September Notes 2017

The Final Touch

I once was camping during the Fourth of July at a place called Janes Island State Park right outside of a very small town named Crisfield on the Eastern Shore. There was a fireworks show in the town so we went. It wasn’t an extraordinary show but the night was beautiful on the water. The moon was out. It was a big event in a small town. At the end of the show during the grand finale, a boy yelled out, “It’s the final touch!” That’s kind of how I feel about my garden right now.

Speaking of the garden, since we’ve gotten so much rain I haven’t had to water in months. In fact, I really haven’t had to do much other than the usual pulling of porcelain berry and bindweed and cutting dead looking ugly stuff (it has to look pretty ugly for me to cut it). I keep wanting to cut down the really sick elderberry so I can plant something else there but the birds like it so much I just can’t bring myself to do the job. So I’ve been learning about ecology and ecotypes which have led me to spending way too much time on Ernst Seed’s website browsing through local ecotypes I’d like to have and trying to fit square pegs into round holes. This is doubly irritating as their website is somewhat on the slow side so I ordered the catalog which might keep me off the internet at least.

Back to my so called ecological garden, I’ve discovered pollinators of all sizes love porcelain berry flowers to the point I didn’t want to pull it but then the insanely large white snakeroot exploded in bloom which they seemed to like better so I didn’t feel so bad about pulling the porcelain berry.

In a much older post, I called this grapevine but actually it’s porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), an invasive plant in my area but the pollinators do love it.
White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) in background. Doesn’t look like much until I get up close and really look. That’s when I see.
I think this photo captures the shimmery effect of all the pollinators.
And flies like it too.

Not only do pollinators love the white snakeroot explosion but so do birds like this common yellowthroat warbler who’s been hanging around for weeks and even, to my utmost joy, used a bird bath I set aside especially for it (actually I think it’s a her).

There is a warbler in there.

One day I saw a redstart and a flycatcher as well as the other usuals; cat birds, song sparrows, wrens, robins, mockingbirds and the like all in there together. This is probably because the explosion of white snakeroot is covered with not only large and medium sized bees, but also these tiny ones that look like ants with wings and probably are ants with wings. And I even had time to smell the white snakeroot explosion, a sweet smell like spring which is nice at this time of year.

It seems I may have three different strains of white snakeroot. Well, there are two plants that look noticeably different from the white snakeroot explosion plant.

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) mystery plant?
White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima ‘Chocolate’) This one looks like one called Chocolate. I have no idea how it got here but I’m glad I let it grow.

In addition to the activity in the white snakeroot, we’ve made some other strange wildlife observations. One day, my husband noticed a squirrel walk right in front of him looking like it was wearing a fur coat. It turned out to be a mother squirrel carrying her baby. The fur coat was the baby’s tail wrapped around the mother’s neck.

I thought milkweed was poisonous but apparently not to rabbits who’ve recently taken quite a liking to it. I’ve seen them take down entire stalks from the bottom and devour the entire thing at one time. This can’t be good for any monarch larvae or eggs that might be attached to the plant.

I’ve noticed a squirrel chewing on this same piece of bark under our wood pile. We’ve also noticed rabbits chewing on the corner of our neighbor’s brick garage. We’ve guessed they’re sharpening their teeth which is probably important so they can bite through tough milkweed stalks and nut shells. The chestnuts, with their thorny husks have been falling from our chestnut tree and landing in our driveway and making a loud bang when they hit the tin covering our wood pile.

As for my food, I harvested seven butternut squashes and would have probably gotten more if two didn’t split and rot on the vine and the plant didn’t die of mildew from all the rain. The turnips I planted a month ago have finally taken off. I guess rabbits don’t like them too much. The roots aren’t ready to eat but I’ve been eating the greens as well as those from some much older radishes. My favorite way to eat them is destemmed and stir fried in a little olive oil, salt and water. Cooked just until tender.

Arugula works as both food and cover crop.

