Monday, July 13, 2015

Summer Notes: A Rainy June and Hummingbird Questions

The rainy days of early summer
See more at Illinois State Climatologist
While the planet as a whole has continued to heat up, increasing its insistence via extreme weather events that humans really do need to “pay attention already, dammit!”,  Illinois has been in its very own extremely deep pocket of coolish, rainy weather. It’s easy to notice conditions are far from normal when the basil in your raised bed is not growing with its normal exuberance, while the lettuce, normally starting to bolt already, continues lush and sweet; you put the tomato starts in on July 1st, a month overdue, because the soil in your allotment is just too wet; and when traveling in mid-June to help with a bioblitz at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge on the Illinois river, you notice that fields where corn and soy should be growing are vast shallow ponds, some with ducks. 

Just how rainy? According to the Illinois State Climatologist, an average of 9.3 inches made this the rainiest June in official record-keeping history (which only goes back to 1895, but still). And he asks us to note that seven of the last eight Junes have been rainier than average (4.09 inches) and that seven of the ten rainiest Junes on record have occurred since 1993. Perhaps it’s a trend.

This June was so outstanding in its overall wetness that not only was it the rainiest for us, but Illinois was the rainiest state in the entire continental US. And July is continuing with more of the same. Odd to think that just three years ago I was biking to work in the midst of intense heat and drought. I won’t discuss destabilized jet streams or the polar vortices of the past two winters. More of us need to be paying serious attention, and taking action at every level.

So, about the hummingbirds
The other morning I was looking at a robin perched on the dead branch at the top of my neighbor’s apple tree two doors down, where the birds like to gather in groups of several species to take the air and discuss current events. Through the binoculars, what had appeared to be a bump on a large twig resolved into a hummingbird. This year, my next-door neighbor Muriel and I have been seeing two of them around since late April. They must be a mating pair, though at this point the female, identified by the lack of a red patch on her throat, is raising her clutch of two chicks on her own, and they should be flying soon, if not already.

I often see her—or possibly a juvenile—and after demonstrating her flight skills around our yards for a while, she usually disappears into one of the tall silver maple, honey locust or elm trees in the back yards across the alley and on that street. This is the first year that hummers have been around during mating season—that we’ve seen, anyway. Since Muriel first put up feeders in 2008, and we started our project more formally in 2009, they’d only appeared during the late summer-to-fall migration period. Our project is described here on this page.

"Ruby Throated Hummingbird" by Joe Schneid, Louisville, KY
To those who reside in western states where multiple species congregate, or in less urban parts of our area, boasting multiple pairs visiting feeders, this would be no big deal. And ruby throats are in no way endangered or unusual. Yet considering that until we set out to attract them, not one had been seen on our block for a minimum of twenty years, it’s pretty exciting for us. We provided habitat, and two feeders (now reduced to one); they stopped by during migration, and now appear to have decided to nest. It’s a thrill to stand by a patch of scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) and see a hummer hovering right there, not two feet away, sipping nectar from the tubular flowers most conveniently designed to suit its needs and preferences. Ain’t co-evolution grand!

I wonder what the process was and how they finally decided to settle in for the summer. Have we by this point planted enough of the right flowers? Did juveniles who stopped by last year during fall migration decide to return here for mating this year? Were they here all along and we just never saw them? That I doubt. We’ve both been keeping close watch for six years now.

If they come back next spring, I’ll consider our whole project a success.

Related Posts:

Friday, June 26, 2015

Earthcare, Literally Speaking

A version of this essay appeared in the May-June 2015 edition of BeFriending Creation, the newsletter of Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW), with the title “An Earth Testimony.” In light of the Pope's climate encyclical, it seems appropriate to share more widely. From the beginning, care for the living Earth and all its creatures has been woven throughout Quaker theology and testimonies, always united with what has come to be called environmental justice. QEW was formed in 1987. At that time, the founders wrote: “We have concluded from our worship and our study that there is, indeed, a need for Friends to give forceful witness to the holiness of creation and to demonstrate in their lives the meaning of this testimony.”

George Fox
By Violet Oakley, Pennsylvania State Capitol, 1906
Historical Note:  George Fox, referenced below, was one of the founders of the Religious Society of Friends during the 17th century; his journals are seminal to Quaker thought and practice. The 17th century was a time somewhat analogous to our own. Global climate disruption in the form of the Little Ice Age caused extreme weather events, floods, droughts and failed harvests; it was a time of religious and civil wars, sectarian violence, empires jockeying for position, extreme income inequality, a time of polluted cities, impoverished rural areas, and vast human migrations.

Remarkably, and counterintuitively, in Europe one result of this tumult was the formation of several “peace” churches. In England the Religious Society of Friends managed to get in trouble with both the Church of England and the Puritans for their refusal to fight in wars; their belief in equality (including women preachers), freedom of worship and continuing revelation; their lack of paid clergy; and their insistence that the Bible was not the inerrant word of God, but was “written by Man.”  They often met out of doors in fields and orchards. During Meeting for Worship, they sat in silence “waiting on the Lord,” and members spoke as so moved. American “unprogrammed” Friends continue in this old tradition, radical by some lights even today.


