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.

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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.”

July Notes 2017

I finally got a look at the book everyone in the gardening world seems to be raving about and ooooo was I dazzled. The book, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, seems to suggest we all yearn for the lost wild places that are no more. The virgin forests the explorers romped through in search of gold, the prairies of Little House on the Prairie, the savannas of Africa and the wetlands of the Bayou. Something like that anyway. I don’t know about everyone, but I was just in love with this book for the pictures alone. Wilderness is what gets my blood moving and while the gist of this book seems to say pristine wilderness is kind of non-existent, it also seems to suggest we can still have the best of it and in our own yards no less.

So, I’ve started dividing up my garden into various wilderness areas.

I’ve decided this is a prairie.
This is the wetland.
This is a woodland or woodland edge.
And this will become the savanna.

Wilderness with a touch of farm.

What’s in bloom right now?

Mountain mint in background and fleabane in foreground.
Wild marjoram seems to be a real hit with pollinators.
Black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower

I need more flowers but I have to say I’m happy with the wildness of my garden.

The elderberry is weighted down with berries and the catbirds just can’t get enough. My 5 year old niece came over the other day and looked like an absolute fairy as she happily picked elderberries. “For winter”, she insisted. I wasn’t exactly thrilled knowing she had no intention of eating them but I just couldn’t resist letting her pick just a handful “for winter” which she later made into some kind of pudding that I ended up eating in my oatmeal for breakfast. Apparently elderberries are extremely healthy.

I found a great use for that flopping row of switchgrass. Mulch.

As far as vegetables go, the rabbits and deer have really been going to town on the sweet potatoes so I put up more fencing around them. I guess I have that old watch what you wish for dilemma going. My garden makes the perfect wildlife habitat for rabbits.

One thing the rabbits have left completely alone is okra. So far the plants are growing but the actual okra doesn’t seem to be there yet…I’ve never grown okra before.

Another plant the rabbits don’t touch is tomatoes. I’m in the green tomato phase when they seem to be green forever. I’m waiting…

EXTREMELY EXCITING MOMENT!!! I was sitting on the porch eating dinner. My niece’s mouth was going a mile a minute when I heard, could it be? A frog? A toad? Then I heard it again. It was definitely a frog or a toad and it sounded like it was coming from a small rain garden I made. So much for mowing.

Bringing Nature Home

preying mantis4-bw

I’m back. Since I’ve been not writing I’ve learned a heck of a lot, been confused even more but one thing’s for certain, I’m absolutely obsessed with this gardening thing or landscape conservation or urban farming or whatever it is I do while I’m puttering around amazed by different bugs, overwhelmed by weeds, bitten by mosquitoes and changing my strategies on a day to day basis.

One thing I have done was read Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. I’m not sure what made it great but it was great. Was it a simplified version of ecology? His warm, down to earth tone? Was it the fact that he’s an actual scientist with a PhD? Or was it a story about his neighbor and the beaver? Whatever it was, somehow it changed my view of the world and gave me a new hope that maybe, just maybe humanity can not just survive but realize and live as a piece of the puzzle instead of as maker of the puzzle and ruler of all its pieces. Not sure I got that metaphor exactly right but I think you get the idea.

It also gave me the feeling that what I do with my garden is important. Like it’s not just about puttering around amazed by different bugs, overwhelmed by weeds, bitten by mosquitoes and changing my strategies on a day to day basis. For once, it seems that maybe instead of making a negative environmental footprint, I might be doing something good. According to Tallamy, native plants are not only good but they are a crucial link to the survival of many species including possibly, ourselves.

Tallamy is not even a plant scientist. His specialty is bugs. He began his discovery in his own backyard in Pennsylvania when he discovered certain plants weren’t touched by insects yet other plants were. Then he realized the plants that weren’t getting eaten were from other places like Asia. Upon further study he realized certain insects picked certain native plants and certain birds ate those certain insects. It’s from these realizations that made him think maybe there’s something to the term, coevolution. Species that evolve together over millions of years may form complex relationships.

But the key to the issue here is my use of the word “certain” insects. “Plants from other places” are often called exotics or aliens or if really bad, invasives. It’s not that an exotic plant can’t be useful to some insects or animals, it just may not be useful to animals Tallamy calls specialized animals, or those animals that have come to be directly or indirectly dependent over millions of years on one particular species of plant. Monarchs, for example, will only lay eggs on the milkweed species and pandas rely almost entirely on bamboo for food. Due to things such as western colonization, the industrial age and human population explosion, vast amounts of landscape have been dramatically changed and mass populations of native plants have been either destroyed or drastically moved around due to human love of the exotic. In other words, these days, plants that evolved in one place for millions of years are either gone or somewhere far, far away.

While somewhat of a simple concept it gets cloudy real fast in the horticultural and gardening community. For one thing, there’s no way to really define what’s native and what’s not to a certain area. Nor is it easy to define how native a plant should be. For example, I live in Maryland and I buy seeds of plant species known to be native to my area but the seeds are harvested from plants in Minnesota. So does that make my plants true native plants? Then there was this question my husband had about how long does it take for a plant to become native to a certain area. There’s no answer for that other than to say that until that plant becomes a useful part to the ecological system of that area, it’s not a native. But what defines that? And I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to invasive species or cultivars. As I understand, invasive species include plants that have become a nuisance because not only are they not useful to an ecological system but they are thought to be harmful to that system. Cultivars are bred from natives to adapt to certain conditions and are often criticized for not being true natives and therefore not doing their native plant job of being useful.

