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.
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.
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.
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.”
I’m waiting. Waiting for the birds to get where they are going, the squirrels to finish the chestnuts, the rabbits to hunker down in their warm holes for the winter. Then I will come out of my hole and get to work planting not so native seeds for spring, trimming sick elderberries, cleaning up the vegetable beds, collecting chestnut husks for the fire, planting winter rye and harvesting the sweet potatoes. For now I’m picking okra which is kind of like an Easter egg hunt. The part you eat is the seed pod and it has a way of hiding itself. If you don’t get it at the perfect time it get’s big and tough. I’m also continuing my quest for knowledge about this mysterious plant world around me.
On the blog, Awkward Botany, I’ve found that maybe weeds aren’t so bad. That in cities they are a big help with erosion, carbon sequestering as well as water, soil and air filtration. Who knows maybe people will someday be lining up for the latest cultivar of prickly lettuce.
My plan for buying local ecotype seeds from Ernst Seedsdidn’t quite pan out. They only sell seeds by the ounce or more and didn’t have the ones I was looking for but I haven’t written them off and their hard copy catalog, while not much to look at photo wise has some really good information, lots of seed variety and it’s great for getting me off the internet. I ended up buying non local ecotype seeds from Prairie Moon Nurseryin Minnesota where I could get them in the small quantities I needed. I’ll go into that more when I plant them next month.
I also ventured out into the field or in my case woods in search of local ecotype seeds and what I found, low and behold, was seeds. The place is just down the hill, it’s actually the riparian area along a creek known as Sligo Creek where a 10 mile narrow strip of land has been allowed to turn back into woods made up of a good number of most likely true native plants or local ecotypes as well as non natives. Yes, there are the usual native trees such as beech, tulip poplar, and oak but I was surprised at the variety of herbaceous plants, kind of hard to believe given the large deer populations and other aggressive non native plants (mostly lesser celandine, bush honeysuckle and English ivy). The herbaceous plants I found are unassuming plants but the way they grow together somehow fits the scene. Some form large healthy stands while others are scattered, just a few here and there. Each has interesting qualities especially as a community.
It just so happens an actual botanist lives in the area and in 2003 tried to record all of the plants along Sligo Creek. It’s an impressively long list with all kinds of names I’ve never heard of. Bosc’s panic grass, straw-colored cyperus, stellate sedge, glomerate sedge, Willdenow’s sedge, carrion flower, arrow-leaved tearthumb, hog peanut, pencil flower, brushy aster, Florida blue lettuce, wild licorice, cleavers. I could go on and on.
I know the world is changing fast. 2003 is a long time ago, but as I walked through this woods, I noticed a good number of plants I’d never seen before and a few such as bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) I’ve seen in Prairie Moon’s catalog from Minnesota. I gathered a few seeds from the bottlebrush grass as well as some from something I think is called honewort and a few others but I think the point I’m making here is that if local ecotypes can survive in a place so disturbed as this, imagine what else is still out there in places not so disturbed. In other words, I have hope. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. Maybe there is something still worth preserving. Maybe all is not lost. Not that I’m against change or anything. Not that I’m a hopeless romantic longing for past forgotten times.
I also discovered a grove of trees, some with red and some with yellow berries. After doing various online searches I decided they must be some form of hawthorn but they didn’t have thorns so I’m left wondering. I’m not done yet. I took a few berries and planted them around my garden.
I wonder if plants growing even as close as Sligo Creek which is no more than half a mile from my garden are even suitable to grow in my garden which is not a riparian area although it does catch runoff from my roof and other nearby hardscapes. I realize I probably shouldn’t be picking too many seeds from Silgo Creek as there aren’t huge populations of these plants and the ones there probably have a hard enough time surviving without me messing with their natural reproduction process. But it’s good to to notice what is there.
I once was camping during the Fourth of July at a place called Janes Island State Park right outside of a very small town named Crisfield on the Eastern Shore. There was a fireworks show in the town so we went. It wasn’t an extraordinary show but the night was beautiful on the water. The moon was out. It was a big event in a small town. At the end of the show during the grand finale, a boy yelled out, “It’s the final touch!” That’s kind of how I feel about my garden right now.
