By Beth Sullivan
Like any gardener, this time of year is when we, as stewards, size up the season, evaluate successes, challenges, and set priorities for what needs to be done before winter sets in. As usual, there are never enough people or hours to accomplish everything: Boundary surveys, trail maintenance, structure repair, and invasive management.
With recent wind events, we are faced with downed trees, blocked trails and damage. We need assess each situation, to set priorities, and do the best we can.
Deciding about what to do with our fields is also a challenge at this time of year. Maintenance of meadow habitat is probably the most labor intensive and costly stewardship need. In many cases we rely on the goodness of volunteers otherwise known as friends of Avalonia to mow for us. In other cases, we contract with local farmers who have the tractor and equipment to get around the old farm fields for us. But it is the strategy behind the timing of the mowing that is variable.
|After recent wind events, we are cleaning up before winter storms occur.
|We want grassy clumps like this one around to provide hiding places.
Different fields mowed at different times
A traditional farm field is mowed several times a season for hay. Frequent mowing like this encourages lush grass growth and deters the woody growth of other plants. However, mowing early or mid season is devastating for wildlife. The first and second cuttings of hay disrupt small mammals, rabbits in particular. Also, deer will bring their fawns to a field to hide for a day and they are often victims of the mower. Nesting birds require a longer season of grass for coverage, too. Many are ground nesters and arrive in the area in mid-April and are not done nesting until mid-August. That is not good if you need to make hay while the sun shines. In general, Avalonia does not mow any fields for hay crops.
Mowing in early September allows the animals to mature and leave their nests. But later summer and early fall is prime time for the field flowers and prime time for pollinators as well. Visit any field in September and October and it is awash with color and alive with all manner of insect life: Grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, and hundreds of bee and wasp species. Spiders abound. The skies above the field are filled with dragonflies feasting and then the birds take advantage of it all as well.
Mowing early fall also stops the spread of unwanted invasive plants like swallowwort, porcelain berry by mowing them down before they can produce mature seeds. A fall mowing also keeps woody invasives, like autumn olive, under control as well.
Mowing in November and December gives wildlife a chance to move out of their nesting areas, and most flowers have been killed back by hard frosts. There are plenty of seeds available. But cutting at this time may destroy praying mantis egg cases, wasp galls, and cocoons that may be attached to woody stems. Cutting in the very late fall will remove cover for overwintering small mammals and may even disturb those that have already begun to hibernate. Mice and other rodents are exposed as they scurry though the fields gathering seeds for winter. It leaves them wide open to predators like foxes and hawks. Good for predators, bad for prey.
If we leave the mowing until spring, we maintain the protective cover for mammals, do not destroy egg cases and cocoons, and leave seeds on stalks for birds to find. But spring weather can be wet and muddy, farmers have other chores to do, fields to till, gardens to plow. Invasive seeds have spread and spring green growth begins early.
|Fields like this one at Wequetequock Cove have been mowed for hay for many years. Now are maintained for wildlife.
|Cutting early will prevent invasive porcelainberry from spreading its seeds.
|Mowing early promotes grasses.
|Leaving the mowing until later allows late summer flowers to bloom and attract pollinators.
|If allowed to go uncut, the fields at Knox Preserve will go to seed with many plants, especially goldenrod, and provide food and cover all winter.
What is a steward to do?
The answer is a little of everything. We make the best decisions we can, based on science, biology and observation. Some fields are mowed in August to promote grass, some in September/October, some will be mowed when the ground freezes and others will be left up all winter. Take time to walk several fields and see what you observe in each. And, we are ever grateful for those who drive tractors and walk behind mowers to get the job done, whenever it gets done.
|We want to encourage Milkweed to spread.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan.