One of our long term projects that will take many years is the establishment of a (eventually) 20 acre prairie in the back ridge of the valley at Beech Hollow. This area has soils that are poor, exhausted by more than a century of poor agricultural practices, from the growing of cotton in the 19th Century until the advent of the Boll Weevil in the early 20th Century, thence onto several decades of silviculture in the mid to late 20th Century.
To start this article, I am going to go back a few years, to a visit we had from Mincy Moffett, in December, 2018.
It was a brilliant day, a really, really, crisp day. The sky outside is a pale and brittle blue that only comes from the low angle of a winter sun. Tan sprigs of little bluestem grass in front of the farmhouse are rattling with each breeze. The sunlight coming through the dining room window pours across Jeff Killingsworth, Clair Eisele, and I. We are about to tuck into lunch with sandwiches, and we are all looking at Mincy.
Earlier that year, in November, I had asked Mincy to join us at Beech Hollow Farm for lunch and talk about Piedmont Prairies. At that time Mincy was a wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who specialty is botany. His calendar is slam-packed with projects filled with ecologies with evocative names like “Ohoopee Dunes” and “Oakey Woods” that need tending in our state’s wild areas, and species that need saving or help. Mincy Moffett the Botanist is kept very busy by all of his botanical charges, but he also has a deep mentoring streak towards his human associates.
The three of us, Jeff Killingsworth, Clair Eisele, and myself count ourselves lucky to fall under his mentoring umbrella. Jeff and I had started to implement a prairie in the back acreage at Beech Hollow, and Mincy has been our staunchest ally. Interviewing him was a chance, not only to pick his brain for prairie knowledge, but to hang out. Gracious as ever, he agreed to come to join us for lunch to talk about Georgia Piedmont Prairies.
You could ask Mr. Mincy Moffett a dry, flavorless question. Just try it. You will get an accurate answer; but you won’t get a dry, flavorless answer. Mincy is animated. He sat in a chair at the dining room, along with Clair, Jeff, and myself, but that didn’t mean anything stood still. Mincy’s eyes sparked and bounded across the table from face to face as he answered each question.
PW: I do have some questions on prairies. We can do some of it here (in the kitchen) or we can go up to the Prairie and do it there. It's probably still pretty cold out there.
PW: The prairies in Georgia, what makes them the same, what makes them different than the prairies on the plains? We've gone over it has something to do with our topography.
MM: It does, it has to do with our soils that we're mostly ultisols here, acknowledging that are that the fact that we have ultisols may just be because all of the good topsoil, which would have been another soil order, has eroded away. Where we are, as a rule, we have much greater moisture here in the in the East, we have the influence of the of the Gulf of Mexico in the Southeastern U.S.
PW: So the Prairies are more of a mosaic here, and did I hear you say that they probably more fire-dependent.
MM: I would say that they are more fire influenced anyway. And if you take the Coastal Plain, of course, that's very fire-dependent. I think we probably had more fire in the Southeastern U.S. and I think that the effect of grazers was probably greater in the Midwest.
PW: All right, so the plants what does that do? I so I'm assuming that the different climate of the Southeast would influence, does this influences species? or the genera or even just the species and subspecies that occur here.
MM: Certainly the latter. I know that there are there are genera that are not represented here in the Southeast that are found in the Midwest.
I don't know the percentage of shared genera, that'd be that'd be a good thing to research. And I'm sure that there are plenty of studies out there but in general in some ways growing conditions are more favorable here in the Southeast and that we have our winters are less harsh, summers of course can be intense, but Summers on the on the prairies can be intense too, and we have more moisture. So I think probably as a rule, plants in the Midwestern prairies and Western prairies are probably more drought tolerant as a group than what we have here in the Southeast. However, the flip side of living in a more favorable habitat, more favorable sort of growing corner of the country, means that our species richness is much higher. And plant species richness in the Southeast is higher than any other section of the country.
Of course, you know you have places like Texas and California where you have a lot of very special habitats, and so you have a lot of endemics. But just in general, if you were to plop down on any acre of land somewhere, anywhere in the U.S., if you plop down in the Southeast chances are you're going to have more different species than you are than if you plop down in California. Because in California, you might be in a unique area where these 15 endemic species don't grow anywhere else, but that by and large is all that's there. Whereas here, you're going to get a basket, you're going to get a hundred and fifty species.
