Mowing Meadows for Wildlife

An afternoon at the Tapley Farm in Brooksville explores how mowing practices can support wildlife in Maine’s meadows.

The old plow greets visitors to the Tapley Farm in Brooksville, Maine

The Tapley family was influential on Maine’s early maritime industry. Their deep water wharf overlooks Castine, maintaining ties to the sea, and the land continues to be tended by the descendants of these early settlers. Currently maintained by the Gregor family, the site is used for creative engagements facilitated by the Tent Project, and serves as grounds for community engagement through cultivating food that is given away to the local community via the Magic Food Bus. A large part of their intention with tending the meadow landscape is to support local wildlife. The Open Air Arts Initiative hosted this event to explore ways we may challenge disruptive and misunderstood mowing practices to educate on how to maintain meadows to support wildlife.

A view of Castine across the rolling meadows at the Tapley Farm & the Bagaduce

The Nursery Garden:
Increasing plant diversity

We began the afternoon gathered in Carol Gregor’s garden. Keeping gardens near to our own habitations encourages us to consider ‘home’ as spaces that include outdoor spaces as we provide nourishment and shelter for pollinators. In consideration of the history of the site, we spoke of plants that arrived by sea in the early colonial medicine chests and how some of these plants have become a naturalized part of our landscape. After acknowledging this land as summer grounds traditionally used by the Penobscot, we spoke of connecting with our own heritage to develop a regard for the relationship to plants considered sacred by our ancestors. We invited participants to observe both native and naturalized plants without judgement, in order to recognize relationships within the landscape, both native populations and those who have arrived ‘from away’. One difference in our contemporary relationship with these 2 groupings of plants is that we may feel free to harvest the naturalized plants without worrying about disturbing the rhythm of the local landscape. As conservationists look more to indigenous populations for guidance, it is important to recognize that while we may learn from their approaches of tending this landscape, it is not really our place to mis-aproppriate their cultures. Instead, we are advised to rediscover our own sacred ancestral relationships with the land and the ecologic communities that inhabit it. We all contain these histories but some of us are more severed from our past than others. Learning about the uses of plants brought here from Europe by early settlers opens pathways of connections to our ancestral relationships with plants considered important enough to be included in their medicine chests and larders.

Having said that, we also recognize that native plants have co-evolved with insect, bird and mammal populations so that local wildlife is in sync with the rhythms expressed by plants that were here before the arrival of Europeans. When we think about increasing the diversity of meadows we tend, we focus on cultivating native plants to augment plant diversity found in larger meadow spaces. Because of the density of plants found in Maine, it is nearly impossible for seeds to take hold if simply scattered into a mature field. Native plants need open ground to become established and often take two to three years to fully mature. Some need extra tending so they may flourish. By adding small patches of native plants to the gardens we tend close to home, we can keep an eye on them and allow them the space to thrive. Direct sowing avoids the use of plastic pots associated with nurseries and allows the plants to adjust the soil into which they will be placed from the getgo. As they establish themselves and start to outgrow the small spaces of a cottage garden, then it is time to transplant the larger plants to the field, where they may take hold with mature root systems and start populating meadows with a more diverse range of flora. In Carol’s garden, we see native roses, milkweeds and New England asters growing alongside oregano, lavender and cosmos, all of them happily feeding the scourge of buzzing pollinators.

Entering the cottage garden, Hollyhocks grow with lavender, lilies and early season asters.
A conversation on diversification was held in Carol’s cottage garden.
Swamp milkweed growing with Cosmos

Meadow Walk
Observation & Relationships

On the walk through the meadow to the site of Carol’s labyrinth, we take a slow approach to observe what is already growing in the meadow. We talk about plant communities and paying attention to what grows well together. Scale is an important consideration as we think about how to cultivate a community of native plants within our own tended spaces. Roses grow well with blueberries, and are layered in with mosses and rushes. flowers, berries, and bunching stems providing nourishment for pollinators, birds and shelter for both. It is vital to let all of these plants grow to maturity through the extended season to promote habitat for local wildlife. If we sever the landscape in the middle of summer, we take away the flowers feeding the pollinators, which in turn takes away food for insect loving birds. It severs the capacity for wildflowers to mature into seeds, taking food away from migratory birds and forage for winter resident bird and mammal populations. Meadow nesting birds are increasingly some of the most endangered species in the area because their homes are destroyed and they cannot reproduce.

Why do people mow mid summer?
Because it is easier for the mowing COMPANY to get through the field. Waiting until November or April increases the risk of the soil being too sodden, or the grasses laying down like a mat. However, to maintain open space we only have to mow every two to three years. So if a season presents too difficult a task to mow, it’s fine to wait another 6 months to a year or more to mow the area. Often meadow stewards will alternate mowed areas so that the plants have a couple of years to mature, regenerate and the next generation grow out before being cut.

Observation allows for consideration on how to shape layers into the perimeters of the meadow. If we do NOT mow, the meadow will return to forest. In thinking of transitions into the surrounding forests, we may encourage a diverse range of woody plants like native viburnums and dogwoods to fill in along the sides to soften edges of meadows. These berry producing plants provide essential food for migrating birds and act as windbreaks and pollen sources for early season insect forage. These bushes will spread easily into a meadow, so it is important to maintain consistent mowing along the perimeter of the woody shrub layer to prevent this from happening and to maintain open space.

Paths mown through a meadow allow access to enjoy the open spaces. These paths may be shifted from year to year to change the rhythm of the ways we walk through the meadow.
Native lowbush blueberries dominate the wet meadow ecosytem
Blueberries are enjoyed by kids and birds alike
There is a saying that if you have ‘perfect’ looking flowers in your garden, then it is not serving a role in the surrounding ecosystem
Edges are maintained by keeping the periphery of shrubby plants consistently mowed. Where we may shift some paths to change access paths, some paths should be consistently mowed to keep the edges defined and prevent the woody plants from growing into the meadow. There is a sort of sculpting of the living landscape that occurs with our decisions about which woody plants we encourage to grow in, and those we edit.
Trees will consistently try to grow in open ground in Maine. We mow to prevent the meadow from growing back into forest! We may find volunteers like this birch that we want to preserve as lone trees in the field, providing shade and shelter for a range of wildlife.
Spirea and rushes thrive in the drainage. Ditches are hard to mow, so are an ideal place for these kinds of shrubs to grow. The mature shrubs then define the path of the water.
Swamp candles are indicative of the wet meadow ecosystem
Walkers end up on the other side of the meadow to learn about intentions set by the Gregors to install a public access labyrinth along the far road in their meadow.

Labyrinth:
Intention & the Creative Process