Quaker Tapestry, "Ecology," Kendal in Cumbria
Once during Meeting for Worship, a member spoke of how she had always heard the saying that Friends should walk cheerfully over the earth…speaking to that of God in everyone. Then she read what George Fox actually wrote: that we should “walk cheerfully over the earth…answering that of God in everyone” (italics mine). There are differences, she said, between “speaking to” and “answering.” The former sets us apart: perhaps it is didactic, or implies lecturing, as a schoolteacher, public speaker or media commentator might do. The latter requires looking and listening, even searching; it puts us in relation to others and provides openings for reciprocity. On reflection it seems to me there are many “everyones:” not only humans, but other species. Fox’s dictum could be extended further: “walk cheerfully over the earth…answering that of God in all of creation.”

Humans often “speak to” nature, as when we assume a dominant attitude and expect to be able to “improve” upon nature with technological solutions to perceived (or real) problems, rather than looking to see how nature does things, learning from nature’s processes, and coming up with nature-based solutions—all of which could be considered a form of answering that of God. This idea applies to many areas of concern. For instance, there is the difference in approach between those who favor technological fixes for climate change (itself a result of speaking to rather than answering nature), and those who would look to how land heals itself, often with the aid of humans who have combined closely studied ecological processes and traditional indigenous knowledge. The word “land” I mean in Aldo Leopold’s sense, that is, the whole package of rock, soil, and all the living things therein and thereon forming all together a well-functioning ecosystem, the “biotic community.” Of which humans can and should be citizens, for after all, we belong here too. There are quite a few people—ecologists, biologists, regenerative farmers, carbon ranchers, permaculturalists, agroecologists, ecological restorationists, and I’m sure, readers of this publication—who, however they articulate it, believe this very thing. To help solve climate change we must help our ecosystems heal themselves. One way to do so is to start with the earth we are walking over (hopefully cheerfully), in other words, with the soil.

For much of my life I didn’t think about soil, though I grew up playing in the mud and later gardened partly so I could keep digging in the dirt. I’ve been lucky enough to live in pre-WWII houses built on prairie in a place blessed with good precipitation. As a child I believed all soil was black—a sign, I later learned, of good organic content. As an adult in another house, whatever I planted grew just fine as long as other factors such as climate and available light were paid attention to. I’ve dug a trench for rhubarb starts and holes for shrubs and never hit sub-soil. Lucky, lucky me. Though I’ve always made compost, not until I trained as a master gardener did I learn very basic soil science: about pH factor, the difference between clay, silt and sand, the existence of subsoil, the need to improve fertility, how organic matter improves the soil, and the importance of good tilth.

In the last few years I have learned some new, astonishing things. With proper attention and care, the earth beneath our feet—in city backyards, in gardens, parks, on corporate campuses and on farms and ranches—has the potential to sequester enough carbon to help us mitigate drastic climate change while we transition to a low carbon society. In fact this effort rightly can be seen as a major part of the transition. Not only that, but organic gardening, regenerative farming and carbon ranching, which actually improve soil, if taken to scale across the globe have the potential to feed billions sustainably. This is a far cry from standard landscaping and industrialized agriculture that strip the soil of its organic content—and its carbon—and destroy the complex web of life involving billions of tiny creatures, bacteria and fungi interacting with organic matter, minerals, water and plants that we call “topsoil.”

Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration, EPA
To me, answering that of God means learning enough of the science—some of it very new— to understand how practice can be changed so that residence on a piece of land, no matter the size, includes helping this subterranean ecosystem thrive. Long-term research shows that more biodiverse ecosystems store more carbon, are more productive and include higher populations of beneficial insects than single species monocultures. Research has also demonstrated how carbon storage comes about through the complex interactions among plants and soil-dwelling fungi and organisms. And answering means practicing, as practice around the world has shown that carbon can be sequestered and topsoil built up through specific gardening, farming and ranching techniques, coupled with ecological restoration.

Green sweatbee on butterweed,
Arie Crown Forest, Cook County, IL
So how can we all become carbon sequestration practitioners, wherever we happen to live? By following some old-fashioned advice: We can educate ourselves by reading books such as Grass, Soil, Hope, by Courtney White, The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson, or Under Ground by Yvonne Baskin, or by watching films such as Symphony of the Soil.  We can learn the basic ecosystem facts, including plants, animals (including insects) and soils, of the places where we live. Gardeners can grow perennial, biodiverse, polycultures of mostly native plants; make compost and use it; and refrain from using pesticides or artificial fertilizer. Rural land managers can learn the techniques innovative farmers and ranchers are using to harvest remarkable results by growing carbon as well as crops and herds. We can all join or form groups involved with earthcare and ecological restoration, and if we are practitioners, can help educate others.

Answering that of God includes having a vision of what a restored piece of land—restored earth—might look and function like, nurturing it so that it can repair itself, and in so doing, repair and restore the humans who are tending it.  Eventually it might mean taking on an earthcentered identity, in the sense of the deepest green recognition that our selves are formed by the ecosystem of which we are a part and the earthly place in which we reside. When QEW members say we “seek an earth restored,” we literally need look no further than our own backyards. In seeking to answer, in putting ourselves in relationship, in remembering we literally are of the earth, in changing our practice: there lies hope.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Bees and Other Pollinators Love These Flowering Plants

Queen bumblebee foraging on Amsonia in spring
This is an updated repost of "Flowering Plants Native Bees Love," first published July 26, 2013. 

Given that here in the Midwest it's still planting season, and pollinators still (always!) need good habitat, I hope that anyone reading this will feel inspired to add more native plants to their gardens. Even if you already have a good selection, there's always room for one more species: biodiversity is one area where more is always better. This goes double for food gardeners. Every vegetable plot should have native flowering plants (and grasses) nearby to provide habitat for the pollinators and beneficial insects that act as partners to your gardening efforts. 

