June Notes 2017

Swamp rose and a very happy bee.

June, my favorite month, not sure why, is here. Got to have a picture of a rose and a very happy bee.

2 culprits heading out.

Bunnies and other: Ok they are darn cute but… They can do some damage. My temporary fence made of bird netting worked for awhile. Enough so that the lettuce and peas could grow but then one day there was a bunny inside happily chewing away. Then when it saw my unhappy face it couldn’t figure out how to get out. Then a passerby asked if I kept them in there like they were my pets! Actually it wasn’t so bad because there was so much lettuce they couldn’t really make a dent. But today when I went out, the fresh young swiss chard had been chomped on along with a couple sweet potato plants. It turned out the bunnies had gotten in by chewing a hole through the netting. At that point I decided the bird netting fence had to go. It was no walk in the park struggling in the hot sun with the bird netting (that kept getting caught on the button of my sleeve) and that twist tie stuff I was raving about was just about as much of a pain. This time I am really done with bird netting. Now what to do with it so it doesn’t end up in an ocean strangling some poor fish.

But back to the bunnies. My theory with them is they really like fresh growth. They also really like certain plants such as lettuce, chard and peas. But they aren’t so hot about everything. They don’t eat my mustards, tomatoes or peppers, for example, and so far they haven’t touched my okra. And they aren’t especially fond of mature lettuce or chard. Here’s some strategies I’ve come up with:

  • Keep the stuff they like protected until there’s so much of it they can’t make a dent. This includes vegetables as well as young woody plants.
    • Rabbit fencing for their favorite vegetables and woodies. Hold the fencing tight to the ground with landscape staples.
    • Or use milk cartons or plastic cups with stuff like sweet potatoes and squash.
  • Grow lots of stuff they like as a decoy. Stuff like violets and even lettuce since it’s so easy and cheap to grow.
Front yard garden with heavy duty wire rabbit fence around chewed up chard and milk cartons around sweet potatoes.
This field of violets didn’t get here naturally.

Violets. They have become my savior in so many ways. They cover ground, distract bunnies, support specialized wildlife, smother weeds, voluntarily grow, define pathways, garden beds and taller plants, survive drought, build soil, prevent erosion, replace lawn, look beautiful and can handle bunnies chomping on them. They will be the building block of my design.

I guess the one tiny drawback to them is they don’t always come up where I want them so I have to move them to where I want them. They come up pretty much everywhere, including my vegetable beds so I’ve been moving them from there to other more desirable places but now since it seems like we’re back in a drought, I can take a break from that for awhile.

Some of the not-so-native native seeds I planted in the fall seem to be coming up. Little Bluestem, golden Alexander, Bush’s echinacea, butterfly weed and possibly goldenrod and New England aster.

Bush’s Coneflower seedlings.
Butterfly weed and golden Alexander seedlings. (and violets)

Milkweed, swamp rose, elderberry, parsley, lovage, raspberry and fleabane is blooming (or was blooming) much to the pollinator’s delight. Oh yeah, and I forgot about the chestnut tree with it’s lovely catkins. I always forget to look up.

Speaking of fleabane. This is another great voluntary plant in my garden. I guess it’s weedy but it’s native and prolific. I think it may look much better and less weedy if it were framed with something like switchgrass, something I’ll be working on.

Fleabane and pollinators.

Back to vegetables. I’m doing some successional planting. I planted okra between mature lettuce and sweet potatoes in with flowering mustards. Also, carrots and radishes under peppers and tomatoes.

The thing about front yard gardens is while they can look presentable, there are times when they don’t look so good like now, when some things are dying and others are so tiny, the area looks like a bare spot. I’ll have to work on that.  I have some ideas I’ll go into later.

But right now seems like we’re heading for another drought. This new spigot on my rain barrels will fill a bucket in a couple of seconds vs. a couple of minutes. Might make hauling water around a little more fun.

Oh, yeah, and I actually planted some bulbs or transplanted some that is. Daffodils. All over the place. Can’t wait for spring to come again.

 

 

Natural Communities

All forest is not the same. These trees are part of a unique natural community.

Looking at plants as communities from a design point of view is cool but it’s also cool to look at plants as they fit into natural communities. I’ve often wondered what kind of natural community my garden belonged to before it was timbered, farmed and then developed. I know it was forest but is there more to a forest than one would think? The answer is yes, there is more and I’ve recently discovered a website that explains just such a place known as Rock Creek Park, not more than a mile away from my garden. The website, a collaboration between NatureServe and the Research Learning Alliance of the National Park Service’s National Capital Region, examines 8 different natural communities within Rock Creek Park,  the oldest and largest urban national park in the U.S.

