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Tallgrass Principles

These principles have been used with the permission of the Ontario Tallgrass Prairie and Savanna Association. When appropriate edits have been made to the information to make them applicable to the Sandusky Plains region. To read the original Tallgrass Principles, visit:

Tallgrass Principle #1:   Use Local Seeds

In addition to spending time in and around your own prairie, it’s a good idea to go out and observe other prairies in your area. This will give you ideas about the diversity and condition of your own patch of tallgrass. It may be the case that increasing the bio-diversity of your tallgrass prairie is an option. Remember that we measure such diversity in many ways; two of the most important of which are genetic diversity and species diversity. In other words, it may be good for your site to not only have many different types of species, but many different individuals of each species. It’s also not a bad idea to have several patches or locations of the same species within your prairie, ensuring that no single event can wipe-out all the individuals of that particular species.

One of the things that you can do is to take seeds from plants in one area of your patch and broadcast them in a different area of the patch. This helps to carry seeds across your patch in the absence of other, more natural, methods of seed transportation. BUT, and this is a BIG BUT, do not import seeds or plants to your prairie that originate from outside your immediate area. Doing this introduces new genetic material and new plants that are not adapted to your area, that are not native to your area, and, in the worst case, that could become an aggressive invasive and actually damage tallgrass and other types of native habitat. This is a very real danger; consider the impacts of purple loosestrife, the common house sparrow, and the common starling, to name just three such invasive species. 
Tallgrass habitat is in an extremely fragile state and it is vulnerable to any large disturbance, such as one caused by an aggressive invasive. Be cautious. Our strong advice is that you only introduce plants and seeds to your tallgrass patch that originate from no more 50 miles away from your site. In addition, check to make sure that those plants 50 miles away are actually native to that site, and not introduced species themselves. Keep in mind, too, that there are many different types of tallgrass habitat, each adapted to particular local microclimates and local micro-geomorphology. So, for instance, do not expect plants that have been growing on a deep-soil black oak savanna to thrive, or even to grow, in a shallow soil, nutrient poor sandy tallgrass patch.
Finally, please be aware that there are number of very important issues that still need to be resolved around wild plant and wild seed collection and transplantation. Of course, it is illegal to trespass to conduct such activities. Do not collect plants or seeds from plants that are listed at-risk. Finally, though, even in the case of more common plants there are many open questions about how much seed, or how many plants, it is ecologically safe and appropriate to collect from an individual stand. It’s always safer to err on the side of collecting less than to risk over collecting and damaging the population.

How we follow this principle at the PNC:

Here at the Prairie Nature Center (PNC), we’ve always followed the use local seed guideline. The restoration project started in 1977 with a haphazard collection of plants from the Claridon Railroad Prairie. At the time, there were rumors that the prairie was scheduled to be disrupted or even destroyed by the railroad company which owns the property. In an effort to preserve the species, Dr. Yoder and several OSU Marion students collected plants and seeds and brought them to the OSU Marion campus. The Claridon Prairie is less than 10 minutes from the OSU Marion campus. Since then, the PNC has continued this dedication to local seed sources. Presently, we primarily collect from our own site and at times we still collect from the Claridon Prairie. 


Tallgrass Principle #2:  Let the sun shine in!

The single most important thing that you need to actively provide for your tallgrass is sunlight. Tallgrass plants are adapted to high levels of sunlight and they won’t grow unless they get it. In natural stands of prairie, fire, drought, heavy grazing, flooding, windstorms, and other disturbances keep the numbers of shrubs and trees down to a minimum. In addition, these types of disturbances periodically destroyed the natural build-up of dead plant matter that any grassland produces. All these disturbances tend not to happen in domesticated landscapes and we need to make up for this static situation, particularly with regard to the eradication of shrubs. So, if your patch starts to look brushy, and the grasses and forbs are getting lots of shade, get out and remove the bushes! You can do this by hand, with a chainsaw, or with a Brush Hog, but let the sun shine in. (But, see Principle #4 before you start!)
Finally, avoid planting trees in and around your tallgrass.  You need to make a decision to have tallgrass habitat or a forest; it really isn’t possible to have both in the same exact area. If you decide that  you want a savanna or woodland, then you must keep the number and size of your trees down to where the total canopy cover of all the trees combined is less than 60% (preferably less than 30%) of the total area. In addition, you want to only use tree species that occur naturally in, and are adapted to, savannas and woodlands.
Finally, remember that you want trees and not saplings. In a natural savanna or woodland, the vast majority of saplings are destroyed by fire or drought each year. Saplings shade out grasses and forbs, so, unless you consciously choose to keep one that you want to grow as a tree, remove the younger trees!
How we follow this principle at the PNC:
The PNC was once the site of a farmhouse which had a row of trees along a fence line. As the prairie was restored, the trees were left intact, even though there was a clear diversity problem in the prairie surrounding the large trees. In 2005 and 2006, these trees were finally cut down and removed from the prairie. There were some who objected to this management technique, wondering aloud why a nature center would be cutting down trees. But PNC leaders felt that our mission to preserve and accurately depict a prairie trumped the need to keep the trees. 
In the years since the removal of these trees we have observed positive changes in the prairie which surrounded them. Each year we work to remove woody plants that don’t belong including trees and shrubs. It’s a big project, but one with a great reward!

