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Science of Growing Wild at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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The latest winter snow has thawed to reveal golden wisps of dormant grass blowing gently in the meadow called Cades Cove.  While horses still graze on other fields nearby, much of the grasslands lay unused except by the wildest of creatures.  Small mammals like rabbits and fowl such as quail can more likely find a place to hide from their predators when they have native clumps of grass like broomsedge in their natural habitat.  Yet, fescue has claimed most of the land, choking out several types of native grasses.  The process of returning the Cove, part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to a more natural state, is dependent on work unseen by most park visitors.  Park staff are studying the science of growing wild, restoring native plants.

Before embarking on the famous Cades Cove loop that encircles acres of meadows and woodlands at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, I met National Park Service biologist and greenhouse manager, Cherie Cordell.  She was tending to thousands of fledgling grass plugs that have been growing in the Park Service greenhouse through the winter.  She was also orienting a new volunteer to help with the tedious work.

The greenhouse extends the nursery growing season for big bluestem and little bluestem native grasses, which thrive outdoors in the hot summer months.  Cordell and her crew plant and tend the seeds, growing them into plugs that can be planted outdoors using a no-till method.  “In the spring we plant it out using a tobacco setter out in Cades Cove.”  The greenhouse staff coordinates with vegetation managers to grow row after row of bluestem in the Cove.  Then more seed is harvested to be spread throughout other parts of the Cove and Foothills Parkway.  GSMNP has successfully restored about 20 acres to native grassland so far.

While the Cove and outdoor crews wait for spring, the greenhouse stays busy.  Hundreds of seeds at a time are planted in a germinating mix.  An automatic irrigation system mists the seeds with water, heating coils keep the temperature around 70 degrees, and monitors maintain 54-percent humidity.

Cordell or her volunteers transfer each bit of sprouting grass into a larger container, where the grass will fill the space to become a round plug.  This is the first winter for the greenhouse work since a windstorm knocked down the facility in late 2009;  last year was a time for rebuilding.

Loujuana Carter has enjoyed gardening for many years.  When she heard about the greenhouse project, she wanted to help.  Cordell is appreciative of volunteers with green thumbs like Carter who are willing to spend time transplanting and tending seedlings.

The greenhouse has been used since 2002 as part of the larger restoration project that began in the late 1990s.  That’s when leases expired with ranchers whose cattle had been allowed to graze Cades Cove. The Park Service itself had planted the exotic, European fescue back in the 1960s.  Many visitors enjoyed seeing the smooth, rolling fields of green.  Trouble is, all that fescue choked out several native plants like bluestem, gamma and Indian grass.

Cordell explains that management of the grasslands even includes controlled burns, “The native grasses are bunch forming grasses and the fescue is more of a creeping type grass and so it can out-compete the natives.  And so by doing fire we’re able to knock the fescue back and allow the natives to establish in these clump forms.”  Reestablished native grasses make more inviting habitat for the creatures meant to live in Cades Cove.  When they thrive, the grassy bunches can stretch six to eight feet tall.

You can learn more about restoration of native grasslands at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website.


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