Nature Notes Spring 2013

Greg Armstrong Nature Notes Leave a Comment


Pasque flower at Holy Wisdom Monastery (not this year yet!)


The land at Holy Wisdom Monastery was exceedingly dry at the beginning of the winter, as we had experienced one of the most severe droughts on record, the worst since the dust bowl drought of the 1930s. Prairie plants have evolved in the open with little to no shade and one of the compensating evolutionary strategies in this high water loss situation was to develop a really deep root system. For example, prairie dock and big bluestem grass, which you can find at the monastery, have roots that go down 10 feet and sometimes more. This great root depth permitted these plants to survive and thrive in full sun and take advantage of the huge reservoir of moisture going down deep in the prairie soils. In most years, when it gets dry and our lawns turn brown, the prairie plants appear to have hardly noticed and are standing high and proud under the hot, dry sun. Last year they noticed. Mostly however, the prairie plants at Holy Wisdom Monastery have survived this terrible drought.

Fortunately this past winter we have had a lot of moisture fall on the land, mainly in the form of snow. Even now, as I write this in mid-March, we are still having snow storms. I am grateful for this moisture, although I wonder about it when I’m at the end of a snow shovel. The soils under the snow are still dry, but this snow will eventually melt and some of it will infiltrate the soil bringing some much needed moisture down into the root zone of the prairie plants. A portion of the snow melt will penetrate even frozen soils, although not as much will infiltrate as compared to an unfrozen soil. Here is hoping that the melt is slow and easy, so a good portion of it will get into the ground.

So, now it’s spring. Assuming some water finds its way into the soil during the melt and assuming we have some rain as time goes on, the prairies will begin to come to life. We are not planning burns this spring, but hope to have our own trained and equipped burn crew in the spring of 2014. Without a burn, the stems, seed heads and leaves from last season’s prairie will cover the ground. This duff layer insulates the ground and because it is a light tan color, it reflects a fair amount of the sun light. As a result, the soils warm up more slowly and the sprouting up of the prairie plants is delayed by several weeks, compared to an uninsulated and soot black burned prairie.

One of the wonderful things to watch during the spring is the progression of flowering plants that bloom over time in the monastery’s prairies. If you go on a walk every week, you will see new things coming into flower each time. It is also interesting to observe that the plants and their flowers increase in height as the season goes along. First, there are short plants like pasque flowers that hold their flowers at 6-8 inches high. No need for them to be tall at that time of year, as all of the other things around them are just getting started and will not shade or cover up the flower. So it’s right out there for the insects or other pollinators to see. By the end of the season, things will have changed a lot and many of the sunflowers hold their flowers 10 feet off the ground. They need to, as the big bluestem grass, Indian grass and many other fall flowering plants are that tall too. It just wouldn’t do to hide your flowers.

Caring for the prairies at Holy Wisdom Monastery takes a lot of work. For people who like to work out-of-doors this is very pleasant work and it will provide you with the opportunity to meet others that care as well. So, if you would like to become more intimate with the prairie, groundskeeper Paul Boutwell and several of the experienced volunteers at the monastery will be pleased to have you join them on one of the monthly community workdays. If you would like to join us in this good work, Please contact Jill Carlson, at or 608-836-1631, x108 to sign up. We will be very happy to have you.

Happy Spring!

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