In general, not including annual vegetables, a proportion of 70-80% native plants in the garden seems to provide good habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects, and, of course, the birds everyone loves. Even one native species, such as a decorative serviceberry planted in the front yard or some butterfly weed or other milkweed species tucked in the perennial border, will help bring any garden into better ecological balance--and greater beauty. 

For those new to native plant gardening, here are some planting guidelines and a list of species suggestions. I have experience with every plant listed and therefore feel I can recommend them. Native bees, honey bees and butterflies will all take advantage of the foraging opportunities you offer.  

In general
Bees and other pollinators such as butterflies prefer sunny areas that are protected from wind and offer plenty of different kind of flowers. Ideally there would be several types of flowers in bloom spring through fall. In my yard, different areas might be blooming at different times--but I have a small yard, so the bees don't seem to mind. Those with larger yards might plan for groupings of different varieties in one or more beds. No matter what size your yard or garden is, every area planted with mostly native flowers will be beneficial for pollinators, particularly in urban and suburban areas, because it increases the availability of pollen and nectar these creatures need to thrive. The plants listed here are suitable for large parts of the Midwest. This is not a complete list and something that works well for you might be left off. There are many more species of Midwestern prairie and savanna plants that could be included. If you live elsewhere, this simple rule applies: bees and butterflies native to a region are best adapted to plants native to that region. Finding out what those plants are and adding them to your garden can be a worthwhile, enjoyable endeavor.

Minute pollinators on Spiderwort Tradescantia spp.
Learn more about native plants and use them in your garden 
According to the Xerces Society, "research suggests native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers." Garden herbs (allowed to flower) and annuals, especially heirloom varieties, can also provide good foraging. Avoid hybrids that have double blooms, since they often do not produce as much nectar or pollen. Native flowering shrubs also provide nectar and pollen for bees and serve as host plants for caterpillars. If using non-native garden plants, please make sure they are not invasive where you live. Also, certain kinds of weeds (but definitely not all!) can be a good thing: early-appearing bumblebees appreciate dandelions and creeping Charlie, for example.  

Two essential books are Attracting Native Pollinators, from the Xerces Society; and Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy. One essential website is Other like-minded gardeners can be found by joining a chapter of Wild Ones (,

Plan to have something in bloom all season long
Bees and butterflies fly at different times. They, and humans, appreciate a garden that has many varieties of flowers and a long season of bloom. If you mostly have native perennials, it's good to slip some long flowering heirloom annuals in various areas to keep going during perennials' in-between times. This is also a good strategy when starting a new area of young natives that might not bloom the first year.

Group flowers together in attractive drifts 
This old design rule makes good sense to bees as well as humans. Bees find good forage by sight. Clusters of flowers of the same species will attract more pollinators and enable better foraging than individual plants scattered through the garden. Where space allows, plant big clumps (at least four feet in diameter) or sizable drifts, which might require five or more plants.

Plant different types of flowers to support a wide variety of bees
Bees range in size from minute sweatbees at less than 1/8-in. to robust carpenter bees over an inch long. They also have different tongue lengths, and need suitable flowers. Some prefer flat, daisy-like flowers, while others prefer tubular blossoms. They are also attracted to brightly colored flowers that are blue, white, purple, and yellow--nor, in my observation, do they object to red. Please include milkweed. It is the only plant that serves as a host plant for monarch butterflies.

Do not use insecticides in your garden
Even organic pesticides can be harmful. Other chemicals such as fungicides can be dangerous--to humans as well as bees.  I have discussed the dangers of neonicotinoids in "City Bees, Country Bees." Habitat loss and insecticide use are the two main threats to bees and butterflies. A well-run ecological garden attracts birds and beneficial insects that help keep pests to a minimum. Purchase native plants through plant sales hosted by native plant organizations or at nurseries that do not use neonicotinoids when growing plants. These are usually independent nurseries that grow their own stock.

Suitable Plants

Spring can be a difficult time for native and honey bees, especially in urban areas with few early-blooming perennials. Queen bumblebees emerge at this time and fly for several weeks foraging before settling down to make their nests. An asterisk denotes species that flourish in areas that become shady when the trees leaf out. These are just a few examples.

Native Perennials
Amsonia Amsonia tabernaemontana
Columbine Aquilegia canadensis
*Violets Viola spp.
*Virginia bluebells Mertensia pulmonoides
*Virginia waterleaf Hydrophyllum spp.
*Wild geranium Geranium spp.
Wild indigo Baptisia spp.
Wild Strawberry Fragaria spp.
Non-native Perennials

Siberian Squill Scilla spp.
Chives Allium spp.
Periwinkle Vinca minor
Bumblebee on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
Summer-Late Summer (into Fall) is a halcyon period for all bees if the foraging is good. Plenty of sources of nectar and pollen ensure good populations, which in turn insure a continuation of the species. Male bees use flowers as sheltered places to rest while they look for young queens with whom to mate.
Native Perennials 
Aster Aster spp. 
Beebalm Monarda spp.
Asters Aster spp.
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia spp.
Blazing Star Liatris spp.
Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
Compass plant Silphium lanciatum
Cup plant Silphium perfoliatum
Giant hyssop Agastache spp.
Goldenrod Solidago spp.
Joe-pye weed Eupatorium spp.
Milkweed Asclepias spp.
Penstemon Penstemon
Liatris Liatris spp.
Phlox Phlox spp.
Purple coneflower Echinacea spp.
Rattlesnake master Eryngium spp.
Sage Salvia spp.
Spiderwort Tradescantia spp.
Sunflower Helianthus spp.
Tickseed Coreopsis spp.
Non-native Annuals and Perennials 
Basil Ocimum spp.
Catmint Nepeta spp.
Cosmos Cosmos spp.
English lavender Lavandula 
Marjoram Origanum 
Marigold Tagetes
Parsley Petroselinum crispum
Rosemary Rosmarinus
Salvia Salvia spp.
Stonecrop Sedum spp.
Zinnia Zinnia
Flowering Trees and Shrubs  offer more foraging opportunities from early spring through summer, and are often butterflies' preferred host plants.

