The Orange Tip

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Tag: haystack

Cutting the Meadows

It’s much later in the season than I had intended to cut the lower meadows. The relentless rain meant having to push the cutting process back further and further, and with Autumn just around the corner the stems had thickened up and become tall and tough. The colours had also changed; dulling down to a wash of softer tones, equally as attractive as their earlier, more-vibrant form. Knapweeds, scabious’ and wild carrots now made up the primary structure of the plants, a welcome result of the postponed cut.

Wild Carrot

Common Knapweed

Musk Mallow

The lack of steady, regular sunlight this year has made the shoots grow very tall, falling over each other and forming a densely packed sward. So dense in fact that the strimmer is of no use, struggling to cut through the thick grass. So instead I went ‘old school’ this year and brought out the hand scythes. A scythe enables you to make a much cleaner and closer cut down at ground level. Great bundles of grass can be lifted at a time, resulting in little need of raking and and much easier stacking. A strimmer, on the other hand, will churn up the grass, separating it into smaller pieces much harder to remove entirely from the ground. As the key to successful meadow making is in the annual depletion of nutrients (nitrogen most importantly), it is essential that nothing is allowed to rot back into the ground, adding back fertility. For this reason the scythe is the ideal tool.

Old friend Andy came to lend a hand, taking it in turns to cut, lay and stack the bundles. This time with much longer, lateral bunches, the hay stack grew fast and tall.

Another benefit in using a scythe is the far lower impact it has on the nature living within the grass. A florally-diverse meadow literally hums with activity in the sunlight; awash with bees, hover-flies and butterflies. Beneath the surface, however, is a whole world of creatures; from enormous toads to tiny beetles. The damp habitat encourages slugs, which in turn attract toads. Grasshoppers and crickets thrive among the long, vertical stems, attracting lots of frogs. Last year I stopped counting frogs at 200, placing them in buckets as I cut the grass, and emptying them out into the borders, wood and pond. Because a scythe moves slowly and in one direction, the destruction of nature is brought down to a bare minimum, if any at all.

The other great thing about using a scythe is that is brings you down into the grass and into their world, enabling you to see it from another perspective. A strimmer has you stood up in the familiar position, detached from the motion of the machine, with a constant deafening noise. Without it you can move quietly through the grass, much more aware of the ecology that surrounds you.

Of the three lower stretches of grass I decided to leave the middle meadow to flower and seed for a few more weeks. Neatening the edges and cleaning up the paths on either side meant that it became a bit of a spectacle, which I like. It reminded me of Piet Oudolf’s rectangular strip of prairie planting at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde park; allowing you to view the enclosed contents and it’s purposes from all sides.

Concluding with some celebratory ciders (as is tradition..) the annual cycle can now begin again, with the hay stacked and drying for next year’s use, and the grass shooting up once more in Spring.

Re: Stacks

Some of the most frequent questions I was asked last month, during our public open day for the National Gardens Scheme, concerned the ‘strange looking towers’  in the garden. Very few people seemed to recognise what they were, and only a handful could guess why they were there. By the end of the day I was beginning to question them too. What seemed at the time like a sensible, if a little aesthetically-motivated strategy for storing  and making use of the meadow cuttings from last Summer, began to feel a like an unintended, obtuse ornamental gesture, akin to artistic structures in a sculpture park that no one is meant to understand.

They’re haystacks, essentially. Clumps of drying meadow heaped into mounds with some lengthy sycamore limbs stuck in for support. Back in July, as our four stretches of wildflower meadow were falling over their mid-Summer peak and ready to be cut, I thought it would be good to prepare haystack poles as a way of drying out the cuttings. Traditionally this would have been the way most grass meadows were initially stored, before dismantling, tying into bales and moved indoors to feed livestock through the Winter. Unfortunately I don’t have a cow (although it’s tempting) and so my hay is destined to become chicken bedding and mulch, but even to these basic ends, it acts as a much more natural alternative to the commercial supplies, and a great money saver too. The stacks have also been a good source for nest-builders during the early Spring. I hadn’t actually considered or intended this when constructing them, but it was great to see birds flying in and out in the early mornings last March.

In about a month’s time I’ll be dismantling them, ready to take on the next season’s cut. No doubt some mice and an army of snails will need to find new homes, but I can put the rest to good use. Whether the poles will need replacing or not will then be a testament as to how successful the drying process has been. So far it seems most of it has worked well; rain water running off the outer layers and air circulating enough around the inners in order to dry the green to a pleasing dusty-brown. In the mean time, the meadows are coming up fast. Ox-eye daisies, vetch, campion and knapweed are all well on their way to flowering, and that same wash of white that looked so stunning in the sun last year will be here again in a week or so. And hopefully so too will all the butterflies.