As I read about some of these communities it occurred to me my own garden may have been one of them at one time. It seems natural communities develop over time due to natural and unnatural forces. These forces such as rain, wind, sun, human development among others form small pockets of distinct areas with distinct landforms, soil, plants and animals. And underneath it all is the bedrock, often the main compositional ingredient.

The other day I went walking in Rock Creek Park to see if I could find and see the difference between some of these communities and I have to say while it was a bit of a challenge, I did notice a few.

Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest can be found on rolling landscapes where the soil is loamy (made mostly of clay, sand and silt with a little organic matter)

The most wide ranging one is the Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest. It can usually be found on rolling landscapes of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey. It also has a wide range of vegetation such as American beech, red, white, black and scarlet oak, Christmas fern, sweetgum, red maple, blackgum, flowering dogwood, American holly, pawpaw and mapleleaf viburnum. It has a well-drained and mesic soil. I have a pretty good idea my garden was once part of this community.

A box-elder, part of the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest community.
The rich soil of the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest supports many herbaceous plants such as this pretty ground cover.

A very different community is the Tuliptree Small-Stream Floodplain Forest. It usually lies along floodplains of small streams such as Rock Creek. The rich soil here, made up of sediment that gets carried down the creek from upstream, supports plants like the tuliptree, red maple, box-elder, American sycamore and American hornbeam. Because the soil is often disturbed by flooding and human use, it also can be a haven for non-native plants as well as many other native plants. I heard lots of birds with unique, buzzy noises here. I’m guessing they were smaller warblers and such.

A white oak and mountain laurel in a Oak – Beech / Heath Forest community.

Another community I walked through was the Oak Beech Heath Forest. It usually can be found on steep slopes above streams and rivers where acidic and often rocky soil is perfect for plants such as mountain laurel, American beech, chestnut and white oak as well as blueberry and black huckleberry.

Although it takes a bit of exploring to get the idea, the website has a wealth of information about geology and ecology that I can apply to many things about my garden. In fact, I’ve found I’ve started looking at plants in a new way. Not as plants but as parts of communities, something that may be a big step towards ecological improvement. Not just for me but for all of us.

Garden Design, Plant Communities and Cinderblock

This little elderberry (Sambucus nigra canadensis) is meant for great things.

I read this article that got me thinking about the design of my garden. After getting over my obsession with cramming as many vegetables in as little space as possible and realizing if I planted trees it would take a very long time for them ever to make a forest, I planted some trees, also known to many designers as the bones of the garden. They are the focal points, the ones that appear as a skeleton (unless they’re evergreens) in winter. But most are only a few feet tall and not too skeletony yet which leaves the rest of the herbaceous (or often called forbs) to tell the tale. Forbs consist of flowers, grasses, sedges and rushes.

But what is the tale I’m trying to tell? Besides growing food for myself, creating habitat for other life forms and eliminating my lawn as much as possible, what am I trying to achieve from an aesthetic viewpoint because aesthetics is something I’ve been putting on the back burner for quite some time. I guess I thought the native plants would somehow take care of that naturally. I kept telling myself it just takes time. Things will fill in next year and maybe they will or maybe they won’t and meanwhile my garden looks more like an overgrown vacant lot than the High Line.

In the article, Margaret Roach, who writes the popular garden blog, A Way to Garden, interviewed landscape designer, Thomas Rainer and confirmed my suspicions. In the wild, native plants form communities that look pretty good. Places like Dolly Sods in West Virginia and Yellowstone National Park and my own favorite, Merchants Millpond in North Carolina, but other places like my garden, not so good. Why is that I wondered? What am I doing wrong?

Well, Rainer points out plants are not meant to be planted as individuals but as members of an ecosystem where they work with other plants to form communities. Rainer says,

In the wild, every square inch of soil is covered with a mosaic of interlocking plants, but in our gardens, we arrange plants as individual objects in a sea of mulch. We place them in solitary confinement.

This was a profound concept. I’d known it but somehow never really got it until I read the part about switchgrass, a plant that’s abundant in my garden but somehow never looks right. I think messy would be the term.

