Violet

violets

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) or Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucullata)

I’m not sure just when I discovered the value of this plant but somewhere along the line it went from most annoying to one of my most valuable assets. Let’s just say, it’s a lot easier to join forces than fight it. Violets love my garden. I used to work up quite a sweat trying to unearth their bulbous roots from my vegetable beds but once I discovered their value, I started doing a lot less weeding. It turned out that if I allied myself with these plants, they did most of the weeding for me, competing with tough weeds like ground ivy and bermudagrass.

Violets distract foragers like deer and rabbits who prefer them to my vegetables. They provide the first pretty blue flowers of spring and protect and build the soil. They are basically indestructible, edible and highly valuable to insects, birds, rabbits, deer and squirrels.

The opportunistic violet spreads by underground rhizomes and seed. It spreads its seeds in several creative ways. One is through flowers that grow close to the ground but never fully open. These flowers shoot seeds out like a cannon. Another way is by ants who find the seed coating delicious. After eating the coating they plant the seed.

I sure am glad I joined forces with the violet. Without it, I and many others would be in a bad way.

A few notes about violets. They transplant well. I’ve found the best way to dig them up is with a garden fork when the soil is moist. To learn more about violets the PennState Extension has some good information on this undervalued plant.

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White Avens

 

There’s a lot of information out there about native plants, like why they are important, how to select them, how to grow them and where to buy them but I never find much or really anything about native plants that come up on their own, naturally. That is without help from humans. I did hear it mentioned somewhere but I thought, “nah, that can’t be possible.” I guess I was thinking about the more showy ones like wild bergamot, false indigo or butterfly weed. Like that would ever happen. Really.

The first time it actually occurred that it might be possible was when I noticed a unique plant, one that wasn’t like all the weeds I’d come to know. It came up on the side of a drainage ditch I’d made and it really wasn’t anything that special. I’m not even sure what made me notice it in the first place. After doing some research, I concluded it was a native shrub called ninebark but the next year it didn’t seem to be growing into a shrub. With so much more to do, I gave up trying to identify it but it was a turning point for me. I think it was the point I began stand back and watch instead of always just doing. It was a realization that nature could and should play a role in the development of my garden. And I could kind of help it along.

As the years went by I began to notice other unique plants. I allowed them to grow, identifying them when I got around to it. Now there are many native plants in my garden. Or at least I’m pretty sure they’re native. Plants that were planted by birds or animals or the wind. I feel like they are the plants that belong most in my garden. They may not be the most exotic or rare things. Some of them are stately, others may be considered weeds, but they are all tough, ecologically useful plants.

In the coming posts, categorized as What Comes Up, I’ll talk about these plants and what makes them special. As it turns out, I finally identified that plant that opened my eyes. It was white avens and that’s where I’ll start.

White Avens (Geum canadense)

After spending too much time searching the internet for this plant, I finally sent a few pictures to my local gardening extension and I had my answer within days. This is an interesting plant. It starts growing in winter with a bouquet of pretty leaves that spread out very close to the ground called basal leaves. In spring, a new set of bright green leaves grow on stems. Then come these tiny white flowers in late spring and finally, little burs by late summer. The Arkansas Native Plant Society has some great pictures and information about this plant. Bees, wasps, flies and aphids enjoy its flowers. I enjoy just knowing what it is.

white avens

 

Bringing Nature Home

preying mantis4-bw

I’m back. Since I’ve been not writing I’ve learned a heck of a lot, been confused even more but one thing’s for certain, I’m absolutely obsessed with this gardening thing or landscape conservation or urban farming or whatever it is I do while I’m puttering around amazed by different bugs, overwhelmed by weeds, bitten by mosquitoes and changing my strategies on a day to day basis.

