prairie plants take root at Moontree Studios

Apologies for not posting for some time now. Summer is busy!

A couple years ago, my family visited Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. It is a prairie/savanna habitat restoration project on the scale of thousands of acres. It’s visitors center is top notch and a must-see for anyone traveling on Interstate 80. At the center is a very striking display of the massive root system of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) one of the most dominant native grasses of the tallgrass prairie region.

How was such a display created?

It was a method pioneered by the team at the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Click the link to read more.

After years of waiting and planning, we recently embarked on an attempt to replicate this process at Moontree Studios. This involved many conversations with the generous & talented staff at UNI, for which I’m extremely grateful! I tried to adjust & refine processes that they pioneered over the last 10 years. Other adjustments were forced on us, as the ripples of the COVID pandemic led to issues with materials availability and price. But… we persevered!

I’ll omit the technical details of the project & let the photos do most of the story-telling this time. [There appears to be no rhyme or reason why some photos are uploading right-side-up, sideways, or upside-down. I don’t really know what to do about it. Sorry, if that’s the case for you!]

The aim of the project is to produce visually engaging root specimens for local organizations & agencies to help tell the story of the prairie ecosystem, a community where much of the activity is out of sight, below the soil surface.

The process of growing the specimens is much more involved than one might think. You can’t just take an excavator in the prairie and dig them up.

First… we need a narrow,10 foot deep hole in the ground.

Next: drop in some tubes 10 foot long and 12 inches in diameter. These are the sleeves, and they’ll stay permanently in the ground.

thanks Matthew!

Push the dirt back in…

thanks Kurt!

All set!

Next: we need smaller, 10-inch diameter PVC tubs that will fit inside these sleeves. This is where the plants will grow. In order for us to easily extract them (in a year or two) and liberate the roots, we need to first cut them in half lengthwise, then piece them back together. Got it? I’ve found that I’ve had a hard time conveying this to people using just words.

Next, clamp the pieces back together, using various clips, clamps, and duct tape:

Almost ready!

After the roots are grown and we are trying to pull these up out of the ground, we need something in the bottom to prevent everything from falling out the bottom. A well-braced flower pot will suffice:

Drainage provided by Sr Mary Baird:

Ok, drop them in!

Since there is no recipe book, it was surprising how much work it was to just see… tubes in the ground. But, we aren’t done!

The growing medium is next. Soil won’t do, as it binds to tightly with the fine woven root hairs. It’d be impossible to pull away without damaging the specimen. Contrary to most gardening advice, we wanted something that retained almost no moisture. The roots should grow between the medium, not into it. We used Turface, the material used on ball diamonds.

All hands on deck!

Putting in plants was by far the easiest part of the project! For most of them, we paired the fibrous-rooted Big Bluestem with a tap-rooted wildflower, such as Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthenaceum) or Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens).

Two peas in a pod. Well, technically, only the Lead Plant is in the pea family, Fabaceae.

Since the material doesn’t retain water, we have no choice but to irrigate (and fertilize). Lead Hydrology Engineer Matthew Celmer (who moonlights as Director of Moontree Studios) designed this system.

Note the metal spike that runs through the tube. That’s what we’ll use to pull it up when the plants are grown (with machinery, of course).

A simple digital timer automates the irrigation. It has some newfangled bluetooth controls you can mess with on your phone. But the dial works just fine and we don’t need to constantly adjust it. All we need to do is periodically check in.

You have never seen joy until you’ve seen Matthew get acquainted with the motherlode of clay that we unearthed from the bottom of the trench.

And… that’s it!

We missed the 1st half of the 2021 growing season, so it’s not yet certain when we’ll be able to unearth these plants. It really depends on how robust their growth is. A couple might grow fast enough to pull up at the end of 2022. Others might take until 2023. We’ll then use chemicals to treat and preserve the roots, order the plexiglass display case, develop an educational brochure, and start delivery of roots to our partner agencies (as well as a display at Moontree, of course).

Once again, I’m greatly indebted to UNI for sharing the learnings from their pioneering work.

Even before the roots are finished, they are doing the work. We’ve had several groups of children stop by Moontree this summer for educational sessions, and the prairie roots project comprises another stop on the tour.

I would normally end by saying that I can’t wait to pull these tubes up, but… I definitely CAN wait! Time for the air, water, and plants to work their magic while we rest for a spell, or at least move on to other work.

2 Replies to “prairie plants take root at Moontree Studios”

  1. Sr. Linda Volk

    You put a lot of the ecological virtues to work here. Wonderful project and an eye-catcher for any student age 5 to 95.


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