WILD YARD STORIES
A Meadow Grows in West Gloucester
BY KIM RADOCIA
I live on the edge of an amazing salt marsh ecosystem in Gloucester, Massachusetts, called, ‘The Great Marsh’. They are the plains of New England; the only naturally-occurring low, grassy, flatland terrain on the coast. They play a critical role in cleaning our water, shielding us from storms and above all else providing a nursery for fish and birds. After moving here, it became clear that I was the visitor in this diverse biome. Swarms of greenhead horseflies, midges, and mosquito’s flourish in the marsh, delighting in the blood of us humans and our mammalian comrades. Schools of fish hatchlings feast on a buffet of copepods, larvae and plankton that live in the mud and heat it up with their collective digestion (ice and snow stay on the marsh only during the coldest weeks of winter). As a result, forage abounds for an amazing diversity of birds, fish and insects that seek shelter in the Great Marsh nursery throughout the year.
One spring morning I woke up to hundreds of robins noisily hopping around our property, busily plucking worms and insects for hours. It prompted me to research what could have caused this Hitchcock like phenomena. I learned that our little peninsula, Cape Ann, is one of the few service stops in the vast Gulf of Maine on a migration superhighway north and south. Throughout our first season here flocks of migratory birds landed on our property, resting and feasting during their long voyage North in the Spring and South in the Fall. I uncovered an article about the dwindling resting and food habitat for migratory birds and was inspired to transform our property into a bird sanctuary. We decided on a spot for a sunny meadow near my barn studio.
I also selfishly hoped after a year of sprinting between my house and my art studio at low tide during the summer equinox that I could attract some allies in the fight against the swarms of biting flies that constantly marauded us. Greenhead flies strike flesh fiercely at low tide…BE WARNED! When October comes I always take a deep sigh of relief that my legs and arms can return to their un-welted origins.
As a rookie farmer of fields, I consulted our local nursery and seeded a wildflower seed mixture they recommended into our tilled field in May. We did have to remediate the area and pull some thorny brambles and some over-aggressive invasive vines but our soil was beautiful. How hard could this be? My husband and I watered the field and waited, waited and waited, only to realize lackluster results… the field never blossomed and succumbed to weeds. I declared that crab grass would be the last surviving plant on Earth (and probably on Mars too).
I strengthened my resolve for year two of my field, did the research, talked to a lot of smart people, and decided to go all in on planting 2” plugs of native species into the field. I planned the field carefully and artistically to have big drifts of flowers among the grasses in the field. I chose many yellow flowers to tie into the big yellow doors on my barn/studio and wanted blooms throughout the summer, so I picked plants that bloomed in each phase of the season. It was a huge undertaking and many people, including my family, thought I was absolutely nuts (although they humored me and helped me plant and weed). As an artist, I’ve found my best works are only achieved through tedious, repetitive and arthritis-inducing process and a stubbornness of vision and passion.
After my husband roto-tilled the area, I took a trip to New England Wetland Plants, Inc. in Amherst Massachusetts. I came home with a bounty for my field: 2,200 varying native plants in 2” plugs. Sticking to the ratio of 65% grasses, 35% flowers of which 10% should include flowering groundcovers I set to work with a small crew planting the field.
I planted the following: Virginia Wild Rye, Tufted Hairgrass, Eastern Purple Coneflower, Foxglove Beard Tongue, Wild Blue Lupine, Wild Bergamot, Blue Wood Aster, Smooth Aster, Golden Alexanders, Sneezeweed/Helen’s Flower, Lance Leaved Coreopsis. I also added some self sowing Cosmos and Cleome, Yarrow, Globe Thistle and Milkweed. I didn’t plant groundcover and opted for more upright flowers. I also opted for warm-season grasses as a base layer instead of cool season sedge grasses. It is best to pick one or the other rather than mixing grasses and sedges. I’ve had to weed consistently to give the plants time to expand and fill in.
We are now in the second year of the new planting of the meadow and I am stunned by the amount of (non-biting) insects and butterflies that have flocked to the blooms: hummingbird moths, butterflies, and bees of all varieties. One particularly gorgeous iridescent-orange wasp that visited the field was so impressive. I never expected to be just as awestruck by the amazing insects I’m now observing and studying as the birds I was initially trying to draw in. Who knew that insects aren’t all biting pests! At least one bird family nested in the field that I inadvertently flushed when weeding one day. I still have not been able to identify the species, as it wasn’t something I normally see (small lean dark brown/black bird with a longer tail with a v at the bottom). I didn’t enter the field very much after that, as I didn’t want to disrupt what was happening.
As an artist, my work represents a conceptual preoccupation with the study of ‘Li’, an ancient Chinese practice of gathering and organizing the extraordinary patterns found in nature on every scale: water currents and lines, flocking birds’ murmurations, geological forms, and insects’ wings and their patterning collect and disperse on my worked surfaces and sculptures. The field feeds my curiosity as an artist observer. As the summer deepens, more and more insects settle in, hummingbirds and butterflies constantly stop at the blossoms for nectar. Today, I spotted what I believe is a Great Black Wasp that has a very long rod-like tail with iridescent blue/black wings. I followed its path as it moved from flower to flower searching for food. In the first autumn of the wildflower field, I spotted a grouping of yellow finches perching and nibbling on the cosmos flowers going to seed. I knew in that second year that my goal, vision, and efforts were a success. I undertook this project to rebuild bird habitat, but also to bask in, share and spread luster of the natural world through my art. If you encourage nature to prosper using local plantings on a sunny spot on your property, you will be rewarded with an infinite well of tranquil inspiration. You will marvel at the subtle shifts of color, form and light and how the bounty of flora unfolds for creatures reliant upon it for food and shelter. It is my joy to witness and share in this cycle of life here in our wild corner of Gloucester.