January Notes 2018

As you can probably tell from my posts, the biggest reason I garden (other than the fact that I just like it) is to support a healthy ecosystem. After the devastating shock of finding out that many of the seeds I’ve been planting in my garden might not be too good for local natural communities, I’ve come to the decision it’s time to move on. For now, I’ve decided I’m not going to tear up everything I’ve done and start over. That would probably be ridiculous. The seeds have been planted. Established plants if maybe not the best are doing something. If anything, they aren’t the worst. They aren’t classified as invasive and they feed and shelter many animals. Maybe not the specialists but at least a large variety of generalists and maybe occasionally even some specialists.

On the other hand I’ve decided not to keep on doing what I’ve been doing which is buying native seeds that aren’t of a local ecotype. Instead, in order to do what I’m trying to do which is support a diversity of life while also supporting my immediate needs while also inspiring others, I’m going to practise a strategy of multiple methods. For now, this strategy will be as follows:

  1. Buying native plants locally that are grown from local native plants while keeping a few things in mind:
    • Make sure the plant isn’t the same species I already have growing.
    • Grow things that will spread but aren’t too weedy.
    • Grow plants that I can easily propagate from one plant so I don’t end up spending more than necessary.
  2. Collecting local native seed when possible and with permission.
  3. Continuing to study plants that come up in my garden on their own and allowing many to grow and self propagate. These are the wild naturally occurring plants that most likely work successionally to heal the land while supporting life.
  4. Grow some non natives such as herbs, annuals and maybe some perennials that have a good track record for providing ecological services without causing ecological harm.
  5. Grow food for my immediate needs. Since most of these types of plants require soil amendments as well as repeated cultivation, I think it’s good to alternate these areas with perennial areas that can hold and filter any runoff resulting from cultivation.
  6. And I will continue to face the new challenges that come my way. Ecological gardening is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard knowing what’s the “right” thing to do. So, I’ll be continuing my search for reliable, science based information to learn from. Sources like:
    1. Awkward Botany 
    2. The Prairie Ecologist
    3. In Defense of Plants
    4. The Field Guides Podcast
    5. The Native Plant Podcast
    6. And the many other sources listed in the sidebar of my blog.

Also, in order to learn more about natural communities I’m planning to write more about them. I think I’ll start with different wetlands.

Crackers and water for whoever gets there in time.

So, on to more exciting things like weather! I admit to being a wimp in cold weather and it’s so COLD out. The wind is whipping. I’m feeling for the animals (or anyone stuck in it) like the squirrels and rabbits and birds getting blown around. How do they survive in it? I found some old crackers with lots of grains and seeds that I put out on a log for the same squirrels who probably snacked up my tomatoes. I’ve also been filling the garbage can lid/bird bath with hot water but it doesn’t stay water for long. But I’m glad it’s cold because it’s suppose to be cold and I can wear my new snow pants. But for all those who have to drive, I won’t wish for snow. (Even though it would be nice and pretty for awhile)

Happy New Year!



Pollinator Garden Melt Down

I’m having a bit of a melt down. I just finished reading, well actually it’s been a few days, a scientific report published in New Phytologist. Titled Considering the unintentional consequences of pollinator gardens for urban native plants: is the road to extinction paved with good intentions?, you can probably tell how disturbed I am as I just finished planting some not so native native meadow seeds and have quite a few other not so native specimens already growing or in the works. And yes, I’m full of good intentions.

As I’m not a scientist, the abstract is not an easy read for me but I’ll try and sum it up. Several books I’ve recently read including  Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes and Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide seem to suggest urban areas are pretty much void of any rare native flora distinct to their region. Or at least anything worth conserving. This report suggests otherwise. In fact it goes as far as to suggest

“most plant species in six northeastern and mid-Atlantic USA cities are native (62–73%) and a fair proportion are ‘threatened’ (8%) (Aronson et al., 2014). In fact, urban areas may host the only remnant populations (or seed banks) of some plants (Albrecht et al., 2011) and extensive urban resurvey efforts are rediscovering species that were thought to be extirpated (Atha, 2016).”

