Planting prairie plugs

By Jim Alwill

Jim Alwill – prairie plant propagator
I grew lead plant in pots in two months.
Lead plant
I planted 100 lead plant in one hour on a sand hill in Bureau County, IL. 100% survival. Planting in rows and patches makes it easy to collect by hand, and I create habitat by replacing brome grass sod that won’t go away easily.
Spidorwort, Tradescantia ohiensis. I have been planting in sand the last three summers in early September with great success. The key is to have plants with good roots that were gown in full sun. Give the plugs in their growing flats just enough water to survive the next couple of hot days. I purposely let the flats go dry and the plants start to go limp, and then I water them in the last hour of daylight.
Post hole digger for the bigger plugs
Before image while planting
After planting. Should be able to collect seeds next fall from these plants.
Polyacrylamide was used on some plugs. Wet the product in a bucket of water, then take a handful of the wet polyacrylamide and funnel it into the premade hole by hand. Adding this product gives a couple of field days reprieve till I can come back and water again. A one inch rainfall means I can stop watering for a week. I look at weather forecasts for possible thunder storm front coming and then make a made dash to plant several hundred plugs.
Showy goldenrod, Solidago speciosa, loves sand as do bumble bees.

Summer 2020 plants. I produced 10,000 plugs.
Polyacrylamide in water. I have a farm wagon with a 500 gallon tank of water that I can fill 5 gallon buckets with and then fill a 2 gallon watering can to hand water the planted plugs at the last hour of the day. This allows the water to soak in overnight and not evaporate the same day. The trick is to find the plants again to water. If the area is mowed short, I can find the plants again to give them another drink.
I mowed paths first and then made divot holes with a home made divet bar. This is a 4 way wood splitting head welded to a pipe and then a pipe handle. I think I got 98 % survival overall, and I really didn’t break a sweat.

I have been working my 10 acre sand hill for the last 20 years and have thrown down tons of  forb seed with poor results overall. Little bluestem will grow very well in sand. The forbs don’t seem to get past the brome.

I just learned about the grass herbicide Intensity herbicide three yrs ago. My intention is to switch to more herbicide ( intensity) and try more seed. 


About Grassland Restoration Network blog

Bill Kleiman publishes this blog. Bill's daytime job is manager of Nachusa Grasslands. We are looking for guest authors on various topics of grassland habitat restoration. Contact me with your ideas or drafts.
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6 Responses to Planting prairie plugs

  1. Joe Suchecki,Springbrook Prairie,Naperville says:

    I have had very poor success rate with plugs. Lots are eaten or dislodged by critters, but others die out even if I water for a while. To what do you attribute your high success rate?

    • sandfarmer2 says:

      Mowing the surrounding area low helps to discourage voles, rabbits and groundhogs.
      Liatris corms are vole/ mouse candy. Lost 2000 purple prairie clover one fall because I didn’t monitor the planting and a rabbit/ ground hog chewed the tops off and in the process yanked the plants out of the ground and then killed by winter temps. I even mow down the new plants in late fall to discourage critter damage. Am trying to attract natural predators such as snakes, coyotes, and owls. Problem in still in discovery stage and will update when solutions known. Wire mesh fence useful for small areas against rabbits.

  2. Bernie Buchholz says:

    Jim, please detail the process and conditions for growing the lead plant so quickly. Thanks.

    • sandfarmer2 says:

      Vegetable/ flower fertilizer. Preferably with a lower nitrogen analysis to help promote root growth . Nitrogen causes a lot of top growth that is not needed right away. Water soluble granules work well in a watering can. Miracle Gro works well. I grow the plants on the ground in trays in full sun. Water in daylight evening so it soaks in at night and doesn’t evaporate right away. Started with 2” plugs from local nursery. Potted them up Fourth of July and planted first week of September when cooler weather arrived.

  3. Henry Eilers says:

    Very detailed, excellent.
    Organic soil plugs in tight clay soil can easily get waterlogged; just one of several issues.
    Each site and situation needs its own restoration protocol. We learn much from our failures!

  4. James McGee says:

    Jim is having great success with a dibble bar because it is impossible to compact sandy soil. In the clay-based soils typical in Naperville and the town where I live, Schaumburg, a dibble bar pushed into the ground compacts the soil to the point you’ve just made tiny clay pots. These tiny clay pots can’t hold enough water for the plug to survive long. Compaction can make the walls too hard for the roots of the plugs to penetrate. As Henry mentioned, the holes made with a dibble bar are often waterlogged after a heavy rain. In the sun, plugs then become desert dry. More on this follows.

    Growing mixes wick moisture. This is an advantage when growing plants in pots. The moisture wicks to the surface of the pot helping cool the plant. Frequent watering keeps the growing mix from drying out. Once planted, the growing mix continues to wick moisture causing the plugs to dry out rapidly. This can kill the plugs unless you haul water to them in between rains. My solution has been to plant plugs deeper, so the surface of plugs is about ¼ inch below the soil level. I then cover the top of the plug with enough native soil that the growing medium is covered and the soil is level. This way the growing mix in the planted plug dries out at the same rate as the rest of the soil.

    Another benefit of planting the surface of plugs ¼ inch below the soil level is this tends to prevent them from heaving out of the ground. The wetting and drying cycle causes the growing medium in the plugs to expand and contract. Much like frost heaving, the alternating wet and dry periods can cause the plugs to work their way up to the point they are sticking out above the soils surface. When the plugs work themselves up out of the ground, they dry out faster and are more likely to die.

    My suggestion for the time to plant plugs would be fall, as Jim has done, or as soon as the soil thaws in spring. I keep my plugs under a blanket of chopped up leaves through the winter. You want the plants to have a chance to send down roots before the dryness and heat of summer.

    If you can cover the plugs with chicken wire for a few weeks the smell of freshly dug dirt will dissipate. Once the smell of freshly dug dirt is gone, the critters tend not to dig looking for whatever might have been buried. However, this won’t solve the problem Jim mentions of herbivores pulling the plugs out of the ground.

    My last tip may not improve survival, but it will definitely get your plants growing bigger faster. Instead of using a trowel to make a hole the width of the plug, I use a typical size shovel to dig a hole that is the one scoop deep. I then crumble the scoop with my garden glove covered hands around the plug. As I am crumbling the soil, I removed any roots I find. This makes an ample competition free space with loose soil for the planted plugs to colonize with roots. When I have planted in both plug sized holes and typical shovel sized holes for the same batch of plugs, the plugs planted as described in the shovel sized holes are much larger the following year.

    I hope some of this overly long comment is helpful to some of you all.

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