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

Accidental Migrants

ACCIDENTAL MIGRANTS

Maine’s forests were severed in the first wave of colonialism as European settlers reaped the rich resources of this land. Felled trees were first used to build ships, then were carried off to construct plantations through the Caribbean, laying in place colonial structures of systematized racism that persist today. Indigenous practices in both geographies are helping to heal the land, recognizing that non-human species are essential members of our communities.

Haitian-centered organizations effectively support re-wilding & Eco-cultural restoration:

The Lambi Fund of Haiti: www.lambifund.org

SAKALA: www.sakala-haiti.org/agronomy/

Sadhana Forest: www.sadhanaforest.org/haiti/

SOIL: www.oursoil.org

HUMMINGBIRD Habitat

Hummingbird Habitat

Northeastern native flowers loved by hummingbirds include bee balm, blue lobelia, butterfly weed, cardinal flower, columbine, foxgloves, jewelweed, New Jersey tea, shadbush, Soloman’s seal and virgin’s bower. They have a tubular shape and generally grow upright. Plant these as large clumps and as a succession of blooms to welcome hummingbirds to your garden through the season.

Creating vertical structure in a garden will produce an inviting habitat. Shrubs, small trees and canopy trees planted together with flower gardens and a water source will provide for their needs.

Avoid Pesticides and keep cats away!

MOWING for Wildlife

Mowing in summer is severely disruptive

MOW in NOVEMBER or APRIL

Pollinators need flowers!!
Mowing in summer causes pollen and nectar to disappear – reducing the number of insects. The easiest way to install a Pollinator Pathway is to STOP mowing from May through October!
Farmers who harvest hay may consider leaving strips to grow out along field edges, or around the periphery of their farms.

Birds need insects & SEEDS!
Some birds eat insects…if flowers are cut & insect populations decline, birds loose this food source.

Grassland nesting birds are some of the most endangered. Mowing their nesting grounds before their young fledge drains the population.

Many birds eat seedheads. When flowers are cut mid summer, they do not have time to seed out to feed migrating birds as they return south. It takes away an important winter food source for resident birds.

SEEDS regenerate!!
Allowing seedheads to fully ripen regenerates the population of flowering plants that feed wildlife.

TIPS for maintaining an open meadows

Alternate Areas
While it is important to mow to maintain open meadows, we only need to mow every other year. Leaving un-mown areas over the winter increases habitat for mammals and birds who overwinter here.

SPOT mowing targets aggressive foreign grasses to suppress them and revive flora populations.

Human pathways may be mown through the meadows to increase ease of access for walking and observing the life that will burst forth when open meadow ecology is restored.

Mown path borders along bushes will keep them at bay.

Accidental Migrants

Installation of migratory birds who connect the ecologies of Acadia & Ayiti for the 2019 Ghetto Biennale

Accidental Migrants
Sorting through open source images of Ruby-throated hummingbirds & cedar waxwings. Both birds are considered ‘accidental migrants’ from the northeast. The woodworking community that makes up Lakou Basile are carving representations of these photographs to learn relationships of flowers with pollinating hummingbirds & fruit dispersal through birds. The woodblocks will be sent to the SEED Barn and used to demonstrate printing techniques of Ukiyo-e style of woodblock printing during the 2020 season. In hopes this exchange ignites consideration of geographic relationships and how we maintain ties to lands which host migratory wildlife we enjoy throughout the Maritime region during the summer.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
Ruby-throated hummingbird
Ruby-throated hummingbird
Ruby-throated hummingbird
Ruby-throated hummingbird defending her territory
Basile Wesner
Basile Wesner installs images sourced from the commons through his home during the 2019 ghetto biennale
Rossi Jacques Casimir
Rossi Jacques Casimir is instigating this project & is credited with the documentation in this article.

Great Maine Outdoor Weekend

Art is for the BIRDS!!

The Great Maine Outdoors Weekend encourages people to get outside! This year, the Blue Hill Heritage Trust is working with Lee Lee of the SEED Barn on a participatory sculpture that will be woven directly into the landscape in the Kingdom Woods Conservation Area. Part of the Open Air Arts Initiative, this arts workshop invites community members to collaborate on a sculpture that will provide winter shelter for birds, aesthetically integrating material from young oak trees that were recently cleared to preserve the heirloom blueberry field. Extending the flow of existing natural forms which stand prominently in the landscape, participants will weave the branches together, keeping in mind the space needed by bunnies to burrow and birds to flutter. In the process, contributors can explore ways we may integrate organic detritus offer winter protection for resident species in a way that piques visual interest. The Open-Air Arts Initiative is a collaboration between the SEED Barn, Blue Hill Heritage Trust and Cynthia Winings Gallery. Its mission is to use nature to ignite creativity in the young people who live on or visit the Blue Hill Peninsula.

