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.

 

 

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.

 

Growing Native Plants from Seed

native-seeds

First of all, the why.

  • If done right, growing native plants from seed is way cheaper than buying native plants from a nursery. A pack of seeds usually costs around $2.50 plus shipping. From that pack, I should get at least 5 plants and most likely more whereas one plant from a nursery will run at least $5.00. The price per seed will drop even more when purchased in bulk and sometimes, I’ll collect my own seeds for free.
  • It’s less risky. Losing a $2.50 pack of seeds is a lot easier to bare than losing a $5.00 plant especially if it’s more than one.
  • Gardening becomes more about management than maintenance. The popular gardening blog, Garden Rant recently had a post about the use of the term management as opposed to maintenance and why it’s the wave of the future in gardening. What it means is instead of the gardener trying to adhere to a garden design, the garden begins to design itself. It’s kind of hard to explain but growing native plants from seed forces me to acknowledge and allow what happens to happen. In this case, easier done than said.
  • It’s a good way to experiment. I like to buy about 10 different types of seed packets at a time and see what works. If the plant turns out to be too tall or not exactly in the right place, I can usually move it. I don’t feel that sense of fear that I do with plants I’ve bought.
  • It allows me to take notice of plants I didn’t plant. Because I’m constantly looking for the seedlings from the seeds I plant, I also notice the ones I didn’t. I identify them and many times decide I like them. The common violet is a good example. It works great as a ground cover as well a being ecologically functional.

Now, the how.

First, I figure out what seeds I can get that are native to my area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a good publication about this. I’ve become used to buying my seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota. With a plant finder section and maps showing the native range in the U.S. of each plant they sell, their website makes it ridiculously easy to order seeds of plants native to my area. In addition, they produce a gorgeous seed catalog featuring the most popular and easy to grow plants and helpful information for beginner growers. Of course because they are in Minnesota their seeds aren’t exactly pure natives to my area but I guess that’s the drawback. I’ve decided based on some research they are pure enough.

Just because I order from one place doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally excellent places to order seeds. Ernst Seeds in Pennsylvania, Prairie Nursery  in Wisconsin and Roundstone Native Seed  in Kentucky are a few.

In addition to figuring out what plants are native to my area, I will also need to match plants that will grow in the conditions of my garden. For the most part my garden has partial shade with a moist, clay loam soil. Some areas are sloped and drier while others in depressions are wetter. These kind of things and anything else that may be significant are important to take note of when selecting the right seeds to grow.

When I started my seed search, I realized seeds require varying conditions in order to germinate. Some will not germinate until their tough outer skin is worn down through the digestive system of a bird but this process can be replicated by rubbing the seeds with sandpaper. Other seeds are very tiny and need light to germinate.

Many kinds of native plant seeds need a period of stratification which means they need a certain period of time in cold ground before germinating. Prairie Moon Nursery has good information about the stratification times their seeds need as well as instructions for doing it. They often recommend sowing seed in fall so they can naturally stratify over winter. Seeds can also be stratified indoors by mixing them with damp sand and storing the mixture in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for the required time. Stratified seeds I’ve had luck with are: early sunflower, nodding onion, black eyed Susan and great blue lobelia.

Luckily, there are quite a few seeds that don’t need stratification. A list of those in my area can be found here. So far, I’ve had great luck with switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, wild bergamot, mountain mint and sneezeweed.

Once plants reach a certain maturity there’s a good chance they’ll spread or bunch or branch out and begin to fill up space on their own. Some plants, such as common milkweed can be aggressive so it’s a good idea to be wary of that when ordering seeds. Usually nurseries will say something about that in the plant description part.

Everyone says it’s a good idea to start small and they’re so right. Believe me. I learned the hard way. Once upon a time, I had this vision of a beautiful wildflower garden in the spring. I just knew it was going to happen. One day in the fall, I walked around my garden sprinkling seeds everywhere. Well, I was sorely disappointed in the spring when there were no wildflowers because I didn’t properly prepare the site and start small enough to get a handle on what was even happening. A space roughly 3’ x 3’ is a good size to start with a seed packet and in my opinion the more seeds the better chance of success.

