Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Pollinators of Native Plants" is a Great Resource for Creating Pollinator Habitat

Heather Holm’s blog Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants is a valuable resource for any gardener.  A landscaper herself, with extensive experience using natives on her own property, Heather combines this knowledge with excellent photography skills to showcase native plants and their associated insects. When considering what plants to put in my own yard, I have often consulted her blog. Equally, when wondering what type of bees are likely to visit various plants, I’ll check to see what information she offers. She has graciously let me use her photos to illustrate some of my own posts.

Now Holm has compiled a great deal of essential information in her new book, Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants (Pollination Press, 2014). This easy to use reference will prove useful to anyone interested in native plants and who wants to have the kind of garden that attracts bees, butterflies and other helpful insects. The opening sections explain the role and life cycles of pollinators and how pollination works. The bulk of the book treats over sixty flowering plants, with sections devoted to prairie, woodland edge, and wetland edge plants. 

Native plants have particular needs regarding soil, moisture and sun, but if the right plant is planted in the right place, they will do well with little extra care. The book reflects this, and is organized so that each entry includes a description of the plant, its growing requirements and natural range (mostly the eastern half of North America); you can see at a glance if a plant you are considering is right for your yard. Each entry also includes a useful discussion of the pollinating insects that are associated with the plant. The detailed photographs have caught pollinators in action, which makes it easier to identify them when outside.  Also included are handy charts, a glossary, and sample planting plans for a variety of situations.

Pollinators of Native Plants fills a niche, whether used for planning a native plant garden or for guidance regarding what you are likely to see when in natural areas. There are plenty of excellent wildflower and insect guides, but few combine the two so conveniently as this does. A whole range of people will find Holm's book useful, from gardeners, organic farmers, and permaculturalists, to garden and landscape designers, as well as those restoring and managing natural areas. I could even see a role for it in the classroom. Beginners will find the book valuable because it is an entree to the kind of broad knowledge that takes years to develop, while experienced practitioners will find worthwhile information as well.  Pollinators is a great companion to Attracting Native Pollinators (reviewed here), the Xerces Society’s compendium on the subject that was an inspiration for Holm.

The best way anyone can help native and honey bees is to provide good, pesticide free habitat with loads of native flowers. This book is a helpful resource in that endeavor.

Cross-posted at

Related Posts: 
Attracting Native Pollinators
Urban Neighborhoods Can Be Good for Native Bees 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Butterweed, Butterwhat?

A green wood by a river

A surprising flower in Thatcher Woods

At this time of year, the woodland savannah is green, green, green. The spring ephemerals have quit blooming and the summer players—woodland sunflower, Joe pie weed, the grasses and goldenrods—are still mustering their strength. So as you walk through the green shade, there’s not much color—oh, some delicate white sweet Cicely, perhaps, but little more than that. It’s enough to make one wonder how the butterflies and bees are getting their nectar and pollen. You get your "plant eyes" on, in the sense that you are identifying by leaf shape, habit of growth and shade of green: you focus on fundamentals, on what really characterizes each plant, rather than the gaudy flower.

So there a fellow forest preserve volunteer and I were last week, walking through the bottomland along the Des Plaines River, comparing specimens of Asian and native honeysuckle, avoiding poison ivy, noticing the raspberries coming along, listening to the bull frogs croaking and the woodpeckers and robins commenting on perceived conditions, and generally enjoying the green gloom, when a vast flare of sunlit yellow caught our eyes. Across a flooded river inlet was at least an acre of three-foot tall plants topped by bright yellow flowers where such things shouldn’t be, as if a crew of flashy strangers had crashed a Quaker meeting. We were compelled to investigate, which involved some navigation around the water and dealing with a muddy sloping bank.

