The Plots Thicken

Wildflowers were blooming in this June 2018 photo, but had been overtaken by aggressive weeds in July. That necessitated a pollinator plot start over. Intermediate steps had been tried earlier.

Projects built on good ideas come and go all the time in the workplace. That’s how the busy, changing-priority world goes. The process of creating plots of wildflowers and native grasses at the entrance area of Lewis & Clark Recreation Area started in 2014. Five years later, the project continues.

Shane Bertsch, District Park Supervisor at Lewis & Clark Recreation Area and Dale Dawson, Conservation Foreman, devised the concept of wildflower and native grass pollinator plots at the park entrance. Large, contoured plots that total about three acres are positioned on either side of the park entrance road for visitors. Blooms show from the highway. They designed the plots to benefit pollinators as well as contribute a natural element to the manicured park. The project had financial support from Yankton Area Pheasants Forever organization and advice from Millborn Seeds in Brookings.

Bertsch and Dawson have shown perseverance through cool springs and years of excessive moisture that favor aggressive weeds over native grasses. Five years in, they recall high school youth taking senior pictures among the wildflowers, and several start-overs when the plots were overwhelmed with weeds. This season, native grasses waved in prairie breezes with no blooms in sight.

“What we’ve seen through this process is that there is no sure way that you won’t have issues,” Bertsch said. “We chose lower growing grasses because we didn’t want taller grasses to fall down and make the plots look too rugged.” Other parks with areas of native grasses and wildflowers such as at Good Earth State Park at Blood Run in Sioux Falls, Adams Nature Preserve in North Sioux City and Spirit Mound Historic Prairie have challenges with natural areas. Each have specific public uses that impact how grounds are maintained. Natural areas have to be maintained within the uses of the park.

Dawson has noticed an improvement in the appearance of mature stands of native grasses by changing their maintenance plan. These include grasses that had been installed years ago along Highway 52, such as a stand near the Rural Fire Station and at the west edge of Pierson Ranch.

“Weeds get out of hand,” he said. “I learned from Kim and Mark Brannen from the Natural Resources Conservation Service that if you mow bromegrass in late May or early June, it will stunt it enough to give the native grasses a start. I’ve done that now on several areas to the west and it works well. Once you expose the surface by mowing, it also encourages other weeds. I spray for broad leaves with Dicamba after, because it has a longer residual. Then the native grasses continue to grow from June on.”

Mowing the plot early in the season to hinder cool season weeds has been generally effective for Dawson. Sometimes he has it mowed more than once in the narrow window of spring. If broadleaf wildflowers are interspersed among native grasses as in the entrance area plots, another plan is necessary. Dawson has tried other chemicals, but the cost, side effects, and desire to minimize chemical usage causes him to return to mowing as a main weed defense. As for adding wildflowers to the plots, he plans to put them in areas of the entrance pollinator plots in coming springs.

“We’ll probably grow our own bedding plants from little plugs at the shop just like some greenhouses do,” Dawson said. “It’s cheaper than buying starter plants. Planting wildflowers in specific areas of the plots will be easier to manage.”

“We’d like to highlight the edges with wildflowers first,” Bertsch said. They’re both concerned about mare’s tail and other weeds in the seedbed that have posed challenges to the plots in the past.

“We plan to burn the plots next spring,” Bertsch said. “This will help stimulate native grass growth and promote wildflower growth from the seed that is in the ground.”

Native grasses now in the pollinator plots are no taller than the mid-height little bluestem, or the shorter sideoats gramma-Pierre, blue gramma and prairie dropseed. Moderate height wildflowers, like those Stewart Elementary students helped seed four years ago, would include black-eyed Susans, blanket flower, aster, coreopsis, prairie coneflower, purple prairie clover, blazingstar, western yarrow and white prairie clover. These native plants are selected so that parts of the plots would be in bloom from April to October.

“It will probably take three to five years more to get it to where we like it, but we’ll stay with it,” Dawson said.

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Other Native Grass Projects

In the meantime, Bertsch and Dawson apply what they have learned about native plants in other areas of the park. Three-plus acres of native grass is being established at the end of Gavins Point Road and near the multi-use trail. Weeds were removed and soil was kept black for a season before a sodbuster cover crop of turnips and radishes were seeded. Now the native grass mixture receives the early spring mowing maintenance for cool season weeds that Dawson says will always be there.

“I grew five or six different varieties of native grasses last summer at the shop,” Dawson said. He installed them in a small area of shoreline between the mowed bank and rip rap in a strip a few inches to a few feet wide. This strip is below where mowers go.

“The grasses would look nice along the shoreline,” Bertsch said. “We’re fighting erosion and it would save money in the long run. It will look attractive from the water and the shore.”

 “Next year I’d like to grow more native grasses to put along the shoreline and to put in grass plots in the median as you enter the park,” Dawson said. The entrance sign has grasses and some boulders are in the median down to the entrance booth.

“I like different grasses and think it would be interesting to visitors. First impressions set the tone for the campground. My goal is to make the park look more natural,” he said.

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A Little Help From Friends

Projects like pollinator plots and native grass installations are above and beyond the regular seasonal grounds work that Dawson leads. He and his co-workers will additionally be removing forty-four ash trees this fall ahead of the predicted ash borer infestation. He plans to install fifty trees next spring. Dawson’s vitality to make the park look natural and use his landscaping skills have been recognized by the South Dakota Division of Parks and Recreation. He received an appreciation award for his exceptional work at Lewis & Clark Recreation Area during the past 12 years. Dale and Shane Bertsch were also named in a teamwork award for their responses to weather disasters that occurred this season.

“Dale has mentioned that he’d like to get a volunteer group to help work on a plant project,” Bertsch said. “Past projects have been led by Master Gardeners Kim Brannen and Janice Weiss. We have about two miles of shoreline for the grass erosion project or entrance median project or landscaping at the Welcome Center. ‘Fall in the Park ‘activities will be next September. These projects are icing on the cake. We welcome ideas. Anytime we get a comment card with a suggestion, we look at it to see if we can make it happen. We want to continue to improve the park.” If you are interested in volunteering at the park call (605) 668-2985.

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