Tallgrass Principle #3:  Work towards a circle

Ecologically, any patch of habitat is stronger if it’s closer to a circle in shape than to long, skinny rectangle. The reason for this is that the rounder a patch is the more ecologically secure then center is, since outside influences can’t penetrate so easily deeper into the patch. In a long skinny rectangle, on the other hand, outside influences, be they foreign seeds, predatory animals, or overspray, can easily cut across the entire patch at many locations.
What this means is that you should try and manage your patch of tallgrass in such a way as to embed it within a circle, a square, a triangle, or a thicker rectangle. So, if you have the space and inclination to add new areas of tallgrass, add them to the sides instead of to the ends of your existing patch. If you can’t do this, try and create more ecologically benign land uses next to your tallgrass patch; a pasture, for instance, works very well next to a tallgrass patch.
A possible exception to the above rule occurs when an attempt is made to link two existing patches of tallgrass habitat with a corridor; and you may, indeed, be in a situation where this is a possibility and you have the time and resources on hand to attempt this. However, be aware that to be ecologically effective, such a corridor should be several tens of yards wide. Often, it is more ecologically beneficial to tallgrass to increase the width of an existing patch, even if that means changing the land use of an adjacent field to something a bit  more ecologically friendly yet still not tallgrass, than it is to try and increase the length of a patch.
The above is particularly the case with what we call “railroad prairies;” prairie fragments that exist along old or currently used railway right-of-ways. These prairies were formerly very common because fires created by the sparks thrown out by older locomotives kept the woody growth in check. However, they are now disappearing at an alarming rate because their long skinny shape makes invasion by weedy, nonprairie species very easy, especially since newer locomotives no longer produce their necessary sparks. If you are managing such a railway prairie, the best thing that you can do is to try and expand the width of prairie, or at least create areas of adjacent benign land use at various nodes along the track. These nodes will serve as seed reservoirs and refuge for prairie species. Often, this strategy is far more ecologically effective than trying to maintain a long skinny patch along the entire length of the railway.
How we follow this principle at the PNC:
Although we haven’t taken to creating restorations in circles at the PNC, we have begun to connect several smaller areas of prairie to each other in an effort to create larger swaths of prairie. In 2008, we connected two nearly half acre areas of prairie together to create a more continuous and less choppy prairie appearance. This management style is the continued goal of the PNC for future expansions. It is our hope that over the years, you will come to find a more connected and cohesive prairie. 

Tallgrass Principle #4: Disturb the EquiLibRium

Prairie habitats depend upon periodic disturbances for their continued existence. Some types of disturbance are built into a site – poor soils, flooding, drought. In other cases, the disturbances are (or were) more dynamic – wildfires, trampling by large herds of elk or other grazers. One of the biggest issues with prairie conservation today is that such dynamic disturbances rarely occur naturally. Woody and brushy plants are allowed to crowd out tallgrass species.
One of the biggest jobs of a prairie manager, then, is to periodically disturb the equilibrium of their prairie site. There are three key issues: First, the type and the intensity of the disturbances MUST be varied. Fire is not the only type of disturbance that gave rise to, or sustained prairies. Prairies were also created and sustained by droughts, floods, windstorms, shallow soils, intensive trampling, and low soil nutrients, to name just the more common types of disturbances. Using only one type of disturbance skews the natural order by selecting for only those species that can best survive that particular disturbance. Be creative and try using a matrix of disturbances to keep you patch dynamic.
Secondly, do not assume a set timing for your disturbances. In nature, disturbances happen on a much more random schedule, creating a situation where some years a site can experience extreme disequilibrium when many, or almost all, disturbances happen over the same 12 month period, and several disturbances actually happen almost simultaneously. Some of the most ecologically unhealthy prairies we have seen, on the other hand, are those that are only burned, and further, burned at the same time each year or set series of years. This scheduled, generic disturbance favors particular floral and faunal elements within the prairie patch that then begin to dominate, giving the patch a “cultivated” appearance. The only timing of disturbances that must be met for prairies is what is necessary to keep shrubs and trees to a minimum; apart from that, keep the timing of your disturbances as random as possible.
The third and final point to keep in mind when planning a disturbance regime for your prairie patch is to avoid affecting the whole patch at any one time. Again, because of scheduling and other pressures it has become somewhat common to try and burn entire prairies whenever a crew is available and the circumstances are right. However, this practice ignores the patchy nature of natural prairie fires operating over large landscapes. The unburned patches are vital as refuge for animals fleeing the fire and as seed reservoirs for burned patches, providing habitat diversity over the larger landscape. Further, the location of the undamaged portions should be rotated.  Sequential disturbances insure overall habitat heterogeneity, allowing for a higher biodiversity. Unburned portions of prairie can be assured by such techniques as firebreaks, low-intensity fires, and a varied fire schedule. Other types of disturbances will require other techniques to create undisturbed habitat patches. Remember, keep your prairie complex!