One thing I have done was read Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. I’m not sure what made it great but it was great. Was it a simplified version of ecology? His warm, down to earth tone? Was it the fact that he’s an actual scientist with a PhD? Or was it a story about his neighbor and the beaver? Whatever it was, somehow it changed my view of the world and gave me a new hope that maybe, just maybe humanity can not just survive but realize and live as a piece of the puzzle instead of as maker of the puzzle and ruler of all its pieces. Not sure I got that metaphor exactly right but I think you get the idea.

It also gave me the feeling that what I do with my garden is important. Like it’s not just about puttering around amazed by different bugs, overwhelmed by weeds, bitten by mosquitoes and changing my strategies on a day to day basis. For once, it seems that maybe instead of making a negative environmental footprint, I might be doing something good. According to Tallamy, native plants are not only good but they are a crucial link to the survival of many species including possibly, ourselves.

Tallamy is not even a plant scientist. His specialty is bugs. He began his discovery in his own backyard in Pennsylvania when he discovered certain plants weren’t touched by insects yet other plants were. Then he realized the plants that weren’t getting eaten were from other places like Asia. Upon further study he realized certain insects picked certain native plants and certain birds ate those certain insects. It’s from these realizations that made him think maybe there’s something to the term, coevolution. Species that evolve together over millions of years may form complex relationships.

But the key to the issue here is my use of the word “certain” insects. “Plants from other places” are often called exotics or aliens or if really bad, invasives. It’s not that an exotic plant can’t be useful to some insects or animals, it just may not be useful to animals Tallamy calls specialized animals, or those animals that have come to be directly or indirectly dependent over millions of years on one particular species of plant. Monarchs, for example, will only lay eggs on the milkweed species and pandas rely almost entirely on bamboo for food. Due to things such as western colonization, the industrial age and human population explosion, vast amounts of landscape have been dramatically changed and mass populations of native plants have been either destroyed or drastically moved around due to human love of the exotic. In other words, these days, plants that evolved in one place for millions of years are either gone or somewhere far, far away.

While somewhat of a simple concept it gets cloudy real fast in the horticultural and gardening community. For one thing, there’s no way to really define what’s native and what’s not to a certain area. Nor is it easy to define how native a plant should be. For example, I live in Maryland and I buy seeds of plant species known to be native to my area but the seeds are harvested from plants in Minnesota. So does that make my plants true native plants? Then there was this question my husband had about how long does it take for a plant to become native to a certain area. There’s no answer for that other than to say that until that plant becomes a useful part to the ecological system of that area, it’s not a native. But what defines that? And I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to invasive species or cultivars. As I understand, invasive species include plants that have become a nuisance because not only are they not useful to an ecological system but they are thought to be harmful to that system. Cultivars are bred from natives to adapt to certain conditions and are often criticized for not being true natives and therefore not doing their native plant job of being useful.

So, the whole subject is about as confusing and complex as the many other environmental problems of the world and I find myself wondering what it is, exactly, I’m supposed to do. And that is most definitely a problem for a busy world who has about zero free time to analyze this issue let alone go out and make a pollinator garden. In other words, it’s hard for someone to do good when they can’t just run out to the local garden center, pick up some plants, put them in the ground and be done with it. Tallamy does his best to be diplomatic about his cause and I think that’s why his book succeeds. He understands the human need for order especially with community pressures to “fit in” as well as associations of landscaping with class. A well kept yard is often high priority. Especially a well kept lawn. Do what we can, seems to be his only demand. He drives home the possibility that native plants can be orderly and beautiful additions to the garden. He doesn’t pound the reader to eradicate exotic plants in their own yards, at least not all at once. He suggests replacing them with natives when they die. He also doesn’t condemn the lawn, saying there’s nothing wrong with a bit of it as long as there’s some room for natives. He doesn’t make the reader feel that if their plants aren’t the truest form of native they may as well get something from the farthest reaches of the planet.