Natives are Best 
Chokeberry Aronia spp.Currents and GooseberriesDogwood Cornus spp.Lilac Syringa vulgarisRaspberry Rubus spp.
Redbud Cercis canadensisRose Rosa spp.Serviceberry Amelanchier spp.Viburnum Viburnum spp.
Willow Salix spp.

Note: This is part of a series about how urban areas might offer the best hope and some of the best habitat for native bees. "City Bees, Country Bees" is here; "City Bees, Country Bees, Part 2" is here.

References: Illinois Wildflowers,;  Xerces Society Fact Sheets, “Upper Midwest Plants for Native Bees” and “Butterfly Gardening,” the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation,; USDA.

Related Posts:
If We're Serious About Saving Bees and Butterflies, Here's What We Should Do
Creating a Hummingbird Habitat
In Praise of Native Shrubs
Attracting Native Pollinators
An Excellent, Timeless Book

Wednesday, May 6, 2015 Asked Me a Few Questions

Most of my posts are cross-posted at, a site that functions as a multifaceted, solutions-oriented resource for folks interested in resilience topics such as peak oil, permaculture, climate change, transition, limits to growth, and other matters of interest.

The site is a production of the
Post Carbon Institute, an organization dedicated to providing information and resources that will contribute to the transition to a more sustainable, just and equitable society.

They have started a new series called "Resilience Reflections," which are interviews with regular contributors about their work and motivations. My turn just came up; you can read my interview here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Getting Beyond the Green Wall: Mary Oliver, Kay Ryan and William Blake

"A Woody Landscape" by William Blake
How poems are like landscapes
So much of what we call reading is actually scanning for the gist, especially online. We do this all day long with email and the internet—it’s a way of managing waves of relentless information. Reading is something else entirely. One can read a landscape, a garden, a tree, a bird, or a poem. This kind of reading involves engagement, contemplation, and associative as well as analytical thinking. It requires time, repetition and memory.

If you scan a poem, you’ll miss it, just as scanning doesn’t work for penetrating the “green wall” and truly observing plants or animals. A bur oak’s genetic makeup can be analyzed in the lab; only prolonged observation out of doors on many occasions in different seasons will enable one to know the species or a particular tree. Aldo Leopold used to test students by taking them to a place in a landscape and then having them read it in detail in order to glean understanding about the inhabitants, human and otherwise, the state of the soil, state of overall ecosystem health and so on.

A poem is obviously not like a tree, garden or landscape. Yet a good one will reward the same kind of alert, repetitive attention that puts us more deeply in relationship with ourselves, with other people, and with the world at large. A good poem pulls the reader away from abstraction and into experience.

Three poems

"The Kingfisher," by Mary Oliver
Very familiar is the Mary Oliver quote that asks, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It is from “The Summer Day,” which gets quoted by newspaper columnists and bloggers as a way to remind themselves and readers of their connection to nature.  Once I saw Oliver read, a smallish woman dressed in black with a calm voice and quiet demeanor. I don’t remember if she read that poem, but like to imagine she did. She must have done, it is so popular. Her poems are touchstones for many nature lovers. Clear, accessible, they articulate for readers the feelings one might have when encountering other species and natural processes. “The Kingfisher” exemplifies her lyric Romanticism.

The Kingfisher

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak 
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is 
the prettiest world--so long as you don't mind 
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn't have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn't born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water--hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don't say he's right. Neither
do I say he's wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn't rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

"Felix Crow," by Kay Ryan
Kay Ryan is another species entirely, someone I think of as the anti-lyric lyricist. Oh, she writes short poems full of rhyme and a kind of internal rhyme she calls “recombinant rhyme,” often on natural subjects such as animals, but there’s not much sweetness there, and no fallacy, pathetic or otherwise. She was Poet Laureate of the US in from 2008-2010. When contemplating whether or not to devote her life to writing poetry, she rode her bicycle on a 4,000 mile trip in order to think things over. Her poems sometimes go off like little bombs when you least expect it, and her humor is often of a wry, dry kind. Somehow I associate her work with the ironic science cartoons found at the blog xkcd, though the subject matter is vastly different.

Felix Crow
Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.

"Hear the Voice of the Bard," by William Blake
I was going to add a piece by Jorie Graham, a poet of significant accomplishment who has just published a book of selected poems. Her work is interesting and can be difficult: full of large ideas, elliptic lines and deliberate gaps. But then at a concert I heard Martha Redbone sing William Blake poems for which she and her husband had written gospel/bluegrass/roots settings. Appalachian music keeps traditions alive and Blake’s poems might seem as simple in rhythm and language as old ballads—but that apparent simplicity carries complexities dark and light. Blake is not a safe read, as nature is not safe.

