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No-Mow at Richard Stockton

Categories: No Mow

I recently received an email from Jessica Okazaki, from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, asking about Middlebury’s no-mow program. She is interested in starting a similar project at her school. Read more at her Facebook group called “Lose the Lawn”. I’m sure she isn’t the only one thinking about this on a college campus, so I thought that rather than just responding to her alone I would turn the answers into a blog post. A couple of her questions are below.

 For my project, I am hoping to plant native plants to this pinelands region, (or even better -native endangered/threatened species if they can grow on this soil). In some areas, I think I would like native grass, similar to lawn but needs no mowing… so that the students can walk on them without killing the plants… if that’s possible…..

 I would like your tips / advice on how to prepare the right soil for native plants and some specific plants you might recommend.

 I’ll speak first about the sites you have in mind, and keep in mind I’m looking at this from 300+ miles away, and don’t know much about the Pine Barrens. Your master plan is an excellent document, and has some great insights into your landscape in general.

Middlebury College and Richard Stockton seem to have drastically different landscapes, not only ecologically but from a human standpoint as well. Your beautiful campus is considerably more condensed, surrounded by woods (at least according to Google Maps). Here at Middlebury we have a relatively large but spread out campus. Many of our no-mow zones are many acres in size, while some of the areas you have in mind look quite a bit smaller.

Our no-mow zones are simply that-areas where we have let the lawn go. Native and non-native wildflowers are infiltrating the areas, and we are achieving a nice effect of contrast between mown lawn and no-mow, helping to differentiate sections of our campus. Because of their size, we couldn’t possibly think about re-landscaping these areas with plants, or even reseeding. It would be nice to plant these areas in Meadow plants, but the labor and herbicide needed on this scale would be far too costly. Your campus, though, seems to have many little pockets of lawn that aren’t needed, and these certainly can be re-done in native grasses and wildflowers. I think, though, that I wouldn’t try to find native grass that can be walked upon by students, but think in terms of taking entire areas out of circulation completely, and leaving the trafficked areas in lawn.

The problem is the amount of traffic in small areas, especially on college campuses. We affectionately refer to these as “goat paths”. No plant can take a constant traveled lane like this, particularly fussy native wildflowers. Focus on a healthy lawn in these areas.

In terms of preparing the soil for your project, there is no way for me to give any specific recommendations from here. A soil test would be a crucial first step before anything happens. I do have some general advice, though. Based on many of your pictures posted on the Facebook group, your campus suffers from the same general problem as ours, that of soil compaction. I see in many of the rainy day pictures standing water in the lawn, and you mention that it is the lawn not able to absorb the rainfall. Truthfully, it isn’t the lawn absorbing rain, but the soil. A hard, compacted topsoil cannot soak in a rainfall, and water does tend to run off. The best cure to relieve compaction is to eliminate the stress (probably foot traffic, lawn mowers, etc.), and to add organic matter, such as compost. Aeration would certainly help as well. Rain gardens can be used where water concentrates.

Here’s a photo of a nice pine stand. No lawn underneath, but who cares? This is probably because of the soil and shade from the pines. There probably are wildflowers that would grow in an area like this, but not many. Dry shade can be tricky.

Photo by Jessica

Here’s the same area (I think, remember I’m 350 miles away), after a hard rain. This screams compaction, possibly from foot traffic heading toward the parking lot? Or was this just a heck of a rain storm?

Photo by Jessica

In terms of other soil amendments, I constantly remind myself that I can’t fight geology-you have to play the cards you are dealt. If your soil conditions are radically different compared to the plants you would like, you probably aren’t looking at the right types of plants. Lists abound of native plants and certain well-behaved non-natives appropriate for all types of soil and landscape conditions .When amending soil one really needs to amend an entire bed, not just planting holes, and these can get costly in large areas. Certainly minor adjustments, such as fixing a nitrogen deficiency aren’t terribly difficult. In general, and listen for many other horticulturists gasping in pain as they disagree, wildflowers don’t need super rich soil to thrive, certainly not like our coddled landscape plants of today.

This is the area mentioned on the Facebook group as the first area to plant. I see evidence of compaction here too.

Photo by Jessica

If I’m reading the maps and your description correctly, I like the area you’ve chosen to trial. Establishing a new bed can be difficult, and it is nice to have it surrounded by buildings/parking lots. I always think of weed infiltration-if the area you want to plant is surrounded by lawn, the seeds from those grasses and lawn weeds can blow in and make the new bed harder to maintain, as the weeds need to be removed frequently in the first couple of years to avoid the competition.(They’re called weeds for a reason!)

