Huntley Meadows Park

I have always been fascinated by places with water, especially places like swamps, marshes and bogs. Why?

“The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.” – line from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Because they are creepy. They are places where convicts and runaways hide, prehistoric creatures lurk and beautiful carnivorous plants wait for their prey. Some swamps such as the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, have been there since before Europeans settlement if only because they stubbornly refuse to be drained. But even those that succumbed to drainage still seem to linger in the form of stagnant mosquito breeding summers and cold dank winters as in our own nation’s capital.

There’s a small area in my garden I call the wetland which is really just a swale I made that occasionally fills and sometimes overflows with runoff water enticing me to run out in the mud with my umbrella and just gaze at the water as if it was Niagara Falls.

No more than a mile from Walmart and the gazillion traffic lights of route 1 deep in the depths of the Northern Virginia suburbia lies a real wetland known as Huntley Meadows Park. In the early 1800’s, prominent landowner, George Mason IV owned the land and used it for a grain farm. Then it became a dairy farm, then a laboratory for asphalt testing, then an anti-aircraft protection base and finally in 1970, a park, probably because it could not stop being one of those nasty undrainable swamps.

There are many kinds of wetlands. Huntley happens to be a hemi-marsh also known as an emergent marsh which means it’s a shallow wetland, usually less than 3 feet deep made up of 50% open water and 50% vegetated water. Huntley was created by beavers who used many of the trees to dam up a Potomac river oxbow (the actual river once flowed through here) and create an opening where other wetland plants would fill in.

It’s a beaver mcmansion!

In order for this type of wetland to persist it needs a pattern of fluctuating water levels. Lower levels in the summer allow light and oxygen to reach the soil and germinate new plants as well as consolidate new silt. When the water level rises in winter it prevents plants from taking over (or turning back to a forest) and creates ice free zones for aquatic life.

A muskrat on a mission swims right under the boardwalk paying me no mind.
Swamp rose (Rosa palustris) stretches far into the distance. Must be stunning in June.
A great blue heron stealthily stalks a fish.

Some of the animals that live here are yellow-crowned night heron, king rail, pied-billed grebe, common moorhen, reptiles and amphibians, beavers and muskrats. American bittern and least bittern once nested here but now are only seen occasionally. The plant list is long but includes swamp rose, swamp milkweed, elderberry, silky dogwood, button bush, New York ironweed and crimson-eyed rose mallow. There is also a meadow with native meadow plants here which I didn’t get a chance to see as well as a sizable forested area. I did happen to see a red headed woodpecker, blue bird, red winged blackbird, great blue heron, Canadian geese, mallards, beaver and muskrat all in a short hour walk. Maybe not so creepy but amazing nonetheless.

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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.

October Notes 2017

I’m waiting. Waiting for the birds to get where they are going, the squirrels to finish the chestnuts, the rabbits to hunker down in their warm holes for the winter. Then I will come out of my hole and get to work planting not so native seeds for spring, trimming sick elderberries, cleaning up the vegetable beds, collecting chestnut husks for the fire, planting winter rye and harvesting the sweet potatoes. For now I’m picking okra which is kind of like an Easter egg hunt. The part you eat is the seed pod and it has a way of hiding itself. If you don’t get it at the perfect time it get’s big and tough. I’m also continuing my quest for knowledge about this mysterious plant world around me.

On the blog, Awkward BotanyI’ve found that maybe weeds aren’t so bad. That in cities they are a big help with erosion, carbon sequestering as well as water, soil and air filtration. Who knows maybe people will someday be lining up for the latest cultivar of prickly lettuce.

Is the pinkish plant caught by the light a weed or a good garden plant? I’m going for the good garden plant.

My plan for buying local ecotype seeds from Ernst Seeds  didn’t quite pan out. They only sell seeds by the ounce or more and didn’t have the ones I was looking for but I haven’t written them off and their hard copy catalog, while not much to look at photo wise has some really good information, lots of seed variety and it’s great for getting me off the internet. I ended up buying non local ecotype seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota where I could get them in the small quantities I needed. I’ll go into that more when I plant them next month.

