Tom's Blog

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Getting seed mixes ready

We have almost 200 species of seeds collected, and now is the time to construct seed mixes. Most of these won't be used until spring (after the burns), but some will be used now, so all the mixes need to be made. This is mainly Kathie's responsibility, and my job is to figure out how many acres of each seed mix we will be planting. I use GIS for this, which is convenient but not essential.

Our possible seed mixes are: dry prairie (DP), dry-mesic (DM), open savanna (OS), woodland, wet-mesic (WM), and wetland, but this year we need only DM, OS, WM, and woodland. The assignment of each species to one of these categories is based mainly on the data of Curtis, as collated and summarized by Rich Henderson in a very useful Technical Bulletin of the DNR. (Now out of print, but available on-line at UW-Madison Digital Collections.)

Some species fit in more than one category. For instance, stiff and showy goldenrod are in DP, DM, and OS, New Jersey tea is in DM and OS, and New England aster is in DM, OS, and WM. So when the mixes are made, we have to take that into consideration.

The first thing to do is determine how many acres of each habitat type will be planted. Then a ratio between the various categories is calculated. This year, the numbers are: DM, 2; OS, 1; WM, 0.5, woods, 1.

A large bag is labeled for each category. Starting with A (Amorpha canescens) and going through Z (Zizia aureus), the available seed for each species is split and distributed into each bag. For instance, since lead plant is being used only in DM and OS, twice as much lead plant seed is put in the DM bag than in the OS bag. The actual distribution does not need to be very precise, and is done by handfuls.

It takes three people to do the mixes, one with the master list, two doing the distributions.

The DM and OS seed mixes will be used mainly for areas where we have removed invasives such as sumac, sunflower, and pale Indian plantain, although we are also replanting (supplementing) several prairie and savanna areas. The WM mix will be used for the Barn Prairie and Crane Prairie, with a small amount in the wetter part of the Pocket Prairie.

The woodland mix will be used in the road cut along County F, where some areas have been newly cleared. This mix will also be used in an area of the north woods where a lot of honeysuckles were removed.

Reseeding areas where invasives have been removed makes a lot of sense. If the invasives have been in the site for any period of time, they have shaded out many of the desirable species. Removing the invasives from an area creates a hole where other undesirable species can get established. Such undesirables include annuals such as foxtail grass, giant ragweed, and fleabane, which may flourish. The newly planted seeds may take several years to develop into substantial plants, but eventually they should take over, and the annuals will subside.

Because the number of species available differs from year to year, we prepare a new master list each year. The seed list for 2011, an Excel file, has 196 species. I would be happy to send a copy of this list to anyone who wants one. Send me an email.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Turning woods into prairie: part three

This is the final installment of my post on the work we did transforming the 5-acre East Basin site from woods to prairie. The first part gave the background and described the major work of logging to clear the site. The second part including the other preliminaries leading up to planting the prairie in Nov 2009 and the control of weeds.

The present post presents results of prairie growth in the second growing season (2011) and gives a summary of costs of the whole project.

In contrast to the hard work involved in previous years, the summer of 2011 was easy, involving observations of growth of the prairie, and minor seed collecting (for planting in other areas).

The season started off with a very successful prescribed burn. Normally we would have not burned this prairie until after the third growing season, but we were operating under NRCS rules and they requested a spring burn in 2011. Since we had mowed the prairie twice the previous season, we had doubts about whether there would be enough fuel to carry a fire, but it turned out that about half of the site burned fairly well. This burn was carried out by Kathie and I with our regular crew (Amanda, Marci, and Susan).
In 2011 we followed prairie development carefully. Although there were plenty of weeds and rampant annuals the second year, the predominant species were native prairie plants. By mid-summer, the general aspect was of a lush, 2nd year prairie (see photo below). This was the first time that we could begin to think that perhaps the whole restoration process might be worth the time and money.

Although most planted prairies are relatively low in diversity during their first few years, in the East Basin we had a number of “good” plants showing flowers or flower buds. By late summer the situation was even better. In fact, a few species did well enough that they served as sources for seed collection:June grass, prairie brome, pasture thistle, woodland and Virginia wild rye, Gaura, and black- and brown-eyed Susans. The 2011 list (50 species) is given in the table at the bottom of this post.

The principal invasive plant was sweet clover, but this was primarily localized to the upper part of the southeast corner. It was hand-pulled by our regular crew and by the summer interns. The interns also cruised the whole site and pulled other weeds.

Reasonably careful records were kept of the work involved in restoration of the East Basin. The two main activities were 1) logging and other activities involved in removing the woody vegetation, and 2) seed collecting to provide the seed mix used in planting. Other activities such as weeding, mowing, and prescribed burning were only about 15% of the total work.