Arugula is making a nice ground cover/salad green and it looks like I’ll be getting some tomatoes after all. The squirrels ate all the tomatoes from a group of four plants but one plant remains. It was planted later than the others and in a different location. It looks healthy unlike the others and the forever green tomatoes are finally turning. So, maybe if I want tomatoes I need to plant them later in the season so when they finally get ripe, the squirrels are too busy collecting nuts.

I’ve really come to like roasted okra. I like to roast it until it gets kind of charred, about 40 minutes at 400°.

In the front yard garden, a work in progress, the marigolds are finally doing what I intended which is work as a cover crop, define the border and be pretty. I’m not sure the African variety  (in background) goes with the style but they certainly are ostentatious and yes, I will be designing my future front yard garden around NOT having an ugly rabbit fence. I wrote a post listing some crops rabbits don’t seem to like.

The white snakeroot is looking kind of scraggly here so I’m getting ready to cut them down. I took up the sod on the slope and planted winter rye. I’ll be going into more detail about that at some point.

For now, the air is calm, but things are happening. The locusts belt out their final calls. Squirrels are gathering nuts. Rabbits are just eating. Birds are starting their migration. There’s a lot for me to do too but I’d better get out and enjoy the final touch before the show is over.

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The So Called Ecological Garden

While running to get my camera and change lenses so I can capture some bee I’ll probably never have the time to identify or will waste too much time trying to, I often wonder why I work so hard doing these things that most would classify as somewhat nutty. I’m not an ecologist. I’m not being paid to do what I do and now after reading a post written by an ecologist, I wonder if I’m just wasting my time doing what it is I do which I guess could be described as ecological gardening.

The article is written by Chris Helzer, who as The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, works to restore and conserve prairies in the Nebraska area. In a nutshell, the article basically seems to say that because backyard gardens are usually very small isolated areas, they don’t save species because the species that are in trouble need large prairies to survive. The species that take advantage of small gardens are usually generalized meaning they can survive in a variety of habitats and don’t need backyard gardens. Granted, the author is referring to prairie conservation, I can only guess this extends to species that rely on other types of ecosystems such as forests or wetlands. Unfortunately, this is because when I think about it, it makes a lot of sense. In fact, I’ve often thought about it but it still doesn’t make it any less of a disappointment. Just because I want it, doesn’t mean it is.

My garden is part of a pretty strange system. The birds are mostly city birds I can almost count on the fingers of two hands; robins, crows, house sparrows, blue jays, song sparrows, mourning doves, goldfinches, catbirds, mockingbirds, cardinals, wrens, a few woodpeckers and every now and then a nuthatch, titmouse or chickadee. Huge flocks of starlings settle over everything and then leave just as fast as they came. I’ve never witnessed a baby bird take its first flight from the nests in my garden because the crows or something always seem to get to them first. I’ve seen rats and voles and chipmunks and deer but these aren’t struggling specialized species. These are the ones who seem to thrive in this kind of urban/suburban environment.

Some rarer birds like warblers and flycatchers come through in the spring and fall. Hawks come down at this time of year trying to snag a rabbit, rat or squirrel. Signs of a fox can be found every now and then. As for pollinators, that’s a tough one because I’ve noticed many, large and small but I have to admit being a complete novice at identification.  Monarchs seem to be everywhere but apparently they got confused because of unusual weather patterns

As for amphibians, I’ve heard one frog and it was the most exciting moment ever. Then it was gone.

Rabbits of all sizes are everywhere. They are barely scared of me, sometimes they come so close I’m the one that backs away. This seems to be heaven for them.

The so called wetland I made is really just a swale filled with violets, white snakeroot, some not so native native plants as well as non native ones. It’s nothing close to a real wetland, where water and land have formed complex biodiverse communities over centuries.