To plant seeds directly in the ground, the site needs to be fairly weed free. To prepare areas with grass, I cover the area with cardboard held down with a few rocks and then put some kind of mulch on top of it and leave it there for about 6 months. That kills most of the weeds too. When that’s done, I put the old cardboard in the compost (it’s a great brown source if you don’t have a lot of dead leaves). For most seeds*, I rough up just the top inch of earth with a garden rake or fork, sprinkle the seeds over the area and rake them in gently. I press down on the area with my hand or walk over it lightly. Then, I wait. Sometimes it will take a month to see anything and when I do it sometimes takes another month to be able to identify the seedlings as the ones I planted. Usually, I just look for anything that looks different from the ordinary weeds. Once I know the difference, I pull the weeds from time to time as well as keeping the area from drying out. It takes patience and sometimes I’ll wait almost a whole season (or what seems like eternity) to see the tiny seedlings. But then, there they are. One and then another. It’s hard to explain my rapture at the sight and after all that, you can be sure I’m going to take care of these babies. But usually I don’t have to. They tend to take care of themselves. So far, I’ve been successful except for the time when I planted into a layer of very dry compost. They need good contact with real soil.

If I plant seeds in the fall, I cover the area with some kind of light mulch such as leaves or straw just to keep the ground somewhat covered until spring when I rake the mulch from the area so the seeds can grow.

If you’re not in a rush, growing native plants from seed isn’t really as hard as it sounds. It just takes some research, preparation and patience. The rest is up to nature.

*Some seeds that require light to germinate should be covered with little or no soil.

Making Compost With What You Got

Composting artificially accelerates the decomposition of crude organic matter and its recombination into humus. What in nature might take years we can make happen in weeks or months. But compost that seems ready to work into soil may not have quite yet become humus. Though brown and crumbly and good-smelling and well decomposed, it may only have partially rotted. – Steve Solomon from Organic Gardener’s Composting

My Mother’s expression, “life is best left as a mystery”, is the way I’m tempted to feel about composting. It’s the type of thing I want someone to give me a recipe for and just like that I have rich, sweet smelling compost that will make my beans ready for Jack to climb to the sky on. There are countless articles, books and videos on the subject and countless methods and contraptions marketed for making it. I won’t act like I fully understand it, nor will I go into the details about how it’s made. All I do know is it’s all good, but like dirt, some composts are much better than others and making it right is no easy task. Steve Solomon compares making it to making beer as it involves fermentation and careful attention to ingredients, temperature, mixing as well as many other factors.

With so much overwhelming and many times conflicting information about it, I can only say to the first time composter that unlike fertilizer (which can turn into a disaster if it’s not made right) making compost is almost always good for the environment and the garden. Another way I like to think of it is, it’s basically the poop of many tiny animals all around us and this poop is something that actually smells good and makes things grow. What a beautiful concept.

So how is it made? Not sure I want to go there but what the heck. Plainly speaking, there are all these tiny animals all around us we can’t see whose mission in life is to break things down into something I mentioned earlier, called humus. As I’ve said, anything will break down, but some things break down in a few months especially if they are mixed with the right ingredients and under the right conditions. Generally those conditions require heat, air, moisture and the perfect blend of “browns” (or carbon sources) and “greens” (nitrogen sources). “Greens” are generally fresh organic material like grass and leaves (that are still green). “Browns” are older and dryer organic materials such as straw and dried leaves (that have turned brown). A good source for examples is here . I have lots of the “greens” but not so much of the “browns”. Actually, I take that back. I have lots of “browns” like paper and cardboard but “browns” with too much carbon break down very slowly. For example, sawdust has an extremely high carbon to nitrogen ratio (or C/N ratio). The higher that ratio is, the longer it will take to turn into compost which poses a problem if you’re trying to speed up the decomposing process. So I’ve come to the conclusion that for my small composting operations, I may want to stay away from using material, such as cardboard and paper with a C/N ratio that will take longer than my particular situation requires. Anyway, from what I’m gathering, unless you’re Vermicomposting (or composting with worms) it’s best to have a C/N ratio of around 25:1.

So you have your kitchen scraps like egg shells, coffee grounds, lettuce and apple cores, etc. You throw them in something like for me, a bowl. When it fills up you add it to the compost pile. If you do nothing but continue to add your kitchen scraps, you can come back in a year, turn your pile and find some nice worms and sweet smelling, crumbly stuff at the bottom. This method is called Cool or Passive composting because the pile doesn’t heat up. It works but takes about a year and can be faster if the pile is turned twice a year.

