Friday, October 1, 2010

Indian Grass as a Management Tool

Most of my management activities at Blue Jay Barrens are part of an attempt to force various ecosystems to develop along a particular line. The desired result typically involves a change of vegetation type from exotic to native. Sometimes the goal is to change from a single species situation to something with more diversity. In any case, I’m working with a living system that is naturally changing and trying to make that system change in my desired direction.

I’m always paying attention to how things are naturally changing. I know that every acre I own is struggling to become a forest. If left alone, everything here would be covered by tree canopy within 30 to 40 years. Helping things develop in this direction would be the easiest course of action. After 25 years of such management, I could have easily named the property Blue Jay Forest.

The presence of rare grassland plants caused me to manage for those species. These plants are an important part of this area’s history and much of the habitat they depend upon has been lost to various incompatible land uses. Managing for open areas is much more management intensive, but I believe it’s the best use of the property. The trick is in finding techniques that make it possible to create and maintain the type of ecosystem I’m after.

Most of my large scale conversion takes place in the old crop fields. When crop production ceases, there is a great collection of aggressive plants, mostly exotic weeds, that invade the area. This collection of plants can persist for years and in these areas often evolves a solid stand of Tall Fescue or Goldenrod. These two species have the ability to form solid stands that aggressively defend their growing areas against most vegetative intruders. Breaking up this plant monopoly can be a difficult job, but I’ve learned a trick that helps tremendously.

There are many mechanical techniques that I use in my management activities. A lot of these methods are very labor intensive and time consuming. When your work force is a single person, it helps to have some simple techniques that make a big difference. I noticed that Indian Grass readily colonized areas of solid Fescue or Goldenrod and would gradually outcompete these plants. The Indian Grass stand would become very thick after a few years and then would open up to allow wildflowers and other grasses to colonize. The result was a diverse stand of native grasses and forbs.

I decided to take ripe Indian Grass seed and scatter it around in the thickest of the Fescue and Goldenrod patches. That’s all it took to initiate the natural process I had been observing. After a few years there was mature Indian Grass over a big portion of the field and dozens of other native plants began moving in. There’s still a lot of other work to be done in these areas, but at least the plant population is moving in the right direction.


  1. Great info Steve-

    I had always heard Indian grass "took over." But, I have never heard that it would open up again. That's my kind of plan: work smarter, not harder!


  2. I continue to learn so much visiting here. Fascinating.

  3. You seem to be accomplishing exactly the goal that so many of our USDA programs are designed to perform. But I'm guessing you've preferred to do it on your own. Is that right?

  4. Hi Steve... So is that you don't know yet what the white flowerd plant is ??
    It is lovely and I have seen similiar here in the same type of areas but it was light purple!!
    I see you have some color in the trees there!!
    How do you keep young tree growth from growing in the field??

  5. Cheryl – I think it’s possible that part of my success is due to the low fertility of the soil I’m dealing with. I believe the initial burst of grass growth pulls nutrients from the soil that are then caught up in the cycle of plant growth and decomposition. Even though the old growth decomposes fairly rapidly, it will be about two years before the nutrients locked in this year’s living leaves and stems are released for reuse by the plants. This impoverishment of the soil causes the thinning of the Indian Grass and allows for the introduction of grasses and forbs with different growing seasons and growth regimens.
    Old fields with higher fertility levels can form persistent solid stands of Indian Grass. In cases like this, reducing available plant nutrients in the soil could reduce the stand of Indian Grass to the point where it would act as it does in my fields. This nutrient reduction can be accomplished by cutting and removing the Indian Grass as hay. Each load of Indian Grass hay removed from the field takes with it plant nutrients and leaves the soil in a condition closer to the needs of the typical prairie flora. Eventually a state is reached in which the prairie plants flourish at the expense of those unwanted exotics. This practice of soil impoverishment is used by many prairie restorationists.

    Hi, Lois. I try to learn one new thing each day; and the next day I hope to remember what that one thing was.

    You’re right Mel. I’ve stayed away from USDA programs to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interests. I also have a habit of doing things in a way that seems to conflict with accepted procedures.

    Hi, grammie g. I left that white flowered plant unnamed because it is intended to serve as the poster child for all rare grassland plants. It’s called Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses and you can find more pictures in a post I did way back on September 21, 2009.
    I keep the trees out by mowing, cutting and spraying. Every time I turn my back, some new tree tries to pop up.

  6. I'm very interested in your method of seeding with Indian Grass to discourage exotics and encourage natives. We have several "old fields" that we're trying to restore to prairie - this may be the way to go. It may be that we'll have to find a way to 'hay' them before it will work. Great ideas!

  7. Hi, Marcie. I've found that this is a great way to get areas going in the right direction while you're busy working on other projects.

  8. Another question before I move on from your Indian Grass post: What's your opinion of fire as a management tool to keep out the woodies and improve the prairie environment? You may have answered that question when we toured Blue Jay Barrens some years ago, but I can't recall how you answered.

  9. Mel – Fire is certainly an effective tool for keeping trees and shrubs from taking over a field. The decision to use fire in a particular situation should be based on the species of flora and fauna in the mix and the resources available to the land manager. I use management techniques that can easily be used by the typical private landowner. Since a certified burn team is not among the tools I have at my disposal, it would be hard for me to burn the prairies in a safe and legal manner. I’m also not convinced that fire played a significant role in maintaining prairie openings in my area. There are too many native species, many of them State rarities, that are not tolerant of fire and would never have persisted in an area that was frequently burned. If my methods were not effectively keeping woody vegetation under control, I would not be able to show pictures of a field full of Indian Grass.

  10. OK. Interesting about the species you find at the Barrens that are fire-intolerant. I think your results speak for themselves through your pics. What you've got going on far outshines any other results I've seen.