Three Acres by Brenda Catlett
I grasp the Johnsongrass, sorghum halepense, at ground level, easing the roots out of the soil. If I’m lucky the ground will give way and I’ll pull a long fleshy rhizome out with the stem, removing the plant’s ability to spread in this prairie.
This land is not mine but belongs to the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department, part of a remnant of what was once many acres of blackland prairie on the east side of White Rock Lake. This grassland, dotted with trees and creeks, has been maintained by the parks department since the park was developed in the 1930’s.
Time and poor management have allowed invasive plants to set up shop on the prairies around White Rock Lake. Unwanted Johnsongrass seeds hitch a ride on the tires of the mowing machines to become established along the edges of trails and roadsides throughout the park. The straw-colored King Ranch Bluestem, Bothriochloa ischaemum var. songaricahas, has also marched through the prairie unabated, taking over larger swaths of the once colorful and varied grassland. Another interloper, Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, threatens native flowers in the spring and summer. These are the three primary invasive plants crowding out native species and reducing biodiversity at White Rock Lake’s blackland prairies.
Adopting the Prairie
The effort to restore these lands to a healthy biodiverse ecosystem, favorable for bugs, birds, mammals, reptiles and people, seems a daunting and nearly hopeless task. That’s why I’m focusing my efforts on just three acres. These are the three acres on the east side of the lake between the Bath House Cultural Center and the park bench, a popular place for sunset watching. The three acres are bordered by the walking trail and East Lake Highlands Drive, a lane lined with homes that have one of the best sunset views in Dallas.
These three acres are a small section of Unit 7 at White Rock Lake Park. In 2015, Leigh Ann Ellis, the then-president of the Blackland Chapter of the Native Prairies Association of Texas (NPAT), developed the Adopt-A Prairie program with the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. Our neighborhood, the Peninsula, secured an agreement to adopt Unit 7 of the blackland prairie on the east side of the lake as part of this award-winning program. This area is mowed twice a year and native grasses and forbs, (leafy plants) are encouraged to thrive in this seldom-touched land. The Park and Recreation Department installed a sign to recognize our neighborhood’s preservation efforts.
Folks from all over Dallas walk the trail next to these three acres. My vision is to make these three acres a place where people can see what a prairie can be, a landscape of vivid native flowers and flowing, vibrant grasses. By removing invasive Johnsongrass and planting the seeds of native plants gathered around the lake, over years we can restore color and diversity to create a welcoming and interesting ecosystem. The walkers at the lake can see, learn, and enjoy a true blackland prairie.
Fall 2020: Johnsongrass Wars
I tried topping off the seed heads of the Johnsongrass last summer. I just made the plants mad. They responded by producing even more seed heads. Without previous experience or formal education in prairie restoration, this effort has been one of trial and error. Herbicides are out of the question since their use is not allowed by volunteers on the City of Dallas park lands.
By summer, I considered the next option, pulling Johnsongrass out by the roots. There was so much, so I started with a test plot around late July or early August. I pulled the stems low to the ground and got a lot of roots. A few weeks passed and the grass grew back. I pulled the same area again, and again the plants grew back. I pulled the roots out again, and by the third time around, the Johnsongrass seemed to have mostly given up.
I thought, this is a lot of work for not much reward. What if I try removing it at the end of the growing season, in late fall? I picked a larger patch next to the trail that extended up the hill This would take a while, but any Johnsongrass I removed was potentially a plant that would not grow back.
This work proved to be a retreat from the stress and confinement of COVID-19. Spending a couple of hours on a fall afternoon, outside, in nature, in the prairie and pulling Johnsongrass proved to be just what I needed. Sitting quietly in one spot, the crows, mockingbirds, and redwing blackbirds got used to me and would fly quite near to me. Once or twice, a black swallowtail or a monarch butterfly would light nearby. By the time I could pull out my phone for a photo, they would be off to another spot in the prairie.
Often walkers would stop and want to know what I was doing and why I was pulling grass. This gave me a chance to explain the problems with invasive plants and describe what the prairie could be. I hoped these people come back to see what these three acres look like next spring and I hoped was making some progress.
Over a few weeks, I was able to clear a pretty good section, maybe a third of an acre. My goal was to connect areas that were already clear of Johnsongrass to enlarge the overall restored area. The Johnsongrass bordered the perimeter of the entire three acres and encroached from the edges by a wide margin. I worked to clear patches of Johnsongrass in the middle, working outward.
Late Winter 2021
I continued pulling Johnsongrass into wintertime. Johnsongrass doesn’t like cold weather and turns brown at the first frost. This made the plants less fun to pull out, but I thought perhaps the process could be more effective in wintertime. This is an experiment and time will tell what process works best. Johnsongrass starts taking off in May and grows throughout the summer. It’s a fair-weather plant that worships the hot sun and is not as successful up north, where winter temperatures are much colder than north Texas.
