Let the Workhorse Plants Work

Grow little plant, grow.

Ok, let’s face it, growing some perennial plants (like native ones) from seed takes time. Lots of it and lots of patience too. Meanwhile the garden looks, well, let’s just say it’s not going to make Fine Gardening anytime soon. While I can use my imagination to visualize what’s to come, most people just see an empty spot of dirt. What if there was a way to speed that process up a bit. Get a bit more immediate satisfaction. I think all my trials and tribulations have finally gotten me to a realization. What if instead of only planting slow growing plants, I let certain plants, sometimes known as workhorse plants, help me out along the way. Plants like annuals, volunteers and hardy herbs that grow quickly, often plant themselves, fill in empty spaces and protect the soil while the slower growing perennials take their good old time.

I’ve so often snubbed annuals thinking they were for beginner gardeners who just wanted something to grow but hey, isn’t that what I want? Let’s face it, patience comes a lot easier with something quick and pretty to distract me from my waiting. I also was worried they might be invasive or become aggressive but as ecologist, Chris Helzer says in a recent post about non-native plants,

A plant’s status as native or not became less important than how it affected the diversity and function of the plant community it was part of.

The natural process of succession starts with more aggressive shorter living plants that gradually give way to slower growing longer living plants. Allowing some shorter living annuals, herbs and fast growing native plants to cover certain areas will pave the way for those slow growing, longer living plants. Many of these quick growing plants also provide valuable ecological services while the tiny slow growers aren’t. Lemon balm, basil, sage, parsley, dill, wild marjoram, violets, white snakeroot, mint and even yes, ground ivy are a few examples.

Lemon balm, a perennial, creates a lovely, dense mound and turns red in fall. It also pops up pretty much everywhere but is easy to pull when young.
While not my favorite, ground ivy does an exceptional job of covering this pathway.
Wild marjoram, also a perennial, covers this bank between establishing purple coneflower and butterfly weed.
This native pokeweed grows like wild fire reaching heights of 7 feet or more so I let it block out the cinder block wall while the holly takes it’s time in the foreground.
Native violets voluntarily cover the bank of this swale while slower natives get established.

A great example of implementing this concept is in my front yard garden where I want to plant an edge of native flowers and grasses that hide my sometimes pretty unattractive vegetable garden from people passing by. I’m also planning on an island in the center to provide a permanent point of interest. Instead of just planting the natives, I’ll plant annuals. I’m thinking about a heavy layer of basil, marigolds, zinnias and/or coreopsis. Then, I’ll add slower growing plants in a strip behind them where their tininess will be hidden by the front layer of annuals. This will not only keep weeds down but it will quickly add that beautiful border.

Next year that crazy layer of homemade mulch and cardboard will be a thick layer of annuals with a layer of slower growing plants behind.

The fact that some plants are a little (and I mean a little) more aggressive isn’t so much a concern because they are so much easier and less disruptive to remove (especially in the early stages) than other more aggressive or invasive plants. And because these plants do an excellent job of covering ground they will suppress as well as hide the less respectable weeds. In short, hopefully my garden will be more beautiful, bountiful and ecological in a shorter amount of time and with a lot less effort.

I really have nothing against weeds but for some reason these beauties just scream weed.

Natural Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garden Design, Plant Communities and Cinderblock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine this in front of wall.

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

 

A Park and Mysterious Sounds in the Night

rock-creek

I live on the edge of a bustling downtown equipped with a mall, movie theaters, office buildings, city buses, traffic and people, lots of people, but no more than a mile from my house is an extraordinary expanse of old growth forest you can actually get lost in and not hear a car. You may see some people (usually with dogs) and maybe once, if you’re lucky, hear a barred owl. I kind of just discovered this place and now I go there as much as I can venturing as far off the main trails as possible onto narrow trails dangerously lined with poison ivy. It’s the kind of place you don’t see even in the wild, the places you drive for hours to get to. Trees just aren’t that big anymore.

The trees in this park aren’t just tulip poplars. Oaks, beech, elm and ash with trunks I can’t wrap my arms around, tower majestically above. I love to get to that spot where the landscape as far as I can see in all directions is forest and it’s not hard for me to imagine that long ago this is how it was everywhere. I still can’t believe this is only a mile from the very urban place I live in.

The park’s name is Rock Creek Park and as a matter of fact, I went walking in it just yesterday and heard what I’m pretty sure were wood frogs. They can be heard here.  Wood frogs are the most cold tolerant of all the North American frogs and can be found in the Arctic Circle. They are also the first frogs to breed every year. They live in woodlands and lay their eggs in vernal pools which are basically puddles that dry up in the summer. That means the tadpoles must turn into frogs before the pools dry up. Wood frogs aren’t the only amphibian to depend on vernal pools.