Hear the Voice of the Bard
Hear the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees;

Calling the lapsèd soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

'O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumbrous mass.

'Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.’


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Talking about Hedgerows on Friday

My friend Dave Coulter, who coined the name "post-modern hedgerow," organized a symposium on the topic and invited me to take part, along with several other participants. All things hedgerow will be discussed at the Chicago Botanic Garden this Friday during the annual meeting of the Midwest-Great Lakes Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration. I'm looking forward to the discussion, and to meeting other hedgerow aficionados.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hedgerow Hypotheticals: Our Cities and Suburbs Need Hedgerows Too

Part Three of a series on the post-modern American hedgerow, a landscape form that offers benefits to humans and nature. Part One, “Where Do We Find Beauty in a Landscape” can be read here. Part Two, "Just What is Hedgerow? A Few Notes on History, Form and Function" can be found here.
Ecological Network: “a coherent system of natural and/or semi-natural landscape elements that is configured and managed with the objective of maintaining or restoring ecological functions as a means to conserve biodiversity while also providing appropriate opportunities for the sustainable use of natural resources.”
~International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2001

My Illinois home
Chicago has been described as "a flood waiting to happen"
Cook County, Illinois, which basically means Chicago and an accompanying flotilla of suburbs, is home to some five and a half million people and their cats, dogs, parakeets and goldfish. How the City of Chicago, strung out along the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, arrived at its present state is a conflict-ridden, bloody, fascinating story.

Prior to European incursion and settlement, few people, if anyone, lived on the swampy, marshy, waterlogged, muddy ground that is the natural terrain on which our gleaming towers, our great cultural institutions, our parks, our middle class neighborhoods and our slums are built. In those times, people sensibly gathered on higher ground in large summer camps along rivers such as the Illinois and Des Plaines, dispersing in winter family bands for hunting. Each family needed approximately five or six square miles to provide enough meat through the long, cold winters. The lake and connecting waterways made the place a good trading nexus through which goods and people flowed, not only by canoe, but also along trails that hugged the natural low ridges left by the glaciers and thousands of years of fluctuating lake levels.

The beaver trade and resulting wars among the French, British, and nations and tribes such as the Iroquois, Potawatomi, Illini, Sauk, and Fox brought turmoil to the region from the 17th century onward; the city was not fully established until the Americans took over and in the 19th century commenced completely altering the terrain to their liking, a process that continues to this day. Chicago owes its continued existence to some of the largest, most audacious engineering projects for water management in history. It continues to be a transportation and trade hub.

As in many US cities, it is possible to reside here and, other than snow in winter and heat and humidity in summer, never know what ecosystem you’re in, that the lake is nearby, what the landscape was, or that wolves, bears and cougars were at one time a presence. Yet despite all, Cook County remains one of the most biodiverse in the US, thanks in part to early establishment of 68,000 acres of forest preserves, shoreline restoration efforts, parks, community gardens and backyard gardens. However, much more could be done. Hedgerows, for example.

Cities are the perfect place for miles of post-modern hedgerows

While hedgerows in rural and exurban landscapes have a long history, cities and suburbs are another question entirely. When people think about hedgerows, windbreaks, fencerows and other forms of “linear forests,” as permaculturalist Peter Bane calls them--if they think about them at all--they mostly associate them with bucolic settings, perhaps as in an aerial view of England or Ireland: small green fields bordered by a network of beautiful green hedges, forming what is called “ancient countryside” in the UK.

Why don’t urban areas don’t boast complex networks as well? Hedgerows are linear, natural boundaries, and when siting them it’s good to look for natural edges and linear elements in the landscape that could benefit from hedgerow augmentation. Cities and towns are nothing if not linear, full of boundaries and borders, large and small. And many neighborhoods already contain single-species hedges of one sort or another; wherever sad ranks of privet, box, barberry, or yew stand in an over-pruned row, with little more effort a biodiverse, native shrub hedgerow (aka mixed shrub border) could thrive. You’d think you could walk the streets of an average residential neighborhood and see green infrastructure galore, including raingardens and bioswales, not to mention hedgerows. But no.

Won’t public greenways and natural areas suffice?

Since the late 20th century quite a few examples of large-scale greenways and wildlife corridors have been developed, often on a regional or even continental scale.

Chicago’s forest preserves that form riparian corridors along the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers are a good, early 20th century example of this kind of thinking, planning and implementation, as is the restoration of Montrose point on Lake Michigan where natural shoreline along with its attendant vegetation has been restored, including its “Magic Hedge,” to the benefit of multiple species of birds as well as people. Other examples include the North-South corridors that will ultimately connect national parks along the Rocky Mountains, and the new Hackmatack Nature reserve that will cross the Illinois-Wisconsin border. In California the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridorallow cougars and other wildlife to move across an otherwise built-up landscape and even the Highline Park in New York City features green space created on old elevated line. Other large scale regional planning includes greenway projects along rivers or incorporated into new development.
Hackmatack Nature Reserve: corridors connect natural areas

To effectively plan and implement large-scale greenways and wildlife corridors takes the cooperation of multiple governmental entities (federal, state and municipal), citizens’ groups, public institutions, planning agencies, landscape architects and ecologists. They are well worth doing, though they can take years to accomplish. They have the potential to and in many cases actually either have helped landscapes retain some ecological integrity, or have altered over-built landscapes for the better. They are of vast importance for providing wildlife habitat and enabling wildlife species to move across an often unfriendly matrix and they can help preserve natural areas by helping focus new development to less sensitive zones so the natural terrain can maintain its coherence.

