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.
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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.

Notes From Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change

As you can probably tell from my last post I was pretty blown away by the book by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. In addition to changing the way I think about gardening, it also had a lot of practical ideas for designing an ecological garden. Here’s a few notes I took*:

  • 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.

Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change

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.”