May 5, 2010

Meadow Care Services

Our half acre lot is surrounded by what I call a meadow when it's blooming and a weed patch otherwise.  It can look nice, but it can also look ratty and unkempt.
Nan Ondra at Hayefield posted a long and thought provoking article about managing a former unmowed pasture.  In it, she describes her frustration with invasives taking over, the high level of maintenance needed, the explosion of voles that damage woody plants, and a general unease with what to do with wild landscape.

Our weed meadow surrounds our small lot, with ornamental woody plants right up against the vole field.  It's not a pristine wild natural area; formerly it was a cow pasture, then it was abandoned to opportunistic growth, and then it was scraped away by the builder and left open, to welcome in the pioneers of disturbed earth: poison ivy, multiflora rose, autumn olive, bittersweet, oxeye daisy and Queen Anne's Lace.  And Japanese barberry I just discovered.  All of which can be pretty at times.

At one corner we have an invasive species study lab: the stand in the photo below is made up entirely of eastern cottonwood saplings (including a big dead cottonwood rising behind), and autumn olive shrubs.  Growing in and around, unseen in the greenery, are massive canes of multiflora rose, and some oriental bittersweet.  I actually like the irregular shape of this clump from afar, but up close it's a mess.

We don't own the wild area.  We live in a planned community with a homeowner's association, and one of the attractions of this neighborhood is the common open area.  There is no pool or community center, just a pond, meadows, fields, some woods, all surrounding the suburban lots.  None of it is usable for walking or recreating, since it's all brambles and brush and deer ticks.  But it's really beautiful in a macro kind of way, viewed from the top of the ridge.

But at the individual homeowner level, up close, the transition areas between lots and common areas are a problem.  We mow to the edge, and then abruptly the meadow takes over.  The area is not ours to do with as we want, but neither is it maintained in any way.  Our association dues don't cover any kind of mowing, brush hogging, removal of unwanted plants, or even putting in any desirable trees.  It just sits.

And there are 66 other homes with strips of unmaintained area and swaths of aggressive weeds around them.  In a completely wild system far from human habitation, the multiflora rose and some stronger native shrubs and trees would battle out a balance and form a tangled wild landscape.  But a tangled wild landscape directly abutting and completely surrounding suburban lots is a problem.

Our lot is new, the field bulldozed 5 years ago, so the wild area is still low and just establishing.  But other parts of the association were built long ago, and the homeowners near the pond have 20 years of woody succession plants reforesting the edge of their lots.  When they asked the association to finally do some pruning, brush hogging and clearing so the pond would be visible and their back lots opened up, a hue and cry ensued.
The controversy was intense.  Some neighbors wanted nothing touched, "leave nature alone".  Others thought the messy weedy woody overgrowth was an eyesore, "clear it out and keep it mowed".  No one had any idea of the best way to manage this wild area; there were only two choices: total abandonment and total leveling once every 20 years.  In the end some parts were brush hogged, the rest left untouched.  A compromise employing the two extremes, just for that area, but it left unresolved what to do about all the other acres of brush growing behind everyone else's lot.

We asked the association if we could mow the common area behind us once a year, to keep the meadow low and to halt the progression of brambles and brush.  We do it at our own expense.  And I started nurturing the volunteer ash and silver maple saplings that were sprouting on the hillside where you see brown circles of mulch.  (It isn't really a hillside, it's a scar that was bulldozed out of the slope when they "flattened" our lot.)

In 2005

In 2010
I'd like the trees to grow to be a little forest for screening (I've actually added saplings I bought), and I'd like to keep the flat area meadow-like.  But it isn't my area, and there is still a strong component of neighbors who want all the common areas left alone, even the areas dug out by the builder and left as open dirt... not a natural environment in any way.  You don't get a natural meadow or a forest or a pasture by leaving disturbed dirt in the open. 

Encouraging trees while keeping voles and deer and choking poison ivy and bittersweet vines away from them is a challenge.  Mowing once a year is hard work and does nothing to improve the weediness of what grows back.  And 65 other homeowners have conflicting ideas about what should be done. 

The best idea?  Nan Ondra had it.  She left a response to my comment on her blog post:

some clever person might be able to make a great business out of meadow management: mowing, controlling invasives, burning, rotational grazing, and so on. If private landowners and communities could access a resource like this as readily as they can lawn care services, maybe they’d be more open to replacing some turf with meadows.

I love this idea.  Landscapers, Garden Coaches, Mowing and Blowing Guys: Meadow Care Services --- are you interested?


  1. My in-laws live in a community that sounds similar to yours. The common ground was always a problem, until they formed a Grounds Committee. Even then, trying to get the msjority of homeowners to agree on anything was difficult. But now, the common ground has been cleared of anything invasive and there are walking trails through it.

  2. Maybe you should borrow some goats or sheep and let them clear the ground. Just the thought of poison ivy creeping in gives me the shivers. Birds plant this in my garden all the time. I have to be vigilant since I am allergic to it. Your forest will be pretty when it is established.

  3. Here what would happen if the place was left alone would be Loblolly Pines, Red Maple and Sweetgums with a rather unfortunate understory of Chinese Privet. I can't hate the Japanese Honeysuckle, the fragrance is too wonderful. I can hate Multiflora Rose, for the role it has played in the spread of RRD.

    Clearing an area of invasives is a never-ending and darned near or completely impossible task.

    In the end, trees would take over and you'd probably end up with woodland edge habitat, which tends to be pretty lively.

  4. My thinking is that eventually it will all turn to woodland if left alone, but that will take years. I like the idea of having it managed and putting walking trails through it. Otherwise, plant native trees, and let it be.

  5. Deborah, the original plan for this development was to include walking trails through the wild parts, but the funds were never there to build or maintain them. It would have been nice.

    Lisa, Nan Ondra's original post included grazing as a way to control pastures and meadows. It works!

    Sweet bay, we battle different plants, but the challenges are the same. I'd like a forest of maples and sweet gums! The saplings here get choked by roses and bittersweet before they reach size, though.

    Deborah, I'd love a mature woodland like you have to put walking trails through. It's getting to that stage that is the problem... the little trees get out-competed unless I help them by clearing and controlling what I can.


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