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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

June 27, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Our summer of long, sweet grass

Ahhh long grass. Not the scruffy stuff by Aurora Avenue. No. I’m talking about the pleasure of a meadow of long, sweet grass.

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Long Grass at Discovery Park

Living in the city, it becomes rare to see grass actually grown to the point that it can set up a nice fat seed head. Let alone long ripples in an expanse of tall grass, unleashed by the wind. Unleashed: that’s just the feeling, out of the realm of the clipped, managed, tidy realm of lawn. The birds sure know the difference: song sparrows on a recent evening were calling, and the click and buzz of insects snugged deep in the sheltering grasses was soothing as a lullaby.

In no time, I settled in for a nap, the long grass framing the cloudscape.

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Grass, from the napper’s vantage point. Long grass sings one of life’s best lullabies.

Good as a meadow feels for us, it’s actually important for wildlife. Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society in Portland, a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates, notes the value of long grass for birds, bees and insects.

“We often talk about in our work leaving messy places,” Black said. “Messy places where there is a little bit of chaos are really good for animals. Everything manicured, everything cut, everything looking perfect is often providing nothing. Even in yards, if you can leave messy places, I have this pile of branches I leave every year. I have had birds nest under it, a couple of bee nests.”

Native bumblebees will nest in tall grass where it falls over, Black noted, and butterflies will use it for overwintering habitat. Birds will nest in long grass. “These places are definitely missing from many urban environments, even our parks, for the most part.”

And of course if the meadow includes clover, that can be an important source of food for bees and other pollinators. The grass at Discovery Park was replete with the twining magenta of vetch, and purple orbs of blooming clover.

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Clover is an important source of food for native pollinators

Lynda Mapes photos

Black noted increasing push back at the convention of the clipped lawn monoculture. Indeed, many Seattle Parks, including Discovery Park, include both cut and uncut areas.

At the Center for Urban Horticulture, Fred Hoyt, associate director of the UW Botanic Gardens, said the grounds are managed both for people and wildlife. The grass at the Union Bay Natural Area is mowed just once a year, to keep down the blackberries. The mowing is done in consultation with Seattle Audubon, usually in July after ground nesting birds have completed their breeding season, Hoyd said.

The natural area includes both forest canopy and open areas, and is a rich wildlife habitat right in the heart of the city. To read about the area as a birder’s paradise, read my story in the Seattle Times.

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