Saturday, September 21, 2019

Long Live the Weeds!

A friend of ours came to visit, having seen our farm in years past when we'd leased it out for the growing of corn, wheat, sorghum sudan grass, sesame, and milo. He knew of our prairie project, but hadn't seen it yet. When he saw our fields he remarked to his wife, "Is that what Melinda and Robert wanted their fields to look like?"

1st Wheat Crop in March 2008

To the untrained eye the prairie, nascent or mature, looks a lot like an unmown, neglected field. Part of that impression comes from our being accustomed to the manicured lawns of the city, or the orderly products of agriculture.

The prairie in spring 2019
Our concept of what is beautiful requires some adjustment. Willa Cather wrote, "Anybody can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie." The prairie's beauty is not found in the imposed order of human effort, but in the living, breathing, order of an ecosystem that abounds in diversity, insect and animal life, color, texture, and structure.

To quote Melinda's favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins ("Inversnaid"),

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Waiting for Fall

Late summer and fall is the time for the tall grasses to make their inflorescence/seedhead, which makes them much easier for us non-experts to identify. We have been looking for the Big Four of the tall-grass prairies to show themselves. Now all four have done so. Many of the hundreds of bunches of grass will not mature enough to make seed this year, but enough have done so to encourage us that what we'd hoped for is actually happening. We've also seen Sideoats Grama, Lovegrass, and Eastern Gamagrass.

Eastern Gamagrass

Big Bluestem

Big Bluestem

Big Bluestem

Yellow Indiangrass

Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem

Yellow Indiangrass and Maximillian Sunflowers

Little Bluestem

Switchgrass and Maximillian Sunflowers

Saturday, August 24, 2019

A Long, Dry, Texas August

This is my 67th August in Texas. You'd think I would have learned by now. August is hot. Global warming notwithstanding, it is always hot in August. And in South Texas it is also dry, unless something tropical develops off the coast.

So my walk in the field today was noisy. The sounds of thousands of grasshoppers fleeing from my presence were accompanied by the crunch of my steps on the dried rust weed. Despite the heat and drought, however, the native grasses continue to progress. In parts of the field they are sparse and small, hidden under the canopy of the Mare's Tail that took an opportunity to flourish this summer. In other places they are plentiful, but small and dry. But in the twenty or so acres nearest the house, they are growing in good numbers and size. Many are forming their seed heads––Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Lovegrass, Sideoats Grama, and Switchgrass are discernible. Most of the clumps are mysteries to me until they identify themselves with their distinctive seed heads. The yellow Partridge Pea bushes are plentiful. I found one Texas Coneflower blooming in the middle of one of the bunch grasses.

We've now been a month without a drop of rain and temperatures have been over 100 most days. In a few more weeks that will break and become more seasonal. I suspect the grasses will respond to the fall rains with joy.

Psalm 147:8 (NRSV)
    He covers the heavens with clouds,
    prepares rain for the earth,
    makes grass grow on the hills.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The Prairie Emerges

Patience is a difficult practice. We've been used to seeing hard red winter wheat seeds sown in December quickly emerge and mature, changing from a beautiful blue-green in March to the golden waves ready for harvest in May. We have seen sorghum sudan grass leap from the fields to heights of six or seven feet for a crop of hay. But the perennial native grasses do not behave in such a way. They require patience.

Will Newman, a local wildlife biologist who works with Quails Forever, walked the fields with us back in the early spring, when only a few of the grasses we planted were poking their heads through the red-brown sandy loam. In the first year, he told us, these grasses will spend much of their energy putting down deep roots. They "go deep." In the second year, the plants will spread out and become a bit larger. They "creep."  And in the third year, the tall switch grass and others will reach their heights of six to nine feet, with roots twice that length.
Drawn by Heidi Natura, Conservation Research Institute
They "leap." Will said not to worry about the field until August or September, when the warm weather grasses would become more visible.

