Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mowing the Meadow: Part 2

Standing to watch for what I'm mowing and what I don't want to mow.

When mowing the meadow I spend a lot of time standing up on the tractor foot rests so I can see down into the tall vegetation. This helps me to spot things I don't want to mow (butterfly weed, box turtles, etc), and holes or mounds I don't want to roll over. Every once in a while the wheels roll over and anthill or tree stump or rock and the tractor lurches up into the air. This is how farmers (and weekend farmers like me) get hurt. So I try to stick to mowing parts of the farm I know well and I often do a walk around before mowing to mark areas to protect or to avoid.

Performing mechanical voodoo on the old MF 135.

At some point in every mowing session, the tractor stops and I have to figure out what's wrong and try to fix it. Living as we do in a remote, rural area, I can't run down the street to the parts store or call up the neighborhood tractor mechanic. Well, I can, but it's about $100 just to get someone to drive out for a look-see. Most of the problems I am able to fix, which gives me a certain amount of pride and satisfaction. After two decades of editing and writing—more of which is always waiting to be done—it's nice to get the hands greasy fixing something that, when you fix it, it's done!

I feel the same way about mowing, plowing, grading the drive, cutting and hauling wood. It's nice to do hard work that has visible, tangible results.

Appreciating the results of a big job well done is something I learned from my dad, Bill Thompson, Jr. As a boy I hung around my dad when he was working on a weekend handyman project, asking him questions, fetching tools, consulting on important decisions. I remember helping him to build an enclosed cart to haul the trash cans out our driveway to the curb. We used spare lumber, old tricycle wheels and the handle from a rolling golf bag holder. I'm sure we could have just gone out and bought a wagon, but where's the fun in that? I remember my dad asking my advice on various stages of the project and somehow I always came up with an answer that pleased him. After the cart was built, we sat back admiring our craftsmanship, Dad with a beer, me with a Frostie rootbeer. Admiring is the best part of a project.
A seven-year old BOTB with BT2 in Florida in 1970.

My Saturday of meadow mowing also involved attacking and destroying some rather nasty patches of Canada thistle, raspberry canes, and multiflora rose brambles. These were in the area between the west side of our house and the orchard, and on the east side of the house, where once there grew a wildflower meadow. The multiflora rose bushes were sprawling: a dozen feet wide and almost as tall. The sparrows and cardinals were a bit bummed out initially, this was the thickest cover near to the feeding station. But they soon adjusted their flight paths to come in via the pines and birches. I was sorry to remove this bit of habitat, but it was beginning to take over the ground and make it impossible to move through or even see through.

Mowing the multiflora in the side yard. Photo by Phoebe Thompson.

This young sedge wren thought our shrubby meadow was the perfect place for a fall migration rest stop.

Phoebe and Chet running out the middle meadow path.

We use the meadow as our standard walking route. The kids run out the meadow paths. Chet chases the deer and bunnies that romp along the mowed paths—all animals, it seems, prefer to go where the walking is easy. We catch regular glimpses of skunks and turkeys and grouse and the occasional fox or coyote trotting along the paths.


An early autumn view of the meadow, viewed from the tower.

The same tower view following this spring's mowing.

After the mowing was done, and Liam and I had a Hotdog Brothers' lunch, I grabbed a glass of cold water and walked out onto the deck to admire the changes I had wrought.

Looking across the yard, past where the wildflower meadow used to be. I hope to plow and re-plant it soon.

By mid-summer the wildflowers will be up and blooming, butterflies visiting the coneflower, rudbeckia, Joe Pye weed, goldenrod, and milkweed. The grass will be thick and green in the meadow. I'll let it grow all summer and through the fall. Next winter I'll be happy to see the field, tree, song, and Lincoln's sparrows, and the juncos, goldfinches and pine siskins feasting on the grass seeds that were produced by a summer of growth following an early spring mowing.

The meadow will look like this next fall after the first hard frost.

And when, on some February morning, the meadow is covered in frost and snow, I'll walk out along the middle meadow path and check for the inevitable growth of brush and saplings, and I'll start thinking about when and where I'll be mowing in the early spring.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Habitat Maintenance: Mowing the Meadow

The meadow is left standing during the winter to provide food and shelter for birds and wildlife.

One of the joys of having a chunk of rural land to call your own is that you can gaze upon it and pretend you are the lord of all you survey. One of the negatives to being such a lord is that you have to do some work to maintain that land if you don't want Nature to take her inevitable (and not always desirable) course.

We own 80 acres of southeastern Ohio woodland, orchard, and meadow. The woodland is recovering from decades of logging and livestock over-grazing. The orchard is too old to produce meaningful fruit (so we're letting it die a meaningful death). And the meadow is trying its level best to turn into future woodland. Maintaining the woodland is not hard. We post it against hunters (this reduces the number of hunters using our land), we tell the loggers to buzz off, and we watch the trees grow far beyond their relatives on most neighboring tracts of land.