How we follow this principle at the PNC:

Disturbing the equilibrium is a challenge for us here at the PNC. Prescribed burns have typically been conducted in the spring season because of the lack of proper weather conditions in the fall months. We have placed our prairie on a 3 year prescribed burn regime which likely favors some plants over others. We will continue to strive to meet the goal of disrupting the equilibrium by attempting fall burns over the typical spring burn. We have been able to meet the goal of leaving a portion of the prairie undisturbed by fire to create a refuge for wildlife. The portion of the prairie that runs along the Grave Creek has not been burned during the last several burns which has allowed for birds, insects and other wildlife to find shelter. It is our hope that this section will be brought into the burn regime in the future and another portion of prairie may be left unburned.


Tallgrass Principle #5:  On the use of muscles and chemicals

As mentioned in the previous section, one of the types of disturbance that kept healthy prairies on the landscape was low nutrient levels in the soil. It follows, then, that prairies should not receive any type of fertilizers, either purposefully, or inadvertently through run-off from adjacent fields or overspray. This is vital for your prairie, because the tallgrass species can only out-compete non-tallgrass species in the absence of nutrients, but will be out-competed themselves in the presence of extra nutrients. This situation has to do with the marvelous adaptations that tallgrass species have developed in order to succeed in this environment.
Caution is advisable with any type of chemical assistance in prairies. There are times, for instance, when a tool like Round-up™ is very useful for helping to eradicate shrubs and brush from a patch of prairie that simply cannot be burned, trampled, flooded, etc. But the herbicide should be carefully applied to individual woody plants after a little judicious chainsaw use, as opposed to being widely broadcast. In the event that a portion of the prairie has been invaded by a weed, it may be the case that a herbicide could be broadcast but never forget the power of muscle. Look into offering employment to local youth and environmental and agricultural groups, as opposed to taking a chance with unpredictable chemicals. When in doubt, use caution! Similar caution needs to be exercised around the use of pesticides, as well. Prairie plants are heavily reliant upon prairie animals for such things as pollination, soil aeration, decomposition and the creation of organic soil matter, seed dispersal, etc., and pesticides can disrupt this complex system easily. Be judicious in your use. If you are truly concerned about keeping the impact of animals down, consider the fact that several studies have now documented that feral and domesticated cats and dogs have a dramatic, large, and negative impact on wild populations of birds, reptiles, small mammals, and amphibians. Keeping cats and dogs neutered, spayed, and contained within a yard goes a long way towards supporting the fauna of your prairie.
How we follow this principle at the PNC:
We are very reluctant to use herbicides at the PNC due to the possibility of overspray and damage to the native plants. Round-up is only used as a last resort when we cannot control a plant population by removal or prescribed burn. Due to this reluctance to use chemicals, we spend quite a bit of time during the spring and summer removing invasive plants by hand. By the end of the summer our hands and arms have gotten quite a work out! We’ve been lucky to have volunteers from local boy scouts, school groups and even the local jails have brought inmates on a work release program to help remove woody plants. 

Tallgrass Principle #6:  Know your habitat and keep records

Fortunately for us, tallgrass enthusiasts and researchers have been conducting studies and experiments for several decades now, and they have made their information freely available. Yet, we need to keep gathering information and keep track of the impacts of our work. Too often, we find well meaning people applying active management to their tallgrass fragments without keeping track of the impacts of these actions. What makes this an issue is that some of the impacts of these management actions won’t surface for years, but then will have ramification for decades. So, our first, over-riding and most important principle is to visit your habitat often, take the time to learn the plants and animals, keep track of the abiotic processes like precipitation and erosion, and keep notes.
How we follow this principle at the PNC:
Detailed records were not the strong suit of the PNC since it had been primarily run by student employees until 2003. At that time, a full time Program Coordinator was hired and record keeping became a stronger focus. Knowing the history of management techniques and successes is helpful to any landscape manager. Starting in 2003, a management history was created and every large scale management effort, including prescribed burns and restoration efforts have been tracked and recorded since that time. This information will be useful for those who come later in PNC management positions so that they too can see the techniques and methods used to help preserve the native plants here at the PNC.