Our Prairie People: Marvelyn Granger

Published by Aspen Huebner on

Exploring Native Plant and Pollinator Restoration at
Nellie Gail Ranch Texas

Nestled in the heart of the Nellie Gail Ranch is a story of passion, perseverance, and an incredible respect for the natural world. In this interview, we’re entering the world of conservation with Marvelyn Granger, a key player in restoring the Nellie Gail Ranch to its natural beauty. From humble roots to blooming dreams, Marvelyn shares insights into the transformative process of protecting native plants and pollinators while nurturing a harmonious relationship with the land.

Can you tell us about the journey that led you from basic land management to a passion for protecting native plants and pollinators at Nellie Gail Ranch?

Journeys can be complicated. You start with a plan, but then the pitstops take you in a different direction or offer experiences you did not anticipate, adding information to what you had previously. We have lived many “lives” from suburbia to a mid-town high-rise to the country. One thing that has always been a critical family constant is our love of the outdoors, appreciation for nature, and understanding that our actions have far-reaching consequences. When we decided to move to a rural setting, the reasons were varied. Still, we knew pretty quickly that we wanted to make a positive impact on both the native inhabitants and future generations. We wanted to be good stewards to the land and the ecosystem. Our research and ongoing education led us to learn more about the benefits of a Texas Wildlife tax valuation and the importance and impact of regenerating biodiversity and ecosystem function. In short, we first followed the money; then we followed the bugs.

How do you prioritize the protection of habitats, shelters, and food sources for solitary bees, butterflies, and songbirds at Nellie Gail Ranch?

Everything is essential to the system, so I caution against prioritizing one. It is easy to love beautiful flowers and colorful butterflies. Still, dead trees (snags), wasps, vultures, and grasses are equally crucial to protecting pollinators and their viability, and all pollinators are essential. Destroying habitats for insects means songbirds do not eat. Replacing grasses with flowers removes a habitat for rodents and a food source for small mammals. Birds miss a meal if dead trees are not available for insects. Diversity is so important.

With over 1,100 native bee species in Texas, how do you ensure that Nellie Gail Ranch provides a suitable environment for these vital pollinators?

Bees get a bad rap, but they are not only vital pollinators. For example, the carpenter bee pollinates native milkweed, a primary food source for the Monarch butterflies. Approximately 90% of bees native to Texas are solitary species. Unlike social bees, there is no division of labor, and the females establish their nests without assistance. This lack of a social structure means they do not have a queen they need to protect. They are doubtful to sting — frankly, the female does not have the time to sting unless provoked, and the male watching out for her is all buzz and unable to sting. On Nellie Gail Ranch, we leave snags wherever it is safely practical. These are upright dead trees where solitary bees build their nests and lay eggs to mature and over-winter. Similarly, we maintain brush piles of fallen branches that serve as habitat for small mammals, birds, and bees. When carpenter bees tunnel into soft, dry, already rotting wood, they speed decomposition and help recycle nutrients back into the soil, which is also beneficial for the land.

Can you walk us through the process of developing a restoration plan for the prairie at Nellie Gail Ranch, including how you identified native forbs and grasses and targeted invasive species?

We started by walking the property with Jon McLeod, our county Biologist. He was tremendously helpful in identifying and familiarizing us with the native forbs and grasses already present in our seed bank and invasive plants we needed to address. He pointed out areas where a native plant was outcompeting other native plants and how thinning them could improve diversity. We also considered the property’s historical uses. Consider taking a year to observe and journal the changes on a property before making any big restoration decisions. Taking what we learned, we prioritized the best-specific practices for improving native diversity, targeting invasive species, and providing an environment that best supports all pollinators and songbirds. Targeting specific pollinators or the most colorful flowers and birds can be tempting, but it is essential to remember that this is not our land; it belongs to all the native species that support the local ecosystem, and we are here to serve their needs by healing and restoring their home. We targeted non-native grasses such as KR, Bahia, Bermuda, Johnson grass, Chinese Privet, and Chinese Tallow. These are ongoing tasks. This past year, we contacted Gary Kocurek and Mark Brown of our local NPAT-Fayette chapter for additional guidance and counsel. In addition to the technical support, they helped us utilize the Small Acreage Restoration Program’s (SARP’s) cost-matching grant. Gary and Mark were instrumental in helping us plan the following protocol over the entire prairie:

  1. May: Shred (mow) the warm-weather grasses before they went to seed but after the bluebonnets and other native flowers finished going to seed.
  2. June: Broad-spray with a 3% glyphosate to address invasive summer grasses
  3. October: Prescribed burn to mimic the brush fires that naturally occurred historically, adding nutrients to the soil and allowing native plants to thrive again.
  4. November: Seed with a native mix of over 30 species of locally native grasses and forbs prescribed by Tim Siegmund, TPWD’s Private Lands Program Leader.
    Prairie restorations can feel so counter-intuitive. Killing nearly 12 acres — twice — can be nerve-wracking, and trusting the process is challenging. We continue to spot-spray the non-native grasses and remove invasive privet and tallow while waiting for the outcome to present itself.
    When developing a plan, it is helpful to consider it a relationship pact with our native species to restore and re-building that relationship. Listening and keeping a pulse on the successes and failures rewards us with mutual benefit and progress.
What factors did you consider when deciding on the timing for activities such as mowing, spraying, and conducting prescribed burns?

We timed mowing and spraying to address the summer grasses, the non-native grasses most prevalent on our prairie. We also planned a late-summer burn to prepare to seed in November. Seeding in November allows the seeds to get rain and undergo a freeze before spring germination. Many native forbs must experience the freeze to germinate.

