TALLGRASS PRAIRIE NATIONAL PRESERVE, CHASE COUNTY, KAN. | Our yards right now should look like this.
Before white people paddled up the Missouri River and into the Kaw, the landscape was covered with tall natural grasses equipped to survive the worst of droughts. The roots of big bluestem, switchgrass and Indiangrass reached as deep as 15 feet, tapping subsoil moisture even in long dry spells. And their leaves above ground were adept at absorbing a misting of rain.
“They’ll go dormant, but they won’t be totally killed off” by the Big Dry of 2012, said Wendy Lauritzen, superintendent of these 10,800 acres of native grasses near Strong City, Kan.
Bluegrass, fescue and other alien lawn grasses that dominate Kansas City area neighborhoods lack the deep root systems that make the natives — say, buffalo grass — tolerant of drought. Those non-native species and other plants brought in by regional ancestors will find their way into the preserve, only to struggle in summers too hot and dry (or when preserve officials schedule a prescribed burn).
Not exactly velvety, buffalo grass turns a dull yellow in the fall — in parts of Kansas this year, it’s already yellow — but rarely will it succumb to this kind of weather.
Last month federal and state dignitaries gathered here to dedicate a $6 million visitor center. Buffalo grass was to be sprouting from the flat roof of the new facility, whose construction costs were shared by the U.S. Park Service and Kansas Department of Transportation.
Then Strong City called on its residents to restrict water use. Watering lawns was discouraged, and the preserve obliged to the voluntary restrictions by not watering the roof.
The sprouts up there aren’t looking so good, and Lauritzen said crews may have to apply another layer of seeds.
Even buffalo grass, when it’s young, needs at least little water.
|Rick Montgomery, firstname.lastname@example.org