Growing a Piedmont Prairie

At the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, they’re growing a Piedmont prairie, and we helped.

Both the gardens and our nursery lie in the Southern Piedmont. This region once hosted thousands of acres of prairie dominated by drought-tolerant grasses and wildflowers with a scattering of trees and shrubs. These Piedmont prairies, like many other ecosystems, are rapidly disappearing. Only a few remnant prairies remain.

Annabel and Stefan
Annabel Renwick and Stefan Bloodworth have worked to bring a Piedmont prairie to Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

Envisioning a Prairie

Stefan Bloodworth, curator of the H. L. Blomquist Garden, grew up in this area. He remembers playing as a child in fields filled with grasses and wildflowers. He was fascinated by the creatures who lived there and the plants that supported them. The Blomquist Garden did not include a prairie ecosystem, and he wanted to offer that experience to garden visitors.

Annabel Renwick, horticulturist in the Blomquist Garden, has been leading the project. She spent six months collecting seed from roadsides and remnant sites in Durham and surrounding counties. She sent the grass seed to Hoffman Nursery for us to grow into liners. Meanwhile, Annabel grew out the other herbaceous species.

The Prairie Begins

After extensive research, she developed a planting plan that would be ecologically sound and aesthetically pleasing for visitors. Earlier this week, staff from Duke Gardens picked up over 8000 grass liners from the nursery. Enlisting the help of a team of volunteers, they started planting. We visited the site the second day of planting to help out and document this exciting new project.

Grass liners grown at HNI
With over 8000 plants, our shipping crew lean stacked the trays for efficient transport. These liners grew from seed Annabel collected from local roadsides and preserved prairie sites.
Jeff Harward picks up the grasses
Jeff Harward from the Duke Gardens staff signs for two truckloads of grasses.
Planting plan
Annabel had spreadsheets and several pages of plans to consult in laying out plants for installation. She used a grid system to break the site down and guide installation.
Plants in staging area
Staff and volunteers brought the trays of grasses and other plants to this staging area in the shade. As trays were needed, Annabel pulled them from here.
Drilling holes and laying out the plants.
Stefan used an auger to drills holes for the plants. Some areas were sandy, others were full of clay, and one section had a serious hardpan. The auger was necessary.
Annabel adding innoculant to the holes.
A dose of mycorrhizal innoculant was placed in each planting hole.
Planting the liners
Once the holes were prepared, Annabel placed the liners. She used a grid on the planting plan and on the ground to help guide placement. Once a square on the grid was complete, volunteers planted the liners and mulched the area.
The first sections of the prairie.
The sections of the prairie nearest the garden entrance and edges will be planted more heavily with showy flowering species. The central portion and tougher areas will rely more on grasses. They’re pretty adaptable, those grasses.
The beginning of the prairie
The planting will continue for several days. We look forward to seeing it grow and evolve.

As the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted. Interestingly, as soon as the plants reached the site, butterflies and other pollinators showed up. We think it’s going to be a pretty lively place, and we can’t wait!

If you’re interested in pollinators and would like to know which grasses support them, try our pollinator post.

To find out more about the seed collection and her vision for the project, read Annabel’s article in the garden’s newsletter. Get an more recent take in this article from Duke’s news website.

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