Looking over our Across-the-Creek field at Heart & Sole Gardens, it was obvious there was much work to be done before seed potatoes could thrive there. Johnson grass, my arch nemesis weed, took advantage of the space, fallow for two years, and grew with abandon, leaving tall dried stalks and a jungle of underground tuberous roots. Other weeds joined the party when our backs were turned, making it difficult to find the defining edges where we planted a few years ago. After the Ford 3000 tractor protested, straining to churn the mass of weeds, Richard turned to me and said, “There is only one thing to do.”
Beginning a prescribed burn
I saw the sparkle in his eyes when he drove away, returning a short time later with an official document. He retrieved two rakes and a handheld lighter from the truck. Handing one rake to me, he gave me instructions.
“We need to work slowly,” he began. “The breeze is light, but wind can change quickly. We need to establish a perimeter and a first burn, then work to send the fire toward areas that are burned. Fire needs fuel and when it reaches the burned areas, it will die. Your job is to keep it contained on one side, while I do the same on the other.”
With a degree in Forest Management, Richard’s first employment was with the US Forest Service and part of his job duties included fighting wildfires, both in North Carolina and Western states. For our farm task, I was thankful for his training.
Richard drags a line of fire
When Richard touched the lighter’s flame to dry grass, bright orange flames consumed clumps, racing along the ground. To move the fire across the field, a distance of about sixty feet, Richard dipped his rake into the flames, spearing burning grass and dragging it along the ground, creating a line of fire that appeared almost liquid as it spread. With a fire line established, we worked both sides, stamping out flames that threatened to engulf green grass beyond the planting area. Working with the light breeze, we guided the fire toward blackened ground and when the wind changed abruptly, my face felt intense heat and I worked faster to prevent the fire from jumping our boundaries and racing, unchecked, toward fruit trees and pasture that bordered a state highway. Apparently, we provided entertainment for passersby, who honked horns, shouted to us and waved arms from open windows. Intent on work, we ignored them.
Two fires rush to meet
When most of the field was burned, Richard moved to the far edge, approximately two hundred and twenty-five feet from the initial line, and set a second fire. With both sides contained, we watched as the fires converged, sparks flying as flames met, but quickly dying, just as Richard predicted. Gentle rain began to fall, settling ashes that will provide soil nutrients for our potato crop.
After burning, the field is easier to manage for planting
Prescribed, or controlled burning is a practice used by Native American and other agrarian societies for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. In addition to enriching soil, a prescribed burn reduces weed seeds, insect pests and efficiently clears weeds, allowing sunlight to reach and warm soil for earlier planting. Faster and less expensive than other field-clearing methods, prescribed burning requires planning and should only be used by people who are experienced. Before beginning a prescribed burn, be sure to check with local authorities to obtain a permit.