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

As you can probably tell from my last post I was pretty blown away by the book by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. In addition to changing the way I think about gardening, it also had a lot of practical ideas for designing an ecological garden. Here’s a few notes I took*:

  • Learning about land, its history and soil can be instrumental in creating a plant community. Example: a pasture that has only been grazed by cattle versus plowed may still have a healthy seed bank with desirable native plants.
  • Design with the process of natural succession in mind. For example, a meadow could fill the space around small trees providing ecological services until the trees can grow into a forest.
  • Study plants as they relate to their environment. Example beech trees suck up so much water they create a dry, nutrient poor soil area beneath them.
  • If your garden is weedy, plant seeds for a meadow in early to mid summer after the early spring weedy type plants have pretty much died out. My garden is pretty weedy so I’d probably want to heed this advice.
  • If your garden is filled with invasive plants, plant more aggressive type native plants that can compete and make it easier to remove the invasives. For me the more aggressive native plants would be white snakeroot, violets, switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, wild bergamot, nimblewill, wild strawberry, golden alexanders, milkweed, wild cherry, blue lobelia, New York ironweed, sneezeweed and black eyed Susan. Asters and goldenrods would probably make good options too but so far mine are still in the wait and see phase.
  • When weeding, don’t pull the plant by the root. Cut it at the base. This is because pulling by the root disturbs the soil, germinating more weeds in the process of pulling one. (I’m not sure this one works in all situations but generally speaking…)
  • Many times undesirable plants can be controlled with a mower. Sometimes or at different time periods the desired plants will be shorter than the undesired plants so you can set the mower higher to only cut the higher plants allowing the shorter plants an advantage.
  • Learn the growing habits of desired and undesired plants in your garden. For example, some plants are cool season plants, growing in the spring and fall and others are warm season, growing in the summer. So if mowing in fall cool season plants will be affected and mowing in summer warm season plants will be affected.
  • Test a small area before disturbing a big one. Example he uses: If you plan to convert your lawn to a meadow, scrape a section of turf, disturb the soil to activate the seed bank and observe the response. Seeing what plants fill in the space can tell a lot about the soil and prevent an unexpected situation on a large scale.
  • In contrast to plants that usually live in a meadow, many woodland plants don’t grow easily from seed. An exception are sedges. Carex riparia, carex brevior, carex granularis, carex molesta, carex radiata are some examples.
  • Don’t add fertilizer. It will only make the soil more suitable for weeds.
  • (This is one I’ve already discovered) Learn about what plants might grow well in an area by studying what grows naturally in natural areas or parks nearby.

*These notes are my interpretation of the book and aren’t necessarily the views of the authors. In other words I’m not sure I got it exactly right.

Advertisements

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.”

Would of Could of Should of

Would of could of should of. When you start saying that too many times you know you’re doing something wrong. Over and over. That’s kind of how I feel now that I’m about to rearrange some raised beds for like the how manyeth time? I think if there was one thing I wish I would have done seven long years ago when I started this garden was absolutely nothing. That’s right, instead of digging up half the property to make a vegetable garden, ordering the roots of native shrubs from Minnesota, letting my mom plant two large asparagus beds in a floodplain, buying $60.00 worth of native plants from a native plant sale, I would have instead just done nothing but stand back and watch.

Yes, like a nosy neighbor I would have watched the land surrounding my garden get mowed within an inch of its life. Watched as water during heavy rains flooded a large part of my garden under several inches of water. Noticed that my garden was down the hill from a parking lot that caught the runoff from countless roofs, shooting it across the scalped lawn before flooding my garden.

Noticed that beyond the thick wall of white mulberry mixed with grapevine, porcelain berry, forsythia, bindweed, ivy, sweet autumn clematis, Virginia creeper, a basketball hoop and chain link fence there were some awkward, unfinished structures made with brick. Structures that looked like they were supposed to support something but didn’t. There was also a beat up sports car with flat tires, a pile of old tile along with other odds and ends and a rooster. A live rooster. Make that two who did not try to remain anonymous. Who in fact drove my husband to the brink of calling the county. Always on the brink.

Maybe, I would not have taken down that wall of mulberry mixed with grapevine, porcelain berry, forsythia, bindweed, ivy, virgin’s bower, Virginia creeper, a basketball hoop and chain link fence in order to build a wood fence so that a parallel wall of made out of cinder block could be built no more than 6” from it. A wall that is not level or straight with large sloppy globs of dried mortar.

