In Defense of Weeds?

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide by Peter Del Tredici is all about weeds. But it’s not about how to kill them. I admit, at first I was skeptical. These are the thugs of the garden and many are ranked high as invasive species. But by examining these and many other plants on the basis they grow where humans tread, I began to view these perpetrators in a new light.

These are the plants found in abandoned lots and fields, gardens and cities. They can grow in sidewalk cracks, along roads, in drainage ditches and compacted waste sites. They cover disturbed ground, filter and hold water, prevent erosion, sequester carbon and even absorb toxic metals. Some offer us nutritious food while others treat or prevent disease. In other words, as annoying as they might be, these plants are not all bad and in many cases downright good for us.

Rhombic Copperleaf (Acalypha rhomboidea) is native and turns a nice shade of pink in the fall.

My garden has been both neglected and disturbed over many years so there’s lots of these kinds of plants. Here’s what the book says about a few:

  • Black cherry (prunus serotina) is extremely valuable to wildlife and its berries are edible. It’s wood is prized for making furniture and the inner bark has been used to treat coughs and bronchitis.
  • Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) absorbs the heavy metals, zinc, copper, lead and cadmium and binds them to organic matter. It’s been used to flavor beer and is used in European and Asian cuisine.
  • The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has highly nutritious leaves and roots. Wine can be made from the flowers and coffee from the roots.
  • The young shoots of lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) are edible in the spring and in Europe during times of famine the seeds were baked into bread.
  • It’s no surprise that hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) is tolerant of roadway salt and compacted soil.
  • Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) has been used by the Europeans since the first century for medical purposes and at one time was used as a replacement for hops to make beer.
  • The young shoots of henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) are edible in spring as are those of yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta) if a bit on the sour side.
  • The juice from the berries of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) was used to write the Declaration of Independence.
  • The fresh leaves of buckthorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata) can be used in a tea to treat coughs, diarrhea, and dysentery and can be applied to treat blisters, sores and inflammation.
  • The cooked leaves of red sorrel (Rumex acetosella) are used as a base for purees and have been used by the Shakers to treat skin diseases, boils and tumors.
  • The leaves and stems of common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has been used in a tea to treat chest colds, asthma, bronchitis and kidney infections and the soft leaves as a cushioning in shoes.
  • The young leaves of the common blue violet (Viola sororia) can be eaten raw or candied.
  • Path rush (Juncus tenuis) colonizes compacted ground.

It would probably be ridiculous to introduce these kinds of plants into my garden. Why would I? They arrive on their own every time I take a hoe to the ground. I’ll let some grow and at the very least consider them as more than just a weed. But since I’m probably never going to be able to rid my garden of these plants, I may as well make the best of them because it seems they have quite a bit to offer.

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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.

 

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.

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.