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Milkweed

By 7;35 Monday 15 June I had looked out my bathroom window to see a pair of grackles mating in front of the bird feeder and stepped out on the porch to catch the first romps of a fawn. The Scrooge in me said, “damn, more of them!” but as a patroness of the meadow, I also had to admit to the privilege of such witnessing.

The fawn was adorable — all covered in speckles and testing its legs by racing around in wide circles. Its mother was trying to catch up with it to finish licking off the amniotic sac. Cute but not cute enough to want deer around.

Advice on eliminating or at least substantially reducing Lyme and other tick-borne diseases is to cull the deer population by 90%. Erring on the conservative side, which would not be my preference, would cull this pack who appeared in April back to three. Even that would be a relief. In a restructured, post-covid world, I’d love to see resources spent on such a project. It would pay for itself I’m sure in the savings for the medical treatments and the reduced disabilities, which can be life-long, resulting from the disease. But here are photos of the other reason I could do with fewer deer: the chomping they do on plants. Images from before deer browse and after.

In the returning or emerging from hibernation category, I recently had my first good look (even if the photo isn’t) from that same bathroom window at the groundhog. My neighbors lent me their very large have-a-heart trap when I had evidence he was out of hibernation even if I hadn’t yet seen him. That was a couple of months ago. I pondered briefly what I would do once I had the groundhog in the trap, but decided those odds were so long that I could postpone giving that any thought. How right I was. Although last year this groundhog eat large helpings of kale from the veggie garden, he did not fall for kale as bait when in the trap. He is supposed to love cantaloupe as well. Not this one. My success with the trap was in causing the groundhog to move from under the folly back to his previous haunt under the kayaks. He’s still a free groundhog.

In the long interval of not catching him, he’s had time to break into the garden. So far he hasn’t. Scott finished re-enforcing the perimeter fence with 4-foot quarter-inch hardware cloth buried 2 feet. If this is the new deal: groundhog eats clover flowers in the grass but nothing in the veggie garden, I can return the trap to my neighbors and congratulate myself for not wasting time wondering what to do with a captured animal.

Other returners include the Baltimore orioles and the Ruby-throated hummingbirds who came back on schedule. And while I can’t count bees are returning, I unpacked a nuc of Carnolian bees into a hive on Monday. The nuc with its five busy frames of bees and a marked queen (blue dot) is henceforth the way I will replenish my bee yard. My previous method of renewing a hive by buying a package of bees is history.

Baltimore orioles at feeder

In the missing category — and this is serious — are the monarchs who have not returned. In past years, they have come back sometime in the first 2 weeks of June. Last year they were here on Flag Day. The milkweed is ready for them, and this year’s crop is a good one. I can’t imagine what a loss it will be if they don’t arrive. The privilege of monitoring this old field will be drastically diminished. More importantly, what does this foretell of the crisis facing the Monarch population? I’ll trade deer for the Monarchs.

With apologies to William Cronin for taking his title, this is an update on changes in my land — the old field, the wood lot and the election.

First the old field. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, the larval host to the beleaguered Monarch butterfly, and various Goldenrods, Solidago, are reclaiming territory from the intensely hearty switch grass, Panicum virgatum, planted a decade ago atop the then new septic field. Switch grass prevented the Little blue stem, Schizachyrium scoparium, also planted in the disturbed soil of the sewer project, from taking hold. But in the last season or two, volunteer (i.e., not planted) forbs have pushed the grass back at least 10 feet.

My opinion carries little weight in this rebalancing especially since I’m disinterested (so far) in intervening. Yet I feel some relief. The Switch grass appears intrepid enough to march all over the meadow, if given free reign. Since I would not want that, maybe I can count on the Goldenrod and Milkweed to keep the Switch grass in bounds. Switch grass, like all tall prairie grasses, roots deeply to anchor its sod-forming clumps, so an assist from the forbs would be welcome.