And I would not have chosen to divert that flood of water water by digging a trench that sent it into another property and flooded their basement.

But I also would have read. I would have read about permaculture and permaculturists who say it’s a good thing to mix perennials with annuals and encourage this thing called the keyhole garden design that means the garden beds look more like a keyhole than a rectangle. But I also would have read that different plants require different soil so I wouldn’t have mixed things up too much and I probably would have gone with the rectangular garden beds in some cases. I would have read about how to take care of soil and learned that turning it over with a shovel is not taking care of it especially when turning it after it’s been flooded. And that soil should not be left bare over winter. In fact, soil should never be left bare. And I would have learned that crop rotation means rotating crops according to the family they’re in not according to the name of the crop.

And I would have watched and read. I would have noticed that there were a lot of rabbits in the neighborhood and that rabbits love gardens, especially vegetable gardens and I would have read that the only real way to keep them out is with either a dog or cat or some pretty heavy duty rabbit fencing without any holes or gaps that would allow them to squeeze through.

And I would have thought, given all these givens, about how I wanted my garden to be before digging up half the property. But that is not how gardening works. And now, once again, I’m digging up this precious ground and it probably won’t be the last time.

Let the Workhorse Plants Work

Grow little plant, grow.

Ok, let’s face it, growing some perennial plants (like native ones) from seed takes time. Lots of it and lots of patience too. Meanwhile the garden looks, well, let’s just say it’s not going to make Fine Gardening anytime soon. While I can use my imagination to visualize what’s to come, most people just see an empty spot of dirt. What if there was a way to speed that process up a bit. Get a bit more immediate satisfaction. I think all my trials and tribulations have finally gotten me to a realization. What if instead of only planting slow growing plants, I let certain plants, sometimes known as workhorse plants, help me out along the way. Plants like annuals, volunteers and hardy herbs that grow quickly, often plant themselves, fill in empty spaces and protect the soil while the slower growing perennials take their good old time.

I’ve so often snubbed annuals thinking they were for beginner gardeners who just wanted something to grow but hey, isn’t that what I want? Let’s face it, patience comes a lot easier with something quick and pretty to distract me from my waiting. I also was worried they might be invasive or become aggressive but as ecologist, Chris Helzer says in a recent post about non-native plants,

A plant’s status as native or not became less important than how it affected the diversity and function of the plant community it was part of.

The natural process of succession starts with more aggressive shorter living plants that gradually give way to slower growing longer living plants. Allowing some shorter living annuals, herbs and fast growing native plants to cover certain areas will pave the way for those slow growing, longer living plants. Many of these quick growing plants also provide valuable ecological services while the tiny slow growers aren’t. Lemon balm, basil, sage, parsley, dill, wild marjoram, violets, white snakeroot, mint and even yes, ground ivy are a few examples.

Lemon balm, a perennial, creates a lovely, dense mound and turns red in fall. It also pops up pretty much everywhere but is easy to pull when young.
While not my favorite, ground ivy does an exceptional job of covering this pathway.
Wild marjoram, also a perennial, covers this bank between establishing purple coneflower and butterfly weed.
This native pokeweed grows like wild fire reaching heights of 7 feet or more so I let it block out the cinder block wall while the holly takes it’s time in the foreground.
Native violets voluntarily cover the bank of this swale while slower natives get established.

A great example of implementing this concept is in my front yard garden where I want to plant an edge of native flowers and grasses that hide my sometimes pretty unattractive vegetable garden from people passing by. I’m also planning on an island in the center to provide a permanent point of interest. Instead of just planting the natives, I’ll plant annuals. I’m thinking about a heavy layer of basil, marigolds, zinnias and/or coreopsis. Then, I’ll add slower growing plants in a strip behind them where their tininess will be hidden by the front layer of annuals. This will not only keep weeds down but it will quickly add that beautiful border.

Next year that crazy layer of homemade mulch and cardboard will be a thick layer of annuals with a layer of slower growing plants behind.

The fact that some plants are a little (and I mean a little) more aggressive isn’t so much a concern because they are so much easier and less disruptive to remove (especially in the early stages) than other more aggressive or invasive plants. And because these plants do an excellent job of covering ground they will suppress as well as hide the less respectable weeds. In short, hopefully my garden will be more beautiful, bountiful and ecological in a shorter amount of time and with a lot less effort.