So, scientists with the University of Pittsburgh did a study using 30 popular wildflower seed mixes to find out the “species impact index” that would reflect the potential a species from the wildflower seed pack has for impacting wild urban plant populations and found that indeed all seem to have the characteristics for if not wiping out remnant native plant populations than at least impacting them in some way whether through some form of pollination or weediness. The study has a lot to do with pollinators as pollination is a way plants spread or spread disease. Apparently because pollinator gardens are planted densely one fear is they will take pollinators away from the wild native plant populations.

And because many of these seed pack wildflowers are generalists in that they attract many different kinds of pollinators they have a bit of a leg up on other more specialized species of native plants that attract more specialized pollinators. As for the disease part, honey bees, that are not native, often carry diseases that they can spread to the remnant native plants. But I think I’ll stop here as I really am not qualified to properly summarize this abstract nor is that really my intention.

I will talk about the table. The study provides a horrifying table that rates the species in the seed packs for their potential to negatively impact wild native plants. Zero for least impact potential and four for most impact potential. The plant with the most impact potential is Canada Rye (Elymus canadensis) at 3.2 and the least impact potential being crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) at .2. Switchgrass and little bluestem are right near the top with black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) not too far behind and just a little lower than that comes foxglove beardtongue, New England aster and goldenrod. Go figure. At least wild bergamot is kind of close to the bottom of the list. That’s a surprise.

But the study left me full of questions. Where and what are these mysterious remnant native plant communities? How could my urban garden on a sunny upland spread at least a half mile to the only wild area (if you can even call it that) which is a riparian forest? How could anything specialized or rare live in such an urban, fragmented place infested with invasive species? And if these remnant native plants can live with English ivy, bush honeysuckle, lesser celandine and porcelain berry surely they could live with a few not so native native plants. And how are we going to plant anything other than lawn if it seems that anything could eventually become harmful? How are we going go on with doing the best we can if it seems like everything we do is bad for something or ourselves?

I admit I always feel a bit like I’m cheating every time I order my not so native seeds from Minnesota and I’ve always felt like the plants I didn’t plant that grow on their own such as white snakeroot, white avens, pokeweed, violets, wild cherry, oak, fleabane and aster are the ones that really belong in my garden. They will have their chance to compete and my prediction is they will win.

Another option I suppose is to buy plants from local nurseries grown from local native plant seed although I’m not sure if even these plants are native enough.

And like any of these kinds of harsh things in life I’ll get over it, read the report again, ask around for some answers, make some gardening amendments and get on with it. Doing the best I can. That’s gardening for you.

Plants in the table rated 1.5 or less for impact potential:

  • Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
  • Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata)
  • Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila elegans)
  • Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa
  • Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)
  • Red Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)
  • Shasta Daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum)
  • Siberian Wallflower (Cheiranthus allionii)
  • Rocket Larkspur (Delphinium consolida)
  • Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum)

A broader and much softer perspective can be found here in Yale Environment 360.

December Notes 2017

My not so bountiful but so delicious sweet potato harvest.

I’m afraid my sweet potato harvest was a bit disappointing. I think it was probably due to some rabbits eating them down to the ground for the first month. Anyhow they were still good. I really like the purple kind and there is nothing more beautiful than a hot baked half lathered with butter.

Prepped and planted with seeds for a meadow.
Looking a bit better with some leaves and winter rye sprouts.

It’s official. I sowed the seeds from Prairie Moon  and Ernst Seeds for the front yard meadow. And now the area looks like an open wound. The great thing about planting seeds is once you start sprinkling them around you realize you could never really stick to any plan. They just kind of go where they want and will do what they do. It’s really kind of a crap shoot. I guess that’s why I like it so much. Like a box of chocolates, you never really know what you’re going to get. So we shall see.