In the wet lower portion of the field, another competition with a a less desirable outcome unfolded this summer. Again Goldenrod species were involved. This time they pushed the Joe-pye weeds, Eupatorium, into retreat but not extinction. Again, my opinion doesn’t matter; this part of the field is spared my trespass because it is too boggy. But I like the Joe-pyes with their pink and violet clustered flowers; they break the monotony of the Goldenrods. May they rage back next summer!

Second the wood lot. Winter storm, Nemo, of 2013 felled nearly half of a century old White pine in the wood lot. The tree never recovered. This summer’s drought may have been the final straw. The losers here are the birds, especially the woodpeckers, who have banged away at its bark for generations. The oaks behind the pine will have a better shot at some sunlight. The wood lot will evolve.

Dead White pine

Dead White pine

Finally, my country. It’s Election Day guaranteeing changes in my wider land. The Economist, based on “opinion polls, betting markets and forecasters,”  suggests a 20 to 30% chance that Trump can win the presidency. It makes various grim analogies for that probability to rain on a given day in London or rolling a 6 on a dice. This “probably won’t happen. But history is made by low-probability, high-impact events, and a Trump win would certainly be that,” writes the journal.

I’m rooting hard (prying desperately?) for the higher probability outcome of a Clinton victory. That would be the better change for the land.

The meadow experiment this year has been to mow only the paths.

That practice was most successful in meadow restoration terms in the boggiest areas where the Goldenrod and Joe Pye weed have grown into a dense mass of yellow and pink. Together they have squeezed out the Thistle and driven the invasives to a less visible position close to the ground. And the Dodder of last year has not returned. This section will get mowed before winter so the plants will not have to be disturbed in the spring. A fall mowing every other year may be just what the bog requires.

The boggy meadow

The boggy meadow.

In the driest section of the field where the soil is the poorest, skipping a mowing in the spring seems to have made almost no difference: the warm season grasses that grow there have regrown on schedule. The poor soil seems to have kept succession in check. Perhaps a spring mowing every second year is what this “desert” needs.

The poor soil portion of the field

The poor soil portion of the field: forbs in the foreground and warm season grasses above.

Moving up the meadow, the ground slopes ever so slightly to the west and the soil must improve because cool season grasses crop up among the warm. Here the no-mow plan seems to have allowed for a gain for the forbs like these Black-eyed Susans which appeared for the first time in great masses this year.

Black-eyed Susans in early July

Black-eyed Susans in early July.

The extra weeks of growing that the no-mow plan gave herbaceous plants allowed them to take over ground left after the Bittersweet succumbed to Triclopyr. Milkweed and Goldenrod but also Asters, Poke Weed, Pearly Everlasting, Agastache and (the non-native) Tansy took advantage of the opening.

The western end of the meadow that had been overrun by Bittersweet is now a jumble of herbaceous plants some might call weeds.

The western end of the meadow that had been overrun by Bittersweet is now a jumble of herbaceous plants (with some Deer tongue grass) some might call weeds as it looks today.

The score after a season of the no-mow plan seems to be forbs one, graminoids zero. Neither the cool nor the warm season grasses appear to have spread with the no-mow plan. The real losers might be the invasives. (The meadow keeper hopes that Zeus is not reading this blog; he would be loading a thunderbolt with orange roots and berries for flinging directly next to the bee hives as recompense for such hubris). Bittersweet and Black Swallow wort appear to be on the decline though of course not gone.

There may be another loss, an aesthetic one. Mowing in the late spring knocks the cool season grasses and the herbaceous plants back giving the warm season grasses a break — just as it’s supposed to. Without that assist, Little Bluestem, Broom Sedge, Switch Grass and the other warm season native grasses will have have to share the stage with the less balletic Goldenrod when they start bowing with the fall breezes.

No-mow as a practice has come to an end. Management of the meadow will now follow a mowing schedule for each habitat of the field.