Burn it and they will come: a backyard prairie

Gray-headed Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata
The yard prairie in all it’s glory: Gray-headed Coneflower dominated for years and is now losing out to longer lived species.

Well, plant it first….

When Erika and I moved into this mid 19th century house we had no idea what we were doing. We liked the idea of living in something that had been around and didn’t care to use up more resources. The 150 year old house has it’s “charms”. The property was a hodgepodge of way too much mowed grass and a sad second growth wood lot. The field between the house and the woods was full of nonnatives and featured mostly brome. I think Monsanto is the devil and the irony’s not lost on me that we used their herbicide, Roundup, to kill “weeds” and plant a bunch of native North American tallgrass prairie forbs and grasses.  Does tallgrass prairie belong in southern Lapeer county? I don’t know. Maybe after big fires some of these plants thrived. All I know is that we improved things, both ecologically and aesthetically, I think.

Inornate Ringlet, Coenonympha tullia inornata
An Inornate Ringlet waits for the sun on a dewy morning.

Our experiment began nearly 20 years ago and has been nothing but rewarding. It’s a paltry 1/4 acre but during  July through September it’s a pretty big show. Early June brings Lupine and Hairy Beardtongue.  July is time for Black-eyed Susans, Spiderwort and Culver’s Root. August color is blazing with Gray-headed and Purple Coneflowers, Liatris, and later, Goldenrod. September is aster time and the grasses pour it on with beautiful seedheads and their version of fall color. Insects, passerines, rodents and raptors dig it. We do too.

Butterfy Weed, Asclepias tuberosa
Butterfly weed lights up a grassy area and provides nectar for bees and butterflies.

The butterflies and other insects that are attracted to this planting provide a great study and photography spot right out my back door. Seed eating birds benefit from the plants in fall and winter. Management is pretty easy and a lot cheaper than mowing this area.

I married a pyromaniac!  Erika burns a fire break before we set the whole thing ablaze.

We’re fortunate to live in a community where I can just make a phone call for a burn permit and start a fire that threatens all of our neighbors.  We’re very careful and have only had the fire department come out once (for no reason). Why burn?  Well, fire helps knock back a lot of unwanted nonnative species and benefits prairie plants. Some seeds actually need fire in order to germinate. Some of these plants are truly remarkable. The Compass Plant, a silphium species, soars over 10 feet into the summer sky and send it’s roots down as much as 14 feet!  Ours finally flowered 17 years after seeding.  More photos to come on that…

Scorched earth policy.

This project has been one of the greatest things I’ve ever done and I’ll be sad to leave it and hope whoever buys this place will appreciate and continue it. Of course, we’ll start a new one!  If you love plants and animals and have some space, please do whatever you can to turn your property into a place where they can thrive and you will too.

Modest Monarch: A freshly emerged butterfly rests on the milkweed that fed it as a caterpillar. Late August means the beginning of a great journey for this remarkable insect.

A Tiger Swallowtail nectars at a Blazing Star.

Badass of the prairie: a robberfly perches on last year’s rudbeckia and is ready to take other insect prey out of the sky.


~ by David Stimac on August 2, 2013.

3 Responses to “Burn it and they will come: a backyard prairie”

  1. Amazing photographs, as usual! Looking forward to the photos of the Compass Plant too.

  2. I really enjoy your pictures and strive to learn more to improve my photography skills. Thank you .

  3. Lovely Images and wonderful story David! Its amazing what the benefits of fire can be!………Jim

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