Harvesting Bracken

Bracken Mowing - cut bracken to the left, uncut to the right

Bracken Mowing – cut bracken to the left, uncut to the right

I have been using our trimming scythe to harvest bracken in one of the fields at the Trust. Mature bracken stalks are pretty tough, so I used a 65cm Styria blade, which is capable of cutting rougher stuff without sustaining unreasonable damage to the cutting edge.

I say “harvesting” rather then “controlling” the bracken because the material I cut will be put to good use in our garden. We use it to mulch garden beds over the winter, where it breaks down to a dark brown, rich looking compost, helps to control weeds and protects the soil over the winter. Bracken is a rich source of phosphorus and the mulch is a useful addition to the garden ecosystem.

Interestingly, using bracken as a mulch in the garden imitates what bracken does out in the field. Left uncut, the bracken fronds collapse and die during the autumn and in effect, create it’s own mulch, covering the ground and killing out competing grasses and herbage. Come the spring, the young bracken fronds emerge with little competing vegetation around them and soon come to dominate an area and spread. The bracken mulch will also protect the underlying rhizomes from frost damage.

By removing the bracken from the field in the autumn, we put it’s excellent mulching capacities to use in a much more useful place (our garden!) and open up the bracken sward in the field, allowing light into competing grass and herbage which will then be in place to compete with the emerging bracken fronds in the spring and check it’s growth. The bracken rhizomes are also more exposed to frost, potentially weakening them.

This is the fifth autumn that we have cut and removed bracken from this area. It is notable that when the bracken is cut now there is grass underneath, whereas in the first year there was only sparse sorrel plants. Although autumn cutting of the bracken does not get rid of it, it does appear to check it’s spread and it provides us with a useful product.

Historically, bracken was an important part of the rural economy with uses including animal bedding and thatch.

The end of the mowing - windrows of bracken

The end of the mowing – windrows of bracken