By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
What is a lead plant and why does it have such an unusual name? Lead plant (Amorpha canescens) is a perennial prairie wildflower commonly found throughout the middle two-thirds of the United States and Canada. Also known by various monikers such as downy indigo bush, buffalo bellows and prairie shoestrings, lead plant is named for its dusty, silvery-gray leaves. Read on to learn about growing lead plants.
Lead plant is a sprawling, semi-erect plant. Foliage consists of long, narrow leaves, sometimes densely covered with fine hairs. Spiky, purple blooms appear from early to midsummer. Lead plant is extremely cold hardy and can tolerate temperatures as cold as -13 F. (-25 C.).
The spiky blooms attract a large number of pollinators, including several types of bees. Lead plant is flavorful and protein rich, which means it’s frequently grazed by livestock, as well as deer and rabbits. If these unwanted visitors are a problem, a wire cage can serve as protection until the plant matures and becomes somewhat woody.
Lead plant thrives in full sunlight. Although it tolerates light shade, blooms tend to be less impressive and the plant may be somewhat gangly.
Lead plant isn’t picky and performs well in nearly any well-drained soil, including poor, dry soil. It can become invasive if soil is too rich, however. Lead plant ground cover, though, can be ornamental and provides effective erosion control.
Growing lead plants requires stratification of seeds, and there are several methods of accomplishing this. The easiest way is to simply plant seeds in autumn and allow them to stratify naturally over the winter months. If you prefer to plant seeds in spring, soak the seeds in warm water for 12 hours, and then store them in temperatures of 41 F. (5 C.) for 30 days.
Plant seeds about ¼ inch (.6 cm.) deep in prepared soil. For a full stand, plant 20 to 30 seeds per square foot (929 cm².). Germination occurs in two to three weeks.
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The government will help farmers mitigate climate change by paying them to “put their land in conservation” and plant cover crops, said President-elect Biden, providing some details on his campaign call to offset greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The sector accounts for roughly 10% of emissions nationwide.
Climate change is among four priorities for Biden during the transition, along with the pandemic, economic recovery and racial equity. The Biden-Harris transition team describes climate change as an existential threat and says the new administration will lead a global effort “to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets.”
Biden cited agriculture and climate change during a news conference on Friday in which he called Tom Vilsack, his nominee to lead the USDA, “the best secretary of agriculture that I believe our nation has ever had,” based on his work during the Obama era. “He wasn’t looking for this job. But I was persistent,” said Biden with a chuckle.
“He helped develop my rural plan for America in the campaign and now he will carry it out. That includes making American agriculture the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and create new sources of income for farmers in the process, by paying farmers to put their land in conservation and plant cover crops that use the soil to capture carbon,” said the president-elect.
Vilsack said the No. 1 duty for the USDA in the new administration will be “to contribute all that we can as a department to aid in the pandemic response” by reviving the rural economy and addressing hunger across the country.
“When we emerge from this crisis, we are going to have an incredible opportunity before us,” he said, “to position American agriculture to lead our nation and the world in combating climate change and reaping the new, good-paying jobs that will come from that leadership.”
As soon as Biden takes office, the USDA should declare climate change as a top priority and “re-set the narrative” in rural America by emphasizing the decades-old commitment to stewardship by farmers and forestry owners, says a white paper authored by 150 climate and energy experts. Farm Belt opposition helped defeat the Obama administration’s proposal for a cap-and-trade system a decade ago. A former USDA undersecretary, Robert Bonnie, now the head of the Biden-Harris review team for USDA, was a lead author of the Climate 21 Project chapter on the USDA.
“Given climate skepticism by many in rural America, it is critical that agriculture, forestry, and other rural stakeholders view themselves as USDA’s partners to achieve climate goals,” says the white paper. “We recommend USDA’s initiatives emphasize collaboration, incentives, the historic resiliency and innovation of agriculture and forestry, and the critical role that rural America can play in helping address climate change while creating jobs and economic opportunity.”
The white paper calls for a “carbon bank” at USDA that would “finance large-scale investments in climate-smart land management practices.” The agency would also encourage adoption of climate-smart practices through its land stewardship programs. The funding source for the carbon bank would be the same agency that the Trump administration used to send $22 billion in coronavirus relief to farmers.
The newly formed Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, composed of environmental, farm, and food-retailer groups, says the government should build its climate mitigation platform around voluntary action and “market-driven opportunities” such as carbon trading. The alliance supported a USDA carbon bank as a way to set a floor price for carbon sequestration in the soil.