Would you discuss the decision-making process behind using chemical methods, such as glyphosate, to eliminate non-native grasses, considering the conservation-minded ethos of Nellie Gail Ranch?

Using glyphosate, especially broadly, was one of our most complex decisions, and we know we are not alone. Using chemical methods to eliminate non-native grasses is so counter to the heart of most conservation-minded folks. With extended reading, counsel of some of the wisest people we could reach, and pouring over tons of information, we finally landed on applying 3% glyphosate in preparation for a prescribed burn. Bear in mind that the over-the-counter strength of Roundup Concentrate is 41%-53%, with a suggested dilution rate of 4.6% for established weeds. It came down to weighing the available methods against the quality of the goals. I can’t say it was without trepidation, and we do not anticipate it will necessarily be part of our routine. I will tell you in the coming years how we feel about it in the rearview mirror.

How do you balance the potential environmental impact of chemical treatments with the long-term benefits for native plant and pollinator populations?

The loss of pollinators has a far-reaching impact on food security and health. Inadequate pollination has led to a 3-5% loss of fruit, vegetable, and nut production and an estimated 427,000 excess deaths annually from lost healthy food consumption and associated diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers, according to research led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It is the first study to quantify the human health toll of insufficient wild (animal) pollinators on human health.
“A critical missing piece in the biodiversity discussion has been a lack of direct linkages to human health. This research establishes that loss of pollinators is already impacting health on a scale with other global health risk factors, such as prostate cancer or substance use disorders,” said Samuel Myers, principal research scientist, Planetary Health, Department of Environmental.
We take the coinciding environmental dilemmas seriously. The concerns of chemical treatments most certainly should not be discounted nor ignored. The overuse of treatments is partly to blame for reducing pollinators and other health issues. However, the introduction of invasive non-native plants that outcompete native plants creates food deserts that are endangering pollinators. These invasive plants are often impervious to non-chemical methods. Calculating the balance is a challenging task, but it is essential. I compare it to deciding to utilize radiation and chemotherapy to address a deadly cancer. It is not straightforward nor perfect, but we make the best choice possible with the information and resources available.

In what ways does the prescribed burn mimic historical brush fires, and how does it contribute to nutrient cycling and the restoration of native plant communities?

Historically, prairies burned naturally, often because of lightning. Over time, people have taken precautions to prevent or stave fire. It makes sense as we want to protect our homes and property. Native plants have adapted to fire, and soils need it for regeneration. Most non-native species are not adapted to fire. Therefore, burning can help control invasive or non-native species by giving native species a competitive advantage. When plant material is burned, nutrients are returned to the soil. Prescribed burns act like resets, enriching the soil with more nutrients. A recently burned site makes the perfect canvas for planting or seeding. Burning before seeding mimics natural successional processes but allows us to control what plant communities return to the site, allowing us to restore native habitats. The blackened earth also absorbs more sunlight, improving growing conditions. Native prairie grasses and flowers have long root structures that easily survive fast-burning surface fires. Fires also burn off old, dead plant material, returning it to the soil and opening up light for new growth to thrive. Native wildlife has also evolved and adapted to fire. Prescribed fire benefits wildlife habitat by promoting native species, creating openings, and providing new food sources from the advantaged native plants. Additionally, we can control when a burn happens to avoid nesting season.

Can you share any unexpected discoveries or insights gained during the restoration process at Nellie Gail Ranch?

Frankly, since we started with nearly zero knowledge but a lot of passion, it has all been a lovely surprise. We have been astounded at the generosity in the community. There is extraordinary collective knowledge and experience; many people are eager to assist and share their resources. As an extension, there are endless continuing education avenues. Many state agencies and the volunteers who lead them offer countless classes and workshops. Everyone is eager to teach and learn. As part of our continuing education, we have found that the training for Certified Texas Master Naturalist is genuinely excellent in providing a basis of knowledge and has opened many doors to other organizations of like-minded people and field experts. Of course, the available information is beneficial. Still, it can also feel overwhelming, which brings me to my third insight — you will never run out of things to learn, and no two restorations or restoration years will be the same. There is no end — you will never complete a restoration — it is a marathon that requires incredible patience. But all the while, you can be confident that your efforts are essential and that you are only responsible for being part of the solution.

Looking ahead, what are your long-term goals for conservation and sustainability efforts at Nellie Gail Ranch, particularly concerning native plants and pollinators?

We have learned that it can take three years to see the actual outcome of a burn and seed protocol. We will continually monitor our ongoing practices and successes in managing invasive plants and benefitting the diversity of native forbs and grasses. One indicator of success is in the variety of pollinators and birds, so we also monitor our populations. Another restoration at Nellie Gail Ranch is in our riparian area. While many of the same practices apply, there are distinct concerns we are learning to appreciate. Improving a riparian ecosystem provides erosion control, healthy water downstream, improved soil, food, and habitat for wildlife, and a beautiful place to enjoy a nature walk. Our other long-term goal is to share our story and prairie as a teaching complex. We believe in providing support and education to expand the reach of our prairie restoration. We would like to have facilities to welcome those interested in learning about the importance of pollination, the threats endangering the native ecosystem, and how to provide impactful solutions, whether you have an urban backyard or a 200-acre ranch. Our collective effort for the heroes behind the food we enjoy and the beauty that surrounds us can ensure pollinators don’t just survive but thrive.



Interview by Aspen Huebner