So, alas, my garden can not be a prairie, forest or wetland. Ok, I know I may be saving species indirectly by filtering or capturing runoff water that would otherwise be polluting the Chesapeake Bay but it doesn’t quite give the same satisfaction as providing a habitat in my backyard. Nevertheless, I will carry on with my planning, planting and dreaming and if, by chance one of those struggling species should happen upon my garden during their travels, they will surely find this a fine refuge.

July Notes 2017

I finally got a look at the book everyone in the gardening world seems to be raving about and ooooo was I dazzled. The book, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, seems to suggest we all yearn for the lost wild places that are no more. The virgin forests the explorers romped through in search of gold, the prairies of Little House on the Prairie, the savannas of Africa and the wetlands of the Bayou. Something like that anyway. I don’t know about everyone, but I was just in love with this book for the pictures alone. Wilderness is what gets my blood moving and while the gist of this book seems to say pristine wilderness is kind of non-existent, it also seems to suggest we can still have the best of it and in our own yards no less.

So, I’ve started dividing up my garden into various wilderness areas.

I’ve decided this is a prairie.
This is the wetland.
This is a woodland or woodland edge.
And this will become the savanna.

Wilderness with a touch of farm.

What’s in bloom right now?

Mountain mint in background and fleabane in foreground.
Wild marjoram seems to be a real hit with pollinators.
Black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower

I need more flowers but I have to say I’m happy with the wildness of my garden.

The elderberry is weighted down with berries and the catbirds just can’t get enough. My 5 year old niece came over the other day and looked like an absolute fairy as she happily picked elderberries. “For winter”, she insisted. I wasn’t exactly thrilled knowing she had no intention of eating them but I just couldn’t resist letting her pick just a handful “for winter” which she later made into some kind of pudding that I ended up eating in my oatmeal for breakfast. Apparently elderberries are extremely healthy.

I found a great use for that flopping row of switchgrass. Mulch.

As far as vegetables go, the rabbits and deer have really been going to town on the sweet potatoes so I put up more fencing around them. I guess I have that old watch what you wish for dilemma going. My garden makes the perfect wildlife habitat for rabbits.

One thing the rabbits have left completely alone is okra. So far the plants are growing but the actual okra doesn’t seem to be there yet…I’ve never grown okra before.

Another plant the rabbits don’t touch is tomatoes. I’m in the green tomato phase when they seem to be green forever. I’m waiting…

EXTREMELY EXCITING MOMENT!!! I was sitting on the porch eating dinner. My niece’s mouth was going a mile a minute when I heard, could it be? A frog? A toad? Then I heard it again. It was definitely a frog or a toad and it sounded like it was coming from a small rain garden I made. So much for mowing.

A Park and Mysterious Sounds in the Night

rock-creek

I live on the edge of a bustling downtown equipped with a mall, movie theaters, office buildings, city buses, traffic and people, lots of people, but no more than a mile from my house is an extraordinary expanse of old growth forest you can actually get lost in and not hear a car. You may see some people (usually with dogs) and maybe once, if you’re lucky, hear a barred owl. I kind of just discovered this place and now I go there as much as I can venturing as far off the main trails as possible onto narrow trails dangerously lined with poison ivy. It’s the kind of place you don’t see even in the wild, the places you drive for hours to get to. Trees just aren’t that big anymore.

The trees in this park aren’t just tulip poplars. Oaks, beech, elm and ash with trunks I can’t wrap my arms around, tower majestically above. I love to get to that spot where the landscape as far as I can see in all directions is forest and it’s not hard for me to imagine that long ago this is how it was everywhere. I still can’t believe this is only a mile from the very urban place I live in.

The park’s name is Rock Creek Park and as a matter of fact, I went walking in it just yesterday and heard what I’m pretty sure were wood frogs. They can be heard here.  Wood frogs are the most cold tolerant of all the North American frogs and can be found in the Arctic Circle. They are also the first frogs to breed every year. They live in woodlands and lay their eggs in vernal pools which are basically puddles that dry up in the summer. That means the tadpoles must turn into frogs before the pools dry up. Wood frogs aren’t the only amphibian to depend on vernal pools.

