Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Day in Thatcher Woods

Took a late afternoon walk in snowy Thatcher woods, rarely so beautiful. Everything white and quiet, and hardly any traffic on nearby streets--natural sounds usually in the background pushed forward and layered the air. A squirrel scolded;  I turned to peer through trees and soft falling snow to see a hawk launch heavily off a tall tree, ghostly gray.

I walked north along the path on the river's snowy, icy eastern bank. Near the railroad tracks, some teens were sledding down an old high mound, once debris, now smoothed by age and overgrowth and years of sledding. Their newly matured voices rang out, distinct in their individual, blocky tones. As I went on and their voices faded, I grew very conscious of the trees next the path--for once undistracted by summer green or autumn russet--seeing clearly their size and age--the extreme corkiness of the bur oaks' bark, all furrowed and ridged; the smoother strips of the red oak; the diamond weave that marks the green ash; the textured patchiness of the maple. At intervals, I stood and looked and listened, before walking on. No sight of the usual deer, except tracks, of course.

I have seen the river nearly iced over, but today the central channel flowed, deep gunmetal gray, fairly low, so the current rippled and eddied around obstacles; the sound of the water riffling over some rocks surprised me, for the river is normally a quiet presence in these parts. Further south is the noisy dam where people fish in summer. After awhile I reached the place where the river broadens and curves around an island, a place where many trees show the angular cuts and stumps have the cone-shaped tops that beavers create, a place where grasses flourish in an opening the beavers helped make. The snow lay heavy on what looked to be a dam across the channel between the island and the west bank, something I hadn't noticed as complete a month ago. All remained still.

Alone in the woods is very different from together in the woods. A quiet walk alone is sometimes the necessary thing. After standing awhile, dusk coming on, I turned and headed for home.

Best wishes to all for the coming year.

Update 12/28/10: Dave Coulter at Osage + Orange took a walk that day, too. He sent this picture.

Des Plaines River

Related Posts:
Gardening in Thatcher Woods With Help
Bloom Day
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard

Monday, December 20, 2010

Lawncare Resources On the Web

No chemical lawn inputs, please
Ecological lawncare advice-givers and activist groups abound on the web. While preparing my post "The Polyculture Lawn," I discovered several helpful websites which I recommend for those interested in learning more about ecological lawns.

Because they are national in scope, a good understanding of your own local conditions is necessary before taking their advice. In addition, people interested in native-plant-centric gardens (in my opinion the best kind), should be aware that many plants--especially groundcovers--suggested as alternatives to turfgrass are exotics, and even invasive. That being said, go have a look.
  • The Lawn Reform Coalition at offers many suggestions and pictures.
  • Safe Lawns at News and information, and you can order "safe lawn" signs for your turf.

Related Posts:
Pollinator Garden Resources on the Web
The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer
Once in a Lifetime: This is Not My Beautiful Lawn

    Wednesday, December 15, 2010

    New Blog Design

    Introducing my updated blog design, which I hope readers will find more user friendly. To enhance the reading and browsing experience, I used cleaner colors (which coordinate with my personal business card), and put the text in Verdana instead of Arial. Verdana is designed for more comfortable online reading. I also added share features, and jump breaks ("read more") on longer posts so more content can appear on the front page. I'll continue tinkering with details as I get to it. Look for more informational pages tabbed across the top in coming months. What kinds of information would you like to see?

    Monday, December 13, 2010

    The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer

    Bee in Creeping Charlie
    During a recent conservation/climate change seminar, I happened to comment about the relationship of home gardens to natural areas; how we need to cease thinking of nature as being something over there, while our private yards and gardens are treated as separate; and how our gardens can help sequester carbon. Afterward, a woman came up to me, someone who had spoken knowledgeably about habitats, biodiversity of prairies, and the difference between C4 and C3 plant species. “Without using herbicides,” she said, “What am I to do about the creeping Charlie in my lawn? I just hate it.”

