nurseries supply mosses.

I prefer suppliers that use moss as live plants rather than those that collect moss and dry it for ornamental purposes.

Collecting moss from your own property is the ideal solution.  It not only is a free source but also indicates that mosses are happy in your environment and you will have the best chance of success.

Whether you collect from your own property or get permission to harvest from someone else, collect no more than 30% of existing plants to avoid killing existing populations. After harvesting cover exposed areas with leaf debris so new moss can move in and cover the area – usually within a year or two.

How to gather moss

Mosses can be successfully transplanted anytime of the year.

Mosses (members of the phylum Bryophyta) lack conventional roots, stems, and leaves and grow as carpets of tiny plants that easily separate from their substrate.  To harvest, gently pry up pieces of moss using a hori-hori knife or trowel – something with a long blade. Pieces should be about 6” in diameter to keep it from drying out too quickly. Keep some soil intact with the moss.

Transport mosses in seed trays or box flats to minimize disruption of soil and rhizoids.  Watering is not necessary but is it is a good idea if the mosses will be uprooted for more than a few hours.

How do I plant moss?

Before planting lightly scratch the soil surface and water thoroughly.

To plant moss gently but firmly press down the moss pieces make good contact with the soil; water thoroughly.  Water thoroughly to wet the top inch of soil and then press firmly again, re-compacting the moss into the surface.  Secure moss onto rocks and uneven patches to keep moss from moving out-of-place.  Plant staples can be used to secure recalcitrant pieces.  If you have squirrel issues you may want to place netting over the planting.

To make a little moss go a bit further, place the moss sods at spaced intervals. Over time the sods will grow together to form one continuous patch of green.

spreading out moss pieces

spreading out moss pieces

How does moss grow?

If you have seen mosses, you know that they are actually carpets of individual plants. They are rarely taller than one inch high.

Mosses require water to reproduce. While all plants need water, mosses need droplets of water to enable reproduction.

Caring for your moss

Water the fragments 1 to 4 times a day for the first week depending on the conditions and occasionally walk on them to keep their contact with the soil. The best time of day to water is early in the morning.  Avoid watering your mosses close to dusk.

A sprinkler head or hose with a very fine nozzle that mists the moss is much better than direct water pressure which may damage the plants. If the moss begins to appear dark green or patchy over time, it is likely receiving too much water.

moss stars

Watering schedule:

  • month 1-2 – daily to increase growth and keep moss in place
  • month 3 – every three days
  • month 4 – once a week
  • month 5 – twice a month until area is completely covered with moss
  • month 6 – 12 water if ground’s surface dries out or if there has been no rain for three weeks or more.

Transplanted mosses usually need watering even into the winter months during the first year of establishment. Mosses will survive periods of drought once they are established but it is important for establishment, growth and reproduction that they remain moist for the first 6 months to a year.

Anyone who has tried started a moss lawn knows mosses are grow quite slowly. Most people understand this, but many don’t understand just how slow is slow.  Be patient!  It may take up to several growing seasons for moss to completely fill in an area.  How beautiful when it’s fully matured!

Once moss is established keep the area tidy. Remove leaves and needles.  If weeds or grass and creates the least disturbance for your moss. The moss will do the rest.  Moss spores are borne on the wind and will settle in on their own and take hold. come up remove them immediately.  Tackling them systematically makes management doable.

Can you really reproduce moss by putting it in the blender with buttermilk or beer?

Recently there have been numerous articles and TV shows about creating moss gardens by putting moss in a food blender and creating a slurry that can be painted wherever you want moss to grow.

Here’s one recipe:

moss milkshake

Fill an old blender with a large piece of moss (dead or alive), two cups of buttermilk (or beer), and two cups of water.  Blend the mixture until it has the consistency of a traditional milkshake.

Spread your milkshake. Coat your desired objects/garden plot with the moss milkshake. You can pour it directly onto things, use a paintbrush, or a spray bottle (?) to get it spread out. Although not as visually appealing, you can spread this mixture onto the ground rather than planting live bits of moss. This slurry must be kept moist for several months.

Although this may work, the best way to grow moss is by division of a colony or fragmentation, buttermilk is not needed (‘though maybe a beer is.)

If a moss lawn seems like too big a project, there are lots of other ways to use it!  Have fun!

what else you can do!

Mud Maiden
Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall, England

Planting Under Trees

What can be planted underneath a tree? Large trees often have large bare areas underneath their limbs that are virtual deserts since little, if any, rain ever penetrates the branches – especially on dense evergreen species such as Blue Spruce.  Roots often emerge from the soil making it difficult to dig.

Before considering which native plant species can be utilized in this situation, irrigation must be addressed.  Without supplemental irrigation, plants underneath an evergreen tree will not survive.  Drip systems are the most effective, especially those that coil around the base of the tree between the trunk and the outer drip lines created by the branches.  Trees have significant ground within their drip lines and it is important to plan for how big the tree will be at maturity.

drip lines

image credit:  thegoodearthgarden.com

It isn’t necessary to have your planting be circular beneath a tree!  Consider using a garden hose to lay out a pleasing shape that extends outside of the drip lines. Depending on your goals, the area beneath the tree may be incorporated into a larger landscaping area or it may be isolated as its own space.

Edging may be desired to define areas. Install edging 6 – 8 inches deep to prevent ground covers from spreading out of their boundaries.

Also consider whether or not to add soil to the area.  Often minimal soil covers heaved roots and needles have created a dense mulch that may not be easy for new plants to grow in.  Prepare soil by gently raking duff off roots and pulling any weeds. Digging the soil beneath a tree is potentially harmful to the tree.  Every root is connected to a branch and killing roots may produce visible damage to the tree as well as weakening the tree’s stability.

Add only minimal soil above the soil line.  Roots need to breathe and adding too much soil will smother some roots.  Keep the root crown at ground level and avoid piling dirt around the tree trunk.

Start with young shade plants that whose roots will find niches as they grow.  Ground covers are especially useful since their mature height stays low.  Most of the plants listed below will spread with adequate water.

Native plants appropriate for shaded areas beneath trees include:

Evergreen Groundcovers
Creeping Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens)
Kinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Round-leaf Alumroot (Heuchera cylindrica)

also consider mosses and/or sedges (e.g. Sprengel’s Sedge)

Deciduous Groundcovers
Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)
Heart-Leaf Arnica (Arnica cordifolia)
Canada Violet (Viola canadensis)
Raceme Pussytoes (Antennaria racemosa)
Side-flowered Mitrewort (Mitella stauropetala)
Twinflower (Linnea borealis)
Wood Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

So yes! you CAN plant beneath dense evergreen trees with a bit of planning and some irrigation.