Nature Serve does a ranking for all of the states and all of the different categories. I don't know if you've seen that, but if not I can send it to you, they rank plants, mammals, birds, herps, each state in terms of its biodiversity. It's a little dated. It's from the early 2000s, but there hasn't been that many new species. Haven't been that many new species discovered and it's interesting, Georgia ranks. I think we're first in herps, second or third in aquatics and six or seventh in plants depending on which it was 7th, but it was close to being six and now Alan Weakly tells me we're 6th so for diversity here in the Southeast.
PW: He would know, he's keying everything.
MM: Right? So did I mean if you if you want to study biodiversity the Southeast is where it's at for North America. Well I’ll take it back, North America North of Mexico.
PW: So, in effect, we have overlap in general that occurs with the Midwest. But all right, so the plants in a prairie what makes them different from plants in a meadow or field is it just the soils? Or is it the fire?
MM: Well, I think you've got a got some definitional issues there. A meadow according, to the definition that I read in Dwayne's thing, a meadow actually has to be associated with a river or a stream bottom. That you don't have an Upland Meadow, you have, they’re bottomland meadows. I did not know that. Obviously you can define things anyway you want, but I assume that's been a very thorough splitting. And a field, what is an old field? It's an old field what would have naturally been a forest but just got cleared and is now succeeding back to more of which is what it wants to be.
PW: Well this question is for people who want to know what a prairie if they're reading into the article: why isn't that field right there a prairie grassland or grassland?
MM: Well, it would be a grassland. I guess the question is whether or not it historically was a grassland and was it historically a grassland and was it being maintained as a grassland by natural forces? Right, if it's something that is has a potential to succeed to forest now because of fire suppression, but it would have been Prairie and was Prairie 200 years ago 500 years ago then yeah, that old field is a is a you know is a prairie and they're both grasslands.
PW: Even if it doesn't have the correct species, it's a prairie? Is a prairie species specific? Or is it topography specific? Let's start there: is an old field a prairie? A meadow by definition it’s along a stream, is not a prairie, it's a meadow.
MM: I see what you're saying, is it species specific. That's a very good question.
PW: That farmer across the way (our neighbor across hwy 77), he's maintaining that pasture, it's a grassland.
MM: Right, it's definitely a grassland.
PW: He keeps spraying it with stuff that keeps keeps forbs from growing.
JK: So it might be a different control.
MM: Yeah. It's a depauperate grassland in terms of species influence, and probably it has a lot of non-native species and the pan global weeds that are out there now, that so many of the broad leaf things, I mean they're there on every continent now. And they all come from different continents. But now they’re our suite of new natives because they're not going anywhere. And so what's the term it's not pan global it’s...
MM: That's it. Yep, cosmopolitan weeds.
PW: So a field is a depauperate grassland, but a prairie is a plant community and it's an ecosystem that is not just fire generated. Is it also a suite of plants and grasses?
MM: In other words: What what kind of plant Community what kind of plant associations do you have to have to qualify as a prairie? That's a question I don't know the answer to. I’d be happy to research that. It's a qualitative thing too, you know. Suppose you suppose you had a suite at let's say you had a grassland that had a lot of native species. You might say, wow, this is a good-looking prairie. But suppose it also had a lot of non-native species there. Does that does that habitat get penalized for the non-natives that are there as it somehow no longer pure does it not qualify as a prairie. I don't know if there's a purity if there's a litmus purity test.
PW: Dwayne would probably be a good person to ask that question.
At this point, we finished our lunch, bundled up and went up to the back acreage where Jeff Killingsworth and I had started our prairie project.
PW: Was not quite five acres cleared, and roughly 15 acres to go or 15 acres to get to. We decided we wanted to take some bad in-seeded Pine acreage and make something beautiful with it. But driving down the road, I don't see many prairies around Georgia. So, you know. Why not?
MM: Is that a question to me?
PW: Yes, it is a question to you, Mr. Mincey. I know there's overlap between this and previous questions.
MM: The influence of humans is the overarching answer and I would say there's been three primary areas of impact. One has just been the direct impact over the centuries of agriculture, civil culture, and development for living space, urbanity, suburban space, towns, that sort of thing. Part of that included not just cutting down trees and altering terrain, but it also included fire suppression, and it also included displacement of large herbivores. Now we do have a lot of deer here, but in certain parts of the state, it's believed that four hundred years ago bison and elk, those large ungulates, would have played a role in helping to keep certain pockets open anyway. That would have been more in Northwest, Georgia west-northwest, North, Georgia. So they may not have been here, but certainly fire suppression is a huge thing.
