Written by David Bingham, MD, Salem CT
For years, I have been working to expand the biodiversity of my back yard to restore some of the balance of nature we humans have upset over the centuries. Some wags joke about “Bingham’s Weed Patch” as they drive past unkempt fields in our neighborhood that teem with many different native grasses, meadow wildflowers and early succession shrubs, attracting all manner of bugs and birds. Recent sightings of harriers and a short-eared owl suggest our local rodent population (mice and voles) is thriving as well.
The opportunity to become involved in the restoration of the American chestnut has opened a whole new avenue of “farming for biodiversity.” By pollinating a local native American chestnut tree and providing space for a chestnut orchard in my “back field,” a quantum jump in the quest for “going native” has become possible. The orchard planting is bringing back a tree that once was a keystone of Connecticut’s forest ecology. This is a chance to be part of a restoration effort that is national in scope and importance.
In addition, the requirement of keeping out the local deer herd with fencing has meant that the orchard can be used to restore many of the local ground-cover species that have been decimated by over-browsing deer or over-zealous landscapers. No longer do I have to worry about planting a small shrub only to have it eaten up the next day. Moreover, it is a wonder to watch all sorts of native grasses and wildflowers appear in the orchard meadow as if by magic, out of nowhere, by allowing them to grow and flower all season.
While I do mow alongside each row of the orchard to allow easy access for watering, cultivation and mulching, much of the orchard is otherwise available for native grassland and early succession management. All have to do is wait to mow late in the season after the first frost, to allow butterfly larvae to get under cover and fall wildflowers to go to seed, and leave a “hedge” for native shrubs just inside the fence line. Nature does the rest. Initially, invasive species such as multiflora rose and bittersweet vines were a problem, but these will tend to die back with the annual mowing (which makes it progressively harder for them to compete with other ground covers).
I also have to cut back hardwood saplings that would eventually shade out our chestnuts. Annual removal/mowing makes it harder and harder for hardwood seeds/nuts to become established in the diverse native “prairie” turf flora that begins to take over the meadow around our chestnut saplings. Highbush blueberry, winterberry, red cedar, and gray dogwood have come in as volunteers, on their own.
Tending the chestnut trees is itself a pleasure. But working there while surrounded by wildflowers, bluebirds, and butterflies, or discovering a cottontail and a nesting song-sparrow with young, is something that most orchard managers will never experience if they keep their grasses cut neatly and tidily like a lawn. For those who just love nature, or for those who look at biodiversity as a necessity for restoring the health of our environment, managing a chestnut orchard as a nursery for a wide variety of native grassland meadow and shrubland species can be immensely gratifying.