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Short Grass on the Prairie

February 28, 2014

If you visit Prairie Ridge over the next month or so, you’ll likely notice that the grasses are shorter than usual in many areas of the grounds.  Part of the prairie (near the pond and along the lowlands of the Forest Trail) was burned in November during our annual prescribed burn.  You can no longer see the ashes in those areas, but the grasses have remained short through the winter.  Over the last few days, the grasses near the parking lot have also been reduced to nubs.  This part of the prairie was mowed, and for a very good reason.

mowed prairie before and after

The Prairie Ridge prairie is a demonstration of what the prairies of North Carolina looked like before they were eliminated due to proliferation of farmland and urbanization.  Back when prairies were part of North Carolina’s natural landscape, we had two things that helped maintain our prairies and prevent encroachment of forests into the grasses: fire and large grazing mammals.  Lightning and man-made fires would rip through our prairies every few years and burn up the small trees and shrubs that managed to establish themselves among the grasses.  The grasses, however, were well adapted to fire and quickly regrew from seeds and roots that were protected underground.  Large mammals were also an important part of the prairie ecosystem.  Species such as Bison and Elk used to roam North Carolina, and their grazing helped keep the prairie healthy between fires by thinning the grasses and fertilizing the land.

People in populated areas, such as the Triangle, generally suppress fires and most of our large grazing mammals are gone.  This means that our prairie doesn’t experience the sort of essential naturally occurring processes a prairie in North Carolina would have relied on in the past.  Instead, we duplicate those processes ourselves.  Prescribed fires mimic the sorts of fires that used to sweep through North Carolina’s prairies from time to time, and we burn one of three sections of the prairie every year.  We can’t bring in large grazing mammals to feed on our grasses, but we can mimic some of the services they provided mechanically.  By mowing the prairie, we help replenish nutrients to the soil and remove vegetation, allowing the sun to reach new seedlings that sprout up in the prairie come spring.

Fire and mowing are important management tools we use to keep our prairie looking its best.  It might not look like much now, but the grasses and flowers will soon regrow, filling the prairie with brand new vibrant green grasses dotted with occasional splashes of color.  In the meantime, there are things to love about the bald patches!  Look for big flocks of robins hunting seeds and insects, small mammals such as Hispid Cotton Rats darting across the surface, and birds of prey searching for food overhead.  Just because the grasses are short doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see.  Come on out and see what you can discover in the short grass!

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