December Notes 2017

My not so bountiful but so delicious sweet potato harvest.

I’m afraid my sweet potato harvest was a bit disappointing. I think it was probably due to some rabbits eating them down to the ground for the first month. Anyhow they were still good. I really like the purple kind and there is nothing more beautiful than a hot baked half lathered with butter.

Prepped and planted with seeds for a meadow.
Looking a bit better with some leaves and winter rye sprouts.

It’s official. I sowed the seeds from Prairie Moon  and Ernst Seeds for the front yard meadow. And now the area looks like an open wound. The great thing about planting seeds is once you start sprinkling them around you realize you could never really stick to any plan. They just kind of go where they want and will do what they do. It’s really kind of a crap shoot. I guess that’s why I like it so much. Like a box of chocolates, you never really know what you’re going to get. So we shall see.

I prepped the area yesterday (especially along the edges) loosening up the ground with my trusty old garden fork, loosening the weeds with a hoe and then raking them up with a bow rake. Yes that’s a lot of soil disturbance I know but I’ve found it’s kind of necessary with Bermudagrass. Actually I kind of enjoy pulling out Bermudagrass. I reach deep into the soil until I get hold of that ingeniously designed intersection of root and stalk and gently pull until I feel it give way as if in surrender after a long battle. On the other hand, ground ivy when pulled with the bow rake comes up like a mat but only if the soil is moist and loose. Fall is a good time to do these kinds of things because the ground is usually moist and the temperature ideal for getting hot and stripping off the layers.

So here is my successional plan. I planted winter rye which will come up first and die in early summer and be followed by black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia hirta), a biennial which is suppose to grow fairly quickly and be followed by slower growing foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), nodding onion (Allium cernuum) and smooth blue aster (Aster laevis). All of these seeds excluding the asters costs no more than $40.00 per ounce and an ounce of seed especially if those seeds are tiny as these are, should cover a lot of ground. Let’s just say (if I’m getting it right) (math was never my specialty) according to Larry Weaner, author of  Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, .7 ounces of Joe pye weed would cover about 70% of a 1000 square foot area. All of this information along with a tidy formula for calculating amount of seed needed for an area can be found on page 237 of the book. I didn’t buy an ounce of anything except black-eyed Susan and I used about ¾ of it for the area in the above photo.

So anyway, that’s what I did and now it’s time for the hardest part. The wait and see part. I have a long wait as I probably won’t see any sign of anything (except winter rye) until July. Just 8 months. That’s gardening for you.

Moved the beds together so they’d be easier to surround with rabbit fencing.

And then after that I went straight into moving everything around in what will be the rabbit proof vegetable garden. It was hard physical work and terrible for the soil but boy was it fun.

I moved the asparagus beds. That was fun. Not too much. Lots and lots of very tough roots. It was borderline violent getting them out. Kind of like (but not really) digging up mulberry tree roots. It was interesting how the violet bulbs attached themselves to the asparagus roots. Probably not a good thing for the asparagus.

I took up huge mats of ground ivy that came up like a roll of turf grass. Like in the front yard soon to be meadow, I used a garden fork, pushing it in the ground with my foot and then pulling back and forth on the handle just to loosen up the ground. Then I let the bow rake fall and grip into the soil and pulled until the mat of weeds began to loosen its hold. Once it did it was just a matter of pulling until the weed mat began to roll up. It’s very similar to rolling up a ball of snow to make a snowman. It’s also one of those things you need to be very careful not to yank too hard and pull a muscle. Just slow and easy like you have all the time in the world. I used the ground ivy and violets as a mulch. I know they’ll grow back but that’s ok. They cover the disturbed ground and under that weed mat was some pretty dark, healthy looking soil.

In the process of moving all this dirt and stuff around I happened upon a very sad sight. Not one of my favorites. First it was just some fur, then a foot, then I knew it was a rabbit. Or part of one somehow got into my pile of dirt. I told myself it couldn’t be by rabbit friend Medium.

Actually it came to me then what may have happened. The other day I noticed one of my wire fence tree protectors was all gnarled up as if something had gotten tangled in it. A fox or something must have gotten the rabbit.

Being somewhat obsessively absorbed in my project, I buried the rabbit and went on with my work. When I was pretty much done, I sat down on this pretty shaky bench to rest and admire my job. What a great place for a bench. No one can see me but I feel I can see everything. For this one brief moment there were no sounds of leaf blowers, sirens, chainsaws or mowers. Only the soft sound of juncos, a breeze in the trees and a rustle in the leaves. I looked down and there was Medium hopping straight for me. Startled, I sucked in my breath. He (I’ll just say he for the sake of getting on with this) stopped no more than two feet from me. I could have reached out and petted him on the head. I greeted him as I always do and wondered what he would have done if I hadn’t gotten startled. He stood up on his hind legs for a few moments and examined me with one eye then hopped off to nibble on some daffodil plant I’d just moved. That’s gardening for you.

Frosty rose hips.
Advertisements

Huntley Meadows Park

I have always been fascinated by places with water, especially places like swamps, marshes and bogs. Why?

“The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.” – line from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Because they are creepy. They are places where convicts and runaways hide, prehistoric creatures lurk and beautiful carnivorous plants wait for their prey. Some swamps such as the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, have been there since before Europeans settlement if only because they stubbornly refuse to be drained. But even those that succumbed to drainage still seem to linger in the form of stagnant mosquito breeding summers and cold dank winters as in our own nation’s capital.

There’s a small area in my garden I call the wetland which is really just a swale I made that occasionally fills and sometimes overflows with runoff water enticing me to run out in the mud with my umbrella and just gaze at the water as if it was Niagara Falls.