To maintain the orchard, we watch the apple trees die and decay, cut up the trees that fall across the paths, and harvest the raspberries and morel mushrooms when they appear. This spring I noticed that most of our ash trees are dead—making me wonder if we now host the emerald ash borer.

Maintaining the meadow takes more time, effort, and machinery. It is about 10 acres of rolling grass, wildflower, weeds, saplings, and shrubs. We do our best to keep it open and to fight off the exotics that try to take over. So far we're losing the battle with the Japanese honeysuckle, but winning against the pampas grass, hawthorn, and Russian olive. I mow three paths through the meadow: upper, middle, and lower and we maintain nest boxes along them for bluebirds, tree swallows, and other cavity nesters.
If left alone and unmowed, the meadow would soon become too woody for many species, including bluebirds.

I also have to mow the rest of the meadow periodically to keep it from getting too woody. To accomplish this I have an old Massey Ferguson 135 tractor, slightly older than I am, with a bush-hog-style mowing deck. It took me a while to get used to this tractor—my second one after my 1953 Massey TO-35 gave up the ghost two years ago. This one is more powerful, and thankfully, more reliable.
The Massey Ferguson 135. The bars on the front protect the radiator and push over stubborn brush and saplings.

Each spring I get the tractor running in late March to mow the meadow. It's a seasonal race to get this done before the grassland-nesting birds are back. Once we hear the first peents of the male woodcock, we know the clock is ticking: I'll need to get the tractor running and the woodiest parts of the meadow mowed. If I wait too long or if the weather is too wet on the days I am home and free, or if the tractor won't start, the birds might start nesting and them I won't be able to mow until fall, when nesting is done.

Among the species that nest in our meadow or along the weedy, brushy edges are prairie warbler, blue-winged warbler, song sparrow, field sparrow, chipping sparrow, indigo bunting, gray catbird, brown thrasher, American woodcock, northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, tree swallow, and common yellowthroat. At one point, when the meadow was grazed (before we owned this land) there were probably eastern meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows nesting here. Now the surrounding woods are too big. The meadowlarks come and look around, but they never stay to nest.
The meadow is lush and green in July.

Some years I just mow half of the meadow, letting the other half grow out a bit. But for the past few years, the sapling stubs and shrub bits from the previous year's mowing have grown so fast (I guess because they already have root systems) that by fall the meadow looks like an old neglected pasture with waist-high trees rising above the goldenrod, bluestem grass, and ironweed.

On Saturday, April 4, the day dawned clear and sunny, if a little cold. I was just getting over a bad cold myself but I knew I needed to get some of the meadow mowing done. I put on my boots, old jeans, work shirt and barn jacket and went out to the garage to begin wrestling with the tractor. I greased all the joints on the tractor with my grease gun, check the fluid levels, tire pressure, and the three-point hitch, then I climbed aboard and turned the key. To my utter shock, the tractor burst into life, rising to a perfect roar as I pushed in the choke and raised the throttle. I raised the mowing deck to transport level and trundled out of the garage toward the meadow.

Looking at our meadow I noticed that there were sumac saplings everywhere. Sumac is native and a great wildlife food source in winter. It grows incredibly fast, too. Every single sumac stalk was bitten off at a height of about four feet, evidence that our white-tailed deer population had a hard winter if they needed to eat the tips of sumac saplings. The rest of the meadow's plant community was a twiggy, thorny stew of multiflora rose (exotic), Virginia pine, deciduous tree saplings (oak, maple, poplar, ash, you name it), grasses both native and exotic, weeds and wildflowers—especially the aforementioned goldenrod, et al.

I lowered the deck, engaged the power take-off and the mowing bladed started their whirring song. As I lifted my foot off the clutch, the engine faltered for a second until it gathered the additional power it needed. I rattled the engine into first gear, the gear speed into H for high, and I was off, out the middle meadow path, slaying and laying low anything taller than four inches that was in my path.
Mowing in the spring of 2006.

I am not a destructive person, but I do enjoy the feeling of well-used machinery applied to a large job. And I get a bit of "Zenning-out" time when I mow on the tractor. I wear gloves and hearing and eye protection always. And I try to watch carefully for precious plants, anthills, woodchuck holes, fallen trees, box turtles, rabbit nests, black snakes, nesting birds, cowering fawns, lost whiffle balls, and anything else that should not be mowed. When the coast is clear, I get some pretty good thinking done on my tractor.

More about this topic tomorrow.


Liam loves to sit on the tractor when I drive it. Chet just barks at it all the time. Here, Chet is about to pee on the wheel.

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