    A fellow gardener and I tried to explain: a polyculture lawn is ok—herbiciding creeping Charlie not worth the environmental cost (besides which it’s nearly indestructible)—it’s easy to pull up—it mostly grows in shady areas where grass has difficulty—bees like the flowers—looks nice in spring—don’t fight it…Well, she wasn’t going to hand weed it, thought she was allergic to it and lawns shouldn’t have flowers in them. We gave up; we had encountered another urban/suburban dweller who hadn’t yet realized that one of the best ways to do something about conservation and climate change is to change how you take care of your own land.

    Now, as we transition towards a less oil soaked, lower carbon way of life, many of us will realize, possibly of necessity, that of course there are all kinds of things we could do with our valuable urban and suburban land instead of having a lawn. However, until the day that there are chicken coops, beehives and clotheslines in every backyard, vegetable and pollinator gardens out front and bioswales along the side, I’m assuming most people will have a lawn of some sort. The thing is, as I’ve ranted here, there are conventional lawns and then there are post conventional, ecological lawns. After reading that post, a number of people asked, “Ok, so what is an ecological lawn and how do you make one?”

    My answer is that an ecological lawn is, above all, intentional and mindful. The ideal ecological lawn is appropriately sized for its purpose, thoughtfully placed, polycultural, and cared for by organic means according to natural seasonal cycles and time frames with inputs furnished from the property. A polyculture lawn, which some call a clover lawn, provides ecological services, increases biodiversity, helps manage and conserve water, and stores carbon. Not only that, it looks good, it’s safe for children and animals, and it’s cheap. All you have to do is move beyond the idea that a lawn should comprise grass and grass alone.

    Thursday, December 2, 2010

    Meteorological Winter

    Sleeping In

    I turned over my pillow and
    went off to sleep again; finally I
    turned over and stretched out;
    the papered windows are bright,
    so I know morning is here, yet
    I stay in bed because my quilt
    is as warm as spring;
    do not stop me from being lazy!
    Better to comfort me with
    pleasant words; outside the cock crows
    but I continue to sleep, no longer
    emulating those who
    attend early court.

    (Imperial audiences were held before sunrise. Translation, Rewi Alley)

    "Prairie" - Karen Hanmer
    So wrote Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi sometime in the early 800s. I woke thinking of that poem yesterday, the first day of meteorological winter. Cold weather has finally arrived for real, and we keep our house cool, especially at night: how I love the warmth under my quilt, how loath to emerge in the chilly gray morning!

    I can lie there feeling satisfied about the completion of fall garden tasks. Herbs harvested and frozen, and pesto made; a few jars of homemade jam placed on the shelf; seeds collected and saved; compost spread on the raspberry and rhubarb beds; leaves raked and either spread in the beds along the fence or composted; bean and morning glory vines pulled down and composted; one last weeding done; containers divested of their annuals (composted) and brought in the basement; the compost heap turned one last time. Other than some annual herbs cut after the first hard frost, I’ll wait until early spring to cut down anything else, so the garden looks like the season, full of russets and golds which will fade into browns and tans as winter progresses. Satisfied to let things be.

    Starting out through the garden on a morning walk, I hear a downy woodpecker singing an it’s-a-good-day song, and spot it high up, traversing the rough-barked trunk of the silver maple across the alley; as I crane my head back to look, I notice two red tailed hawks higher above, heading north on business.

    I give thanks for the non-human members of our biotic community who grace us with their presence; who, simply by living their lives, help make the earth a fit place to live, for themselves and for us.

    Related Posts:
    Blooms Day Since 1904
    National Poetry Month in the Garden

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    A Question of Trees

    An Unusual Storm
    The tree had to come down.

    During the “Chi-clone” of late October, which would have qualified as a Category 3 storm had it been over the ocean, a large limb split off from the Norway maple at the back of my house and fell in slow motion across my neighbor’s deck. She, outside checking on her planters, froze with disbelief and nearly got killed. The next day a couple of friendly, energetic men came over, scrambled up in the branches, commenced cutting and within three hours the tree was felled. Oh, the sudden light lancing through the western windows of my house!