Well, it is August 1. Melinda and I walked through a portion of the field today, as we often do. The grasses in the field closest to our home show abundant signs of "prairie life." Many of the seeds we put in the ground in January are making themselves known. Blue-green clumps of Little Bluestem are standing their ground. Yellow Partridge Pea bushes are attracting bees and wasps. A stand of Sideoats Grama already has a seed head. One tall grass, that we think is Indian Grass is showing its seed head as well. This is one we really hoped would establish itself. White Prairie Clover has been scattered over the field all summer, as have other flowers we planted –– Coreopsis, Basket Flowers, Lemon Bee Balm, and others. We've seen coneflower plants across the field for a while. Their broad leaves are easily identifiable. But today we saw one blooming for the first time. Love Grass has grown up in places and formed its airy head. We won't be able to clearly identify many of the grasses that are emerging until they become more mature. But they are everywhere!

Maximillian Sunflower

Little Bluestem


White Prairie Clover

Maximillian Sunflower

Indian Grass


Earlier this week Jamie Killian, the Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist who has been working with us on the project came for a visit while we were gone and took a few photographs. She emailed us later: "The prairie looks great to me. I saw several species that were in the seed mix. I like the little bluestem."

Meanwhile, we learn what we can and marvel at what is happening. Three years seems like a long time. Note the three "prairie blogs" on the right. The photos there are beautiful and the content is always inspiring.
Big Bluestem (we think) 
Fine-backed Red Paper Wasp on Partridge Pea

Indian Grass

Love Grass

Zizotes Milkweed

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Tractor Work

One of my favorite Eugene Peterson stories is the one where the Norwegian farmer/neighbor, Leonard Storm, invites 5-year old Eugene, to ride with him on his big John Deere and plow the field. Great story.

Today Herb suggested that he teach me to drive his International Harvester Farmall tractor so that we could continue planting while he had to be out this afternoon. So Melinda and I spent the afternoon driving the tractor through the field planting the native grass seeds.

Planting the Prairie

The rains finally began to slack up in mid-December and on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day the seed that we'd hoped to have had in the ground in September found its way to the fields. Last week we shredded the standing grass in the field.

Shredding the Fields

Yesterday Texas Parks and Wildlife delivered the no-till seed drill and Herb, our farmer friend and tractor operator, went to work. The no-till seed drill allows the seeds to be planted at the proper rate and depth without disturbing the seed bed in the soil, as disking or tilling would do. This will prevent the weed seeds lying dormant in the ground from germinating along with the seeds we are planting.

No Till Seed Drill

Each of the twenty bags held millions of tiny seeds bearing the DNA of grasses, forbs, and flowers that have evolved over eons, adapting to the soil and climate of Texas, contributing to the ecology of the tall grass prairies that covered much of Texas not that long ago. These prairies have shrunk to less than 1% of the original twenty-million acres. In less than a century agriculture and development practically eliminated a beautiful and important feature of creation in North America that had stood in its ground for millennia.

I have two books to recommend to anyone who is interested in prairies and their preservation. Cindy Crosby's The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction might become required reading for visitors to our place, just so they'll know the difference between a prairie and an unmowed field. Crosby not only explains prairies and their restoration, but also teaches us how to experience the prairie with all five senses. She also writes a weekly blog called Tuesdays in the Tallgrass, that contains both beautiful photography and thoughtful writing about prairies.

Melinda and I have also enjoyed reading Matt White's Prairie Time: A Blackland Portrait, which deals with the stories of life on the Blackland Prairie of Texas as well as stories of the demise of that landscape. He takes us on visits to various prairie remnants in Texas. Our land is not in the Blackland region, but right where the Blackland Prairie, the Oak Woods & Prairies, and the South Texas Brush Country ecological regions come together. Much of the flora on the Blackland Prairie once grew in this area as well.

Having longed for the rain to cease so that we could plant, we are now eager for moderate winter rains to do their part in helping these seeds fulfill their purpose and bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold.