Thursday, October 04, 2007

Benign neglect

When I first broke ground on my small bed for native plants almost two years ago, I had some idea what I wanted it to look like. I wanted an organic feel, rich with grasses and wildflowers, with no real order. I call the native plant bed my "prairie," a genuine misnomer since true prairie implies uninterrupted expanses of not only certain plants, but wetlands, woody draws and all of the associated faunal communities. My native bed has a small, wet draw that was installed this year after several hours of laborious shoveling through southeast Missouri's clay soils.It's not a true wetland, of course, not a wetland that my brilliant wetland biologist friend Neal could improve upon, but it's a depression that holds water long enough to attract a number of leopard frogs on a daily basis. I put in a small stand of woody sumacs this year, too, large enough to merely (again)imply those undulating stands of sumacs in true prairie. Prairie managers fight sumacs by burning, disking, "brushhogging," but grassland bird experts agree that sumacs are vital to populations of meadowlarks and even bobwhite quail.
I don't manage my little prairie. I pull out the creeping turf grass whose presence in my yard I truly despise. I burned the prairie this past spring. I let the morning glories move in and climb all over the dead sunflowers, which I continue to ignore until the goldfinches finish digging out all the mature seeds. I added more asters this year and have allowed the goldenrods to bloom where they volunteered. The only time I water my little prairie is when I'm filling the draw for the leopard frogs. My management regime, that of benign neglect, continues to reward me with a rich floral display and the accompanying invertebrate life.

Molly really enjoys the prairie. She's found a low spot in the sumacs that she continues to deepen, thereby encouraging rainwater pooling if it ever rains. She hunkers down in the prairie after her walk. She walks through the wet draw, filling her paws with Tunica sharkey clay soils which manage to find their way onto my bedsheets. The small patch of prairie attracts not only my little dog, but a panoply of moths, bees, flies, wasps, spiders. My entomologist has written a note for a journal about the importance of small patch habitat to yehl skippers, a rather nondescript little skipper. The only place in the county he ever finds them is in my front yard, in the "prairie," which literally teems with activity.
I've been asked by a local community to help design native plant beds to be installed on city property. I've sent pictures of my native plant bed to the community's parks department; I specifically chose times in the prairie's cycle when it was less wooly, when the native plant bed looked significantly more manicured than it does now. If the organizers of the project were to see the it now, after it has been genuinely neglected for months on end, I imagine they'd scratch the idea of a native plant bed and opt for thousands upon thousands of petunias. Anyway, the prairie is scheduled to be burned this fall. Grasses respond better to spring burns, wildflowers prefer fall burns. I can't fathom wildflowers responding better to fire than they did this year. Next year, I imagine, will be truly spectacular.

1 comment:

The Herpetologist said...

Is that leopard frog picture from your 'prairie'? If so, that is a plains leopard frog which I have not seen at the park. Everyone I have seen at Big Oak has been southern leopard frogs. That plains is very distinct. I just recently saw my first plains at Trail of Tears.