    The tree didn’t leave the premises, however. Two stout sections of trunk sit by the fence, acting as a mini-windbreak for a newly planted young shrub while awaiting a future use, possibly as the supports for a bench. A third that widens at the base like an elephant’s foot now sits, a water-filled flowerpot saucer on top, in a sunny spot between the pagoda dogwood and the prairie patch, to the birds’ delight. The rest of the tree went in the chipper and landed in a pile on the parkway to be shoveled and raked level: one more spot of lawn reduction accomplished. Some of the chopped-up, still green leaves went on the compost heap.

    This summer I had been, again, looking at the tree with a critical eye—large Norway maple, too close to the house, a hazard in increasingly-common extreme weather events, annoyingly bountiful seeds and seedlings. But I generally don’t take out trees and shrubs just ‘cuz. Twenty years ago, when I still believed horticulture industry recommendations, I got the tree as part of a giveaway after a gardening lecture. Thrilled to get a free tree, I stuck the whip in the ground and over years, took photos of growing tree and children together. Eventually it provided cooling shade--and also turned out to be a shallow-rooted water thief beneath which neither grass nor flowers would willingly grow. Why, I wondered, was it so widely touted?

    Saturday, November 6, 2010

    Yes We Are, Doing Something about Climate Change

     Warning: this post does not mention plants or gardens.

    Response to climate change is gaining mass, I believe, regardless of our nationally elected leaders' passivity or outright obstructionism

    I went to the Chicago Wilderness Conference* Thursday, and it was heartening to listen to the scientists, educators and ecologists discuss climate change data, and more importantly, to hear of the education and ecosystem projects going on in the Chicago region. People from going into the neighborhoods and schools, working through community centers and with policymakers. The atmosphere was one of “the debate is settled, this is what’s working, we haven’t much time, let’s do more.”

    Then in the evening I went to the first big meeting in my town (partnering with another town) for our citizen-created sustainability plan which explicitly includes reducing emissions, planning landscaping to act as a carbon sink, reducing car use, managing water, accessing alternative energy and so on–all the things we need to be doing to help lower our collective carbon footprint while preparing for a low carbon future. And the village governments are on board with this.

    We can’t wait for our legislature to pass laws: real change must come from the ground up.

    *The only discordant note for me, and it's a big one: BP helps fund the CW alliance. Guilt money? To distract us silly environmentalists from BP's tar sands involvement? Robbing Peter to pay Paul? Does CW then agree to turn a blind eye to the Whiting, Indiana refinery? Which is "the 6th largest source of industrial pollution in the Chicago area, according to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune," and a threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem. See this article in the Michigan Messenger.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    Once in a Lifetime: This Is Not My Beautiful Lawn

     Lawns and the Nitrogen Cycle
    The Emerald City
    The other week my friend Wil said, “a weed free, well-kept green lawn is a work of art.” I couldn’t help but agree. That kind of lawn, the kind that appears in depictions of paradise and on real golf courses is indeed a work of art, and science. A “perfect” lawn is a truly human artifact, a triumph of elegance and simplicity, using machines, chemicals and Poa pratensis in its making.

    Yet the statement troubled me, and keeps troubling me. For one thing, Wil—son of Mennonite farmers, University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener, founder of the children’s vegetable garden at a local park—doesn’t have a lawn. His inner-ring suburban house is flanked in back by a patch of stalwart prairie plants and in front by an edible landscape of seasonal vegetables, mixed, a la the French potager, with herbs and pollinator-attracting flowers, which I had the privilege of helping to lay out. This installation caused a stir in the neighborhood. People driving by occasionally stop their cars to get out and look. If you visit Wil, when you leave, you’re likely to take home lettuce, basil, radishes or chard, or all four, depending on the month.

