To burn or or not to burn is the question many native plant gardeners ask themselves in spring, at least in my prairie/savanna region. I'm not sure about other, non-prairie parts of the country, but here our natives' adaptive evolution has included adaptation to fire. For that reason some prairie grasses and forbs have roots that go down twenty or thirty or even forty feet. It's amazing to me to imagine roots growing down as far as my two story house is tall, searching out nutrients and bringing them to the surface, helping the plant survive frosty winters, droughty summers--and fire. In savannas, Bur oaks have thick, corky bark that helps them survive. Fallen oak leaves form a carpet that burns well without flaring up as some other leaves do. After a fire, especially in spring, it is amazing how fast the area greens up. Fire revitalizes the landscape.
Prairie fires are the stuff of legend. Lightning strikes cause some, Native Americans historically set others. When a big one got going it was a fearsome thing to animals and humans alike. In the 19th century the Prince of Wales once visited Illinois for the shooting, and hoped he might view a prairie fire, which he did. Illinois forest preserve districts now use fire much as the Native Americans did to reinvigorate natural areas, and to help keep invasive species at bay. According to the April 2010 Habitat Herald, last fall crews in six Chicago-area forest preserve districts burned almost 4,000 acres of natural landscape. This spring the controlled burns continue, and one can sometimes see plumes of smoke when driving local expressways. Last spring was too rainy, but this spring, fine and dry as it's been, has been ideal for burning. Dave from Osage + Orange took this picture of a prairie remnant our restoration group is managing, shortly after a recent controlled burn.
I've never burned my natives--confined space, mixed with non-natives--but know people who do, even areas as small as ten feet square. If you've left the dry grasses and forbs standing, they burn quickly, so the whole process might take ten minutes, quick enough that the neighbors might not even realize you've done it. What I do is leave everything native standing all winter and then chop it down in spring. Some of what's chopped gets scattered around the plants to the delight of local birds who view the area as a sort of building supply store. The rest goes into the compost pile, by this time unfrozen and starting to function again.
Every year I get a little closer to burning, though. The other week I went to Trailside Nature Museum in River Forest, where Irene Flebbe and an assistant were burning the small native gardens that front the building and make the entry patio a pleasant place in summer. Irene, who's certified to burn by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, was attired in a bright yellow burn suit, which looks and feels like cotton, but retards fire. She and her assistant had equipment that included a garden dragon (a small, specially curved propane torch), a hose, a pusher that looked like a thick heavy rake, and a flapper (used to beat out stray sparks or small blazes).
Irene mentioned that the weather was perfect for burning: warm, sunny, and most important, fairly still. As she worked, she explained her method to me and a group of fascinated children. First she thoroughly doused the perimeter of each area with water from the hose. Then she used the garden dragon to set fire across the garden so it would burn traveling into the wind (called a back fire). The fire traveled quickly along the ground, as the oak leaves burned steadily and the stalks flared up briefly. Each area took about five or ten minutes. Only a strip along a path required the assistant to use the pusher to bunch the oak leaves so the fire wouldn't travel further than necessary, and the heavy rubber flapper wasn't needed at all. What was left was a thin layer of ash that will add nutrients to the soil. By now, the gardens are already greening up, and the casual visitor would never know there has been a tiny conflagration.