If you walked past the meadows at Little Long Pond this summer, you probably noticed we mowed a few square patches into the grass. These patches represent the early ‘experimental’ stages of our meadow restoration efforts. Before I explain this restoration, I will describe the meadows and their recent land use history.
The Bracy Family were early settlers who established farms around Little Long Pond (then ‘Bracy Pond’) in the early 19th century. Our meadows are relics of these old farms. We do not know exactly what the Bracys raised in their fields but judging by what we know about 19th century New England agriculture and the grasses we find there today, it looks like they were supporting livestock by growing forage and hay plants, mostly exotic grasses. Today, we find Kentucky bluegrass (native to northern Maine), as well as exotic grasses including orchardgrass, bromegrass, timothy, and clover. Reed canary grass is also present, regarded as invasive but has complicated origins.
While these plants no doubt served an important role when the land was under cultivation, they do not exactly fit in with our local ecosystem. Being exotic (coming from far away), they did not coevolve with our local plants and animals and thus underperform as sources of food, shelter, pollen, and nectar. The alternatives to these exotic plants are native plants (plants that were here before European settlement), which have supported our wildlife for millennia and mix very well with the surrounding environment. The bond between native wildlife and native plants is as clear as it is breathtaking: our goldfinch specializes on thistle; monarchs need the milkweed; willows flower first and feeds the early-flying bees; and turkey, deer and bear rely on ‘hard mast’ trees (beech, oak, and hickory) for survival – the many examples could fill a book.
Loads of native plants thrive in sunny environments such as our meadows but they are not present at Little Long Pond. We might expect pearly everlasting, common milkweed, fireweed, New England aster, boneset, dogbane, or vervain – but they are missing. Our meadow restoration program will slowly decrease the area dominated by exotic plants and increase the area dominated by native plants. Our goal is not to get rid of every blade of timothy, rather it is to increase the meadow’s plant diversity to better support our wildlife. So now you should understand why we are restoring parts of the meadow, but you still may be thinking ‘how?’.
Slowly. Carefully. Cautiously. This work will take many years of experimenting in the meadows to see which plants thrive in which spots. The meadows are not just one, homogenous habitat. If you walk through you will realize that there are dry spots, damp spots, moist spots, wet spots, and really wet spots. Also, there are rocky areas and sandy areas, north facing slopes and south facing slopes. The meadows are mostly underlain by deep beds of marine clay which are sloppy in the spring and hard as rock in the summer drought. If you are a plant, it is a tough place to make a living.
Given these realities, it is feasible that of the seven species listed above, only two find the meadow a suitable habitat. Therefore, we are starting small and trying different ways of establishing these plants. Last year, our propagator Jon grew plants from seed, and we planted them (quart size) into the meadow in July. In the next few weeks, we will be sowing seeds into prepared sites. Every season we will gain more knowledge about what is working, and we will adjust. The small squares that you see in the meadow are the sites of these small experiments. Feel free to email me or stop me out at Little Long Pond to talk about this important work – it is very exciting!
Please be careful not to walk through these sites and more importantly please do not allow your dogs to run over or dig up the plants. Once we have a better idea what will thrive in the meadows, we will likely increase the scale of our restoration plots.
Even with all this experimentation, most of the meadows will look and feel just as they always have. Our restoration work will only focus on the small areas that are completely dominated by exotic grass not in the areas where native plants are well represented among the exotic grasses. One thing you can expect to see is more color (from flowers) throughout the growing season. Great news – our vast blueberry patches are native and here to stay. Blueberries are an important source of nectar for our native bees and who doesn’t want to stop in August a pick some berries?