A quicker method that generally produces better results is Hot or Active composting. This method requires the pile to sit for a period of time without the addition of new materials. When the right combinations of air, heat, water, “greens” and “browns” are mixed together, it triggers bacteria to reproduce and rapidly feed on the pile causing the temperature to raise to around 130 – 170 degrees F. Once these bacteria finish eating, the pile will cool down and enter a new phase of decomposition. This link explains the process.

How in the world do you adjust for that perfect “green” and “brown” ratio? Math wizard I am, I must confess I do nothing of the sort. Steve Solomon has a more practical alternative.

It is far more sensible to learn from experience. Gauge the proportions of materials going into a heap by the result. If the pile gets really hot and stays that way for a few weeks before gradually cooling down then the C/N was more or less right. If, after several turnings and reheatings, the material has not thoroughly decomposed, then the initial C/N was probably too high. The words “thoroughly decomposed” mean here that there are no recognizable traces of the original materials in the heap and the compost is dark brown to black, crumbly, sweet smelling and most importantly, when worked into soil it provokes a marked growth response, similar to fertilizer. If the pile did not initially heat very much or the heating stage was very brief, then the pile probably lacked nitrogen. The solution for a nitrogen-deficient pile is to turn it, simultaneously blending in more nutrient-rich materials and probably a bit of water too. After a few piles have been made novice composters will begin to get the same feel for their materials as bakers have for their flour, shortening, and yeast.It is also possible to err on the opposite end of the scale and make a pile with too much nitrogen. This heap will heat very rapidly, become as hot as the microbial population can tolerate, lose moisture very quickly, and probably smell of ammonia, indicating that valuable fixed nitrogen is escaping into the atmosphere. When proteins decompose their nitrogen content is normally released as ammonia gas. Most people have smelled small piles of spring grass clippings doing this very thing. Ammonia is always created when proteins decompose in any heap at any C/N. But a properly made compost pile does not permit this valuable nitrogen source to escape. – Seve Solomon from Organic Gardener’s Composting

As you’ve probably already discovered there are countless contraptions marketed to the gardener for composting. Here are just a few.  As much as I would love to make an open air pile of compost, unless I want to thoroughly irritate my neighbors or invite unwanted critters, I’ve decided against it. Gracious family members have endowed me with two bin composters known as “tumblers”. The idea behind them is the contents can get air while the drum is being turned therefore speeding up the process. The compost is also contained from critters. Tumbler bins aren’t cheap (no less than $100.00) and up until now I haven’t had the best success which I can attribute to ignorance and neglegence but it’s high time I turned over a new “leaf”. This is serious.

Seriously, tumbler bins work by Hot composting. It’s a little tricky to get everything right as there is only a small opening in which to get at the contents but I’m going to give it my best shot. The University of Maryland Extension explained it to me this way:

Your ‘urban’ setting does provide you with some composting challenges. Elevated tumblers are a good idea to prevent rodents. On the one hand, tumblers are designed for ‘hot’ composting, i.e., filling the bin with the proper mix of materials and not adding additional materials until the finished compost is harvested. What you may try is keeping a ready supply of shredded dry leaves, sawdust, or straw next to your tumblers. Use one of the tumblers for your daily addition of kitchen scraps and add an equal amount of the dry carbonaceous material. Check the moisture content and add water only if needed. Give the tumbler a half turn. When the tumbler is filled, continue turning it each time you go to the other tumbler. Continue the process until the second tumbler is filled, then harvest the first tumbler. and continue the process. You can store finished or nearly finished compost in a metal or plastic trash can until you’re ready to use it.

As I mentioned earlier, I have a hard time finding the “browns”. Keeping the environment and expenses in mind, I don’t want to have to haul in materials especially ones that may have been sprayed with pesticides, I’d like to find good carbon sources nearby and I can think of a very good and abundant one except I’ll have to wait until Fall to get it. We’ve got huge trees all over my neighborhood. So in the Fall I’ll be going around to curbsides collecting leaves. As many as I can manage. I’ll put them in a pile and run over it with a mower a few times to shred them. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure or woman’s in this case. Since I don’t have access to these leaves now, I’ll be using whatever I can find. When finished vegetable plants dry out, I’ll use them and if nothing else, I’ll use cardboard (which I have loads of).

But there is another method much to my husband’s horror I’m willing to try called Vermicomposting. That will be in another post.

Oh yeah, and one more thing about composting. There are some things not recommended to put in the compost pile.

Some good links about composting:

Organic Gardener’s Composting by Steve Solomon

University of Illinois Extension

Composter Reviews

Compost Info Guide

Maryland University Extension