As we wind down the growing season, now is a great time to take stock of your new prairie garden or established prairie landscape. Which plants have done well? What has struggled? What needs to be moved? Which plants need to be added? These questions will help guide your efforts this fall and especially next season.
If you have an established prairie, it can be challenging to make some desired changes. To add a few plants to a mature landscape takes some forethought and planning. The deep rooted natives have a distinct advantage over the immature perennial you are trying to get started. Here are a few simple steps to help give these new plants a fighting chance.
Maybe you want to add some wildflowers into a prairie setting dominated by native grasses. Visualize where you want these new plants. Remember, a prairie has subtle splashes of color. Sprinkling in a handful of wildflowers will look more natural.
Prepare the soil
With your spots chosen, now it is time to make room for these additions to your prairie. We flag the spots and then spray them with Roundup. These spots are usually not more than one foot in diameter. If you want to avoid spraying, cut the area down to the ground and cover it with heavy cardboard for several months or over winter. Secure these one foot areas with several inches of mulch or stones.
Choose the right plant
I keep circling back to this point because it is so important. If plants have struggled in an area, it is usually because either the soil or the plant is out of balance. Typically, the soil is not to blame. It is more likely that the soil and plant have not been correctly matched. Observe soil, sun and drainage issues and match the proper plant to your area. It is good to have a sense of how some of these natives grow naturally in community. The more you know, the more successful you will be.
Establish your plants
After waiting several months or over winter, it is now time to plant. Establish plants using this method in either spring (April/May) or late summer (August/September). If you sprayed the small areas, you can simply plant right into the open weed free soil. If you put down cardboard and covered it with mulch, you can pull back a little of the mulch and slice through the cardboard. Put the plants into the ground and water daily. Leave the cardboard and mulch to decompose over the next few years, as this will give the new plants a little room to grow with less competition. The cardboard and mulch will ultimately disappear.
Over the next few years, it will be necessary to monitor these new plants. It generally takes two to three years for the root systems to get fully established. Remember to:
Water deeply as needed.
Make sure they are not getting too crowded by other vegetation.
You may need to cut back nearby grasses so these new plants get enough sunlight. This will only be necessary during this establishment phase.
This process is not guaranteed to succeed, but we have used it successfully to add some diversity to an established prairie. This approach can also be used to transform a smaller intensively planted display bed. Either way, plan now so you are ready to plant next season.
Terry and Carolyn Schwab live on 109 acres in Eastern Harvey County affectionately known by a former neighbor as the “Foothills to the Flint Hills.” While much of the county land has been converted to cropland over the last century, the Schwab property has remained in remnant prairie.
We received a grant in 2004 to identify and study more than 100 prairie remnants in South Central Kansas and to collect seed for our 18-acre Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction project on-site at Dyck Arboretum. Until 2010, this work helped us develop a prairie landowner network through which we consulted with landowners and assisted them with their prairie management needs. It was during these years that I had the pleasure of first meeting the Schwabs. Ever since I have enjoyed observing the dedication they bring to being prairie restorationists and natural area enthusiasts.
Increasing Wildlife Diversity
The property was a moderately overgrazed cattle pasture when they acquired it in 1993. The Schwabs’ main goal as land stewards was to increase wildlife diversity through improved habitat and enhance their avid hobbies of bird-watching and fishing.
The remnant prairie and emergent wetland above and around the ponds on their land can consist of hundreds of species of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, and shrubs. High plant diversity translates to high wildlife diversity. Maintaining diverse herbaceous vegetation also serves as a good surface water filter that improves pond health. Terry and Carolyn knew that without grazing or other forms of grassland management, invasion of a handful of tree species (including nonnative species) would create a dense, and comparatively lifeless, forest canopy within decades. Plant species diversity would decrease and wildlife habitat would suffer. They needed to become prairie restoration land stewards.
Controlling woody species and removing nonnative wildflowers became top priorities for the Schwabs in their quest to improve wildlife habitat on their property. Their initial efforts were extensive and laborious. They cut Osage orange and eastern red cedar trees and manually dug out musk thistle. To maintain water levels in the ponds, they repaired holes in the dams and removed trees whose roots can compromise dam life.