I also ventured out into the field or in my case woods in search of local ecotype seeds and what I found, low and behold, was seeds. The place is just down the hill, it’s actually the riparian area along a creek known as Sligo Creek where a 10 mile narrow strip of land has been allowed to turn back into woods made up of a good number of most likely true native plants or local ecotypes as well as non natives. Yes, there are the usual native trees such as beech, tulip poplar, and oak but I was surprised at the variety of herbaceous plants, kind of hard to believe given the large deer populations and other aggressive non native plants (mostly lesser celandine, bush honeysuckle and English ivy). The herbaceous plants I found are unassuming plants but the way they grow together somehow fits the scene. Some form large healthy stands while others are scattered, just a few here and there. Each has interesting qualities especially as a community.

Asters are scattered in with other most likely native flora.

It just so happens an actual botanist lives in the area and in 2003 tried to record all of the plants along Sligo CreekIt’s an impressively long list with all kinds of names I’ve never heard of. Bosc’s panic grass, straw-colored cyperus, stellate sedge, glomerate sedge, Willdenow’s sedge, carrion flower, arrow-leaved tearthumb, hog peanut, pencil flower, brushy aster, Florida blue lettuce, wild licorice, cleavers. I could go on and on.

Bottlebrush grass highlights the background of this flood plain along Sligo Creek.

I know the world is changing fast. 2003 is a long time ago, but as I walked through this woods, I noticed a good number of plants I’d never seen before and a few such as bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) I’ve seen in Prairie Moon’s catalog from Minnesota. I gathered a few seeds from the bottlebrush grass as well as some from something I think is called honewort and a few others but I think the point I’m making here is that if local ecotypes can survive in a place so disturbed as this, imagine what else is still out there in places not so disturbed. In other words, I have hope. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. Maybe there is something still worth preserving. Maybe all is not lost. Not that I’m against change or anything. Not that I’m a hopeless romantic longing for past forgotten times.

Could this be a thornless hawthorn tree?

I also discovered a grove of trees, some with red and some with yellow berries. After doing various online searches I decided they must be some form of hawthorn but they didn’t have thorns so I’m left wondering. I’m not done yet. I took a few berries and planted them around my garden.

I wonder if plants growing even as close as Sligo Creek which is no more than half a mile from my garden are even suitable to grow in my garden which is not a riparian area although it does catch runoff from my roof and other nearby hardscapes. I realize I probably shouldn’t be picking too many seeds from Silgo Creek as there aren’t huge populations of these plants and the ones there probably have a hard enough time surviving without me messing with their natural reproduction process. But it’s good to to notice what is there.

Honeyvine, Milkweed and Monarchs

honeyvine-and-monarch

I pull bindweed with a vengeance. I don’t attempt to get the roots because I know it will be in vain. The roots can go 20 feet down or more. With mosquitoes massacring me, I crouch in crazy, awkward positions under an elderberry to pull one vine. But the other day I noticed a monarch landing on one of these vines. The next day I saw another land on the same vine. I inspected it more closely and realized it had clusters of tiny white flowers, like so many other insect attracting weeds in my garden. The other similar vine that also likes my garden is hedge bindweed but it has large, white, morning glory like flowers.

honeyvine-moth
Silver-spotted Skipper on honeyvine flowers

After doing some research, I found out the plant with the tiny white flowers is known as honeyvine or sand vine. It’s in the milkweed family which would explain why the monarch was landing on it. It is also, like common milkweed, considered a noxious weed  due to its aggressive attributes and toxicity if ingested by farm animals.

As one thing leads to another, which happens so often in gardening, my discovery of honeyvine led me to wondering about monarchs. I knew their numbers were down (by around 80%) and I wanted to know if this honeyvine might help them. As if my one little, opportunistic vine could actually help the monarch plight. Well, it turns out, as with so much these days, the monarch plight is indeed grim and very complicated. The monarch has evolved to lead a very finicky life. It not only relies on plants in the milkweed family to lay its eggs but its life cycle or cycles seem to include one trip to one tiny spot in Mexico before returning north in the spring to lay eggs on milkweed again. After reading about ten articles on the subject, I confess, still being completely confused. If interested in the life cycle of monarchs, monarch-butterfly.com explains it much better than I can.