Other questions he doesn’t address is how agriculture fits into the scheme or the practicality of growing native plants. I grow exotic vegetables. Is that bad? We probably can’t survive eating only native plants. Native plants aren’t easy to find and when they are they are often expensive or not really all that local. Growing from seed can be tricky and getting local seed is a whole other issue. But I think Tallamy’s point was to introduce readers to the simple concept that native plants are actually more important to the big picture than we may realize. They are in decline and if we have land we can do something about it. Lawns are lifeless areas. Adding even one native tree would be a huge improvement. He understands you can’t force this concept down people’s throats.

As for my own proof, I can only say that I have witnessed a major increase in biological diversity in my own yard since adding native plants, or as close to being native as I can manage. When I moved to this property six years ago it was a lawn surrounded by a border of tangled, exotic, invasive and native plants. There was life before, probably lots of it but that was most likely due to the tangled border, not the lawn. Since then I’ve added many native plants and now I’ve witnessed not just more life but what seems to be a system of life, more species than I can name, including some of the more specialized species such as warblers and monarchs. Is it because of the native plants or would any plant other than lawn due? Or, am I just noticing more? We may never know the complete truth of the matter but I’m willing to bet this is no accident and I’m also willing to bet it can’t hurt. For me, it’s proof enough. The more I notice, with all five senses, the intensity of life in my garden, the more I want to be a part of it in a useful way. And I realize how much I need it, not just for my own enjoyment but for the survival of my species.

And instead of spending so much time analyzing how to do it exactly right, maybe the native plant movement should focus more on just making it easier and more enticing for the average gardener to just do something. After all, how much worse can the situation get? Species are going extinct at an astounding rate. The climate is changing. The human population keeps growing and depending on fossil fuel. Most people I know can’t or don’t garden anyway. Maybe a cultivar or a few exotics are better than a lawn? Maybe invasive species will always be a problem. But does that mean native or close to native or even ecologically useful plants can’t be around too? Maybe we just need to work on doing the best we can with what we have? I think Tallamy understands this conflict within the gardening and scientific community and handles it well. After all, the scientists and movement leaders aren’t the ones with the big, lifeless lawns.

The way I see it, like humans, native plants are just pieces of a big puzzle or as Tallamy explains, like pieces from the game, Jenga. Except with native plants, the pieces are at the bottom. If you take them out the whole tower might collapse.

 

The Battle

Sun_031“the sun was getting whiter and whiter, blanching the sky overhead so that the leaves of the hickory tree were black in the face of it.” – Flannery O’Connor from “Revelation”

The long hot days of Summer are here in the Fall Zone. Bindweed grows at least a foot while my back is turned. The birds are quiet now, except for young mocking birds and an occasional wren, storing up food for the Winter. Starlings and house sparrows walk around with open mouths, their form of air conditioning. Spring sounds are replaced by weed wackers and the locust’s crescendoing rattle celebrates Lucinda William’s big red sun bearing down on my garden with no remorse. The occasional promising dark cloud covers the sun, but only for a moment before changing course to luckier parts, like Baltimore. This is that critical time when crops are put to the test by heat, drought, storms, disease and pests and the fruits of a farmer’s labor lie uncertain.

My own crops have done remarkably well considering the soil is very low in phosphorus. Compaction and a crusty surface indicate a lack of organic matter limiting the soil’s ability to absorb water and nutrients. Despite these shortcomings, I’ve harvested garlic, huge heads of lettuce, beets, peppers, asparagus, strawberries, spinach, green beans, swiss chard, potatoes and for the first time, cucumbers and a handful of raspberries. My winter squash is off to the races with only a few short months before frost. There are plenty of ripening tomatoes and the plants look healthy for the most part.

After discovering my raspberries were disappearing, I wrestled with bird netting for about an hour to cover them only to wrestle it back off because two cat birds got stuck in it. Now one of them follows me around like Mary’s lamb. The rabbits hop around the yard nibbling on clover and relax in the shade under the tomatoes along with the cat who is just too lethargic to care. On the surface, it’s a peaceable kingdom, but beneath the facade of serenity a battle rages on.

