A Hamilton couple lit a prairie on fire to help wildflowers thrive

Under clear blue skies last week, Kathy and Troy Schwable were setting a prairie on fire in the Riverside Natural Area to help native wildflowers thrive there.

“We do the burns to get rid of all the invasive species — or to do our best to get rid of the invasive species,” said Kathy Schwable. “It allows more room and more nutrition for the native plants.

“Many of the plants aren’t harmed by the fire, because their root systems are so deep, that actually, they thrive on the fire. There’s more nutrition to go back to the soil, so it actually perks them up. That’s why we do the burns.”

The fire burns away most of the plants that aren’t supposed to be in a southwest Ohio prairie.

Ideally, such fires should happen every three years. The Hamilton Conservation Corps, which the Schwables founded, manages the Riverside Natural Area, which they created from a wasteland that used to be a sewage-plant bi-products disposal area along the Great Miami River in the Lindenwald neighborhood.

The pair, named Hamilton’s Volunteers of the Year in 2018, is looking forward to this spring and fall, when the prairie will be ablaze with wildflower color. The area burned last week is what they call Field 1, near Fairview Avenue and River Road, where about five acres were planted.

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“This will be our third year since we planted there, and it takes two or three years for the native prairie plants to really start blooming,” she said.

They had planted a prairie mix with seeds for blackeyed susans, red-rocket clover, milkweed and other plants native to Ohio that were purchased using federal grant money. The seeds cost about $1,000 per acre.

With red-rocket clovers, “the bloom is about an inch-and-a-half long, and it looks like a red pepper coming off the end of it,” she said.

“The first year, you don’t see any blooms at all,” she said. “You look at it and you’re sad. Like, ‘Oh my God, I did all this work and spent all this money, and I’ve got nothin’.’ The second year, you see a little more, and by the third year, you’re supposed to see a lot more blooms. That’s this year, so we’re hoping.”

The reason it takes so long for the prairie plants to start blooming is because “they put all of their energy into growing a strong root system. They don’t put any energy into being pretty,” she said.

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For a burn to happen correctly, humidity has to be between 45 and 50 percent, she said. They use a mixture of three fuels and a “drip torch” to ignite fields, after foot-wide burn lines have been created that stop the flames from spreading beyond designated areas. Troy Schwable, a former city firefighter, had special training on the techniques.

One rugged plant called “teasle,” which looks like dried-out, crackly thistle, doesn’t burn. In a week or so, they’ll go through with a bush hog and cut those down.

Meanwhile, the nature center they and other volunteers completely redeveloped nearby in Joyce Park, the former Joe Nuxhall driving-range building, has become a meeting place for several boards, and school groups are starting to book times there to learn about nature.

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“It’s starting to get a little traction,” she said.

The couple hope it becomes an active nature learning center not only for children and adults alike.

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