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Presentation by Adrian Wagner at Rivers Alliance August 26 Cocktail Party

A presentation on the value of a natural meadow, by Roxbury resident Adrian Wagner, was very well received at the Rivers Alliance cocktail party on August 26. It was held at the home of Sarah Lee Martin in New Preston. Here is the text (with minor edits) of Mr. Wagner's talk.

I’m here today to discuss my meadow and my personal journey restoring this wonderful ecosystem. 

When we think about gardening, the most popular notions of the 1950s' garden were carefully trimmed lawns and bushes and highly organized beds of flowers.

When I first looked at my meadow, all I saw were weeds. The house I share with my husband, Joe, sits on 11 acres of former farmland. And my first instinct was to bring order to this chaos. So six years ago, on one of the hottest days of the summer, I found myself mowing the field with a brush hog. I was shocked to see many forest creatures running. As I worked my way through the field, they stared at me in disbelief. I had destroyed their only home.

My short sense of accomplishment was succeeded by a sad quiet that came over the field. The meadowlarks, barn swallows, and bats had flown away. The frogs, the bees, the butterflies, and the dragonflies had all fled. I had taken a living, breathing ecosystem and given it a gut punch. I realized there must be a better way and resolved to find it.

The last five years have been about that journey for me.

A Look at the Past

My day job is that of a computer forensic examiner. I decided to start with compiling a forensic history of our site. “What was it before it was this?”

The Laurentide Ice Sheet receded 10,000 years ago and left behind the landscape that we know as our beloved Connecticut. During Connecticut’s Colonial period, all but the most inaccessible forests were clear-cut, so the wooded landscape we see today REALLY didn’t exist 200 years ago.

In my case, I found out that the meadow was formerly the washout from the receding glacier, which left behind a small gravel drumlin and a kettle pond.

Glacial Sedge

The oldest plants on the site are huge glacial sedges, which are the descendants of the first plants to recolonize the site after glaciation.

Once our land was settled and cleared, it became grazing pasture for a farm that dates to 1789. One of the first things I found were various colonial types of sheep fescues, which led me to believe the land was first grazed by sheep and, later, possibly by cattle. I also found that the slopes of our land were severely degraded with almost no topsoil. The topsoil resides in thick deposits in the low points of the land, along the stone walls, and fills in some of the pond. My sense was that cattle grazing had compacted the soil, and mechanized mowing hadn’t helped matters over time.

By knowing the history of your land, you will come to know its needs, and its possibilities. 

Luckily we had some areas that had been left largely undisturbed for the last 50 years or so. That had allowed some very unusual plants to recolonize the meadow largely unnoticed. Here you have some of them:

Low-Bush Blueberries

Indian Pipes

Lawns are great, but they are not everything. If you’re like me, there are parts of your lawn that never were particularly nice. That makes sense, because grasses thrive in a relatively narrow range of conditions. There is an entire lawn industry based on this fact.

My experience has been that the return on investment to try to cultivate those lesser areas in lawn grass just isn’t worth it. Here’s a great example: This hillside would make terrible lawn. It is steep. The soil is thin, having been grazed and subsequently eroded. It bakes in the summer and is subject to long periods of drought. By seeding this area in native wildflowers, I was able to control erosion, create home for wildlife, control storm runoff, and create what I think is a beautiful view of a meadow with a forest behind.

Another area I decided to give up on was our ditch. It’s frequently full of water and the soil is soft and muddy; it's terrible to mow. What adds to the importance of this is that approximately 300 feet of roadbed drain into our small creek directly through this ditch. By cutting just a few feet along the roadbed to allow for the safety of passing cars, but keeping the native plants that like full sun and wet conditions, we created a small wetland. The storm water has to pass through this dense stand of plants, which in turn slows the flow and creates turbulence, which allows the sediment to settle out of the water. By the time the storm water flows the 30 feet to the other end of the ditch to join the creek, it is nearly clear, with no discernible current in it. 

An added benefit is that the huge stands of Joe Pie Weed, Jewelweed, Penstemons, Cattails, and Turtle Heads are beloved by the native butterflies and bees. Birds such as the Wood Thrush and sweet-sounding Veery relish the dense stands of Elderberries, which provide them much needed food for their long migration south in the early fall.

Mown edge says, "We really do want it to look like this."

All this luxuriant growth was a sure catalyst for conversations with the neighbors. More than a few stopped me as I worked to ask me, “When are you going to mow this?” or, “I know someone who will cut this for you.” Undeterred, I saw these as opportunities to engage in discussion about what an upland meadow looks like; how these meadows function like engines of biodiversity in our local environment; how they protect the water and the land by controlling runoff, encouraging absorption, and holding the soil in place.

Fortunately many of our neighbors got it, but in an area with such high property values, nobody wants a neighbor whose property looks unkempt. Realizing this, I started mowing the edges of our meadow and around our garden to give the meadow a frame of sorts, and to show that “Yes, this is a conscious choice. We really do want it to look like this.” 

Mowing paths through your meadow will create a similar effect. They allow you to access different parts of your property and view the flora and fauna close up, without having to don the Wellies.

Benefits of an Upland Meadow

There are also a number of benefits from returning the meadow to nature.