I’ve always loved night noises and never really cared what was making them until recently when I started watching a spooky old soap opera from the 70’s called Dark Shadows. In its many brilliant night scenes full of styrofoam tombstones, bats dangling from strings and plastic plant life, there are night sounds including one one that I knew I’d heard somewhere before. Where had I heard that sound and who was making it? While searching the internet for the mysterious sound in Rock Creek, I stumbled upon the mating call of a toad. That was it! I’d been hearing it all my life and never even had a clue.

Frog and toad populations, especially in urban areas like mine are in serious decline. Half are gone in nearby Arlington County. Because their bodies absorb toxins through their skin as well as from the plant and animal life they eat, they are extremely sensitive to environmental changes. On the flip side, their reemergence is a sign of environmental improvements.

Frogs and toads are great assets in the garden, eating all kinds of pests such as slugs, caterpillars, grasshoppers and mosquitoes and of course what do many insects love and depend on? Native plants. I figure if these animals live only a mile away, maybe there’s a chance they will find their way to my garden. Then again maybe a move to downtown wouldn’t be such a good idea. At any rate I’m glad to know there’s a place nearby where they can live and meanwhile, I’ll be listening for their calls.

If you are interested in hearing an amazing orchestra of hundreds of frogs and toads visit Merchant Millpond State Park  in the spring, just before nightfall.

Making Peace with Weeds

sneezeweed
Helenium autumnale

What better thing to do in winter when you’re not completely overwhelmed with a wild garden than to strategize about how to make it not so wild. Let me clarify. To say my garden is weedy would be an understatement. Yes, I know every gardener thinks they have the weediest but no, seriously, mine’s the weediest. When I became blessed with the management of this piece of land some seven years ago, it was rampant with just about every kind of weed imaginable. I won’t name them because that would take forever. I guess had I been more sensible I wouldn’t have decided to have a garden let alone a pretty big one but I did. So, here I am reactively dealing.

Weeds have always kind of fascinated me. When I was around eight, I dug up dandelions, put them in pots and tried to sell them in front of my house. I didn’t understand why people just laughed. Always a bit on the odd side myself, I’ve always kind of identified with them and their ability to consistently annoy with their persistent and awkward presence. Of course like native plants, weeds can’t be precisely defined. They are basically just plants one person but usually a large group of people don’t want.

I hope weeds have helped me build character. I realize they are here and as my Aunt Cherie used to say, “I’ll die and leave em.” Or, as the old saying goes, “if you can’t beat em, join em,” because weeds are kind of like a noose that keeps getting tighter the more you pull to break free.

I’ve come to realize weeds are usually double edged swords in that they usually have some useful qualities as well as annoying ones and all weeds help to control soil erosion. Many weeds also have nutritional and medicinal purposes. As it turns out, those dandelions I was potting so long ago are nutritional and medicinal power houses, rich in vitamins and antioxidants.

The one characteristic of all weeds is they are tough and aggressive plants whose job it seems is to cover recently disturbed ground until the more permanent stuff such as shrubs, grasses and trees can take root. In other words, unless they are invasive, weeds seem to be part of a ecologically strategic process.

So, we come to that word, invasive. The one no matter how hard we gardeners try, just can’t avoid coming across again and again. The word that may be as annoying as weeds. The word that describes so many old garden favorites. That darn inconvenient truth that these plants, through no fault of their own were moved by humans to places where they have no competition and support very little or nothing. Unfortunately for the ecosystem, invasive plants are here to stay. I have nothing against these plants. They are important to an ecosystem somewhere, just not in my garden and not in my watershed. And so, with a weary heart, I try to do my part and prevent these plants from spreading. Is it fair for me to lower these legendary plants to the class of weed? Regardless of my perceptions, I feel I must do what I can to prevent these wonderful, extraordinary plants from doing harm to other wonderful, extraordinary plants.

 The invasive plants I’m in the process of removing:

English ivy: I think everyone knows this one. It is pretty good at growing in forested areas where it displaces native plants and kills trees. I pull ivy in early spring when it’s easy to spot the vines. As the vines don’t seem to die quickly after being pulled, I dispose of them in the trash.

Tree of Heaven, Asian Bush Honeysuckle and White Mulberry : These woodies are known for displacing native plants among other things but mostly displacing native plants. I had quite a few white mulberries entangled with the chain link fence that bordered my garden. Over time I dug them out. Not an easy task and much easier when the trees are no bigger than two feet rather than twenty. To dig them up, I first used a grub hoe to loosen the dirt around the roots, then a shovel to remove the dirt, then loppers to cut the roots and finally the grub hoe again to yank out any remaining roots leading to that final yank when the whole mass breaks loose. For larger tap roots, I use an axe or have my husband use a chainsaw (yes, I’m one of those who don’t do well with power tools). I suppose I could have just kept cutting them back and I do for some I have yet to get to.

Porcelain Berry: This vine forms thick layers over trees and shrubs robbing them of light, water and nutrients. It is easily confused with wild grape and one way to tell the difference is its flower clusters as well as its blue and purple berries stick straight up. The best way to remove porcelain berry is to cut the vines at the bottom before they set fruit. If possible I try to pull them up by the roots as well as cutting them.

