I have always been fascinated by places with water, especially places like swamps, marshes and bogs. Why?
“The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.” – line from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Because they are creepy. They are places where convicts and runaways hide, prehistoric creatures lurk and beautiful carnivorous plants wait for their prey. Some swamps such as the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, have been there since before Europeans settlement if only because they stubbornly refuse to be drained. But even those that succumbed to drainage still seem to linger in the form of stagnant mosquito breeding summers and cold dank winters as in our own nation’s capital.
There’s a small area in my garden I call the wetland which is really just a swale I made that occasionally fills and sometimes overflows with runoff water enticing me to run out in the mud with my umbrella and just gaze at the water as if it was Niagara Falls.
No more than a mile from Walmart and the gazillion traffic lights of route 1 deep in the depths of the Northern Virginia suburbia lies a real wetland known as Huntley Meadows Park. In the early 1800’s, prominent landowner, George Mason IV owned the land and used it for a grain farm. Then it became a dairy farm, then a laboratory for asphalt testing, then an anti-aircraft protection base and finally in 1970, a park, probably because it could not stop being one of those nasty undrainable swamps.
There are many kinds of wetlands. Huntley happens to be a hemi-marsh also known as an emergent marsh which means it’s a shallow wetland, usually less than 3 feet deep made up of 50% open water and 50% vegetated water. Huntley was created by beavers who used many of the trees to dam up a Potomac river oxbow (the actual river once flowed through here) and create an opening where other wetland plants would fill in.
In order for this type of wetland to persist it needs a pattern of fluctuating water levels. Lower levels in the summer allow light and oxygen to reach the soil and germinate new plants as well as consolidate new silt. When the water level rises in winter it prevents plants from taking over (or turning back to a forest) and creates ice free zones for aquatic life.
Some of the animals that live here are yellow-crowned night heron, king rail, pied-billed grebe, common moorhen, reptiles and amphibians, beavers and muskrats. American bittern and least bittern once nested here but now are only seen occasionally. The plant list is long but includes swamp rose, swamp milkweed, elderberry, silky dogwood, button bush, New York ironweed and crimson-eyed rose mallow. There is also a meadow with native meadow plants here which I didn’t get a chance to see as well as a sizable forested area. I did happen to see a red headed woodpecker, blue bird, red winged blackbird, great blue heron, Canadian geese, mallards, beaver and muskrat all in a short hour walk. Maybe not so creepy but amazing nonetheless.
All of a sudden I’ve got so much to do I’m dizzy. But I still can’t seem to help myself from philosophizing and wondering about whether I’m doing the right thing. For example, should I plant my not so native seeds now or wait until after the winter rye dies in late spring? Sometimes I just have to stop thinking and follow my gut because in gardening, timing may not be everything but it’s a lot. Right now my gut is telling me to plant now.
Larry Weaner, author of Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, recommended planting seeds for a meadow in late spring to early summer especially if the area is weedy. The area is pretty weedy but unfortunately I read this advice after I’d already ordered seeds. I also was planning on planting winter rye in this area and after it died in the spring planting the meadow seeds. So, my new plan, since I have the seeds and don’t want them to die in storage, is just to plant everything now including the winter rye which hopefully will work as a nurse crop for the meadow seeds.
I just went through this entire ramble to illustrate just how confusing and utterly ridiculous gardening can be. I’d love to go on with many other examples like what to do with all the hollies that keep showing up or should I move the sweet pepperbush away from the maple since I also learned from Larry Weaner that maples tend to be water hogs.
Oh, and I finally did order seeds from Ernst Seeds. Rudbeckia hirta aka black eyed Susan, of North Carolina coastal plain ecotype. Got an ounce of seed for a grand total of $6.26 including shipping. Should work as an early successional plant before longer living perennials take over.
I’ve got to dig up the sweet potatoes, plant the cover crop and meadow seeds, plant the hollies and then I guess I can be done, for now. Ok, that isn’t so bad. Unless I plant them in the wrong spot… Breathe in breathe out.