    “You may ask yourself”

    The Des Plaines River
    For another, “Once in a Lifetime,” that old song by the Talking Heads (covered many times since), lately has kept running through my head. “You may ask yourself, what am I doing here?” its ironic, existential critique of modern life goes, and I’m asking myself yet again, in part because I have just reread the very succinct, very troubling article, “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” published last year by Nature just prior to the Copenhagen debacle. Briefly, the article states that of nine important, interrelated planetary boundaries that safeguard life on earth, the two most egregiously overrun at present are biodiversity (loss) and, together with the phosphorus cycle, the nitrogen cycle, which has been “significantly perturbed…[through] human processes.” This involves removing inert nitrogen gas from the air and reintroducing reactive forms of nitrogen into the environment. The authors name familiar culprits: fertilizer production and use in industrial farming, with subsequent release of nitrous oxide (a significant greenhouse gas) into the air and pollution of waterways.

    Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    An Excellent, Timeless Book

    Anyone interested in gardening with native plants, especially in the Midwest, should read The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening, by Wilhelm Miller. Originally published in 1915, it was reprinted in 2002 by the University of Massachusetts Press, with a valuable, contextualizing introduction by Christopher Vernon.

    Wilhelm Miller was a horticulturalist, ecologist and writer. He associated with Chicago's great prairie school architects and landscape designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Jens Jensen. He also knew the brilliant ecologist Henry C. Cowles. In fact, Miller originated the terms "prairie school" and "prairie style," still in use today, that describe the distinctive style of architecture and landscaping originating in Illinois at that time. Miller was also the first head of the University of Illinois "Division of Landscape Extension." Many people today are familiar with the U. of I. Extension educational services, including those provided by U. of I. Extension Master Gardeners. Other states have similar programs.

    This short book, published by the University, was offered "free to anyone in Illinois who will sign a promise to do some permanent ornamental planting within a year." Like all the best gardening books, it offers inspiration and instruction, well illustrated with the work of Jensen and others. It includes recommendations for farmers, as well as city dwellers and suburbanites.

    To Miller, ornamental planting meant using native plants extensively, understanding plant associations, and basing design on the natural prairie landscape. At the time this was nearly revolutionary--and even today remains something of a minority view among the public and in the horticulture industry. Since that time, thousands of books have been written extolling naturalistic design, conservation and the use of native plants, but it is all in place right here. His principles are still current and his lists of plants still useful. I've been making a list of proposed species for a hedgerow project and was surprised to find most of them in this book. Maybe I should just copy his list and save myself some work!

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Two Experiments: Slow and Sustainable

    I.  In which plants and insects from far away contribute to my home office

    Pines in Karelia
         “What you doin’?” asked the three-year-old who lives next door. I was standing on my front porch wielding a paintbrush.
         “Finishing my shelves.” I showed him my brush.
         “But I don’t smell anything,” his mother said as they went by.
         “Hah!” I thought, exactly the point.

    A stint of house/cat/garden minding had brought in a little extra cash, and I decided to use the proceeds to finally set up my home office. No longer for me a life of migrating in search of a place to work within my own house!

    Mostly this involved commandeering what had been my son’s room but now functioned as a sort of storage and staging area for my daughter. Heartlessly, I removed her belongings and arranged an old desk, chair and my laptop. What should I purchase? Bookshelves, of course. I decided on some rules: inexpensive, sustainable, and easy to assemble/disassemble. The last because, after having lived in this house nearly half my life, rooted as an oak tree, I may need to decamp on short notice. You never know.

    Friday, October 1, 2010

    Strengthening the Biotic Community

    From Wild Ones
    Update: this post has been crossposted at Energy Bulletin under the title "Gardening is about more than vegetables." If you haven't visited it, Energy Bulletin is a portal for energy and sustainable living news from worldwide sources under the auspices of the Post Carbon Institute.