Dotted line of switchgrass lines the berm of  swale in background.

Rainer says switchgrass doesn’t grow all together in the wild. It grows in tufts scattered amongst other more colonizing plants such as Pennsylvania Sedge (if I have it right). The point being because it doesn’t naturally grow like a groundcover it looks ridiculous if planted that way. And yes, as I looked out at the dotted line formed by tufts of switchgrass along the berm of my swale, it did indeed look ridiculous. And it looked even more ridiculous when during a heavy rain, it flopped like it was having a bad hair day. Yes, something had to be done with the switchgrass.

Rainer seemed to suggest that in natural environments, plants grow according to different levels. Lower level plants tend to pop up here and there amongst higher level plants made up of more colonizing ground covers. This is how I understood it anyway (I’ll read the article again just to make sure).

So, what were my lower level plants and what were my higher level ground covers? Well, that’s easy. Lower level plants are switchgrass, wild bergamot, hairy mountain mint, sneezeweed, white snakeroot, milkweed, coneflower, rudbeckia and great blue lobelia. But what were the higher level plants, the colonizing ground covers? I guess that would have to be my old friends, the violets and Virginia creeper, the natural ground cover in my garden. But couldn’t shrubs and trees also be higher level colonizing ground covers? Swamp rose and elderberry come to mind.

At any rate, it all got me to thinking not just about plant communities but about my garden and me. Sure, my garden provides me with food and habitat for other life but does it provide me with joy? Yes and no was the answer. My garden, it seemed needed some unnatural natural beauty. The dotted line of switchgrass needed to go. Borders needed to be defined. Bare soil needed to be covered. Paths needed definition. Plants needed combinations that work as communities and that mysterious cinderblock wall that failed to conceal the car needed to be concealed from me.

Yes, the cinderblock wall that I keep telling myself doesn’t bother me does indeed bother the heck out of me. First of all, it’s ugly. Second of all it doesn’t even provide privacy. The swamp rose should eventually hide the car but the wall, that wall. Then I had an idea. An idea that nearly blew me away. Elderberry. It grows from a foot to 12’ in 3 years and it blocks everything out. I happen to have a young seedling growing in the driveway. Because it can be short lived, I’d plant an American holly behind it that would grow slowly over time.

Imagine this in front of wall.

I would lose more space for vegetables but so what? This was my master plan. My husband is not so enthused but I know better. This was the community my garden was telling me to make all along.

 

May Notes 2017

Sometimes you have to stop whatever it is you’re doing and look at something pretty like blue eyed grass, one of the only things blooming in my garden at the moment which makes them all the more beautiful. Other things blooming are white false indigo and sage. I’ll be trying to propagate more of these things by dividing the blue eyed grass in the fall and collecting seed pods from the false indigo and planting them in late summer.

I read an article in the New York Times that inspired me to focus my attention on design. Even though I majored in art, design is one of those things that’s hard for me. I guess I’ve got so many other things to focus on like weeding and making rain gardens and a swale and then stabilizing them and just getting things to grow. Oh yeah, and that thing of supporting myself and other more specialized life forms. Anyhow the article made me realize that good design might work even better for achieving these goals. So maybe someday when I get the time, I’ll think more about design.

I was just about to give up on the columbine when I spotted these tiny seedlings amongst clover and violets. They will get the royal treatment for sure.

I’m doing my best to ignore ground ivy as it seems to distract me from other priorities like getting a bed ready for these sweet potato slips I grew myself from a Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s All Purple, saved from last year and Jewel sweet potato I bought from the grocery store.

Ignoring ground ivy is making me philosophize about invasive species and what we as humans and gardeners should and can do about them. It’s amazing how gardening opens up so many heavy and philosophical questions.

Still no sign of New England asters, goldenrod or Gray’s sedge from the seeds I planted in my swale in the fall but there’s no shortage of the common milkweed, swamp rose and volunteer white snakeroot.

I was so excited to get some shots of the swale in action after a strange hailstorm. See all that ground cover? 90% ground ivy.

I’m obsessing about what to do with these overgrown asparagus beds (I guess I was a little too friendly with the violets). Anyway, should I plant a new batch of asparagus? Or maybe perennial onions? Or a mix of the two? Or blueberries mixed with grasses that I won’t ever have to dig up again and will look beautiful in the fall and the birds will get all the berries anyway? For now, I think I’ll do some more thinking while I enjoy the blue eyed grass.