August Notes 2017

It’s that time of year when I really don’t want to be out in the garden too long due to things like heat, humidity, mosquitoes and the fact that my garden seems to become an overwhelming kind of jungle that’s much easier to ignore than attempt to subdue. The drought is officially over and now we’ve moved on to a monsoon. But that’s ok with me. Each morning smells like damp wood.

The plants are doing great, all except the tomatoes which were a complete disaster. They were looking great but then started looking sick and half chewed green tomatoes started appearing on the ground. I don’t want to sound too over dramatic but it was a bit discouraging as the larger tomatoes slowly disappeared until the only ones left were the size of cherry tomatoes. And it was utterly irritating to see a squirrel perched right in front of us eating away at the remnants of a nice big one between its little paws. This is kind of strange considering I’ve had many successful tomato harvests in the past. Maybe I shouldn’t have put out so many corn cobs during the winter. Regardless, I think, maybe, I’m done growing tomatoes, for now. At least the big juicy kind. Maybe eggplants would do better.

I’ve put together a page with galleries listing all the plants I feel are providing the most services in my garden at this time. By services I mean food and shelter for wildlife, erosion control and soil enhancement, food for me and/or some sort of benefit for everyone else. So far I’ve only included plants that don’t require soil amendments but I hope to add a page for vegetables and animals at some point.

After much deliberation, I decided to go for the slope. I guess this may not be the most attractive way to kill the sod but I can’t see that it’s worse than plastic. At least it breaks down. Anyhow I have big plans for this area. You could call it my creation, a plan that will hopefully not involve too much hacking at the ground in order to create some kind of ecologically beneficial and nice looking non weedy slope in the not too distant future.

Flower from the okra plant.

I’m kind of on the fence about the okra. On the one hand it’s a beautiful plant and the rabbits or squirrels don’t bother it but on the other it doesn’t provide much in the way of a crop. I’ve noticed aphids have made themselves at home on a few plants but the plants don’t seem to be suffering because of them. I’m pleased to see goldfinches have been enjoying the aphids.

For my first fixing of the okra as a vegetable, I roasted it for about 45 minutes in olive oil. It was good and not slimy.

Fenced in sweet potatoes or you could say fenced out rabbits. You can see how scraggly common milkweed (plant on the right) gets by this time of year.

So far the rabbit fencing has worked allowing the sweet potato vines to branch out but just until they reach the fencing where the rabbits keep them neatly trimmed.

This is absolutely ridiculous I know but I’ve named our resident rabbits according to their size; Small, Medium and Large, since I can’t tell them apart and they grow too fast to bother anyway. They are very good listeners too by the way with their big ears and all. They just sit there looking at me with their nose twitching as some kind of leafy green disappears into their mouth. I’ve also named the yearly resident squirrel. Every year we have a new one and we know this because it always has some unique feature. This year it’s a skinny tail that looks like it’s been rubber banded so we call the squirrel Rubber Band Tail. We don’t have pets so I guess this is as good as it gets.

Insanely large white snakeroot plants. For some reason this picture just seems to capture the essence of August. I don’t know why.
I’m not sure why of all the milkweed plants, this monarch chose this ugly dead looking one.

Various bees are now enjoying the sneezeweed and wild marjoram but soon these insanely large white snakeroot plants will bloom and hopefully attract hordes of pollinators. Speaking of pollinators, I’ve seen plenty of monarchs and a giant black wasp named appropriately The Giant Black Wasp.

I’m just in love with this pokeweed right now as it so beautifully hides the cinder block wall. I hope my back isn’t going to pay when I have to pick all the seedlings that sprout from fallen berries in the spring. I cut down quite a few plants before the berries ripened but a catbird gave me a talking to so I stopped.

Oh, and it’s always nice to enjoy a glass of fresh Thai basil iced tea while listening to an evening concert of crickets with an occasional katydid. Cheers!

Would of Could of Should of

Would of could of should of. When you start saying that too many times you know you’re doing something wrong. Over and over. That’s kind of how I feel now that I’m about to rearrange some raised beds for like the how manyeth time? I think if there was one thing I wish I would have done seven long years ago when I started this garden was absolutely nothing. That’s right, instead of digging up half the property to make a vegetable garden, ordering the roots of native shrubs from Minnesota, letting my mom plant two large asparagus beds in a floodplain, buying $60.00 worth of native plants from a native plant sale, I would have instead just done nothing but stand back and watch.

Yes, like a nosy neighbor I would have watched the land surrounding my garden get mowed within an inch of its life. Watched as water during heavy rains flooded a large part of my garden under several inches of water. Noticed that my garden was down the hill from a parking lot that caught the runoff from countless roofs, shooting it across the scalped lawn before flooding my garden.

Noticed that beyond the thick wall of white mulberry mixed with grapevine, porcelain berry, forsythia, bindweed, ivy, sweet autumn clematis, Virginia creeper, a basketball hoop and chain link fence there were some awkward, unfinished structures made with brick. Structures that looked like they were supposed to support something but didn’t. There was also a beat up sports car with flat tires, a pile of old tile along with other odds and ends and a rooster. A live rooster. Make that two who did not try to remain anonymous. Who in fact drove my husband to the brink of calling the county. Always on the brink.

