Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Prairie Trail

I like to get around in the fall to check the condition of the trails and get an idea of how much maintenance work they will need during the winter. This portion of the trail was only mowed once this year and that was a few weeks ago. Removal of fallen trees is the most labor intensive of the trail maintenance activities. Since I obviously made it through here with DR Brush, there shouldn’t be any major obstacles. I guess I was really just out for a walk rather than seriously looking for maintenance work.

The drought continues. This area typically has a thick layer of bright green moss. Most of the moss will rehydrate when the rains return.

This particular trail goes through the middle of one of the prairie openings. I only mow the prairie trails after the flowers and grasses have gone to seed, so the trail is not as clearly defined here. There’s usually enough deer traffic to at least keep the trail visible.

There seems to be an uphill walk involved with every opening you visit.

The shady area at the base of big cedars seems to act as a nursery for many types of plants. A selection of oaks has developed here. In order to survive, the oaks will have to grow towards the sunlight. Most oaks in this situation will snake their way up through the central open area in the cedar canopy and periodically send out lateral branches into the light.

Sometimes the tall grasses grow faster than the deer can trample them down and the trail becomes temporarily hidden.

Many of the gullies that were formed in the days of active farming have completely healed. As soil conditions improve, plant growth becomes more vigorous in the old gullies.

The gully edges have almost disappeared. Soil from the bare area slowly shifts down and becomes lodged in the grass cover. The grass takes advantage of this added material by growing a little farther up the slope. As the soil moves from below the sod at the top of the cut, the entire sod mat slowly drops to make contact with the remaining soil. Eventually the grass from bottom and top will meet and there will be a continuous vegetative cover.

In most places the deer don’t have any trouble keeping the trail open. This is a south facing slope with very shallow soil, so the vegetation doesn’t spread out very quickly.

Occasionally a Tuliptree will try to become established on these open slopes. This specimen displays the enlarged base of a tree that has died back several times. I sometimes wonder if the tree roots have found a source of subsurface water that is sufficient to give them a chance to become established on these sites.

These rogue Tuliptrees can sometimes reach a height of 20 or 30 feet before outgrowing their available water supply and dying. Branch dieback is common and leaf loss always occurs earlier than on trees in more favorable growing conditions. The pattern of invasion and growth in these Tuliptrees is an occurrence that may have had a part in naturally maintaining openings in which prairie plants could persist. It’s just another thing that I watch as I try to understand how prairie openings might have been naturally maintained.

At the other side of the opening we reconnect with the network of mowed trails. I never did find much need for trail maintenance. I guess I was just out having a good time.

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