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

2020 SEED engagements

March 19-22: Slow Fish in Durham, New Hampshire

March 29th:
SEED Swap & Scion Exchange
MOFGA Common Ground Education Center, 10am – 4pm
Installation of the SEED Sensorium & dispersal of Native Grasses
Join us for the 3rd year of installing the SEED Sensorium, pick up seed saving information and native grass seed to support habitat for pollinators. Find us in the alcove, next to the exchange.

April 4th:
Master Gardener Symposium: Gear Up for Gardening
Moore Center, 12:30 – 4:30-5pm
Creative Frameworks for SEED Dispersal ~ Lee Lee
Working at the intersection of art and ecology, Lee Lee will present her methodology in cultivating creative frameworks for public engagement around wild land restoration. Material will include cultivating networks of living SEED libraries, SEED Sensoria, HugelCULTURE and following seasonal rhythms to respond to specific attributes of place in culturally relevant ways. 
Other workshops include: Grow your best Veggies by Marjorie Poronto of the Master Gardeners Extension program, Grow your best raspberries by David Handley, UMaine, Biodiversity by Reeser Manley, Creating a community garden, Edible Millbridge, and Improving soils by Paul and Karen Volkhausen of Happytown Farm.

April 4th: Sweetgrass talk with Carol Dana
Part of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust’s winter lecture series

May 9th 1 – 3pm
Garden Day at the Blue Hill Heritage Trust
Learn what native seeds may be sown in spring and collect native grass seeds to take home and plant for pollinators. A workshop on composting will be presented by master gardener, Zabet NeuCollins.

May 23rd 9am – noon
Blue Hill Public Library Plant Sale
Find SEED under the apple tree as we disperse spring sown native grasses and wild mint along with sipping tea and drawing pollinators who benefit from these meadow plants

The above events cancelled or postponed due to COVID 19

May 23rd 2-4pm (rain date May 24)
Mapping the Labyrinth Meadow workshop at Tapley Farm
As a community, we will map out the geometric path that will be maintained at Tapley Farm in Brooksville as a collaboration between the Tent Project, the Open Air Arts Initiative and SEED :: disperse. The labyrinth will offer a platform on which to creatively explore our relationship with the meadow landscape. Challenging the dominant local mowing practice of severing this important part of local ecology, this event kicks off a series of workshops to educate people on how to maintain meadows in ways that best support the pollinator and bird communities that are essential to healthy natural systems.

May 30
Alewife Festival at Pierce Pond
Join the Penobscot Alewife Committee, the Blue Hill Heritage Trust & SEED to celebrate the maturing landscape around the restored fish ladder into Pierce Pond. Learn about the plants that make up shoreline communities and the network of life supported by them.

July 11 – 27th: SEED Barn Artist in Residence: moira williams
Learn more about moira’s walking based creative practice:
I-Park Kicks off Seventh Art Biennale in East Haddam

July 25th 2-4pm (rain date July 26)
Embodying the Landscape: Walking the Labyrinth
We invite the community to walk the labyrinth with intention as we explore the plant communities that make up the meadow at the Tapley Farm. We will speak of how important it is to hold off on mowing our meadows until November by paying attention to the teaming life that fills the maturing meadow. We will think about the localized movement of pollinators as they weave their way through the landscape and think about the shelter provided by tall grasses for seed dispersers who call the meadow home. Open source images of the network of life that abounds in meadows will be available for creative exploration through words, movement and drawing.

August 22nd 10a-4pm
Blue Hill Maritime Festival
Discover the colonial medicine chest and tea gardens at the Pendleton House with the establishment of a new SEED library dedicated to preserving these heirlooms brought to Maine from across the sea.

October 3rd 2-4pm (rain date October 4)
Meadow Restoration workshop at Tapley Farm
We will look at techniques for restoring meadows for the final event in the Labyrinth series in collaboration with the Tent Project and the Open Air Arts Initiative. Thinking about the transformation from flower to seed, we will look at the community of seed eating birds who are supported by mature meadows as they migrate south for the winter. We invite people to wait until November to mow so as not to disrupt this important food source for the birds. Autumn is the best time for planting plugs and we will share techniques on how to best introduce native plants to meadow environments to broaden the diversity of what is growing around us.

October 8-12th: Terra Madre

Tansy

Tanacetum vulgare

Bombus on Tansy
Bombus loves nectar from the button shaped yellow flowers of Tansy

Tansy was a part of the Acadian medicine chest and was considered necessary in a garden by the British. It is used to repel insects, particularly flies, and to guard against worms. Acadians used it internally to expel intestinal parasites, and in New England it was added to coffins to guard against the dead being consumed by worms. It was used this way so much in the colonies during the 19th century that it became associated with death. Bruised leaves were placed on meat to keep flies at bay, and it was kept strewn about in homes with dried elder leaves to repel other insects. Colonialists would wear it in their shoes to guard against insect born illnesses. It is said that infusions of the root, flowers or seed can be a strong antidote for gout. The Irish would bathe in infusions of tansy and salt to ease joint pain. Up until the 1940s, diluted tansy oil was added to fleabane & pennyroyal to make a popular insect repellent. More recently, Swedish scientists have found it fairly effective at repelling ticks. The leaves and flowers are toxic if consumed in large quantities.

In addition to the way settlers used the plant, indigenous populations found this herb to be effective in addressing a broad range of ailments. Pulverized blossoms & leaves were infused by Cheyenne to improve weakness & dizzyness. Chippewa found that a weak infusion aided earaches, and that the roots either brewed or chewed were effective against a sore throat. Many tribes used it against stomach disorders and fever reducers. Micmac and Malecite used it as a contraceptive and Cherokee would tie it around the waist of a pregnant woman to avoid miscarriage during pregnancy. The Shoshoni used it as a warm anaseptic wash and Ojibwe would include it in a blend of dried plants that was burned to attract deer.