    Perhaps you have heard that, according to a new scientific report (See Guardian article here), one fifth of plants face extinction, primarily because of human destruction of habitat, which includes logging, agriculture and building new infrastructure. As an ecological gardener, I take this news as a personal call to action, since my vocation is to help increase biodiversity, through gardening, teaching, and volunteering for conservation activities. When I heard that news, I thought of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold’s succinct distillation of his “land ethic:”

    “A thing is right when it tends to strengthen the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

    Leopold’s statement has, in some circles, become something of a cliché, and in other places has been criticized either for not going far enough or for not leaving room for humans. (See this essay at the Yale Forum of Religion and Ecology). I believe its epigrammatic, prescriptive statement of the deep morality at the center of environmentally-ethical behavior applies not only to wild areas, or to landscape preservation and restoration, but like Michael Rosenzweig’s more recent concept of reconciliation ecology, applies equally to cities and suburbs. The land ethic, like nature, doesn’t stop at the garden gate and doesn’t go away because we “own” a piece of land. Recognize it or not, like it or not, we are part of the biotic community. Fortunately, many gardeners have a natural understanding of this. Yet it bears repeating.

    My first, biggest gardening question is always, “how will my gardening help the biotic community?” which means the ecosystem and all the plants and animals—all the living things, including me —and the habitats they simultaneously live in and form. And I ask further questions: Am I making my garden so that it is of a piece with the surrounding native ecosystem (integrity)? So that it could function without me for a period of time (stability)? So that it not only pleases my human senses, but also those of bees or hummingbirds, and demonstrates elegance in the way the parts function together (beauty)? Even though I don’t know enough to understand even a tiny fraction of the millions of relationships that structure the biotic community--or to put it another way, all the inputs, outputs, flows and processes that form this complex nonlinear system--nevertheless, I strive to learn and act mindfully.

    Attempting to answer these questions has led me to learn as much as I can about my place, this Chicago wilderness region that is my home—its natural and human history, its physical characteristics, its present inhabitants, human and otherwise—and to develop a deep and abiding love of the land. My answers to these questions, which frequently change as I learn, govern everything I do in the garden—from design and plant choices to cultivation methods and water management. The answers will be different for each gardener, depending on where he or she lives.

    As a gardener, when I learned of the damage caused by synthetic fertilizer run off, I stopped using it and learned to nourish the living soil with compost. When I learned of the complex interactions among birds, insects and native plants, I stopped using pesticides and started planting natives; biodiversity increased in obvious, exhilarating ways.

    But that report underscores a crucial concern of mine, of which some gardeners remain unaware: Even if you garden organically, but plant everything to exotic ornamental hybrids and/or vegetables, you are still reducing habitat, reducing biodiversity and negatively impacting populations of wild native plants on whom we and other creatures depend, even if their utility is not immediately obvious. This is something many otherwise sustainable gardeners seem to forget, especially in urbanized areas. Even some permaculturalists, because of their emphasis on human food plants from all over the world, can forget the local biotic community in which they live. We should all learn, as Douglas Tallamy suggests, to "bring nature home," or to leave a corner for Thoreau’s "necessary wildness."

    Ever since I first read A Sand County Almanac as a young girl, the land ethic has functioned as part of my moral bedrock, strong as the dolomite of the Niagara escarpment that rings the southern Great Lakes, persistent as the cup plants that flourish in prairie remnants. It helps govern my beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and actions. That sense of moral concern hasn’t stayed in the garden, either; I’ve become mindful of how my entire way of life impacts the biotic community. It has led me, and my whole family, to carefully consider where and how to live. Long ago we decided to live close to public transport and have, over the years, gradually nearly ceased flying, become vegetarian, reduced our driving in favor of biking and walking, decreased our overall energy use, begun to eat more sustainably and locally, and on and on. (We do not, by the way, feel deprived.) In short, by attempting to live mindful of our places as members of the biotic community, we have re-examined and changed our lives. Have we done enough? Probably not, but we’re working on it.

