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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Wednesday - March 25, 2015

From: Belchertown, MA
Region: Northeast
Topic: Grasses or Grass-like, Wildflowers
Title: Shallow Rooted Wildflowers for MA
Answered by: Anne Van Nest

QUESTION:

Do you have any suggestions for wildflowers that would be safe to grow on a capped landfill site? They would need to have roots no deeper than 24 inches.

ANSWER:

Previously Mr. Smarty Plants had a question about growing native plants on a septic system (a similar situation where shallow roots are required) in MA. Barbara Medford answered the question in the following way ...

We very recently answered a similar question, having to do with roots getting into the lateral lines from a septic tank. You really have to consider the whole system when planting over it, because of the damage roots can cause. We don't know too much about septic systems, but we're assuming that the "septic mound" you refer to is the earth over the tank. The tank should be sealed to prevent roots invading it, but you don't want to take any chances. 

You don't want any woody plants close to your lateral lines, as in trees and shrubs. They are the ones that send roots out far beyond their driplines, sneaking up on you. But you don't want to leave that area completely bare, because you know it wouldn't stay bare, it would get weedy and unless it was mowed, some of those "weeds" would grow up to be woody plants.

We finally located a website that made specific recommendations on what should be planted above lateral lines -- grass! The Ford County Kansas Septic System Information site gives a lot of good information on how to manage a septic system, but the piece of information we were most interested in was that perennial short grasses should be planted above the lines. Apparently, the shorter the grass, the shallower the roots. Furthermore, the grasses will assist in evaporation from those lines, and should thrive with that unaccustomed dose of moisture.  We're going to assume that the use of native grasses over the entire system is the safest, most economical way to maintain that system. 

We're going to go to our Native Plant Database, go down to COMBINATION SEARCH, select on Massachusetts, and then "Grasses/Grasslike Plants" under Habit. From this list, we'll select some shorter grasses suitable for your purposes. These plants are all commercially available, and if you have difficulty locating sources for plugs, sod or seeds, go to our Native Plant Suppliers section, type in your town and state in the "Enter Search Location" box and you will get a list of native plant nurseries, seed suppliers and landscape and environmental consultants in your general area.  Because our information on plants for the Northeast is somewhat limited, we would suggest you contact the University of Massachusetts Extension Service, which may have material available that will help you with your project.

GRASSES AND GRASS-LIKE PLANTS FOR MASSACHUSETTS

Bouteloua gracilis (blue grama) - 12 to 14 inches tall

Carex blanda (eastern woodland sedge) -1 to 3 ft. tall

Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania sedge) - 6 to 12 inches tall

Elymus hystrix var. hystrix (eastern bottlebrush grass) - 1 to 3 ft. tall

Hierochloe odorata (sweetgrass) - 12 to 20 in. tall

Hordeum jubatum (foxtail barley) - 1 to 3 ft. tall

Muhlenbergia schreberi (nimblewill) - 1 to 2 ft. tall

 

For information about flowering plants (if you decide to use them) take a look at the article, Landscaping Over Septic Drain Fields by George Dickert, Horticulture Extension Agent for Clemson Cooperative Extension. He lists many flowering plants such as Achillea, Aster, Asclepias tuberosa, Gaura, Oenothera, Rudbeckia, Solidago, and Verbena that area appropriate to this situation.

Finally the EPA has an article about planting native vegetation on landfill caps that might contain some information beneficial to your project.

 

From the Image Gallery


Canada goldenrod
Solidago canadensis

Common yarrow
Achillea millefolium

New england aster
Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Butterflyweed
Asclepias tuberosa

Narrowleaf evening-primrose
Oenothera fruticosa

Black-eyed susan
Rudbeckia hirta

Green-headed coneflower
Rudbeckia laciniata

Hoary verbena
Verbena stricta

Biennial beeblossom
Oenothera gaura

Maximilian sunflower
Helianthus maximiliani

Blue grama
Bouteloua gracilis

Eastern bottlebrush grass
Elymus hystrix var. hystrix

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