When my husband and I moved to rural Indiana, my brother paraded a series of aerial photos of our land from a year before we bought the property. We sat at the kitchen table gasping at the refuse: cars strewn about the field around the pole barn, three dozen lounge chairs, rusted steel drums and metal barrels, and enough wooden pallets stacked high and fanned wide—three acres’ worth—to build the rodent equivalent of Beijing. When the county cited the previous owner for improper storage, he buried the pallets, sending rats running to the neighbors’ barns and houses for shelter, and made no attempt to keep the topsoil anywhere near the surface. The set of aerials taken the following year show giant patches of brown fill dirt where only the most tenacious weeds will grow—land that looks like the Sonoran desert we left behind when we came here, to Indiana, for its lush soil. I wanted nothing more than to restore this land to its natural state.
For months after we moved here, we strolled the land like a prison yard and pocketed rusty nails, deflated soccer balls, broken plastic toys, shattered Christmas ornaments and strands of lights. I found a miniature porcelain doll’s head at the edge of the lane. Those were the pieces big enough to recognize. Mostly, I filled my Carhartts with a centimeter square blue piece of plastic here, a deformed rusty piece of metal there. I know that such debris does not belong in a natural landscape. We groaned about people who don’t nurture the land, which is caving in on either side of the barn from the buried pallets.
There was a house on this land at least once before ours. Sometimes I find asphalt that I imagine was part of a driveway, or shingles from a former roof. There is concrete in the fields. My parents built their house on fallow fields, but no land in this part of Indiana is untouched. In the few acres in front of their house, they have found a sewing machine, a sump pump, and a soda bottle sporting a defunct Indianapolis brand.
It seems the planet folds over its layers each season, when rain, ice, sun, and human activity push matter down, causing other matter to surface. We walk the land and compress it underfoot, bend down to pick up red plastic, bolts, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, or chunks of Styrofoam. But I’m beginning to wonder whether this is a product of neglect or an inevitable feature of land ownership.
It was easy to judge others then. We were filled with more than good intentions: we had resolve and the conspiracy of events that brought us here seemed to confirm that it was our destiny to save this land. I was becoming Dirt Girl: my success with worm composting was sure to scale up to magnificent compost piles around the farm. We are lifestyle farmers. I grow plants from seed on our greenhouse porch, we have raised beds and a row garden, but the bulk of the sloped erodible land is designated by the USDA as part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). I have been charged to restore this patch of land to its former, pre-agricultural glory.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, before it was changed beyond recognition as millions of acres of forests, prairies, and wetlands were converted into agriculture, Indiana was vast and its boundaries unmapped. The landscape was wild, with primeval forests nearly two-hundred feet tall and a lake to the north and big rivers in the south. Prairies covered two million acres of Indiana. At the top of the hill where I live, I stare miles into the distance at houses, barns, and fields and try to believe this.
The CRP program would ask more of us than we first expected. Our neighbors, who happen to be my parents, are also in the CRP program and are paid simply not to bale their fields. My husband and I assumed that would be our arrangement as well, and letting the field alone seemed a fantastic way to do a good thing without lifting a finger. A month after moving in, our contact from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) informed us that we needed to replace the cool season grasses in the front seven acres with native warm season grasses (NWSG). I knew nothing about grass at the time.
Beginning as a peninsula two million acres in size in Indiana that reached westward to the Rocky Mountains, grass spread its stalks on prairies: little bluestem, big bluestem, sideoats grama, prairie dropseed, and abundant wildflowers endured drought and fires and grazing bison by retreating (like the glaciers that advanced and retreated on Indiana for two million years) underground to perennial roots when they could not flourish and self-seed above. Their roots reached four to five feet deep and anchored the soil.