Total work was somewhat over 3000 hours, or about 600 hours per acre. Actual cost would depend upon the hourly rate, which would vary depending on location and availability of personnel. Assuming $20 per hour, for instance, the total cost would be $60,000 or $12,000 per acre. This is at the high end of costs for prairie restoration, but would be reasonable for oak savanna restoration.

Latin name Common name
Achillea millefolium Yarrow
Agastache nepetoides Yellow giant hyssop
Agastache scrophulariaefolia Purple giant hyssop
Arnoglossum atriplicifolia Pale Indian plantain
Aster laevis Smooth blue aster
Aster lateriflorus Calico aster
Aster novae-angliae New England aster
Aster oolentangiensis Sky-blue aster
Aster pilosus Hairy aster
Aster sagittifolius Arrow-leaved aster
Aster lanceolatus Marsh aster
Bromus kalmii Prairie brome
Cirsium discolor Pasture thistle
Desmodium paniculatum Panciled tick-trefoil
Dodecatheon meadia Shooting star
Elymus canadensis Canada wild rye
Elymus hystrix Bottlebrush grass
Elymus riparius Woodland wild rye
Elymus virginicus Virginia wild rye
Erigeron philadelphicus Marsh fleabane
Erigeron strigosus Daisy fleabane
Eupatorium altissimum Tall boneset
Eupatorium perfoliatum Boneset
Gaura biennis Biennial gaura
Gentianella quinquefolia Stiff gentian
Helenium autumnale Sneezeweed
Helianthus decapetalus Pale sunflower
Heliopsis helianthoides Ox-eye sunflower
Hypericum punctatum Dotted St. Johns wort
Koeleria macrantha June grass
Lobelia siphilitica Great blue lobelia
Monarda fistulosa Wild bergamot
Oenothera biennis Common evening-primrose
Panicum virgatum Switch grass
Penstemon digitalis Penstemon
Phytolacca americana Pokeweed
Polygonum punctatum Smartweed
Ratibida pinnata Yellow coneflower
Rudbeckia hirta Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia triloba Brown-eyed Susan
Silphium integrifolium Rosinweed
Solidago canadensis Common goldenrod
Solidago missouriensis Missouri goldenrod
Solidago nemoralis Gray goldenrod
Solidago rigida Stiff goldenrod
Solidago speciosa Showy goldenrod
Sorghastrum nutans Indian grass
Tradescantia ohiensis Common spiderwort
Verbena hastata Blue vervain
Verbena stricta Hoary vervain

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Late fall burn

We had planned to do a late fall burn but conditions had not been favorable until today. We needed a couple of hard freezes to set back all this year's vegetation and then a warm sunny day with relatively low humidity. We got the hard freezes, the sun, and the low humidity, but not the warmth, but it appeared that if we didn't burn now, we would lose our chance.

Our principal goal was a good burn of the Sandhill Crane Wet Prairie, and this we got. This prairie had a very lush stand of Indian grass this year, and this species carries a fire quite well. However, we had a strong wind out of the west, and because the Crane Prairie runs NW/SE, the wind was blowing across the narrow part of the prairie, making the burn a bit tricky. The map below shows the Crane Prairie outlined in orange, and the wind direction. (Double click to enlarge the map for more detail.)
One drip torch backburned down from Pleasant Valley Road and the second drip torch created a big series of short head fires from the west fire break. We did not want to light a single fire line along the west fire break because this would create a huge fire. As can be seen in the map above and the photo below, upwind of the Crane Prairie was our whole south-facing slope, with about 20 acres of very flammable prairie grass. We certainly did not want to burn this!

In order to keep the fire relatively small, we lighted in strips. This worked, although it was time consuming. (It took us almost three hours to burn this 3-acre prairie!) We had a crew of seven.

Doing a burn in such cold weather is tricky. The temperature during the night had fallen to the mid 20s and when we arrived at 9 AM the temperature was still only 30 F. Since we needed a lot of water, we reactivated our water pump which had been drained in September. Since well water has a temperature of about 50 F, we did not have to worry about our backpack water cans freezing up. We started to light about noon, at which time the temperature had increased to 37 F and the relative humidity was in the upper 40s. An hour later the temperature was still the same but the R.H. had dropped into the 30s. By the time we finished at 3 PM the sun was starting down and the R.H. was on its way back up. Fortunately, we were able to get our burn finished during this narrow window.

Another problem we had was that there were several buildings at the downwind end of the Crane Prairie, and we had to protect them. Therefore, the first thing we did was to burn around these buildings. Even with extreme caution, we still almost came to grief, as a shingle on the roof of the historic corn crib got hit by a burning ember. Fortunately, it could easily be put out.

