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 and Meadowlarks

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This is the time of year when we get around to mowing our field. We have ten acres of meadow. When we moved here it had not been cut in several years and it was starting to get scrubby. Cattails grew in a wide swath. Ash trees were sprouting and willows were standing out among the grasses and wildflowers. Actually, the grasses were pretty limited. The field had long passed the point of being suitable for haying. We wanted to turn that around.

One reason we wanted to turn it around was Bobolinks. There were Bobolinks nearby, in adjacent fields and up the road, but none in our field. It was just too overgrown. They like to nest in grasslands and our meadow was quickly reverting to woodland. We borrowed a tractor with a brush hog and cut it, cattails and all. We did the same thing the next year. We were not, however, especially deliberate about it. We cut it when we had access to a tractor and it worked. Grasses started to grow and it looked good.

I have learned a bit about this small habitat of ours since those early years. First, we have three invasive plants (more I am sure but three major ones): wild parsnip, purple loosestrife and reed canary grass. The purple loosestrife was the worst at first and those early cuttings really made a difference. We still have it but it hardly dominates like it did. It has beautiful flowers which get visited by butterflies and hummingbirds, so it is hard to hate it, but I would rather it did not take over.

The reed canary grass I started learning about recently, even though it was pointed out a few years ago. It, too, is a beautiful plant, which is why it and purple loosestrife are both used as ornamentals. It grows in thick mats and apparently can be hard to eradicate. This grass isn’t too bad yet–we have a few patches but it has not taken over.

The real villain is the wild parsnip. When we first encountered this plant we thought it might be wild dill. It is tall with yellow large-headed flowers. I looked it up and learned that the roots are edible, hence the name. It is, however, not a pleasant smelling herb or a ready food source. It is a menace.

There are fields where wild parsnip has simply taken over. The plants can get to be super tall–eight feet sometimes–and they will push out native plants. I have seen fields where it is the only plant visible. If those fields eventually grow up into woods the wild parsnip will disappear, but in sunny fields it is a bully. Moreover, the plant is toxic. The oil from the plant can rub off and, when exposed to sunlight, can cause chemical burns. Photoreactive is the word. In short, we wanted to make sure it does not live in our field.

The solution would be to simply cut the field several times a year to keep invasive plants from growing and to let native grasses grow up. So simple. The problem is that birds nest on the ground. Bobolinks have started to nest in our field since we started cutting. Also nesting on the ground: Red-Winged Blackbirds, Savannah Sparrows and, most recently, Eastern Meadowlarks. The biggest enemy of these birds is the mower, so cutting when the birds are nesting is bad juju.

Now we try to be deliberate about when we mow. The trick is to wait long enough for chicks to have fledged but to get to it before the wild parsnip has gone to seed. That would be right about now. Pretty much. Red-Winged Blackbirds and Bobolinks are hardly around at this point, so I am not worried about them. The Meadowlarks, however, are still chattering away and flying all over. They may be on egg clutch number two, and there are at least two pairs.

This year the compromise was clear–cut the front part of the field where the parsnip is the worst and leave the back part of the field, where the birds are nesting, to be cut in a couple of weeks. Yesterday, after mechanical issues that finally got solved, I got on that. It was like scratching an itch. Mowing down those wild parsnip plants, several of which were taller than me, felt good. I was relieved that, unlike last year when I cut it, none of it had gone to seed yet. Phew.

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Brush hog doing its work

There is still more of the field to cut, of course, and wild parsnip is in there. Hopefully, however, because so much of it is newer growth, it won’t be too bad. I may look to do a second cutting in October or November. That would help with the canary grass, and the birds will be heading south by then. I thought I might do that last year and never got to it, however, so I’m making no promises.

As I write this Meadowlarks are calling and Savannah Sparrows are singing. Leaving the most grassy part of the field for now is clearly the right choice, but I will look forward to seeing those yellow wild parsnip heads get shredded when I finish the job.

Upper field cut

Upper field cut with a couple of small trees left for birds to perch

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.

 

More Wild Parsnip

I wrote about the wild parsnip growing at our place a few days ago. I have certainly been aware of it all along but since then I have been hyper aware, even more than I had been. And let me tell you, that stuff is everywhere. Any open field that hasn’t been cut recently is just covered. It is so tall that it drowns out everything else. When I look out over a field that has been taken over, I can’t see much of anything else–no grass, no flowers, no milkweed, no nothin’.

I drove today on the back roads from Hinesburg to Charlotte (which means, well, almost any road from Hinesburg to Charlotte) and there was a clear distinction between hayed fields and those that have been let lie. I saw a couple of fields where large patches had been left uncut. There was a rock or a wet area or some other obstruction to the mower. These were deep in wild parsnip. I mean, invasive species can be pretty aggressive. This one hits home for me. I mean, it really does hit home.

The problem is that the fields become a danger zone. Forget poison ivy. This is worse. Sure ticks are out there, but they are not nearly as likely to be an issue as wild parsnip. I am afraid to send my children out in the field because I do not want them to have chemical burns. Ouch. It is just a plant for chimney’s sake, but it is a ubiquitous and menacing plant.

This stuff has been around for many years, maybe even for over 400 years. It may have been brought here on purpose, as a food source, but no one really knows how it came to North America from Eurasia. It has certainly made itself at home, however. I see tons of it all over the place and, frankly, it creeps me out. Aside from the fact that I am in awe of how any species can be so adaptable and can just make it over other species, I am in awe of its bully-ness and unhappy about it. I guess I need to do what I can to control it in our part of the world and hope conditions for it deteriorate at some point so its presence lessens in the future.

For more good information about this plant you can check out the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center’s page, or the US Forest Services “Weed of the Week” page on it.

Wild Parsnip

Wild Parsnip

Up Close

I first noticed it in 2006, a tall yellow flower growing in the field. It was just one of several other plants, including Queen Anne’s lace, a couple varieties of goldenrod, and all those grasses I can’t identify. I looked it up. It wasn’t easy to find in the Vermont flower guide but I did find it in the edible wild plant guide. And I thought: Wild parsnip, huh? Interesting. Edible roots, related to carrots and cultivated parsnip. Worth trying one of these days?

But this plant has a nasty side. Rub up against it and get its oils on your skin, then hang out in the sun and watch out. Sunlight brings on burns and blistering because the plant goo is photoreactive. The result is ugly and painful. Not a plant to mess with, especially in summer. Unfortunately, that is when it grows. And grows.

Last summer the stuff took off. Road crews mowed less, so it grew more than usual, and it just had a banner year. This summer it has taken over roadsides and fields pretty much anywhere that isn’t cut. It grows tall, too–taller than me. Over six feet sometimes. There used to be a mix of plants, but where this grows it seems to dominate. Queen Anne’s lace just can’t compete. Late in summer its seeds will spread all over and it will grow even more next year.

That is one reason we want to cut our own field more often–to get rid of this plant. We can’t let it go to seed, that is for sure. The field was cut last month and it still is coming back, stretching its yellow flowers above everything else that is growing. We need to cut again soon to repel it once more.

So, yes, apparently, one can eat the roots–boil them up and have oneself a meal. It would feed many people, the way it grows around here. It isn’t native but it sure has made itself at home. I like to be welcoming, but I wouldn’t miss this plant if it decided to take up and move away. At least purple loosestrife has beautiful flowers and doesn’t cause wounds (except when I try to pull it up by the roots with bare hands). Wild parsnip is a fine plant, I am sure, once you get to know it. If it were not so aggressive I might even appreciate it. This bully, however, needs to keep it in check and learn to play nice.

Unfortunately, as the world of flora goes, I don’t see that happening.