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.

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.”

The Mysterious World of Ecotypes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Elderberry Issues

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

And this:

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

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

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

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