April Notes 2017

Choose your battles. That’s a phrase my mother doesn’t like. Too war like I guess.

compost bin for weeds I made with wire fencing

Yesterday I weeded so much I could still see them when I closed my eyes long after I finished for the day. The picture above doesn’t do the day’s work justice. The weed is mostly ground ivy and if we could make fuel out of it we could fuel the world. Another interesting one called (I think) hairy bitter cress kept exploding in my face every time I touched it. Not a great time to weed though. Dry as a desert but once I got started I couldn’t stop.

The large, big leaved plants in foreground are mullein, a herbal plant from Europe.

Much of the weeds actually came from this area. I need to fill in this space with something like prairie dropseed, little bluestem, purple coneflower and heath aster. For now I’ll probably cover the bare areas with cardboard and then cover that with

this homemade mulch.

Mullein is listed as an invasive species but its also a biennial. The plants in the picture resulted from me letting one go to seed a few years ago. With these I’ll cut off the flower before it seeds but before then I’ll leave it to cover area, provide organic matter and I don’t think it looks too bad. We’ll see.

You may not be able to spot the temporary bunny fence in the photo and that’s the idea. I made it out of bird netting, sticks, landscape fabric staples (to clamp down the netting) and this really cool stuff I  found at the hardware store called

Bond Manufacturing Twist Tie Dispenser With Cutter. Very cool stuff. This may work because there’s also plenty of unfenced lettuce and other things for these adorable but not so garden friendly furry friends. So, hopefully I’ll have a somewhat easy to install, reusable, bunny fence that keeps out the bunnies. We’ll see.

Fleabane makes itself at home and a nice border along the front walk.
Something I planted or weed I didn’t.

I planted a variety of native plant seeds in the fall. So far I haven’t seen any signs of the golden Alexanders, Bush’s coneflower, butterfly weed, wild bergamot, columbine, New England asters, goldenrod, gray sedge, New York ironweed and little bluestem. It may be the winter was too warm for the right stratification or the fact we’ve been having a severe drought or they just haven’t come up yet. I’ll give them another month or so.

milkweed? The soil here looks like a sandy beach but I assure you it’s hard as rock.
Compost covered cardboard, my way of smothering sod, controlling weeds and procrastinating.

What will I grow here?

Violets? What would I do without them? They are tough as nails and so pretty right now.

Christmas fern I purchased from a plant sale.

Got this beauty as a bare root from Izel  Plants. At 3 for $10.00, it was much less expensive than buying them potted.

You can see the artistry of this homemade border I made with stuff I had laying around.

Not exactly a picture out of Better Home and Gardens but there is some logic to this. I made a raised bed out of soil I removed from below. The area below is now the early stages of a rain garden with great blue lobelia, sneezeweed, boneset, milkweed and of course, violets. The brown stuff in the raised bed is the remnants of sorghum-sudangrass, a cover crop that produces loads of organic matter and grows great here.

Imagine a pawpaw tree growing in the center of this photo but for now the central characters in the scene are wild bergamot, big bluestem and lovage. This year I’ll be cutting the bergamot down after it flowers to prevent it from getting too tall and flopping and to induce a second flowering.

All kinds of things happening here. In the foreground is a raised bed where I’m growing mustards and peas as a cover crop and for eating. To the right is a swale I made a few years ago to divert run-off water. In it, will be switchgrass, great blue lobelia, sneezeweed, white snakeroot, milkweed and hopefully gray sedge, goldenrod and New England aster, seeds I planted in fall. I put cardboard on the banks where I’ll probably plant little bluestem or something. The 2 cylinders made of wire mesh are protecting my latest find, Allegheny Plum, a rare and threatened native shrub. For now they’re only a few inches high but alive. There are two weedy asparagus beds and two other raised beds where I’ll be growing tomatoes, garlic, peppers and lettuce.

My neighbor seems to like cinderblock. I’m not so fond. I’ve planted New York ironweed, winterberry, switchgrass, big bluestem and American holly to hide it. Virginia creeper is also looking promising.

Sadly, I cut down a wild black cherry because I thought it was too close to the house. With its trunk and a trash can lid, I’ve made a bird bath.

But all over the garden are these little wild cherries that give me ideas.

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.

Growing Native Plants from Seed

native-seeds

First of all, the why.

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

Now, the how.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing is Wrong in the World

earth-intelligence

How surely gravity’s law
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward
the heart of the world.
Each thing—
each stone, blossom, child—
is held in place.
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Written by R.M. Rilke (ca. 1900), I found this poem along Sligo Creek, a tributary of the Anacostia River and Chesapeake Bay. I laid awake most of last night as I often do these days. I was thinking all kinds of, what’s the word, profound thoughts but I think this poem sums the gist of them up perfectly although I could add something foreboding at the end. It turns out the writer and I have Hungarian roots in common but like most Americans, my roots are from many places.

I’m really too tired to explore the topic of earth’s intelligence. All I know is it’s smarter than all our human brains combined and indescribably powerful. No matter how we try, we can’t beat it. How did we evolve to even want to?

Yesterday was way too warm for February but I guess this is the new norm. Tomorrow will be cold again. I was happy to get out and do some puttering around in the garden. My turquoise blue sweatshirt clashing violently with the brown of winter. We filled plastic bowls with water for the birds and put a corn cob on the contraption (a board with a nail through it) my dad made to feed the squirrels. They come, usually starting with one then followed by more. It’s funny to watch them as each takes a turn carefully biting the kernel from the cob, then holding it in its paws to snack on. Each time we come near, they run into the wood pile and watch for us to pass. The squirrels are messy eaters and the pieces they leave are just the right size for white throated sparrows and a cardinal who wait impatiently nearby.

One of the squirrels we call stub tail for obvious reasons. We think she’s a she because I saw her gathering leaves and figured only females would make a nest. I could be wrong but I’m too lazy to Google it. My husband likes to joke about her being overweight which is probably just an illusion due to her shortened tail but I tell him corn is probably squirrel junk food. “She’s an American squirrel”, we sing to the tune of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song American Girl.

Yes, life in my garden is good on this warm day. Good in an eerie, foreboding kind of way. Or maybe that’s just the Eastern European roots in me. The ones I can’t quite put down in the earth no matter how hard I try.