Non-native Sons Welcome

When we stopped mowing our lawn three years ago, we were hoping that the grass would be gradually replaced by flowering meadow plants. To some extent this has happened. Boneset and joe-pye weed appeared in one spot during the first year. At least five different species of goldenrod became well established immediately. More surprising was the sprouting of two small clusters of sensitive fern. But the grass continued to dominate the area and some pesky invasive species like lesser celandine also began to spread.

Forget-me-nots and mustard in the meadow.

So we decided to urge old-field succession along by introducing plants and planting seeds. The former has been more successful than the latter. My wife decided that she would rather see Echinacea (coneflower) out in the meadow than in beds near the house, so we dug them up and replanted them out there. They are very hardy and have seemed quite happy.

This year we made the same decision about the black-eyed susans. They had begun to take over one of our beds, so I dug them up in large clumps, taking the soil and roots together, and stuck them in holes in the meadow where I had removed clumps of grass. I made sure to water them immediately and also planted them just before rain was forecast. Their natural hardiness and the timely moisture have caused all of the transplanted clumps to barely miss a beat.

Very happy black-eyed susans

We have also begun to move shrubs into the meadow from elsewhere on the property. We’ve decided to fix our meadow at a stage equivalent to between five and ten years following the abandonment of an agricultural field.

Because we didn’t begin with the relatively blank slate of tilled earth, it has been necessary to do all the planting. The grass is tenacious. A butterfly bush that we transplanted seems to be struggling, perhaps a bit more exposed to the weather than is optimal for it. In its former location it had always died back somewhat in previous winters, but now it seems to die back right to the roots before re-sprouting in the spring.

Very unhappy caryopteris.

Two Caryopteris shrubs that we moved last fall have had different fates. I put the smaller one, which had been shaded by a sugar maple that we recently had taken down, in the lee of the house in an area marked by seeps. It transplanted well, leafing out quite completely this spring.

We put the other, larger Caryopteris near the butterfly bush. Like its neighbor the Caryopteris experienced a lot of die-back this winter, either because of the shock of being transplanted—it is about twice the size of the other one—or because of the wind that moves over the hill and through that part of the meadow.

This spring I moved a Potentilla bush that has been bugging me since we moved in. Someone stuck it right at the corner of two walkways at the foot of the front steps. It was the paragon of “in the way.” I moved it about four feet to a place between two paths in the meadow and it seems to anchor the space well and moreover seems to have suffered not one whit.

Seeds that we have sown in the meadow have not germinated well. This is partly because we have left them lying around too long before planting them. We carried around some lupine seeds from friends in Maine for years before scattering them here. Only one plant came up. But all packets of wildflower mix state clearly in the planting instructions that they should be sown on a tilled field. The germination rate is probably much reduced by competition with existing plantings with well-established root systems. Seedlings may even be getting shaded out. So in the near future I’ll be renting a rototiller.

Non-native euphorbia

It is perhaps noticeable in the list of plant names above that we are not attempting to create a meadow of native plants. All the herbaceous plants I mentioned are natives to North America (although not necessarily this region), but we have also dug up ragged robin, a European import, from a local roadside and added it to the mix. In addition, we planted non-native Euphorbia and forget-me-nots, day lilies and ornamental poppies, and all of the shrubs are aliens.

This approach admits a certain amount of resignation to our position in a village surrounded by an agricultural landscape. The numbers of non-native species that populate a disturbed landscape like this—it has been farmed continuously since the early 19th century—are large and not likely to be excluded no matter what measures we take.

Restoration ecology of the type invented by Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s is a noble and necessary undertaking. For one thing it preserves natural ecosystems that are in danger of being eliminated by invasive non-native species. But such work is best undertaken on a larger scale (than our 3/4 acre village lot) in order to have buffers between the non-native ocean and the native embayment established with great effort.

We are primarily looking for a panoply of color that unfolds through the season, exclusion of the most invasive non-natives, and to shave a hour a week off my time behind the mower.

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