Clearly, these necessary projects can positively impact the ecosystems and ecology of whole regions, leading to great benefits for human and non-human residents. However, from a different angle they could be seen as another way of keeping nature corralled and in its place, as it were--still another iteration of the old American model of “nature over there, humans here.” Even within a context of urban green corridors, on a more granular scale neighborhoods, parks and individual properties may be completely “non-natural.” There may be no vegetation at all, or if there is, it is either weedy, as in abandoned properties, where as soon as the asphalt cracks, pioneer plants start growing, or fiercely controlled. Who has not experienced “green space” featuring the few species of non-native trees and shrubs tightly corseted by mulch and chemically controlled turf grass that constitutes much landscape design at every scale from corporate campus to the building owner who buys a few shrubs, species unknown, from the big box store to dress up the property? Admittedly I’m painting with a broad brush. There are plenty of more enlightened municipalities and homeowners, plenty of neighborhoods where pollinators, birds and other animals do well, but from a broad perspective, say, that of Google earth, or a migrating bird, this is how it often looks.

According to the authors of  Designing Greenways, the four “indispensable patterns for ecosystem functioning” in anthropocentric landscapes include: ”a few large patches of natural vegetation; connectivity between the patches; vegetated corridors along major streams; and ‘bits of nature’ scattered through the less ecologically suitable matrix.” As in Chicago’s case, many urban areas have “large patches” in the form of nature reserves of one kind or another, and they may have “vegetated stream corridors,” both of which might be planned and managed by large agencies and/or citizens groups. Managed “connectivity” might appear in the form of other greenways, roadside plantings, and parkway trees.

However, nationwide, there is a crying need for vastly more “bits of nature” in the form of all kinds of gardens, large and small, utilizing native plants and natural, ecological gardening practices, and even more of a need for vastly increased “connectivity” in the guise of hundreds if not thousands of miles of hedgerows of one sort or another, bordering properties, acting as living fences, and sheltering gardens.  Right now, most examples reside in my own imagination. As I walk or ride around neighborhoods in the Chicago area, if I’m not scouting out existing or potential pollinator habitat, I’m often taking mental notes of potential hedgerow sites. And of course, the two overlap. Out in the leafier suburbs, there are plenty of examples of beautiful mixed shrub borders, but there too, the questions remain: Are they largely native species? What kind of connectivity they help provide? Do they include a full compliment of understory and ground layer plants?  If individual ecologically managed properties are surrounded by zones where overly restrictive homeowners’ associations hold sway, or where one individual’s property is bounded by a road and other properties governed by neat and tidy, non-native landscaping, they function as islands in what are basically biological deserts.

In short, the time is ripe for an urban revolution of sorts, a post-modern American urban hedgerow movement. The vexed question of what we do on our own private properties is of deep importance to our cities’ future resilience. Urban hedgerows have a potentially large part to play in a climate changing present and future by adding biodiversity and connectivity, providing habitat, managing water and storing carbon. And for humans at a time of economic uncertainty, when we need to develop sustainable, resilient livelihoods in cities just as in the country, managed hedgerows can provide fuel, food and materials.  They can be considered a form of meliorative restoration, or rewilding that benefits humans as well as other species.

A few suggestions for urban hedgerow design and practice

Once upon a time long ago, I attempted to plant and grow an English perennial border in the continental climate of northern Illinois, using plants recommended in books purporting to be all-purpose gardening manuals. It failed of course and I began the long journey towards better understanding of the biogeographical place where I actually live. That and other failures (and successes) lead me to make the following suggestions, particularly for those just starting out. The first is most crucial and of inestimable importance for a host of reasons that extend well beyond garden design.

1. Learn the terrain

I’m assuming that if you are reading this, you are interested in or already practicing some form of urban gardening, or are engaged with your landscape as landscape in some other way—as opposed to the New Yorker who once said that the outdoors was the space between the door to her building and the waiting cab. It’s possible to simply plant an assortment of (hopefully native) shrubs and companion plants along a fence. However, experiences such as my English garden disaster tell me that it is always wise to gain knowledge of the larger landscape in which one lives. Start to learn the terrain and read the landscape, not only of the neighborhood and larger urban surroundings, but of the region.

Glacial kame at Bluff Spring Fen, 
Cook County Forest Preserves
Over 80% of continental US residents live in urban areas of one sort or another, and we like to think we know our places.  But for too many of us, “our place” means the mostly concrete template set on top of the landscape: residential neighborhoods, roads, transit lines, favorite restaurants, shopping areas, and places of work. Professionals who work with plants recognize a widespread syndrome we call “green blindness,” in which the sufferer (usually urban) sees plants as a curtain or backdrop and doesn’t notice them other than in generic categories such as “tree,” “ bush,” “grass,” and “flowers.” (This is a variety of “nature blindness,” an even more widespread malady to which US residents are prone. What percentage of urban dwellers have a good working knowledge of birds besides crows and robins, or can speak the language of the land, knowing the difference, say between a bog and a fen, or how a kame is formed?)

