week 7: managing the meadow, woodland wildflower time and more

THE TREE SWALLOWS objected, but it had to be done. My hillside mini-meadow—at the edge of which their favorite nest box stands—had to be mowed and raked this week, reduced of last year’s build-up of fallen plants.

“How rude of you,” the iridescent birds chattered, swooping madly overhead, then dive-bombing. “We are trying to mate here. Give a bird a little privacy.”

“I have my mission, too,” I explained, one aimed at furthering the desired native plant species—little bluestem grass and asters and goldenrods, mostly. Around early May, I use the tractor’s mowing deck to behead the mostly non-native grasses around the bluestem.

I time the haircut just as the bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, a warm-season grass) starts to wake up, a few weeks later than the cool-season competitors up there got started. Basically I am setting those back a bit, erasing their lead, and letting the about-to-burst bluestem get the edge instead.

That same mowing—or actually a couple of passes—also serves to chop up the residue, clearing the canvas a bit, the way a natural element such as fire or even grazing might have done once upon a time in some grassland ecosystems.

Why don’t I clean up the meadow in fall? Too much critically important wildlife—mostly beneficial insects and spiders—overwinter in such spots, and many fall and winter birds feast on its seeds, too. (More on that from The Habitat Network in our autumn interview.)

A related story: how Longwood Gardens restored its Meadow Garden.

the compost heap runneth over

A side effect of that last of the major spring-cleanup projects: The compost heap, though about 40 feet long, has reached the tipping point. Uh-oh.

“We’ll need the big loader to turn that thing,” my dairy-farmer neighbor said, only half-kidding, referring to a particularly macho piece of her family’s impressive complement of macho farm equipment. I don’t think we could even get the beast through my gate, but oh, what quick work it would make of such a task, compared to a fork and shovel.

a truly exceptional lilac…

Every year at lilac time I marvel at ‘Mt. Baker,’ a white Syringa hyacinthiflora hybrid that starts a week or two ahead of the common lilacs (Syringa vulgaris). Besides its earliness, ‘Mt. Baker’ has a very distinctive form—like a big mound or low cloud maybe 10 feet high and wide. It doesn’t get gawky and leggy like many lilacs can, but keeps it shape, even after many years. Oh, and when the catalogs say it “covers itself with fragrant flowers,” they mean it. Wow.

…and an exceptional espalier

In Week 1’s report I mentioned the savage haircut that the espaliered Asian pear, trained flat against the back of my house, had received at the hand of my friend Dennis Mareb of Windy Hill Nursery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The tree did not miss a beat, and this week flowered lavishly—proof that a firm hand, a sharp shears and a stable three-legged ladder is a winning combination.

Why an Asian pear? Besides their fast growth and good response to training like many other fruit trees, the Asian pears seem to resist leaf and fruit problems that their cousins are susceptible to here, and perform unblemished. Why have a specimen—a living sculpture—sited for viewing up-close like this and use a plant that gets leaf spots and worse?

seeing gold (and more gold)

A girl cannot have enough gold, apparently. Though my obsession with gold-leaved plants has yet to show itself for 2018, since most shrubs foliage has yet to unfurl, sheets of the strange little Asian ephemeral called Hylomecon japonicum (above) joined the chorus that the Eastern wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum, or celandine poppy) began a week before (remember?).

I would still have just a single plant of it, had my friend Charles Price not yelled at me to divide and repeat, repeat, repeat, “making mosaics” of a few good plants in each garden bed to tie the place together. The video (below) explains.

more spring woodland wildflowers

Speaking of a few good plants to repeat: Two Eastern U.S. natives I cultivate, the goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), above, and merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora, top of page), are likewise having their moments, too.

I would only have one plant of each of them, too, had I not screwed up my courage to divide and divide and divide, as above with that Asian Hylomecon. A palette of my favorite early native woodland perennials are profiled at this link.

And one last thing: I could not recap the week just past without a mention of the copper European beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) that has grown for maybe 25 years just beyond the mini-meadow and those angry swallows’ house. Oh, those crazy fresh spring leaves. Oh that muscular trunk.

  • Miss the previous week accounts of 2018’s garden season? They’re all rounded up together at this link.
  1. Lee Ann Bailey says:

    I too love little bluestem. I hate to cut it down because the winter color is such a delicate copper. I’m trying to encourage it to start a bigger family. Wish me luck!

  2. Cindy Donahey says:

    Make a raised bed with your compost in the meadow. Don’t plan on mowingnit.Some kind of swirl, and plant perennial sunflower, false sunflower, and virginia spiderwort. And New England aster,. Throw in all your wildflower seeds. Daisies araentnbad. Perennial sunflowers are as bad as goldenrod.

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I have a lovely white lilac too. I don’t know what kind it is. I got a start of it from the plant that grows where I used to work. I worked in a house that was made into a business. The house was 150+years old. The neighbors that lived next door said that they had lived there over 50 years and the lilac had always been there. It blooms beautifully and smells heavenly. I can imagine how yours smells and it sure is pretty.
    Your meadow will look spectacular after this mowing. Don’t work too hard.

  4. Stella Neves Elbaum says:

    I’ve been looking for a Copper Beech tree to add to our property, but so far no luck.
    There’s something so interesting about the bark – I just want to reach out and touch it !
    We made a stab at getting a meadow going here 15 years ago – but we’ve been invaded by goldenrod , rosa rugosa and blackberry. The birds and critters enjoy it, but I can’t really get in there to clean it up anymore. I wanted low maintenance, and I’ve sure got it now !

  5. GFY says:

    I lived and worked on a small organic farm in my youth and we had a couple of compost pile’s in rows that size. When they were ready to turn, we’d definitely use the tractor. That is just too much work to do by hand! Use a tractor and do the clean up by hand, is my unasked for advice!

  6. GFY says:

    Also, re: wildlife in the meadow grass…we used to mow everything but a decent sized circle in the center which remained wild for all seasons. It looked great as well as providing 4 seasons of habitat. It worked in our area at least, but now that I think of it we did end up doing a lot of hand weeding around the farm. We may have had to do that regardless though.

    I’d love to know how much hand weeding you do in your beds. I do see that the mosaic plantings, etc probably crowd out most of them.

  7. Karen Hugg says:

    Interesting lilac. Do you know if Syringa hyacinthiflora ‘Mt. Baker’ originated in the Northwest? We have a mountain here by that name. It sounds wonderful! Thanks for the post. Cheers.

  8. Sonia says:

    Your pear espalier is beautiful! I’m trying my hand at a little espalier fruit tree “orchard” (4 trees). I wanted a sour cherry tree and after a year of trying to grow my own (epic failure) and shop for one from local nurseries I finally found ONE which I snapped up but I estimate it to be 2-3 years old. About 8’ tall with about 8-10 wholly branches. I have read about espalier but al the advice is for starting from a whip. Can I start with this older tree and if so how? Do I cut the main leader down to the lowest branches or the second lowest? Help!!

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