I really have nothing against weeds but for some reason these beauties just scream weed.

Garden Design, Plant Communities and Cinderblock

This little elderberry (Sambucus nigra canadensis) is meant for great things.

I read this article that got me thinking about the design of my garden. After getting over my obsession with cramming as many vegetables in as little space as possible and realizing if I planted trees it would take a very long time for them ever to make a forest, I planted some trees, also known to many designers as the bones of the garden. They are the focal points, the ones that appear as a skeleton (unless they’re evergreens) in winter. But most are only a few feet tall and not too skeletony yet which leaves the rest of the herbaceous (or often called forbs) to tell the tale. Forbs consist of flowers, grasses, sedges and rushes.

But what is the tale I’m trying to tell? Besides growing food for myself, creating habitat for other life forms and eliminating my lawn as much as possible, what am I trying to achieve from an aesthetic viewpoint because aesthetics is something I’ve been putting on the back burner for quite some time. I guess I thought the native plants would somehow take care of that naturally. I kept telling myself it just takes time. Things will fill in next year and maybe they will or maybe they won’t and meanwhile my garden looks more like an overgrown vacant lot than the High Line.

In the article, Margaret Roach, who writes the popular garden blog, A Way to Garden, interviewed landscape designer, Thomas Rainer and confirmed my suspicions. In the wild, native plants form communities that look pretty good. Places like Dolly Sods in West Virginia and Yellowstone National Park and my own favorite, Merchants Millpond in North Carolina, but other places like my garden, not so good. Why is that I wondered? What am I doing wrong?

Well, Rainer points out plants are not meant to be planted as individuals but as members of an ecosystem where they work with other plants to form communities. Rainer says,

In the wild, every square inch of soil is covered with a mosaic of interlocking plants, but in our gardens, we arrange plants as individual objects in a sea of mulch. We place them in solitary confinement.

This was a profound concept. I’d known it but somehow never really got it until I read the part about switchgrass, a plant that’s abundant in my garden but somehow never looks right. I think messy would be the term.

Dotted line of switchgrass lines the berm of  swale in background.

Rainer says switchgrass doesn’t grow all together in the wild. It grows in tufts scattered amongst other more colonizing plants such as Pennsylvania Sedge (if I have it right). The point being because it doesn’t naturally grow like a groundcover it looks ridiculous if planted that way. And yes, as I looked out at the dotted line formed by tufts of switchgrass along the berm of my swale, it did indeed look ridiculous. And it looked even more ridiculous when during a heavy rain, it flopped like it was having a bad hair day. Yes, something had to be done with the switchgrass.

Rainer seemed to suggest that in natural environments, plants grow according to different levels. Lower level plants tend to pop up here and there amongst higher level plants made up of more colonizing ground covers. This is how I understood it anyway (I’ll read the article again just to make sure).

So, what were my lower level plants and what were my higher level ground covers? Well, that’s easy. Lower level plants are switchgrass, wild bergamot, hairy mountain mint, sneezeweed, white snakeroot, milkweed, coneflower, rudbeckia and great blue lobelia. But what were the higher level plants, the colonizing ground covers? I guess that would have to be my old friends, the violets and Virginia creeper, the natural ground cover in my garden. But couldn’t shrubs and trees also be higher level colonizing ground covers? Swamp rose and elderberry come to mind.

At any rate, it all got me to thinking not just about plant communities but about my garden and me. Sure, my garden provides me with food and habitat for other life but does it provide me with joy? Yes and no was the answer. My garden, it seemed needed some unnatural natural beauty. The dotted line of switchgrass needed to go. Borders needed to be defined. Bare soil needed to be covered. Paths needed definition. Plants needed combinations that work as communities and that mysterious cinderblock wall that failed to conceal the car needed to be concealed from me.

Yes, the cinderblock wall that I keep telling myself doesn’t bother me does indeed bother the heck out of me. First of all, it’s ugly. Second of all it doesn’t even provide privacy. The swamp rose should eventually hide the car but the wall, that wall. Then I had an idea. An idea that nearly blew me away. Elderberry. It grows from a foot to 12’ in 3 years and it blocks everything out. I happen to have a young seedling growing in the driveway. Because it can be short lived, I’d plant an American holly behind it that would grow slowly over time.

Imagine this in front of wall.

I would lose more space for vegetables but so what? This was my master plan. My husband is not so enthused but I know better. This was the community my garden was telling me to make all along.

 

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.