Unbidden beauty from neglect

Shaggy lawn

Neither Dan nor I are lawn-mowers, and I mean this in both the philosophical and physical senses of the word. Our lawn-tending philosophy is generally to let it grow long and wild. Mowing is a lot of work, just to produce a sterile (or nearly) habitat. We can appreciate lawns around gardens, say, or a small patch to play with the dog or kids, but these large expanses that most people keep, especially when they’re rural homes, just seem silly. It’s primarily a North American thing. I was told once that the lawn evolved out of the “American Dream”, from poor folks looking at the rich and their mansions with expansive manicured lawns, and desiring a manicured lawn of their own and everything the lawn represented. Whether or not that’s actually true, lawns have certainly become the culturally accepted standard, with bylaws in many towns and cities prohibiting you from not mowing your law and instead letting it go weedy.

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Common Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale

But even if we desired a lawn (which we don’t), we’re unable to tend it ourselves anyway, as we don’t own a lawn-mower. Our landlord had requested that we keep the lawn mowed, but it’s really the responsibility of a neighbour down the street, to whom she’d given her riding mower after her husband died. They’ve been neighbours many years, and he agreed to come by and cut her lawn for her as thank-you for the machine.

Black-eyed Susan in lawn
Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta

He cut the grass the week we moved in, but we hadn’t seen him since, which was a little over a month. A month is forever from a weed’s perspective. The lawn sprouted and got quite long and shaggy. Plants that had been chopped into submission for the earlier part of the summer now sprung into action to take advantage of the absence of the blades. Within a month we had numerous wildflowers blooming in amongst the grass. Yesterday afternoon, after admiring them for about a week, I decided to take my camera and document what all was flowering in the lawn. I must have had a premonition, because within a few hours the neighbour showed up with the mower to trim it all back.

Common Plantain and White Clover
Common Plantain, Plantago major, and White Clover, Trifolium repens

I counted 20 species of flowers growing in what is usually lawn. A couple of them were garden escapees, flowers that had seeded themselves and had managed to survive even with the regular abuse. Most of them, though, weren’t cultivated plants. Many of them are introduced species that excel at thriving in adverse conditions. A few of them, however, such as the Black-eyed Susan or the yarrow, are hardy native species.

Low Hop Clover, Trifolium campestre
Low Hop Clover, Trifolium campestre, common everywhere

I had done this experiment before, last year. We’d let the lawn, such as it was, go wild at the lake house, again partially because we didn’t own a mower ourselves to tend it, and partially because we preferred it that way anyway. That inventory took place about two weeks later than this one did. I only tallied 15 species of flower blooming in that lawn. It’s interesting to observe the difference in species composition between the two, and I’m curious whether that’s more likely due to timing or surrounding habitat (since the lake house was surrounded mostly by forest, and this house is set in primarily meadow).

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Possibly Sulphur Cinquefoil, Potentilla recta

In fact, only five of the 15 tallied last year made an appearance in this year’s lawn. This one happens to be one of them. I didn’t know what it was, and apparently I didn’t know last year, either. I got a new wildflower guide for my birthday this year, and based on that I might suggest Sulphur Cinquefoil, Potentilla recta, or a closely related species. It’s not all that uncommon. It’s funny how there can be species you see all the time, and you recognize as being something you’ve seen before, and yet you have no idea what these very common species actually are. I find a number of wildflowers fall into this category.

English Plantain
English Plantain, Plantago lanceolata

Of course, even better than enjoying the flowers in the lawn, is seeing the critters that visit the flowers in the lawn. Here, an unidentified species of true bug climbs about the flower head of an English Plantain, Plantago lanceolata. As the name suggests, it’s an introduction originally native to Europe. The good thing about many introduced species, though, is that quite often they’re readily adopted into our local food chains, so at least if they’re taking up space they’re still providing some value to the wildlife. My flower guide notes that the seeds of English Plantain are often eaten by birds, and their leaves are favoured by rabbits.

Orange Hawkweed
Orange Hawkweed, Hieracium aurantiacum

Ever wonder what might sprout up in your lawn if you left it unmowed for a little while? Even if you originally bought your lawn as sod, as long as you haven’t been applying weed-killer to it there’s a pretty good chance that there are some hardy wildflower seeds sitting in the soil at the roots of the grass, waiting for an opportunity to sprout and grow. If you have a section of lawn where the neighbours can’t see or won’t complain, it might be interesting to try the experiment yourself.

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Shepherd's Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris

My guide notes Shepherd’s Purse is “probably a European native but is now found all over the world.” The spring leaves can be eaten as salad greens, and the seeds, collected and dried in the fall, can be used as seasoning in cooking (the plant is part of the mustard family, so they have a peppery mustardy taste).

Yarrow cultivar
Rogue cultivated yarrow

The plant that garden yarrows are derived from is Achillea millefolium, and is native throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Apparently starlings will use it in their nests, which has been shown to reduce nest parasites. There are quite a number of cultivars developed, from the “wild-type” white to yellow to red to mauve. Yarrow is an especially hardy perennial. I bought one back in the spring, a red cultivar with yellow centres, and when I took it to the checkout the salesperson said, “There’s a one-year guarantee on all perennials, if they don’t return next year bring in your receipt for a refund.” Then she laughed. “Not that you’ll need it for this one.”

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Hop Clover, Trifolium aureum

Different from Low Hop Clover, above, the species is also a European introduction – in fact, all of the yellow clovers found in eastern North America are. I couldn’t find any reference to why it was called “hop clover”, at least in a quick search. I wonder if it bears some properties similar to hops.

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A garden in the making

One patch of lawn was filled with an assortment of wildflowers. In this group are wild yarrow (the white flowers), a Red Clover, Trifolium pratense, a red cultivar of the garden plant Bachelor’s Button (I think), and Heal-all, Prunella vulgaris.

Yellow Hawkweed
yellow hawkweed, Hieracium sp.

There are a number of yellow hawkweeds in Ontario. I did a post about hawkweeds last year, and mentioned Yellow Hawkweed, Hieracium caespitosum, but I don’t think this is that species. However, I don’t know which one it actually is, they can be tricky to tell apart.

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Johnny Jump-ups on the loose, and a Red Clover

Johnny Jump-ups have to be one of the most tenacious of garden plants. It takes them no time at all to escape the confines of the garden borders that you’ve carefully laid out, and start gallavanting all over the lawn. You may not notice if you mow your lawn regularly, but leave it for a couple of weeks and you’ll start seeing little purple-and-yellow flowers peeking out from the grass.

Northern Bedstraw
Star Chickweed, Stellaria pubera

Out in our meadows there are dense mats of this flower, Star Chickweed, which seems to habitually co-occur with vetch. It’s recognizable by its deeply-cleft petals, which makes it look like it has ten narrow petals rather than just five cleft ones.

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Alsike Clover, Trifolium hybridum

Different from Red Clover, Alsike Clover has pinkish outer flowers and whitish inner ones. Another introduction, apparently the specific name “hybridum” has nothing to do with it actually being a hybrid (which it’s not), but probably more likely refers to the dual tones of the flower heads.

Common Ragweed
Common Ragweed, Ambrosia artemisifolia

Common Ragweed is a species familiar to anyone who suffers from hay fever. It’s a sneaky plant, its green flowers subtle enough that it manages to set up goldenrod to take the fall for the misery it inflicts upon the innocent. It’s a very competitive, invasive weed, but happens to be native, which is a little surprising – we’re so used to thinking of our invasive species as exotics.

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A member of the Rosaceae

This family seems to give me some trouble. A member of the buttercup family, so many of them seem to have similar toothy leaves and yellow flowers. I thought the fact that the petals on this one were widely separated might give me an edge, but no luck.

Edit: I’ve been corrected by someone far wiser and more knowledgeable about plants than I, Tom of Ohio Nature. He suggests it’s a member of the Rosaceae family, possibly an agrimony species, Agrimonia sp, and comments that he’s not aware of any Ranunculaceae that bloom so late in the season. Thanks, Tom!

Second Edit: More comments pour in! The identification suggested for the plant is Norwegian Cinqfoil, Potentilla norvegica, which looks like a good match.

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Grass, probably Timothy, Phleum pratense

Timothy is a common pasture grass, recognizable by its fuzzy, narrow spikes of flowers. It’s commonly used in hay production, and the seeds are enjoyed by birds and other wild animals. P. pratense is introduced, but Mountain Timothy, P. alpinum, is native to North America.

Wood Sorrel
Yellow Wood Sorrel, Oxalis stricta

Not to be confused with “sorrel”, which is another group of plants, Yellow Wood Sorrel belongs to the same genus (Oxalis) as the clovers you can buy at the grocery store at St. Patrick’s Day – not to be confused with the clovers I’ve shown in the lawn, above, which are a different genus again. Confused? The origins of Yellow Wood Sorrel are uncertain as it’s now found around the globe, but are thought to be North America.

