Like so much of what we do in our horticultural practices, humans learned to burn by following nature’s example. For thousands of years, early inhabitants of North America watched tallgrass prairies get swept free of trees and woody brush by occasional wildfires. Native Americans used fire to knock back invasive species and encourage more sun-dependent, food-producing plants. Up until the mid- to late-Twentieth Century, controlled burning was the chemical- and heavy equipment-free method for revitalizing pastures, prairies and brushlands. Controlled burning is still used by ranchers, farmers and government agency land managers as a natural, cost-effective way to regenerate dense pasture growth with minimal human footprint.
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) inhabits the hummock by the large metal sculpture, Yin Yang, created by Bob’s father. This grass offers yet another incentive to burn, forming large clumps of dense vegetation that make it difficult to mow. The clumps take years to form, however, so burning regularly knocks them down and allows fresh growth to flourish. The regrowth is one of Jill’s favorite after-effects of burning:
“The prairie dropseed is adorable when it comes out. It looks like a Chia Pet or a buzz cut,” she says.
Any discussion of prescribed burns brings up the question of its impact on wildlife. Contrary to popular assumptions, burns are beneficial to native wildlife, and the little critters, having evolved with fire, know how to get out of its way. If you are interested in learning more about this practice and its impact on flora and fauna, this booklet, produced by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is a good place to start.--Lisa Peters O'Brien