Although they evolved in this environment, native grasses like little bluestem and sideoats grama are not easy to establish. The grass seeds are expensive, delicate, and wispy. They look and float like Dandelion seeds. They can’t be planted deeper than ¼ inch and require a special no-till drill that’s tricky to calibrate. If you fertilize with nitrogen or disk the ground, you only help the cool-season grasses. Yet you have to combine the warm-season native grasses with another grass, such as Virginia Rye, that is likely to thrive the first couple of years and then fade away. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recommended we plant heavier wildflower seeds with grass. On planting day, we stopped every fifteen minutes to run our fingers through the mixture and add kitty litter as a counterweight so all the flowers didn’t end up in the first pass of the tractor/drill.
Preparing the ground meant not only killing everything green with glyphosate (Roundup), but also using a more potent herbicide called Plateau. I called every chemical supplier in this county and the next trying to track down a $300 bottle. This is corn and soybean country. We use Roundup. I was ready to forgo the Plateau—did I really want residuals in my soil anyway?—when I pulled a phone number from a stack of NRCS emails and found the District Wildlife Biologist who would hold my hand throughout the process. When Josh came out to look at my field and pulled a brand new bottle of Plateau out of his truck, I nearly hugged him. Plateau’s residuals prevent the cool season grasses from emerging and shading out the warm season sprouts. And as long as I didn’t exceed four ounces per acre, my wildflowers would also emerge.
We planted in June, and lemon-yellow Partridge Pea burst on the field like popcorn. The legume was planted with the grasses and flowers for nitrogen fixation (direct fertilizer was strictly forbidden), but the visual effect is most noticeable in the first year. Another success was a Dr. Seuss-like plant, with a long skinny stalk and a purple fuzzy bulb at the top, called Purple Prairie Clover. Then came the Black-eyed Susans. By the end of the first summer the field was covered in a brown fuzzy, reed-like annual, foxtail. An uncommonly mild winter followed and so brown, brown, brown. Until the second June, when the Black-eyed Susans dominated.
I talk about the legumes, the clover, the wildflowers, because the grasses are biding their time. In the first year, as much as seventy five percent of the plant’s mass is underground, and without visible signs of success you can only hope that they are establishing viable root systems. Even now, the grasses can’t be seen until you’re waist deep in the field and catch the bluish tinge on green blades by your foot here and there. The man who rented me the no-till drill said, “you can’t just plant this stuff and walk away.”
For tens of thousands of years, these prairie grasses thrived here. Before agriculture was imposed, they lived in a harmonious cycle with grazing buffalo and fires started by Native Americans which kept the prairie from reverting to woodland. So once I got past the initial hurdles, these drought-tolerant native grasses, which came just in time for record drought, were positioned to thrive with minimal fuss. In a different kind of intervention the second year, I sowed more wildflowers. I broadcast those seeds by hand, supplementing the field with three pounds of Ecinacea, purple coneflower. I added gray-headed, or yellow, coneflower, more Partridge pea, more Black-eyed Susan, more Purple prairie clover, upright coneflower, and shasta daisies. One year very soon, I will run a controlled burn. Meadows developed on old fallow farm fields imitate prairies, but in the absence of drought and fire, they convert over time to woodlands. I never anticipated the amount of intervention such a natural landscape would require.
There was a drought the summer before we planted that affected the cool-season grasses. There was a drought the summer we planted the warm-season grasses. And the drought the summer after that beat out 1936 for the hottest summer and least amount of precipitation on record.
Well-established cool-season grasses can survive a year of drought, but two or three years and their relative weakness compared to warm-season grasses becomes apparent. A month after applying the powerful herbicide to my long-standing cool grasses and planting, the second drought came—two consecutive years. Warm season grasses were built for this, and as delicate as their establishment can be, I like to imagine that the drought conferred an advantage for my seedlings.
It was the third consecutive year of drought that worried me: that’s when the Canada thistle spread to every open spot in the field.