What we found was a plant neither of us recognized. Now, without boasting I can say I am familiar with most of the plants in Thatcher Woods: even if I don’t yet know their names, I recognize them, like neighbors from the next block over. And my friend is pretty good, too. There are also various plants I’ve read about and then recognize when I encounter them, as when I first saw hoary puccoon in a dry prairie I was visiting. But this? Deeply lobed leaves, a daisy-like composite flower, seed puffs like a dandelion, and a ridged hollow stem—nope, never saw it before. Never expected to see it or knew to look for it. Could it be a Senecio, a ragwort, of some kind? Well, it didn’t match anything in the Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers I had with me. Those leaves. That somewhat brittle, easily snapped, hollow stem. We figured it might be a non-native invasive, introduced since the book was published.

Later I described the plant to my colleague, an environmental biology instructor, also a plant geek and a superior sleuth. The next day a name, Senecio glabellus—alternatively Packera glabella, common name butterweed—and links to Missouri and Ohio websites showed up in my in-box. The plant is also called cressleaf groundsel (“groundsel” is from an old Anglo-Saxon word “groundeswelge” meaning ground swallower) and it is toxic to grazing animals—though deer have enough sense to avoid it. Now that I had the name, I could easily check Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region: they say the plant is native to southern Illinois, but has been introduced in Du Page County. Illinois Wildflowers says the same and gives it the epithet “weedy,” adding that its native range has expanded north from southern to central Illinois. Yet here it is, ensconced and happy in Cook County.

A couple of days later I went back to take pictures. There had been rain, and the whole area was flooded. A doe and two fawns appeared nearby, sensed me upwind and moved off, not too fast. A bullfrog croaked. A great blue heron grunted in a slightly higher key. The butterweeds stood blooming bravely, up to their waists in water.

Related Posts:
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Gardening in Thatcher Woods, with Help
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard

Monday, June 9, 2014

Three Weeds You Can Eat

Foraging while gardening

Lady's Thumb in bloom

The other day, while engaging in my hobby of pulling weeds, I started thinking about categories: weeds, weeds, and weeds. There are the bullies, the thugs, the thieves, the ones that, unable to fit comfortably into a given plant community, will take over your garden or a natural area and through various mechanisms—high reproduction rate, extreme adaptability, quick genetic adaptation, allellopathic chemicals released in the soil, resistance to insects and pathogens, or simply shading out other plants—can and will rapidly disrupt a functioning ecosystem or garden. They are the reason I go on bindweed patrol nearly every day during the growing season and forest preserve volunteers spend too much of their free time getting after buckthorn, Asian honeysuckle and teasel.

Plants in the wrong place
There are other weeds that are plants simply in the wrong place, as determined by the gardener who, for example, gets to decide that grass shouldn’t grow among the flowering perennials, or that non-natives shouldn’t grow among the natives. Some people, such as a permaculturalist or two, might tell you there are no weeds, merely plants taking advantage of situations, filling in a niche or a vacuum, since nature doesn’t like vacancies. Ecologists might speak of “invasives” or “weedy species,” but “weed” is not exactly part of the scientific lexicon either. It is a term defined most fully by the human-designed context of yard, garden, and farm and as a result can also be a legal term. I’ve heard landscapers recommend plants that have achieved the legal standing of noxious weeds. How should one feel about this?

Weeds with benefits
There is another category of weed, however: those plants that, native or not, might take over if you let them, but if managed properly, add to a yard’s biodiversity, don’t look bad, and offer nutritious supplements to your diet and that of various pollinators and other wildlife. This is a category useful to gardeners relaxed about what fussier gardeners might consider “appearances,” who don’t like to kill plants unnecessarily, and understand that mostly, weeds are in the eye of the beholder. Thus, to me, a few dandelions in the grass are tolerable, and almost everyone knows you can add their young leaves to a salad for extra tang.

When I’m out weeding, I’m foraging as well. There are thinnings, natural microgreens such as parsley and radishes (both leaves and tiny red roots) that must be pulled so the others can grow strong and healthy, the cilantro that pops up everywhere, and the oregano that always needs cutting back. My iced tea gets brewed with handfuls of the mint that appears in unlikely places. These are plants that have been let in to the garden on purpose, however. What about the others, the ones who just show up one day? Lately I’ve been adding the leaves of young violets, Asiatic dayflowers and lady’s thumbs to the evening salad.

