The Mysterious World of Ecotypes

This Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is not a local ecotype but the bees don’t seem to mind.

I’m browsing through my favorite native plant catalog getting ready to order some not so native plant seeds from a place in Minnesota. The photographs and print quality in this catalog is so good sometimes I look at it just to loose myself for awhile. Then I somehow run into a conundrum as I cross reference the plants in this catalog with other native plant resources. This actually happens often in the world of native plants as it’s not so easy to know what’s native and what’s not. The conundrum has to do not just with how to define what’s native but even more importantly how to decide if the plant material will perform its ecological duties while not causing ecological harm.

Organizations such as the USDA, Wild Ones, as well as my own local native plant society, suggest it’s best to buy plants native to the region where they will be planted. They seem to suggest that a plant in its natural habitat (the place where species with basically the same genetics have grown since before European settlement) will offer the best ecological services while being the best adapted to to its environment.

The key word here is region. Apparently scientists have figured out that these natural habitats or ecological regions have actual boundaries and can be separated from other regions according to similar characteristics such as geology, soil, terrain and climate. They call these regions, ecoregions. A plant growing in the ecoregion it originated in before European settlement is known as a local ecotype. They suggest planting local ecotypes prevents the gene pool of true local ecotypes from becoming diluted therefore maintaining plant biodiversity. Something like that anyway.

It’s complicated but it does make sense except when I examine the EPA’s ecoregion map, my garden seems to sit smack on the line between the Southeastern Plains that goes down to Louisiana and Northern Piedmont that goes up into New Jersey. That’s a pretty big area. I don’t know how Louisiana can be called local to Maryland. And since I’m on the line between two regions, which do I choose?

The other dilemma I face is practicality. Once I figure out from what region I’m suppose to get these plants for my garden, where in that region am I to get them? My local native plant society lists local nurseries that may have them. They suggest I ask them if the plants I’m buying originated in my region. Most of the plants are around $10.00 each and for some reason these places don’t sell seed. It would cost a lot of bucks to fill my garden with plants from these places. I like to buy trees and shrubs from these nurseries because they’re the bones of my garden but when it comes to growing forbs and grasses where lots of plants are needed to cover the ground, I’ve found seeds are the way to go.

With this in mind, I have several options. First, I could buy one plant, wait until it makes seed and then spread that seed but somehow that’s just not very enticing. Unless the plant is really aggressive (like common milkweed) it would take years for it to make seed if that one plant is lucky enough to survive.

Second, I could try and find places to collect seeds in the wild and I admit the very idea of foraging through a meadow filled with wildflowers sounds inviting but the natural areas nearby are generally forests where the plants are mostly trees with understory plants. My garden is not a forest. It’s more like a forest edge where the soil has been farmed for centuries and then divided into housing plots at the beginning of this century. It’s an environment nothing like it was before European settlement. And I must add I’ve hiked through many natural areas in my two regions and I’ve never seen meadow plants such as sneezeweed or great blue lobelia anywhere.

But the real question I think is, are the not so native plants in my garden causing ecological harm? Are they weakening gene pools or becoming invasive themselves? They certainly aren’t having any problem thriving. Pollinators of all shapes and sizes love them. Migratory and common city birds, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, voles and deer hang around them. That’s all I know.

While writing this, I seemed to recall one of the native plant seed companies I don’t usually buy from. The company, Ernst Seeds, located in northwestern Pennsylvania focuses on larger projects such as highways, not small gardens like mine. They don’t put out a beautiful catalog intended for small gardeners and tend to sell in bulk but it just so happens that when browsing through their online catalog, the word, ecotype pops up for each plant item they sell. It seems the seeds they sell originate from all over the East Coast. The ecotype is listed according state, not region, but it’s a promising start. I’ve purchased seeds from them before and I was able to buy them by the ounce at a reasonable price. It just wasn’t as easy as throwing a pack of seeds into a virtual shopping cart. At any rate, I think I’ll give them another try and hopefully I’ll be on my way to being a more ecologically correct gardener.

 

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Pretty Garden Crops

The pretty flower of an okra plant (with a bee in it).

I’m trying to come up with some pretty crops for the front yard garden (for next year). Ones that I don’t have to surround with a not so pretty bunny fence or that don’t start out pretty and then turn ugly like gangly, disease prone, indeterminate tomatoes. So far, I’ve come up with;