The farm was dry in July and drier in August and in the front acres the ground was covered in ancient brittle fescue. Cracks from the no-till drill were still visible in patches—they seemed, in fact, to have widened: the ground split wide open. Grass by the house was brown by July and browner still and crunched underfoot by August. Watering the garden only brought bugs. It was as if the earth had forgotten how to drink and when some rain finally came it flooded the deep wide cracks and bounced back out, rolling downhill. It had been like that where we came from: monsoon rains in the Sonoran desert fell on tightly packed clay and sand that could not absorb them. Only the savviest plants had learned to benefit from these conditions.
I wrestle with the terms: my odyssey of fighting intruders in these fledgling grasses makes “natural landscape” seem an absurd dichotomy. There is nothing so simple as dividing the world into ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ categories, parsing what belongs and what does not belong.
‘Native’ species evolved here, they are indigenous, whereas ‘naturalized’ species were imported but knew how to exploit the environment and thrive here. ‘Invasive’ designates unwelcome (for our purpose, non-indigenous) species. Invasive species also exploit their environment and thrive, but let’s not become too philosophical or charitable and point out that ‘weeds’ are in the eye of the beholder. These plants do as their name suggests: they invade. They take over, expand into more and more territory, outcompeting natives and threatening local biodiversity. And while there is still some subjectivity when it comes to what is welcome in the garden, there is a consensus about true invasives. Here in Indiana, my personal nemesis, Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) is listed on the Department of Natural Resources list of invasive species. The USDA considers it a noxious weed.
Charged with my CRP directive to make my seven acres pre-agricultural, I am surprised by the measures one must take to plant grasses that dominated this land for so many thousands of years. When I consider all the further work required to prevent them from being out-competed by invasives, I’m left wondering whether anything I’m doing is natural. The jarring juxtaposition of “establishing natives” hits home.
I walk through my field and hit a patch of pretty lavender flowers. I know not to rejoice at this, for these waist-high flowers sit atop the devilish Canada thistle. A few steps further and my heart sinks: I am standing in a half-acre of the stuff, and I know there is more. Gardeners know not to let most weeds go to seed, but with the thistle I feel helpless: disturbing it above ground diverts energy into its monstrous root system. I’m reminded of a horror movie I saw, where the monsters sensed people by their heartbeats, which only beat more vigorously when people are afraid: there seems no way out. Indeed, those who have battled Canada thistle with relative success—chemically or mechanically—testify that it takes years, and one can never grow complacent.
That is hardly letting nature be, battling perennial, invasive weeds with elaborate, far-reaching root systems that resist all attempts at control.
In the field’s second autumn, I intended to prepare backpacks full of glyphosate to target Canada thistle. Fall is the time: as they prepare for winter, they draw carbohydrates into their sprawling roots. The herbicide hitches a ride with those carbs down into the root system, affording a deeper chance of success. I needed to do it before they went dormant in the year’s first killing freeze. I knew intervention was necessary to stop this invasive perennial, but I never did it: I had hoped to beat the thistle and spare the flowers, but I knew better. Roundup is a broadleaf killer: if it kills the thistle it will kill my flowers. I have no choice but to focus my efforts on killing the tenacious, opportunistic Canada thistle that has taken hold of entire acres.
Now, it is the field’s third autumn.This summer, despite CRP’s provision for spot-control of weeds, I was not able to put a dent in the thistle. It grew tall and the patches were larger than ever before. In the two week period that its seeds took to the air, it looked as though we had a constant snowstorm—a blizzard of large white flakes floated across my field of vision in every direction. It was a nightmare.
What should I expect, trying to control nature? I am building, have been building, will be building a natural environment. Can what is built be called natural? I have populated the ground with natural objects, more or less given free reign once I planted them. No concrete, no formal garden. I had to do a lot of killing to make a place for them, to ensure they would not be outcompeted. I have to do a lot of killing still. It was decided in advance what should thrive in this meadow, based on what historically thrived on this land. But creating pre-agricultural land on a hill that was once farmed, in a seemingly endless grid of corn and soybean fields, just might be out of my reach. I may have to settle for—with hard work and a lot of luck—a beautiful meadow.
(The prairie is a work in progress. To be continued…)