Wild and Cultivated Pleasures


Before going any further, let me bust a myth that still might be having some traction: Late summer and fall allergies are not caused by goldenrod (Solidago spp.). Field of goldenrodGoldenrod gets the blame for its showy, yellow blossoms during this allergy season. But the true culprit is ragweed, which goes unnoticed because it bears only small, green flowers.

It makes sense that the pollen of a showy flower would not cause allergies. Showy flowers put on their show to attract insect (and, in some cases, bird or bat) pollinators. Wind can’t carry their heavy, sometimes sticky, pollen.

Pollen that causes allergies wafts around in the wind. Wind-pollinated flowers (euphoniously called “anemophilous” flowers) don’t need to attract animal pollinators.Goldenrod in the morning

And Now, Enjoy the Flowers

With that said, I can safely revel in the rich golden yellow with which goldenrod’s flowers are painting sunny hillsides and fields this year. Goldenrod’s beauty comes as no surprise once you realize that it comes from a very good family, the Daisy Family, Asteraceae. Sunflower, black-eyed-Susan, coneflower — and thistles and dandelion — are among its kin. 

Confirm goldenrod’s heritage with a magnifier trained on one of its small florets. Flowers in the Daisy Family are made up of one or both of two kinds of florets. Each disk floret is a relatively small, symmetrical tube of fused petals. Petals of the other kind of floret, ray floret, are also fused, but asymmetrically into one long, strap-shaped petal. The head of a sunflower (most varieties) is mostly disc florets circumscribed by prominently-petaled ray florets that create that decorative ring around the head. At the other extreme is a dandelion flower, all of whose florets are ray flowers, resulting in a powderpuff of yellow petals. Most species of goldenrod have flowers like those of sunflower — but you have to look closely. (For more about plant families, see my new book The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Lot Better Garden.)Close up of goldenrod flower

Meadow Reclamation

My meadow — or hayfield, or whatever you want to call it — was once replete with goldenrod. And before that, pale lilac flowers of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulas) blanketed much of the field. And before that, the field was grass, kept that way by the previous landowner’s regular mowing throughout the season.Meadow with monarda

Sadly, for me, goldenrod has lost its prominence in my field, replaced by coarser and more woody plants such as poison ivy, sumac, and wild blackberries. My once-a-year mowing has kept these plants from totally getting control of the landscape. Without mowing, the field would, in time, become forest.

This spring, I decided to try to reclaim the field and, I hope, invite back some goldenrod and wild bergamot. My modus operandi is to mow regularly. In previous years, the wide paths I would mow and maintain mowed through one season would reflect that mowing for at least the following season or two or three. Mostly, it was the grasses, the only plants that can tolerate frequent mowing, that came into prominence.

I expect plants such as goldenrods and wild bergamot will gain footholds beginning next year and increasingly so in years to follow — until, of course, poison ivy and friends start to move in again.

Landscapes aren’t static, and changes come relatively quickly, not always predictably as the changes are seasoned with each year’s and more long term weather and climate patterns.

Wild Aromas, Cultivated Flavors

Wild grapes are also prominent in the wild landscape this year, mostly from the jasmine-like aroma with which they perfume the air. Here in eastern U.S. and Canada, fox grape (Vitis labrusca) is a prominent wild grape.Fox grapes

The variety Concord typifies the flavor and texture of fox grapes. Why “fox?” No one knows for sure, but around 1880, the botanist William Bartram suggested that the epithet was applied to this grape because of the “strong, rancid smell of its ripe fruit, very like the effluvia from the body of a fox.” Others suggested the epithet came about because foxes ate the grapes, or because the leaves resembled fox tracks.

Disease resistance and cold tolerance of fox grapes helped save the French wine industry a century and a half ago, when these grapes were hybridized with the traditional, disease-prone wine grapes (V. vinifera) of Europe. Thousands of hybrids now exist all along the spectrum from vinifera to fox as far as flavor, disease resistance, cold tolerance, and other characteristics. 

