Habitat: Replacing the multi-flora rose bushes, and mowing the “Back 40”

It’s hard to live between our home in Lover, Pennsylvania and Kurt’s assignment in Madison, Indiana. Home upkeep, especially in the country, is challenging when you’re around every day, so imagine having to cram all that upkeep into once or twice a month. Maintenance is exhausting.

I destroyed a bird’s nest this weekend—with eggs in it. It was an accident, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about it. I was watching for nests, making sure any in the bushes we were cutting out didn’t have eggs or young. But I forgot to look in the bushes adjoining the ones we were removing. I was hacking away at the thorny pests with my clippers, making trips to the burn pile for cleanup as we went. Kurt was working steadily with his come-along to pull out the base of each bush for easier digging. As I trimmed back  into the bush, I realized I was actually trimming into the next bush over, and hadn’t checked it for nests. Sure enough, less than 6 inches from where I had clipped to was a pretty little nest of twigs and litter and old clumps of grass from the mower. And three, tiny speckled eggs.

Just as I saw the nest and realized I was into the adjoining bush, Kurt began to pull pull with his come-along (we are not very well coordinated). I knew as it was happening that it would mean disaster for the nest. The bushes were intertwined, and as he pulled one out, all the entangled vines stretching through the one with the nest started ripping through and pulling apart the support system for the nest.

I cupped the nest with my gloves, trying to hold on. I managed to keep the nest upright, with only a little bit torn from the bottom, but there was no longer an entangled mass of brambles beneath it for support. I tried to place the nest as far back into the bush as I could, but a nest which was integrated with a bush doesn’t just sit atop some thorns and be expected to stay. Nevertheless, I made a call that we stop pulling bushes and hoped the birds could still finish sitting on their eggs and raising their young. We could move to others multifloras in the meantime.

I hadn’t put much of my smell on the nest – only that of my gloves, which were long covered with grass, bushes and all the smells of the nature around us. We cleaned up from the work and went to Trax Farms to buy replacement plants for the bushes removed. I wanted as many natives as possible. Kurt didn’t want anything thorny we would have to deal with, and I was focused on butterflies, so we brought home various flowering items, along with some mint, with plans to transport our own wild bergamot and phlox from up above as well as some wild groundcover. We put in the tidier plants and gave everything a good watering.

Butterfly-friendly flowers where the multi-flora rose bushes were. Groundcover not yet laid down.

The next morning, we returned to find the nest ripped apart and the eggs eaten. I hadn’t considered that in hacking back the bushes to within a short distance of the nest, I left them exposed to any number of nocturnal opportunists looking for an easy meal.

As we examined the shredded remains of the nest, I heard a familiar sound—what I think of as a twanging rubberband. A frog! It was coming from the creek just beyond the multi-flora roses that were still standing.

Frogs in the volunteer pond our creek created this year.

I crept around the bushes, crawled under the hyacinth bush until I could stand upright again, under a tall pine. I sneaked quietly to the edge of the creek. A pond had formed sometime during the many rainstorms this spring, and I was able to catch a glimpse of two frogs, face-to-face, before they vanished in a panicked whoosh of mud and water, leaving me staring happily at minnows as big as baby trout (I swear!), and several dozen water skippers.

While Kurt excitedly started planning his next fishing trip, I could only wonder “When did this whole world sprung up here?” Apparently sometime while we were out of state, not tending to bushes and cutting our grass. I realized the pond had formed and the life in it was doing so well, because of those nasty bushes criss-crossing the top of the creek, holding back the walls from sliding down in their usual creek-collapsing state, and by keeping the sunlight sparse and predators away.

I imagined coming across this this happy crew of frogs and minnows and skippers as a child. What a world to discover and play in. And we are preparing to rip the roof off.

Multi-flora roses are awful. But to the wildlife they protect, they are sanctuary.

Don’t get me wrong, they will be ripped out, if it takes me all summer (and it probably will). But even invasive species have benefits. I should have learned that lesson better when I took Environmental Science Writing with Nancy Gift nearly two years ago. She has a great book, titled A Weed by Any Other Name and in it she talks about her own battle with these bushes. They are invasive transports which were brought in for erosion control and to make living fences. They do exactly what they are supposed to do, but they also take over anything and everything in their path. It’s why they need to go. We are losing a lot of Pennsylvania natives to this aggressive, thorny invader.

