August Notes 2017

It’s that time of year when I really don’t want to be out in the garden too long due to things like heat, humidity, mosquitoes and the fact that my garden seems to become an overwhelming kind of jungle that’s much easier to ignore than attempt to subdue. The drought is officially over and now we’ve moved on to a monsoon. But that’s ok with me. Each morning smells like damp wood.

The plants are doing great, all except the tomatoes which were a complete disaster. They were looking great but then started looking sick and half chewed green tomatoes started appearing on the ground. I don’t want to sound too over dramatic but it was a bit discouraging as the larger tomatoes slowly disappeared until the only ones left were the size of cherry tomatoes. And it was utterly irritating to see a squirrel perched right in front of us eating away at the remnants of a nice big one between its little paws. This is kind of strange considering I’ve had many successful tomato harvests in the past. Maybe I shouldn’t have put out so many corn cobs during the winter. Regardless, I think, maybe, I’m done growing tomatoes, for now. At least the big juicy kind. Maybe eggplants would do better.

I’ve put together a page with galleries listing all the plants I feel are providing the most services in my garden at this time. By services I mean food and shelter for wildlife, erosion control and soil enhancement, food for me and/or some sort of benefit for everyone else. So far I’ve only included plants that don’t require soil amendments but I hope to add a page for vegetables and animals at some point.

After much deliberation, I decided to go for the slope. I guess this may not be the most attractive way to kill the sod but I can’t see that it’s worse than plastic. At least it breaks down. Anyhow I have big plans for this area. You could call it my creation, a plan that will hopefully not involve too much hacking at the ground in order to create some kind of ecologically beneficial and nice looking non weedy slope in the not too distant future.

Flower from the okra plant.

I’m kind of on the fence about the okra. On the one hand it’s a beautiful plant and the rabbits or squirrels don’t bother it but on the other it doesn’t provide much in the way of a crop. I’ve noticed aphids have made themselves at home on a few plants but the plants don’t seem to be suffering because of them. I’m pleased to see goldfinches have been enjoying the aphids.

For my first fixing of the okra as a vegetable, I roasted it for about 45 minutes in olive oil. It was good and not slimy.

Fenced in sweet potatoes or you could say fenced out rabbits. You can see how scraggly common milkweed (plant on the right) gets by this time of year.

So far the rabbit fencing has worked allowing the sweet potato vines to branch out but just until they reach the fencing where the rabbits keep them neatly trimmed.

This is absolutely ridiculous I know but I’ve named our resident rabbits according to their size; Small, Medium and Large, since I can’t tell them apart and they grow too fast to bother anyway. They are very good listeners too by the way with their big ears and all. They just sit there looking at me with their nose twitching as some kind of leafy green disappears into their mouth. I’ve also named the yearly resident squirrel. Every year we have a new one and we know this because it always has some unique feature. This year it’s a skinny tail that looks like it’s been rubber banded so we call the squirrel Rubber Band Tail. We don’t have pets so I guess this is as good as it gets.

Insanely large white snakeroot plants. For some reason this picture just seems to capture the essence of August. I don’t know why.
I’m not sure why of all the milkweed plants, this monarch chose this ugly dead looking one.

Various bees are now enjoying the sneezeweed and wild marjoram but soon these insanely large white snakeroot plants will bloom and hopefully attract hordes of pollinators. Speaking of pollinators, I’ve seen plenty of monarchs and a giant black wasp named appropriately The Giant Black Wasp.

I’m just in love with this pokeweed right now as it so beautifully hides the cinder block wall. I hope my back isn’t going to pay when I have to pick all the seedlings that sprout from fallen berries in the spring. I cut down quite a few plants before the berries ripened but a catbird gave me a talking to so I stopped.

Oh, and it’s always nice to enjoy a glass of fresh Thai basil iced tea while listening to an evening concert of crickets with an occasional katydid. Cheers!

July Notes 2017

I finally got a look at the book everyone in the gardening world seems to be raving about and ooooo was I dazzled. The book, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, seems to suggest we all yearn for the lost wild places that are no more. The virgin forests the explorers romped through in search of gold, the prairies of Little House on the Prairie, the savannas of Africa and the wetlands of the Bayou. Something like that anyway. I don’t know about everyone, but I was just in love with this book for the pictures alone. Wilderness is what gets my blood moving and while the gist of this book seems to say pristine wilderness is kind of non-existent, it also seems to suggest we can still have the best of it and in our own yards no less.

So, I’ve started dividing up my garden into various wilderness areas.

I’ve decided this is a prairie.
This is the wetland.
This is a woodland or woodland edge.
And this will become the savanna.

Wilderness with a touch of farm.

What’s in bloom right now?

Mountain mint in background and fleabane in foreground.
Wild marjoram seems to be a real hit with pollinators.
Black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower

I need more flowers but I have to say I’m happy with the wildness of my garden.

