Mowing. Finally. 

One of my favorite sounds of spring and summer is the song of the Meadowlark. That sweet whistling tune makes me smile every time I hear it. This year they nested in our field. Starting a few years ago they were around, nesting in surrounding fields and sharing their songs. Now they nest right here in our meadow. By mid-July, chicks have fledged. We had a half dozen young birds zipping around, buzzing out their calls rather than their songs, done with nests for now.

Other birds were out of their nests as well–Red-Winged Blackbirds, Savannah Sparrows, Bobolinks, Snipes. Birds fledged and Wild Parsnip not yet gone to seed? That means time to cut the field.

I had powered up our tow-behind brush hog in June. I wanted to make sure it started, that the blades spun, that it worked. So when mid-July arrived and the weather cooperated I hooked up the mowing system and got started. Unfortunately, after one pass of one edge of the field, smoke started pouring out of the brush hog. Dang! Busted belt. No more mowing.

There is a repair shop right up the road, so I just kept on going. It was Friday, of course, but they assured me getting parts is pretty quick these days. So I’m thinking they order a belt on Monday, put it on and maybe Wednesday I’m in business, best case scenario. But since I didn’t hear from them I called after a week. They had an estimate for me. Seriously? I’m hoping the thing is ready to go and they haven’t even ordered the belt?

So, giving them the go-ahead, I patiently waited some more. After another week I called again. It was still not done–complications, other parts needed, rust involved. After another couple of calls and another week, it was finally good to go. I picked it up Saturday morning, just before the place closed. It ran like a charm. So I headed out to field, three weeks after I started, Wild Parsnip now starting to go to seed, and started cutting.

I wasn’t sure just how much I could get done that day, but after about eight hours, I had most of it cut. It was a long afternoon/evening. I had planned to stop by 9:00 pm and stopped about ten minutes before that hour. I probably spread a few Wild Parsnip seeds but not too many, I hope. I left a couple of patches uncut but, since we planned to head out for a week the next day, it would have to do.

The birds were definitely cleared out by the time I started cutting. I missed my window between ground-nesters fledging and seeds falling by a bit but hopefully not by too much. If I can get out there and cut once more this fall, the Parsnip should be checked for this season. That stuff is aggressive and I need to keep at it. What I want is for grasses and native wildflowers to grow. I want better habitat for the birds and more food for the pollinators. It has been a long project and may take a good deal more time yet.

In the meantime I can look out over the cut meadow with relief. I don’t see those tall stalks with yellow flowers turning brown with seeds. I don’t hear much birdsong now, but come spring I look forward to the Meadowlarks, flying low across the greening field,  whistling their tunes once again.

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Meadow as Fashion

IMG_1196I was at American Eagle, in the mall, with my daughter two days ago. This is not a frequent haunt of mine but she needed some new shorts and knew she could find some there that fit well, plus there was a sale, and there I was, the dad of the pre-teen in the land of the young. They sell a lot of jeans, and the jeans come in different styles. There are a variety of cuts, of course (narrow, boot), plus multiple materials (standard denim, stretch), but their jeans are also worn differently. They “wash” them so they look worn when you buy them, as has been the trend since the 1900’s. The most dramatic wash is called “destroyed,” which means your jeans come with tears and holes included. I understand the fashion implications of this trend, but still, the practical side of me winces at paying for something that is already “destroyed.”

Yesterday the confluence of factors necessary for brush hogging the field occurred:

  1. I was home.
  2. The equipment to do the job was in working order and ready to be used.
  3. The weather was clear.
  4. Ground nesting birds had fledged.
  5. The wild parsnip was tall but not yet going to seed.
  6. I had the time to get cracking.

Yesterday morning I sat on the porch and looked out at the meadow. There were a whole lot of Bobolinks out there. I counted at least ten. Savannah Sparrows were singing. I was happy to see the Bobolinks–they successfully fledged some youngsters. It means they are making it here. It also means I could cut without mashing their nests. I also looked out at a field of yellow. The wild parsnip, that invasive plant that takes over and can offer passersby terrible burns, was tall and flowering. If one can feel emotion toward a plant, I feel bitterness toward wild parsnip. I want it gone.

