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How to burn a native plant garden for healthy growth

Matthew Grocoff

April 7, 2016

By: Matthew Grocoff, Green Renovation Expert

In: Landscaping and PoolsGreen Living

For millions of years, before the arrival of humans, many regions thrived on natural burn cycles. Plants and trees adapted to these periodic burns that helped maintain diversity and eliminate invading species.

Today, prescribed burns can be an effective management strategy for restoring and maintaining native prairies, forests, and gardens. With the rise in popularity of native restoration for private residences, many communities are allowing and even encouraging the use of the controlled burn.

Conducting a burn at your own home should be taken very seriously. Do your research. Know your local codes. Know the appropriate weather and season for burning. And know whether your region and plantings are appropriate for burns. When done correctly, prescribed burns can help control invasive species and encourage healthy, sustainable habitat for you and many other native critters. It's a great tool to help your home return more ecosystem services than it takes from your neighborhood.

When it comes to fire, it's best to hire a professionally. However, prescribed burns are simple and when you take precautions, it is an easy DIY project. Just remember to put safety first.

Controlled burn for healthy plants

  1. Permit: Before you start, call your local fire department and ask about local burn permitting. File the permit and understand its requirements. Once you receive a permit you'll need to wait for ideal weather conditions to burn. You will likely need to submit a Burn Plan outlining your understanding of the process and specific hazards for your project.
  2. Weather: According to Tall Grass Restoration, Inc, "appropriate conditions include atmospheric conditions and time, which limits the scheduling of a burn to no more than one day in advance. Conditions that are checked to determine optimal burn weather include: Temperature of 28-70 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity at 30-65%, chance of precipitation of 20% or less, and wind speed of 5-20mph with wind direction specific to the burn site. Additionally the Air Quality Index, Haines Index, Mixing Height, Ventilation Rate, Transport Winds and Direction, and Site Fuel Composition are also considered." Wait for good weather conditions then schedule your burn.
  3. Notify fire department and neighbors: The day of your burn, call the fire department and let them know that you are beginning your burn. Notify your neighbors that you are burning. You don't want to unnecessarily alarm anyone and they should know who to contact if smoke is becoming a disturbance. Be sure you are prepared to follow all the rules of your local authority.
  4. What you need: You need very few tools for small garden burns: a pair of gloves, a small amount of lighter fluid, a long BBQ lighter, and most importantly a garden hose with the water turned on.
  5. Wet hazard areas: Thoroughly wet anything that you do not want to burn. Garden fences, trees, guide wires from telephone poles, etc.
  6. Small amount of lighter fluid: Spread a small amount of lighter fluid on the downwind edge of the garden. You want the fire to burn into the wind and spread slowly in a controlled manner. Watch the video linked below for tips.
  7. After the burn: You can expect to burn 1000 sf in about a half an hour. When your burn is complete, check for hot spots and do not leave the area until you are confident all fire is out. Call your fire department to let them know the burn was successfully completed. Tall Grass Restoration says that "in most cases, not all of the vegetation or leaf litter will be consumed or knocked down by the fire. This is perfectly normal and is beneficial for protecting insects, such as butterfly eggs, that cannot escape the fire."

Want to see how it's done? You can check out my tips on how to burn a native prairie garden.

With safety in mind, you should have a healthier garden in no time!

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