Indian grass, big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, side-oats grama – Hiram College’s James H. Barrow Biological Field Station is alive with prairie grass. Field station steward Emliss Ricks has inspired a following of fellow environment enthusiasts to transform about 30 acres of former farmland into mixed grasslands.
The recipient of the Ohio Biological Survey’s 2018 Ohio Naturalist Award, Ricks began the conservation effort in 2013 with late Hiram biology professor Matt Hils. Looking over the emerging grassland from HIls’ Vista, a hilltop parcel named in memory of his former colleague and friend, Ricks says he has a feeling Hils would be thrilled over the project’s progress.
“A year or so before Matt died, we started planting grass. We talked about creating a more diverse property so we could have native plants and nesting birds,” says Ricks, describing that the number of plantings grew from about 500 in 2013 to roughly 2,000 projected for this year. “Every year we get a little more ambitious.”
Ricks’ assemblage of about a dozen students, faculty and staff members, and alumni will gather later this week and twice more before summer’s end to plant freshly sprouted plugs. Hiram students and Ricks started the grass plugs under grow lights from seeds in late February.
Environmental studies major Zack Fox ’21 of Jackson Township says his experiences working with Ricks on the conservation program meld perfectly with his future aspirations. “I hope to go into habitat restoration as a career so to work with it now as an intern is really helpful,” he says.
With so much expanse to fill, Ricks developed a planting procedure based on a mosaic pattern. He marks out evenly spaced rectangular plots, which are tilled and planted with five varieties of native grasses and flowering plants such as prairie dock, purple coneflower and foxglove penstemon. As new seeds spread over time, Ricks expects that the gaps between the plots will begin to fill in with prairie grass. As the grasses grow, they are mowed and burned in a controlled fashion. Ricks explains that mowing and burning down high grasses replenish the soil with nutrients that nourish new growth.
While Ricks says only about 5 percent of the former farmland is now grassland, he is excited about the opportunities the project lends to not only wildlife, but to the students who are taking a direct role in species survival.
“Grasslands retain water and provide open space for different kinds of mammals. This is a hands-on learning experience for our students where they can actively see the fruits of their labor,” says Ricks. “A diverse community is a healthy community. We’re all part of the community. Wouldn’t we rather have a healthy one than an unhealthy one?