Pest Survival

Each year presents a new set of challenges. So far, this year it’s been an attack on seedlings, shrubs and pepper plants by three common culprits: rabbits, birds and cutworms. The really tough part is identifying the culprit especially when different culprits leave similar signs of damage. It’s also interesting to point out that one of the culprits (birds) eats another culprit (cutworms).

My belief is it’s best not to mess too much with the web of life. I’ve found that many times the cure is worse than the damage and I’m trying to coexist with nature. As challenging as it may be, it means maybe doing without the affected plant one year, moving it, planting something else in its place, or over seeding in the hopes that maybe a few will survive. It’s easy to get so obsessed with eliminating the pest to loose track of the big picture. When damage has been done, I find it’s always good to step back and ask myself, “what can I do about this problem without without costing myself more than the harvest would be worth and is this really that much of a problem in the first place?” It’s also good to keep in mind a healthy plant will be better able to survive pest damage.

Here is a bit about what I’ve done to better my situation. Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of the damage but will if it happens (much to my dismay) again.

 Rabbits

My Great Aunt suggests surrounding the endangered plant with dead rabbits. My Dad suggests hasenpfeffer. So far what appears to be a family of my furry friends have demolished a hazelnut bush, took a bite out of a sweet bay magnolia and almost killed three blueberry bushes. Luckily, I fenced in a large portion of my garden as well as the blueberry bushes and sweet bay magnolia before it was too late. I took a chance with not fencing in the tomatoes but so far they don’t seem find them to their liking (knock on wood). Although this article tells you to bury the bottom of the fence to keep them from digging their way under. I attempted to clamp it down with these

Fabric Staples not recommended for holding the bottom of a wire fence.
Fabric Staples not recommended for holding the bottom of a wire fence.

but I don’t recommend them. Something heftier like a good tent stake would probably work better.

Rabbits like to gnaw through small shrub and tree branches often just leaving them on the ground uneaten. Apparently, they like the bark. The branch or stem will usually be cut at an angle about a foot off the ground. They also enjoy fresh young greens and vegetable plants.

 Birds

A few of my cucumber and winter squash seedlings were being cut off about an inch from the ground but not eaten. Having experienced this before and found it to be caused by cutworms, I figured this was the case. I’ve read articles that say to put a collar like a cup with the bottom cut out around the plant and sink it into the dirt. My husband drinks loads of iced coffee that comes in the perfect plastic cup for making a collar. I just cut down the side and around the very bottom of the cup. This has worked well for me in the past but not so well this time. The seedlings were still being cut off and the few survivors looked like something was pecking at the leaves. Now what could that be I wonder? Oh, yes! starlings, robins and house sparrows just to mention a few, have been having family reunions in my garden. So I cut small square patches of screen and tightened them over the plastic coffee cups with a rubber band so they’ll be protected at least until they reach the top of the cup.

Plastic coffee cups covered with screen protect seedlings from birds and cutworms for a little while at least...
Plastic coffee cups covered with screen protect seedlings from rabbits, birds and cutworms for a little while at least…

I also planted a lot more seeds for every desired plant so hopefully at least one will survive.

Then there are the old favorite bird deterrents such as the scare crow, the large owl eyes, the fake owl and shiny things. I’ve hung old cds so they spin in the wind flashing light (that extends well beyond the garden). I think the birds in my garden have overcome their fear of these things.

 Cutworms

This moth larvae is kind of like the combination of a vampire and a boa constrictor except they’re pretty tiny and only attack plants. They like to hide out in grass and weeds then come out at night in search of their prey. When they find it, they wrap their body around the base of the plant and chew their way through. In the morning you will find the plant lying there like a fallen soldier. In the past I haven’t had problems with cutworms attacking larger plants but yesterday I was appalled to find a two foot high pepper plant lying on its side. I’m pretty sure by the look of the left over stump it was done by a cutworm. Cutworms do their cutting at ground level, sometimes just below. They tend to like moist weedy areas to hide in. The Farmer’s Almanac has an interesting tip to put crunched eggshells and coffee grounds around the base of the plant. For now I’ll go with weeding, collars and maybe coming out at night with a flashlight to catch them in the act.