I’ve always loved night noises and never really cared what was making them until recently when I started watching a spooky old soap opera from the 70’s called Dark Shadows. In its many brilliant night scenes full of styrofoam tombstones, bats dangling from strings and plastic plant life, there are night sounds including one one that I knew I’d heard somewhere before. Where had I heard that sound and who was making it? While searching the internet for the mysterious sound in Rock Creek, I stumbled upon the mating call of a toad. That was it! I’d been hearing it all my life and never even had a clue.

Frog and toad populations, especially in urban areas like mine are in serious decline. Half are gone in nearby Arlington County. Because their bodies absorb toxins through their skin as well as from the plant and animal life they eat, they are extremely sensitive to environmental changes. On the flip side, their reemergence is a sign of environmental improvements.

Frogs and toads are great assets in the garden, eating all kinds of pests such as slugs, caterpillars, grasshoppers and mosquitoes and of course what do many insects love and depend on? Native plants. I figure if these animals live only a mile away, maybe there’s a chance they will find their way to my garden. Then again maybe a move to downtown wouldn’t be such a good idea. At any rate I’m glad to know there’s a place nearby where they can live and meanwhile, I’ll be listening for their calls.

If you are interested in hearing an amazing orchestra of hundreds of frogs and toads visit Merchant Millpond State Park  in the spring, just before nightfall.

Form Follows Function

dont-ask

 

I take it back, that last title, I mean. There really isn’t anything easy about landscape restoration. In fact, there isn’t anything easy about gardening at all. It’s not hard because it’s back breaking work and a constant struggle against weeds and pests or what to plant where or how much to water. Gardening is hard because it is gray. There is no one recipe for the perfect garden. No garden of Eden. And that is for me I think, part of the fascination. While there is much science in gardening, gardening is not a science.

After the election, I began to feel like it’s ridiculous to even be talking about gardening. It just seems so frivolous, so petty when there are so many crazy things happening in the world but I can’t seem to help myself. I’m obsessed. I think it’s because gardening is simply all I’ve got. If we could all just get our hands in some dirt we’d be fine. Breathe in the air. Listen to the birds. Feel the sun. Heal ourselves from the bottom up. Look over our fences and greet our neighbors on the other side. What are they growing? Do they like hot peppers?

But alas, I am directing my husband through rush hour traffic using the Google traffic map and the neighbors probably don’t appreciate my garden. I shudder to think how my neighbor feels about the white snakeroot deadheads snaking their way onto his driveway or my use of layered cardboard and dead leaves as mulch that I confidently assure my husband will be the last time.

I’m not your average gardener, you see. If there were a word to describe my gardening style it would probably be eccentric, extreme or more likely, sloppy. The desired function of my garden is to supply myself with food and wildlife and wildlife with food and shelter. Secondary to that is beauty and order. I can’t stand spending money which is probably why I like to grow from seed and use cardboard and leaves as mulch instead of wood chips.

I should probably cater more towards my neighbor’s taste. After all, it’s the neighborly thing to do but that would most likely entail no garden at all. Only sod. Plain old, ordinary, sod. God. I’d shoot myself. Maybe I could tone down the wilderness a bit. I plan to once things start to fill in but for now…

Maybe my neighbor doesn’t hate it too much. After all, we put a nice fence in recently. He made a point to say how nice it looked. It was the first time he’d said something to us, well my husband, not me, in at least a year. “Fences make good neighbors,” as my mom loves to say.

