How is it that a patch of yard was designated as Rachel’s Prairie?
Rachel is my daughter. She resides in Kansas City, about two hours away from my father’s house. Several years ago she fell in love with gardening. She began her journey when her grandfather gave her some ancient books on gardening, books that he used to develop his garden. She became a master gardener and one of her interests is prairies. There are a few designated locations near Kansas City that are intentionally managed as prairies, reflecting how the land looked before white man came along. It is said that about one third of the land area of Missouri was prairie, something that is hard to imagine when looking at the current landscape. Today, land that is not used for crops or livestock usually reverts to forest or to what I would call “recovery” vegetation. First to appear are cedars, honeysuckle and autumn olive. Often the edge of the field will suffer the encroachment of black locust. And then there is the multi-floural rose bush. Under such odds, a prairie will never appear.
So prairies are usually “managed.” Not far from where I reside north of Columbia there is a managed prairie at the Rocky Fork Lakes Conservation area which is located out the back door of a friend of mine. We often walk across this prairie. He has a troupe of bird dogs that he frequently trains and the spread of grass is ideal. The prairie took decades to develop. Part of the routine is a systematic process of applying grass killer and burning, as well as the removal of unwanted trees. Usually burning does the trick because most trees in Missouri do not fare well in fires. The grass killer is not always necessary, but is frequently required where non-native grasses dominate the ground cover. Most fields in Missouri are seeded with fescue which is a very resilient ground cover that can withstand the dry hot summers. But it is not native to Missouri. So one option is to apply grass killer.
Fire is the missing ingredient on the modern landscape. Prairies emerged in Missouri because fires frequently broke out which purged the prairies of any encroaching trees and shrubs. Cedar, in particular, was rather rare until white men came along to cultivate the fields and control fires. Today, the native tree is ironically classified as “invasive”. Cedars are like a kerosene torch in the event of a wildfire. What is even more interesting is how the Native Americans mastered the art of burning the prairie to preserve it. Prairies were ideal for grazing animals such as deer, buffalo and elk.
How convenient it was that two hours from Kansas City was my father’s six acre yard. While some people may think that six acres is a bit much, you have to understand that historically the yard had many uses. There was the 60 by 40 foot garden, about a dozen fruit trees, honey bees, numerous shade trees and the area around the pond. The front yard was bordered by a fence with roses. Plenty to keep a young guy like me busy. As my father aged, the yard changed. The fruit trees eventually died off. The roses, not being regularly maintained, died and were eventually removed. The fence fell into disrepair and it is now largely removed. The garden is gone. The pond, once groomed on all sides, become lined with cattails and shrubs.
One thing that would prove helpful to my father was having less yard to keep up. So it was suggested that he donate an acre above the pond as a prairie. This part of the yard had been cut for about sixty years. It was the farthest point away from the house. Thus would begin the slow process of transforming this place into a prairie. The fun part about this project was that I was very reluctant to apply grass killer because I don’t like the stuff and this acre declined steeply into the pond below. I could see some complications evolving as Roundup leached into the pond, killing more than just the grass. The pond was generating its own special universe and I didn’t want to risk disrupting the natural evolution.
After about four years the matting of grasses has thickened considerably. The big surprise was the emergence of bluestem. I was shocked on returning from Alaska one Fall to discover this grass standing nearly as tall as me (about six feet). I even surprised a herd of deer one afternoon as they grazed. The beauty of the place has been enhanced by numerous wildflowers that have appeared on their own accord. Flowers mean butterflies, wasps and bees. And bugs mean birds. It is no surprise that I have observed vireos, flycatchers, gnatcatchers and warblers. Usually residing in the adjacent woods, they venture out over the prairie to harvest the abundance of bugs. In late evening, bats will flitter over the ground.
It is my belief that this small patch of prairie will teach me (and Rachel) a great deal. This will not result in a treatise, a finished book with a definite conclusion. No, it will be a work in process, something not shaped by myself but in partnership with the Creation. Each time I venture out into it I will learn something new, and that learning experience will only end when I can no longer walk to this place.
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner