Managing Your Meadows
Just like the epic grasslands that dominated the North American plains, proper meadow management on your property will increase soil biodiversity, sequester carbon, and reduce runoff and erosion.
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Monumental natural forces, such as mob grazing and wildfire, once shaped the Earth’s wild grasslands. But today, through human intervention, most of those areas, such as North America’s tallgrass prairies, are maintained in a slightly more controlled way. For example, when the American bison roamed free, concentrated grazing in a favored area served to till the sod and promote seed germination, which refreshed the prairie and maintained plant species diversity at the same time. Likewise, periodic burning activated dormant seed and kept the trees at bay. Today, some land managers use controlled grazing and fire to look after their open acres, but it doesn’t take large animals or a bolt of lightning to keep your landscape in line. With the right set of tractor implements and a little know-how, anyone can create healthy meadows and lawns that look great in every season.
The trick to maintaining your open spaces, assuming they are in reasonably good health to begin with, is to develop a mowing schedule that suits your management plan. Mowing with the proper tools offers an accessible and safe substitute for burning or grazing and has the added benefit of sending most of the shredded organic matter right back into the soil. If your plan includes a well-manicured lawn, then you will need to mow more often. If you want to promote open country wildlife such as ground-nesting birds, you will need to allow the vegetation to grow unchecked in the spring and wait until after the breeding season to mow it. Larger acreage managed for wildlife or wildflowers can also be divided into two or more sections and mowed in alternating years.
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When your lawns or grassy fields are in poor condition, a combination of well-timed mowing, light tilling and seeding can bring them back to life. Mowing the thin spots will help keep noxious weeds in check and depending on the type of planting equipment used, a light tilling will enhance the seed-soil contact, which is critical for germination. If the problems are associated with poor fertility or acid soils, adjusting your planting mix and/or amending the soil might be in order. The same tools used to restore these problem areas can also be used to plant new lawns and meadows.
Making the Cut
Unless making hay is the intent, most country property owners need only consider the cutter-shredder and finishing-type mowers to get the job done. These implements are both available as heavy-duty, tractor-mounted (and powered) attachments. The cutter-shredder typically connects to the tractor’s three-point hitch while the finishing mower is often located between the tractor’s front and rear axles, although three-point hitch models are also available. In any case, the mowers all receive power from the tractor’s engine through a PTO connection.
The finishing mower’s specialties are grooming large lawns, sloped lane edges, and other areas where even cut and consistent vegetation height are desired. This precision attachment should be used only where grade transitions are gentle and the ground is smooth. Large-property owners who maintain relatively small lawns often choose smaller yard or garden tractors with integral finishing mowers for lawn cutting duties and reserve their larger tractor for field maintenance.
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Managing large fields and rough, less formal landscapes is easily accomplished with a cutter-shredder type mower. These heavy-duty meadow-munchers are available in both rotary and flail configurations and will readily convert tall grass, tree saplings, heavy crop residue, and brush into small, rapidly decaying pieces. Rotary cutters and flail mowers are also very effective at maintaining the boundaries between woodlands and grasslands, particularly in areas such as the Northeast where the forest exerts strong pressure on adjacent open fields.
Whether you are restoring an existing lawn or meadow, or installing a new one, the principal issues related to any planting strategy include effective seed distribution and ensuring that the seed and soil make firm contact. Without contact, germination is unlikely at best, and seedling establishment is virtually impossible. Several methods for planting have proven effective; the simplest technique takes advantage of early spring temperature cycles in a process called frost seeding.
Frost seeding is effective when bare soil is visible between existing plants and doesn’t require any ground preparation to speak of. However, because the seed is scattered over the area with a broadcaster (spinner), and the method relies on the soil surface’s daily freeze-thaw transitions to make contact, it requires more seed than other approaches. If you already have a tractor-mounted broadcaster, a more effective technique might be to gently harrow the area first, then broadcast the seed and follow with a roller of some type. Lightly disturbing the ground allows more of that precious seed to find soil, and rolling helps make the seed-soil connection.
In situations where time and seed economy are important, and for the best results (especially with new plantings), more specialized planting equipment is in order. For example, if the goal is to renovate or introduce new species into an existing lawn or meadow, the solid stand overseeder will do the job in a single pass. This three-point hitch mounted planter tills the sod lightly, precisely meters and delivers seed to that disturbed ground, and facilitates seed-soil contact with packer wheels. A similar implement that lacks tilling knives is used when installing a new planting on well-prepared soil. Tractor mounted overseeders and primary seeders are commonly available at rental centers throughout North America.
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Prairie soils are some of the richest in the world and are often characterized by several feet of humus-rich topsoil formed over the millennia through annual cycles of growth and dieback. The process is visually obvious with the aboveground plant components, but its underground effect is even more profound. As the grasses and other plants produce aerial vegetation, their roots expand to support the growth. When the aboveground portions of the plants are mowed, grazed, or enter dormancy, the roots die back proportionally. Each time the roots die back, a trail of rapidly decaying organic material is left behind, which makes a significant contribution to building topsoil. Not all rural lawns and meadows are planted on prairie soils, but managing those areas with appropriately timed mowing will substantially increase soil organic matter content.
Adding a mulching attachment to your finishing mower reduces clipping size sufficiently to promote rapid decomposition, which will also eliminate the need to fertilize, assuming adequate fertility to begin with. If soil tests indicate that nitrogen is in short supply, consider a light overseeding with white Dutch clover in lawns, or any of many other legumes in meadows. If your soil is detrimentally acidic, sweeten it with lime by using a tractor-mounted broadcast spreader. Other soil amendments, as indicated by testing, can also be applied in this way.
Root growth and dieback are also important for keeping soil’s air passages open and channeling water into the ground, however even when employing the best management principals it is possible to compact the top several inches of soil to the extent that the planting suffers. Compaction usually occurs in high traffic areas, which are especially vulnerable when moisture levels are high. Tractor-drawn aerators designed for both lawn and meadow plantings offer an easy and quick solution to alleviating the problem.
Install Islands, Borders, and Gardens
As you manage the open spaces on your rural property, be sure to develop tree-lined borders, garden islands, and orchards that increase wildlife carrying capacity by providing habitat, shelter, a healthy food supply, and visual interest. If you are working with a completely open piece of property, you’ll welcome the wind and sun protection that a few well-placed trees can offer and the succulent rewards of growing your own fruits and vegetables. Learn more about Maximizing Wildlife with a Property Management Plan.