But as Dr. Gift always points out, invasives take hold more aggressively when there is a void—an empty spot of soil where something else was removed, and nature’s need for that type of plant. The ideal solution when removing a multi-flora is to replace it with a native, preferably a native that can serve the same functions. In this case, we do need erosion control along that creek. The birds do need a thick, preferably thorny protector from raccoons, owls and other nighttime scavengers. Rabbits live under the bushes, birds live in them and bees pollinate from them.

How did we do at replacing that habitat? Terrible. We bought a few butterfly and bee-friendly plants, which will most likely wash away the next time a storm overflows the banks. So…erosion control? No. We forgot about that. We could have, should have, replaced it with a similar species. It would have still been thorny and inconvenient—an outhouse rose, perhaps, or maybe several berry bushes—but it would have given us more pleasure (I do love the smell of outhouse roses and the taste of fresh raspberries) and would have given back the habitat we took as well as kept our creek-bank strong.

And how will that spattering of bee balm along a creekbank help the world of the newly formed pond of the frogs, the skippers and the minnows? What about the nesting birds and rabbits who call those nasty bushes home? Guess they’ll have to go somewhere else. But where?

Most of our neighbors have mowed away  the habitat for a lot of species of birds. There are fewer and fewer places for wildlife to find wilderness. And we haven’t been champions ourselves. It takes several hours to mow our property. We often joke about whose turn it is to mow the “Back 40.” (I can’t imagine actually managing 40 acres of farmland, because our 3.5 acres of wooded/meadowed/wetlanded/housed property is more than enough.)

Small section of the huge lawn extending across most of our lower property.

Not all of our acreage is lawn, thankfully, but why do we have so much grass? We generally only use our side yard as an actual “yard” and the rest we use to enjoy walks around the property and, um, well, look at wildlife, flowers, trees, frogs and plants.

When we first moved in, I loved the wild meadow above the house. It was filled with wild bergamot (purple bee balm) and butterfly weed, jewel weed and tons, tons of berry bushes, like black raspberries and blackberries. We wanted to explore it, and initially created paths in the meadows.

Path to upper meadow

We initially just cut big paths through the meadow, so we could enjoy strolling through the wilds. We mowed a nice carpet path into the woods so we could make that an easier wildlife walk as well.

We still have a lot of meadow back there, with paths, but each year we seem to cut more for grass. Grass that we don’t use for parties or sitting on the lawn or for anything except mowing. Why do we have a lawn there?

Path across the upper meadow

Mowed path into our woods

Upper meadow, becoming more and more yardlike

We mowed the lower part of the property because that’s what had been done before we moved in. It seemed what you do. It looks neat and tidy. But again, we don’t use that lower part of the property for anything but walking around looking at plants and animals, and maybe showing the neighbors and passing drivers that we know how to keep a neat and tidy lawn.

And I realized, as I was in hour 3 of mowing today, that enough is enough.

We have beautiful wetland habitat, occurring ever since the township rerouted a creek underground, from across the road years before we moved in. It supplies seemingly endless underground water into parts of our lower property. Cattails and willows sprung up, inviting red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, thrushes, wrens and dragonflies.

Our lower “wetlands”

At first we fought it, as the owners had before us, mowing over newborn cattails to keep our grass a “lawn” and under control. But each year, we linger a little longer, watching the wildlife playing within the confines of this mini wetland. Some summers we go along pulling out dead cattails to make it look neater, but after what I watched today, I won’t pull out dead cattails again.

I took a break from mowing to catch my breath and wipe my face, and watched as a tiny hummingbird flitted through the cattails, picking out big tufts of the soft brown tops before flying away with a wad of it in its beak. It made several trips to gather the down-like substance to build a nest.

Mowing around a small cluster of cattails

Even if I make the logical connection that this hummingbird could get nesting material from elsewhere, I know I want to watch this again.

I decided to go back to only mowing paths again. I was already on my way there. My version of mowing consists of mowing around random clumps of buttercups, ajuga, dandelions and daisies and even patches of honeybee clover that I find appealing. The end result, to me, is something of a painting, with splashes of yellow, white and purple. I just can’t bring myself to plow over sections that are so pretty.

Mowing around a buttercup. Is leaving speckles of yellow, white and purple across the lawn such a bad idea?

So taking that mowing down to only paths is really the next logical step. It will look uglier from the road, I’m sure. One of the hardest things to explain, especially as its growing in stages of weedy unsightliness, is a meadow. And aren’t meadows, along with wetlands, among the most endangered types of habitats?.

We have the benefit of not living underneath a housing development set of rules. What is country living for, if I can’t choose to make my “lawn” a habitat instead?

And maybe that “maintenance” wouldn’t be so tiring if I worked with the land instead of against it…

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