Now that your prairie parcel is up and growing, there are just a few concerns that you should consider about its care.
The question of weeding is really just a matter of aesthetics. You do not have to weed your parcel. If your parcel is a large one, weeding may not even be practical.
Although the "weed" species will dominate your parcel for the first few years, they will give way to the native plant species. You can liken the native plants to long distance runners; they appear to start off slowly, but end up winning the ecological race. After all, they are the plants that are genetically-suited and adapted to growing in this environment.
The native prairie plants will be developing extensive root structure the first few seasons and eventually will outgrow the alien species. Also because of their underground development, each season's new growth is really not due in large part to plants starting from seed, but from new shoots from the underground association of roots, tubers and rhizomes. This complex association of underground growth is what prevented the early settlers from actually using the prairie to grow their crops. They found it easier to clear forested areas to start their farms. With the invention of the steel plow and its ability to cut through dense network of roots, the rich prairie soil was opened to agricultural exploitation.
Of all the things that you could possibly do to help re-establish your prairie parcel, burning is the most effective. Again, since most of your prairie comes from underground, burning what is aboveground will not hurt the native prairie species you have growing. It will, however, destroy the non-native plants that are not adapted to withstanding fire. In some cases, burning is the only way to promote some of the prairie species whose growth and seed germination is directly keyed to periodic burning.
Next are some commonly asked questions and answers associated with burning of prairie parcels.
Since burning is a key to good prairie establishment, when should you begin to regularly burn your parcel?
The first time you burn is predicated on the amount of fuel your parcel has developed. (Fuel here means burnable plant remains like twigs and dried leaves and stems.) In general, first burn your parcel when the accumulation of plant material, native and/or alien, is great enough to sustain a fire. In the case of my parcel, this accumulation took three growing seasons to develop. Then you can burn your parcel on a regular basis, when there is enough plant material accumulated to burn.
When is the right time to burn if you have enough of a fuel supply?
The best time to schedule a burn is anytime in early spring when wind and moisture conditions will allow a fire to be sustained. The early spring offers a dry source of fuel developed from last growing season's aboveground plant growth.
Who should do the burning?
My suggestion here is to be very careful if you are even thinking about doing the burn by yourself. Even a small fire can get out of control easily. The very first thing you must do is contact your local fire protection department and let them know where and when you will be burning. This will prevent a whole host of problems, like people calling and reporting a fire and having the fire trucks racing to your site, or possibly having sparks from your fire ignite some adjacent structures..
The best thing to do is contact the local fire department in your area and discuss with them the best way to handle the operation. They may even be there to assist you and supervise the burn. They will also be the best resource in determining when the optimum wind and weather conditions are present.
When you "schedule" your burn and arrange for help, be aware that when you are ready and organized to burn, it may not be the best time weather wise to burn. In other words, you must be flexible
How do you start the fire?
This is an often asked question. Again, if you have never done or assisted on one of these burns, seek the help of the experts. The fire is usually started with the help of an accelerant, like a half-and-half mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel. The direction of the burn depends on the direction of the wind. Avoid days when the wind is variable because you may not be able to control the fire.
When you are thinking of doing a burn also keep in mind the need to have fire breaks present. A path, road, or blacktopped area is needed as a buffer zone to stop the spreading of your fire from the areas you want burned. If none exists, you should backburn an area at the points around were you want the fire to stop. (Backburning is a process were you pre-burn a small area around location where you want the fire to stop before you do the entire burn. Pre-burning it this way means that the fire will not have any fuel to sustain itself when it reaches these spots.) If you are not experienced and you feel the least bit uncomfortable with these procedures, seek the aid of the professionals, like the fire department in your area. (A good article to read on this subject is "How to manage small prairie fires" by Wayne Pauly.)
What will it look like after the burn?
After you burn your parcel the ground will appear blackened and if the burn was successfu,l you will find almost no plant material remaining. Within a week or two (depending on weather) you will start to see new growth appearing, life springing from the ashes, so to speak.
In closing this section, may I recommend again that burning your parcel is potentially dangerous and that all safety concerns should be addressed. Because of the possible hazards involved, it may not be a good idea to have students or other non-essential personnel around when you do one of these burns, unless you have more than adequate supervision.
Do you need permission to burn?
Ask your local fire department if a permit is required. If you need a permit, I have included, in the resources section of this report, the address and phone number of the EPA department to contact.
After a few growing seasons you will begin to become quite familiar with the plants growing in your parcel. When you have identified the majority of your plant types, you may discover a lack of growth of one or more types of plant species, or that your area still contains more non-native growing than native ones. If your parcel has not been burned yet, try that option first. If you have already burned the parcel, you can enrich your parcel by either spreading seed of all types on your parcel or broadcasting seeds of just the type of plant that you want to establish in your parcel. Adding transplants of seeds you started indoors or obtained from other locations is also a good option.
You can obtain seed of a particular type by harvesting the seed of that plant in the fall and storing it over winter. Note that most seeds need hardening, so review procedures for this process.
Another concern with harvested seeds is the need for some varieties to be scarified, so make sure you process those seeds before spreading.
The best time to broadcast your seed is early spring. I have even seen some people spread seed when there was still snow on the ground. Another good opportunity to spread seed is immediately after your prairie has burned. The soil is warm, and the blackened surface absorbs heat, warms quickly, and keeps the soil temperature higher, promoting growth. Spreading seed at this time also gives the new seeds the advantage of starting without competing with other seeds that were destroyed by the fire.
To start seeds indoors, all you need to do is follow planting procedures that you would normally follow when you start garden-variety plants like tomatoes and peppers. You will need a sterile potting soil or seed starting soil mixture, your seeds, pots (peat pots are a good choice with students and inexperienced growers, because they reduce the risk of damaging the plants at transplanting time) and a good light source.
Plant your seeds only as deep as necessary, no deeper than twice their size. Wet the soil thoroughly to prevent the soil from drying out when seeds are germinating. Cover them with plastic until most of the seeds have germinated.
Start your plants about eight weeks before they are scheduled to be planted. Remember to harden the young plants before planting and water them regularly after transplanting.