If we are interested in knowing where it is we actually live and purposefully making room for wild nature, there’s so much more to learn. Why is your town hilly or flat? What is the climate? The underlying rocks? The hydrology? Are you near a river or lake? How does it affect the landscape? What are the native plants and animals? Are there any in your neighborhood? What is the human history of the place, and how did previous peoples interact with the land? What is the soil like on your property, neighborhood, and region? Where are the local nature reserves or other pockets of nature that may include parks, riverbanks, vacant lots, and railroad rights of way? Much of this you may already know, though perhaps organized differently in your brain. This kind of systems knowledge can be the deeply rewarding study of a lifetime.

Obviously this is too much to learn quickly, especially for those fairly new to an area. Yet it is possible and important to get a good overview before focusing on one’s own property, or in company with others, making and implementing a plan on a block or neighborhood level. One good way is to look at maps of all kinds: Google earth, road maps, atlases, topographical and geological maps will all help get a feeling for your place.  Maps help us get an overview of where greenspace is, in the form of parks and backyards, and where potential links could be made. Field trips and exploration are vital. With one's "ecosystem eyes" on, any trip around town, no matter how short, can be an opportunity for observation and learning. Looking at guidebooks of native plant species and visiting natural areas where pre-European settlement landscapes are protected are also of inestimable importance. You could even begin to keep a small field notebook to record your observations and thoughts. Much of this kind of knowledge is fundamental to basic permaculture. Yet prior to permaculture, it has meant the difference between life and death for many peoples, and on a less fraught scale, it directly relates to the success of any gardening venture no matter how small.

A warning comes attached to this project. Often, as people proceed, the more they learn, the more they seek out nature, and the more understanding they gain of their place, the more the land works on them and the closer they come to an “indigenous” point of view, in the sense that  identity begins to incorporate biogeographical place dependency. One's life, priorities, and ethics, that is, ideas about what’s important and how people should live, might change in surprising ways. In the ensuing years since my first disastrous project, I first learned enough to plant and maintain a pretty nice, if small, perennial border, and then progressed to a point where my yard has become a tiny, semi-natural ecosystem and learning lab that produces some food for my family and habitat for wildlife. I got deeply involved with restoring natural areas and teaching others about these kinds of subjects. My definition of beauty expanded. My spiritual life changed. Now, whenever I look at any piece of ground, I first wonder what the soil is like. Next I consider whether bees and other pollinators and beneficial insects would be happy there. (These little creatures are fine indicator species. If they can't thrive, little else will.) Then I wonder what it needs and how to help.

Naturally one does't have to know all this in such detail in order to get started on an urban hedgerow, especially if you are in contact with others who do have this knowledge and experience, but some kind of broad overview will help prevent failures. And finding mentors can help ease the learning curve.

2. Assess and understand your situation and purpose
Perhaps you are already doing some urban farming, or gardening, or perhaps you live in a suburb with a nice large lot. Perhaps you live in an apartment but have a park or community garden down the street that you already or would like to utilize. Wherever you live, odds are it’s anthropocentric to the extent that it’s unbalanced.

To me, urban gardening of any sort, whether ornamental landscaping, in parks and other urban green spaces, or for community or individual food production must address several questions: How will this garden and its plantings take its place in and benefit local ecological functioning and the wildlife that live in the area? How will it help create beauty? How will it help the people who live in this place and what will they use it for? Will it, overall, tend to sequester carbon, regenerate the soil and manage water? (Residents of rural areas could also profitably answer these questions, to be discussed in a future post). When planning an urban hedgerow, considerations also include what the property owners’ needs are, and how the hedgerow should function—as a living fence? As a source for human food and wood? As a privacy and sound screen? As wildlife corridor and habitat? Often, of course, the answer will be “all of the above,” and then the next challenge will be to fit the hedgerow to the space.

3. Design the hedgerow to suit the place
When I imagine a city full of hedgerows, I imagine them in many guises. The definition of a hedgerow is so elastic, and the styles and variations so various, that they could be designed for almost anywhere and tailored to almost any situation, large or small. Wherever a line of weedy species has grown up, wherever there is need for fencing or privacy, wherever there is a chain link or wrought-iron fence with a few Eurasian shrubs straggling alongside, urban hedgerows could be an answer. The important considerations are purpose, structure (including management) and species of plants used. These are important because not only are human needs being taken into account, but also the needs of wildlife, including insects, and issues such as water management and quality of life. Trees and shrubs would be chosen to fit the space, and hedgerow purpose and design. Plants would be largely native, because native plants really do better help support important beneficial insects and pollinators and when birds eat the berries, they will not later be spreading the seeds of invasive non-native shrubs. I am not recommending specific plant species, because where readers live determines what would be most appropriate. Management would be ecological. Leaf litter would remain on the ground, pruning would be selective, and if appropriate, understory plants and ground covers could be encouraged to grow.

City lots. OK, so you live in a townhouse, or your lot measures 25 or 30 feet by perhaps 125 or 150 feet and much of that is taken up by house and garage. While there’s no room for a full-on hedgerow,
What not to do:
boxwood, mulch, chemical turf
there is likely room for a low hedge in front along the sidewalk. The tiny front yard could then be planted to native flowers and ground covers, or even vegetables and herbs. In the back yard, three shrubs in a corner could constitute a mini-hedgerow, or a small flowering tree with low shrubs underneath and : a corner forest garden, as it were, incorporating herbaceous species as well.

Suburban properties. Between two larger suburban properties the owner or collaborating neighbors could create a 15-20 foot wide, mixed shrub border that includes a few conifers, small flowering shrubs and even a small tree or two, planted fairly close together so gaps fill in. This would provide beauty, privacy, and help serve the area’s wildlife needs. The shrubs could be faced down with grasses and flowers for an American-style perennial garden. Herbs and vegetables could be mixed in. A neighborhood full of such properties would be a leafy green haven.

Alternatively, such a border could be a linear forest garden, either on one person’s property or serving as a sort of commons between two properties. Fruiting trees and bushes would naturally be a part of this, as would bushes that respond well to coppicing. In sub-developments where rows of properties back up to one another, hedgerows could extend a long way if owners decided to work together.

A young hedgerow and herbaceous understory plants
add beauty and usefulness for humans and other species

Community gardens and urban farms. Many urban areas boast wonderfully fertile and well functioning community gardens. Since these are agricultural production sites, often slotted in between buildings and can range in size from a single city lot to several acres, it makes sense that many could well use the addition of a small mixed hedgerow full of native flowering shrubs along a back fence. Laid or pleached hedgerows along building walls or perimeter fences could add needed biotic functionality and beauty to the site by offering shelter to (insect-eating) birds and beneficial predatory insects and nectar and pollen for pollinators. The understory, full of leaf litter, perhaps some logs left to decay naturally (and inoculated to grow edible mushrooms?), and low native plants such as wild strawberry and native ginger would provide habitat for predaceous ground beetles and potential overwintering habitat for other beneficial insects.
Hedgerows would add good ecological function and help optimize crops

In a multi-lot space, hedgerows could be wider, and managed for berries, coppiced for a supply of usefully sized wood such as bean poles, or even basket-making materials. A small rock pile could be constructed for small critters, or “beetle bumps,” small areas of raised earth planted with native perennial grasses to serve as habitat for predatory beetles could be put in place. Flowers such as milkweed could be included. Here again, learning your landscape and learning the plants and beneficial insects native to the ecosystem is crucial. I have never understood why I’ve met so many food gardeners, including urban permaculturalists, who, though often brilliant horticulturalists and designers, have so little real understanding of the suite of native plants and animals of the Chicago region or how to incorporate native plants into and exclude overly invasive plants from their gardening and permaculture schemes. A row of native serviceberries are a blessing in early June when the sweet deep blue berries ripen, Aronia’s somewhat tart berries make good jam, and native wild roses produce good hips for tea.

This  park  needs a hedgerow
The whole park would be improved
Parks. Often chain link fences form park boundaries, and here, laid hedgerows could be
constructed that, while not especially wide or tall, would add beauty, habitat, and, if composed of thorny species, a measure of security to a space usually dominated by shade trees, grass and play equipment. If not laid, less thorny species could be woven together or pleached to good effect. One obstacle to this is that park districts often have restrictions regarding shrubs for security reasons. Yet smaller shrubs along a fence would not really compromise security, particularly if composed of deciduous species.

Soccer, baseball--and hedgerows?
Athletic fields and golf courses. These can be huge, windy spaces; because the landscapingnecessarily is turf, they usually function as chemical-laden biological deserts. Here, shelterbelts made of a mix of native trees and shrubs on the side with the prevailing winds could help improve microclimate and biotic functioning while also potentially providing improved water management, and some carbon sequestration. The fields, while remaining completely anthropocentric, could become more of an ecosystem asset. Athletic fields are often situated close to busy roads, and sometimes, natural areas are nearby. Because of the possibility for greater scale, length, and width, post-modern windbreaks and hedgerows could function a little more like rural ones and could help link separate neighborhoods across the matrix. 

Crabapple trees need companionship
Along berms. A common landscaping feature in the US is the berm, possibly topped with a few tightly mulched conifers or other small trees, used as a sound and sight barrier along a busy road. In the UK, certain styles of hedgerow involve banks topped with shrubs. In the US, hedgerows incorporated into the design of berms would add to their shielding purpose, while adding complexity to the landscape. These could be very informal mixes of native flowering shrubs, conifers and small trees allowed to grow naturalistically and would only need to be selectively pruned, rather than subjected to the rigors of mow, blow and go landscaping that passes for care in these kinds of situations.

Shielding natural areas. I know of several small natural areas such as savannas and pocket prairies where the stewards have left a strip of woody growth between the restored area and road. Often these are full of buckthorn, Eurasian honeysuckle and other weedy species. What if other native shrubs and small trees such as American hawthorn, wild plum, elderberry and even Osage orange were planted in these strips as the buckthorn and honeysuckle are removed?  These could be managed as semi-wild shelterbelts full of native savanna plants. Since the wider a corridor is, the better it is for wildlife, here, as in athletic fields, the potential for greater width could be an immense benefit.

It seems clear that how we treat the land within cities could make a difference on multiple scales for multiple species, including us. If individuals and groups consciously bring more nature into the city by creating small semi-natural areas using native plants, practicing ecological gardening and adding connectivity with hedgerows and fencerows composed of diverse native species, cramped urban areas and over-manicured suburbs would dramatically transform. Our urban areas would become more resilient, ecological networks incorporating all four essential landscape patterns. This is already happening in some places, but so much more could be done. The potential benefits are so abundant, by so many measures, that it seems as though the transformation should already have taken place.

Note: Thanks to readers Thomas Rainsborough and Jason Heppenstall for information and suggestions regarding hedgerows in the UK. Also thanks to editors Luanne and Bart for their useful comments.

Related Posts:

In Praise of Native Shrubs
Where Do We Find Beauty in a Landscape?
Just What is a Hedgerow: A Few Notes on History, Form and Function
Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love
"Farming with Native Beneficial Insects" Means Solving for Pattern