Drawing inspiration from the land immersed arts movement of the west, Lee Lee has been bringing a new kind of community arts practice to the Blue Hill Peninsula. Working with only materials found on site, she has invited the public to work together in weaving sculptures through the landscapes around the Blue Hill Peninsula. Through the spring, she collaborated with local students to build sculptural pollinator homes. As the season transitions into fall, she is working with the wider community on ways we may increase habitat for birds through the series birdSEED.

Sculpting branches that we trim out of the garden challenges the popular but somewhat misplaced notion that tidy yards are superior. In fact, tangles of woody brush are essential habitat for birds, small mammals as well as pollinators. Downeast Audubon director, Leslie Clapp describes ways we may creatively incorporate winter protection for resident birds into our domestic spheres at home; “Building brush piles is fun and you can be as creative as you wish.  Some look like tepees, some porcupines, others bee hives. You can plant vines which cover them for more interest.  Sometimes I put a base of logs (in log cabin style) and then weave the sticks in through the logs so they stand upright. The major thing is not to pack them too tightly so the critters can’t get in.  I keep adding to some year after year because they do break down.”

Complementing the weaving of thicket style shelter for the birds, ongoing seasonal workshops hosted by the SEED barn demonstrate how to ferment and sow fresh native stone fruit seeds. Native species like wild cherries, elderberry, mountain ash and an array of viburnum and dogwoods not only feed the birds but provide important nectar sources for pollinators in the early spring.  Because fruit is an inhibitor to seed germination, it needs to be cleaned off thoroughly; as if it has passed through the gut of a bird, bear or moose. The process of mimicking bird digestion is easily replicated at home by smashing a bunch of fruit to a pulp in a Ziploc bag. Over the course of about ten days, mashing the bag daily, the bubbles of fermentation form in the macerated fruit then settle. At this point, the seeds may be cleaned by immersing them in fresh water, massaging any remaining fruit off the seed, swirling the pulp in a bowl of water and pouring off the macerated fruit. Viable seeds will sink in the vortex of the swirl, while the fruit will be picked up by the current and easily poured off. These seeds cannot dry out, so need to be planted fresh. They may be stored immersed in vermiculite in the same plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator until the season shifts; then planted right before the ground freezes. 

Supported in part by a project grant from the Maine Arts Commission, birdSEED will continue the following week with a public workshop on taming invasive bittersweet and barberry at the Blue Hill Consolidated School on September 29th.

birdSEED: Explore! Outdoors

Image courtesy of Explore Outdoors!

Following the ecological rhythm of the seasons, SEED programs engage a network of schools and land stewards at the intersection of art and ecology to promote long term restoration. Building habitat for birds and pollinators through providing accessible platforms for community participation develops a sense of our relationships with the natural world, which we feel is essential to the effectiveness of conservation work. Drawing inspiration from the ancient art of weaving practiced in the area, we will gather in August to weave winter homes for birds and weave together native plant communities cultivated in the SEED network of steward gardens. In so doing, we weave together communities of people in the act of ecocultural restoration. In collaboration with Explore! Outdoors and the Blue Hill Public Library, we intend to create a woven sculpture immersed in the landscape of the SEED Barn meadow, using only materials found on site so that the works may disintegrate back into the landscape. The act of creating these woven structures allows us to think about traditional relationships with the land while exploring the animal species who could potentially use the shelter while overwintering nearby. Summer visitors are particularly encouraged to attend so they may return home to apply this method in more urban areas.

SEED Barn Maine - birdSEED
Participants fill the moist meadow of the SEED Barn to gather materials to integrate into our habitat sculpture.
SEED Barn Maine - birdSEED
The structure echoes the perpendicular lines between the fallen trunk, branches and ground, creating a framework into which were inserted small scale, nest like sculptures.
SEED Barn Maine - birdSEED
SEED Barn Maine - birdSEED nest
Nest inspired sculpture made of natural materials during the workshop.
SEED Barn Maine - birdSEED
Nest forms woven on a larger scale in the meadow.
SEED Barn Maine - birdSEED
SEED Barn Maine - birdSEED winter
The nest inspired sculpture settles into the landscape over the winter.