House Agriculture chairman Collin Peterson says a doubling in size of the land-idling Conservation Reserve to a minimum of 50 million acres would be a straightforward way to achieve climate change goals through a program already popular with farmers. “Land enrolled in the program has helped to keep billions of tons of soil from eroding and sequestered millions of tons of carbon,” said Peterson in unveiling his proposal.
By contrast, he said, farmers are skeptical of other unproven approaches: “You’re not going to be able to sell that to farmers.”
For years after defeat of the Obama cap-and-trade proposal, climate change was a taboo topic in rural America. In those days, Vilsack said he made headway with farmers by talking about how to adapt to the changing climate when the concept of climate change was rejected out of hand.
The Climate 21 Project’s transition memo for the Agriculture Department is available here.
The native leadplant can typically be found growing in well-drained open spaces such as sandy flats and valleys, hillsides, streambanks, woodlands, glades, and prairies. It does best in sunny, sandy or rocky, well-drained soil. If grown in a shady location, it will sprawl along the ground towards a more sunny area. Its tiny purple flowers are grouped together in showy terminal spikes. The leaves are covered with short, dense hairs. This covering gives a gray tint to the leaves, making the plant appear as have been dusted with lead. Thus the common name.
Its roots can reach depths up to 4 feet and sometimes deeper. These deep roots help the plants survival during wildfires.
Insects, Diseases and Other Plant Problems: Although this plant has no serious disease or insect problems, there is some susceptibility to leaf spots, rust, canker, and powdery mildew. It needs to be protected from deer, rabbits and other herbivores.
Of the nearly 500 species of sedum, some are more popular and more widely used than others. The varieties are mainly classified into creeping sedums and upright growers. Here are a few of the most popular and appealing types.
Spring, summer, and fall are all good times to plant, just not on overly hot days.
Check the requirements of the variety you are planting, but most are sun-lovers and will want 6 or more hours per day. They can be grown in rocky or sandy soil, hillsides, raised beds, or in containers as long as the soil drains well.
They require well-drained soil, and most prefer slightly acidic conditions with a soil pH of 6 to 6.5.
The planting hole should be the same depth as the pot the sedum is being planted from. No fertilizer needs to be added. Water after planting.
Sedums tend to be slow growers, so allow them time and space to spread out. Don’t plant too closely to aggressive growers that might take their space before they have a chance to mature.
For ground cover varieties to fill in quicker, plant a little closer together, but not touching.
Taller border varieties should be planted approximately 15 inches apart to allow enough room for their mature size. Overcrowding can lead to poor plant health.
Nothing fills a vacant space and minimizes garden maintenance like herbaceous ground covers. Steadily gaining ground in the first few seasons, these plants can transform a dull space into a rich tapestry of leaf shapes, textures, and colors. They can spruce up challenging areas under trees, accent transitional locations along paths and foundations, and add visual interest to expansive sites. Plus, unlike turf, ground covers can provide a seasonal show of flowers, fruits, and colors.But where do you begin when transforming a blank slate into a lush planting? To get my ground covers started off on the right foot, I plant them in spring or early summer so they have a chance to root well and are less likely to heave out of the ground in winter. I make sure to take time to assess the conditions of my site and prepare the soil before planting. Spacing plants properly and providing them with a little TLC until they’re established is important, too. Although it may take some time and diligent care, following these basic guidelines is well worth it. Before long, you will be rewarded for your efforts as your barren, weedy trouble spots are converted into billowing waves of greenery.
The first and most essential step in establishing ground covers is to assess your site and soil. Look at your soil to determine its texture (sandy and dry, a lovely loam, or wet, soggy clay), and test its acidity level. Once you’ve determined if you will need to amend your soil to raise or lower its pH or add organic matter or gravel to modify its texture, assess the sun and shade patterns and the degree of winter protection the site offers. Is it protected from prevailing winter winds and sun, or is it fully exposed to the winter elements? Once you’ve gotten to know your soil and your site, you can better select plants suited to their texture, drainage, pH, and degree of sun, shade, and exposure.
While most of us have heard the gardening adage “right plant, right place,” I like to take this idea a step further. Although I’m careful to select plants that are suited to the conditions of my site, I also factor in the growth habits and growth rates of the plants I am considering. This is especially important if you plan to use more than one kind of plant in your massing or if your ground-cover area is adjacent to mixed beds or borders. The aim is a peaceful coexistence among the plants in your garden community. In other words, by placing rambunctious runners next to staid growers, you will be creating a gardening nightmare.