Enough of that. Fall seems to have arrived. Everything except the cars, leaf blowers and end of season lawn mowing has gone. The catbirds and warblers are gone. The bees and butterflies are gone. Even most of the mosquitoes are gone. There’s an occasional robin, bluejay, wren, sparrow, cardinal and woodpecker. It’s sad to see the bird baths so still. The crows and doves are still around. I love the doves. They just seem so laid back. I’ll see this strange looking stone and realize it’s a dove warming itself in the sun but when startled there’s that dramatic sound the wings make as they fly away. And even the crows look nice in an El Greco kind of way against the grey malevolent sky. It’s kind of a poetic time I suppose.
And it’s colorful leaf time. The scarlets, yellows and orange everywhere. My garden doesn’t have too many scarlets but quite a few of the yellows. And there are many more subtle things like the highbush blueberry that’s not too high does turn a nice shade. A few weeks ago when there were still lots of birds around I noticed ruby crowned kinglets. I was amazed at how their erratic movements in the maple tree could so easily be mistaken for leaves falling. An evolutionary trick?
I haven’t seen much of my friend Medium, the rabbit who may have graduated to Large. I have seen and heard many a squirrel. One’s made a nest in the chestnut. I asked it if it had a warm place to go. It looked at me and climbed into its nest. So, they actually do live in those big leafy balls.
It’s turning quiet with all those nice quiet things.
Yes, it seems awfully quiet but there are many signs of life to come.
And, I have these signs all over the place marking places I planted various seeds I’ve collected nearby. If anything I planted actually grows (which apparently could take years) it will be my lucky day.
Learning about land, its history and soil can be instrumental in creating a plant community. Example: a pasture that has only been grazed by cattle versus plowed may still have a healthy seed bank with desirable native plants.
Design with the process of natural succession in mind. For example, a meadow could fill the space around small trees providing ecological services until the trees can grow into a forest.
Study plants as they relate to their environment. Example beech trees suck up so much water they create a dry, nutrient poor soil area beneath them.
If your garden is weedy, plant seeds for a meadow in early to mid summer after the early spring weedy type plants have pretty much died out. My garden is pretty weedy so I’d probably want to heed this advice.
If your garden is filled with invasive plants, plant more aggressive type native plants that can compete and make it easier to remove the invasives. For me the more aggressive native plants would be white snakeroot, violets, switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, wild bergamot, nimblewill, wild strawberry, golden alexanders, milkweed, wild cherry, blue lobelia, New York ironweed, sneezeweed and black eyed Susan. Asters and goldenrods would probably make good options too but so far mine are still in the wait and see phase.
When weeding, don’t pull the plant by the root. Cut it at the base. This is because pulling by the root disturbs the soil, germinating more weeds in the process of pulling one. (I’m not sure this one works in all situations but generally speaking…)
Many times undesirable plants can be controlled with a mower. Sometimes or at different time periods the desired plants will be shorter than the undesired plants so you can set the mower higher to only cut the higher plants allowing the shorter plants an advantage.
Learn the growing habits of desired and undesired plants in your garden. For example, some plants are cool season plants, growing in the spring and fall and others are warm season, growing in the summer. So if mowing in fall cool season plants will be affected and mowing in summer warm season plants will be affected.
Test a small area before disturbing a big one. Example he uses: If you plan to convert your lawn to a meadow, scrape a section of turf, disturb the soil to activate the seed bank and observe the response. Seeing what plants fill in the space can tell a lot about the soil and prevent an unexpected situation on a large scale.
In contrast to plants that usually live in a meadow, many woodland plants don’t grow easily from seed. An exception are sedges. Carex riparia, carex brevior, carex granularis, carex molesta, carex radiata are some examples.
Don’t add fertilizer. It will only make the soil more suitable for weeds.
(This is one I’ve already discovered) Learn about what plants might grow well in an area by studying what grows naturally in natural areas or parks nearby.
*These notes are my interpretation of the book and aren’t necessarily the views of the authors. In other words I’m not sure I got it exactly right.
