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.