In anticipation of the upcoming Earth Day (April 22, 2010), Jan over at Thanks for Today is asking her fellow garden bloggers to post about what they’re doing to contribute to a sustainable lifestyle, as part of her Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living Project. Her request gave me the incentive I needed to work on a post I’ve been thinking about for the last several weeks: the whole “joy of the meadow” thing.
When I moved here, Hayefield literally was a hayfield, separated from the rest of my parents’ farm by intersecting roads. I remember it being in corn for many years, but eventually it stopped producing well and the person who was doing the farming turned it to mixed-grass hay production and mowed it once a year, around early July.
Honestly, I had mixed feelings about building a house here: I really wanted to live on the farm and have enough room to garden for the rest of my life, but I felt guilty at being one of those people who build a new house on undisturbed land instead of buying an existing home. My compromise was determining that I would try to create a homestead that was even more ecologically healthy than it was before, with plenty of wildlife habitat that wouldn’t be disturbed by summer mowing, and with no use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Even though this part of Pennsylvania is relatively rural, the typical 2- to 5-acre residential lots around here are almost exclusively mowed as turf, so it didn’t take long for the comments to start once I stopped mowing the upper half (around 2 acres) the year the house was done. “Aren’t you gonna cut that for hay?” “You gonna let that just go to weeds, then?” Sigh. I finally registered the property with the National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program (now known as the Certified Wildlife Habitat Program) to get the spiffy explanatory sign, and then registered with Audubon Pennsylvania’s Bird Habitat Recognition Program and with Monarch Watch’s Monarch Waystation Registry too.
I’ve seen passersby pause to read the various signs, and the comments have pretty much stopped (or at least, I generally don’t hear them), so I guess the signs are working.
The first few years, I had a great time watching the changes in the meadow through the seasons and over time, as the summer- and fall-blooming grasses and wildflowers that had previously been cut every July finally had a chance to fill out and flower and spread. (I’ve written about these in more detail in Asclepias Season and Summer Wildflowers in PA.)
I decided to allow the native Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) seedlings to come up as they wished in certain areas, and the seedlings of other native trees and shrubs too, such as sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).
It was neat to walk through the area to hunt for native wildflowers, like ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera), and to see the plants and wildlife up close.
It was, uh, “interesting” to find surprises too…
…like the occasional dead deer…
I’ve enjoyed experimenting with mowing the walking paths. For a few years, I used a labyrinth pattern and set a bench in the center. It was a fairly intricate pattern that took about 10 minutes to walk, so having a place to sit for a spell before the return trip was a nice reward.
More recently, I’ve been using a grid pattern, based on the pattern used at the French garden Le Plume (I’ve blogged about it before, in A Nod to Le Plume).
I had a somewhat different situation on my sand mound, which is essentially a raised drainage field for the septic tank. (That’s a common thing for newer construction around here, where the topsoil is too shallow or – as in my case – the seasonal water table is too high for a typical in-ground leach field.) Faced with a quite large, sloping-sided, 4-foot-tall, rectangular mound, I contacted Gary Campbell of Campbell Natural Landscape Design, a local designer who specializes in ecological landscaping, and he came up with a custom mix of grasses and forbs that could tolerate the gravelly, exposed site.
That area had been left with bare soil after construction, giving me the experience of starting a meadow from seed based on Gary’s list. It was a lot of work, but it was rewarding to see the changes there too, as the shorter-lived plants like black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) gradually faded out and longer-lived residents such as stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida), wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) took over.
So, for the first 6 years or so, all was percolating along just fine, and was thinking the whole meadow thing was pretty cool. All I did was cut the whole meadow (except the trees) to about 4 inches with my trusty brush mower each year in mid-winter to early spring. (If you’re interested in more details, check out Meadow Mowing Time.)
And in return for a total of about 8 hours of mowing a year, and no other maintenance, I got to have the pleasure of seeing and providing habitat for cool plants and wildlife.
More recently, though, I’ve been getting a little discouraged by the whole thing. Part of it is due to the continual fight with the invasive exotics. The brush mower gets most of the multiflora rose, but the stumps sprout again every year despite the plants being weakened and deformed by rose rosette disease.