Bumblebees like the nectar
Our native common violets (Viola sororia sororia) grace the yard in early spring. Bumblebees appreciate them, since they bloom when little else does, but lawn fetishists loath them. In turf grass they don’t really take over, but give them some bare soil in a semi-shady, moist environment, and watch out. Not only do they have their lovely spurred flowers, but later, in late May and early June, they have a second greenish, unnoticeable bloom, at which time you’ll notice hundreds of babies around each mother plant. This is because the second, cleistogamous, bloom produces seeds which are ejected from the capsules in fall.

Unless you want to use violets as a groundcover (effective in the right
Young violets
spots under bushes and trees) you’ll want to thin them out before they develop their tubers. Young violet leaves are good in salads, though, as pointed out in Edible Wild Plants, they are “somewhat bland and best mixed with other greens.” I haven’t tried other suggested uses yet, such as candying the flowers, adding the leaves to soup as a thickener, or drying the leaves for tea. They are a source of nectar for bumble bees. Halictid and mason bees and Syrphid flies also visit the flowers and birds occasionally eat the seeds, while caterpillars of Fritillary butterflies and small mammals nibble the leaves.

Asiatic Dayflowers
Asiatic dayflower
The young stems and lance-shaped leaves of Asiatic dayflowers (Commelina communis) are also good in salads. Their flavor is also bland, but but because they are somewhat thick and fleshy they can add some body and variety of shape to your lettuce. These creeping annuals have a pretty blue and white flower, at which I have seen bees, but in my experience are best picked before they bloom. More mature, blooming plants can be steamed like spinach. You could also add them with other chopped greens to a saute. They are prolific, and will appear seemingly at random, but, in my yard, at least cause no harm and are not pernicious, though they can be pesky in the wrong place. Their roots don’t run deep and if you miss a few one day you can get them the next. The dayflower is also an alley weed par excellence, one of that wild tribe that clusters around telephone poles, along fences and next to garages. Besides their usefulness to bees, songbirds, such as mourning doves, eat the seeds.

Lady’s Thumb
Lady's Thumb in an alley
Another player in the alley mix is lady’s thumb (Polygonum persicaria), though you’ll also find this low plant sprawling in the woods, vacant lots, and neglected corners of your yard. The narrow leaves have a dark triangular “thumbprint.” The tiny pink flowers are clumped tightly together on erect stems. They have a mild flavor and again are best in salads when young. You can also steam or boil them like spinach if you collect enough. Caterpillars also like them; those of coppers eat the foliage while gray hairstreaks eat the flowers and fruit. Birds like the seeds. Though the plant hails originally from Europe, as Dr. John Hilty at Illinois Wildflowers says, “the ecological value of this little plant is
rather high, notwithstanding its weedy nature.”

None of these three plants will go away without a lot of effort and the use of toxic chemicals. They are so generally pervasive that if banished from the yard they’ll surely reappear later, or most likely sooner. Yet they aren’t thuggish, look pretty nice, and offer benefits to humans and non-humans alike. These are weeds I can live with, and do.

Note: It goes without saying that no one should eat any foraged plants unless sure of their identification. References include Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America, by Lee Allen Peterson, and Illinois Wildflowers.

Related Posts:
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Creeping Charlie Love

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Backyard Plant Species Count

Permaculture biodiversity
How many plant species live in your backyard? How many are native? How many provide food for you or for birds, pollinators, and other non-human persons—or for everyone? I am not a trained scientist, but I sometimes hang out with biologists, and one thing they like to do is count things, especially living things. One reason is to assess the health of a place, on the principle that the more biodiversity, the better. I’m no permaculturalist, either—no official certificate—though I have polyculture beds and am deeply influenced by the design philosophy and methods. The basic idea is to work with natural systems and imitate their function when establishing a food garden. Again, the more biodiversity, the better.