I’m enjoying the aroma of the wild grapes but most appreciate the flavors of Vanessa, Somerset Seedless, Alden, Edelweiss, and my other cultivated varieties.

Vanessa grapes

Vanessa grapes

A Scything I Do Go . . .

What a lucky gardener I am to have a one-acre field at my disposal. Not for planting, though. Except part of it; I couldn’t restrain myself.
When I moved here, many years ago, the caretakers of the field — before it was mine –mowed it every couple of weeks all summer long. Before them, another neighbor had mowed the field once a year with a sickle bar mower attached to his tractor. Nowadays, I mow the bulk of the field once a year with my tractor’s

brush hog attachment, which is, in essence, a giant rotary motor. But I mow the edges and a significant portion of the field by hand, with a scythe.

(Stay tuned for a scything video posted on my “Life on the Farmden” video series; link to the series above, to the right.)

So what’s so lucky about having this not-so-care-free field to take care of? Four things. First, the field offers a bit of wildness near my cultivated plants, a place where bees, dragonflies, and butterflies can frolic. Not that they can’t frolic among my cultivated plants, but there’s something to be said for what goes on among plants and soil hardly touched by human hand. Of course, rabbits, voles, and other undesirables come with the territory; I have to accept them.
The second lucky thing about having this field is all the mown vegetation it provides. Mowings from the brush hog are not easily gathered, but that from my scythe is. Laid on the ground beneath my trees, shrubs, and vines, this vegetation provides mulch that keeps the soil moist and feeds soil microorganisms and plants. Stuffed into my compost bins, the vegetation is nutritious food for my compost “pet” (pile).
That scything is also good for me, for the exercise. What a joy to step out in the coolness of morning and swing the scythe, stirring my “blood and [flexing my] muscles, while it clears the meadows,” to quote Scott Nearing, who lived to be 100. That’s lucky thing number three.
Lucky thing number four is that I get to enjoy the beauty of the field, now dominated by yellow heads of goldenrod. Livening things up are spots of white asters against a shifting green background of grasses. And then there are patches dark green with thorny blackberry canes or red with leaves of sumac.
Ah, that sumac and those blackberries. They are the next step in the field’s transition from a meadow of herbaceous plants to woody shrubs, and then on to trees. That’s what happens if Nature’s given a free hand around here.
But I want a meadow. Not only that, but I notice that the ground beneath the tall goldenrod plants is quite bare of other vegetation.
So I’ve taken matters into my own hands, and am now scything down some of the goldenrod and any

areas dense with blackberry canes or sumac shoots. Exposed to light, the near-naked ground should soon be dense with sprouting grasses. By selectively scything those cleared areas repeatedly next spring, grasses can regain a toehold. Grasses are the only plants that tolerate frequent mowing.

A balance needs to be struck here. Too much mowing, and only grasses will persist. I’m trying for a mix of grasses with some goldenrod and other flowering meadow plants.
With a nod to sustainability, the question arises: In mowing the field and removing the mowings for compost and mulch, am I robbing Peter to pay Paul? As nutrients are carted off along with the vegetation, will the field yield less and less over the years. My guess is not.
Only a small portion of the total field gets scythed and harvested. And I scythe and harvest different areas each year. Soils have natural abilities to regenerate themselves when left alone. Nutrients locked up in

native minerals are unlocked over time as those minerals are solubilized by microbes and root exudates.

Even nitrogen, the nutrient that plants need in greatest amounts, can be grabbed from the air (which is 80% nitrogen) and put into a form that plants can use. Leguminous plants do this with the aid of symbiotic bacteria, but soils also contain free-living bacteria and other microorganisms that can grab at the nitrogen in the air to put in the ground.
So, all in all, the field presents a win-win situation, for me, for my plants, and for all the creatures, microscopic and larger, that get to enjoy it.