Thursday, June 11, 2009

Clarkia in bloom in the prairie, 6.13.09

I realize that I entirely missed the month of May. I intend to be a regular correspondent, but May began with the end of my regular job at WSU (involving much grading), and the first year ever that I had some time to maintain the prairie in what is really Spring here. Starting this blog was coincident with my finding out that my position (in which a musician teaches world history since 1500 to freshmen at a major university) would be ending this semester. The actual music part of my position went away several years ago (see my first post), and now I was going to return to being a full-time musician, though I still had to finish out my last semester. Then I had to hit the ground running, catching up with Spring unfolding in all its splendor on the Palouse.

Eighteen years ago when I moved to this house, I took on a wonderful place with a soul, but I also took on a house that needed rebuilding from the inside out. I also took on about three acres of a decrepit alfalfa pasture that still had hints of native Palouse prairie in the fencerows. A lone clarkia flower would manage to reseed itself for about five years in the eastern part of the pasture. Mainly it was a mediocre hay field with a lot of nasty, nasty weeds.

I had no idea what to do with this land other than that I wanted it to be "low maintenance," and had a vague paranoia about the use of herbicides and the "right way to do things." Fortunately I planted 20 ponderosa pine sprouts, since they have taken on some presence in all that time (well, except for the ones I mowed over the years...they were less than two feet tall for years before they finally took off). One spring (1994?), Thomas Arthur and I went out and tried to pull all the salsify plants. We made two huge piles of them and burned them. It seemed somehow to inspire the salsify population, as though the immolation of their brethren put the fire into the bellies of the rebels who remained, since they came back with a vengeance the next year. I found out that field bindweed plants have several stages of evolution of the mother plant. When left unmolested for five or so years, waves of increasingly more lush, tightly-knit bindweed emerges from the mouth of Mom, vegetally upchucking her spawn into ecstatic reproduction. It's a cross between Alien and the botanical Kama Sutra.

I had identified the worst weed-choked area in the center of the pasture finally to carefully spray a little Roundup (I still used the little spray bottles, pumping by hand) and armed with a little Idaho fescue seed from Grassland West (a great source), I thought I would see how some native plants would do in the midst of that chaos. I asked the person at Grassland West how I can recreate Palouse prairie; she said, "Wow, great idea! No one's ever done it. Let us know how it goes!" I planted a few camas plants, some native aster and gallardia seed I collected from east of here, down by the river. Some of the plants actually lived.

About this time my neighbor had a grass-burning exercise get out of hand and about half my pasture burned. I assumed this was a blessing in disguise (since the house and garden weren't threatened). The worst damage was from the fire trucks that apparently made sport of running over my ponderosa pine seedlings. The fire kills the weed seeds, right? And now I can plant a load of grass seed and it will take over, without using evil chemicals!

It is true that a lot of the Idaho fescue and bluebunch wheatgrass I planted did sprout enthusiastically. And so did every Siberian Death Weed known to agriculture. In intense profusion. I began to see that I was going to have to embrace better living through chemistry. Anyone who says this can be done organically has not done it. If you try to cultivate out the weeds, you stimulate the weed seeds in the soil!

So I had to overcome my fear of herbicides in order to create a place where I wouldn't have to use them. I learned about Weed-b-gone and graduated to 2-4-D and generic Roundup you get in 2.5 gallon containers of concentrate with "sticker" and "spreader." I began by recycling the little pump bottles, went through a couple one-gallon pump sprayers, and finally graduated to the four-gallon backpack weapon-of-mass-destruction. I have a lyric to a song I haven't yet written, a kind-of punk country groove..."Winnin' the West with a gallon of Death..." In fact, every serious prairie restoration has had to make serious use of herbicides, but I was a slow learner.

I started by trying things on little areas, tentatively applying these weapons in fear of ruining the land somehow. And then life intervened--a push to make the house livable, which meant building a kitchen, which in my case meant recycling fir flooring rescued from an old department store in Palouse, being demolished because of damage from the Flood of 1996. I caught the guy tearing down the building just as he was confronting about 5,000 square feet of fir floor with a front-end loader puffing diesel smoke. I asked him what he was going to do with it and he said "firewood." I begged him for a couple of hours with my crowbar and he gave me the afternoon. I've been trimming the house with it ever since. Then I got divorced. The prairie began to be consumed with waves of prickly lettuce, sow thistle, mustard, that ever-present field bindweed. One guy keeping up with the house project and the prairie wasn't possible.

In the last four years or so (being blissfully remarried), I have been able to spend enough time on this land to keep up with the work. This is the first year that I haven't had to mow and spray 2-4-D. The perennial native grasses have come back strong, while mowing the annual grass knocked it back. And I have learned that when I approach a new area that I really need to nuke it, as they say. I started to do that in the last few years, and areas that begin with me taking out every evil weed with Roundup (or 2-4-D in areas where I have good grass and I'm not about to plant anything), multiple applications from April through July if I have to, the natives I plant in fall really take off and fill in. In those areas, I am able to maintain the area by pulling a few odd items by hand, and I don't have to spray. In those central areas where I started by tentatively using Roundup, evil things moved back in, settling among the native plants. Those areas are the hardest to maintain now.

I did have a few success stories from my earlier efforts. Inspired by my neighbor Jim Roberts, who knows all the plants by their proper Latin names, and grows them in a spectacularly subtle garden that he tends by hand, I tried to tend one spot along the south fencerow of the property. Jim had spotted swale desert parsley (one of the plethora of lomatiums that thrive in this area), Douglas hyacinth, native delphinium, and prairie star growing there and so I wanted to see if I could cultivate out evil stuff and entice these plants to spread north. They did! And the birds planted a nice big elderberry there. I did some careful early spring and late fall spraying in that area and succeeded in eliminating some nasty weeds, and now that area has moved north 20 feet in places.

So, I take some real satisfaction in tall prairie grass and drifts of clarkia coming back, tall lupines budding out with puffballs of yarrow flowers floating over a sea of waving fescue. It is another ongoing composition of Palouse River music, coming into harmony at last.