412. Kent Field

Kent Field

Kent Field is the grassy meadow spanning the base of the conifer collection and Bussey Brook. One of several areas at the Arboretum targeted for restoration with native non-woody plants, the space is planted with hundreds of native herbaceous, or soft-stemmed, plants—such as whorled milkweed, common boneset, great blue lobelia, and short-toothed mountain mint. Along with supporting pollinators, this meadow is a habitat for birds and small mammals, increasing overall biodiversity at the Arboretum. Mowing in this area is limited to fight erosion and soil compaction.

In the segment below, Gardener Brendan Keegan talks about the benefits of incorporating meadow areas into the Arboretum’s landscape.

My name is Brendan Keegan. I’m a gardener at the Arnold Arboretum.

So Kent Field is a small meadow located in the conifer collection. Like the other meadows or open areas, it was intentionally left that way by Olmsted and Sargent when they were designing the Arboretum. They really had this vision of having these grand open spaces for people to see into the collections. 

In the conifer collection we obviously have these really great, beautiful species collected from around the world. In my opinion, the Kent Field, as small as it is, adds a nice contrast to the tall trees that are around it. It’s a really interesting space to look for spontaneous vegetation. Like many of our open areas, we intentionally leave it fallow, so we minimally manage it. We’ll go in there every season to take out the woody plants that are beginning to grow up, but we’ll leave much of the spontaneous herbaceous plants for wildlife value, for aesthetic value. And I think it’s one of the more interesting areas in the conifer collection because of that, just because of the natural diversity that thrives in such a small space.

And so there’s always something popping up, or growing, or moving, or transitioning in Kent Field, which I think makes it a very dynamic part of the landscape.

As far as the species that grow there, visitors can see several species of milkweed growing along the bottom of the other field. And we have rose milkweed in the larger, sunnier upper slopes, common milkweed, and even butterfly milkweed are planted. Milkweeds are one of those plants that are becoming more and more popular, since they have such a strong value to pollinating species and then specifically to monarch butterflies. They’re the only host plant for monarch caterpillars. And so it’s one of the ways that we are trying to enhance our landscape for wildlife value, by providing a place for these plants to grow undisturbed by us, and, hopefully, undisturbed by visitors, so that these insects have a place to lay their eggs, and to grow and to thrive year-round.

Other really interesting species that grow there are a wide variety of asters. So, growing in the wetter areas, New England aster, and I believe there’s New York aster growing in there as well. Purple stem aster is also very common. These are some of my favorite plants especially in the fall because they provide a lot of kind of late-season beauty, and are again just really beloved by all sorts of pollinating insects, bees, and butterflies.

In the middle of the field, there are two large patches of a short tooth mountain mint, which we introduced, at this point, I think, four years ago. The mountain mint was planted with the help of students from the Norfolk Agricultural High School. It was planted as a part of their larger internship here at the Arboretum. Mountain mint is, again, a powerhouse plant for pollinating species and for insects as a whole. And members of the Massachusetts Butterfly Club regularly come to Kent Field just to check off butterflies on their list. So it’s a great place to look for butterflies in particular, I’m told. It’s also a really good place to look for praying mantis and other predatory insects that like to eat butterflies and bumblebees. So overall, it’s a really interesting place to look for both plant diversity, insect diversity, and birds and mammals as well.

We have several birdhouses in Kent Field. In the past two years, they’ve all been filled by tree swallows, which migrate here in the spring. And then back and leave in the fall. But tree swallows really like Kent Field because it’s wide and open, and they get a lot of sun there, which is useful for keeping their young warm during the cold spring months. It’s also great for feeding their young. So tree swallows feed exclusively on—or feed their young exclusively with—flying insects, and so a single tree swallow can capture several thousand insects a day to bring back to their young. And the wet area of Kent Field is a great place for insects to breed, and so, a great place for tree swallows to breed as well.

We also have, in and around Kent Field, some other nest boxes that are located higher up on trees. And those nest boxes, they were designed for screech owls to nest. But I think this last year we had a pair of great crested flycatchers nest there instead, which was still a lot of fun. It’s also a good place to look for eastern phoebes, which nest underneath the bridge. So underneath the bridge, just downstream from Kent Field has some nice eaves, and phoebes like to build their nests along the underside of those eaves. And eastern kingbirds also like to perch on top of the asters and fly out to catch the insects that are coming to the asters for food.

Kent Field is as also a very good spot to look for a great horned owls. So there’s almost always a pair of great horned owls that nest in the Arboretum, and visitors are walking through, again in the winter months—so November, December, especially late December into January—if you walk through the landscape around 5:00 or 5:30 you’re almost guaranteed to hear great horned owls calling from the firs surrounding Kent Field. And again, these kind of wide open areas are perfect hunting grounds for owls, for hawks, and for other species that are very commonly seen in the conifer collection.

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