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.
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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 So Called Ecological Garden

While running to get my camera and change lenses so I can capture some bee I’ll probably never have the time to identify or will waste too much time trying to, I often wonder why I work so hard doing these things that most would classify as somewhat nutty. I’m not an ecologist. I’m not being paid to do what I do and now after reading a post written by an ecologist, I wonder if I’m just wasting my time doing what it is I do which I guess could be described as ecological gardening.

The article is written by Chris Helzer, who as The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, works to restore and conserve prairies in the Nebraska area. In a nutshell, the article basically seems to say that because backyard gardens are usually very small isolated areas, they don’t save species because the species that are in trouble need large prairies to survive. The species that take advantage of small gardens are usually generalized meaning they can survive in a variety of habitats and don’t need backyard gardens. Granted, the author is referring to prairie conservation, I can only guess this extends to species that rely on other types of ecosystems such as forests or wetlands. Unfortunately, this is because when I think about it, it makes a lot of sense. In fact, I’ve often thought about it but it still doesn’t make it any less of a disappointment. Just because I want it, doesn’t mean it is.

My garden is part of a pretty strange system. The birds are mostly city birds I can almost count on the fingers of two hands; robins, crows, house sparrows, blue jays, song sparrows, mourning doves, goldfinches, catbirds, mockingbirds, cardinals, wrens, a few woodpeckers and every now and then a nuthatch, titmouse or chickadee. Huge flocks of starlings settle over everything and then leave just as fast as they came. I’ve never witnessed a baby bird take its first flight from the nests in my garden because the crows or something always seem to get to them first. I’ve seen rats and voles and chipmunks and deer but these aren’t struggling specialized species. These are the ones who seem to thrive in this kind of urban/suburban environment.

Some rarer birds like warblers and flycatchers come through in the spring and fall. Hawks come down at this time of year trying to snag a rabbit, rat or squirrel. Signs of a fox can be found every now and then. As for pollinators, that’s a tough one because I’ve noticed many, large and small but I have to admit being a complete novice at identification.  Monarchs seem to be everywhere but apparently they got confused because of unusual weather patterns

As for amphibians, I’ve heard one frog and it was the most exciting moment ever. Then it was gone.

Rabbits of all sizes are everywhere. They are barely scared of me, sometimes they come so close I’m the one that backs away. This seems to be heaven for them.

The so called wetland I made is really just a swale filled with violets, white snakeroot, some not so native native plants as well as non native ones. It’s nothing close to a real wetland, where water and land have formed complex biodiverse communities over centuries.

So, alas, my garden can not be a prairie, forest or wetland. Ok, I know I may be saving species indirectly by filtering or capturing runoff water that would otherwise be polluting the Chesapeake Bay but it doesn’t quite give the same satisfaction as providing a habitat in my backyard. Nevertheless, I will carry on with my planning, planting and dreaming and if, by chance one of those struggling species should happen upon my garden during their travels, they will surely find this a fine refuge.

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.