Saturday, January 16, 2016

Inspired by "A Buzz in the Meadow" by Dave Goulson

My "meadow" of weedy Mediterranean annual grasses
Dave Goulson is a professor of biology at the University of Southampton in the U.K. He has a special interest in bees and a desire to do long-term studies of wild bees in their natural habitat.

There are just two problems with that: it’s hard to find funding for long term studies, and it’s hard to find a natural habitat, or even any habitat, unaffected by neonicotinoid pesticides.

So Goulson bought a farm in the Charente region of France, complete with mouldering farmhouse (his description of its wild inhabitants is just wonderful), and there he set about creating from scratch the kind of flower-rich hay meadow that has supported European wildlife for thousands of years.

Like heathland, such ancient meadows are not wild places. They are a semi-natural habitat type, probably created by Bronze Age settlers. Here is a description from the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism web site:
Semi-natural pastures and meadows are typified by extensive farming using traditional breeds of livestock, and have a relatively low productivity compared with intensively managed grasslands. They are central to the concept of High Nature Value farming and are profoundly valuable for the large range of ecosystem services they provide. For example, globally more carbon is stored in grasslands than in forests. … Semi-natural pastures include not only grasslands but also other vegetation communities used for grazing and browsing, such as heathlands, scrublands and wood pastures. [T]hese various semi-natural communities … all require continued grazing and/or mowing for their maintenance.
This is a description of heathlands from the Forestry Commission of England website):
Lowland heathlands and their wildlife have developed through a process of tree removal, grazing and burning that in some areas continues today. … Lowland heathland is a rare and threatened habitat. It supports many different types of rare plants and animals and is a priority for conservation.
It reminds me of our beautiful, flower-rich California meadows and coastal prairies.

John Muir wrote: “None of Nature's landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.” (“The Wild Parks and Forest Reservations of the West.”) But many of California meadows were extensively managed by humans for thousands of years, through burning, seed scattering and other means. This prevented encroachment by shrubs and trees, promoted growth of useful species such as those with edible bulbs and seeds, and made hunting easier by keeping the views open.

It's worth mentioning that not all California meadows (or prairies to be more precise) would close up and disappear without such interventions. But human action extended and protected them, because they were useful.

Unfortunately more recent human intervention has had the opposite effect, here in California and in Europe. Prairies and meadows have been reduced to remnant fragments by modern agriculture and urban development.

Goulson has inspired me to try and create a meadow in part of our property that has been covered in invasive Mediterranean grasses since long before we moved in.

A meadow - starting with about 40 purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) seedlings!
It probably wasn’t a meadow before the developer shoved the top of the ridge over the north side to make a platform for our house. It was probably clad in redwoods and other evergreen trees. But those Mediterranean grasses have been happy here for a long time, and I have hopes I can replace them with a meadow-like garden, using local natives whose seeds I've gathered. I have four native grass species, and some flowering perennials to get things going.

Purple needlegrass from seed gathered half a mile away. Fun to begin with our state grass!

So -- we’ll see – hopefully I’ll have more to say about it in future posts. Good things I hope!


Janet said...

I'm curious to know what the other grasses you're planting in your meadow are. I've been trying to establish some sort of interpretation of coastal prairie in my yard for several years, but still haven't gotten on top of the weeds. There's hope now that I'm retired. My "backbone" grass is Danthonia californica. Love your blog by the way, found it by looking for espalier toyon. Thanks for all your Toyon lore!

Country Mouse said...

Hi Janet, and apologies for the delay in responding. Sometimes I don't see those emails awaiting approval lurking in the background somewhere. And thanks for your kind words!

Getting on top of weeds is really priority one. It's worth delaying until you have done that. Whether by mulching for a year or two or continuously growing the weeds and turning them in - though that can just turn up more weeds. It might be possible to grow something else in the mulch for a while to give extra shade, like salvias or something.

You should see the area I took those photos of now! I'll have to post about it. The area really got away from me - and I let it all go to seed! This year I'll be on it, I swear -- I'm back to square one with the seeds. Fortunately they're mostly annual grasses with seeds viable for only a year or so.

My plan for this year is to plant small patches and just mulch the rest or keep it weed-whacked and low - that way the grasses don't get to set seeds.

I can't really comment yet on what other grasses. I haven't figured out mine except three or four cool season grasses. Your best bet is to find out what your local grasses are, through CNPS "what grows here" web site or contacting someone at an arboretum or etc. -- and that is advice that I'll take too!