Another thought is to work closely with the Grounds department. One of the best parts of our no-mow program was the reduction in labor from constant mowing. We’ll be honest-some of our no-mow areas were picked because we didn’t really want to mow them (!). Some small no-mow areas you may like to plant may take 3 times as long to mow as other areas because of obstructions such as trees and planted beds. You can get a larger bang for your environmental buck by removing these slow to mow zones.

Here’s a picture from the Facebook group of an area you think should not be lawn.

 

photo credit-Jessica

To me, extending the bed from the building would add a tremendous amount of weeding that would have to be done, although it is hard to get the right context where this is on campus based on this picture. If the bed were eliminated and the entire area planted in natives the strip would still need to be mown next to the walk (tick control), leaving an awkward area in between that strip and the building.

This is a good area for no-mow-

photo by Jessica

Extending this existing bed/wild area under the trees would lose quite a bit of lawn, and look in the landscape like a logical extension of the area.

Lose the lawn here too-

Photo again by Jessica!

This area looks unused, with no doors or pathways evidenced. It also looks hard to mow, with a lot of weedwacking. A native stand of plants under the trees would look quite attractive. The trees do seem to be planted in a grid, was this supposed to be (or is) an outdoor recreation area?

Your last question, that of specific plants, I’m afraid I’ll be no use. New Jersey is a world away ecologically compared to the Champlain Valley. A little bit of googling while eating my lunch led me toward some interesting sites-like the Plants of Southern New Jersey, and some interesting work on Native Warm Season Grass Meadows, including an interesting PDF here from the New Jersey NRCS.  I liked Professor Jack Conner’s blog.

I wish you the best of luck. Let us know how it goes.

 

 

No Mow Year Three

Categories: No Mow

Well, we mowed the no-mow again (loving the oxymoron), as it was due for its spring knockdown. Like I’ve seen in quite a few farmers fields this year, it actually wasn’t a great grass year-the clovers, alfalfas, and wildflowers seem to have been able to keep pace with the spring flush of grass growth this year. We do an intitial mowing in June (early July this year, rain) to prevent long grass from being availible for deer tick egg laying, as well as giving the wildflowers a fair shot at competing against the grass. Look around Addison County, at many of the hay fields. The second cut of hay is the attractive one, the one where the alfalfa and clover really stand up, while the grass plays second fiddle. Hopefully, it will be the same in our no-mow zones with wildflowers. This year, though, the wildflowers stood out with the grass, and some early ones had started to bloom. They’ll re-bloom, even after being mown.

Observant people will have also noticed that we slightly expanded some of the no-mow areas this spring. Facilities Services, in concert with the Master Plan committee, identified some areas next to existing no-mow locations that needn’t be mowed lawn. The insight of the Master Plan committee was great to watch. With a wonderful eye for design, they expanded no-mow almost right to the front door of Bi-Hall, further shrinking what we are beginning to call Bicentennial Park, making the park like area smaller, but more readable and usable. The same effect was done up by Hadley-Milliken-Kelly-Lang, bringing the no-mow area closer to the row of dorms, making a park like space for what we are now calling Ross Commons surronded by no-mow meadow. There is a bonfire pit in the middle of the commons now, as well as a volleyball net.

There’s a wonderful article, not availible online, sadly, in the May issue of Landscape Architecture that I’ve recently read, entitled “Graduating To Green”, by Mark Hough, ASLA. It starts “The traditional American campus landscape, captured most vividly by an image of open lawns with mature canopy trees, is one of our most established, celebrated, and significant landscape typologies and is, in the 21st century, at a crossroads.” The article is very interesting, and longer than I have time to write about on a beautiful summer evening, but maybe in the next rainstorm…

Poison Parsnip

Categories: No Mow

The poison parsnip is starting to bloom on roadsides, and, being one of those plants I get asked about (and emailed about), I thought I’d fill you in on the nastiness.

Poison parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, is actually Parsnip, the root vegetable. As a vegetable, it was popular in colonial times, as it matures under a very short season, and tastes best after the cold set in. Potatoes became more popular, and parsnip escaped cultivation, and has plagued us since. Related to carrots, they haunted my childhood, not only for an ingredient in pot roast, but an unfortunate nickname through grade school. I bet I would like them now, but I just can’t bring myself to try them.