A good ground cover requires minimal maintenance to look its best and can be characterized as either a clumping spreader or a carpeter. Clumping spreaders, like Hosta cultivars, increase in size as they send out their outward-arching leaves each spring. Good clumpers rarely need division. Carpeters (or creepers), like spotted deadnettles (Lamium maculatum and cvs.) and Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), spread by underground stems (rhizomes) or move across the soil surface, rooting at points where leaf nodes touch the ground. The best rhizomatous carpeters never require division unless they wander outside of their boundaries. Ideal surface-rooting carpeters only need occasional division to keep them vigorous.
Clumpers tend to be more polite, while carpeters generally cover an area fairly quickly. Clumpers and carpeters can coexist together, but you should do your homework on their growth rates. Plant references can be helpful, but I often observe amicable combinations in garden settings. Observation is also helpful when deciding which plants are visually appealing together. Using too many disparate heights and textures can look chaotic, while using too few can lead to a mass of nondescript green.
Calculating the number of plants you’ll need is easy if your space is regular—for example, a rectangle or a square. Simply draw a plan of the space, using an appropriate scale (like 1 inch representing 1 foot) for the size of the bed, and pencil in your plants according to their mature size. We always say that a foot on paper is not the same as a foot on the ground, so don’t be surprised if, despite your best calculations, you end up with a few too many plants or not enough.
If your space is irregularly shaped, has curved lines, or contains trees or shrubs, calculating will be more difficult. In these situations, I usually resort to marking out the plants on the ground, using 6-inch-long pieces of green bamboo to mark each plant. Then I define each group with a different color of flagging tape tied to a stake.
Before you begin planting, you will want to rid the site of as many weeds as possible and judiciously apply Roundup to the site to kill any existing vegetation such as turf. Once everything has died back, turn in (with a spading fork or tiller) a 2- to 3-inch-deep layer of compost, manure, leaf mold, or other organic matter. This is also a good time to add amendments like lime or sulfur if you need to modify soil pH.
Turning up the soil will bring to the surface dormant seed and bits of weed rhizomes or taproots. Allow the site to green up and then apply a second spray of Roundup to eliminate the second flush of unwanted vegetation. Avoid any further tilling to prevent more dormant seed from surfacing.
Two alternatives to using herbicide are digging out the vegetation by hand or smothering it. Digging is backbreaking, but when armed with perseverance and time, it is effective. Smothering also takes time and may not be entirely effective, depending on the nature of the weeds you are trying to suppress. Heavy layers of newspaper laid on top of the soil work—an entire daily New York Times is a good thickness. It will have to be checked and added to as rain and sun cause the paper to deteriorate. Black plastic also works well and is a lot easier to put down than layers of newsprint.
It takes an entire season to prepare your site by smothering. Leave the area covered until everything has died back, till it to bring up taprooted weeds that will not be killed by one application of newspaper or plastic, and cover again. If you have Canadian thistle, burdock, dandelion, or other deep-rooted weeds, however, you’re not going to kill them unless you keep the site covered for a couple of years.
Once your planting area has been prepared, lay out your plants in staggered rows according to your design. How far apart you space your plants will depend on how quickly you want to cover your ground, the type of growth habit each plant has, and the size of the plants you purchase—a 1-gallon plant will fill the area more quickly than a 3-inch plug. Carpeters can be spaced as close or as far apart as you would like. The closer the plants are placed, the faster they will cover the ground and eliminate follow-up weeding. I’ve found that a spacing of 8 to 12 inches apart works well for carpeters of all types. Clumpers, on the other hand, should be spaced to reflect their width at maturity. If a hosta, for example, measures 12 inches across at maturity, place the center of each plant 12 inches apart. The aim is to have the foliage of adjacent plants just overlap, keeping the ground shaded and discouraging weed seeds from sprouting.
Once your plants are set in place, step back and make any spacing adjustments that you deem necessary. Planting sites can look quite different live than on paper, so be prepared to make modifications based on what your eye tells you. Also, if trees and shrubs are to be part of your plan, place and plant them first because you will need to disturb a good-size area to get them in the ground.
After planting, top the bed with a 2-inch-deep layer of mulch to help keep down weeds and hold in moisture. Getting the plants to grow into a solid stand of ground covers will require a bit of effort and diligence in the first couple of years of establishment. This is the critical time to keep up on weeding and watering and to monitor plants for nutritional needs.
You may find as the community begins to knit together that some plants are not growing as well as expected or not accomplishing your design vision. Gardens are living entities that are constantly changing, so don’t hesitate to remove or shift plants around until you have achieved an assemblage that is satisfying.
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