They were able to open up the upland areas where they had successfully removed mature trees and restore contiguous areas of grass and wildflower-dominated prairie. In these areas, the Schwabs implemented a regular rotation of mowing and prescribed burning to control any further invasion of woody plants. They networked with a local fire department to help them do this. They found mowing and burning to be much less labor-intensive than manual tree removal and effective tools for long term tree management.
Carolyn and Terry have made great improvements in restoring the prairie and emergent wetlands with tree management, but they know that they cannot rest on their laurels. Mature, seed-producing trees on their land and neighboring properties make keeping up with tree invasion a continual challenge. In addition to maintaining a routine of mowing and burning, they continue to cut and treat a number of invading tree species including honey locust, Bradford pear, Osage orange, Siberian elm, eastern red cedar, and the shrub Japanese honeysuckle. They are also on the lookout for the highly invasive, noxious weed sericea lespedeza which is becoming increasingly present in the area.
Carolyn invests a great deal of time monitoring and reporting on the biodiversity observed on their property. Daily walks to document bird populations, track phenology of flowering plants, and photograph butterflies are all part of what she sees as being an informed land steward.
Regal fritillary butterflies are dependent on habitat including diverse, large tracts of prairie. Even though the Schwabs have been improving the habitat of their prairie, regal fritillary numbers seem to be declining in recent years on a landscape scale. Carolyn has been planting nectar plants like butterfly milkweed and regal fritillary host plants (prairie violets) in the landscaping around her house to try and further support regal fritillary numbers.
Carolyn is a top-notch birder. According to the Kansas Bird Listserv Database, a total of 329 species of birds have ever been documented as observed in Harvey County. Carolyn has seen more of these species (270) than anybody. And with easy access to 109 acres of prairie, wetland, woodland, and open water habitat, Carolyn has seen a whopping 232 of these species on her property!
A favorite experience of hers was witnessing a rare event on October 27, 2010. Eastern Harvey County is well east of the main sandhill crane migration flyway and seeing cranes there is not common. That night, however, the Schwabs observed 200+ sandhill cranes settle in for the night at their pond and enjoyed hearing their calls through the night. The cranes took off the next morning, but left behind a lasting memory for Carolyn.
Return of Butterfly Milkweed
The Schwab prairie restoration efforts are not only increasing the presence of grassland bird populations, but plant diversity as well. For years, they have not seen any butterfly milkweed on their property. But during the growing season of 2020, Carolyn reports that she has seen 20 plants.
Protection for the Future
The Schwabs are considering registering their property with the Kansas Land Trust to protect this native prairie in perpetuity. By establishing a conservation easement on the property, Terry and Carolyn would be establishing guidelines for future landowners to follow that would help protect the prairie, watershed, and the diversity of species therein.
Thank you, Carolyn and Terry for your important prairie restoration land stewardship and for being willing to share your story.
Over the last week, I have been helping conduct prescribed burns on the prairies at Dyck Arboretum as well as for some area landowners. This annual spring ritual for me is one of the most engaging examples of our mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land.
For thousands of years since the last ice age, prairie has evolved with fire, an essential element of disturbance that maintains prairie as prairie. Without fire, readily available seeds of trees and shrubs will invade and turn prairie into forest within decades. Gone are the days when lightning or Native American-set fires regularly kept this element of maintenance in place every few years. Today, landowners, ranchers, and land managers must regularly be the starters of fire. A few years ago, I blogged more in depth about why we should Embrace Prairie Burning.
Conducting A Safe Burn
I cannot sufficiently instruct one to conduct a prescribed burn in a short blog post, but I will summarize the important elements to be considered when making fire go where you want it go. Conducting a safe prescribed burn is in actuality a simple process, but one MUST adhere to strict guidelines regarding 1) relative humidity, and 2) wind speed. When relative humidity (RH) is at 80%, fire is very difficult to start and when it is at 20%, fire is very difficult to put out. Making sure that the start and end time of the burn stay within those parameters is paramount, and sunlight and temperature have a profound effect on RH. With every 20-degree F increase, RH drops in half.