However, it had never occurred to me to do a backyard species count until I read Eric Toensmeier’s Paradise Lot, an ebullient book about urban permaculture so full of enthusiasm that if you are fortunate enough to have a backyard, you will immediately want to try out some of what he’s doing. He writes about biodiversity and the benefits of a garden full of diverse species and mentions at one point that when people have asked how many species he and his gardening partner Jonathan Bates have, he doesn’t know. Then when he does a count, he comes up with something like 185 different species. More or less, in a small backyard roughly analogous to mine in size.

Inspired by this, I went on a field trip out back to do my own species survey. I knew I had “lots of species” (a term of art), and an actual count came up with between 100 and 120. More or less. More if one counts the seeds I’ve just planted, and the prairie plants I know are there, but haven’t quite emerged from their torpor, less if the seeds don’t take, or the prairie plants have indeed been winter killed. Of the total, half are native. The half that aren’t include weeds that I keep at more or less manageable levels but have never quite eliminated. Every plant provides food and/or shelter for someone. Perhaps a quarter provide food for the human residents. When one counts also affects the totals. Spring ephemerals go dormant. There are, at the moment, hundreds of cotyledons that haven’t declared their allegiance in the form of a second set of leaves (though one can make an educated guess in most cases). You always miss something. Besides time, this exercise depends on memory, and like all things botanical, the result is more approximate than definite.

More than 100 separate species, then. Not too bad, considering, for example, the fact that most of the backyards in my neighborhood might have only ten or twenty species, and all non-native, at that. These are, in my opinion, what might be called ecological deserts, analogous to those urban neighborhoods termed food deserts. Many of the species in these yards may be “ornamental,” and the yards themselves neat and green, but they are not biologically beautiful or elegant, since by definition these terms require good ecological functioning and an ability to help support other living species.

The numbers tell other stories, too. In general, I prefer native species. That half the species are non-native is because when I started to add natives, I did so gradually, as I had funds, and will not pull out (that is, kill) a non-native that is good looking, useful, and non-invasive. That half the species are still non-native also reflects that many things I like to eat, such as parsley, basil, chard, radishes, lettuce, and tomatoes came from elsewhere. The numbers change over time: new species volunteer, I add new plants and regretfully (mostly) remove others. I can’t say I was sorry when I finally vanquished the bishop’s goutweed I inherited from the previous owner. This year I removed a sweet autumn clematis that was more than adequately demonstrating its invasive tendencies. Also this year I’m putting in some American currants and more raspberries. Next spring, after I’ve learned more about the subject, I plan to put a dwarf espalier fruit tree on the fence where the clematis was.

What should the balance be among plant species? It’s hard to know. There are six species of berries. Pollinators love the flowers. Two kinds of berries are only for birds and squirrels. We more or less share the other four. I will put in more prairie plants and may put in more native berries or try out some different non-native vegetables and herbs. I cannot imagine ever reducing the number voluntarily. Perhaps there should be some sort of species count competition among backyard gardeners, with an emphasis on native plants and ecological health, and including local and regional championships. Perhaps that would help people take advantage of the wonderful opportunities inherent in their backyards. What I know is, I feel sure I’ll catch up with Eric Toensmeier soon. Maybe. More or less.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spring Notes: Plants, Birds, and Bumblebees

Native ginger emerging
Spring is coming on by fits and starts, mostly fits so far, which is appropriate for our continental
Bloodroot, past bloom already
climate, but frustrating after a record cold and snowy winter. Yet I’ve noticed that my native plants are coming along just fine. The ginger, which is always expanding its area, has suddenly jumped after two years of slow movement. In the fall the patch was about two and a half feet in diameter. After months of snow, it is three feet wide, moving in among the native strawberries. The honeysuckle draped over the fence is bushier and healthier than in several years. A single bloodroot has become several. Various other prairie plants are emerging slowly, as they always do, waiting until sure the season has definitely turned, but clearly thriving.