I prepped the area yesterday (especially along the edges) loosening up the ground with my trusty old garden fork, loosening the weeds with a hoe and then raking them up with a bow rake. Yes that’s a lot of soil disturbance I know but I’ve found it’s kind of necessary with Bermudagrass. Actually I kind of enjoy pulling out Bermudagrass. I reach deep into the soil until I get hold of that ingeniously designed intersection of root and stalk and gently pull until I feel it give way as if in surrender after a long battle. On the other hand, ground ivy when pulled with the bow rake comes up like a mat but only if the soil is moist and loose. Fall is a good time to do these kinds of things because the ground is usually moist and the temperature ideal for getting hot and stripping off the layers.

So here is my successional plan. I planted winter rye which will come up first and die in early summer and be followed by black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia hirta), a biennial which is suppose to grow fairly quickly and be followed by slower growing foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), nodding onion (Allium cernuum) and smooth blue aster (Aster laevis). All of these seeds excluding the asters costs no more than $40.00 per ounce and an ounce of seed especially if those seeds are tiny as these are, should cover a lot of ground. Let’s just say (if I’m getting it right) (math was never my specialty) according to Larry Weaner, author of  Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, .7 ounces of Joe pye weed would cover about 70% of a 1000 square foot area. All of this information along with a tidy formula for calculating amount of seed needed for an area can be found on page 237 of the book. I didn’t buy an ounce of anything except black-eyed Susan and I used about ¾ of it for the area in the above photo.

So anyway, that’s what I did and now it’s time for the hardest part. The wait and see part. I have a long wait as I probably won’t see any sign of anything (except winter rye) until July. Just 8 months. That’s gardening for you.

Moved the beds together so they’d be easier to surround with rabbit fencing.

And then after that I went straight into moving everything around in what will be the rabbit proof vegetable garden. It was hard physical work and terrible for the soil but boy was it fun.

I moved the asparagus beds. That was fun. Not too much. Lots and lots of very tough roots. It was borderline violent getting them out. Kind of like (but not really) digging up mulberry tree roots. It was interesting how the violet bulbs attached themselves to the asparagus roots. Probably not a good thing for the asparagus.

I took up huge mats of ground ivy that came up like a roll of turf grass. Like in the front yard soon to be meadow, I used a garden fork, pushing it in the ground with my foot and then pulling back and forth on the handle just to loosen up the ground. Then I let the bow rake fall and grip into the soil and pulled until the mat of weeds began to loosen its hold. Once it did it was just a matter of pulling until the weed mat began to roll up. It’s very similar to rolling up a ball of snow to make a snowman. It’s also one of those things you need to be very careful not to yank too hard and pull a muscle. Just slow and easy like you have all the time in the world. I used the ground ivy and violets as a mulch. I know they’ll grow back but that’s ok. They cover the disturbed ground and under that weed mat was some pretty dark, healthy looking soil.

In the process of moving all this dirt and stuff around I happened upon a very sad sight. Not one of my favorites. First it was just some fur, then a foot, then I knew it was a rabbit. Or part of one somehow got into my pile of dirt. I told myself it couldn’t be by rabbit friend Medium.

Actually it came to me then what may have happened. The other day I noticed one of my wire fence tree protectors was all gnarled up as if something had gotten tangled in it. A fox or something must have gotten the rabbit.

Being somewhat obsessively absorbed in my project, I buried the rabbit and went on with my work. When I was pretty much done, I sat down on this pretty shaky bench to rest and admire my job. What a great place for a bench. No one can see me but I feel I can see everything. For this one brief moment there were no sounds of leaf blowers, sirens, chainsaws or mowers. Only the soft sound of juncos, a breeze in the trees and a rustle in the leaves. I looked down and there was Medium hopping straight for me. Startled, I sucked in my breath. He (I’ll just say he for the sake of getting on with this) stopped no more than two feet from me. I could have reached out and petted him on the head. I greeted him as I always do and wondered what he would have done if I hadn’t gotten startled. He stood up on his hind legs for a few moments and examined me with one eye then hopped off to nibble on some daffodil plant I’d just moved. That’s gardening for you.