Today at Kingsford – Birds on the lawn

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So, remember back in the summer how we stopped mowing our lawn? We ended up getting a lot of weeds and wildflowers sprouting up. I liked it, I always like the variety of flowers and colour, and I think an “unkempt” lawn is nicer than a manicured one. In town there are often bylaws against it, but out here one can really do what they like with their property, except for anything that might affect water or other common resources (which can be good or bad, depending on what’s being done and whether you’re the one doing it).

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Turns out, the birds liked it better too. Yesterday we had a whole pile of snow, which continued to fall for most of the day. Our feeders were inundated with birds. The nyger feeders were overflowing, with all spaces filled with hungry beaks and more waiting in the wings. Some individuals tried out the suet feeder or ventured onto the platform feeder for the sunflower seeds and millet.

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And then there was this opportunistic flock of birds, who discovered the weeds poking out of the snow in the lawn, and started availing themselves of the seeds still clinging to the dead stems. The flock consisted of goldfinches, siskins and American Tree Sparrows, an interesting mixed group. There may have been a couple dozen out there at its busiest. I was glad we hadn’t mowed the lawn.

Tunnels in the snow

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There was a period before Christmas where we had a lot of snow accumulation on the ground. Some rain over the holidays, followed up by this warm stretch, melted off most of it, and the receding snow can reveal some interesting things that take place under the snow layers, where we can’t see them. One that many homeowners are probably familiar with are these strange half-tunnels carved into grassy lawns. Only an inch or two wide, they can carve intricate networks or simple purposeful trails into the grass and soil which many people find unsightly and can often be difficult to fill in again.

Meadow Vole
Meadow Vole (Gillian Bowser, NPS Photo)

The culprit, at least here in the east, is the common and widespread Meadow Vole. It’s the only species of vole that occurs in eastern North America, but it’s also found as far west as Alaska. It doesn’t usually come into homes, so like most rodents, it’s rarely seen itself. However, it leaves ample evidence of its presence. The trails in the lawn are a network of pathways that the vole uses to travel between its burrow, where it sleeps and stores food, and the food itself.

In the winter the voles travel under the snow, rather than over it, for three reasons. The first is to avoid predation. It’s much easier for an owl or a fox looking for a meal to track a rodent running across the snow than it is to find something underneath the snow (although these predators are adept at doing that as well!). Also, given the excellent insulative properties of snow, it’s much warmer underneath it all than above it, where the little vole would be exposed to wind and cold. This makes it much easier for the vole to remain active during the winter.

Trails3

And thirdly, it provides much easier access to its food sources. In the winter, voles will eat seeds and grasses, which are usually found close to the ground, as well as roots and the bark of young saplings. If you have birdfeeders out you might chance to spot one munching on fallen seed when snow cover is low, but more likely the evidence of feeding you’re likely to come across is finding a sapling stripped of bark around its base. Munching by voles can be differentiated from that of rabbits (who will also chew the bark from saplings) in that rabbits won’t usually chew all the way to the ground, and the pattern of gnawing by voles isn’t uniform. I didn’t notice any such saplings around these particular trails. Once the snow melts, you can also often see little piles of grass clippings within the trails, where the vole has snipped the grass off at the base, pulled it down, snipped off some more, etc, until it can reach the seed heads.

Trails2

This long trail was crossing a narrow stretch of lawn between two naturalized patches (a group of sumacs to a couple of wild apple trees). I’m not sure if the voles are actively foraging for roots or seeds when making these trails, or if they’re directionally challenged (or perhaps just sleepy?), but it seemed like a very curvy trail for just going from one place to another. Perhaps it’s a mechanism to throw off predators listening to rodents running under the snow cover?

Surprisingly, there weren’t very many trails on the lawn, just these couple. In the winter, voles often nest communally in groups of anywhere from two to a number of generations . Female voles breed for the first time when about half grown, at about 25 days. They breed nearly continuously, mating again immediately after giving birth to a litter, and can have three to six litters (depending on latitude and food resources) of four to seven young in a year, which would quickly become quite a large group! Most individuals live less than a year, however. I suppose larger groups would be likely to make a broader network of trails, and a pair would probably just have a handful of well-used trails. A colony of voles can occupy a territory of up to 100 feet in diameter.

Voles aren’t uniformly appreciated by everyone, and particularly in urban settings, the damage to lawns can result in an unsightly mess. There are lots of vole-control solutions to be found by a quick Google search, but my recommendation is just to not have a lawn – plant a garden, it’s more useful to wildlife and prettier anyway! :)