And, now, the rose has come up with a new tactic: it sprouts right at the base of the cedars and grows up along their trunk, then sends out its thorn-laden shoots right around face level. It’s not so much of a problem when I’m just walking and on the lookout – I never go out to the meadow without at least hand pruners anymore – but a nasty experience when I’m mowing and looking down to avoid trampling interesting-looking seedlings.
Another disappointment is finding out that quite a few of the seedling shrubs and trees I was leaving have turned out to be bad stuff, like Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).
So now, I have those to cut down as well.
Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), which once stayed as a climber in the hedgerow along the back property line, has crept out a good 10 to 15 feet into the meadow as a ground cover, and trying to walk through there without tripping on the vines is a nightmare.
On the sand mound, Canada thistle crept in. Not wanting to use herbicide, I tried to keep it in check by hand-pulling, but it got away from me. Finally, I’ve had to resort to summer-mowing parts of the mound to keep the thistle from seeding, and in the process, I’m also having to mow down the baptisias, butterfly weeds, and other beauties too.
In areas where the plants used to be somewhat thin, Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum) – the reddish haze in the photo below – has seeded in over the past few years.
It’s amazing how fast this annual stuff spreads. And when it dies in late fall, it forms a dense thatch. Sturdy perennials seem to be able to sprout up through it, but more delicate stuff seems to have gotten smothered out. And what’s worse, it provides perfect winter cover for meadow voles (a.k.a. meadow mice). Their populations have exploded despite frequent hunting by neighborhood hawks and cats, and this winter, thanks to the dense cover of dead grasses, the voles nested everywhere and feasted heartily on the bark of young trees and shrubs and the crowns of many perennials and grasses.
Now, that’s not totally a bad thing: the feeding seems to help rejuvenate some of the grasses with dense crowns (much as dividing would do in the garden); plus, the voles destroyed some of the multiflora roses and other woody invasives. But their feeding also destroyed many of the woody natives that I was nurturing out in the meadow, which is very disappointing.
Recently, I looked into control measures for these menaces, but even with all of the destruction, I simply can’t face resorting to poisons, so my best bet seems to be removing as much of the dead grass as I can, so they won’t have as many places to hide.
It took me about 12 hours of using a detaching rake – which is bloody hard work, I can tell you – to do just the sand mound and then shift all of the raked-up debris into the hedgerow. (The photo above shows the raked area on the right and the still-chaffy surface on the left.)
I spent about the same amount of time raking around my special trees in The Shrubbery, where I had decided to stop mowing regularly a few years ago in the spirit of further sustainability. I guess I’ll have to do that again this fall, and who knows how often again in the future, in hopes of minimizing further vole damage.
Hand-raking isn’t a reasonable strategy for the other few acres, and burning to remove the dead grass isn’t an option either, so I still don’t know how I’m going to deal with the voles there without resorting to poison.
I think the final blow was seeing a popular new meadow book dismiss projects like mine as merely “non-native pastures,” which apparently “can be managed to make beautiful meadows” if all of the woody plants are removed, accompanied by a photo of my own cedar-dotted meadow (not the image below, but one taken in the same general area) used basically as an example of what not to do.
Apparently, those of us who want proper meadows would be best off using multiple applications of herbicide to start with a blank slate, then hiring a landscape contractor to plant the thousands of plugs we’ve acquired through a supplier who did the contract growing for us. Well, sorry – as much as I like to support the nursery industry, I’m not independently wealthy, so it would probably be cheaper for me to simply mow my whole meadow (excuse me, “pasture”) every week or two and treat it like a lawn. And oh, apparently we’re supposed to fertilize our meadow at least once, too, and water it once a week. Geez, I don’t even do that for my garden.
Hmmm. So, maybe what I call meadow isn’t up to the standards of a true meadow expert, or aesthetically pleasing enough to be photographed as an example of how beautiful a northeast pasture/meadow can be.
But you know, I can’t help but think that my own little patch of the planet – weeds, voles, and all – is more diverse and habitat-rich than it was before I got here, and that’s enough to make me proud of the changes and choice I’ve made to get it this way.
If you’d like to share your own strategies for sustainable living, or if you’d like to read about other bloggers’ adventures, check out the links here at Thanks for Today.
Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra at Hayefield