The poison comes from a chemical in the plant sap called psoralen, which reacts with the human skin to cause (ready for this?) phytophotodermatitis. In a nutshell, the sap reacts with UV sunlight, and causes mild to in some cases quite severe burns. I’ll speak from experience here-a mild case can cause red skin, like a steam burn from your tea kettle. I had full second degree burns on all exposed parts of my legs one year, blisters from shorts to socks. Oh yeah, I was just a poster child for horticulture that summer. The blisters healed after a couple of weeks, but the dark reddish brown blotches stayed for the better part of a year.

The sap is not an oil, unlike poison ivy, so it won’t linger on your clothes, pets, lawn mowers, etc. Being phytotoxic, one must come in contact with the sap in the sun in order to get the burn. When dealing with parsnip, I pick cloudy or even rainy days. It is also safe to brush up against, unlike poison ivy, as the plant does not seem to exude sap from unbroken leaves or stems.

The plant is a biennial-a rosette of leaves the first year, and flower stalks the second. (Parsnip in the store is a one year root). I find this makes eradication a little difficult. Biennials are hell-bent on flowering in their second year-if they don’t, what’s the point to life? So cut down too early, and they form many smaller flowers, and therefore more seeds, than left untouched. The best time to mow seems to be right after they flower, but before they have set seed, like you can fool mother nature that way. Unfortunately, roadside mowing seems to coincide with an earlier mowing, followed by a later mowing spreading the ripe seeds around.

It thrives on roadsides, and other poor growing locations, because the rosettes in the first year are poor competitors, and can’t keep up with a healthy stand of vegetation, such as grass. This is actually the best control method, growing better plants to choke out the parsnip. Other control methods go all medieval, by digging, ripping, pulling,repeated mowing,  or just plain cursing the plant out of exisitence. Seeds of parsnip are viable in the soil for up to four years, so vigilance is required. A little herbicide does wonders, if you are so inclined.

Wild parsnip can be found on parts of campus, but not on campus proper. It is along the road down by the recycle center, in such a large patch to make control nearly impossible. Thanks to a timely email from Peter Ryan, there is none in the no-mow zones. His eyes are better than mine. If anyone else in blog-land sees a single plant or two creeping up on campus, let us know. Here’s some pictures taken today along Bi-Hall Road of a couple of plants I found. It’s best to recognize your enemy.

Planting No-Mow

Categories: No Mow

In the previous  No-Mow post, I wrote about the expense of planting the areas to native wildflowers, and how we’d hoped to manage in such a way that they might just come around. Well, as it turns out, most of the world is smarter than I, and someone named Molly (thanks!) posted a comment about volunteers collecting seed from native plants.

I have the pleasure of occasionally working with Professor Helen Young’s Plant Biology class, and she has a wonderful Community Service Project component to her class.  For 10 hours or so in a semester, groups of students do some community service related to plant biology. We had one of the groups jump on the idea of the comment and do some seed collecting of natives. (More on the other groups later-I am always amazed and astounded at the dedication and high quality work I see from all the students I interact with.)(And they’re all smarter than to end a sentence in a preposition like the previous one I just wrote…)

Elissa Bullion, Catharina Grubaugh, Miriam Johnston, and Anne Runkel collected seeds from 29 native plants growing around Middlebury College. The work involved identification, collection, and quite a bit of research into the murky and conflicted field of seed germination and propagation. I have sitting in front of me a 15 page report on all the seeds collected and their germination requirements, along with a large envelope full of packets of seeds. Collection locations included Emily May’s pollinator garden at Bi-Hall, Ridgeline, the Garden of the Seasons, behind Ross and Atwater, the Atwater Roof, and the organic garden.

Local provenance is important in wildflowers, particularly in marginal species. The students were even smart and nice enough to collect seeds from several sources and several locations when possible, furthering the genetic pool. The plan is to grow the plants in the greenhouse this spring, probably in 50 count plug trays, and plant them out in the no-mow zones after our first cut in May.

Free Press Article

Categories: No Mow

The Burlington Free Press wrote about the No-Mow program here at the school. The article adds comments from the blog posting, and will be expanded and published in the Free Press soon. I missed talking with him for this article, he’d called and I was out goofing off on a day with the kids.

No Mow

Categories: No Mow

It’s an unfortunate name for a great concept, but we can’t seem to come up with something better. As was talked about in this article, our landscape department has chosen about 20 acres we are actively ignoring. Well, that’s not quite true, there is nothing that is no maintenance in landscape, no matter what the gardening books or magazines say. I thought I would take this opportunity to expand more on the Middlebury College no mow program, what we’re doing, why, and some of the management concepts. More