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Watching The Grass Grow
Written and illustrated by Zela Charlton - 02/11/01

Over the fence

There used to be the image of a farmer leaning on his five-barred wooden gate, chewing a piece of grass and just idly looking at his paddocks.

An old-time farmer might well have done that - and he would have been working, not idling. He would have been assessing the grass condition, or the rate of growth, or the condition of any animals there.

Today it is more likely that he - or his wife - will be working in the office, seated at a computer, working out things on-screen from data such as soil pH and rainfall.

It is us small farmers who still have the luxury of being able to watch the grass grow, and all that means.

Observing enjoyable and useful
Taking time to observe is one of the pleasures, but it is also very useful as you will develop a sort of sixth sense that will tell you a lot about how things are doing, just by taking time to look.

Grass an absorbing interest
Grass is very much on our minds just now here in Northland - as much as in the drought fearing South. We have had an amazing amount of rain over the past few months and it is positively frightening to watch the grass and weeds grow. Such vigour, vitality - it is amazing.

When you only have a back-yard lawn, even if you are a very keen gardener, you are probably not as aware of grass as a farmer although you may share in the wonder at the rate of Spring growth.

I have been trying to research some facts about grass since I got interested in the many different sorts that are growing on my patch, but it is a huge subject and I have had to leave it as one of those things to be done one day.

Talking about grass and my land, though, I have first to declare that most of the pasture is "scruffy Northland rubbish" - to quote the disparaging comment of a farm advisor in the distant past. He recommended resowing with the most common NZ mix, of ryegrass with white clover as the companion legume. We did this on part of the land, and it has certainly done well - too well, really as that area was later turned over to growing kiwifruit, and so the sward had to be mowed incessantly and the clover was a distraction to the pollinating bees.

This mix of a legume and grass is basic to pasture in New Zealand. The legumes -usually clovers - fix the nitrogen in the soil while the grasses provide the nutrition for the animals.

Lawn mowing a continual chore
As all who have charge of a lawn well know, grass is encouraged to grow by being cut (or eaten). This is why lawn-mowing is a continual chore unless you take to life in a high-rise.

The rest of our pasture was left alone till we had time to deal with it. That time has not yet come - so it has been

Mowing grass

Farm animals
The rest of our pasture was left alone till we had time to deal with it. That time has not yet come - so it has been grazed by various animals, mown, occasionally fertilised and ignored.

Grazers have interestingly different tastes.
It has been interesting for us to note how differently the grass and the animals interact.

Cattle, we found, like the grass long, so that they can wind it round their tongues ...

Sheep want it shorter, and they nibble, but they really like quite a lot of weeds and are not too good near trees. They particularly like the bark of macrocarpa. This seems odd as we have been told that macrocarpa can cause abortions in cows.

Goats prefer anything other than grass - they are browsers and really do try to eat clothes off the line.

Horses are a bit of a disaster . They are very much individuals, granted, but they eat a lot and given a chance will be very choosy so that some areas of mixed pasture will be eaten down to bare ground while patches of dock flourish everywhere they have been.

All this is of course completely subjective - it is just what has happened here, where we have left the paddocks very much alone, with just some basic fertilizer spread every year or two.

Working Bee
A working bee to deal with the weeds
Weeds have been dealt with in the time-honoured way; a working bee of friends and family with various implements and many hands to either slash or pull the worst of the weeds such as ink-weed , woody-nightshade or thistle.

On a small scale this event can be a lot of fun as well as hard work and usually ends with a BBQ and a few beers. I supplement this weeding frenzy by constantly hand weeding the biggest weeds as I wander round. Part of the watching grass grow! Of course, we also harvest puha and dandelion either for ourselves or the chooks.

In England puha is known as sow thistle I believe, but here in New Zealand it is best known as a delicacy much treasured by the Maori country folk - it can be delicious picked young and boiled with some pork bones.

I have seen dandelion leaves on sale in French markets and they make a tasty addition to salads - again they have to be young and tender. Dandelion flowers make a wonderful wine.

One of the big problems we have here is kikiku grass. This is resistant to drought and is frost tender but we are getting warmer winters so it has not been discouraged. It is a rampant triffid like grass, spreading out long tentacles that actually climb up trees or fences if left alone.

Animals - notably horses - do not like it very much unless there is nothing else but it does provide green fodder even in the driest summer.

Hens useful as mowers?
It is also amazing how much grass and weeds free-range hens devour; they like it fairly short to start with, then they will keep it cropped short - even if generously manured. If only they could be toilet trained they would be wonderful lawn-mowers....

Reassurance in the normalcy of the return of Spring
With the events of September 11 so dominant in all our minds it has been hard to write of something as mundane as life on my lifestyle block; but there is a reassurance in the normalcy of the return of Spring and the urgency of new life everywhere.

Grass has been the basis of human farming since time immemorial - and I would like to end with a quote from Walt Whitman:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.

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