Maybe, I would not have taken down that wall of mulberry mixed with grapevine, porcelain berry, forsythia, bindweed, ivy, virgin’s bower, Virginia creeper, a basketball hoop and chain link fence in order to build a wood fence so that a parallel wall of made out of cinder block could be built no more than 6” from it. A wall that is not level or straight with large sloppy globs of dried mortar.

And I would not have chosen to divert that flood of water water by digging a trench that sent it into another property and flooded their basement.

But I also would have read. I would have read about permaculture and permaculturists who say it’s a good thing to mix perennials with annuals and encourage this thing called the keyhole garden design that means the garden beds look more like a keyhole than a rectangle. But I also would have read that different plants require different soil so I wouldn’t have mixed things up too much and I probably would have gone with the rectangular garden beds in some cases. I would have read about how to take care of soil and learned that turning it over with a shovel is not taking care of it especially when turning it after it’s been flooded. And that soil should not be left bare over winter. In fact, soil should never be left bare. And I would have learned that crop rotation means rotating crops according to the family they’re in not according to the name of the crop.

And I would have watched and read. I would have noticed that there were a lot of rabbits in the neighborhood and that rabbits love gardens, especially vegetable gardens and I would have read that the only real way to keep them out is with either a dog or cat or some pretty heavy duty rabbit fencing without any holes or gaps that would allow them to squeeze through.

And I would have thought, given all these givens, about how I wanted my garden to be before digging up half the property. But that is not how gardening works. And now, once again, I’m digging up this precious ground and it probably won’t be the last time.

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.

June Notes 2017

Swamp rose and a very happy bee.

June, my favorite month, not sure why, is here. Got to have a picture of a rose and a very happy bee.

2 culprits heading out.

Bunnies and other: Ok they are darn cute but… They can do some damage. My temporary fence made of bird netting worked for awhile. Enough so that the lettuce and peas could grow but then one day there was a bunny inside happily chewing away. Then when it saw my unhappy face it couldn’t figure out how to get out. Then a passerby asked if I kept them in there like they were my pets! Actually it wasn’t so bad because there was so much lettuce they couldn’t really make a dent. But today when I went out, the fresh young swiss chard had been chomped on along with a couple sweet potato plants. It turned out the bunnies had gotten in by chewing a hole through the netting. At that point I decided the bird netting fence had to go. It was no walk in the park struggling in the hot sun with the bird netting (that kept getting caught on the button of my sleeve) and that twist tie stuff I was raving about was just about as much of a pain. This time I am really done with bird netting. Now what to do with it so it doesn’t end up in an ocean strangling some poor fish.

But back to the bunnies. My theory with them is they really like fresh growth. They also really like certain plants such as lettuce, chard and peas. But they aren’t so hot about everything. They don’t eat my mustards, tomatoes or peppers, for example, and so far they haven’t touched my okra. And they aren’t especially fond of mature lettuce or chard. Here’s some strategies I’ve come up with:

  • Keep the stuff they like protected until there’s so much of it they can’t make a dent. This includes vegetables as well as young woody plants.
    • Rabbit fencing for their favorite vegetables and woodies. Hold the fencing tight to the ground with landscape staples.
    • Or use milk cartons or plastic cups with stuff like sweet potatoes and squash.
  • Grow lots of stuff they like as a decoy. Stuff like violets and even lettuce since it’s so easy and cheap to grow.
Front yard garden with heavy duty wire rabbit fence around chewed up chard and milk cartons around sweet potatoes.
This field of violets didn’t get here naturally.

Violets. They have become my savior in so many ways. They cover ground, distract bunnies, support specialized wildlife, smother weeds, voluntarily grow, define pathways, garden beds and taller plants, survive drought, build soil, prevent erosion, replace lawn, look beautiful and can handle bunnies chomping on them. They will be the building block of my design.

I guess the one tiny drawback to them is they don’t always come up where I want them so I have to move them to where I want them. They come up pretty much everywhere, including my vegetable beds so I’ve been moving them from there to other more desirable places but now since it seems like we’re back in a drought, I can take a break from that for awhile.

Some of the not-so-native native seeds I planted in the fall seem to be coming up. Little Bluestem, golden Alexander, Bush’s echinacea, butterfly weed and possibly goldenrod and New England aster.

Bush’s Coneflower seedlings.
Butterfly weed and golden Alexander seedlings. (and violets)

Milkweed, swamp rose, elderberry, parsley, lovage, raspberry and fleabane is blooming (or was blooming) much to the pollinator’s delight. Oh yeah, and I forgot about the chestnut tree with it’s lovely catkins. I always forget to look up.

Speaking of fleabane. This is another great voluntary plant in my garden. I guess it’s weedy but it’s native and prolific. I think it may look much better and less weedy if it were framed with something like switchgrass, something I’ll be working on.

Fleabane and pollinators.

Back to vegetables. I’m doing some successional planting. I planted okra between mature lettuce and sweet potatoes in with flowering mustards. Also, carrots and radishes under peppers and tomatoes.

The thing about front yard gardens is while they can look presentable, there are times when they don’t look so good like now, when some things are dying and others are so tiny, the area looks like a bare spot. I’ll have to work on that.  I have some ideas I’ll go into later.

But right now seems like we’re heading for another drought. This new spigot on my rain barrels will fill a bucket in a couple of seconds vs. a couple of minutes. Might make hauling water around a little more fun.

Oh, yeah, and I actually planted some bulbs or transplanted some that is. Daffodils. All over the place. Can’t wait for spring to come again.

 

 

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.