Why is this? Did it take this long for full recovery from the effects of the drought in 2012? Do these plants really respond better to cold winters than the string of warm ones we’ve had for a few years straight?

Robin. After reading What the Robin Knows, I've become much more conscious of bird behavior in relation to my presence. A friend of mine told me that the same robin has come back to his yard for the third year in a row, a bird easily identifiable due to a genetic mutation that has caused  white streaks in its red breast. I have often noticed that the robin in my back yard seems to know me, though it doesn't have easy i.d. markers. It’s always about, standing stock still in the middle of the yard, or pecking at the ground to pull some hapless insect up for eating with relish. I’ve seen it chase another robin away. When I go outside, as long as I move respectfully, it watches me with its fairly large, white-rimmed black eye, and doesn’t fly away, or give any kind of alarm. It does keep a distance of several feet, moving backwards or sideways as I move towards it. It also seems very interested in my digging, delving, weeding and planting activities and seems to follow me around the garden as I work, often sitting on the fence nearby, watching me and everything else going on.

What are its birdy thoughts? How does it view me? Am I an interloper, keeping it from its own morning rounds? Is it hoping I’ll turn up a tasty worm for it? Does it see me as simply another denizen?

Cooper's Hawk from below
Cooper's Hawk. Another local bird that seems to have no fear of me—or much else, for that matter, is the Cooper’s hawk that’s taken up residence in the neighborhood. I assume there are actually two, and that there’s a nest somewhere nearby. One several occasions in the last month I’ve noticed it up in the maple in front of the house, watching intently as I move about. Viewed from below, its brown wings and streaked breast blend right in with the pattern of bark, branches and sky, so it’s hard to spot: but the noise it makes is unmistakable, an almost squirrel-like scolding. After I stop moving, it shuts up. All is still for a moment. Zoom! It takes off down the street flying at speed below the canopy, straight as a torpedo, not noticeably slowing as it disappears into a tree 150 feet away.

If I didn’t know that Cooper’s hawks hunt songbirds, would I still think of their affect as fierce? It’s definitely not so friendly as the robin in the back yard. Do I imagine the hawk’s glare is sharper and fiercer, or is it a trick of the shape of eye and bone structure? After all, the robin is also a predator.

An enduring mystery is where the bumblebees that frequent my backyard have their nests. Every spring two or more young queens zoom around my yard with a zig-zaggy flight pattern peculiar to them, feeding and getting ready to nest. They are drawn to the patch of vinca minor I tolerate purely for their pleasure, working the little blue flowers, but also apparently sleeping, or at least resting, in among the foliage. Later in the season, of course, males congregate on the blooming cup plants. And all summer numerous workers visit the yard, which is, after all, designed to attract them. Yet they don’t seem to nest in the yard. I wish they would, for then I would know they are relatively safe. I often imagine I’ll follow them down the alley or across the street and discover their homes; but they can fly where I cannot trespass, so I may never know. They nest under prairie grasses’ dry last-year’s leaf hummocks and in disused rodent holes in the ground, both of which the yard has, but no luck so far.

Why do the bumblebees find my yard a great pasture area, possibly even a good place to winter over, but not a good place to settle in and raise a family? What element is missing? Or what am I missing? Could there be a nesting area I’m simply overlooking? I must keep sharper watch this summer.

Related Posts:
Listen to What the Birds are Saying
Spring Dispatches from the Backyard
Happy Spring!
Non-native Plants I Won't Deep Six

Monday, April 14, 2014

April is Poetry Month 2014: Kumin's "The Brown Mountain"

Maxine Kumin
This past year, we have lost fine poets that I grew up reading. Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Maxine Kumin all made nature their poetic home and the source of their word-hoards.  Each was from a different home ecosystem and thus utilized different language and imagery. Yet their subject matter carried in common the themes of beauty, death, love, and life with others that great lyric poetry entails. Walcott’s high-flown eloquence, Heaney’s stubborn earthiness, Kumin’s plain speech; all are worth reading and savoring.