There are many reasons for a having a lawn. First, it’s the norm. Almost anyone with a house has one and no homeowner in their right mind is going to complain about it. Second, a monoculture of mowed fescue looks great. To most people. And last but by no means least, it’s the easiest kind of landscape in a neighborhood to care for. Just mow it. Get a tractor if it’s too much work. Nothing to think about. Just mow and get out the leaf blower or weed wacker if necessary. Weeds such as clover, ground ivy, crabgrass and Bermudagrass don’t matter so much because when mowed and mixed in with some fescue, can pass for lawn. At least in my neighborhood. With something so easy and acceptable, why would anyone do anything different? It’s the simple truth because it’s so simple. Let’s face it, getting into the nature scene isn’t exactly cut and dry.
Books and experts in ecological design tell us to plant native plants because it’s great for wildlife but if you’ve ever been to a native plant sale you will find those native plants when purchased in any great abundance begin to cost a lot. It’s hard enough to deal with removing a lawn then to have to figure how to replace it with native plants without mortgaging off your house.
I’m not going to go into why I just spent so much time building up my introduction to a book I just finished reading because the name pretty much sums it up. Written by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change is about exactly that. Unfortunately, the answer to why we would want to replace our lawns might actually be simpler than the process of doing it. Why? Because it is a process that takes thought. It’s not that it necessarily takes more time or labor. Well ok, maybe it does take more of that too. But what it really takes is a change in ourselves and our method of operation.
Larry Weaner is a very gutsy landscape designer who makes a lot of meadows. Huge meadows as in 30 acres or more mostly in places in Pennsylvania where there are a lot of empty old farm fields and people with the cash to turn them into ecological meadows. But does he really make them or are they already there?
Much of the book is about natural communities and how they evolve. He uses an analogy I especially liked about a fallen tree. He was out in the woods one day when he happened to stumble into an area filled with blue lobelia, a native wild flower, and wondered how the flower got to this particular spot in the middle of the forest. After noticing a fallen tree in the spot, he came to the conclusion that when the tree fell, it both disturbed the soil and formed an opening where sunlight came through spurring the wildflower seeds already lying dormant in the soil to germinate. For me this story underlies the essence of the book and suggests a radical concept of landscape design. That is the possibility that not everything in a garden needs to be planted by the gardener. In fact, it goes to the extreme of suggesting in some instances, nothing need be planted by the gardener.
This concept of a managed landscape versus completely contrived is not new. Forest management has been going on for centuries and Native Americans have practiced it for much longer than that. My own parents owned land and spent many a long day just cutting grapevine to help a young forest mature quicker than it would without their intervention. But for landscape design, this concept is probably something new. Either that or it hasn’t been practiced for a long while in this country at least.
Of course a healthy seed bank of ecologically beneficial or desired seeds or seedlings isn’t always the case. In fact, I’m guessing it’s pretty rarely the case. In most cases, there is a monoculture growing on some pretty disturbed, contaminated or heavily fertilized soil. And in these situations, in order to establish a desired plant community there’s got to be some heavy clearing, planting and management going on. And on this topic he goes into some detail. Enough to confuse me with the math and logistics of it. But overall it was some pretty thorough and I found well thought out concepts (I especially like the focus he gives to growing from seed, something I rarely find in landscape books).
While the book covered lots of subjects and details about how to design ecological gardens what made it great for me was it made me think differently about gardening. Books and experts are all good but nature really is the best teacher. This quote by the author’s mentor, ecologist Frank Egler sums it all up pretty well.
“Nature is not more complicated than you think, it is more complicated than you CAN think.”
I’m waiting. Waiting for the birds to get where they are going, the squirrels to finish the chestnuts, the rabbits to hunker down in their warm holes for the winter. Then I will come out of my hole and get to work planting not so native seeds for spring, trimming sick elderberries, cleaning up the vegetable beds, collecting chestnut husks for the fire, planting winter rye and harvesting the sweet potatoes. For now I’m picking okra which is kind of like an Easter egg hunt. The part you eat is the seed pod and it has a way of hiding itself. If you don’t get it at the perfect time it get’s big and tough. I’m also continuing my quest for knowledge about this mysterious plant world around me.
