The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project and The Cajun Prairie Gardens as classrooms demonstrate the dynamics of time and space in the changes that occur in a diverse ecosystem over time, both seasonal and through ecological succession. This essay focuses on the gardens in winter part of their cycles. Winter fire has been the primary maintenance feature of the gardens. These fires have generally occurred in January and February.
Bleak! Other days are bright and sunny, but the prairies are a mix of brown, red, and yellow straws—paille jaune (yellow straw) and paille rouge (red straw) were the French designations of patches of these browned grasses and forbs. Many days are windy and a circus of movement drowns out the sounds of anything else, while setting the grasses dancing.
Fire is the order of the day, but it awaits calm winds and sufficient low humidity and dry conditions in order to dispense its creative force. Once the prairie is established, fire usually creates a rather clean palette for the spring flush of growth and flowers. Fire stimulates growth of seeds and opens the area for exposure to sun such that new growth of perennials is exacerbated.
The blackened surface of the prairie will persist for only a couple of weeks; it appears as a ‘great death,’ but the underground roots and stems are alive and reorganizing in preparation for the Spring’s profusion of flowers. Some days are really different with occasional snow and ice events, but these are rare. Other than that the surface remains black absorbing every bit of sunlight’s heat in anticipation of the end of winter.
Other than burning, a series of management techniques including mowing, mass grazing and packing down are used as trial methods for controlling the massive aboveground material, which is susceptible to fire. This vulnerability to fire as well as the use of fire for management can be prohibitive in some communities for a dozen different reasons. For example, the loss of carbon to fire is problematic in some circles.
In any case, a management plan needs to be in place even before the planting of the prairie garden. The plan is affected by the size of the garden, the neighborhood, the plants chosen to be in the garden, and by far the purpose of the garden. Gardens need to have purpose; thus a set of goals should be drawn up and repeated often. Management problems will directly impact the goals and potentially change them midstream. The garden plan also needs to take into consideration the nature of the garden as a natural garden that will undergo succession. Unlike a garden of annuals, prairie gardens are comprised mainly of perennial plants—plants that take years to develop and persist for generations. This structure makes management and overall expense reasonable if you have a full palette of options on the table.
The most important part of these gardens is the gardener. Every garden needs a devoted gardener. Projects like these gardens need to be tended and maintained; although once the garden is established, the maintenance may be minimal, however significant. Wild gardens need advocates in addition to gardeners—these gardens are offensive to large swaths of people who have become distant from nature.
So January is a great time to plan a wild garden. What do you need?
1. a place that meets the minimal requirements: sun, time, acceptance.
2. a gardener who is willing to stay with the garden in good and bad times.
3. a plan for the garden both in space and time, including planting and maintenance plans.
4. a store of knowledge with a bit of expertise that will make the garden not only a naturalistic site but also a site with potential for numerous activities of man and nature.
January is also time to plant the garden. Seed can be sown anytime during the winter—many seeds require cold moist stratification, which will occur naturally if seeds are planted early in winter; usually 6 weeks of cold-damp weather will do it. Digging in propagules, roots, stems of a variety of kinds including bulbs and rhizomes, and nursery or wild grown plants provides an opportunity to get the garden off to a running start. Transplanting plugs from the wild or from prairies provide for the inoculation of the soil with microbes, insects, worms and other biota that may well be essential for the well-being of the garden and its new transplants. It is also a great time to amend an existing garden by planting new species: seeds can be planted in an area that is disturbed or by interseeding into an established area—the former may be labor intensive but is more likely to succeed in my experience. Remember that biodiversity is usually a central theme in this type of gardening, but selective addition of species is recommended as some species are rough and tough competitors.
In February, basal rosettes of hundreds of different species of plants will grow from apparently long dead underground stems and roots, while seedlings will emerge from a cadre of annuals and some perennials lucky enough to find bare ground—few will survive the competition with already fully grown bullies with massive root systems, which will sprout and shoot to a foot in height in a matter of weeks. These established plants shade the new leaves of seedlings and steal what moisture and nutrients were tentatively available for the new seedlings. It is a struggle from the instant of germination, but some new plants could survive and take their place among the giants.
The month usually ends with the first blooms of Nothoscordum bivalve (Crowpoison) and Houstonia spp. (bluets). In some years, a few Claytonia, Ranunculus, Tradescantia and Oxalis bloom. Senecio glabellus and Erigeron philadelphicus bloom in disturbed areas and along roadside ditches. These are the first blooms on the prairie and along the prairie edges—they are a feature in new gardens as many of these are early succession bloomers. This January (2016) is so warm that Crowpoison is blooming in the gardens.
Like January, February is good time to transplant plants into the garden. Transplants have excellent opportunities for survival. Seeds can still be planted and may have good opportunity for success. Seeded plantings usually take several years to provide much color.
February is a great month. I enjoy walking the prairies and identifying the basal rosettes. I can readily generate an imaginary image of the plants in bloom and see the prairie at its prime for each species. One of the most rewarding traits of the gardener is the ability to recognize these basal rosettes—it also makes moving plants at their optimum opportunity to survive feasible.
The end of February signals the beginning of the bloom season, and the end of the winter doldrums in the garden. Anticipation is high, and satisfaction is generally provided in the wild garden.
Posted by M. F. Vidrine email@example.com