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Invitation to a Wild Party

Rural Intelligence StyleAccording to local legend, a few years ago, Midwesterners Linda Horn and Allan Davidson threw a dart at a map of the Northeast, and it landed on Spencertown, NY, where they have lived and gardened ever since.  This weekend, Horn, an artist, invites anyone who is interested to their property to sip lemonade and view the one-acre meadow of native forbs and grasses she planted from seed five years ago. While most gardens are starting to slow at the end of July, Horn’s dramatic presentation of wildflowers and tasseling native grasses is peaking, as is the traffic of spectacular bird-and-insect life that the ecologically-sound landscape of little bluestem grass, Indian grass, sedges, and forbs supports.  Horn, who, true to her Midwestern roots, prefers the term “prairie” to “meadow,” spoke to Rural Intelligence about her on-going horticultural experiment. 
R.I.:  What is the difference between your prairie and any other field around here that has been left unmowed?

L.H.:  Mine is a self-sustaining eco-system. Every other field up here is full of agricultural grasses—aliens and introduced species. 
R.I.: How is your meadow different from a typical “planted” wildflower meadow?  I’ve considered doing one with a mix of grasses, red poppies, daisies and cornflowers, like the one at Giverny.

L.H.: The difference is the plants in our meadow are all native to this region, except for occasional weeds—aliens whose seeds have been dormant in the soil or are airborne or are carried in by birds or animals.  But once a native meadow is established, it becomes more difficult for weed seeds to compete.  Everything is a battle for space and sun. 
R.I.: Tell us a bit about the Midwest and the prairie-restoration movement there, and how it relates to what you are doing here in Spencertown.

L.H. I had 65 acres in lower Michigan, and I turned 5 acres of it into tall-grass prairie. I was totally seduced by pictures of tall-grass prairie—how gorgeous it is.  I said, “I want to live next to that.”  I worked with an ecologist—Joyce Powers who, at the time, had her own native seed company and now does consulting.
R.I.: But in the Midwest prairie was indigenous—it was what the Native Americans knew—wheras, in the Eastern region, everything was woodland, wasn’t it?  If you want to go back to the way it was, wouldn’t it be more accurate to allow it to reforest?

L.H.: I am not going back to the creation here.  When people create a meadow, they’re playing God, getting Eden just so.  This is a model for a sustainable landscape that supports the birds and insects we are trying to save, yet satisfies human needs too—for open space and for gardens with flowers in them.
R.I.: What are the essential steps for creating a meadow like yours?

L.H.: Make sure you work with an installer who understands the science, who knows better than to, for example, turn the soil.  If you turn the soil, your meadow will fail. 

I had wild roses, which are hard to rip up, agricultural grasses, Queen Anne’s lace, the usual.  In the fall, just before the goldenrod went to seed, we burned to keep that year’s seeds from settling on top of the soil.  A burn is a great management tool.  After the burn, we waited to see what came up in the Spring, then we used an herbicide judiciously.  After the weeds died back we had the surface of the soil scraped with a York rake—it gives some texture, so the new seeds have something to grab onto, without exposing a whole raft of dormant alien seeds. 

Then we seeded.  There is no bulk-seed source in New England, so I got my seeds from a source in the Midwest, but I cross-referenced everything.  All the seeds I put in my meadow are on the New York State list of native plants.  Each type of seed came in its own container.  On some packages of seed, the source wrote, “Wait until the first snow to sow these.”

I have an area with a severe slope, so seeding there was difficult.  The grasses took but to get the look and the bio-diversity I wanted, we had to add a flat of plugs, which came from the same source as the seed. 
R.I.: For most gardeners, controlling the aesthetics is what gardening is all about.  With a meadow, don’t you abdicate that role to Mother Nature?

L.H.: Initially you have total control over the choice of species. With a prairie seeding, you get to choose—you can have 20 varieties or 6, as long as you have a foundation of grasses and keep bio-diversity in mind.  The point is to feed as many native birds and insects as possible.  On the edges I put some showy varieties—veronicastrum, beebalm, which I have in three colors—red, purple and white. So there is plenty of control at the start, but eventually nature takes over, so people who need total control have difficulty with prairies.  The weather has a big influence. This year, with all the rain, I’ve had a huge number of sedges that are as beautiful as the grasses and three new plants finally appeared that we thought hadn’t taken—one is white indigo.  But if we have a drought next year, it will look different but it will be fine. Native plants in this region have the evolutionary history to withstand a variety of conditions, including drought.
R.I.: Beyond the great favor you are doing our ecosystem, are there other benefits? Is a meadow easy to maintain?
L.H.: Every landscape needs some work—there is no such thing as a no-work landscape.  But out of all the landscapes, this is the easiest to manage.  This spring we did another burn, just because I happen to love the clean black canvas in the spring and watching it all come up.  A burn gets rid of the debris from previous years, and the ash act as a nutrient.  When you get rid of the debris, you get more direct sun on the soil so the new growth comes up faster. 
R.I.: What about deer damage?

L.H.: I find occasional evidence of deer nibbling but not enough to put a dent in it.
R.I.: What is the rest of your property like, apart from the meadow? Are you going native everywhere?

Rural Intelligence StyleL.H.: The previous owners had an Asian look—huge amounts of various types of bamboo.  At first, I figured, if it isn’t too aggressive, I can live with it.  But it was moving into the woods, into the lawn.  I started digging it up and realized how invasive it is, so I became obsessed with getting rid of it.  We have a beautiful wetland—a waterfall with ferns and other native plants.  Why should I let this Japanese plant take over?  The more I do on the property the less my eye can tolerate things that don’t belong here.  This is just one pile of bamboo roots we dug out; I burned 3 others that size.
Saturday, July 25; 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
5015 County Route 7
Spencertown, NY
Consultant: Joyce Powers;; 608.437.4985
Sources for native seeds and flats:
Prairie Moon Nursery, Winona, MN
Prairie Nursery, Westfield, WI

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