Wild Side Column: Prairie renewed by fire
We left our place in Florida and returned home a couple weeks ago so that we could prune our orchard and burn our prairie. We missed the last snow and big rainfall events but after leaving 80°F weather in Florida we were pretty chilled by the frosty nights and damp cold days.
Carol sprayed our apple trees with dormant oil spray. After climbing the orchard ladder dozens of times and giving my right hand a workout cutting water sprouts with pruning shears, our orchard is blooming now, looking good for a new crop of apples.
We planted our 30 acres of prairie in 1999. The land was former highly-erodible cropland grown up with non-native cool season grasses and goldenrod. We cut out invading aspen and box elder brush. We burned the field in April with help from a number of friends. I knocked down the anthills and pocket gopher mounds with a disc behind my tractor. After it greened up we hired a farm supply dealer to spray the field to kill the non-native cool season grasses. We purchased many native species of grasses and forbs seed grown in the upper Midwest and rented a special drill implement to plant the seed from the DNR. I managed to get my neighbor's tractor stuck several times when pulling the heavy drill.
The field grew up with daisy fleabane, a native white flower in the aster family.
The dense stems made it hard to walk through but the pheasants liked the cover. We could see rows of seedling grasses where the drill planted the seed. We burned the field again the following spring. That seemed to help the native grasses and forbs. Big bluestem, Canada rye, Indiangrass and switchgrass got a good start, growing into noticeable bunches.
In the third year after another spring burn, the prairie was on its way. The grasses grew to 7 feet tall. Purple spiderwort bloomed in June and black-eyed Susan bloomed in July. We saw a number of pheasant and turkey broods in the field that summer and deer used the prairie as a bedding area. Caitlin Smith, Private Lands Biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in New Richmond, says that planted prairies take time to become established; "The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps."
The seeds of some prairie species take years to germinate. We find new (to us) species in our prairie as the seed germinates and the plants become established. We were pleased to find purple fringed orchis, an exquisite orchid with sweet-smelling delicate flowers and swamp milkweed which attracts monarch butterflies. Blazing star shoots up rose-purple flower heads in different places in the prairie surrounded by colorful purple and yellow coneflowers and white spikes of Culver's root.
The dense vegetation in our prairie supports lots of insects, insect-eating birds and small rodents. We enjoy seeing bluebirds, bobolinks, flickers, red-wing blackbirds, meadowlarks, swallows, kestrels and northern harriers (marsh hawks) flying over the prairie. Butterflies like monarchs, great spangled fritillaries, eastern tiger swallowtails, painted ladies and many more feed on flower nectar and put on a moving color show.
The prairie provides excellent nesting and brood habitat for ring-necked pheasants. Many deer bed down for the night in the prairie. My dog Jack and I enjoy hunting pheasants there in the fall.
Last Friday a group of friends and neighbors helped us burn our prairie again. Friends experienced in burning grassland showed up with 4-wheelers and spray tanks, drip torches and protective equipment. With a north-northwest wind, we started the fire on the southeast boundary and created a wide back-burn strip around the perimeter of the prairie. We hadn't burned the prairie for three years so there was plenty of fuel, flame and smoke. There were some spectacular flames as the fire raced downwind to meet the back burn on the west end of the prairie and then it was out. It was another safe and successful controlled burn.
The fire suppresses invading woody plants, non-native cool season grasses, clears away old vegetation litter and releases nutrients enabling renewed growth of native grasses and forbs.
Those hot sweaty days of planting, burning, spraying weeds and cutting brush have really paid off with a beautiful prairie filled with wildlife. Carol and I appreciate the many friends who have helped us with burns over the years. We have also enjoyed volunteer work with The Prairie Enthusiasts and talking with others who have worked to restore grassland habitat in our region. It's been a real treat for us to visit many restored prairie and oak savanna areas. We enjoy learning about the many fascinating plant and animal species that are adapted to living in grasslands. Now is a great time to wander through planted and restored prairie oak savanna areas as fields of flowers bloom.
Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at firstname.lastname@example.org