PW: Are there still intact native prairies in Georgia?
MM: Yes, there are, these are some of the marquee ones, you have the Coosa Prairies which are calcareous gumbo soiled, you know shrink - swell stuff. The Nature Conservancy owns the Coosa Prairie Preserve. You've got the Oakey Woods Prairies down in Central Georgia, which are part of the black belt, Blackland Prairie that are, you know, so large and expansive in Mississippi and Alabama. Just barely get into Georgia, just a little tip of those Blackland, calcareous soils. So that's down at that Central Georgia. There's a WMA, that's Oakey Woods WMA, and it's down near Bonaire Georgia, which is near Warner Robins. So that's classic.
And of course, we have a lot of coastal plain savannas and near prairie type situations and then there's a you know, there's that place called Paulk Prairie, Paulk Pasture, which I've never been to but it's in south Georgia and it's a great birding site and there's I mean, there's lots of there's lots of small prairies, but most of them today are in conservation holdings or otherwise, they wouldn't be prairies.
If somebody wasn't looking after them they would have been converted to something else. They would either be full of trees that have a subdivision on them or they would be part of an old field that's succeeding back to forest.
PW: Are there any of the Prairies in the list you just quoted me open to the public?
MM: They all are. Now TNC prairies would be open to the public by permission generally speaking. They take a lot of field trips every year. I don't think they don't allow the public just to wander but certainly the public can visit. And anything owned by the state is open.
PW: So the Coosa Prairies is West.
MM: Extreme Northwest.
PW: Northwest, that's not Piedmont.
MM: No, no.
PW: And the Blackland Prairies aren't Piedmont.
MM: No, they're embedded in the Coastal Plain there below the faultline.
PW: And Paulks Pasture?
MM: That's in the Coastal Plain too.
PW: Are there many prairies in the Piedmont?
MM: Not that are intact and under proper management and protection. Those are the you can find a lot you can I mean, there's still lots of things that qualify as grasslands.
That have a fair number of species, right but they're privately owned. Maybe that's an old field that's reverting back to Forest. So it's not as if you don't actually see any of these things, but they're not what they could be. They're not being managed properly. They're going to wink out and they're probably not in the conservation protection and that's that's the real issue to me.
Or the real set of issues to me. For example, Panola Mountain Nathan Klaus, Phil de Lestris who also works for DNR and other people have restored and are in the process of a 20-year restoration project on, it's several hundred acres, at Panola Mountain State Park. And it's a it is a savannah / a piedmont, Savannah / Prairie.
That grades from sort of a slight Upland down to the banks of the South River and it's an official Audubon IBA important birding area and they've gone to great lengths not only to burn it but to remove invasives, to out plant a lot of native goodies, rarities, and also just a matrix species. Putting back lots of Indian grass and milkweeds that you would have found in abundance.
PW: Do you think it's important to reintroduce prairies to the Piedmont. Is it a good idea?
PW: Why is it a good idea? What does it do for wildlife? What does it do for migratory Birds? What does it do for humans?
MM: There's several ways to come at this if we're talking about just a good native grassland. Let's forget the Rarities for a minute just a good native grassland they do they provide all manner of ecosystems services for folks.
They [prairies] keep the topsoil from being eroded. They actually build topsoil. They improve water quality by affecting the type of runoff. They sequester carbon below ground with their roots. They provide nutrient cycling and all of those things together indirectly or of course are going to improve air quality. So those are basic ecosystems services that an intact grassland is providing. Now grasslands, also, since they're typically bordered by non grassland areas there's an ecotone there, and those ecotones are very very valuable for wildlife. Birds and small mammals in particular. So now that's a hard Edge over there, right? But if it was an intact Prairie, you'd have grasslands that gradually grade into a forest.
So you'd have an ecotone transition and those ecotone transitions are super rich for wildlife and super valuable. Its associated with the edge effect, of course, there are some species that require interior type habitats and don't like the edge effect. But the majority of species do benefit in some way from The Edge effect.
PW: I read the cowbirds can be a problem with Edge effect areas.