  1. Okra – This plant is very pretty and tall (plants can reach 6 feet). It needs a good amount of space, approx. 5 feet between rows and 18″ between plants. Likes warm weather.
  2. Arugula – It’s pretty, tasty and grows fairly quickly. I like to sprinkle the seeds around and rake them in gently with a hand held 3 prong cultivator where they can grow to work as a ground cover as well as salad greens. Also, if left to go to seed (flowers are pretty to me at least), will reseed in the fall. Likes cool weather.
  3. Peppers – Pretty, bushy plant in many varieties but I think the ones with the smaller hotter peppers tend to be the prettiest. Needs to be germinated indoors at least a month prior to planting in my area. Also needs a good amount of phosphorus. Looks good with herbs like basil or parsley. Likes warm weather.
  4. Cherry tomatoes – Because of the small fruit size these plants tend to remain attractive especially when planted with other pretty herbs (like basil and parsley).
  5. Mustards – Also a quick grower and many interesting varieties. I plant it the same way I do arugula and it works very well as a cover crop. Greens can get a bit on the bitter side if too mature. Likes cool weather.
  6. Radish – These are fun, fast growing and fairly goof proof. Can be planted as a cover crop and with other crops such as tomatoes and peppers. Roots need to be eaten before they get too big and bitter. Greens can be eaten any time. Likes cool weather.
  7. Squash – I grow at least one butternut squash plant every year which yields at least 5 (or more) large squash. The plant is attractive but sprawls everywhere and of course you can’t mow it when it creeps into the lawn. Smaller less sprawly squash plants like summer squash might be a better option. I plant summer squash later in the season as they seem less prone to the dreaded borer worm. I’ve never had a borer worm problem with butternut. Likes warm weather.
  8. Perennial onions – Haven’t tried them yet but some varieties such as Egyptian Walking look promising. I’m guessing they may need contained as the name implies they are spreaders and the catalog calls them “hardy”.
  9. Sunflowers – If you like sunflower seeds. Unfortunately for me squirrels and rats do.

Well, that’s about all I can come up with so far but I’m open to suggestions…

 

The So Called Ecological Garden

While running to get my camera and change lenses so I can capture some bee I’ll probably never have the time to identify or will waste too much time trying to, I often wonder why I work so hard doing these things that most would classify as somewhat nutty. I’m not an ecologist. I’m not being paid to do what I do and now after reading a post written by an ecologist, I wonder if I’m just wasting my time doing what it is I do which I guess could be described as ecological gardening.

The article is written by Chris Helzer, who as The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, works to restore and conserve prairies in the Nebraska area. In a nutshell, the article basically seems to say that because backyard gardens are usually very small isolated areas, they don’t save species because the species that are in trouble need large prairies to survive. The species that take advantage of small gardens are usually generalized meaning they can survive in a variety of habitats and don’t need backyard gardens. Granted, the author is referring to prairie conservation, I can only guess this extends to species that rely on other types of ecosystems such as forests or wetlands. Unfortunately, this is because when I think about it, it makes a lot of sense. In fact, I’ve often thought about it but it still doesn’t make it any less of a disappointment. Just because I want it, doesn’t mean it is.

My garden is part of a pretty strange system. The birds are mostly city birds I can almost count on the fingers of two hands; robins, crows, house sparrows, blue jays, song sparrows, mourning doves, goldfinches, catbirds, mockingbirds, cardinals, wrens, a few woodpeckers and every now and then a nuthatch, titmouse or chickadee. Huge flocks of starlings settle over everything and then leave just as fast as they came. I’ve never witnessed a baby bird take its first flight from the nests in my garden because the crows or something always seem to get to them first. I’ve seen rats and voles and chipmunks and deer but these aren’t struggling specialized species. These are the ones who seem to thrive in this kind of urban/suburban environment.

Some rarer birds like warblers and flycatchers come through in the spring and fall. Hawks come down at this time of year trying to snag a rabbit, rat or squirrel. Signs of a fox can be found every now and then. As for pollinators, that’s a tough one because I’ve noticed many, large and small but I have to admit being a complete novice at identification.  Monarchs seem to be everywhere but apparently they got confused because of unusual weather patterns

As for amphibians, I’ve heard one frog and it was the most exciting moment ever. Then it was gone.

Rabbits of all sizes are everywhere. They are barely scared of me, sometimes they come so close I’m the one that backs away. This seems to be heaven for them.

The so called wetland I made is really just a swale filled with violets, white snakeroot, some not so native native plants as well as non native ones. It’s nothing close to a real wetland, where water and land have formed complex biodiverse communities over centuries.

So, alas, my garden can not be a prairie, forest or wetland. Ok, I know I may be saving species indirectly by filtering or capturing runoff water that would otherwise be polluting the Chesapeake Bay but it doesn’t quite give the same satisfaction as providing a habitat in my backyard. Nevertheless, I will carry on with my planning, planting and dreaming and if, by chance one of those struggling species should happen upon my garden during their travels, they will surely find this a fine refuge.

Elderberry Issues

I and my garden friends (birds, bees, etc.) love elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) but it’s been slowly dawning on me they just aren’t doing too well. I have two full grown shrubs. One is about five years old and the other, a seedling from the first, is about three. At first they grow quickly, up and out stopping at around 12 feet all around. It’s at this point and at this time in the season their leaves start looking like this:

And this:

This isn’t fall foliage. I’m not sure what it is exactly. It could be the soil they are growing in was compacted during construction. Or it could be the soil is too clayey because of construction disturbance or it could be a fungus like Fusarium wilt or it could be a combination.

Articles such as this one say to cut away sick branches. Another good one can be found here

Well, last year I cut out some sick branches, but maybe not all, and this year it looked worse so it seems like I’m going to have to prune these shrubs pretty much to the ground each year. I ask myself do I want to take that on?

