Story by Peggy Hill
I live in rural Alabama, the boonies. When you leave my house, you are on a gravel road for a half a mile. There are no houses or fields on this stretch of road. It’s old, undeveloped timberland, still checkerboarded with pine trees. I walk my dogs down that road almost every day. It’s usually a pleasant, little nature walk, and I especially enjoy it in fall. I love it when the Asters, goldenrods (Solidago), Liatris and other wildflowers bloom and the last of summer’s butterflies dance about collecting nectar.
One day last October, I took the dogs for our usual walk and discovered that someone had mowed the side of the road. They just chopped it all down. No more wildflowers. No more butterflies. No more seeds for the birds. I wondered who would do such a thing and why. About a week later, my neighbor Bill said, “Doesn’t the gravel road look fantastic now that Howard bush-hogged?” I was flabbergasted that someone endorsed this assault on nature. I replied, “NO! It does NOT look fantastic. On what planet does 12-inch-high vegetation look better than a meadow of tall grasses and wildflowers?!?!”
If we educate [Alabamians] about the importance of native grasses and wildflowers, maybe they will consider tithing a portion of their property.
Bill quickly changed the subject, but after I got home that night, it kept nagging at me. I understood that there were plenty of people who agreed with Bill and Howard, that clearing the roadside makes it more attractive, and they aren’t bad people; they just don’t know that “tidying up” nature destroys wildlife. I realized this is an important topic, so I wrote an article titled Don’t be a Neat-Freak Gardener and it ran in the February issue of Alabama Gardener magazine. The article poked fun at Bill for being too orderly, and for thinking that the side of the road looked fantastic after Howard bush-hogged. I concluded by quoting two experts who agreed with me that bush-hogging harms nature. One of the experts was Bill Finch. Part of Mr. Finch’s quote said, “Continuous bush-hogging of pastures is one of the main reasons we’ve seen massive declines in wildflowers and wildlife like quail and monarchs.”
A month after I submitted the article, I went to the Native Plant Conference at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Mr. Finch was the honoree and he was also one of the conference speakers. I ran into him while we were on break and thanked him for his quote. We started talking, and I said that my neighbor Bill had seen the article, and he only commented when he read the part where I described the side of the road as a meadow. Bill muttered, “I didn’t see a freaking meadow.” I told Mr. Finch, “I think that’s the heart of the issue. People don’t see the meadow. They see a mess. Why don’t they see what we see, and what can we do about it?” Mr. Finch said that if I had time, I might be interested in his presentation that was coming up next because it dovetailed with this discussion.
Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in the audience listening to Mr. Finch explain that the invention of bush-hogging equipment changed how we maintain our landscapes. Before we could bush-hog, it wasn’t practical to mow pastures. Mr. Finch said there has been a shift in our aesthetics made possible by our ability to bush-hog – a “golf-course mentality.”
He went on to say we should accept the fact that some people want manicured landscapes and they are probably not going to stop bush-hogging just because we say they should. This was terrible news to me because I was under the delusion that my February article had settled the matter and saved the world … apparently not. Mr. Finch suggested we tackle the problem from a different direction. Most Alabamians are good, faithful, church-going people. If we educate them about the importance of native grasses and wildflowers, maybe they will consider tithing a portion of their property. Maybe people will thank God for the bounty of this earth by giving nature an area 10-20 yards wide along fencerows. Mr. Finch called this idea “Borders for Butterflies,” and he asked everyone to help spread the word.
That’s why I wrote this article. I want to share this spectacular idea, along with related information I also learned at the 2017 Native Plant Conference. The Alabama Butterfly Atlas website (alabama.butterflyatlas.usf.edu) launched in 2017, and Paulette Ogard, one of the founders, spoke at the conference. She encouraged everyone to visit the website to learn about Alabama’s butterfly species, the habitats that support them, when and where they fly, and their host and nectar plants. You can report your butterfly sightings on the website so that even more knowledge can be gained.
I hope that one day everyone will see the meadow, but if you still see a mess, “Borders for Butterflies” is another reason to save it.
Feature photo: When you visit the Alabama Butterfly Atlas website, you’ll see photos of butterflies using the very plants mentioned in this article, including this picture of a gulf fritillary nectaring on Liatris. The habitat descriptions for many species refer to meadows, roadsides, rights-of-way, and other sunny, open areas. Instead of mowing these places, let’s create some borders for the butterflies! Photo by Sara Bright, courtesy of the Alabama Butterfly Atlas.