Friday, November 4, 2011

Tribulations of Restoring a Muncipal Grassland

The grassland to be restored delimited by fencing
Earlier this year, I was asked by a colleague to serve on an advisory committee that was making recommendations for the restoration of a meadow on parkland in a neighboring municipality.  The 10-acre park was created when the municipality's old stone-and-brick high school was demolished, leaving an open field of rubble buried under a thin veneer of imported topsoil.
Soon after the building was demolished, the municipality engaged the services of a well-respected, ecologically sensitive landscape design firm to create the meadow.  The design specified planting native warm-season prairie grasses on the two-acre meadow site.
View across meadow toward existing woodland
 For several years, the meadow performance was satisfactory (never spectacular), but inevitably the grassland was doomed to fail because the demolition debris had so sweetened the soil that the acidophilous grasses languished and were overrun with non-native grasses and weeds.

The new consultant who was chosen to re-establish the meadow did it "right" this time--she took soil samples and developed a seed mixture compatible with the shallow, rocky and lime-rich soil.  In preparation for re-establishing the grassland, the contractor fenced-off the area, and then herbicided the existing weedy patch in early-summer.  Unfortunately, the contractor used the "newest and best" herbicide, Streamline, which is formulated to kill broadleaved plants but to spare the grasses already present.  Only after the application of Streamline did an article appear in the New York Times that suggested that Streamline could be extremely toxic to conifers.  Sure enough, a huge and beloved ancient Norway spruce that had been near the old school and remained in the center of the new grassland died within two weeks of the herbicide application.
I'm so fortunate to be managing a private preserve (cf. public parkland).  At a meeting of the grassland restoration steering committee earlier this week, a quarter of the meeting was wasted discussing whose logos needed to appear on the sign describing the restoration, and which municipal bureau was responsible for giving final approval for the sign design.
Committee members reviewing plans for a native butterfly garden at the edge of the grassland


The Musical Gardener said...

Acidophilous - great word. I would not have realized that the higher ph soil would have been as detrimental to native plants. Mind you as I think about it, we have a huge disparity within a few miles of our home - three distinct environments, and all largely due to the soil - we have a spot where the Canadian shield dips south, and it is all rocks, pines and maple trees. Another section is very good arable farmland - deep neutral soils, and then to the northeast there is a large tract of very shallow, acidic soils which largely grows cedar and scrub bush - would probably be an ideal ph for the prairie grasses if the soil had some depth to it.

Good luck with the project, sounds like the project is in good hands if you can get past the logo-fighters.

John Gray said...

humm interesting

packrat said...

These kind of "planned" projects always drive me crazy due to the highly discernible lack of logic evident in the "plans." The loss of the Norway spruce really is inexcusable.

Grizz………… said...

Nothing like getting the important stuff taken care of straightaway! Restoration by committee is always a blast. When the actual work starts, don't be surprised if you're the only fellow in the field with a rake and a bag of seed.

Scott said...

Gardener: You've got it exactly correct. Your nearby tract with shallow, acidic soils supporting cedars and scrub would be perfect for the native grasses. I'd bet that certain grass species would do well despite the shallow soil. We are trying to create grassland on 160 acres of very fertile, arable, deep-soiled former farmland in our preserve; we can do it, but it takes a lot of input because the weeds are always ready to move in if we stop our intensive management. (Lest you think us crazy [and maybe we are], we're doing this for habitat diversity and aesthetics.)

Scott said...

Grizz: I'm serving on the ADVISORY Committee, not the Backbreaking Committee. Actually, the municipality has plenty of money to hire contractors to do the heavy lifting. Any project conducted with government input or on government land is going to have to take so many differing opinions into consideration; it's a wonder the constituents can ever come to a consensus. In reality, this project is going pretty smoothly because park management has been largely turned over to a group of energetic and enthusiastic volunteers, so municipal official try to sty out of their way as much as possible so that the municipality doesn't have to assume responsibility for park maintenance.

Scott said...

Packrat: Lots of private homeowners lost conifers to Streamline, which is why the issue finally emerged. The big chemical company that manufactures the herbicide says that it tested Streamline near conifers and found no effects, which seems bizarre given how many homeowners reported problems with their conifers. Of course, the Norway spruce wasn't native, and this huge conifer standing in the middle of the postage-stamp native grassland did look a bit strange, so from an ecological and aesthetic point of view it wasn't a great loss. I'm not making an excuse; the tree was a widely loved touch point for residents who had been educated in the old high school, and they miss it.

Scott said...

John: I only agreed to take on this extra task because I have a great deal of respect for the ecologically enlightened volunteers who manage the park and for the municipality, which is certainly one of the most progressive and "green-minded" in the region. I disagree with some of their approaches but, all in all, it's a good project.