Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change

There are many reasons for a having a lawn. First, it’s the norm. Almost anyone with a house has one and no homeowner in their right mind is going to complain about it. Second, a monoculture of mowed fescue looks great. To most people. And last but by no means least, it’s the easiest kind of landscape in a neighborhood to care for. Just mow it. Get a tractor if it’s too much work. Nothing to think about. Just mow and get out the leaf blower or weed wacker if necessary. Weeds such as clover, ground ivy, crabgrass and Bermudagrass don’t matter so much because when mowed and mixed in with some fescue, can pass for lawn. At least in my neighborhood. With something so easy and acceptable, why would anyone do anything different? It’s the simple truth because it’s so simple. Let’s face it, getting into the nature scene isn’t exactly cut and dry.

Books and experts in ecological design tell us to plant native plants because it’s great for wildlife but if you’ve ever been to a native plant sale you will find those native plants when purchased in any great abundance begin to cost a lot. It’s hard enough to deal with removing a lawn then to have to figure how to replace it with native plants without mortgaging off your house.

I’m not going to go into why I just spent so much time building up my introduction to a book I just finished reading because the name pretty much sums it up. Written by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher,  Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change is about exactly that. Unfortunately, the answer to why we would want to replace our lawns might actually be simpler than the process of doing it. Why? Because it is a process that takes thought. It’s not that it necessarily takes more time or labor. Well ok, maybe it does take more of that too. But what it really takes is a change in ourselves and our method of operation.

Larry Weaner is a very gutsy landscape designer who makes a lot of meadows. Huge meadows as in 30 acres or more mostly in places in Pennsylvania where there are a lot of empty old farm fields and people with the cash to turn them into ecological meadows. But does he really make them or are they already there?

Much of the book is about natural communities and how they evolve. He uses an analogy I especially liked about a fallen tree. He was out in the woods one day when he happened to stumble into an area filled with blue lobelia, a native wild flower, and wondered how the flower got to this particular spot in the middle of the forest. After noticing a fallen tree in the spot, he came to the conclusion that when the tree fell, it both disturbed the soil and formed an opening where sunlight came through spurring the wildflower seeds already lying dormant in the soil to germinate. For me this story underlies the essence of the book and suggests a radical concept of landscape design. That is the possibility that not everything in a garden needs to be planted by the gardener. In fact, it goes to the extreme of suggesting in some instances, nothing need be planted by the gardener.

This concept of a managed landscape versus completely contrived is not new. Forest management has been going on for centuries and Native Americans have practiced it for much longer than that. My own parents owned land and spent many a long day just cutting grapevine to help a young forest mature quicker than it would without their intervention. But for landscape design, this concept is probably something new. Either that or it hasn’t been practiced for a long while in this country at least.

Of course a healthy seed bank of ecologically beneficial or desired seeds or seedlings isn’t always the case. In fact, I’m guessing it’s pretty rarely the case. In most cases, there is a monoculture growing on some pretty disturbed, contaminated or heavily fertilized soil. And in these situations, in order to establish a desired plant community there’s got to be some heavy clearing, planting and management going on. And on this topic he goes into some detail. Enough to confuse me with the math and logistics of it. But overall it was some pretty thorough and I found well thought out concepts (I especially like the focus he gives to growing from seed, something I rarely find in landscape books).

While the book covered lots of subjects and details about how to design ecological gardens what made it great for me was it made me think differently about gardening. Books and experts are all good but nature really is the best teacher. This quote by the author’s mentor, ecologist Frank Egler sums it all up pretty well.

“Nature is not more complicated than you think, it is more complicated than you CAN think.”

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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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.