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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November Notes 2017

All of a sudden I’ve got so much to do I’m dizzy. But I still can’t seem to help myself from philosophizing and wondering about whether I’m doing the right thing. For example, should I plant my not so native seeds now or wait until after the winter rye dies in late spring? Sometimes I just have to stop thinking and follow my gut because in gardening, timing may not be everything but it’s a lot. Right now my gut is telling me to plant now.

The meadow will go here. Winter rye has covered the slope nicely.

Larry Weaner, author of Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, recommended planting seeds for a meadow in late spring to early summer especially if the area is weedy. The area is pretty weedy but unfortunately I read this advice after I’d already ordered seeds. I also was planning on planting winter rye in this area and after it died in the spring planting the meadow seeds. So, my new plan, since I have the seeds and don’t want them to die in storage, is just to plant everything now including the winter rye which hopefully will work as a nurse crop for the meadow seeds.

I just went through this entire ramble to illustrate just how confusing and utterly ridiculous gardening can be. I’d love to go on with many other examples like what to do with all the hollies that keep showing up or should I move the sweet pepperbush away from the maple since I also learned from Larry Weaner that maples tend to be water hogs.

Oh, and I finally did order seeds from Ernst Seeds. Rudbeckia hirta aka black eyed Susan, of North Carolina coastal plain ecotype. Got an ounce of seed for a grand total of $6.26 including shipping. Should work as an early successional plant before longer living perennials take over.

I’ve got to dig up the sweet potatoes, plant the cover crop and meadow seeds, plant the hollies and then I guess I can be done, for now. Ok, that isn’t so bad. Unless I plant them in the wrong spot… Breathe in breathe out.

I miss the robins who so love to fight over this upside down trash can lid filled with water.
But the robins have been replaced by sparrows. I like to think they like all the things I’ve planted. The white snakeroot is still very popular.

Enough of that. Fall seems to have arrived. Everything except the cars, leaf blowers and end of season lawn mowing has gone. The catbirds and warblers are gone. The bees and butterflies are gone. Even most of the mosquitoes are gone. There’s an occasional robin, bluejay, wren, sparrow, cardinal and woodpecker. It’s sad to see the bird baths so still. The crows and doves are still around. I love the doves. They just seem so laid back. I’ll see this strange looking stone and realize it’s a dove warming itself in the sun but when startled there’s that dramatic sound the wings make as they fly away. And even the crows look nice in an El Greco kind of way against the grey malevolent sky. It’s kind of a poetic time I suppose.

And it’s colorful leaf time. The scarlets, yellows and orange everywhere. My garden doesn’t have too many scarlets but quite a few of the yellows. And there are many more subtle things like the highbush blueberry that’s not too high does turn a nice shade. A few weeks ago when there were still lots of birds around I noticed ruby crowned kinglets. I was amazed at how their erratic movements in the maple tree could so easily be mistaken for leaves falling. An evolutionary trick?

This is Medium about to go for that milkweed.

I haven’t seen much of my friend Medium, the rabbit who may have graduated to Large. I have seen and heard many a squirrel. One’s made a nest in the chestnut. I asked it if it had a warm place to go. It looked at me and climbed into its nest. So, they actually do live in those big leafy balls.

It’s turning quiet with all those nice quiet things.

The subtle colors of fleabane against basil.
The seed head of Culver’s root.

Yes, it seems awfully quiet but there are many signs of life to come.

Young tufts of prairie dropseed begin to take shape.
A young eastern redbud tree, columbine and wild strawberry.

And, I have these signs all over the place marking places I planted various seeds I’ve collected nearby. If anything I planted actually grows (which apparently could take years) it will be my lucky day.

Seeds from berries I’ve collected from around. Not too easy separating the seed from the berry.

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.

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.

 

Pretty Garden Crops

The pretty flower of an okra plant (with a bee in it).

I’m trying to come up with some pretty crops for the front yard garden (for next year). Ones that I don’t have to surround with a not so pretty bunny fence or that don’t start out pretty and then turn ugly like gangly, disease prone, indeterminate tomatoes. So far, I’ve come up with;

  1. Okra – This plant is very pretty and tall (plants can reach 6 feet). It needs a good amount of space, approx. 5 feet between rows and 18″ between plants. Likes warm weather.
  2. Arugula – It’s pretty, tasty and grows fairly quickly. I like to sprinkle the seeds around and rake them in gently with a hand held 3 prong cultivator where they can grow to work as a ground cover as well as salad greens. Also, if left to go to seed (flowers are pretty to me at least), will reseed in the fall. Likes cool weather.
  3. Peppers – Pretty, bushy plant in many varieties but I think the ones with the smaller hotter peppers tend to be the prettiest. Needs to be germinated indoors at least a month prior to planting in my area. Also needs a good amount of phosphorus. Looks good with herbs like basil or parsley. Likes warm weather.
  4. Cherry tomatoes – Because of the small fruit size these plants tend to remain attractive especially when planted with other pretty herbs (like basil and parsley).
  5. Mustards – Also a quick grower and many interesting varieties. I plant it the same way I do arugula and it works very well as a cover crop. Greens can get a bit on the bitter side if too mature. Likes cool weather.
  6. Radish – These are fun, fast growing and fairly goof proof. Can be planted as a cover crop and with other crops such as tomatoes and peppers. Roots need to be eaten before they get too big and bitter. Greens can be eaten any time. Likes cool weather.
  7. Squash – I grow at least one butternut squash plant every year which yields at least 5 (or more) large squash. The plant is attractive but sprawls everywhere and of course you can’t mow it when it creeps into the lawn. Smaller less sprawly squash plants like summer squash might be a better option. I plant summer squash later in the season as they seem less prone to the dreaded borer worm. I’ve never had a borer worm problem with butternut. Likes warm weather.
  8. Perennial onions – Haven’t tried them yet but some varieties such as Egyptian Walking look promising. I’m guessing they may need contained as the name implies they are spreaders and the catalog calls them “hardy”.
  9. Sunflowers – If you like sunflower seeds. Unfortunately for me squirrels and rats do.

Well, that’s about all I can come up with so far but I’m open to suggestions…

 

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!