Wind speeds between 5-15 miles per hour (mph) are important too. Below 5 mph, winds can be shifty, unpredictable and dangerous when trying to control fire. And it probably goes without saying, but winds over 15 mph can easily carry flames where you don’t want them to go. A 911 dispatcher will not allow a burn to start if wind gusts are above 15 mph, anyway.
There are three types of fire we regularly refer to in prescribed burning. A back fire works directly against the wind, a flank fire works perpendicular to the wind, and a head fire is pushed with the wind.
The intensity of these three fire types is from low to high, respectively, as is their ease of control. To most easily contain a fire within a particular burn unit, we start with downwind back fires until a sufficient black line is established, work around to flank fires until those flanks are made safe, and then finish with a head fire to most quickly finish the burn once all the boundaries have been sufficiently secured. The following diagram, shows the general progression of a prescribed burn, otherwise known as the ring fire technique.
Important tools in managing fire include those that help you quickly move fire and those that help you quickly put it out. In the past, I used a drip torch full of a diesel/gas mixture, but have more recently relied on the much simpler (and lighter) tool of a garden rake for dragging fire. My favorite water carrying device is a water backpack and hand pump with support of extra water in a larger water tank carried by our new Hustler MDV. The backpack with a 5-gallon capacity can get heavy and cumbersome, but it sprays a reliable 10-15′ stream of water and is easily the most mobile and useful tool I know for carrying water and putting out fire.
Strengthening A Human Connection to the Land
The act of burning a prairie brings together the four classical elements (earth, air, fire and water). The earth produces prairie vegetation, and in spring time, the prairie is renewed after it combusts when brought together with air and fire. We use water to bring this process to a conclusion. As I stated above, people are essential to keeping this positive feedback loop going today.
The people who are essential to this stewardship process of prescribed burning include my colleagues, volunteers willing to lend a hand, and the landowners themselves who initiate the process. All of these individuals make up an important community of people strengthening a connection to the land.
The identity of Kansas is built around the native landscape of the prairie and fire will always be a part of that identity. While the implementation of prescribed burns may be a laborious task that can make my body feel old, it is an important ritual that keeps my spirit young.
One of my favorite experiences of conducting a prescribed burn is often found in the final moments of such an event. Once the final head fire has been lit and the hard work is complete, there are a few moments to enjoy the sounds of crackling flames of moisture-laden grasses and the happy sounds of mating boreal chorus frogs in the background.
In the video below, I leave you with the magical sights and sounds of this experience.
The words “seeds for the future” are easy to use in abstract terms when talking about carrying out Harold and Evie Dyck’s long-term vision for an arboretum (35 years old and counting), or doing education activities with K-12 kids through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program. I use this phrase all the time.
But right now, I want to use those words in the literal sense.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seeds.
It has been a bountiful year for seed production in South Central Kansas. Oaks have had a mast year. Native shrubs are laden with fruits. Prairie wildflowers and grasses are full with ripe seeds. Seed production helps these plants have a future presence.
Rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida).
The ecological food web starts with plants as the producers. When this base plant layer of energy is healthy and diverse, the rest of the food web of wildlife it supports is more robust. Seeds are an important part of this food web. Insects are abundant this year. Birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles are finding plenty of food as well. The following chart of rainfall totals from this summer (generated from Weather Underground data) shows why our native Kansas vegetation was so productive.
Starting from Seed
A big focus of my first seven years at Dyck Arboretum was to reconstruct 12 acres of diverse prairie from seed as part of our Prairie Window Project. This process involved finding local remnant prairies, documenting their plant species, collecting and cataloging seed from April through November, cleaning seed, designing seed mixes, and planting. Developing this project engaged legions of volunteers, expanded our reputation as a prairie conservation resource, and diversified our educational outreach. We collected and planted a lot of seed during those years both mechanically and by hand. The resulting prairie is maturing nicely.
Prairie wildflower and grass seed mix used for our first 2005 Prairie Window planting.