On the blog, Awkward Botany, I’ve found that maybe weeds aren’t so bad. That in cities they are a big help with erosion, carbon sequestering as well as water, soil and air filtration. Who knows maybe people will someday be lining up for the latest cultivar of prickly lettuce.
My plan for buying local ecotype seeds from Ernst Seedsdidn’t quite pan out. They only sell seeds by the ounce or more and didn’t have the ones I was looking for but I haven’t written them off and their hard copy catalog, while not much to look at photo wise has some really good information, lots of seed variety and it’s great for getting me off the internet. I ended up buying non local ecotype seeds from Prairie Moon Nurseryin Minnesota where I could get them in the small quantities I needed. I’ll go into that more when I plant them next month.
I also ventured out into the field or in my case woods in search of local ecotype seeds and what I found, low and behold, was seeds. The place is just down the hill, it’s actually the riparian area along a creek known as Sligo Creek where a 10 mile narrow strip of land has been allowed to turn back into woods made up of a good number of most likely true native plants or local ecotypes as well as non natives. Yes, there are the usual native trees such as beech, tulip poplar, and oak but I was surprised at the variety of herbaceous plants, kind of hard to believe given the large deer populations and other aggressive non native plants (mostly lesser celandine, bush honeysuckle and English ivy). The herbaceous plants I found are unassuming plants but the way they grow together somehow fits the scene. Some form large healthy stands while others are scattered, just a few here and there. Each has interesting qualities especially as a community.
It just so happens an actual botanist lives in the area and in 2003 tried to record all of the plants along Sligo Creek. It’s an impressively long list with all kinds of names I’ve never heard of. Bosc’s panic grass, straw-colored cyperus, stellate sedge, glomerate sedge, Willdenow’s sedge, carrion flower, arrow-leaved tearthumb, hog peanut, pencil flower, brushy aster, Florida blue lettuce, wild licorice, cleavers. I could go on and on.
I know the world is changing fast. 2003 is a long time ago, but as I walked through this woods, I noticed a good number of plants I’d never seen before and a few such as bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) I’ve seen in Prairie Moon’s catalog from Minnesota. I gathered a few seeds from the bottlebrush grass as well as some from something I think is called honewort and a few others but I think the point I’m making here is that if local ecotypes can survive in a place so disturbed as this, imagine what else is still out there in places not so disturbed. In other words, I have hope. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. Maybe there is something still worth preserving. Maybe all is not lost. Not that I’m against change or anything. Not that I’m a hopeless romantic longing for past forgotten times.
I also discovered a grove of trees, some with red and some with yellow berries. After doing various online searches I decided they must be some form of hawthorn but they didn’t have thorns so I’m left wondering. I’m not done yet. I took a few berries and planted them around my garden.
I wonder if plants growing even as close as Sligo Creek which is no more than half a mile from my garden are even suitable to grow in my garden which is not a riparian area although it does catch runoff from my roof and other nearby hardscapes. I realize I probably shouldn’t be picking too many seeds from Silgo Creek as there aren’t huge populations of these plants and the ones there probably have a hard enough time surviving without me messing with their natural reproduction process. But it’s good to to notice what is there.
I once was camping during the Fourth of July at a place called Janes Island State Park right outside of a very small town named Crisfield on the Eastern Shore. There was a fireworks show in the town so we went. It wasn’t an extraordinary show but the night was beautiful on the water. The moon was out. It was a big event in a small town. At the end of the show during the grand finale, a boy yelled out, “It’s the final touch!” That’s kind of how I feel about my garden right now.
