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Makeover for Mercer County Park

Mercer County Park is getting a makeover! 31.5 acres of lawn are being converted to native habitat along Hughes Drive and the main byway of Paxson Ave that runs east-west through the Park. Once complete, it will be both a pollinator hotspot and a destination for scenic summer wildflower strolls.

The Stewardship Department has been working closely with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to plan this exciting project. The target areas were selected based on recommendations from a Fish & Wildlife Habitat Plan written for the Park a few years ago by a certified wildlife biologist.

These areas on the map above will be seeded with native grasses and wildflowers, and once established, will become natural meadows. Herbaceous species suited to this region were carefully selected to provide flower blooms throughout the entire season, and will offer enduring diversity of resources for foraging pollinators. A few of the many beautiful species to anticipate include: Virginia mountainmint, blackeyed Susan, purple coneflower, oxeye sunflower, little bluestem, grassleaf goldenrod, and smooth blue aster.

In addition to grasses and wildflowers, native shrubs will be planted in a few select locations. Often shrubs are overlooked for their value to pollinators, however, many of our native shrubs provide critical resources to larval stages of pollinators and can also offer nectar and pollen sources as well. For example, flowering dogwood is a larval food plant for 115 native species of butterflies and moth, and Allegheny serviceberry provides food to 119. They are both also an early easy source of nectar and pollen for native bees.

Lawns are typically made up of non-native cool season grasses that provide little food and cover for wildlife. When gone unused, these areas can have high habitat improvement potential, providing space to fill with native grasses, forbs, and even shrubs. The addition of these beneficial plants will result in increased pollinator foraging and nesting habitat, improved cover and food for small mammals and birds, and enhanced natural aesthetics of our Parks.

Not only does it increase value to wildlife, reducing lawn in the Parks will result in reduced carbon emissions from gas-powered mowers (meadows are mowed annually instead of once a week), increased water retention during storms and flooding events, and reduced attraction for nuisance wildlife such as Canada geese.

This work is planned to begin in April of 2021. The first step will be site prep: a broad spectrum herbicide will be selectively applied to the existing lawn by a certified pesticide applicator. At this point, you can expect to see brown and dead-looking cover – which is what we want! The purpose of this is to kill off the competition from the nonnative cool season grasses and annual weeds, and make room for the new seeds – otherwise they wouldn’t stand a chance. This process will be repeated 2-3 times throughout the growing season.

Once the existing cover has been controlled, the seeding will take place in the late fall, allowing the seeds to go through the natural freezing and thawing processes of winter that they are adapted to. Come spring of 2022, the seeds will begin to germinate. In the first year after seeding, the sites may need to be mowed a few times during the growing season to reduce weed pressure on the newly establishing plants. It will take a few years for these small seedlings to set roots and really take off from the ground up. However, with a little patience, over the next few years we will see the main road in the Park undergo a transformation that will benefit people and pollinators alike.

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