One more thing, mulching may invite them. Apparently they aren’t in love with some cover crops such as oats.

Some resources for controlling cutworms:

The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service – ATTRA

The Old Farmer’s Almanac

Toxic Free NC

 

Making Compost With What You Got

Composting artificially accelerates the decomposition of crude organic matter and its recombination into humus. What in nature might take years we can make happen in weeks or months. But compost that seems ready to work into soil may not have quite yet become humus. Though brown and crumbly and good-smelling and well decomposed, it may only have partially rotted. – Steve Solomon from Organic Gardener’s Composting

My Mother’s expression, “life is best left as a mystery”, is the way I’m tempted to feel about composting. It’s the type of thing I want someone to give me a recipe for and just like that I have rich, sweet smelling compost that will make my beans ready for Jack to climb to the sky on. There are countless articles, books and videos on the subject and countless methods and contraptions marketed for making it. I won’t act like I fully understand it, nor will I go into the details about how it’s made. All I do know is it’s all good, but like dirt, some composts are much better than others and making it right is no easy task. Steve Solomon compares making it to making beer as it involves fermentation and careful attention to ingredients, temperature, mixing as well as many other factors.

With so much overwhelming and many times conflicting information about it, I can only say to the first time composter that unlike fertilizer (which can turn into a disaster if it’s not made right) making compost is almost always good for the environment and the garden. Another way I like to think of it is, it’s basically the poop of many tiny animals all around us and this poop is something that actually smells good and makes things grow. What a beautiful concept.

So how is it made? Not sure I want to go there but what the heck. Plainly speaking, there are all these tiny animals all around us we can’t see whose mission in life is to break things down into something I mentioned earlier, called humus. As I’ve said, anything will break down, but some things break down in a few months especially if they are mixed with the right ingredients and under the right conditions. Generally those conditions require heat, air, moisture and the perfect blend of “browns” (or carbon sources) and “greens” (nitrogen sources). “Greens” are generally fresh organic material like grass and leaves (that are still green). “Browns” are older and dryer organic materials such as straw and dried leaves (that have turned brown). A good source for examples is here . I have lots of the “greens” but not so much of the “browns”. Actually, I take that back. I have lots of “browns” like paper and cardboard but “browns” with too much carbon break down very slowly. For example, sawdust has an extremely high carbon to nitrogen ratio (or C/N ratio). The higher that ratio is, the longer it will take to turn into compost which poses a problem if you’re trying to speed up the decomposing process. So I’ve come to the conclusion that for my small composting operations, I may want to stay away from using material, such as cardboard and paper with a C/N ratio that will take longer than my particular situation requires. Anyway, from what I’m gathering, unless you’re Vermicomposting (or composting with worms) it’s best to have a C/N ratio of around 25:1.

So you have your kitchen scraps like egg shells, coffee grounds, lettuce and apple cores, etc. You throw them in something like for me, a bowl. When it fills up you add it to the compost pile. If you do nothing but continue to add your kitchen scraps, you can come back in a year, turn your pile and find some nice worms and sweet smelling, crumbly stuff at the bottom. This method is called Cool or Passive composting because the pile doesn’t heat up. It works but takes about a year and can be faster if the pile is turned twice a year.

A quicker method that generally produces better results is Hot or Active composting. This method requires the pile to sit for a period of time without the addition of new materials. When the right combinations of air, heat, water, “greens” and “browns” are mixed together, it triggers bacteria to reproduce and rapidly feed on the pile causing the temperature to raise to around 130 – 170 degrees F. Once these bacteria finish eating, the pile will cool down and enter a new phase of decomposition. This link explains the process.

How in the world do you adjust for that perfect “green” and “brown” ratio? Math wizard I am, I must confess I do nothing of the sort. Steve Solomon has a more practical alternative.