Tansy had culinary uses that are not generally practiced today. Because of the toxicity, some people react to consuming even small amounts. New leaves emerging in spring were used as an herb to add to omelettes or puddings, and paired with caraway when making biscuits and ‘tansy cakes’. Today it is only known to make a particular type of blood pudding in Cork, Ireland. The flowers are cultivated for aesthetic purposes and may be used to make a yellow or green hued dye. It is still used as a companion plant for non-chemical pest control, demonstrated to be highly effective against the Colorado potato beetle. When planted alongside cucurbits like cucumbers, melons and squash, or with roses and berry plants, it repels pests like ants, cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles and squash bugs. Beekeepers will sometimes add dry tansy to the blends they use to smoke out beehives.

Sources: The Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens on the Acadia University campus, Nova Scotia, Wikipedia, A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M Grieve and Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel E Moerman. Please note that material provided here is for informational purposes only and are not to be taken as recommendations for treatment.

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.

Hugel CULTURE demonstration

The first season at the SEED barn involved a lot of work taking down invasive plants and folding them back into the earth in a Hugelkultur fashion. Mid way through the season, the Blue Hill and Brooklin Garden Clubs visited the grounds in a demonstration on how we are using available materials to build Hugelkultures. Conversation on why it is important to address invasive plants ensued since many invasives are initially introduced as decorative garden plants. Bringing attention to the fact that many nurseries, especially in the big box stores, continue to sell invasive plants is important to know for avid gardeners.  Below, we see an example of a Hugelkultur bed in the second season as new plants become established. An introduction to the SEED Library offered members new ideas on what native plants could potentially be worked into the landscape. The tour ended with a description of how to tie in an aquaponic system into the small scale terracing approach developed by grandpa in the new greenhouse.

 

Preserving the Barn

When we purchased the 1835 house and barn built by John Cheever, the barn was sagging and at risk of needing to be torn down. The previous owners had poured a new foundation for the main house, but the barn was in sad shape. A big reason for buying this home was the barn space, so we felt it was worth saving. The lofty space is relatively cozy for a barn with a dramatic stone fireplace that had been added later. The way the wood was put together evidenced mastery of material expressed by the shipbuilder who constructed it. We also felt the space would be improved by playing more to the surrounding water, so we took measures to bring the outdoors in through large openings cut into the walls as set of three tall windows facing Conary Cove and four sets of French doors. The double glass doors open to the patio, a new front porch built as a formal entry, and the typical raised bed greenhouse designed by Peter Leonard (grandpa). Through her career of owning a boutique Denver Real Estate firm, Sonja Leonard Leonard (grandma) took on multiple renovations of old houses. She developed a refined sense of preserving the historic characteristics of a house, while updating the style of living to fit today’s taste and standards. As with other properties in Denver and Taos, we collaborated as a family to determine the interior architectural design as well as the finishes to make the cohesive space.

The wooden interior of the barn is rich with history, as if the antique planks of wood held the stories of generations of families who shared the space. We wanted to preserve the ancient wood, but we also wanted to extend the season in which we could comfortably use the space, so we framed the outside of the barn to add insulation. This allowed us to mount a set of solar panels on the south side, above the greenhouse. The greenhouse offers passive solar heat gain which warms the space through the colder seasons. While it’s not enough to dwell comfortably without extra heat from the renai, it certainly takes the edge off while leaving it cold enough to preserve the seeds we are working with as part of the SEED barn. We then shocked the community by choosing a soft, sea green color for the exterior. The response from our neighbors being, “We don’t paint barns green here.” Typically people don’t cut giant holes in their barn either, so we dismissed it as simply being from ‘away’.

We had a LOT of dirt from excavating around the perimeter of the barn. In order to provide a bit of protection from road noise, we stretched out the pile along the front of the house as the foundation of the garden intended to be a living seed library for native plants that would be used in restoration work around the peninsula. using the excavator to place the large stones that came out from under the original floor, a layer of ‘good’ dirt was delivered and spread over the fill to provide a nourishing hold for the new plants. The high clay content of soil from this land provide moisture even through dry seasons, so it is a nice balance to establish a new garden.

Preserving the SEED Barn in Blue Hill Falls village, Maine
Thatcher Gray and grandpa explore the excavated foundation.
The frame of grandpa’s greenhouse is visible to the left.
Pouring the new foundation to preserve the SEED Barn
New foundation set, the excavator pulls the excess dirt around the front of the property to establish a berm for our new garden.
Preserving the SEED Barn while redesigning the structure to invite the view inside.
Large holes cut into the cove-side wall invite the view of Conary Cove indoors
Interior view of the barn renovation
New floors being framed along with the large window and four sets of French Doors.
Disrupting the large expanse of lawn, a virtual desert for pollinators, and transforming it into a sculpted landscape to support wildlife.
Exterior framing allowed for the addition of insulation so that we could comfortably extend the seasons where we could actively use the barn.
Pushing foundation dirt along the front of the property and around what will become the site for a small fresh water pond.
Grandpa directs the sculpting of the berm, placing rocks as visual features and structural elements to the emergent garden.
A layer of ‘good’ dirt is spread over the fill.
Thatcher Gray shows off his creation. He decided to plant wild blueberries along this section of the berm, establishing a blueberry barren for a delicious treat!