The next list of weeds aren’t on any major invasive plant list but because they do damage and I find them ugly they’re on my hit list.

Bermudagrass: I ended up writing so much about this plant I gave it its own post.

Bindweed: This extremely fast growing vine in the morning glory family strangles plants and does a wonderful job of spreading itself all over hedges. I’m pretty sure the type of bindweed I have is hedge bindweed and it is easily confused with a similar looking vine in the milkweed family called honeyvine, except it has large white, morning glory like flowers. With roots that can go down over 12 feet deep, digging them up is not a good option. Mostly, I just keep pulling the vines at the base when I find them especially before it flowers in late summer. It made itself pretty comfortable growing on a chain link fence surrounding my garden where it must have been establishing itself since the beginning of time. After taking down the chain link fence, I’ve been careful not to put any other trellis type objects in its path as well as making sure I can pass the mower over the area from time to time as well. It thrives especially well in heat and flowers just at that time when the mosquitoes are at their worst making this plant a close tie for first place as being the most annoying.

Ground Ivy (also known as Creeping Charlie): This plant in the mint family, does a very good job of covering ground. It’s rhizomatic roots form dense mats and will cover large areas especially when they are moist and shady. I’ve kind of given up doing battle with this one, preferring to let it act as a ground cover since it doesn’t seem to do too much harm to existing plants and even though I’m not really in love with how it looks, I can live with it. Of course I make sure to keep areas where I’m growing seeds clear of it. If I find time in the spring when the ground is nice and damp, I’ll drag a  bow rake over it and pull like heck. Slowly, with a lot of effort, the entire mat will pull up leaving nice fresh bare soil that I’d better fill in with something else or that Creeping Charlie will just creep right back.

And all the other weeds: Well, they are just child’s play compared with the others. Some, such as pokeweed and white snakeroot are native and have ecological and (I feel) aesthetic value so I let them stay. Others such as yellow nutsedge, American burnweed, broadleaf plantain, goosegrass and ragweed, I pull. And others, such as common milkweed and sneezeweed, I plant, inconspicuously of course. After all, they’re just weeds.

So, as old weeds become new garden favorites and old garden favorites become new weeds, I wonder if my garden isn’t becoming wilder instead of more orderly. Maybe weeds are just reminders of our own imperfections such as our incessant need for order and control. They seem to follow us wherever we go, mocking us, maybe Mother Nature’s form of a joke except I’m not the one getting the last laugh and the only thing I do know is I’ll die and leave em.

 

BTi and The Mosquito Dilemma

mosquito

Unless you’re a bat or a dragonfly, July and August and even September are not comfortable times to be in my garden. When these months hit I wear a suit of long pants, high socks a long sleeve shirt and a heavy dousing of bug repellent. But no sooner am I pulling up that quackgrass, when I feel the itch. First one, then another, then then the whole swarm catches on to the delicious snack. Me.

The main advice about this problem is remove anything that collects even the tiniest amounts of water which includes gutters, rain barrels, containers, etc. The other advice is to use BTi or Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis, a natural bacterium found in soils and thought to only affect mosquito, black fly and fungus gnat larvae. At least this is what the EPA says as well as many other sources but a study was done in 2010 involving house martins that concluded evidence of effects further up the food chain. The study found the breeding success of house martins was significantly less in areas treated with BTi than in areas untreated with BTi. Loss of mosquitoes, the birds preferred food source, was found to be the cause.

I’ve heard Mike McGrath, the gardening guru from Philly talk about using BTi dunks to make mosquito killing traps. That sounded great at the time. But as it’s now winter and I’m not out in the hot sun getting massacred, I’m thinking that maybe the mosquitoes are here for a reason. Maybe instead of trying to completely annihilate them as we humans like to do with anything that “bugs” us or our stuff, maybe we should think about these problems from more of an ecological perspective.

It may be better to think more in terms of balance rather than control, coexist rather than divide, proact rather than react. Maybe we get ourselves so focused on the problem we don’t see the solution. Inviting animals and invertebrates that eat mosquitoes might be the best solution we have. Bat houses and mosquitoes invite bats. Water and mosquitoes invite dragonflies, frogs and birds. Bats, dragonflies, frogs and birds mean a stronger ecological system. A strong ecological system means a better chance of long term survival for us all.

I would say I probably have too many mosquitoes and this year I’m going to work on that but I’m not going to go extermination crazy. I’ll use small pieces of BTi mosquito dunks in my rain barrels only because it’s the only way of mosquito proofing them. When mosquitoes are bad, I’ll stop using cardboard that collects water and refresh bird baths twice a week. And I’ll wear my mosquito protection suit. While it’s not exactly the best case scenario for me (at the moment), it’s the best case scenario for ecology and that, I think, is the best case scenario.