Thursday, December 18, 2014

- Growing grass in the Hill Country

Grace posed a good question about my brush whacking post: "Are you leaving areas to be their Native Selves?" to which the short answer was "Yes" ... but this is the fuller answer, which is a bit denser than my usual posts. If I was really good, I'd check and cite all the literature, but the truth is that much of what I have written is received wisdom culled from five years of reading a variety of sources, plus a good dose of cause-and-effect observation in real time. Which is to say there may be errors in the telling, so I will gladly stand corrected.

The view from our front door ... which includes yucca, persimmon, Yaupon holly, Ashe juniper and live oaks
Also buffalo grass (foreground) and Texas wintergrass (middle ground) and little blue stem (background)

First off, a little historical background. Two hundred years ago, before the advent of cattle ranching, the Texas Hill Country was reportedly a prairie dominated by grasses, ably "managed" by the indigenous people, natural fires, and bison. Trees such as Ashe juniper (incorrectly referred to as "cedars" in this area), tended to grow on higher ground where the bison couldn't easily reach them. Where the buffalo roamed, however, the junipers were ripped up by the roots, making the lower ground more hospitable for grass growing. Similarly, the native prickly pear cactus, agarita, and persimmons were in competition with the grasses ... the balance between them tipped one way or the other based on the micro-environments within which they grew, with the nod frequently going to the grasses.

Then came the European settlers and their cattle. In addition to the settlers killing the bison almost to the point of extinction, the balance tipped toward the junipers because the cattle were not inclined to eat them. More critically, the cattle were brought in numbers greater than the land could sustain. The resulting overgrazing also tipped the balance toward cactus and brush plants. Further complicating matters, as cattle, goat, and sheep ranching increased, so too did the ranchers' desire to have grass crops that were palatable to their critters, which didn't always appreciate the native grasses such as sideoats grama.

The long-term effect of ranching on the land was manifold. Trees, cactus, and brush took over more acreage. Native grasses were displaced by invasive newcomers brought in to feed livestock. Fire and water management practices desirable for human habitation disrupted the renewal cycles of the native prairie grasses.

Which brings us to here and now. When Don and I moved to Texas in 2009, we enrolled in a Master Naturalist course of study in order to learn more about the land. The sheer volume of new information was daunting ... like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. But learn we did, and though we didn't complete the course, it was in part because we became emboldened to take on a five-acre homestead in the hills.

If we had wanted to be persimmon farmers, the story would have ended right there, because our homestead had persimmons in abundance. Most were 8-10 feet tall with trunks 1-2" in diameter; many were much larger than that. Interspersed were masses of agarita, Yaupon holly, prickly pear cactus, and beautiful live oak motts. Fortunately, the original owner of the property had much of the Ashe juniper removed and there were patches of grass that had some prairie natives. Only later did we learn she had also made indiscriminate use of herbicides, which can take years to dissipate.

Having bought into the Master Naturalist philosophy of restoring native prairie grasses, we stopped mowing large portions of the property. Then we set to work selectively clearing the persimmons and the remaining Ashe junipers for the first couple of years. We left larger junipers and persimmons in place, trimming out dead wood and suckers to improve each tree's overall health. Others we cut back to give the grasses a fighting chance to take hold, but we didn't dig out roots or otherwise try to kill the brush. Instead, we leveled the playing field by giving the grasses increased access to sunlight and more open ground. During the next two winters, we tackled the Yaupon hollies, a gnarly bunch of bushes that effectively shadowed out the grasses. And this past year we took on the prickly pears and the agarita.

Starting three years ago, we also decided to have arborists come in for a day or two each  year to trim out dead wood from the live oaks and take out dead trees; it's been an expensive proposition, one that will take five years to complete, but the end result should be healthier trees. In addition, the removal of dead wood and brush has reduced the wildfire hazard on our chronically droughted land, which is why our neighborhood participates in the Firewise  program. The arborists also leave behind massive quantities of chipped wood which we use to create paths through the rockier portions of the property, making them safer and easier to navigate. This year, we may even add hugelkultur to our list of wood chip uses.

All this whacking has had some salutary (read: curative) effects. We now have far more little bluestem, which is slowly taking over from the less-desirable King Ranch bluestem. Formerly absent grasses such as yellow Indiangrass and Texas wintergrass have begun to appear, harbingers of the decreasing toxicity of the formerly herbicide-treated soil. The shorter buffalo grass in our small fringe of turf around the house has finally taken over from the less-desirable grasses that we've removed by hand-weeding over the past five years. And we're starting to see more and more grasses that we cannot identify ... a substantial field guide to the 700+ grasses of Texas is surely in our future.

But what of the persimmons, the agarita, and the Yaupon? All doing quite well, thank you. Although they no longer dominate the overall property, their root systems are strong and continue to anchor the earth, while also sending up tender new shoots that are far more accessible to the white-tailed deer that browse the land (note: we do not hunt, but the linked article has some useful info about deer habitat). Indeed, some of the brush that was cut back has now regrown right up into the middle of the bunch grasses, neither being adversely affected by all appearances.

The Rio Grande turkeys, which prefer less brush, now come to visit more often ... fond as they are of grass seed and acorn snacks. They are literally change agents, moving desirable grass seeds from one place to another while also providing significant levity with their quirky behaviors.

And the prickly pears are still abundant, still providing a safe haven for cochineal beetles, although a sizable number have ended up in compost rows that will provide new soil to build up areas eroded by the  intermittent gully-washers that scour the land. While our attempts to plant wildflower and native grass seeds have been spectacularly unsuccessful, we have found that spreading our home-grown compost onto bare patches has yielded new plant growth from seeds ably provided by Mother Nature.

There are some downsides to our property management, of course. There are critters (which some consider varmints) that like the shelter provided by downed limbs and the cover provided by thick brush. Fortunately, there are empty lots next door and across the street where the critters can remain undisturbed. In fact, as I cut brush on the west side of the house, I came to a spot that smelled quite a bit like skunk. Needless to say, those agaritas remain untouched, as do other clumps of brush near obvious denning sites throughout the property (which most likely house armadillos and raccoons, in addition to the skunks). We've even spotted a grey fox on the front porch and have heard coyotes in the distance. I have to admit though that I won't shed any tears if the native snakes (like the coral snake Don spotted in our front bed) decide to relocate due to lack of cover.

And while gold-cheeked warblers may not be attracted to our sparse juniper stands, we are consoled that they can find plenty of robust junipers nearby. Fortunately, the overall effect of our efforts has resulted in more birdsong than there was when we first moved in. We've been delighted to spot summer tanagers, lesser goldfinches, black crested titmice, and painted buntings in addition to the more familiar cardinals, wrens, bluebirds, and chickadees from our East Coast days. We even get the occasional visit from our neighborhood roadrunner, who reportedly is not a fan of dense brushland.

So I guess we've become grass farmers, working on behalf of the native prairie grasses and their inhabitants as best we can. It has been, and continues to be, a true learning experience.