Just recently I was out in the backyard stirring my still-frozen compost heap, muttering incantations--imprecations--under my breath as I endeavored to wake it up for spring.  Maxine Kumin lived on a horse farm, and her compost heap was of another order entirely. For Poetry Month this year I present her meditation on compost.

The Brown Mountain

What dies out of us and our creatures,
out of our fields and gardens,
comes slowly back to improve us:
the entire mat of nasturtiums
after frost has blackened them,
sunflower heads the birds have picked clean, the still
sticky stalks of milkweed
torn from the pasture, coffee grounds,
eggshells, moldy potatoes,
the tough little trees that once 
were crowded with brussels sprouts,
tomatoes cat-faced or bitten into
by inquisitive chipmunks,
gargantuan cucumbers gone soft
from repose. Not the corn stalks and shucks,
not windfall apples. These
are sanctified by the horses.
The lettuces are revised
as rabbit pellets, holy with nitrogen.
Whatever fodder is offered the sheep
comes back to us as raisins
of useful dung.

Compost is our future.
The turgid brown mountain
steams, releasing
the devil's own methane vapor,
cooking our castoffs so that from
our spatterings and embarrassments--
cat vomit, macerated mice,
rotten squash, burst berries,
a mare's placenta, failed melons,
dog hair, hoof parings--arises
a rapture of blackest humus.
Dirt to top-dress, dig in. Dirt fit
for the gardens of commoner and king.
 (From Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010)

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk

Hedgerows in Norfolk
One night during my October visit to the British historian's cottage the wind blew hard from midnight on, roaring in off the North Sea, carrying on in unabated vigor all the way from Iceland. I'd woken at dawn, listened to the wind and rain for a bit and gone back to sleep before getting up for a late-ish breakfast. The rain continued in spurts all day, and in between showers we went out and did garden chores, such as spreading well-rotted horse manure in a new garden bed where some raspberry canes would be planted in spring and planting out garlic and onions. It seemed strange to me to be planting food crops in autumn, after harvest. The process brought new understanding of why the ancient peoples of this land could celebrate the New Year directly after harvest: planting season lasts all year, nothing ever seems to stop growing, and little appears to go completely dormant in the way an Illinoisan understands the word.

After the weather cleared a little more, my friend and I went for a walk along a narrow lane edged on both sides by hedgerows in order to pick blackberries from eight-foot tall brambles that were growing up through a tangle of roses, sloes, buckthorn, small oaks, holly, hawthorn and all kinds of other things--a crowded community also including turf grass, nettles, nightshade, English ivy, bindweed, creeping Charlie, poppies and dandelions. Again, as in the cornfield we had traversed previously, I had an eerie sensation of familiarity, as though I was slipping between continents. We Americans might not grow sloes, and consequently not produce sloe gin, as the historian's friends do, and our oaks and hawthorns are of course different species--yet it was easy to recognize the plants. It was even odder to see buckthorn, that bully of the Midwestern woodlands and savannas, behaving itself--no more and no less than a citizen of the hedgerow.

Blackberries have a deeper, wilder taste than raspberries, almost smoky, if you were describing them like a wine. My friend makes a compote that is a delightful topping for the breakfast muesli and milk or yogurt. Her aim was to gather enough--the season was almost over--to put up enough to carry through for several more months. We addressed ourselves assiduously to walking and picking, water falling off the leaves--still green!--on our hands and coats, our boots going damp from the low plants and grass at the verges. Proceeding at this rate can take a very long time to get even a hundred feet, so we were truly lingering, which gave ample opportunity to observe what was growing. There were a few late raspberries, too, that I ate and savored as we went.

