"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Notes on a Field (Benign Neglect)

In nature, there is no such thing as a blank slate, but this property was pretty close, when we bought it. The previous owners had scraped down the entire back pasture and leveled it, leaving it all bare dirt and trucked-in sand. At the time, I was mystified as to why they would do such a thing, but now I know it was to hide the fact that they had buried tons of rubble from their old dairy barn (Spring Cleaning).

The front acre, on the other hand, was a different kind of clean slate: a perfect lawn, every last dandelion, daisy, and buttercup stoned into submission with heavy chemicals. Each of these areas has benefitted, over the last three years, from my benign neglect. Basically, I have done diddly-squat to either of these fields, neither to promote the good nor to repress the bad. There are exceptions (Weeds), but basically I have left "well-enough" alone, as far as active management is concerned.

I would love to be able to observe and take notes on the "natural" course of regeneration on the scraped-over back field, but of course I cannot, since I introduced livestock back there. The goats and the chickens and the ponies, and even the alpacas while they were here, have each had their peculiar influence on the area - what each species likes and dislikes to eat has profound consequences for which plants will thrive and which will die off.

Since I spend so much time out watching the goats, I know by far the most about what it is they prefer to eat. While there is a general hierarchy of favorite foods - fruit trees being number one, followed by blackberries, anything that grows in my garden, and then, in descending order, any young tree-tips, such as alder, willow, most species of evergreen, then roses and clover - there is a surprising variability between individual goats as to what they like to eat.

Iris loves dandelion flowers and will spend hours eating practically nothing else. Django and Cloud are the only goats who will eat thistles, and they will only eat the unopened flower buds, not the leaves. All the goats will eat burdock, but only after the burrs have formed, alas. They totally ignore the tender young leaves in the spring and then gobble the mature leaves starting just about now, mid-summer.

Oddly, all the goats will eat the poison hemlock. So far it hasn't done them any harm, but I take no chances and try my hardest to get rid of it before they all poison themselves. Also, they all love rhododendron, which is also toxic. I have to beat them off the rhodie with a stick.

Nobody will eat stinging nettle, more's the pity.

No tree will ever sprout in the goat-pasture, because the goats will attack it without mercy, but in the front area where the goats seldom go, many trees have spontaneously emerged. The most numerous are offspring of my neighbor's sour pie-cherries, but there are also alders and maples. I leave these be - I'd like more trees about the place, especially if they bear cherries. The most prevalent weeds in the goat pasture are buttercup, thistles of various stripes, milkweed, amaranth, nettle, and hemlock.

The early invaders of the perfect lawn were dandelion (of course), thistles, and creeping buttercup. Three years on, blackberry is making an appearance, along with many suckers from the antique pear (that thing spreads like wildfire) and dock. Recently, horsetail has been spreading up from the culvert. I don't really care about lawn except that I hate to step on thistles, so I may be able to just keep observing what happens there.

On the high flat compacted area where the dairy barn once stood there is a (seasonal) abundance of mushrooms. Shaggy manes are the most prevalent. According to my mushroom book they like compacted soil, and they are delicious. Speaking of mushrooms, the other day I was working in the garden when I saw some mushrooms that looked so exactly like button mushrooms from the store that I picked some. They smelled just like button mushrooms from the store, too. So I ate one. It tasted just like a button mushroom from the store. Now, three days later, I feel fine, so I'm going to call them button mushrooms and eat them from now on.

My property is certainly not a model of pasture management - I guess you've picked up on that by now. I'm not making any effort to create a particular population of plants here - although I encourage grass and discourage hemlock and other "bad" plants. I do rotate grazing, just to avoid any area being grazed to the ground and also to minimize parasite issues. Mostly I am just fascinated by closely observing the earth doing what it does, and trying to identify and name the factors that contribute to the mosaic of life that I see. I love knowing my property intimately, even if I can't do much to influence it's behavior.

I haven't even begun to talk about the bees, yet. Oh, the bees are so happy right now, with the clover and the blackberry in bloom!


AnyEdge said...

REALLY? Eating wild mushrooms without comprehensive training and knowledge? Where are Button Mushrooms from in the wild? Where did they originate? How do they like to grow? Do they grow wild where you live? If so, how did they get there? Are they invasive? What other mushrooms look like them but are poisonous? What kind of poison? What are the consequences of being wrong?

Sorry sis, but it is well beyond the height of foolishness to eat a wild mushroom without being able to answer in categorical detail every one of the questions above. You know better than most that evolution has produced mushrooms that are edible that are indistinguishable by sight, taste and smell from mushrooms which are deadly deadly poison.

So go an suggest in a public forum that what you are doing there is even remotely safe is totally irresponsible.

polly's path said...

My grandfather had mushroom knowledge and each spring he would go out and harvest wild mushrooms(edible ones.)
Speaking of wild stuff, have you ever eaten stinging nettle? My granny used to carefully harvest it and stew it with lamb, then served it with cold greek yogurt. Major flashback.

Aimee said...

Bro the mushrooms from the store are simple field mushrooms, which are widespread over all of north america. I am morally certain that's what I found, but I wouldn't feed them to my kids until I had them identified by an expert. The shaggy manes were identified by an expert because they happened to be blooming during a mycological show in town so I brought some in. Those I have fed to my kids. I certainly don't reccomend anyone eat mushrooms without being certain of them, but in fact there are many varieties which are distinctive enough to be identified with a good book.

Anonymous said...

We manage our fields in the same way. However, I am not brave enough to eat the mushrooms that sprout on our property!

Andy Brown said...

A lot of people swear by nettles as a food. I've never donned the gloves and gone for it myself. But when I was a kid the only greens I would eat were wild amaranth (we called it "redroot") and lambs quarter -- both garden weeds. My mother would cook them up like spinach.