It is far more sensible to learn from experience. Gauge the proportions of materials going into a heap by the result. If the pile gets really hot and stays that way for a few weeks before gradually cooling down then the C/N was more or less right. If, after several turnings and reheatings, the material has not thoroughly decomposed, then the initial C/N was probably too high. The words “thoroughly decomposed” mean here that there are no recognizable traces of the original materials in the heap and the compost is dark brown to black, crumbly, sweet smelling and most importantly, when worked into soil it provokes a marked growth response, similar to fertilizer. If the pile did not initially heat very much or the heating stage was very brief, then the pile probably lacked nitrogen. The solution for a nitrogen-deficient pile is to turn it, simultaneously blending in more nutrient-rich materials and probably a bit of water too. After a few piles have been made novice composters will begin to get the same feel for their materials as bakers have for their flour, shortening, and yeast.It is also possible to err on the opposite end of the scale and make a pile with too much nitrogen. This heap will heat very rapidly, become as hot as the microbial population can tolerate, lose moisture very quickly, and probably smell of ammonia, indicating that valuable fixed nitrogen is escaping into the atmosphere. When proteins decompose their nitrogen content is normally released as ammonia gas. Most people have smelled small piles of spring grass clippings doing this very thing. Ammonia is always created when proteins decompose in any heap at any C/N. But a properly made compost pile does not permit this valuable nitrogen source to escape. – Seve Solomon from Organic Gardener’s Composting

As you’ve probably already discovered there are countless contraptions marketed to the gardener for composting. Here are just a few.  As much as I would love to make an open air pile of compost, unless I want to thoroughly irritate my neighbors or invite unwanted critters, I’ve decided against it. Gracious family members have endowed me with two bin composters known as “tumblers”. The idea behind them is the contents can get air while the drum is being turned therefore speeding up the process. The compost is also contained from critters. Tumbler bins aren’t cheap (no less than $100.00) and up until now I haven’t had the best success which I can attribute to ignorance and neglegence but it’s high time I turned over a new “leaf”. This is serious.

Seriously, tumbler bins work by Hot composting. It’s a little tricky to get everything right as there is only a small opening in which to get at the contents but I’m going to give it my best shot. The University of Maryland Extension explained it to me this way:

Your ‘urban’ setting does provide you with some composting challenges. Elevated tumblers are a good idea to prevent rodents. On the one hand, tumblers are designed for ‘hot’ composting, i.e., filling the bin with the proper mix of materials and not adding additional materials until the finished compost is harvested. What you may try is keeping a ready supply of shredded dry leaves, sawdust, or straw next to your tumblers. Use one of the tumblers for your daily addition of kitchen scraps and add an equal amount of the dry carbonaceous material. Check the moisture content and add water only if needed. Give the tumbler a half turn. When the tumbler is filled, continue turning it each time you go to the other tumbler. Continue the process until the second tumbler is filled, then harvest the first tumbler. and continue the process. You can store finished or nearly finished compost in a metal or plastic trash can until you’re ready to use it.

As I mentioned earlier, I have a hard time finding the “browns”. Keeping the environment and expenses in mind, I don’t want to have to haul in materials especially ones that may have been sprayed with pesticides, I’d like to find good carbon sources nearby and I can think of a very good and abundant one except I’ll have to wait until Fall to get it. We’ve got huge trees all over my neighborhood. So in the Fall I’ll be going around to curbsides collecting leaves. As many as I can manage. I’ll put them in a pile and run over it with a mower a few times to shred them. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure or woman’s in this case. Since I don’t have access to these leaves now, I’ll be using whatever I can find. When finished vegetable plants dry out, I’ll use them and if nothing else, I’ll use cardboard (which I have loads of).

But there is another method much to my husband’s horror I’m willing to try called Vermicomposting. That will be in another post.

Oh yeah, and one more thing about composting. There are some things not recommended to put in the compost pile.

Some good links about composting:

Organic Gardener’s Composting by Steve Solomon

University of Illinois Extension

Composter Reviews

Compost Info Guide

Maryland University Extension