MM: There's going to always be a downside to some things. Yeah I know cowbirds can be a big problem and are a big problem in places. Yep. Absolutely. Now if we're talking about if we're going to go to the next level and talk about Rarities or just sort of a looking at species richness from a more top-down perspective. Two-thirds of all of the rare plant species in the Southeast and one-third of all of the rare vertebrate species are either associated with grasslands or depend on grasslands.
The Rarities really require some grassland component. I believe I've got this figure right, about 6,000 vascular plant species in the Southeast, 60% of those are associated in some way with the grassland component to a Grassland Community. One of those many types of grass as we've already talked about because there's so many in the Southeast. So if you want to talk about species diversity, and if you want to talk about providing habitat for the Rarities, intact prairies intact grasslands are very important.
PW: Have you personally reworked on reintroducing prairies? Is that under your purview? Or do you just support rarities?
MM: I haven't worked on prairies per say, I've worked on other grassland habitats. Okay. I've worked on bog and fen grassland habitats. I've worked on Sand Hill grassland habitats. I've worked on calcareous woodland grassland habitats. So I guess not Prairie very per se but certainly grassland habitats.
PW: The reasons to reintroduce a prairie, we've just gone all over that. This question is for suburban gardeners: why is a prairie better than a lawn, better than a garden?
MM: You could have a really good native plant garden, right? That could provide a lot of services. But a lawn, if it's the classic view of a lawn, it's a monoculture. You have to use chemicals to maintain it. Chances are you're using some sort of a gasoline powered equipment to maintain it.
So the carbon footprint is greater. You have run off you have all kinds of debris. That you have all the stuff associated with all the chemicals that you might apply that runoff and again all you and what you end up with is not just a monoculture, but it's a 3 inch, well shorn, Savannah. I mean prairies not only have a lot of different species, but they have species in different stages of growth and development and different heights. It provides food and food forage shelter cover for animals. I mean, what does a what is a lawn provide? Occasionally a crow or starling will go out there and pick up a grub or something. But I mean, what does it really do? It doesn't provide anything.
Now granted it's better than asphalt. You know probably in terms of some things better in Asphalt terms of runoff, lawns in general are bad and prairies in general, or good grasslands in general are good.
PW: Prairies make better forage habitat for birds. Do they provide shelter for migratory birds? It's flat, where does a bird nest on a prairie?
MM: Some birds do nest right on the ground. I'm not an ornithologist. But you have ground-nesting birds that will nest right on clumps of grasses. I've got to believe that any intact habitat provides, is beneficial, to migrants, and it's beneficial to breeding birds.
That's a question better asked of an ornithologist. Certainly they also provide homes and shelter and food for small mammals, so don't forget that. Then there are a number of reptiles that use, the not amphibians very much because generally prairie grassland systems are dry or unless they're particularly associated with water, but there are a number of reptile species snakes, lizards, in particular the gopher tortoise essentially requires a type of a coastal plain grassland in which to live.
PW: Are prairies important to pollinators and why?
MM: Absolutely. prairies because they're so open the most of the plants that grow. There are heliophilic (plants) meaning sun-loving, they require sun, and prairies tend to have very many of them. Anyway they tend to have larger, showier flowers. Although I guess that may not be necessarily true because you have a lot of solidagos and things that have small flowers and certainly grasses that very very small flowers.
PW: Doesn't that diversity only boost the diversity of pollinators?
MM: That's true, because the diversity is so great in a grassland, and assuming that they’re native species. You're going to have to have a lot of native plants, a lot of things can have a lot of insect flora associated with them and consequently, you're going to have a lot of a lot of pollinators.
PW: Would prairies be an important aspect of monarch butterfly conservation?
MM: Absolutely or grasslands when you say prairies, you mean grasslands don't you?
PW: Yeah, the conversation was to focus on prairies, but we can say grasslands. We'll just say grasslands.
MM: When you say grassland, you're talking about something that's majority grass, which also means there are a few trees. If you have a reduced canopy cover you have greater sun and if you have greater sun, then you're going to have better habitat for milkweeds. Milkweeds can be found in all types of grassland habitats, and some of them will occasionally get up into woodland habitats, but most of them are very open.
PW: Milkweeds are monarch butterfly host plants for the larva.
PW: Okay, and in our area of Georgia how many species of milkweeds do we have?
