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.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Too much rain in Texas?

In July and August the idea of too much rain in south Texas was barely conceivable. We had less than a half inch of precipitation and temperature regularly over 100 degrees. We were making plans to plant the native seeds in mid-September and hoping there would be enough moisture to soften up the soil a bit.

Then the rain started. In September we had more than 15" of rain in Floresville, more than half our annual average. The rain has continued, and we are waiting for the weather to dry up enough to take equipment into the fields. Right now we have several thousands of dollars worth of seed sitting on a pallet on our driveway. Hopefully, these will find their place in the soil before too many more days pass.

Meanwhile, nature goes on with its life. Queen butterflies and Pipevine Swallowtails are plentiful and the Northern Harriers we noticed last fall and winter have returned.

Friday, September 07, 2018

We Are Planting the Prairie Soon!

On a Saturday morning a few weeks ago, Melinda and I drove to the Kirchoff Family Farm, about twenty minutes from our place, to join others in a prairie workday. We met Brenda, one of the Kirchoff landowners, and Jeffrey, a reporter for the Wilson County News. The four of us worked in a spot on the prairie harvesting Switchgrass seed that will be used to seed areas of their property that need additional tall grass. Brenda was not much of a taskmaster. She called a halt to the work after an hour and a half and took us on a tour of the place in her John Deere Gator.

One of the plants the Kirchoffs are trying to establish is Zizoetes Milkweed, a native milkweed used by Monarch butterflies as a host for their eggs. We got back to the farm the next weekend and discovered that we have a couple of dozen of them growing in our front yard!

Meanwhile, the work on the Creech prairie restoration project proceeds. We have done three applications of the herbicide to eliminate invasive species and give the prairie grasses, wildflowers, and forbs the best chance of establishing themselves.

I know some of those, but many are strangers at this point. Praying for good winter rains and abundant germination next spring!

Friday, July 20, 2018

Kirchoff Native Prairie Near Floresville, Texas

The Wilson County News published a nice article this week on the Kirchoff Family Farm restored native prairie near Floresville. You can download the article to read the interview with Don Kirchoff.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Preparation for the Prairie

Predominant grass in the field in June 2018
More than a month has passed since the last herbicidal treatment of the fields and more than an inch and a half of rain has fallen. The fields are changing from the dead brown we saw in May to a consistent green as grass seeds in the seed bed have germinated. We have been accustomed to having the fields empty in May and June when we have had harvests of wheat or hay. What has followed in midsummer has been an outburst of what I believe to be Digitaria bicornis (Asian Crabgrass –– which, despite its name, is a Texas native grass).

Apparently the same thing is occurring this summer. We anticipate one more herbicidal application later this summer to prepare the fields for the planting of native grasses sometime in September. For now, it is something of a relief to see some green in the fields, even though I know it is something that has to be eliminated in order for the prairie grasses, forbs, and wildflowers to have the best chance at surviving.

Fields in June 2018 after 1.6" of rain

We have continued to see a diversity of wildlife around here, including deer, gray foxes, armadillos, cottontails, raccoons, squirrels, dozens of species of birds, including Northern Bobwhite Quail and Wild Turkeys, many butterflies and moths, and a diversity of flora. 

Asian Crabgrass in a previous summer

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Prairie Project

I'm going to return to posting on this blog site to document the prairie restoration project taking place at the Creech Farm this year. Tall grass prairies once covered twenty million acres of the Texas landscape. Less than one percent of those prairie lands remain. The loss of the prairies means the loss of habitat for a variety of creatures, such as the Bobwhite Quail, which was once plentiful in the state, wild turkey, dove, white-tail deer, and others. Prairies play a vital role in preserving water, both in quantity and quality, in conserving soil, and in attracting pollinators as well. So we are taking our pastures out of production and converting them to prairie.

This year we received a Pastures for Upland Birds (PUB) Grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW). TPW is providing us with the consulting services of our local wildlife biologist, Jamie Killian. They also supply the necessary herbicide to use in preparation of the land to remove invasive plants and to give the prairie grasses the best chance to survive when they are planted. They will also provide a no-till seed drill and a mixture of about forty varieties of grasses, wildflowers, and forbs that were native to prairies in this area. We, the land owners, supply the land (80 acres in this case) and someone to operate the machinery for the herbicidal treatments and the planting. We've hired a neighbor to do that, the young man who has been leasing the place to farm for the past ten years. I'm pretty certain he thinks we're crazy, but he has been willing to play along.

We have already made two applications of herbicide to the fields this spring. A third will be done in late August. Admittedly, this has been the most difficult thing to do. Melinda and I are not fans of chemicals. With this project, however, we will only get one chance to plant, and we want to give the desired flora the best chance of success with as little competition as possible. So right now, our fields look like the dead of winter, or like the product of extensive drought. Very little green appears anywhere.

In September we will plant. The no-till seed drill is used to keep from stirring up the seed bed of other plants that has accumulated over the years. Tilling would bring them up and give us a good crop of plants we are not interested in growing. Then we will pray for good fall and winter rains to provide the best germination. We hope to see the beginnings of a prairie in the spring.

To a casual observer, a prairie might look like a field someone neglected to mow. But it is a rich and diverse ecosystem. About 20 minutes from here is a 200 acre restored prairie created and maintained by the Kirchoff Family Their photos and story can be found on the Native Prairie Association of Texas website.

Once we have begun establishing the prairie, the work is not done. Prairies require maintenance. Invasive species of plants have to be identified and removed. Every few years it will need to be mowed, grazed, or burned. Places where germination does not succeed will require more planting. We will be setting up guzzlers to provide water for wildlife. Annual bird counts will be needed. The list goes on, and it is an exciting list to us. Volunteers will be welcome along the way.

Melinda came across this poem by Emily Dickenson, and we like it very much. Dickenson named it "To Make a Prairie (1755)."

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

So we have joined the Balcones Chapter of the Native Prairie Association of Texas and the Wilson County Wildlife Management Association and we are on a learning curve with this project. I plan to use this site to document the progress (or lack of it) along the way. For now, here are some photos of the wintery looking field awaiting a fall planting.