In some other life, I had a neighbor similar to this. He also was the yard type. I had him all figured out, you see. The type who could never have enough power tools and a mower that made a terrible grinding noise every time it went over a rock. He never stopped or moved the rock so he didn’t hit it the next time, just kept on going over the same one. He set his mower so low it scalped any uneven ground. I guess his strategy was he wouldn’t have to mow as often. He liked to mow when the ground was wet. Never mind that the mower would break down every ten feet. When he was finished his yard belonged in an art gallery on Fifth Avenue. I saw him use his leaf blower on the last colorful leaves of fall still clinging to the branch of a tree. I guess he was trying to hurry up the fall process so he could move on to the next season already. Several times during the summer he’d walk the perimeter of his rectangular lot, spray canister in hand, happily dousing Roundup on anything in its path. Sometimes he’d get carried away and the greens in my adjacent garden beds would turn an eerie white.

He used to try and be neighborly. He’d offer me power tools as tokens of peace. When he saw me cutting down a tree with a hand saw, he offered a chain saw. When he saw me turning my sod with a shovel, he offered me a rototiller. With each gift offering, I always declined saying doing it by hand was my workout. Finally, he didn’t offer anymore. It was a little sad now that I think about it.

My neighbor had a certain strategy to his yard work. I don’t think it was so much about efficiency as it was about ritual. Despite his industriously efficient methods, I believe yard work was actually something he enjoyed. He was a fidgety man. He needed to keep moving and what better way to do it than spending equal amounts of time behind each power tool. He didn’t want to think. He wanted to do.

It was not always this way. There was talk in the neighborhood that at one time an old lady lived in my neighbor’s house and had a beautiful garden filled with Thai peppers and lemongrass. A handsome pear tree was all that remained of the mysterious garden. Each year its fruit would slowly disappear, carried away by squirrels, crows and other critters. No one knew how the lady was related to my neighbor or what became of her.

My neighbor was not without his own small garden. Each year a car load of large tropical plants would appear. He would line them up like soldiers along the side of the house, their only maintenance, a thorough watering each morning. There they would stay until fall when they would be put back in the car and taken to some unknown location until spring.

While his yard was sparse in the way of herbaceous plants, he didn’t seem to mind a canopy of trees. A mature silver maple, dogwood and a few white mulberry trees lined the edge of his property. An old cedar grew out from the foundation of his house. I’m not sure if he appreciated the presence of these trees but they were there nevertheless, much to the relief of many birds, insects and animals.

Despite our drastic differences, somehow, my neighbor and I had developed an understanding. In fact, I realized I almost preferred him to a neighbor more like myself who would always be awkwardly there requiring constant polite conversation or even worse someone with an impeccable yard, the kind with the solid, perfectly edged wood chip mulch islands dotted evenly with garden center shrubs and the all too obvious home security system marker. The kind of neighbor who would always be looking down at me making me feel like a sloppy heel. My neighbor and I were equal in our imperfections. We had our flaws and we knew it and I think that’s what inspired our mutual understanding. The strange thing was that it actually gave me freedom. I didn’t feel the need to impress him so there was no need to live up to any standards. I didn’t feel the need to have an impeccable yard. As long as I kept things out of his area, I could experiment. I could take time to grow native plants from seed, use cardboard and leaves as mulch, make a rain garden, grow unusual cover crops. Out of the the awkward function, came a beautiful form, a garden where the earth gave back her treasures and I helped them grow into something bountiful. Maybe it wasn’t perfect. Maybe it wasn’t helping our property values but it was in its way harmonious, however imperfect, perfect in its imperfection, a fine balance between a mower and a grower.

 

Winter Bird Bath Without Water Heater

winter-bird-bath

It’s a cold one out there and a lot of cold and thirsty looking birds (mostly robins, a lot of robins) were flittering all over they place as if to keep warm. I needed a winter bird bath without a water heater fast! (Water heater bird baths are just not my style). Only problem was I couldn’t figure out how to do it without the water turning to ice and cracking a bowl so I’m trying the above, plastic containers with a rock in them (to keep them from blowing away) and adding hot water from time to time. So far I have a lot of happier robins. Maybe I’ll actually get one on film but for now just imagine my satisfaction at seeing them drop down to take a drink.