Thursday, March 19, 2009

Prairie Fire!

Temperatures warming, grass greening, birds singing, all rites of spring. Another one, for us, is native grass / naturalized grass area burning. The difference between native grass and naturalized grass is a topic in itself (...for a future blog), but for now the focus of this blog is the burning process and its benefits. I’ll refer to both grass areas as “tall grass”. Burning can be done in late fall or spring, but I believe spring is the best time, as the dried grasses are very attractive throughout winter and provide valuable habitat for wildlife.

Every year at about this same time the climatic conditions and tall rough grass conditions align to provide an ideal opportunity to burn. The plants need to be dry, the humidity needs to be low, the wind needs to be light, and our IL Dept. of Agriculture permit needs to be current!

Burning the native grasses (Bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass, & others) on #12 berm.

Yesterday and today these conditions were nearly perfect, and so we did conduct our controlled burning process. The above video shows the simple process of lighting the grasses with a large propane burner and then getting out of the path of the flames. It’s not always that easy, because we often need to rake up, or “fluff”, the grasses that have become compacted and occasionally beat out a runaway fire path. Also, it’s not always as fun as it looks, because a fair amount of smoke is inhaled, and by the end of the day, your face can feel a bit flame broiled! I must admit though, it is impressive how quickly the pure native grasses burn and how intense the heat is. The lightning-ignited tall grass prairies that once covered much of Illinois, must have been an amazing event.

The aftermath - well-done roughage (mounding between 4 & 11)

There are several benefits of Controlled Burning:
• Reduces the mass of dried plant material.
• Clears the plant canopy so new grasses can grow without competition.
• Improves the quality of the re-emerging plant species and aids new plant seed germination.
• Reduces tree seedlings, annual grasses, and weed encroachment.
• Prevents the accidental ignition by a discarded cigarette / cigar.
• Burned ash returns plant nutrients and organic matter to the soil aiding new growth.
• Burned black ash absorbs the suns energy and warms the soil speeding re-growth. (The root systems are unaffected by the flame or heat and underground shoots re-emerge when the soil warms)
• Devoid areas provide habitat for wildlife such as the nesting Killdeer birds.

By the time most of you hit the course, Mother Nature's rains and warmer weather should have washed away the blackened ash and helped the new grass swards emerge.

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