Nature notes fall 2015

Greg ArmstrongFriends of Wisdom Prairie, Nature Notes Leave a Comment

planting prairie seed

This is the season of harvest. Since the Dane County Parks have been so generous with us over the past few years, we have been working with them in our seed collecting efforts this year. Additionally they have the expertise, the machinery and the ability to handle large quantities of prairie seed very well. At two of our recent Friends of Wisdom Prairie workdays we have collected seed at Dane County Parks. The early October Wisdom Prairie Workday had us collecting on the North Mendota Wildlife Area (formerly the sisters North Prairie). Among other things we collected wild quinine and pale purple coneflower. There is something wonderful about gathering in this harvest of nature’s bounty. For me at least, it is a very uplifting experience. It has made me think of that American spiritual “Bringing in the Sheaves” which is based on Psalm 126:6, “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

In the scheme of prairie restoration, we first sow the seeds. Starting on November 1, 2015 and then again on May 9, 2015 we have sown nearly 30 acres of land at Holy Wisdom Monastery as a part of the Wisdom Prairie Project. In the growing season after sowing, a lot of opportunistic weeds come up as well as some of the little prairie plant seedlings. We mow these weeds off to let some light get down into the vegetation so the new little seedlings of prairie plants can grow. Eventually the prairie plants will out-compete these weeds and prairie will take over. However, this will take three to five years before it starts to look like a prairie. We walked around in the mown prairie planting in late August and found 35 species of prairie plants. We planted nearly 100 different kinds of seeds, and I expect that the others will be coming along in the next few years. The seed dormancy on many of these wild plants is very complex, but given a couple of seasonal temperature changes and some moisture, the dormancy requirements most likely will be met.

We have also been working on preparations for a savanna. We have cut down a lot of weedy trees and have been combating some tenacious weeds before we plant both the widely spaced trees and the mostly herbaceous under story. It will probably be at least another season before we begin this adventure of restoring one of the rarest of ecological communities in North America. Previous to European settlement in Wisconsin, there were over 7,000,000 acres of savanna. It was much more common than open prairie. I think it was and still is one of most picturesque forms of nature. I think we will have to be patient however, as it takes a long time for a bur oak to grow into one of those magnificent beings of the savanna. But it will be fun to be on the journey.

The oak-hickory forests of southern Wisconsin were another fire community that depended on fire to run through them on a fairly regular basis in order to sustain this vegetation type. Holy Wisdom Monastery’s woods were, in pre-European settlement times, such a fire sustained woodland or a savanna. The two vegetation types grade one into the other and differ in the spacing of the trees and the other plants that grow in the varying shade density and root competition. Since the settlement of this land in the 1840s the fires mostly were prevented from happening, as the farmers didn’t want their farm to burn. As a result trees shrubs and herbaceous understory plants not normally found in these woodlands started to grow and compete with the Bur Oak, White Oak and Hickory trees. Our plan is to remove these trees, shrubs and herbaceous understory plants that do not belong to the oak-hickory Forest and to reintroduce fire and the plants that belong to that community. Right now, we are trying to find a logger to come to the monastery to harvest the unwanted trees. We hope to do this in the winter when the ground is frozen to protect the soil. So far we have been challenged to find a forester interested to come and do a logging project of this magnitude. We are still working on it.

The sisters have chosen ecological restoration, or putting the ecological communities that were here before settlement back together on their land. It is wonderfully fulfilling to work to share our space on the earth with the other beings of creation.

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