Frosty rose hips.

In Defense of Weeds?

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide by Peter Del Tredici is all about weeds. But it’s not about how to kill them. I admit, at first I was skeptical. These are the thugs of the garden and many are ranked high as invasive species. But by examining these and many other plants on the basis they grow where humans tread, I began to view these perpetrators in a new light.

These are the plants found in abandoned lots and fields, gardens and cities. They can grow in sidewalk cracks, along roads, in drainage ditches and compacted waste sites. They cover disturbed ground, filter and hold water, prevent erosion, sequester carbon and even absorb toxic metals. Some offer us nutritious food while others treat or prevent disease. In other words, as annoying as they might be, these plants are not all bad and in many cases downright good for us.

Rhombic Copperleaf (Acalypha rhomboidea) is native and turns a nice shade of pink in the fall.

My garden has been both neglected and disturbed over many years so there’s lots of these kinds of plants. Here’s what the book says about a few:

  • Black cherry (prunus serotina) is extremely valuable to wildlife and its berries are edible. It’s wood is prized for making furniture and the inner bark has been used to treat coughs and bronchitis.
  • Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) absorbs the heavy metals, zinc, copper, lead and cadmium and binds them to organic matter. It’s been used to flavor beer and is used in European and Asian cuisine.
  • The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has highly nutritious leaves and roots. Wine can be made from the flowers and coffee from the roots.
  • The young shoots of lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) are edible in the spring and in Europe during times of famine the seeds were baked into bread.
  • It’s no surprise that hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) is tolerant of roadway salt and compacted soil.
  • Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) has been used by the Europeans since the first century for medical purposes and at one time was used as a replacement for hops to make beer.
  • The young shoots of henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) are edible in spring as are those of yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta) if a bit on the sour side.
  • The juice from the berries of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) was used to write the Declaration of Independence.
  • The fresh leaves of buckthorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata) can be used in a tea to treat coughs, diarrhea, and dysentery and can be applied to treat blisters, sores and inflammation.
  • The cooked leaves of red sorrel (Rumex acetosella) are used as a base for purees and have been used by the Shakers to treat skin diseases, boils and tumors.
  • The leaves and stems of common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has been used in a tea to treat chest colds, asthma, bronchitis and kidney infections and the soft leaves as a cushioning in shoes.
  • The young leaves of the common blue violet (Viola sororia) can be eaten raw or candied.
  • Path rush (Juncus tenuis) colonizes compacted ground.

It would probably be ridiculous to introduce these kinds of plants into my garden. Why would I? They arrive on their own every time I take a hoe to the ground. I’ll let some grow and at the very least consider them as more than just a weed. But since I’m probably never going to be able to rid my garden of these plants, I may as well make the best of them because it seems they have quite a bit to offer.

Huntley Meadows Park

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.

It’s a beaver mcmansion!

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.

A muskrat on a mission swims right under the boardwalk paying me no mind.
Swamp rose (Rosa palustris) stretches far into the distance. Must be stunning in June.
A great blue heron stealthily stalks a fish.

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.

November Notes 2017

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.

The meadow will go here. Winter rye has covered the slope nicely.

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.

I miss the robins who so love to fight over this upside down trash can lid filled with water.
But the robins have been replaced by sparrows. I like to think they like all the things I’ve planted. The white snakeroot is still very popular.

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?

This is Medium about to go for that milkweed.

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.

The subtle colors of fleabane against basil.
The seed head of Culver’s root.

Yes, it seems awfully quiet but there are many signs of life to come.

Young tufts of prairie dropseed begin to take shape.
A young eastern redbud tree, columbine and wild strawberry.

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.

Seeds from berries I’ve collected from around. Not too easy separating the seed from the berry.