This is the year I officially laid aside gardening and took up prairie restoration.
I didn’t really see it coming, although the garden space when I arrived this spring was dauntingly overwhelmed and overwhelming. I started a few plants indoors (late) and planted out in the latter half of June (very late) when I finally broke down and asked my neighbor to strip till a couple of spots. I check on things down there every couple of days, and I’ve weeded just enough to keep the jungle in check.
The deer and rabbits have chowed down the first planting of beans, and I suspect they’ll do so with the second planting as well. The seed is a couple of years old, so whatever. I throw it in the ground and maybe we’ll get something. Most of what’s down there is being left alone–about thirty tomato plants, peppers and eggplant protected by a small fence–the sweet corn and okra seem so far unpalatable to the critters. Meh. Whatever happens, happens.
I think the transition began when the earliest of the native prairie forbs poked through. Hoary vervain. Ox-eye sunflower. I never knew what they were before–never knew that these hills contain maybe dozens of species that survived decades-ago overgrazing and another few decades of neglect and invasion. Never saw anything before but the vast expanse of brome–never even looked, and if I had, I would not have known what I was seeing.
I blame Minnesota. I blame being immersed in the protected, restored, and re-planted prairie landscapes among passionate prairie people–grass farmers and photographers, conservationists and watershed protectors. Hermit-naturalists and native plant nursery-people and birders, geologists, and mollusc-lovers (yeah, really).
I blame hugging, as far as my arms would stretch, the biggest cottonwood tree in the state, and most of all I blame myself for enrolling in the Minnesota Master Naturalist class, where for months I spent a few hours a week hanging out with a nerd-herd of those similarly infected with a prairie passion. And then the small but constant doses at work, hiking hilly grazing lands dotted with Hoary Puccoon, Ground Plum, and Birdsfoot Violet and punctuated with Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and a dozen species of Odonata–learning how well-managed grazing can not only be safe for the endangered prairie ecosystem, it can be beneficial for the preservation and restoration of grasslands.
Living on the prairie for over half my life now, how could I have missed the immense diversity and complexity of this landscape? Well, that’s easy to answer: how much complexity do you see, driving down virtually any road in Southeast South Dakota? Corn, beans, Smooth Brome. Canada and Musk Thistle. If you’re lucky, a lonely clump of Big Bluestem surviving alongside a patch of Common Milkweed. You might spot a spike or two of vivid purple-blue, or a splash of tall yellow-something sailing past an old hayfield at 65mph or more.
Now, instead of coddling annual food plants in a small, protected space, I wander out almost daily into dozens of acres of tall grass that no one’s walked in years, cataloging species I never knew existed here–some obvious from my training and some to mull over, matching images taken with my phone to those in my guides and Google, guessing at families (when in doubt, Asteraceae is a good bet–square stems likely Lamiaceae) and flower structures not yet formed.
Most of what’s left on this farm is of the weedier, hardier class of native plant. The ones that can take a beating from brome, sweet clover, and field bindweed and survive. I get my “fix” of further diversity by visiting the restoration-in-progress a few miles away at Spirit Mound–there are a lot more forbs out there than you’d expect in a high-quality preserved remnant, but it’s beautiful to walk along the trail and be enshrouded by the minty-sage-y scent of Monarda fistulosa, nearly blind yourself by gaping at the almost unnatural fluorescence of Asclepias tuberosa, and peer into the “cups” of Silphium perfoliatum to see who’s taking a drink.
Otherwise, and in addition to the almost constant job of clean-up and fix-up on the old farmstead, I’m formulating plans for restoration and revitalization. I want to know what’s here first (principles of intelligent tinkering and doing no harm), but I also know from experience that some of what’s here may not be immediately evident–might be suppressed and waiting underneath that decades-old mat of brome. I’m beating back my desire to start interplanting native grasses (none of which are yet in evidence) until I have the plan and the equipment to keep open a space for them to establish. One very small mowing experiment on a dry, compacted patch of ground to set back Kentucky bluegrass did result in an explosion of Verbena stricta and Asclepias verticillata–but it also precipitated a land-grab by invasive yellow sweet clover.
Of the various tools for restoration and management, fire is probably going to be the most important to remove the long-accumulated mat of vegetation, but also the trickiest to pull off safely. As much as I was rarin’ to go on it this spring, pulling together a crew and establishing fire breaks comes first, and so that ingredient will have to wait until next year. I’ve started familiarizing myself with heavier equipment like the big brush mower, and after some safety training and practice, I’m planning to purchase my own chainsaw, so I can finally go after the cedars too big to take down with loppers and pruning saw. I’m getting used to wearing safety gear I never needed in the garden–hard hat, chaps, safety goggles, hearing protection.
And while it has been a little odd explaining to old friends and acquaintances that I’m no longer interested in being “Veggie Queen,” it has been an absolute pleasure to meet and visit with the multitude of new vendors at the farmers market and know that if the rabbits do eat all my snap beans while I’m out cataloging and conspiring to save the prairie, I’ve got excellent back-up.