I often tout landscaping with native plants because of their year-round interest. They do offer aesthetically pleasing flowers during the growing season that appeal to the average gardener. But their interesting seed heads, dormant season vegetation, and myriad of changing colors and textures also provide habitat and landscaping value for wildlife and people through the fall and winter.
Open pods of Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis).
A year of abundant seed production helps a prairie build up its soil seed bank. This is especially important on a site like this one with a seed bank dominated by annuals and non-native species from decades of agricultural use. Enhancing the abundance of prairie seeds in that seed bank will help add resiliency to this prairie in future years when drought or disturbance occur.
Large flat seeds of compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) falling away from the seed head.
I enjoy collecting seed. Walking a prairie with a rhythmic movement of hand to bag is therapeutic. I have never been a farmer, but, in a way, this process connects me to the harvest rituals of my ancestors who made their living in agriculture.
Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis).
Time spent collecting prairie seed over the years and developing a mental image for certain targeted plants at different times of the year have helped me recognize many species in seed form almost easier than when they are in bloom.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to disperse in the wind.
Some plants like purple conflower (Echinacea angustifolia) may even have more value to us in seed form. Echinacea seeds (three visible in middle of seed head) and roots have medicinal value as a pain killer and immune system booster. Chewing on a few seeds has a temporary numbing effect on your teeth and tongue.
Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).
Seeds of native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) are held tightly now, but will loosen and fall away this winter.
With a parachute-like pappus, Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) seeds are ready for a breezy liftoff.
Evolution of Seed Dispersal
Plants evolve with all kinds of seed dispersal mechanisms. Woodland plants develop tasty fruits around their seeds, spring-loaded propellers, and Velcro-like hooks and barbs that latch onto fur. Plants of the open prairie sometimes employ these kinds of mechanisms, but most simply take advantage of the abundant wind by growing hairs/wings that allow them to take flight. By scattering their seeds to other locations, plants help insure their presence in the future.
Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).
May you find more enjoyment in the dormant vegetation and seeds persisting around you this fall and winter.
An important disturbance mechanism for prairie ecosystem health, a restoration ritual that connects a Kansan to its native landscape, and a series of sights, sounds and smells that both comforts and stirs heightened senses – prairie burning in the spring represents all these things to me.
Ever since participating in my first prairie burns during graduate school in Wisconsin, where I was trained to safely conduct prescribed burns, I have held a great reverence and respect for this process of igniting the prairie. Prairies and a whole array of plants and animals became adapted to semi-regular lightning-set fires on the Central North American Plains since the last ice age approximately 10,000 years ago.
In the last couple of thousand years, humans have also been important vectors for bringing fire to the prairie and helping determine its geographic extent on the landscape. Native Americans used fire to clear safe zones for lodging, attract or direct wildlife for food, and celebrate cultural rituals. Their actions helped extend prairie further east into areas that have since reverted back to oak-hickory forests, as the Native American presence and their fire rituals were extinguished. European ranchers on the Plains hold a similar respect for fire and use it to help fatten cattle and control invading woody plants that would eventually shade out prairie grasses.
Prairie fires in Kansas have been met with resistance. Increased human habitation and careless use of fire in untamed wild places puts residences more at risk and created an understandable fear of fire. Air quality problems affecting human health, due mostly to automobiles, power generation and industry in major metropolitan areas like Kansas City and most recently Wichita, are certainly not helped by spring prairie burns. Wildlife managers can cite that annual prairie burns in the Flint Hills have become too frequent for the success of grassland birds, including greater prairie chickens that require some residual cover for adequate foraging and nesting success.
Kansas has a rich history intertwined with the prairie and Kansans embrace prairie as an important part of our cultural and natural history, our recreation through eco-tourism (state park use, hunting, fishing, birding, hiking, etc.) and our economy (ranching). Where prairie has been removed, it has left behind a legacy of some of the best agricultural soils in the world. While mowing does provide some of the benefits of fire, it does not provide all of them, and is more costly and time-consuming. We must find ways to utilize and implement prairie burning with greater safety, intelligence, and purpose.
Simply put, a culture that values prairie must also value fire.