To Burn or Not to Burn
Burning a prairie can be fun but also a little hazardous. The vinyl siding on Prairie Nursery's office building has a wavy appearance, the result of a fire that had been set to clear weeds from a prairie planting along the foundation.
"Prairie grasses burn pretty hot, apparently hotter than the melting point of that siding," says a chagrined Neil Diboll. "We're more careful now."
Prairies naturally evolved with fire, and even in today's home landscape, they require either controlled burning or close mowing each spring. Burning works best because it removes all aboveground material—last year's dead growth and cool-season weeds that are actively growing. The charred ground efficiently absorbs heat, warming the soil and stimulating the warm-season prairie plants to emerge.
Burning, however, is impractical for many homeowners. The planting may be too close to a structure, or there may be burning restrictions. Check with your local government before planning a burn. The alternative is to mow the planting close to the ground—right down to the dirt—and rake out the material. This removes most growth and exposes the soil to the warming rays of the sun.
If you decide to burn, follow these safety tips from Diboll:
Burn in the evening, when humidity is higher and wind and temperature are lower, making a fire easier to control.
Always burn into the wind. That way, the fire will creep slowly forward.
Mow the area ahead of time to reduce flame height.
Don't burn alone, and keep a hose on hand.