One of our reasons for wanting to burn the Crane Prairie this fall was that there had been a large infestation of pale Indian plantain, the clonal and highly invasive composite that we are trying to eradicate. This species appears early in the spring, producing large rosettes, which will be very visible in the bare prairie and easily herbicided. If we had not burned, the plantain would have been hiding under all the prairie debris and would have been lots more difficult to spray.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Turning woods into prairie: part two

This is a continuation of my story about how we turned a very degraded 5 acre hilly woods into prairie.

Refer to my previous post for part one.

In the spring of 2008 we girdled the 100 or so aspen. (The oaks and other hardwoods had been removed in the winter of 2007-2008.)

Although the site was not too bad in the summer of 2008, by the summer of 2009 the weeds were running rampant. Although most of the weeds were annuals, there were also plenty of perennials. Normally, for a degraded site like this we would call in the ag co-op to spray the whole site with glyphosate. However, our site was much too hilly and full of aspens for a truck-mounted boom sprayer. Therefore, a contractor was hired to spray on foot the whole site using a 300-foot hose operated from the back of a pick-up truck. The operator took three days to spray the whole 5-acre site.
The photo below shows what the site looked ten days after herbicide treatment. Another treatment was done in some areas of regrowth in August. By fall, most of the vegetation had dried up and blown away, so that the site was mostly bare.

In September 2009 the now-dead aspens were cut and stacked for burning. In October 2009 the contractor and our own crew spent several days burning the aspen and brush piles, and hand-clearing the site of remaining large logs.

In early November we did a prescribed burn on all parts of the site which had sufficient fuel to carry a fire.

Once we had the site cleared, and the preliminary work was done, we started to get ready for prairie planting. Because of the size of the site, we had archived seeds collected in 2008 and these were pooled with the 2009 collections. Kathie put together an extensive seed list of over 100 species. Because we were operating under NRCS rules with uncertified seed, the planting rate was 50 seeds per square foot, a high rate.

The planting itself was done by a group of volunteers on November 14, 2009.
During the first growing season (2010), we monitored the site to see what came up. In early June the following species were seen: lupine (flowering), spiked lobelia, pasteur thistle, spiderwort, venus-looking glass, fleabane, alum root, June grass (flowering), black-eyed Susan, and Canada milk vetch. Later in the summer, quite a few more species were seen, including several other grasses.

It is routine in prairie planting to mow at least once, and preferable several times, during the first growing season. Mowing prevents quite a few undesirable species (including numerous annuals) from flowering and setting seed. Also, mowing keeps the site open so that the tiny prairie plants, which are spending most of their first year establishing root systems, can get light. Again, because of the hills, we could not call in a local farmer or co-op to mow. Kathie mowed most of the site with a brush hog on the back of our Kubota tractor. (This was a potentially dangerous job which Kathie handled brilliantly!)

Amanda mowed by hand with a Stihl brush cutter those areas that were too difficult to get with the tractor.

Next post I will cover the very successful 2nd growing season and give an idea of costs.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Turning woods into prairie: part one

Most prairies planted de novo are derived from cropland or old fields. Planting into such habitats is reasonably straightforward and moderately inexpensive.

We have planted four prairies into such habitats, and our experience has been briefly described at this site. However, many natural areas contain sites that were once prairie, and because of fire suppression have turned into woods. This is often the fate of open areas in our part of the Midwest.

At Pleasant Valley Conservancy we have two prairies that were planted into wooded sites. One of these, the Sandhill Crane Wet Prairie, was small and was only moderately wooded.

The other site, which we call the East Basin, is a different story. This 5 acre site was out of view at the far eastern end of the Conservancy and was easy to ignore. However, it was so ugly that we decided we had to tackle it. I'm not sure that we would have started this restoration if we had known what we were getting in for, but once we got started, we had to keep going. Although we were able to obtain modest grants from the Landowner Incentive Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, most of the restoration work was funded by our private Savanna Oak Foundation, Inc., with help at critical stages from volunteers.

We have now reached the end of the second growing season of this new prairie and I have prepared a detailed summary of what we did and how we did it. Perhaps more importantly, we have detailed records so I am able to provide concrete data on the restoration work (hours and dollar costs). The present blog post is Part One of a summary of what is a 40 page PDF document that I will eventually put on the web site.

At the time of the 1937 air photo, the East Basin was completely open, with essentially no trees or other woody vegetation. Because it faces south and southwest, it seemed reasonable that it might have been a prairie remnant, even though the slope is not nearly as steep as our main south-facing hill.