Speaking of the garden, since we’ve gotten so much rain I haven’t had to water in months. In fact, I really haven’t had to do much other than the usual pulling of porcelain berry and bindweed and cutting dead looking ugly stuff (it has to look pretty ugly for me to cut it). I keep wanting to cut down the really sick elderberry so I can plant something else there but the birds like it so much I just can’t bring myself to do the job. So I’ve been learning about ecology and ecotypes which have led me to spending way too much time on Ernst Seed’s website browsing through local ecotypes I’d like to have and trying to fit square pegs into round holes. This is doubly irritating as their website is somewhat on the slow side so I ordered the catalog which might keep me off the internet at least.
Back to my so called ecological garden, I’ve discovered pollinators of all sizes love porcelain berry flowers to the point I didn’t want to pull it but then the insanely large white snakeroot exploded in bloom which they seemed to like better so I didn’t feel so bad about pulling the porcelain berry.
Not only do pollinators love the white snakeroot explosion but so do birds like this common yellowthroat warbler who’s been hanging around for weeks and even, to my utmost joy, used a bird bath I set aside especially for it (actually I think it’s a her).
One day I saw a redstart and a flycatcher as well as the other usuals; cat birds, song sparrows, wrens, robins, mockingbirds and the like all in there together. This is probably because the explosion of white snakeroot is covered with not only large and medium sized bees, but also these tiny ones that look like ants with wings and probably are ants with wings. And I even had time to smell the white snakeroot explosion, a sweet smell like spring which is nice at this time of year.
It seems I may have three different strains of white snakeroot. Well, there are two plants that look noticeably different from the white snakeroot explosion plant.
In addition to the activity in the white snakeroot, we’ve made some other strange wildlife observations. One day, my husband noticed a squirrel walk right in front of him looking like it was wearing a fur coat. It turned out to be a mother squirrel carrying her baby. The fur coat was the baby’s tail wrapped around the mother’s neck.
I thought milkweed was poisonous but apparently not to rabbits who’ve recently taken quite a liking to it. I’ve seen them take down entire stalks from the bottom and devour the entire thing at one time. This can’t be good for any monarch larvae or eggs that might be attached to the plant.
I’ve noticed a squirrel chewing on this same piece of bark under our wood pile. We’ve also noticed rabbits chewing on the corner of our neighbor’s brick garage. We’ve guessed they’re sharpening their teeth which is probably important so they can bite through tough milkweed stalks and nut shells. The chestnuts, with their thorny husks have been falling from our chestnut tree and landing in our driveway and making a loud bang when they hit the tin covering our wood pile.
As for my food, I harvested seven butternut squashes and would have probably gotten more if two didn’t split and rot on the vine and the plant didn’t die of mildew from all the rain. The turnips I planted a month ago have finally taken off. I guess rabbits don’t like them too much. The roots aren’t ready to eat but I’ve been eating the greens as well as those from some much older radishes. My favorite way to eat them is destemmed and stir fried in a little olive oil, salt and water. Cooked just until tender.
Arugula is making a nice ground cover/salad green and it looks like I’ll be getting some tomatoes after all. The squirrels ate all the tomatoes from a group of four plants but one plant remains. It was planted later than the others and in a different location. It looks healthy unlike the others and the forever green tomatoes are finally turning. So, maybe if I want tomatoes I need to plant them later in the season so when they finally get ripe, the squirrels are too busy collecting nuts.
I’ve really come to like roasted okra. I like to roast it until it gets kind of charred, about 40 minutes at 400°.
In the front yard garden, a work in progress, the marigolds are finally doing what I intended which is work as a cover crop, define the border and be pretty. I’m not sure the African variety (in background) goes with the style but they certainly are ostentatious and yes, I will be designing my future front yard garden around NOT having an ugly rabbit fence. I wrote a post listing some crops rabbits don’t seem to like.
The white snakeroot is looking kind of scraggly here so I’m getting ready to cut them down. I took up the sod on the slope and planted winter rye. I’ll be going into more detail about that at some point.
For now, the air is calm, but things are happening. The locusts belt out their final calls. Squirrels are gathering nuts. Rabbits are just eating. Birds are starting their migration. There’s a lot for me to do too but I’d better get out and enjoy the final touch before the show is over.