No more than a mile from Walmart and the gazillion traffic lights of route 1 deep in the depths of the Northern Virginia suburbia lies a real wetland known as Huntley Meadows Park. In the early 1800’s, prominent landowner, George Mason IV owned the land and used it for a grain farm. Then it became a dairy farm, then a laboratory for asphalt testing, then an anti-aircraft protection base and finally in 1970, a park, probably because it could not stop being one of those nasty undrainable swamps.

There are many kinds of wetlands. Huntley happens to be a hemi-marsh also known as an emergent marsh which means it’s a shallow wetland, usually less than 3 feet deep made up of 50% open water and 50% vegetated water. Huntley was created by beavers who used many of the trees to dam up a Potomac river oxbow (the actual river once flowed through here) and create an opening where other wetland plants would fill in.

It’s a beaver mcmansion!

In order for this type of wetland to persist it needs a pattern of fluctuating water levels. Lower levels in the summer allow light and oxygen to reach the soil and germinate new plants as well as consolidate new silt. When the water level rises in winter it prevents plants from taking over (or turning back to a forest) and creates ice free zones for aquatic life.

A muskrat on a mission swims right under the boardwalk paying me no mind.
Swamp rose (Rosa palustris) stretches far into the distance. Must be stunning in June.
A great blue heron stealthily stalks a fish.

Some of the animals that live here are yellow-crowned night heron, king rail, pied-billed grebe, common moorhen, reptiles and amphibians, beavers and muskrats. American bittern and least bittern once nested here but now are only seen occasionally. The plant list is long but includes swamp rose, swamp milkweed, elderberry, silky dogwood, button bush, New York ironweed and crimson-eyed rose mallow. There is also a meadow with native meadow plants here which I didn’t get a chance to see as well as a sizable forested area. I did happen to see a red headed woodpecker, blue bird, red winged blackbird, great blue heron, Canadian geese, mallards, beaver and muskrat all in a short hour walk. Maybe not so creepy but amazing nonetheless.

November Notes 2017

All of a sudden I’ve got so much to do I’m dizzy. But I still can’t seem to help myself from philosophizing and wondering about whether I’m doing the right thing. For example, should I plant my not so native seeds now or wait until after the winter rye dies in late spring? Sometimes I just have to stop thinking and follow my gut because in gardening, timing may not be everything but it’s a lot. Right now my gut is telling me to plant now.

The meadow will go here. Winter rye has covered the slope nicely.

Larry Weaner, author of Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, recommended planting seeds for a meadow in late spring to early summer especially if the area is weedy. The area is pretty weedy but unfortunately I read this advice after I’d already ordered seeds. I also was planning on planting winter rye in this area and after it died in the spring planting the meadow seeds. So, my new plan, since I have the seeds and don’t want them to die in storage, is just to plant everything now including the winter rye which hopefully will work as a nurse crop for the meadow seeds.

I just went through this entire ramble to illustrate just how confusing and utterly ridiculous gardening can be. I’d love to go on with many other examples like what to do with all the hollies that keep showing up or should I move the sweet pepperbush away from the maple since I also learned from Larry Weaner that maples tend to be water hogs.

Oh, and I finally did order seeds from Ernst Seeds. Rudbeckia hirta aka black eyed Susan, of North Carolina coastal plain ecotype. Got an ounce of seed for a grand total of $6.26 including shipping. Should work as an early successional plant before longer living perennials take over.

I’ve got to dig up the sweet potatoes, plant the cover crop and meadow seeds, plant the hollies and then I guess I can be done, for now. Ok, that isn’t so bad. Unless I plant them in the wrong spot… Breathe in breathe out.

I miss the robins who so love to fight over this upside down trash can lid filled with water.
But the robins have been replaced by sparrows. I like to think they like all the things I’ve planted. The white snakeroot is still very popular.

Enough of that. Fall seems to have arrived. Everything except the cars, leaf blowers and end of season lawn mowing has gone. The catbirds and warblers are gone. The bees and butterflies are gone. Even most of the mosquitoes are gone. There’s an occasional robin, bluejay, wren, sparrow, cardinal and woodpecker. It’s sad to see the bird baths so still. The crows and doves are still around. I love the doves. They just seem so laid back. I’ll see this strange looking stone and realize it’s a dove warming itself in the sun but when startled there’s that dramatic sound the wings make as they fly away. And even the crows look nice in an El Greco kind of way against the grey malevolent sky. It’s kind of a poetic time I suppose.

And it’s colorful leaf time. The scarlets, yellows and orange everywhere. My garden doesn’t have too many scarlets but quite a few of the yellows. And there are many more subtle things like the highbush blueberry that’s not too high does turn a nice shade. A few weeks ago when there were still lots of birds around I noticed ruby crowned kinglets. I was amazed at how their erratic movements in the maple tree could so easily be mistaken for leaves falling. An evolutionary trick?

This is Medium about to go for that milkweed.

I haven’t seen much of my friend Medium, the rabbit who may have graduated to Large. I have seen and heard many a squirrel. One’s made a nest in the chestnut. I asked it if it had a warm place to go. It looked at me and climbed into its nest. So, they actually do live in those big leafy balls.

It’s turning quiet with all those nice quiet things.

The subtle colors of fleabane against basil.
The seed head of Culver’s root.

Yes, it seems awfully quiet but there are many signs of life to come.

Young tufts of prairie dropseed begin to take shape.
A young eastern redbud tree, columbine and wild strawberry.

And, I have these signs all over the place marking places I planted various seeds I’ve collected nearby. If anything I planted actually grows (which apparently could take years) it will be my lucky day.

Seeds from berries I’ve collected from around. Not too easy separating the seed from the berry.

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.”

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.

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.