"Pollinator Plus" (a New Garden)
In 2014 Sakonnet Garden expanded. Two kinds of native Milkweeds had already been growing in the field near the main garden suggesting that this site would be perfect for growing many field flowers wanted by pollinators. Our target was to support the widest possible biodiversity of butterflies, native bees, wasps and even specialty flies that pollinate flowers. To prepare the soil for planting we attacked the laborious job of hand digging the field by ourselves, prying out the subterranean labyrinths of European Bittersweet and Multiflora Rose roots inch by inch. Progress was slow, so we had to splurge on a crew with a backhoe to dig the rest of the 3/4. Only then could we lay out paths for a maze-like flower garden for pollinators.
In April 2015 the new site was planted with perennials - plugs and bare root plants. To protect the tilled surface from an immediate knapweed invasion, most of the new plantings were overseeded with Creeping Red Fescue. We continue to experiment with this low grass as a dense cover crop for that keeps weeds, especially knapweed from germinating. By spring 2016 the fescue had worked well around big strong plants but more delicate or short plants like Agastache Blue Fortune, Butterflyweed, Salvia and Stachys was struggling in the thick fescue. Only four knapweed seedlings struggled through- a success in part.
Butterflies in Three Months
Mikel nicknamed this new garden “Pollinator Plus” as its plants won’t be limited just to native species, and maybe not only to pollinators. Our objective was to create a factory for feeding caterpillars and for providing flower nectar for butterflies. In year one,(2015) we were rewarded by May-sown Butterflyweed seedlings already hosting hungry Monarch caterpillars by September.
Imagine a new garden concept: learn to love leaves chomped by caterpillars. Even plant extra cabbage and parsley/fennel family plants to feed caterpillars ( much more fun for kids than the flowers.)
Two blue flowered Agastache hybrids (Blue Fortune and Black Adder) shown here were among the most visited nectar plants. Verbena bonariensis was another favorite.
Meadow Update (Jan. 2014)
Exciting Possibilities emerged in 2013 for ridding our region of the increasingly problematic alien species Black Knapweed (purple thistle-like flowers invading our meadows).
Multiple local RI conservation groups got together to hear URI's Richard Casagrande and Lisa Tewksbury present their impressive track record on finding insects which attack alien plant species- Purple Loosestrife, Snake-wort, now Phragmites.
Knapweed isn't easy to eradicate by plowing or mowing, and we hope to find an insect cure without having to resort to herbicide.
Meadows Needing Help
This wonderful rural landscape may look peaceful but has been undergoing huge change – losing many of its characteristic species.
Biodiversity-rich grassland lasted intact here since the Woolly Mammoths but only in the last few decades, its biological richness has started to collapse. A hundred years ago Upland Plovers, Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows once were typical common grassland birds here. By the 1970’s these fields still had nesting Bobwhites (quail), Meadowlarks, Kestrels, probably Barn Owls. In spite of huge efforts to protect local lands from development, these open country birds disappeared.
Now Bobolinks and other grassland plants and vertebrates still exist precariously – needing a new focus on land stewardship across a mosaic of public and private lands to keep them going through the 21st Century.
Different Management for other Species
After 60+ years of autumn mowing (composting hay in place), the species in our fields have changed. The 1970’s they were grass (Bobolink country!), but with continuous nutrient enrichment they became late succession fields that favored wildflowers instead. Native Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum), milkweeds and dozens of wildflowers provide habitat for butterflies and bees at the expense of Bobolinks.
To maintain biological diversity, Sakonnet Garden is starting to manage several habitats separately: improving Bobolink habitat in the open field: lowering fertility by twice haying annually (after nesting 15 July), removing bales and liming. Remove hedgerows. improving wildflower habitat near the Garden. Adding more native wildflower species, maybe potential plants for Bobwhites (which kinds?) Trying to expand Iris patches in wettest areas. Starting to remove alien species.
Bobolinks - Grassland Icon
Bobolinks are icons of good grassland as well as being wonderous birds by themselves. B&W males sing a bubbling song while fluttering overhead. Migrating from South America, they still nest in several Little Compton fields, including ours (one pair left). How do we assure they don’t disappear like the other grassland birds? Might we expand the population?
A number of LC neighbors are getting together to learn what Bobolinks want. They like centers of continuous low-grass fields having few wildflowers or hedgerows where predators pass.
Thus, in 2011 we removed a section of hedgerow to create a larger continuous field with our neighbor to the South. Another kind neighbor hayed and removed the bales to compost elsewhere. We limed the center field to favor grasses over wildflowers. Now, fingers crossed for a good Bobolink year.
Hike for Conservation
In May 2011 a wonderful gathering happened. SPA (Sakonnet Preservation Association) sponsored an overland hike through prime LC Bobolink habitat with most of the local stakeholders present. LC neighbors, the local land conservation groups, expert entomologists from URI and botanists/wildlife experts from RI Natural History Survey and a Bobolink expert from West Bay explored together, probably for the first time, to chat about meadow protection.
The Bobolinks inspired us. We learned about their specific needs and also about the potential knapweed problem - a “new” alien plant species.
SPA brings us together again in May 2012 for more.
Enhancing Habitat for Iris
This beautiful local grassland Iris called Slender Flag (Iris prismatic) exists by the thousands here and in several other local meadows. It is a species that must have benefited by a single autumn mowing (that dropped cut hay in place). This nutrient recycling richened the soil, apparently helping Iris.
Other species didn't benefit from this mowing cycle. Avian Bobolinks want large open fields that are drier and less fertile- ie. low grasses of early plant succession. And Bobwhite quail want late succession messy fields with tangles of Blackberry and a variety of seeds. Killdeers (a farmland plover) want areas of bare soil where cows (or Woolly Mammoths or Bison) foraged.
In order to keep all this diversity the community needs to make concerted effort to keep large enough patches in all these land uses. We¹ve done it with Piping Plovers, we can do it with grassland species too.
Grasslands for Turtles too
JAG: The late native turtle expert, Dr. John Behler, told me that the beautiful
native Spotted Turtle has a peculiar lifestyle. It eats amphibian eggs and has a once a year pig-out in our vernal pools where Spring Peepers, other frogs and turtles all come to breed in April. Then this turtle moves to meadows to hide in the grass, not needing to eat for another year. We notice them @ June as they try to cross local roads (often too-slowly). I always thought we saw just the females looking for sandy egg laying places, but maybe it’s a migration of our whole Spotty population heading for fields?
Every question leads to another…
These coastal SE New England meadows appear to have been in existence since the last glaciers @10,000 years ago, maintained as a parklike grassland via spring burning by Native Americans. Did these little Spotties (full size @8”) survive due to being underwater in spring ponds during burnings or was the burning so patchy that most of this turtles’ population was unaffected?