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.

 

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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!

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.

 

 

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.