Thursday, October 22, 2020
The Work Behind a Natural-looking Meadow--Smoyer Park in Princeton
There are places where native diversity happens without intervention. I've known a few, where the original hydrology is intact, and introduced species have yet to invade, and fire is allowed to sweep through periodically and beneficially, as in ancient times, and the soil still holds within it the seeds to feed all the stages of succession, from field to shrubland to forest.
But not here in the middle of Smoyer Park, which had been a farm before it became ball fields. Plowed, regraded, planted with exotic turf grasses, this land had long since lost its native seed bank. Soil has a memory, as do we, composed of all the seeds that have fallen there and have yet to sprout. That memory is erased when plowed or bulldozed, as so much of America has been. Into the void will fall the seeds of mostly nonnative, weedy species that will lead to discouraging results for anyone who tries a romantic "just let it all grow" approach.
Bringing back natural, then, takes work. For an analogy, think of all the parenting needed to raise a child, all the emotions that need to be understood, the impulses that need to be steered in a healthy direction, all the parts of self that can get buried and forgotten along the way. There's plenty that can go wrong during that perilous journey to adulthood, and if it does, even more intervention is needed to regain that sense of comfort within one's own skin.
Nature has been profoundly traumatized, and yet many people somehow expect it to spring back without ongoing assistance. As with parenting, it's hard to have success in the absence of love. Most of the world's love and attention is directed somewhere other than towards nature, which explains why our suburban landscapes seldom receive more than custodial care--weekly visits of mow, blow, and go by crews indifferent to the land and its promise.
planted with native grasses and wildflowers four years ago. Many would assume that nothing more was needed to create a healthy meadow, and would have walked away thinking "mission accomplished." But as with a baby, birth is really just the beginning. I looked upon the detention basin's bare expanse, seeds planted but yet to sprout, with an eye for all that could go right and all that could go wrong. Over time, it has taken only a couple hours of attention now and then to steer the planting in the right direction, but those few strategic hours, catching problems early, has made a big difference. In a sense, the planting resides within me. It is part of my internal calendar, rising into my thoughts often enough to prompt action.
Here is an account of the many kinds of plants that can make things go right or wrong when a detention basin is converted from exotic turfgrass to native meadow. (Click on the "read more" to continue.)
Canada thistle is another invasive weed that could spread aggressively if not countered. It's been the ruin of many a neglected garden around town.
The wet meadow can also be thought of as akin to a playground, where the monitor is keeping an eye out for bad actors--bullies who don't play well with others. My job (self-appointed and unpaid, since the world's money goes to mowing rather than tending to complex plantings), is to catch the aggressive plants before they go to seed or spread underground, and to add more native species that are likely to thrive without taking over. To do so means knowing the look and behavior not only of the intended plants but also the unintended ones that come in on their own. If all goes well, the plants and pollinators will flourish, and a passerby will stop, admire, and take a photo, thinking it all natural.