THE LESSON OF MILKWEED

 

My brother was by training and vocation a scientist. So naturally when he set about to grow a wildflower patch at his country house in Maine, he went high tech. Well, medium tech anyway. He threw some seeds on the ground, then drove his pickup over them to get them embedded. I never did see the result. Might have been pretty good. Might not have been.

There are lots of ways to start and maintain a wildflower patch, and I conclude, after eighteen years of being a wildflower farmer and going at it every which way, that one way works  about as well as another.

Here’s another thing I know about growing wildflowers. No matter how you go about it, a suggestive question arises unbidden.

When Ann complained to our friend Joe about the overabundance of milkweed in our patch, he said, “Ann, it’s a meadow.” The implication was that therefore we shouldn’t expect to control what happens there. But our plot is not a true meadow; it’s only meadow-like in that some plants we don’t want, such as milkweed, sneak in and grow voluntarily. In my view, a real meadow is  something that occurs without any deliberate intervention by humans. Wildflowers are not wild flowers.

Every year since 2001, Ann and I have intervened in the plant life of a 30 x 60-foot slope at the far edge of the front yard of the former Carmelite Monastery where we live. We’ve encouraged the growth of so-called wildflowers where before nothing more flower-like than scruffy grass and dandelions had been. To be clear, those things we have grown there were not wild flowers. Texas bluebonnets and Indian paint brush are wild flowers. They require nothing but to be left alone. The seeds can lie dormant through years of drought, then come to life beautifully after a good rain. No sir, wildflowers and wild flowers are as different as a flower bed is from a meadow.

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By midsummer, we risk stiff necks and dowager humps by spending inordinate amounts of time looking at the ground of our little patch as if by staring at it we can will the wildflower patch to be the best ever and not to make us wait. I’ll not be surprised if one of these days a neighbor or two come over to ask what we’ve lost and offering to help look for it.

The head-down dialogue follows a script.

“Look, those are Pinks down by the sidewalk.”

“Yes, and I see a few Sweet Williams.”

“And I think those little shoots are daisies.”

“The Ground Phlox that starts over by the fireplug is looking great, as usual.”

“The damn Milkweed is everywhere. I don’t care that the butterflies like Milkweed, I don’t.”

Usually July is almost gone before the wildflower show is fully underway. That surely is the case this year.

The watchful waiting that starts (foolishly) at around Memorial Day increases steadily in intensity, and it changes in character as day follows day. In the beginning, we feel like children waiting for Christmas – excited and eager – but as time passes, we begin to worry that this year we may get few flowers and mostly weeds.

A weedy wildflower patch would be an embarrassment. Friends and neighbors expect more from us. We’ve never quite owned the Monastery. Before we showed up, the people of this predominately Catholic village seemed to think of it as a civic asset, and though we hold the deed now, there is a sense that we are as much trustees and caretakers as owners. Ann and I share that view. So it is our duty to make the patch as colorful as possible.

The basics of growing wildflowers are deceptively simple. First, you decide whether to plant in fall just before the first frost or in spring just after the last frost. It doesn’t seem to make any difference which. Then, shortly before planting, you clear existing vegetation, loosen up the soil, embed seeds in the soil (by, for example, driving a pickup truck on them), keep the patch watered, and wait. (Staring down at the plot a lot from late spring to midsummer is optional.)

Whether planting in fall or spring, timing the onset or end of frost is crucial. Plant too early in the fall, and the seeds will start growing and die from frostbite when winter arrives. Spring planting is similarly problematic.

I’ve consulted weather records, but in this time of climate change, what happened in the past has limited value as prediction. Likewise local forecasts. Ours covers a great swathe of the Adirondacks, but Saranac Lake has a microclimate that is sometimes different from the rest of the forecast area.

The right moment to plant is more likely to be determined by consulting folk wisdom, ceremony, incantations, things like that than by science and technology. Everybody in these parts knows (not believes, “knows”) that you don’t plant annuals until after Memorial Day. A more precise iteration of that rule is not until the first full moon after Memorial Day. Or maybe it’s the first new moon. I don’t remember which. I haven’t yet turned up such a rule that applies particularly to wildflower planting, but it’s probably about the same as for annuals.

Another consideration: when the nuns left, the monastery was not desanctified (or whatever the word is that means it has remained consecrated), maybe determining the proper date is a job for a priest. If he can’t get the Almighty to reveal the best moment for planting, he could at least see the seeds into the ground with prayer and blessing, like shrimp boats are blessed at the start of their season. Or maybe we would have been best served by getting some recovering hippies to sit around singing “Hare Krishna” while doing something with crystals while in a peyote fog.