In mid-February, we had an extreme winter event. The low in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex on February 16th reached -2 degrees. We had multiple days during a 10-day period with low temps in the single digits. This created ice, snow, power outages, and hardships for the people of north Texas and an unfavorable environment for non-native plants. My hope was that these extremely cold temperatures might result in a setback for the Johnsongrass. If the ground freezes down far enough, the rhizomes that perpetuate new growth will be frozen and vanquished. The seeds, of course, will remain unfazed. They can rest in the soil for as long as 20 years and still germinate. I’m not discouraged. If the freeze sets back this green menace, that’s progress. We will watch for signs of regrowth, or not, this coming May.
Revisiting Spring 2020
Last spring, amid the raging pandemic, the Queen Anne’s Lace was another pest to deal with on the prairie. A pretty plant with delicate white flowers and a host to butterflies, Queen Anne’s Lace is fine in small numbers, but for the past couple of years on these three acres, this plant carpeted the prairie, leaving little room for other wildflowers.
Queen Anne’s Lace is a biennial and a member of the carrot family. It has a thick tap root that smells like a carrot when pulled out of the ground. The blossoms dry, shrivel, and disperse thousands of seeds, primarily in the fall. The seeds can stay viable on the ground for 7 years. Queen Anne’s Lace shows up in the prairie as a small plant around February and early March. By April, many plants are big enough to grab close to the ground and pull out. This is much easier and more effective after a rain, when the ground is soft. Plants left to grow can reach 3 or 4 feet tall.
I feel more comfortable asking for volunteers to help pull out Queen Anne’s Lace than helping with Johnsongrass. The plants are easily identifiable, easier to pullout, and oddly satisfying to remove. It doesn’t take long to fill the back of pickup truck with these invasive plants. During the spring of 2020 and the two springs prior, several volunteers stepped forward to help clear the three acres of Queen Anne’s Lace. In February 2021, as I walk the prairie, I see much progress. There are some plants coming up, but not like the carpet of lacy green Queen Anne’s Lace seedlings I’ve seen in years past. For these three acres, I believe this year we can go into maintenance mode instead of all out eradication when it comes to Queen Anne’s Lace. We may also have the volunteers and resources to expand our efforts to adjoining park land. In May, the Johnsongrass will return and I will monitor the success of my efforts from last fall and winter as well as the effects of February’s hard freeze. My hope is that we have set the Johnsongrass back and I can remove more in new areas.
Seeds and Seed Balls
There’s a wonderful Master Naturalist named Sara Beckleman. Before moving out of state, she logged 10,000 volunteer hours with the North Texas Master Naturalist chapter. Some of these hours were spent gathering and sorting native plant seeds from the prairies around White Rock Lake. I was so honored when she gave me many of the seeds she had collected before she moved to Missouri. I have Sara’s seeds and collected some of my own. This year was a wonderful year for Indiangrass, one of the big five native grasses on the prairie at White Rock Lake. I collected many of these seeds and volunteer Boy Scouts from Rob Cooper’s troop collected even more. They gave me a paper grocery bag full of Indiangrass seeds.
Rob’s Boy Scouts needed a project for their Conservation merit badge and were interested in making seed balls. Sara gave me the recipe and I bought a big bag of red clay from the pottery store. I experimented with making seed balls and recommended the process to Rob for his scouts. Giving the Scouts a variety of seeds and the clay, they got their hands dirty and made plenty of seed balls for the three acres, and even more for other areas of the park. The scouts planted the seed balls and pulled some Johnsongrass. Rob showed them how to press the seed balls into the disturbed soil. In the fall and winter, I took a bucket of seed balls and some loose Indiangrass seed to the park with me and planted as I pulled up the Johnsongrass. It will be interesting to see how successful our planting efforts will be. And, if some of Sara’s Basketflower, Coneflower and Painted Blanket Flower seeds sprout, they will bring joy to all who see them.
March and Mowing
Early March is here, and spring is coming into focus. The Parks Department mowed the three acres and it looks like a moonscape. I have mixed feelings; sad to see the colorful Little Bluestem and the Indiangrass mowed short, but also looking forward to seeing the new growth that warm weather will bring. I hope the Johnsongrass has been at least set back. This year I know what it looks like and how to spot new shoots that start to take over in May. Maybe this is the year we can get ahead of it.
I’m already seeing sprouts of Queen Anne’s Lace, very few in the areas we cleared last year. but thickly carpeted at the edges of the three acres where we weren’t able to remove mature plants due to lack of time and manpower. I’m optimistic for this year. We removed so much in large areas last year that we can now move on to clearing areas where the Queen Anne’s Lace is still growing too thickly and crowding out the native plants.
We can also attack the Johnsongrass earlier, when the plants are small and seed heads are not yet formed, Distinctive wide green blades with a white center stripe make Johnsongrass easy to distinguish from other more desirable grasses.