Speaking of the garden, since we’ve gotten so much rain I haven’t had to water in months. In fact, I really haven’t had to do much other than the usual pulling of porcelain berry and bindweed and cutting dead looking ugly stuff (it has to look pretty ugly for me to cut it). I keep wanting to cut down the really sick elderberry so I can plant something else there but the birds like it so much I just can’t bring myself to do the job. So I’ve been learning about ecology and ecotypes which have led me to spending way too much time on Ernst Seed’s website browsing through local ecotypes I’d like to have and trying to fit square pegs into round holes. This is doubly irritating as their website is somewhat on the slow side so I ordered the catalog which might keep me off the internet at least.
Back to my so called ecological garden, I’ve discovered pollinators of all sizes love porcelain berry flowers to the point I didn’t want to pull it but then the insanely large white snakeroot exploded in bloom which they seemed to like better so I didn’t feel so bad about pulling the porcelain berry.
Not only do pollinators love the white snakeroot explosion but so do birds like this common yellowthroat warbler who’s been hanging around for weeks and even, to my utmost joy, used a bird bath I set aside especially for it (actually I think it’s a her).
One day I saw a redstart and a flycatcher as well as the other usuals; cat birds, song sparrows, wrens, robins, mockingbirds and the like all in there together. This is probably because the explosion of white snakeroot is covered with not only large and medium sized bees, but also these tiny ones that look like ants with wings and probably are ants with wings. And I even had time to smell the white snakeroot explosion, a sweet smell like spring which is nice at this time of year.
It seems I may have three different strains of white snakeroot. Well, there are two plants that look noticeably different from the white snakeroot explosion plant.
In addition to the activity in the white snakeroot, we’ve made some other strange wildlife observations. One day, my husband noticed a squirrel walk right in front of him looking like it was wearing a fur coat. It turned out to be a mother squirrel carrying her baby. The fur coat was the baby’s tail wrapped around the mother’s neck.
I thought milkweed was poisonous but apparently not to rabbits who’ve recently taken quite a liking to it. I’ve seen them take down entire stalks from the bottom and devour the entire thing at one time. This can’t be good for any monarch larvae or eggs that might be attached to the plant.
I’ve noticed a squirrel chewing on this same piece of bark under our wood pile. We’ve also noticed rabbits chewing on the corner of our neighbor’s brick garage. We’ve guessed they’re sharpening their teeth which is probably important so they can bite through tough milkweed stalks and nut shells. The chestnuts, with their thorny husks have been falling from our chestnut tree and landing in our driveway and making a loud bang when they hit the tin covering our wood pile.
As for my food, I harvested seven butternut squashes and would have probably gotten more if two didn’t split and rot on the vine and the plant didn’t die of mildew from all the rain. The turnips I planted a month ago have finally taken off. I guess rabbits don’t like them too much. The roots aren’t ready to eat but I’ve been eating the greens as well as those from some much older radishes. My favorite way to eat them is destemmed and stir fried in a little olive oil, salt and water. Cooked just until tender.
Arugula is making a nice ground cover/salad green and it looks like I’ll be getting some tomatoes after all. The squirrels ate all the tomatoes from a group of four plants but one plant remains. It was planted later than the others and in a different location. It looks healthy unlike the others and the forever green tomatoes are finally turning. So, maybe if I want tomatoes I need to plant them later in the season so when they finally get ripe, the squirrels are too busy collecting nuts.
I’ve really come to like roasted okra. I like to roast it until it gets kind of charred, about 40 minutes at 400°.
In the front yard garden, a work in progress, the marigolds are finally doing what I intended which is work as a cover crop, define the border and be pretty. I’m not sure the African variety (in background) goes with the style but they certainly are ostentatious and yes, I will be designing my future front yard garden around NOT having an ugly rabbit fence. I wrote a post listing some crops rabbits don’t seem to like.
The white snakeroot is looking kind of scraggly here so I’m getting ready to cut them down. I took up the sod on the slope and planted winter rye. I’ll be going into more detail about that at some point.
For now, the air is calm, but things are happening. The locusts belt out their final calls. Squirrels are gathering nuts. Rabbits are just eating. Birds are starting their migration. There’s a lot for me to do too but I’d better get out and enjoy the final touch before the show is over.
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.
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.