    The land ethic also serves, for me, as a moral context for any consideration of such things as overpopulation, peak oil (and resulting desecrations such as the tar sands), climate change, industrial agriculture, mountaintop removal, urban sprawl, and so forth. We humans have the right to live, to take our sustenance from this good earth, and inevitably what we do will have impact—yet we must always be aware that we are members of the biotic community with other species, who also have claim. What right do we have to wantonly destroy habitat simply for human convenience, what we imagine to be profit, or as a “necessary byproduct” of human civilization? As we destroy the biotic community we are destroying ourselves. If we were to behave as responsible citizens, we wouldn’t be in such a predicament. Old, old news—yet it, too, bears endless repeating.

    There are many different expressions of the land ethic, embedded in the belief systems, cultural narratives, myths, and stories of many different cultures—it is a universal human understanding. I keep this version especially close to my heart because the man who formulated it understood, helped restore, and wrote movingly about the upper Midwest, my home landscape. Gardeners—including anyone with even the tiniest scrap of land or even a few outdoor containers—have a special privilege and responsibility to act on this understanding, and to actively help strengthen the biotic community. We have the power to do so in real, measurable ways; much depends on how we use that power, on whether we will act as tyrants or citizens on our own home ground.

    Related Posts:
     Ecological Reality Is Not What You Hypothesize 
    Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide
    Two Classic Accounts of Living with Nature
    Why We Should Garden with Biodversity in Mind

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    Hummingbird Sightings

    A hummingbird is back, right on late-summer schedule, for the third year in a row. So far I’ve only seen a female—it could be that the male has already headed south, which they do slightly earlier. To those who have multiples clustering about their feeders, this might not seem so big. Such a sight, as I have seen at the Indiana Dunes State Park, is indeed impressive. But for me and my next-door neighbor, who maintains the feeders, regular visits from one or two where no hummers had been seen for over twenty years, feels like an accomplishment. It’s a fine thing to see a hummer hovering at the feeder, but even better to see one browsing among the plants you have established just for its benefit. Of course the bees and butterflies don’t object either, so in the long run, what you get is multi-modal pollination. Yet hummers do have preferences: for tubular flowers, mostly red. (For a list, see the Hummingbird Project page above.)

    Because of research, family obligations, setting up my new home office, and the semester’s start, the last few weeks have been mostly indoor time for me. (The garden has grown -- out of control and out of bounds, but that’s for another post.) I had noticed the hummer several times, sipping daintily at the feeder, and marked where she flew. She apparently lives in a towering honey locust across the alley. Some people say honey locusts have been overused for landscaping, but I’ve always liked their feathery leaves and dappled shade. A native species, they’re a good pollen and nectar source for native bees, relics of the days when mastodons roamed North America eating the sweet-tasting, leathery seed pods. Today, deer, cattle, rabbits, squirrels and some birds enjoy them.

    But to return to the hummingbird. Two days ago I finally got back outside, and, under a lowering sky, started after some thistles and bindweed that had shouldered in among the prairie dropseed, prairie violets and blue-eyed grass. She suddenly materialized at the feeder; though of course she didn’t actually, but I had “got my eyes on,” as mushroom hunters say. There she was. I froze. She hovered. Then it was over to my butterfly bush, down to the licorice agastache right next to me, back over the fence to the feeder, on to some giant blue hyssop, up to an overhead electrical wire for a momentary perch, and then zoom! Up the long, concave arc into the top of the honey locust, where she disappeared.

    The experience was so not-mundane that for some reason Tinkerbelle comes to mind at first and I want to get all Victorian and write about magic and how the little bird was fairy-like, feeding upon nectar and living embowered among the fluttering green leaves, her miniature nest constructed of spider webs and lichen a safe retreat from the strife of the outer air—but I’ll restrain myself. Besides, I’ve seen hummers fiercely defend their turf and snap insects while on the wing, not something Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairies would  do—though Peaseblossom or Cowslip might, Shakespeare being darker and less sentimental than many late Victorian writers and illustrators, or Disney. Or one could reference the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, in which stick bugs big as hummingbirds reveal themselves as fairies. But enough fantasy! Truly, observing such a tiny, alien, glittering, flying being, going about her own non-human affairs, opens a small window on one of the other, not entirely safe dimensions of life on earth, if you have your eyes on.

