Getting to the Root of the problem:

Montana’s plants have special adaptations to plains life
Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, June 20, 2019
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Photo By Eleanor Guerrero
Cover your soil and seedlings. Delicate seedlings can use some cover such as some of this alfalfa hay when growing.

In the land of wind, clay, biting temperatures, heavy snow and erosion, it takes quite a plant to make it through all the seasons of Montana.

Amazingly, nature figured all this out when it created the Great Plains and brought in all the plants uniquely fitted to such an extreme climate.

Many prairie plants have stiff, upright stems and deep roots that will slow the flow of water, which reduces runoff and erosion, enhances water infiltration. This helps the modern day farmer and gardener by keeping more soil and any soil-adsorbed pesticides in the field and out of water. 

For larger fields, nitrate and phosphorus movement off of fields is substantially reduced when prairie strips are incorporated into a field buffer plan. 

Prairie plants can offer additional benefits as most are drought resistant, can tolerate heavy rainfall, and will improve habitat diversity for wildlife and beneficial insects such as pollinators. 

Even in a yard where the slopes are causing a landowner to lose precious soil or water, maintenance of buffers is important. Small rock buffers can be built to slow water loss and feed the plants. One Bozeman master gardener says one should never lose your soil or your water. Cover all open soil so it is not lost, ideally with plants. Farmers know this and grow cover crops off season to keep precious soil covered and add nutrients. 

However, if you are not into building up the land, excessive sediment can accumulate in buffers and change the way water flows. It also may reduce water infiltration, making buffers less effective in trapping dissolved pesticides and nitrates. Extra sediment will need to be removed or evened out to keep buffers functioning properly. But with good soil conservation practices, such as conservation tillage, then such buffers will help decrease sedimentation, reduce maintenance, and extend their effectiveness.

Going back to earlier times, according to the Montana Field Guide informs Montanans that we have inherited dynamic vegetative communities  in a diverse prairie ecosystem. Vegetation is a mixture of mid and short grasses, generally having an average height of 30 centimeters (12 inches). Throughout the Montana portion of this system, rhizomatous western wheatgrass is the dominant component, especially on finer-textured soils and where the moisture balance is favorable. It decreases under prolonged or grazing regimes. Grasses were typically used by large herbivores such as bison, but since European settlement, herbivores such as cattle and sheep have been the primary users of the vegetation.

The prairie is a mix of grasses and forbes (non-grass, herbaceous flowering plants). It is this very diversity that allows a healthy prairie to survive the range of conditions here. If there is a drought, a drought loving plant takes up the space, if there is wind, a deep rooted plant will thrive-the answer is to keep the ground covered. Empty ground means lost top soil to wind and erosion in Montana. You can add such diversity to your lawns and fields and make your soil healthier and ground cover stronger. (see box for native prairie plants). If you are adding native plants it is helpful to physically cover the seeds, for example, with alfalfa hay; it not only keeps the ground moist for seedlings but the alfalfa seeds it contains may grow and add more valuable nutrients and deep roots to hold the soil. 

The prairie system covers much of the eastern two-thirds of Montana, occurring continuously for hundreds of square kilometers, interrupted only by wetland/riparian areas or sand prairies. Soils are primarily fine and medium-textured. The growing season averages 115 days, ranging from 100 days on the Canadian border to 130 days on the Wyoming border. 

In this short period, it is important to conserve all the richness of our area, be it soil or water. Native plants are built to do the job. 



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