I put on long pants, old sneakers, and hand-me-down ear protection. March up the steep driveway to the barn. Fill the gas, check the oil. Careen down the driveway led by the four-wheeled being that calls itself "Mulcher".
One, two, three yanks and it comes alive. "I hate grass," I think. Grit my teeth and roar away led by the eager Mulcher.
I shout, "Jared, can you move this table?!" No reply. "JARED!" does not materialize, and I move the table myself. "I #$%!'ing hate grass."
The hand-me-down ear protection squeezes my head a little tighter.
I wind my way around clumps of volunteer old field asters and goldenrod, bugleweed and cinquefoil, fleabane and shagbark hickory seedlings. I chew up the multflora rose and nearly nail the wild blackberries.
The front wheel drive almost hauls me into the woods, but I quickly spin the Mulcher 180 to face the last stretch. It's the wet part of the lawn, where the grass grows three times faster and taller than the rest. It's the deal breaking section that caused us to return a loaner push-wheel mower.
I pop Mulcher into drive and aim for the knot of turf. "k-CHHHGGG, GGGrrch," cries Mulcher. I rear it back on two wheels, and Mulcher barfs out shining, green clods.
I close my eyes and slowly shake my head, "Please, Mulcher." I lower Mulcher down, and the blade briefly stops. Rear up. Clods. Down. Near stall. Rear up. Bits of grass fly. Down. Go.
"k-CHHHGGG, GGGrrch! RRrrrmmmmmmm." Full stall. I lift the mower and pull acrid smelling grass off the blade. My inner forearms turn red and itchy.
I pull the cord four times, and Mulcher gnaws the remaining lawn down to a respectable level.
We have approximately 1000 square feet of turf grass that we mow. The remaining 4/5ths of mowable area has been happily abandoned using several approaches. Our lawn is largely a meadow.
top: Muclher claims "ONE PULL START." Lies. And, "SOLID STATE IGNITION." Every musician knows tube amps are better than Solid State. What this means for lawn mowers, I have no idea.
center: Gas cans.
bottom: Pictograms help you operate Mulcher properly. Thank you, Craftsman.
Death by Oak Leaves
is a highly successful method for killing grass. Two tremendous oaks, a white and a pin, bless us with their tannin-rich leaves each season. Their buds and branches harbor insects for warblers during spring migration. Their green canopy shades in the summer. And, in autumn they let loose their acidic foliage that seems to have hands that link and stay in place year-round.
top: Grass is no match for the mighty oak leaf.
bottom: Cardboard and newspaper hidden by rocks and oak leaves at the edge of a seasonal wet part of the lawn. Grass supressed, Mulcher jobless.
Death by Compaction
usually spells the death of desirable volunteer plants, but in our case has allowed an interesting tapestry of species to thrive. Path rush (Juncus tenuis), perhaps the only species whose name I retained after taking a day long class called, Grasses, Rushes and Sedges at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, loves our "lawn". It appears along well traveled paths (it is called path rush, after all). Chicory, some yet to be identified sedges, yarrow, oldfield aster, mosses, and cinquefoil tolerate a history of compaction sometime in the past (it seems as though part of the meadow was once a driveway).
Each new year of leaf fall provides a new layer of humus and increased recruitment by native flora like boneset, Joe Pye weed, soft rush, goldenrod, and New York ironweed.
top to bottom: Signs of compaction include natives species like path rush and non-natives like mouse ear hawkweed and sorrel.
Death by Moss
is a sign of Death by Compaction, but deserves a separate treatment here. Moss grows throughout the meadow, and we selectively pull or cut back taller plants so it can thrive.
Rain and naturally moist places bring out the eternal radiance of moss. Dessicated and flattened by drought, mosses expand and grow with the advent of rain and melting snow.
Last spring, a chickadee built a nest by pulling tuft after tuft of moss from this patch. This renewalable building material will be waiting for the chickadee come spring.
Products exist to kill moss, if you use them, I suggest that you read Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer immediately.
top: Moss in a bottle.
center: The first sighting of spring beauty (Claytonia virginiana), February 13, occurred in the highly compacted moss meadow below the Japanese maple.
bottom: The clay oven is home to moss and a variety of compaction tolerant species such as Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata) below.
Death by Surprise Species
occurs when you have an excellent source seeds blowing around, wildlife to transport seeds, and the special species that can tolerate a multitude of human wrought adversities (mowing, compaction, lack of humus layer, etc.).
The north side of our house collects three important things, which bring about magical alchemy: a high drift of wind blown oak leaves, cold air and shade. In this narrow band of 'meadow' (about six feet or less) grows a youthful forest of two foot tall black birch seedlings and tall rattlesnake root (Prenanthes altissima).
Five indiviuals of ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera) have graced our meadow in two locations. In the first year of abanonment, we noticed their straplike basal leaves and combed through Peterson's and Newcomb's. Again and again.
The flower buds finally appeared and took a long time to open. When they did at last, I was shocked. A native orchid in my lawn?
SURPISE FOREST: LEFT: Black birch colonizing the "canopy gap" left by our former lawn.
Death by Encroachment
by the forest is rewarding to watch. What a relief that the earth can heal itself through a combination of intervention and non-intervention.
The forest edge was begun a forward march into our lawn. Yearly, trout lilies silently push ever closer to the house. A patch of mayapple, Virginia jumpseed, and an ash seedling crowd about the porch. A lady fern takes refuge from the sun underneath the porch. Fleabane basks in the sunnier spots and makes the approach to the porch steps ever narrower. A native loosetrife (Lysimachia sp.) is making moves from woods edge towards the house, too.
top: The forest creeps ever closer towards signs of civilization.
bottom: Cinquefoils and moss build the soil for the emerging forest.
Death by Self Sowing
occurs on the south side of the house. Unlike the cool, shaded north side, this part of the meadow receives several hours sun through spring into midsummer.
When we moved in two lonely ornamental roses bloomed in this area. 'Bloomed' is an exagerration. The yellow rose sent up a single flower that slammed against our bedroom window on windy days.
Since mowing ceased, we've battled gill-over-the-ground and stiltgrass by planting farflung native species like closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), Tennessee echinacea (Echinacea tennesseensis), and more regional natives like swamp rose (Rosa palustris) and Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).
More exciting than our additions have been the volunteers. Spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) seeded itself beside the front door. It offers a outdoor medicine cabinet for my chronic summertime case of mild poison ivy. For what it is worth in itch relief, jewelweed seems the better common name.
The arrival of Joe Pye weed and its surge to fix feet tall made each glance out the window a treat. Oldfield aster exploded next to the goldenrod. New York ironweed and boneset are finding their place.
A purplish aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum? One would expect I would have written it down, having spent until dusk trying to identify this plant with Plants of Pennsylvania and Wildflowers of the Field and Forest by my side. Usually hairless, hairy below, bristly hairy. You know what I mean?), ok, back to the aster... took refuge from he(oa)rds of deer by growing in nook between the house and porch.
top: The aster seedheads glow against dusty red aluminum siding.
center: The swamp rose sends out "suckers" a forms clumps of delicate stems covered in thin prickles. An injury by swamp rose prickles is like walking on clouds as to multiflora rose injury which is like walking on glass covered in flaming gasoline. Go native.
bottom: The meadow will one day return to forest with this red cedar leading the way.