The elderberry is weighted down with berries and the catbirds just can’t get enough. My 5 year old niece came over the other day and looked like an absolute fairy as she happily picked elderberries. “For winter”, she insisted. I wasn’t exactly thrilled knowing she had no intention of eating them but I just couldn’t resist letting her pick just a handful “for winter” which she later made into some kind of pudding that I ended up eating in my oatmeal for breakfast. Apparently elderberries are extremely healthy.

I found a great use for that flopping row of switchgrass. Mulch.

As far as vegetables go, the rabbits and deer have really been going to town on the sweet potatoes so I put up more fencing around them. I guess I have that old watch what you wish for dilemma going. My garden makes the perfect wildlife habitat for rabbits.

One thing the rabbits have left completely alone is okra. So far the plants are growing but the actual okra doesn’t seem to be there yet…I’ve never grown okra before.

Another plant the rabbits don’t touch is tomatoes. I’m in the green tomato phase when they seem to be green forever. I’m waiting…

EXTREMELY EXCITING MOMENT!!! I was sitting on the porch eating dinner. My niece’s mouth was going a mile a minute when I heard, could it be? A frog? A toad? Then I heard it again. It was definitely a frog or a toad and it sounded like it was coming from a small rain garden I made. So much for mowing.

June Notes 2017

Swamp rose and a very happy bee.

June, my favorite month, not sure why, is here. Got to have a picture of a rose and a very happy bee.

2 culprits heading out.

Bunnies and other: Ok they are darn cute but… They can do some damage. My temporary fence made of bird netting worked for awhile. Enough so that the lettuce and peas could grow but then one day there was a bunny inside happily chewing away. Then when it saw my unhappy face it couldn’t figure out how to get out. Then a passerby asked if I kept them in there like they were my pets! Actually it wasn’t so bad because there was so much lettuce they couldn’t really make a dent. But today when I went out, the fresh young swiss chard had been chomped on along with a couple sweet potato plants. It turned out the bunnies had gotten in by chewing a hole through the netting. At that point I decided the bird netting fence had to go. It was no walk in the park struggling in the hot sun with the bird netting (that kept getting caught on the button of my sleeve) and that twist tie stuff I was raving about was just about as much of a pain. This time I am really done with bird netting. Now what to do with it so it doesn’t end up in an ocean strangling some poor fish.

But back to the bunnies. My theory with them is they really like fresh growth. They also really like certain plants such as lettuce, chard and peas. But they aren’t so hot about everything. They don’t eat my mustards, tomatoes or peppers, for example, and so far they haven’t touched my okra. And they aren’t especially fond of mature lettuce or chard. Here’s some strategies I’ve come up with:

  • Keep the stuff they like protected until there’s so much of it they can’t make a dent. This includes vegetables as well as young woody plants.
    • Rabbit fencing for their favorite vegetables and woodies. Hold the fencing tight to the ground with landscape staples.
    • Or use milk cartons or plastic cups with stuff like sweet potatoes and squash.
  • Grow lots of stuff they like as a decoy. Stuff like violets and even lettuce since it’s so easy and cheap to grow.
Front yard garden with heavy duty wire rabbit fence around chewed up chard and milk cartons around sweet potatoes.
This field of violets didn’t get here naturally.

Violets. They have become my savior in so many ways. They cover ground, distract bunnies, support specialized wildlife, smother weeds, voluntarily grow, define pathways, garden beds and taller plants, survive drought, build soil, prevent erosion, replace lawn, look beautiful and can handle bunnies chomping on them. They will be the building block of my design.

I guess the one tiny drawback to them is they don’t always come up where I want them so I have to move them to where I want them. They come up pretty much everywhere, including my vegetable beds so I’ve been moving them from there to other more desirable places but now since it seems like we’re back in a drought, I can take a break from that for awhile.

Some of the not-so-native native seeds I planted in the fall seem to be coming up. Little Bluestem, golden Alexander, Bush’s echinacea, butterfly weed and possibly goldenrod and New England aster.

Bush’s Coneflower seedlings.
Butterfly weed and golden Alexander seedlings. (and violets)

Milkweed, swamp rose, elderberry, parsley, lovage, raspberry and fleabane is blooming (or was blooming) much to the pollinator’s delight. Oh yeah, and I forgot about the chestnut tree with it’s lovely catkins. I always forget to look up.

Speaking of fleabane. This is another great voluntary plant in my garden. I guess it’s weedy but it’s native and prolific. I think it may look much better and less weedy if it were framed with something like switchgrass, something I’ll be working on.

Fleabane and pollinators.

Back to vegetables. I’m doing some successional planting. I planted okra between mature lettuce and sweet potatoes in with flowering mustards. Also, carrots and radishes under peppers and tomatoes.

The thing about front yard gardens is while they can look presentable, there are times when they don’t look so good like now, when some things are dying and others are so tiny, the area looks like a bare spot. I’ll have to work on that.  I have some ideas I’ll go into later.

But right now seems like we’re heading for another drought. This new spigot on my rain barrels will fill a bucket in a couple of seconds vs. a couple of minutes. Might make hauling water around a little more fun.

Oh, yeah, and I actually planted some bulbs or transplanted some that is. Daffodils. All over the place. Can’t wait for spring to come again.

 

 

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.

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.