Wild parsnip, some of it eight feet tall

Wild parsnip, some of it eight feet tall

Now is the key window for our meadow–birds that nest on the ground (Bobolinks, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Savannah Sparrows, Meadowlarks) have fledged and the wild parsnip has not yet gone to seed. After I returned from work early in the afternoon, I hopped in the machine and got cutting. We have been trying to get rid of the stuff for years now by cutting. Sometimes I have cut too late, and that just spreads the seeds. It has retreated a bit, growing in less area now, but it still rules parts of the meadow. I cut for several hours yesterday and got the worst of it. In the next couple days, if the weather holds, I hope to get the rest.

The upper field is now poor habitat. The mice and snakes can’t hide as well. The birds have nowhere to perch. The insects are moving to the field next door. But it does feel good to have sliced down the wild parsnip. The field looks different, some might say ugly, and I have been thinking of it in terms of fashion. It is not a field of grass (your basic new denim). It is not the clean cut-and-remove of a field of grass cut for hay (pre-washed to some degree). It is more the destroyed look. Grass and leaves and stems and flowers are spread across the meadow. It is not neat and tidy. It is not the look for going out to dinner. At the moment, however, it is the look I am going for, just right for late July.

Mowing Complete

Tall stuff on the left, flattened on the right

I finally finished mowing our field today. We have a new set-up to make this happen–a John Deere Gator and a DR tow-behind brush hog. It worked remarkably well. Once we had all the parts and added oil and gas and started things up, I hit the field and got cutting. But I was stymied more than once.

In the past we have postponed our mowing due to the weather. The field was too wet or it rained when we had the time to cut. Or we didn’t have a tractor with a brush hog when we needed it. We were hoping this would take care of at least the latter issue. And it did, sort of. I started near the end of July. This was perfect. We needed to wait until at least mid-July so that any birds nesting in the field would have fledged. Bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds are ground nesters and we wanted to make sure they didn’t get chopped up in the blades. That is just bad juju. Also, part of the reason we are cutting all this vegetation is the wild parsnip–the stuff has taken over and we wanted to cut it down before it went to seed. That started off well.

Then I had a problem. I got stuck in reverse. I couldn’t get it into drive again. I shook the rig and wiggled everything around and eventually it went into gear. But then it happened again. So we called the dealer and they hauled it away to be fixed. Then, of course, we went away for a week. Two weeks after I started mowing I recommenced. I made some progress but much of the wild parsnip had gone to seed. I needed to get it done. And then, unbelievably, it got stuck in reverse again. Same problem–not fixed after a new shift cable was installed. They took it back and were not happy about it, but fixed it again–bent stick shift this time. They were patient, as were we, and soon the machine was back. Today I got back in the saddle and everything went smoothly. I finished mowing just in time to zip out to pick up my daughter from day camp.

The wild parsnip had almost totally gone to seed–it was brown and dry and sometimes the seeds scattered as I hit the plants. Not good. But those seeds would have scattered at some point anyway. I needed to cut it now and then cut it again later. The key to keeping this stuff down will be (hopefully) to just cut it again and again until it has nothing left to keep growing. It could take a while–maybe years. The good news, however, is that I also was cutting purple loosestrife, another invasive that has been super aggressive in our field. That had not yet gone to seed, so it should be less work to keep that back.

I may cut one more time this fall. That could mean we get more grass than other, more woody, plants come spring. That is good for the bobolinks. They don’t nest in our field much because it has less grass than surrounding fields. Maybe the birds will take a liking to our space and settle down to raise some chicks next year. If I don’t get to it, so be it. I at least will cut again next July and keep those invasives at bay. Unless I have trouble shifting again. But I will worry about that if it happens. For now I can be satisfied that one summer project is finally complete.