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Revitalizing Riparian Buffer Zones: Planting Warm Season Native Grasses

In this post, we will explore the process of planting native warm season native grasses when in the development of riparian buffers along streams.

Riparian buffers are critical zones of vegetation located along the banks of rivers, streams, and other water bodies. They serve as a transition zone between aquatic ecosystems and adjacent upland areas. These buffers provide a wide range of benefits, such as filtering pollutants, stabilizing stream banks, improving water quality, and providing habitat for diverse wildlife. By planting warm season grasses native to Western North Carolina in these buffers, we can significantly enhance their effectiveness and ecological value.

When planning riparian buffer projects, It is not always feasible to include a diverse range of vegetation like grasses, shrubs, and trees in a riparian buffer’s design. There may be specific circumstances that prevent it. For instance, we're currently working on two Shade Your Stream projects located under power lines where the electric company has easements to ensure uninterrupted power supply to our county. As a stakeholder, they have set requirements for vegetation height in their right of ways under the lines, limiting it to a maximum of 3 feet. In such situations, native warm season grasses can play a crucial role in providing an effective solution.

Many of our native grasses, especially the taller ones such as Panic Grass or Big Blue Stem , have deep root systems that are highly effective as helpers in soil stabilization

Key notes to keep in mind when establishing native warm season grasses in riparian buffers

1.) Selecting Suitable Warm Season Grasses:

When choosing warm season grass species for riparian buffers, it is crucial to prioritize native species. Native grasses are adapted to local environmental conditions and have co-evolved with native wildlife, making them resilient and well-suited to the region. Some examples of warm season grasses commonly found in Western North Carolina include big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

2.) Site Assessment and Preparation:

Before beginning the planting process, conducting a thorough site assessment is essential. Factors to consider include soil type, drainage patterns, sunlight availability, and existing vegetation. Understanding these variables will help determine the appropriate grass species, spacing, and planting techniques. Clearing the site of invasive plants, if necessary, is crucial to provide the warm season grasses with the best possible start.

3.) Seed Collection and Sourcing:

To ensure the use of locally adapted genetic material, consider collecting seeds from nearby native warm season grass populations. This practice helps preserve the genetic diversity of the local ecosystem and promotes the long-term success of the planted grasses. If seed collection is not feasible, consult reputable native plant nurseries or local conservation organizations to source high-quality seeds or seedlings.

4.) Planting Techniques:

When is the best time to sow these native warm season grasses? Right now! At the junction of late spring and early summer. When planting warm season grasses, several techniques can be employed, including direct seeding, transplanting seedlings, or a combination of both. Direct seeding involves distributing seeds evenly across the prepared site, ensuring adequate soil contact for germination. Transplanting seedling plugs is an alternative approach that offers quicker establishment and higher survival rates. Whichever method you choose, follow recommended spacing guidelines to allow each plant sufficient room to grow and thrive. Coir matting and straw waddles can be used to secure plants and exposed soil prior to root mass development.

5.) Post-Planting Care and Maintenance:

Once the warm season grasses are planted, ongoing care and maintenance are crucial for their success. For the first year, depending on site preparation and already present species, watering may be necessary during dry periods, regular weeding, and monitoring for pests will ensure your riparian buffer has an excellent platform to grow into. It is important to allow the grasses to establish their root systems before mowing or grazing to avoid damage.

Planting warm season native grasses is a valuable investment in the health of our waterways and the preservation of local ecosystems. By working with programs like Shade Your Stream, we contribute to cleaner water, improved wildlife habitats, increased biodiversity. At Mountain Valleys RC&D, we believe that every individual can contribute to the conservation of our natural resources. Whether you have a small backyard or extensive farmland, there are opportunities to make a difference. Planting warm season grasses for riparian buffers is just one example of how we can all play a part in preserving and restoring the delicate balance of Western North Carolina's ecosystems.

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