Anyhow, monarchs also rely on milkweed for nectar which it needs throughout the season and is especially important during its migration period. It can drink nectar from other flowers besides milkweed but milkweed flowers seems to be the preference. So, as the prairies have turned into crop lands and pesticides have been effective at killing milkweed, the pesky plant is not so pesky, or much less abundant at least, for now. And there is also something going on in Mexico. I’m not really sure of the details but it involves destruction of trees in the one tiny spot where the monarchs congregate during winter. Simply put, it’s very bad for monarchs. Ellen Sharp, an environmental non-profit director living at the entry of Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Reserve wrote a good article describing how bad it is.

The real reason I wanted to know all this was because I was wondering how long during a season do monarchs rely on milkweed. Is it just spring, or is it all summer and fall? Honeyvine milkweed as well as common milkweed can look a bit on the “wild” side. Common milkweed also begins to look unsightly as it awkwardly pops up in strange areas like the middle of the front walk. If you want to grow common milkweed, one plant is all it takes for a colony to create itself. When it dies, it turns an ugly yellow color and often flops over. So, do I need to keep all this unsightly stuff around all season and everywhere?

In my last post, I mentioned my excitement at witnessing a monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant. That was September so I’m guessing it probably is best to leave the milkweed alone as much as I can stand it and as ugly as it is. Common milkweed doesn’t look too bad when it’s mixed with other plants and grasses. I place whatever milkweed I have to cut in an inconspicuous spot in my garden and don’t throw it in the trash. I mow over anything coming up in a path or lawn before it can grow. Honeyvine doesn’t grow all that fast and I’ll let a few vines grow. I’ll throw out any seed pods so it doesn’t get out of control. Also, there are many other varieties of less aggressive milkweed available, the most popular being butterfly weed and swamp milkweed.

Maybe my garden isn’t the most tidy place. I hope no one minds if a few awkward looking plants stick out, look ugly or flop across borders. More and more, gardening for me is not so much about beauty or maybe I just need to look closer to see it. After all, what could be more beautiful than a monarch?

White Snakeroot

white snake root

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

I stand corrected. White snakeroot surpasses the Grape as the ultimate double edged sword of plants. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, it killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother and about half of the population of early settlers in the U.S. who died from drinking milk from cows who ate this toxic plant. I guess there’s plenty good reason to call this plant a weed. But since I don’t have cows or children, I consider it an asset. When I first noticed the seedling of this plant I thought it might be a coneflower or something of the sort, so I let it grow. By the end of the summer it became a thick, five foot wall, completely blocking my view of the neighbors driveway. The air above this wall shimmered with bees, hundreds of them, going for the tiny white flowers. This plant transfers its toxins to tiger moth caterpillars, who eat it and become not so delectable to predators. Now, when I find a seedling, I let it grow into a great wall of life.

young white snakeroot
Young white snakeroot plant

Grape

summer grape

Grape (Vitis)

I have such fond memories of grape, or grapevine, as I always knew it. As a kid, I used to swing from a thick old vine off a forested hillside. My parents diligently spent entire summers cutting the base of these vines to save young trees. I was never quite sure if I liked the sweet Muscadine grapes my Grandfather and Aunts grew but now when I eat them they the take me back to long summer days, running around barefoot without a care in the world.

Grape can be aggressive but in a mature forest it is much less intimidating. I’m not sure how the thick old vines find their way up these old trees but somehow they manage, loosely wrapping themselves around branches in a harmonious way. In a young forest or field they will overtake trees and shrubs, eventually killing them. Since mature forests are rare these days, the wild grape has gotten a bad rap as an aggressive tree killer.

I had to rewrite this post after realizing I’m not sure what kind of grape or grapes are growing in my garden. It turns out there are many varieties native to my area as well as an invasive known as the Porcelain-berry. Identifying them is tricky enough without adding an invasive grape from Asia to the mix. This site about plants native to Georgia and the Carolinas has some excellent images and info to help with identification. The Delaware Department of Agriculture has an excellent source for deciphering invasives from natives in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region.

It never really occurred to me that this intimidating plant might have other values besides recreation. Who would have thought Concord grape, the one used to make jelly and juice, is derived from the native Fox grape.

Native grapes are a critical food source for many birds and animals. In my own garden, as I write this, what must be thousands of pollinators are swarming around a mound of this vine. They must be attracted to the tiny white flowers, so delicate for such an obtrusive plant. Nevertheless, the Grape should win first prize as the ultimate double edged sword of plants.