Fire and flowers return to the prairie
Around the US, native ecosystems are being restored because of their environmental benefits.
Every morning throughout April and early May, a cadre of highly trained men and women meets as the sun rises over suburban Minneapolis and St. Paul to decide whose lawn to ignite.Skip to next paragraph
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"You can't plan ahead," says Ron Bowen. "You have to take them one at a time and pick the ones that you can burn today with the least problems. You have to be spontaneous. It's a matter of wind, temperature, and moisture."
Mr. Bowen owns Prairie Restorations of Princeton, Minn. For years he's been involved in planting and managing large prairie ecosystems for clients such as the Nature Conservancy and state agencies. More recently he's turned to suburbia - turning expanses of lawn into gardens of more ecologically sensitive native plants.
"On the outer fringe of metropolitan areas there are more people that have one-to-five-acre lots and are mowing edge to edge," he laments. "On even a one-acre plot it would work well to have 50 to 75 percent in something other than mowed [grass]. That could be dry prairie, open woodland and native grasses, or a wetland with native grasses."
Bowen, whose company has established these kinds of plantings as far afield as Maryland, grew up on the fringes of suburban St. Paul. He watched as, like a prairie fire, civilization swept out from the city and the wild places he loved were covered in pavement or grass.
"I saw those woods get cut down and the streams get put into culverts and fields turned into housing lots. I felt there was something wrong," Bowen remembers.
His passion has placed him smack in the middle of the relatively new field of restoration ecology.
Restoration ecologists study how to successfully repair ecosystems damaged or destroyed by mining, stream erosion, or industrial brown fields.
That's not an easy task. There are dozens of different prairie ecosystems, and the species diversity in just one can be greater than a complex forest ecosystem.
"On a good-quality native prairie remnant of one acre there's about 250 species," Bowen says.
Each prairie ecosystem - whether a wooded savannah, a dry upland, or a wetland - has a different species mix. Bowen sees the work of designing a planting as being something like an artist choosing just the right colors for a painting.
"A residential site can have a number of different conditions from wet to dry or from woodland to full sun, so if you were really fine-tuning it you'd have a minimum of a couple different seed mixes," he says. "Your short list of grasses might include little bluestem and sideoats grama. If you get into the lower areas or more on the property's periphery, where you can do a little design work with height, you put big bluestem, Indian grass, maybe a little bit of switch grass if [the site is] wet. Then you'd add a whole complement of flowers like butterfly weed, black-eyed Susans, common oxeye [daisy], and in a wet area, gentian and iris."
Across the country, other companies are also offering homeowners the option of growing something other than turf grass around their homes.
In California, where grasslands and fire were a major part of the indigenous ecosystems, Elkhorn Native Plant Nursery of Moss Landing, Calif., works with customers to re-create what ecologist Jean Ferreira calls coastal prairies.
"I'm on a ranch that's 1,100 acres, and I would imagine that probably 800 acres was originally native coastal prairie," she says.
Although she does big projects, Ms. Ferreira perks up when she talks about the half-dozen small residential plantings she helped design and plant last season. The one she put in her yard is typical.