Whatever the date, shortly before planting, existing vegetation has to removed. That shouldn’t be too hard. But in our case, “shouldn’t” has been missing in action. You start by going over the area with a weed whacker or lawnmower and reducing as much as possible whatever is growing there. Then you rent a tiller. Anyone can operate a tiller, can’t they? Actually, it depends. Since the plot is on a slope, a big tiller is required. Ones small enough for a person of normal strength to manage have two-stroke engines, which would be damaged if used on other then flat ground. Those with four-stroke engines are of a size and weight to make glad the hearts of masseuses and chiropractors. And even after the struggle is over, the plot is still dotted with weedy tufts. Oh well. A few weeds among the blooms would give the carefully cultivated plot a natural look.

When we overcame our ignorance sufficiently to realize that we’d have to go through this procedure every year, I had a good idea. I hired someone to do the tilling. Over time, variations on this simple approach made an appearance.

Contractor John found a guy who needed beer money so bad he would do almost anything for a few bucks, including herding a big tiller over a slope for a half a day or so. Then John went around with a big propane torch and burned the stuff that was left after tilling. The burning drew a good deal of attention from neighbors, but the resulting flowers that followed were nothing special.

Steve, an expert gardener from a local nursery, attempted Permaculture. In the fall, he covered the plot with heavy plastic in the belief that in spring the patch would be as free of weeds as a kids’ sand pile. Permaculture is reportedly used successfully by many people. Not by us, though. Never did find out why. Besides that, the great sheet of black plastic was unsightly. That was not a problem in winter when it was under snow. But there were periodic thaws, and it was all too plain to see while waiting for snow to start and in spring while waiting to be sure that the snow was over.

A couple of years ago, we paid a landscape company to come in with a crew of strong young men and till the hell out of the plot, then pull the remaining weed tufts by hand. The mature crop of wildflowers had about the same amount of weeds as resulted from other methods.

I won’t go into detail about the other stuff we’ve faced. Just a few high spots, then it’s a wrap.

A landscape company planted a row of cedars along the south side of the plot, and in the process drove a tracked vehicle back and forth across it en route from the driveway to the site of the cedars. Seeds had already been planted and shoots were visible, so driving over it was not helpful the way my brother’s pickup truck was thought to be. It struck me that people who make their living growing things should have wondered about the purpose of a newly tilled field with sprinklers around the edges.

A woman driving down the hill in front lost her brakes and careened across the middle of it (while it was in full bloom), finally coming to a stop by ramming the row of cedars. I got a pretty good settlement from her insurance company after I persuaded the adjuster that the driver had torn up a wildflower patch (expensive) not some wild flowers (free) and consequently the harm done was substantial. I threw in pain and suffering damages, too.

For one whole year a doe made a nest in the plot and slept quietly through the night until I ran her off each morning.

For a couple of years we tried to get a good crop of poppies going. A neighbor on the next block had a striking bed of them. We didn’t get much the first year, so we ordered more the next season – 1.340,000. By my count, we got three blossoms. I might have missed a few, but I doubt it. I looked for them with the intensity of crime-scene investigators seeking spent cartridges in deep grass.

And so it went.

Perhaps I have made clear why it’s important to me to observe the difference between wildflowers and wild flowers, between a flower bed and a meadow. Wildflowers cost a fair amount and they are a hell of a lot of trouble. People should call things what they are.

On the other hand, I find myself yelling objections at the talking heads on television for their habitual use of either/or questions. Was Richard Nixon a crook or a statesman? Is America moving in the right direction or the wrong direction? Is that a flower bed or a meadow in my front yard? In most cases, the only defensible answer is “both.” Or if you prefer being a wiseacre, “yes.”

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “THE LESSON OF MILKWEED

  1. Rosalie

    I have been admiring all the beautiful wildflowers I see along the roads, the black eyed susans, and tiger lilies and daisies and I have been thinking about planting a wildflower garden. Thank you for revealing the folly of that notion! I will continue to stop my husband from mowing when Indian paintbrush are in bloom though

    Reply
  2. Miles

    My wife uses Monarch Butterfly larva, found on milkweed, as an educational tool for her elementary class. She has a fish aquarium which I built a screened top for several years ago. Milkweed seems to be on the increase in our area but the larva have been increasingly difficult to find. Marsha Stanley and Adirondack Action.Org were distributing milkweed seeds several years ago and may have helped with the increase. Hopefully the larva will become more plentiful and my Better Half will have more Monarchs to release in the early fall.

    Regarding the rototiller, I did have a friend who was run over by his own tiller several years ago. He lost a fair amount of skin and muscle on one shin. Thank God we can laugh about it today!

    Miles

    Reply

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