Fire restores prairie

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Back in 2007, we installed a five-acre tall grass prairie with assistance from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Habitat Improvement Program.  Each year they assist a number of landowners in various ways that improve habitat, prevent erosion and protect waterways.  Basically, you do the work but they supply you with the materials needed to get the job done.  
Ten years later, we have a beautiful stand of native warm season grasses, most of which tower above our heads as we walk through the intersecting mowed paths. We love our prairie.  The clumping warm season grasses that provide the foundation include Indian grass, switch grass, big blue stem, little blue stem and side oats.  
The color in the prairie comes from ironweed, downy sunflowers, milkweed, yarrow, Illinois bundle flower, mullein, Echinacea, Datura, and goldenrod.  
We have added smooth blue asters and some native Baptisia that looks like its garden-variety cousin, false indigo, but it blooms yellow.  The purple bloom spike of gay feather that everyone enjoys in their butterfly garden has two robust prairie cousins in Liatris spicata, the dense blazing star and L. squarrosa, the southern blazing star.  
Both reach about three feet in height.  For some really tall plants in the prairie garden the tall coreopsis is covered in two inch yellow blooms atop an eight-foot plant.  And, the six-foot yellow blooming whorled rosinweed manages to bloom most of the summer.  
But, in order to keep all of this in balance we were instructed that it should be burned from time to time.  Burning does many things but most important it eliminates all the thatch left over from winter leaving bare ground.  This bare ground makes it much easier for wildflower seed and native forbs and grasses to reseed and take hold.  It also makes it an agreeable habitat for Bobwhite quail.
I must say that I was nervous about burning the prairie, at first. Was it safe? Was I going to time it right (before the birds begin to nest)? Was it environmentally responsible?  Well, the whole thing went off without incident; and continues to after it’s 10th burning this past Easter Sunday.  I was fortunate to have forester Sarah Johns walk around with me the first year we burned.  She provided safety tips and recommendations that proved informative but also gave me the confidence I had lacked.  
After informing my neighbors and the Simpsonville Fire Department, we started the burn with our faces to the breeze, as Sarah had instructed; it amounts to a back burn so it burns in a more controlled and slow manner.  It lit easily with a match and newspaper (sort of scary how easy it did ignite).  We stood by with rakes to tamp out smoldering edges but mostly the fire burned out once it hit the newly greened fescue turf. Some years the prairie burns in under an hour; this year it took an hour and 45 minutes.  Wind, moisture and the condition of the prairie factor in how quickly it will burn.
We had indeed followed the recommendations from Chris Grasch from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife: we maintained a mowed strip around the entire area and we mowed around trees in the vicinity.  And, it turns out, that our intersecting paths were a good idea for fire control because it sectioned off the five acres into smaller burns.  Although the fire did jump from one section to another, which is a lesson learned.  But all in all, the whole of the area was safely contained so I was not alarmed.
After the burn this year a light layer of ash remained; a moderate rainfall settled it all Sunday evening.  The thing that makes prairie grasses so resilient in nature is the fact that their roots are deep-reaching (thus fire, drought and flood resistant).  While I am not happy about the smoke I released during the burn I can be glad that I don’t ride the mower and consume fuel and emit pollution on a regular basis throughout the season otherwise.  The experience of burning the prairie seems extraordinarily civilized by comparison. I am also assured that in the face of drought I have a place to graze the sheep in an emergency.
 (Jeneen Wiche is an avid gardener from Shelbyville. She can be reached at JHWiche@gmail.com or at www.SwallowRailFarm.com)