Though there seemed to be a luxurious abundance of hedgerows in the area I was visiting, they are endangered in England, for many of the same reasons that Midwestern fencerows, once the refuge of birds, wild plants and beneficial insects, have all but disappeared. On the train through Cambridgeshire I had seen fairly large American-style fields, all plowed furrows inhabited by big tractors with nary a hedgerow in sight. I imagined getting off the train to go talk to those farmers: don't repeat our misdoings, I would say. Learn from our mistakes. You'll be sorry, someday, in the way that some of us in Illinois are sorry, with our nitrogen and phosphorus run-off, atrazine-laced groundwater, our plowing up of even marginal land, our lost habitat and consequently lost species (and our own lost selves?). But there's money to be made, they, I'm sure, would answer, as almost any Illinois farmer would. Though one good sign lately is that a few of the latter have started to put small areas of erstwhile corn acreage into produce production. Some have been taking classes to learn how to grow not-corn and not-soy. The new US farm bill even throws a pittance of support at what are called “specialty crops,” e.g. fruits and vegetables. And once Illinois farmers truly embrace fruits and vegetables as worthy of growing, can rejuvenated fencerows and hedgerows be far behind? One hopes, fervently.

However. The Cambridgeshire farmers perhaps haven't gotten that far along through the wreck-regret-repair cycle, and the train carried me on to Norfolk, where plenty of these diverse, edge habitats remain and people dedicated to their preservation seemingly prevail. According to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk has lost nearly half its hedgerows, mostly since World War II. But that has slowed down as people have come to understand just how valuable they are as a way to store carbon, provide habitat for rare and endangered species--and berries for foraging. The Trust defines a hedgerow as "any line of trees or shrubs, over 1 meter tall and over 20 meters long, less than 5 meters wide at the base and with less than 30% of the hedgerow being gaps." This definition neglects the understory and ground cover layers of grasses and forbs, yet seems reasonable. The 5 meter dimension is interesting to me, since hedgerows here in the States can potentially be well over 15 feet wide, especially when they involve large trees such as hickories and unless someone keeps the osage orange trees seriously chopped back. Still, that width does seem appropriate. Wider than that, and what you have is probably another kind of woodsy area that is no longer a hedgerow meant to separate fields and line roads.

Workers laying a hedge
Also, it might be wise to distinguish between those hedgerows maintained according to the ancient craft of laying, in which branches are interlaced and pegged down so that everything grows together, forming a living fence, and the ones such as those between which we were ambulating, which clearly were not, though they obviously had been kept trimmed.* There is an old story that laid hedgerows never caught on in the U.S. because Americans were just too lazy to go to all that trouble. Alternative explanations claim that American farmers were too busy establishing farms and then lighting out for the territories shortly thereafter, so there was no point in taking on a project that could last a lifetime to do right; or that we just plain had too much space to enclose and had to do it quickly.

At the time it didn't occur to me to ask how English hedgerows are maintained these days, much as I'm sure casual visitors to the woodland savannah I help manage usually don't wonder how in spring and summer it is so full of wildflowers growing in such profusion. It's easy to imagine humans had nothing to do with it. In my experience, backed up by that of many native peoples I have read about, a landscape in the middle of the continuum between un-peopled wilderness and the manicured suburb, where people dwell as citizens of the ecological community, can be managed in a way that is beneficial for other species besides humans. Even though it is cultivated and has been "tamed," a patchwork, mosaic landscape with hedgerows, coppices, and managed woodlots as well as less managed areas like wetlands and riparian bottomlands can be a healthy landscape, abundant and fertile, with room and habitat enough for all.

Note: You can see the Norfolk Hedgerow Action Plan here:

*Update 4/18/14:  British nature writer Richard Mabey has this to say about a hedgerow in Norfolk:
"The hedges that line [the lane] aren't the planted strips of hawthorne you find in planned countryside ...And they hadn't been laid, but coppiced, cut back to the ground level every eight to ten years as was the local tradition." (From Nature Cure, U of Virginia, 2005)
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