Decapitation at Lathrop

by Barbara Walvoord

In July 2014, this column carried the headline, “Oops, we Mowed our Meadow.” That’s because, following an old schedule, our east campus meadows were mowed in July. Mowing so early in the season decapitated the wildflowers before most of them had set seed for next year’s black-eyed susans and asters. Mowing destroyed the cover for our rabbits, mice, and voles, which in turn would be eaten by our bobcat and coyotes. Mowing took away the nectar and pollen that our birds and bees need for migration. It destroyed cocoons of overwintering insects.

Now, in collaboration with our facilities team and our landscaper, our meadows and fields are mowed in October, and 1/3 of their area is mowed each year, with 2/3 left standing. This is the practice that naturalists recommend–selective decapitation.

Why mow at all? Because in New England, every meadow want to become a woods. A look out your car window around here easily demonstrates what we read–that more and more of New England is turning back into woods, as old agricultural fields are abandoned to first shrubs and sumac, then early trees such as birches and poplars, and then to pines, maples, and oaks. Part of our Lathrop policy of land management is to keep our fields and meadows open. They provide food for many of the creatures who call our land their home, and someday, with global warming destroying farmland elsewhere, we may need our fields to grow food for US.

The mowing means that now you can walk with ease in new areas of our meadows. So try the path by the community garden around the meadow to Addison’s oak. Try starting at the blue shed and walking not just down to the mid-wood meadow, but across it, and all the way to Basset Brook (but be careful of poison ivy on that path). Look down from the bluff to the brook, and you’ll see areas where our contractor decapitated a dangerously invasive Japanese stilt grass, to keep it from setting seed. Stilt grass would completely take over our flood plain forest floor if it could. Decapitation is good!

The folks on the north campus have also been walking: Hans Van Heyst led a walk last week that brought about a dozen of them to walk through the woods along the stream, where our contractor this summer used hand tools and a weedwhacker to remove and decapitate invasive Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, and others. Years 2 and 3 of that project will occur in 2016 and 2017, and we just received a grant to pay for those final years.

So selective decapitation is what we practice at Lathrop, seeking to nurture all the many creatures with whom we share our land.

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