A pre-restoration walk-through of the East Basin

After we had finally decided to restore the East Basin, on October 1, 2007 I did a “walk-through” of the whole site. This proved to be a difficult undertaking, as the site was very brushy. The honeysuckles were huge, and it was hard to get through them. Because of the heavy shade, the understory was very sparse. Herbaceous plants included an occasional Eupatorium rugosum, sweet cicely, Hackelia, and Aster lateriflorus. There was a large aspen clone, later estimated to be more than 100 trees. There were also some small hackberries, and small and medium-sized black (or possibly Hill's) oaks. However, most of the large trees were elm, box elder, black walnut, and black cherry.

An air photo analysis by GIS showed that the East Basin had remained mostly open through the early 1960s. By 1968 hedge rows could be seen starting and by 1976, the E side was fully wooded. By 1990 the whole site was wooded and remained so until the site was cleared in 2008.

The soils of the East Basin are quite different from those in the rest of the Conservancy. The pH values are the lowest we have, between 5 and 6, are low in calcium, and quite sandy, with some areas being iron-rich.

The initial clearing began in December 2007 and extended through the whole month of January 2008. This was a fairly large snow year so most of the stumps were cut tall and had to be recut in the summer. The members of the logging crew were experienced restoration ecologists and were careful to avoid any damage to the site. To prevent resprouting, all trunks were treated with herbicide (triclopyr). Two or three of the crew operated chainsaws and two or three others dragged the brush and small logs to burn piles. Most of the cut trees were removed for fire wood, although a significant amount of trees of saw-log quality were transported to sawmills. Also, a neighbor moved in a small saw mill and turned the largest black walnuts into lumber.

The photo above is a view from the top of the East Basin, showing an early stage of tree clearing. The cut stump in the foreground, with green color, has been treated with herbicide (Garlon 3A) to prevent resprouting.

A lot of downed wood was generated and getting rid of it can be expensive. A barter arrangement was made with a Mount Horeb dealer in split firewood. He winched the down logs to the top of the hill. The logs were then cut to firewood length and allowed to age until summer, when they were split before further aging. Truckloads of firewood were removed in the late fall of 2008. Some cherry logs of saw-log size were donated to a neighbor who paid to have them winched to the town road where a sawmill operator could reach them.

The first spring after clearing the East Basin was an interesting experience. We had decided to wait to see what came up spontaneously before we started serious restoration work. The first thing that appeared was shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii), in several large areas. This fine prairie species is capable of remaining alive without flowering for many years beneath fairly heavy shade, and then when sunlight is brought in it immediately flowers. Data from the East Basin indicate that shooting star can remain alive but suppressed for at least 40 years.

In addition to good plants, there were many “bad” plants, including scattered brambles, honeysuckles, a few small buckthorns, and two patches of garlic mustard (the only place we have found it here).

Past experience had shown that once an area had been opened up and sunlight was available, exotic invaders thrive. Therefore, in the summer of 2008 we decided to eradicate them while they were still small. For this purpose, we sprayed all of the undesirable resprouts or small plants with Garlon 3A. Our regular crew did this job, moving systematically across the East Basin and spraying every plant seen. In addition to the shrubs mentioned, the crew also sprayed any Canada goldenrod, Canada thistle, or mullein, all invasive and very undesirable plants.

In my next post I will describe the steps we took to turn this orphan into a prairie, including cost data.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mowing for fall burns

In the next week or so we hope to burn the wet prairies (Crane, Valley, and Barn) that are situated along the south side of Pleasant Valley Road . These prairies are separated from the wetland by a mowed trail which serves as a fire break. However, this year the Indian grass in these prairies is very tall and lush, which causes concern, since we don't want spot fires carrying over into the marsh. The photo above shows how close the tall prairie is to the wetland.

One technique for reducing spot-fire hazard is to mow a wide strip in the prairie next to the regular fire break. The photo above shows Kathie using our Kubota to do this. She did two wide strips and then came back and used the mower to blow all the loose grass farther into the prairie. Finally, I drove our Kawasaki Mule over the mowed area to tamp down some of the unmowed fragments.

The plan involves first burning a wide black line (fire break) along the prairie edge and then backburning down the hill from the road. We need a sunny, relatively low-humidity day for this, which we hopefully will get sometime before Thanksgiving. Once the fire break has been burned in, the burn itself should not take very long.

In an earlier post I raved about how handy the Kubota with underneath deck mower is for this sort of mowing. With care, it can even be used on relatively steep terrain. It is lots easier (and faster) to use than the sort of walk-behind mower that is often used for this sort of work.