MM: There are about 20 species in Georgia I think in the Piedmont. Guess when we have five or six at least, and then if you start including some of the calcareous habitats… get into the Foothills add a few more, then when you start getting into some wetland habitat, some swamp habitats, you can add a few more there. I'm curious. What is the what is the number of asclepias? In Georgia, there's that nice document that the GPCA put out that I'm sure you've seen about the milkweed initiative.
PW: I've got that document. Those were about the milkweeds that were not rare. Pretty much there for homeowners, the milkweeds not to use, the milkweeds that you should use, and the benefits of them.
MM: So the last few questions were about fire and what role fire played and prairies prehistorically, but we've already got answers to that. So. How do you currently use fire as a tool to manage land to manage prairies? And what can you do? If you can't use fire in your front yard in suburbs or in an urban area?
Hey when you just said you did were you -
PW: “You” rhetorically.
MM: Not how does DNR use fire?
PW: Let's start with DNR using fire, and let then let's go to the gardener. So how does the DNR use fire to manage land and what can a gardener do?
MM: DNR uses fire quite a bit in I would say all of its habitats to some degree that it that we manage. We use fire a great deal in the coastal plain. We use fire moderately in the Piedmont and. Increasingly, we're applying it to places in the Foothills and in the Blue Ridge, so it's the return interval of fire is really important. So whether or not we're burning, we're putting fire on the ground in the same spot every two or three years or every five or seven years or every 10 years. Depends on the habitat and what we think is the appropriate fire return interval, but DNR has several fire teams. We train people in DNR and outside of DNR to be part of our inner agency Burn team. So fire is huge. I mean, it's part of it's part of who we are and what we do.
MM: The DNR of course, has resources. Both in training people and we have fire engines and we have all kinds manner of equipment and we have a fire culture in our organization. So that's very different than the average homeowner the average homeowner may or may not be in a position to use fire either because it's not safe because they don't have the tools because there's our there are burn ordinances against it.
There are certain air quality situations, especially in areas like Atlanta where if if there's too much particulate matter in the air already the burning won't be allowed. So [there are] these PPM attainment issues. So there's lots of there's lots of reasons why you might not be able to burn if you are not if you are in a more rural area and you can burn then there are ways to do it safely in there.
State and federal resources out there to help a homeowner burn to to manage their habitat. If so, I'm not sure. What was the second part of your question.
PW: Basically how can people with Gardens in urban areas, how they could burn? But some Urban Gardens aren't going to be big enough to burn. So what can a homeowner do to emulate fire?
MM: You want to start you want to fire surrogate. And probably mowing is probably mowing or weed whacking brush cutting is probably the easiest thing to do. Of course a lot depends on how much acreage you're talking about. Are you talking about the urban person that has a tenth of an acre tops to worry about or you talking about a person who lives maybe in suburbia that's got two acres? Or you talking about somebody with a gentleman's Farm outside of you know, exurbia with 20 acres. So I mean, those are all those are all different. It's a lot easier to mow a little 20 by 20 foot plot than it is to mow 20 acres.
PW: Are there any fire effects that are important for some of the Prairie species do they need the heat to they need the chemistry of fire and would that be missing in a mower regimen?
MM: It would be missing because what you all you really achieve with mowing as you were. You're making sure that you that you don't have woody growth. You're keeping the woody growth down; you're resetting the herbaceous growth. But of course that's going to come back every year. Anyway, fire volatilizes a lot of chemicals, but it also makes certain chemicals available in the in the ash nutrients micronutrients exactly. It also impacts insect pathogens; I mean insect predators. I think it probably would also have some effect on perhaps plant pathogens that are.
PW: Sterilize some of the pathogens?
MM: Perhaps or kill a kill them outright if they're on the if they're on the vegetation. I've heard another effect of burning is that the you get the black and soil actually starts to warm up sooner if you winter Burns or spring Burns you get sort of an increase warming of the soil from from the blackened ashes that may or may not be a good thing though with an increase in global warming. Think that that may not be a positive effect. And also most of our natural fire regimes are started by lightning or were historically, so I'm quoting, channeling, Elaine Nash because I mean that she's to talk about the effect of the of the blackened ground and how it would increase germination by providing warmth, but that would only be true, really, for a Winterburn, right? So not sure, I need to research that more. I'm not sure if that's a positive or negative effect, frankly.
PW: We've come to the to the last of the questions. Yes, and your poor voice. I've had you talking for a long time.