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Summer 2004: Bringing the prairie home with wildflowers

Posted by Patricia Stockdill 10/20/2016 12:59:55 PM

Every year the kaleidoscope brings new and fresh marvels - a splash of blue here and a whispering of yellow there. North Dakota's prairie, its grasses and flowers, are an ever-evolving montage of color. That, in part, is what drew Roger Rostvet and Dawn Ohlhouser to wildflowers. "I've driven around this county for 30 years and never paid much attention," Roger said. 

 

But when the couple started spending evenings and weekends exploring and discovering the prairie, wildflowers in particular, they learned more than basic knowledge about the state's plants. They unleashed a passion for wildflowers.

 

Their casual interest grew from a hobby to a passion to what is now a business with blooming possibilities. They began by trying to locate and identify different wildflowers.

 

They bought plant identification books and nomenclature keys.

 

They started researching various species dotting the state.

 

They started collecting seeds and began searching for specific species.

 

Just as a birder may search for a particular species on their birding life list, they began searching for what could be considered their North Dakota native plant life list, trying to find species from virtually every native ecosystem in the state, as well as collecting seeds.

 

In 1994 they looked at the large, open space in their backyard and decided to see if any of the seeds they collected would grow. They began with a garden-sized patch of seven or eight common species. "Some grew, some didn't. It was just kind of an experiment," Roger said. 

 

Some species grew quite well. Without even knowing it, they discovered they had done the right things necessary for some plants to successfully grow. "They grew better than we ever anticipated," he said, "we found out that some of that stuff wasn't that hard to grow."

 

Now a decade later that patch encompasses most of the backyard and then some, including a nearby two-acre lot. What began with a few species now consists of about 50 different ones, including one that Roger is experimenting with as a perennial food and cover source for wildlife. "It's a hobby gone awry. Like Dawn says, it's a passion turned into an obsession," he said.

 

They enjoy collecting seeds and trying to decipher the secrets of what it takes for native seeds to germinate. Some require frost or freezing. Others do not. Some will lay dormant for years until the right environmental conditions exist to germinate. For others, it seems to be a matter of tossing some seeds on the ground, packing the soil and walking away.

 

The couple learned the tricks of trade when it comes to raising native wildflowers, quickly learning that they are not cared for in the same manner as domestic, cultured flowers: Disking and tilling the soil is a definite no-no. Native plants, having evolved since the Ice Age in hard, packed sod, do not do well in loose soil.

 

Chemicals should not be used on native plants and some of the equipment used to collect seeds and produce plants is quite specialized and expensive. They have modified equipment to fit their needs and searched many an auction or farm sale for items that fill their equipment needs list. 

 

Raising native plants and seeds is labor-intensive. Much of what this couple has been doing over the past 10 years is research and development.

 

They learned that processing and cleaning seeds for germination is an art onto itself. Some species, such as dotted blazing star, are extremely difficult to de-fuzz and clean. It was not until 2003 that the couple was able to successfully get a good crop of dotted blazing star from their seeds.

 

Many of the seeds planted came from plants they grew originally from seed.

 

Some native plants raised in a more cultured environment take on a different look than their counterparts that must struggle in the highly competitive natural sod environment. As an example, purple coneflower in the wild usually has one or two flowers. But in an environment with less competition from other plants and grasses, purple coneflower could have more than a dozen flowers on one plant.

 

Roger and Dawn's yard has gained even more color since they started growing native wildflowers: As a result of the wide variety of native plants blooming from spring into fall, they now have a diverse variety of birds and butterflies. "The amount of monarch butterflies around there is phenomenal," Roger said.

 

The Bismarck couple also learned that other people had similar interests in native plants. They began selling native wildflower seeds produced from plants they raised, as well as selling plants themselves.

 

They also developed their own seed mix from plants they grew, a collection of several species along with native grasses designed for residential areas. "Our plants, we know that the average person can plant it and have a reasonably good chance it'll grow," Roger said. They developed the mix because they do not want wildflowers to get a bad reputation as being difficult to grow. Their goal is to provide a wide variety of native species for the state's ecosystem.

 

With drier conditions returning to parts of North Dakota in recent summers, more people are taking an interest in growing native plants, Roger said. Having evolved in the state's natural environment, many native plant species are more drought-tolerant than cultured flowers. They can also take an old-fashioned North Dakota year of weather extremes.

 

This spring Roger and Dawn held their first "Plant Day," where people can pick up their orders of pre-dug plant or packaged seeds. 

Patience is the key when it comes to growing native plants, Roger said. In the short-term, they may seem more difficult to grow. But in the long-term, the ever-changing kaleidoscope that is a native plant garden requires less water, less care, less chemicals and the ever-present question of what color could bloom next. "That's the beauty of it," Roger said, "is that it evolves, especially with a mix. Each year, it's different." Depending on the environmental conditions, a native plant garden will change from year to year.

 

A native plant garden is relatively easy to start. The trick, in addition to patience, is to have adequate seed-to-soil contact, a common mistake among gardeners accustomed to cultured garden plants. Seeds are best planted in late fall in a firm seedbed. Working the soil no more than one-half inch deep with a rake, hand broadcasting the seeds followed by a light raking and firm packing is about all it takes.

 

That and patience. Lots of patience.

 

The first year often does not look like much, Roger said. And gardeners should not hesitate to mow or clip their native planting if weeds pose a problem.

 

But once a native garden takes hold, all of those doubts should vanish.

 

Dawn has extended the life of her plants by making dried floral arrangements. Even though no longer blooming, native plants continue to offer an array of colors and textures.

 

It is difficult for Roger and Dawn to pick a favorite wildflower species. For Roger, it may be penstemon or spiderwort. For Dawn, it may be the vivid orange of a native lily.

 

But for Roger and Dawn, each species is special in its own way. It is, after all, a passion gone awry.

 

Some wildflower identification reference books:

  • "Wildflowers of North Dakota" by Paul Kannowski, published by University of North Dakota Press.
  • "Grassland Plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains" by James R. Johnson and Gary E. Larson, published by South Dakota State University.
  • "Wildflowers, Grasses and Other Plants of the Northern Plains and Black Hills" by Theodore Van Bruggen, published by the Badlands Natural History Association by Fenske Printing.
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