Mowing the Meadow

By Anita Sanchez

An arbore­tum is all about trees. Arbor” means tree”(as in Arbor Day), and there’s no place like the George Lan­dis Arbore­tum to see beau­ti­ful trees. But there’s anoth­er type of plant at Lan­dis. It’s so hum­ble and so low-key that we often don’t notice it. In fact, we lit­er­al­ly walk all over it. Grass, I mean.

Unlike most plants, grass grows from the bot­tom, up and out­wards. So a deer graz­ing or a mow­er mow­ing doesn’t kill the grass as it would a tree seedling. Indeed, mow­ing stim­u­lates grass to grow faster. If you hate yard work, you may decide to trim the grass real­ly short, so that more time will elapse until the next cut­ting. But it does­n’t work that way. Grass­es have an auto­mat­ic response to dis­as­ter. Usu­al­ly grass grows at a slow rate, build­ing up nutri­tion in the roots before invest­ing ener­gy in cre­at­ing seeds. When dis­as­ter (read: mow­er) strikes, the plant aban­dons its casu­al growth rate and invests all its efforts in a do-or-die sprint to get its genes into the gene pool. So after a mow­ing, grass grows faster than ever.

But mow­ing is some­times a good thing. The Arbore­tum has nice green lawns and beau­ti­ful mead­ows filled with grass­es, but­ter­flies and flow­ers. Some­times they get mowed. While it may seem appalling to mow a field of wild­flow­ers, a mead­ow doesn’t stay a mead­ow for­ev­er. Shrubs move in, then tree seedlings, and after a few decades, the mead­ow has become a forest.

What could be bet­ter than a deep, dark for­est? For oaks, wood ferns, and red-eyed vire­os, noth­ing. A for­est is the habi­tat they need. But a monarch but­ter­fly or a blue­bird could not sur­vive there as they need open mead­ows with sun. So do a host of oth­er species, includ­ing bobolinks, field spar­rows, marsh hawks, New Eng­land asters. daisies, and gold­en­rod. How­ev­er if done too often, mow­ing reduces diver­si­ty. Mow­ing a wild­flower pas­ture three times a month kills the flow­ers and shrubs. The grass­es would sur­vive though, basi­cal­ly cre­at­ing a lawn. But mow­ing every few years lets nature cre­ate a new gar­den tapestry.

It’s best to mow the field in late fall about every five years. While mow­ing does cause some dis­rup­tion, this sea­son is when it will have the least impact. The wild­flow­ers have gone to seed, and the seeds have dis­persed. The birds are done nest­ing, and most of the but­ter­flies have moved along. Mow­ing before win­ter also leaves a few weeks for the plants to sprout back a bit, pro­vid­ing win­ter cov­er for rab­bits, mice, and birds.

Think of a mead­ow as an organ­ic wild­flower farm. It’s very low main­te­nance. All you have to do is mow it in late fall, then stand back and enjoy the show.

Fall 2016

Volume 34 , Number 4

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