Species Diversity

With each passing season, we seem to get more and better diversification of plants, insects, and animals. Butterflies, bees, and fireflies all need meadow plants to feed on and shelter in. To an insect, a lawn is a wasteland, barren of cover from predators and of food plants. That’s one of the reason lawns became so popular, but that appeal pales in comparison to the sight of the baby Barn Swallows learning to hunt in wild sweeping acrobatic flight. Or hundreds of dragonflies hunting midges in humming erratic patterns. Or the sight of thousands of fireflies rising from the meadow on a warm summer night, orange yellow light at first along the tops of the grasses, followed by cool greenish light rising higher up as the night wears on. Or the joys of seeing the bees nestled on the goldenrod as the cool of fall evening approaches, huddled under the flowers, one on each, awaiting the rise in temperature to be able to fly again but with breakfast close at hand. 

Closer Relationship with Nature 

Last is a closer relationship with nature. Many of us are lucky to live between Roxbury and New York City. A closer connection with nature provides a contrasting mooring to that fast-paced digitally enhanced urban life. A little wildness in one’s life is a good thing, I think. Children and grandchildren love to hunt for frogs and salamanders in the wet areas, marvel at the butterflies as they make their way to the flowers, and catch fireflies at night. These experiences teach children to love the natural world, not to fear it. It teaches them to ask questions about the science behind the nature:

Speaking from my own experience, the children who come to visit us arrive to say their hellos, drop their things, and head directly outside. There is simply too much that is new and different and exciting to be ignored; things that don’t exist in their own manicured suburban lawns.

Larger Benefit to Streams, Rivers, and the Watershed 

For all the benefits that our meadow has for us in our own enjoyment of our property, it also contributes to the well-being of our larger ecosystem, particularly streams and rivers.

Getting Started with Your Own Meadow Garden

All of this is simple, and most of it is fun, especially if you like cutting the grass.

Pesticides and Herbicides

As part of this process, we decided to go pesticide and herbicide free five years ago. That was hard at first because as soon as we stopped applying this artificial control to our environment, the population of bugs we were trying to control just exploded. But like a balance scale with a weight suddenly removed, what happened next was surprising. The next season we had a huge crop of spiders and a lot less of the insects we didn’t want. 

After that we started noticing ladybugs, dragonflies, Barn Swallows, bats, and other natural insect controls. We also started noticing more butterflies and bees. Every year it gets a little better, and it seems to me that things get more into balance. 

We don’t spray for mosquitoes anymore, but we don’t need to. By encouraging their many predators, we make use of their presence in the landscape to support biodiversity and still don’t have to worry about getting bitten when we sit on the porch.

The same is true for herbicides. RoundUp is the single most overused agricultural chemical, and it is highly toxic to aquatic life, as well as to the ecology of the soil it is sprayed on. Instead of using herbicides, I went the path of manual removal of invasive plants I didn’t want. A thick pair of gloves is all you need, since most invasives are fast growing, shallowly rooted, and break down quickly. For more persistent problems, I’ve found selective mowing to be a very effective control.

Things to Watch Out For

Most of my time these days is devoted to identifying and removing invasive plants. Wind-blown seeds and seeds carried by birds are the primary vectors by which these plants come into our meadow. Generally speaking, the earlier you detect and remove them, the easier it is. 

Here are some of the worst offenders:

We’ve found that the easiest way to remove these is to simply tear them up several times a year and dispose of the plants in the trash. Disposing them in the compost pile usually results in a thick growth of that plant in the pile the following year. Invasives are by nature better competitors than their native counterparts, and as such need human controls to prevent their spread and the creation of ecologically non-productive monocultures.

What About Ticks?

Wild Turkeys eat ticks

This has been an unusually bad year for ticks, and many folks believe that an unmowed meadow would be a hotbed of tick activity. I can tell you from personal experience that just isn’t the case. I’m out there all the time and have yet to get one this year. When I do go out I take simple precautions of wearing long pants and boots, and checking myself when I get back into the house.

If you think about it, for deer ticks to thrive they need access to both White-Footed Mice and White-Tailed Deer to complete their lifecycle. A typical mowed suburban landscape is ideal for both of these creatures, not only because our homes and landscapes provide them cover and food, but because these artificial landscapes are also unfriendly to their primary predators.

In a balanced ecosystem, White-Footed Mice are a primary food source for a wide variety of predators. Owls, hawks, foxes, and bobcats all prey on them. Similarly, White-Tailed Deer, particularly fawns, are prey for bobcats, bears, and coyotes. Because our meadow has a balance of predators, we don’t have a lot of mice or deer out there. The ones we do have don’t tend to hang around for long. 

Additionally, ticks have their own list of predators. In example, Wild Turkeys relish ticks and are experts at finding and devouring them. It is a daily routine to see our resident flock of Wild Turkey hens driving their chicks through the meadow looking for ticks and other insects to eat.

Give Me Ten Square Feet

In conclusion I’d like to ask each of you to consider giving me 10 square feet. That’s either a 3’x3’ square or a 2’x5’ rectangle. 

I figure everyone here has some small area that they could give back to nature and experiment with meadow gardening. 

The process is simple. 

In conclusion, I’d encourage each of you to be brave. Evaluate your land and its needs and make conscious choices about how you are going to maintain it. Consider having a closer relationship with nature and all of the wonderful things that entails. Keep your lawn, or the best parts of it, but let part of it go back to what it was before. You’ll reap benefits far beyond your expectations.

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