We share our meadow with many living things, and we do our best to keep them happy. Each fall, we leave the dead stems and seedpods standing to provide winter food and shelter for wildlife. The little bluestems hold their beauty through the winter, but by early spring even I can admit that the rest of the meadow looks unkempt. My son, who likes things tidy, starts threatening to take out his rake and “clean things up.” On his own, he will happily strip the topsoil away.
Last spring, I gave in to his demands and together we cleared the dried-up stems, piling them near the edge of our property. I felt proud knowing the brush pile would offer good bird habitat, and the nutrients in all that plant matter would return to our soil.
Eventually, that is; the pile would not decompose anytime soon. It was my height and certainly not beautiful in any conventional sense. We already have several other piles, and excess organic matter was accumulating faster than we could find places to put it.
I thought about chipping the brush pile, but dislike the noise and the fumes. And I have a healthy fear of losing a finger. Instead, I bought heavy paper yard bags, thinking that we could bag up the stems and haul them to the transfer station where they would get composted.
I half-filled one bag with beautiful stems and dried seedpods but the thought of all those embodied nutrients leaving our land made me sad. I am typically the one who takes my neighbors’ leaves to mulch my garden beds.
After doing some quick math, I realized that this approach would take far too many bags and trips to the transfer station. Could I just put those plant stems right back where they had come from? I was concerned the long stems lying on the ground might smother new growth, and it wouldn’t be aesthetically pleasing. I knew it wouldn’t pass muster with my son.
So I began snapping dried stems into short lengths, sending seeds flying everywhere. Once broken, the stems were easily tossed and hardly visible on the ground. Snap, snap, snap, chuck! It didn’t feel like work. My wife joined me and I could tell she liked the final chuck. My 3-year-old neighbor asked if he could help. A friend, stopping by, found she enjoyed it too.
That plant matter will help hold in moisture and slowly enrich the soil. And the seeds have gone everywhere; that’s what makes me the happiest. Those seeds will make a new native seed bank to compete with the invasive weeds that once strangled our meadow.
So now I know. I’m not ever carting that plant matter off our land. Like the bagged leaves I receive from neighbors, these stems and seeds are gifts that I gladly accept. And for now, I will leave the little bluestems standing—for beauty and for joy.
This story first appeared in Wild Seed magazine Volume 4.
Wild Seed Project member Gregg Raymond, a mostly self-trained plant propagator with a passion for creating living landscapes, shares a meadow in South Portland, Maine, with his family and “more living things than you can count.” The story of establishing that meadow, Rewilding a Suburban Yard, appears in Wild Seed magazine Volume 3.