I get the feeling they aren’t growing in their preferred environment. Either that or they are meant to do their thing during the early stages of ecological succession and then give way to the longer living, slower growing stuff. So, this gives me something to think about if anything and maybe some wood for the wood burner.

When does rock become soil?

Believe it or not, I’ve been wondering about this…

Soils Matter, Get the Scoop!

Rock starts becoming soil the moment it is exposed to the environment. But it’s a long transformation process from exposed rock to a mature soil. Depending on the nature of the rock and other factors in its surroundings, that time period can range between tens to tens of thousands of years!

Rocks, plants and sand The sandstone, top layer, is weathered by climate, organisms and time. Lichen – a mixture of fungi and bacteria – help break the rock down. Eventually plants can grow in the space, adding organic matter as they grow and die. Photo: SVFisk

Soil is not simply weathered rock. Soil is a dynamic natural resource. It is comprised of minerals, water, gases, organic material, and living creatures including soil microbes and tiny animals. Calling a soil “mature” doesn’t mean that soil formation has stopped. It means the changes in the soil have become practically imperceptible as the soil comes into

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August Notes 2017

It’s that time of year when I really don’t want to be out in the garden too long due to things like heat, humidity, mosquitoes and the fact that my garden seems to become an overwhelming kind of jungle that’s much easier to ignore than attempt to subdue. The drought is officially over and now we’ve moved on to a monsoon. But that’s ok with me. Each morning smells like damp wood.

The plants are doing great, all except the tomatoes which were a complete disaster. They were looking great but then started looking sick and half chewed green tomatoes started appearing on the ground. I don’t want to sound too over dramatic but it was a bit discouraging as the larger tomatoes slowly disappeared until the only ones left were the size of cherry tomatoes. And it was utterly irritating to see a squirrel perched right in front of us eating away at the remnants of a nice big one between its little paws. This is kind of strange considering I’ve had many successful tomato harvests in the past. Maybe I shouldn’t have put out so many corn cobs during the winter. Regardless, I think, maybe, I’m done growing tomatoes, for now. At least the big juicy kind. Maybe eggplants would do better.

I’ve put together a page with galleries listing all the plants I feel are providing the most services in my garden at this time. By services I mean food and shelter for wildlife, erosion control and soil enhancement, food for me and/or some sort of benefit for everyone else. So far I’ve only included plants that don’t require soil amendments but I hope to add a page for vegetables and animals at some point.

After much deliberation, I decided to go for the slope. I guess this may not be the most attractive way to kill the sod but I can’t see that it’s worse than plastic. At least it breaks down. Anyhow I have big plans for this area. You could call it my creation, a plan that will hopefully not involve too much hacking at the ground in order to create some kind of ecologically beneficial and nice looking non weedy slope in the not too distant future.

Flower from the okra plant.

I’m kind of on the fence about the okra. On the one hand it’s a beautiful plant and the rabbits or squirrels don’t bother it but on the other it doesn’t provide much in the way of a crop. I’ve noticed aphids have made themselves at home on a few plants but the plants don’t seem to be suffering because of them. I’m pleased to see goldfinches have been enjoying the aphids.

For my first fixing of the okra as a vegetable, I roasted it for about 45 minutes in olive oil. It was good and not slimy.

Fenced in sweet potatoes or you could say fenced out rabbits. You can see how scraggly common milkweed (plant on the right) gets by this time of year.

So far the rabbit fencing has worked allowing the sweet potato vines to branch out but just until they reach the fencing where the rabbits keep them neatly trimmed.

This is absolutely ridiculous I know but I’ve named our resident rabbits according to their size; Small, Medium and Large, since I can’t tell them apart and they grow too fast to bother anyway. They are very good listeners too by the way with their big ears and all. They just sit there looking at me with their nose twitching as some kind of leafy green disappears into their mouth. I’ve also named the yearly resident squirrel. Every year we have a new one and we know this because it always has some unique feature. This year it’s a skinny tail that looks like it’s been rubber banded so we call the squirrel Rubber Band Tail. We don’t have pets so I guess this is as good as it gets.

Insanely large white snakeroot plants. For some reason this picture just seems to capture the essence of August. I don’t know why.
I’m not sure why of all the milkweed plants, this monarch chose this ugly dead looking one.

Various bees are now enjoying the sneezeweed and wild marjoram but soon these insanely large white snakeroot plants will bloom and hopefully attract hordes of pollinators. Speaking of pollinators, I’ve seen plenty of monarchs and a giant black wasp named appropriately The Giant Black Wasp.

I’m just in love with this pokeweed right now as it so beautifully hides the cinder block wall. I hope my back isn’t going to pay when I have to pick all the seedlings that sprout from fallen berries in the spring. I cut down quite a few plants before the berries ripened but a catbird gave me a talking to so I stopped.

Oh, and it’s always nice to enjoy a glass of fresh Thai basil iced tea while listening to an evening concert of crickets with an occasional katydid. Cheers!