Friday, July 8, 2016

That's No Barren Wasteland

Recently I read a first-hand account of property maintenance in the suburbs. A couple moved from the city into a more rural Ohio suburb and decided to let the property “go natural”. The town zoning commission, though, forced them to mow. The home owner described the experience as “a massacre. I ran over a snake and killed it. I killed a toad. I cut down all of these beautiful native plants and wildflowers”.
Fighting against routine residential property maintenance is probably a losing battle, especially when involving community health and safety, aesthetic, and property values. However, this idea of empty space having value beyond aesthetics deserves attention. Residential property is only one example. Other open spaces in our communities not tied to residential property values do exist and can be better managed.

Like what our family from Ohio realized, these manmade grassland areas do create their own unique ecosystems. Land cleared for several different reasons requires routine maintenance to remain open space. These areas include airports, capped landfills, croplands, abandoned lots, and hayfields. If not maintained, open areas grow back into forest. Cultivating small biodiverse habitats within our highly managed and sterile residential environments has its benefits.

Empty lots allowed to “go natural” can seem from the street as desolate, unkempt property. But from the inside, they can be bustling with activity. Plants and wildflowers grow here, attracting bees and other pollinators. Birds nest here, raising their young. Predators stalk prey seen as vermin that use the tall vegetation to hide. Safely maintaining these systems can potentially boost bee activity, encourage bird populations, and manage pest problems. In short, an area kept clear for a pragmatic reason still lives.

The important term is safe maintenance. Mowing, as our Ohio couple discovered, can be extremely devastating to a grassland system. Developing a maintenance plan coinciding with flowering seasons and nesting times, as well as deciding on best practices for maintenance methods helps protect and develop these exciting backyard ecological systems in harmony with our need for aesthetically pleasing suburban communities.

The University of New Hampshire recommends regularly mowing areas like this every three years at six inches or higher, and physically removing shrubs or young saplings. Mowing ought to be done in autumn, after the nesting and flowering seasons, and during the day, as birds roost in the grass at night. In addition, controlled burns may be used as well. Not only does mimicking this natural process enrich soils and spread native grasses, but also provides valuable practice for local fire departments.

Cleared sites don’t have to just sit idle and foster biodiversity either. In addition, grassland areas can work for their communities. These areas can host the space needed for renewable energy sources, such as wind farms, and provide biofuels.

Regularly scheduled mowing does provide waste. Biomass fuel from haying and grass silage provides a cheap energy alternative while dramatically dropping greenhouse emissions and protecting soil and groundwater. The surrounding community benefits from an otherwise wasted space that could potentially keep land values down, and seem unsightly. The funding saved can then be reinvested into the grassland habitat, strengthening the ecosystem.

Invasive plant species thrive in these environments, the one drawback to open spaces. The best way to manage this issue combines targeting these destructive species for removal and fostering a healthy turf stand capable of defending itself. The money saved with biofuels will pay for all of this.

In conclusion, the importance of open space turf areas goes far beyond residential aesthetics. Communities have an opportunity to create their own system within areas like these. A system that can benefit local ecology, fulfill its role as a necessary open space, and also benefit the community’s energy needs is most certainly worth exploring.

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