So, the whole subject is about as confusing and complex as the many other environmental problems of the world and I find myself wondering what it is, exactly, I’m supposed to do. And that is most definitely a problem for a busy world who has about zero free time to analyze this issue let alone go out and make a pollinator garden. In other words, it’s hard for someone to do good when they can’t just run out to the local garden center, pick up some plants, put them in the ground and be done with it. Tallamy does his best to be diplomatic about his cause and I think that’s why his book succeeds. He understands the human need for order especially with community pressures to “fit in” as well as associations of landscaping with class. A well kept yard is often high priority. Especially a well kept lawn. Do what we can, seems to be his only demand. He drives home the possibility that native plants can be orderly and beautiful additions to the garden. He doesn’t pound the reader to eradicate exotic plants in their own yards, at least not all at once. He suggests replacing them with natives when they die. He also doesn’t condemn the lawn, saying there’s nothing wrong with a bit of it as long as there’s some room for natives. He doesn’t make the reader feel that if their plants aren’t the truest form of native they may as well get something from the farthest reaches of the planet.

Other questions he doesn’t address is how agriculture fits into the scheme or the practicality of growing native plants. I grow exotic vegetables. Is that bad? We probably can’t survive eating only native plants. Native plants aren’t easy to find and when they are they are often expensive or not really all that local. Growing from seed can be tricky and getting local seed is a whole other issue. But I think Tallamy’s point was to introduce readers to the simple concept that native plants are actually more important to the big picture than we may realize. They are in decline and if we have land we can do something about it. Lawns are lifeless areas. Adding even one native tree would be a huge improvement. He understands you can’t force this concept down people’s throats.

As for my own proof, I can only say that I have witnessed a major increase in biological diversity in my own yard since adding native plants, or as close to being native as I can manage. When I moved to this property six years ago it was a lawn surrounded by a border of tangled, exotic, invasive and native plants. There was life before, probably lots of it but that was most likely due to the tangled border, not the lawn. Since then I’ve added many native plants and now I’ve witnessed not just more life but what seems to be a system of life, more species than I can name, including some of the more specialized species such as warblers and monarchs. Is it because of the native plants or would any plant other than lawn due? Or, am I just noticing more? We may never know the complete truth of the matter but I’m willing to bet this is no accident and I’m also willing to bet it can’t hurt. For me, it’s proof enough. The more I notice, with all five senses, the intensity of life in my garden, the more I want to be a part of it in a useful way. And I realize how much I need it, not just for my own enjoyment but for the survival of my species.

And instead of spending so much time analyzing how to do it exactly right, maybe the native plant movement should focus more on just making it easier and more enticing for the average gardener to just do something. After all, how much worse can the situation get? Species are going extinct at an astounding rate. The climate is changing. The human population keeps growing and depending on fossil fuel. Most people I know can’t or don’t garden anyway. Maybe a cultivar or a few exotics are better than a lawn? Maybe invasive species will always be a problem. But does that mean native or close to native or even ecologically useful plants can’t be around too? Maybe we just need to work on doing the best we can with what we have? I think Tallamy understands this conflict within the gardening and scientific community and handles it well. After all, the scientists and movement leaders aren’t the ones with the big, lifeless lawns.

The way I see it, like humans, native plants are just pieces of a big puzzle or as Tallamy explains, like pieces from the game, Jenga. Except with native plants, the pieces are at the bottom. If you take them out the whole tower might collapse.

 

Not All Dirt is The Best Dirt for Growing Vegetables

I am currently trying to wade through a dry but also interesting book about the connection between soil fertility and animal health. The book titled, not surprisingly, Soil Fertility and Animal Health, was written in 1958 by Dr. William A. Albrecht and recommended by Steve Solomon as one of the most important books ever written about agriculture. I’ll try and sum up what I’ve read so far. If I’m wrong please correct me.

Albrecht keeps repeating the phrase, “all flesh is grass”, a term he got from an anonymous “christian scholar” who had a theory that “the soil, by growing the crops, can serve in creating animals and man”. Soil, it seems is a primary basis of life and the soil most suited for growing food that feeds animals lies in a thin band right through the middle the U.S. along the 98th meridian of longitude.

This is due to a variety of reasons but mainly climate. The big factor he mentions is rainfall. Too much rain will leach minerals out of the soil, the case in the East where I live, and too little rain will not enable rocks to break down and make soil, the case in the West (excluding the coast). But this band in the middle seems to have just the right climate to produce excellent soil conditions for growing nutritious grass that produces healthy livestock. It’s also the best soil for growing grains, corn and most likely vegetables?

If interested in downloading a pdf version of this book go to the soil and health library  and (after reading and agreeing with the library rules) click “Take me to the library”. The book will be third down on the list.

To see a map of the 98th meridian click here and scroll down.

Information about soil fertility and a good map of global soil fertility from Wikipedia.

Click here for a video by Steve Solomon talking about compost and soil fertility.