    Time returning to its normal flow, I worked contentedly as a sprinkle slowly strengthened to rain. Back inside I went, not much weeding done, satisfied with that hour in the garden.

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Time Off

    July and August I've been taking time away from the computer. I'll be back the last week of August when school starts. In the meantime, here's some backyard nature news:

    Here as elsewhere around our climate-changing globe (though on a much less severe scale) the weather is news.

    The morning of July 24, I woke up to a see a shallow pond in the backyard, a sight never before seen, after approximately eight inches of rain fell overnight. Flooding was widespread throughout the region, as anyone who lives here knows. The water drained, slowly but surely, and my trusty native plants are still thriving and blooming.

    Consequently, we are having the worst mosquito outbreak in twenty years.

    As of today the Chicago area has set a new record for longest stretch of days over 80 F--43 days, with more to come.

    Other news:

    Yellow jackets built condominiums in my compost pile; monarchs laid eggs on the milkweeds (a process I'd never actually watched before); yellow swallowtails, black swallowtails, red admirals and blue azures are also around; the honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees are very busy; the cicadas are extremely loud at night; and cicada-killer wasps have suddenly shown up. These last are a large, beneficial wasp that burrow in the ground and kill cicadas to feed their young, which should give an idea of just how big they are--two inches. More info here. That's three species of solitary burrowing wasps I've seen this year, since the katydid killers and the golden diggers are back on schedule.

    Because of all the rain, I'm seeing new mushrooms, such as stink-horns, in the mulch.

    No new bird species so far, but quite abundant.

    It's truly incredible to me that the longer I garden with mostly native species, the more interesting the other life forms that appear.

    Yesterday I picked my first-ever crop  of chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa x Elata) and plan to make jam. They are now in the freezer waiting for a cooler day, possibly next week.

    Friday, July 2, 2010

    Power Down!

    Lately, because of my desire to reduce my personal use of fossil fuels, I've been reading about powering down and using appropriate technology. Part of the concept involves matching the amount of power used to the requirements of the job. In other words, using the least amount of power necessary.

    Being a gardener, I began thinking about all the gas and electric tools that get used in our yards—the lawnmowers,  hedge trimmers, weed whackers, leaf blowers, edgers, and rototillers, with the associated cacophony of sounds so eloquently complained about at Deep Middle: true pandemonium on a Saturday morning—and I use that word with a nod to Milton, who coined the word to name the hellish assembly hall of the devils in Paradise Lost.

    Even worse than the noise is the in many cases unnecessary, always polluting, use of fossil fuel-supplied power. So I asked myself, what does appropriate technology look like in the garden? Where do we really need to use motorized tools? My conclusion is that, in your average city lot or suburban ¼ acre, mostly we don’t.

    Now already I can imagine objections, from landscapers, for whom time is money, from persons who might be unable to physically complete gardening chores without assistance, and from persons who feel all physical work should involve power tools. Duly noted. I’d like to point out that good modern hand tools demonstrate a wise use of advanced technology: making well-designed tools that lessen our need for power tools. Teenagers need something to do besides use their smart phones. Gardening by hand can be therapeutic. Further, gardening can be good, healthy exercise. In summer, between bike riding, walking and gardening, I find I don’t have to go to the gym.

    Herewith, I proceed with a list of tools, situations when they might be useful, human-powered alternatives, and ways to minimize the need for them though gardening practice.

    Lawnmowers: If you have so much turf that you or your “landscaper” needs a ride-on, I hope you are maintaining a golf course or the playing fields of a large Midwestern land-grant university. If not, you should be keeping sheep or goats. Seriously. At home, scale down both lawn and mower: keep only as much lawn as you use and need, and start a prairie, savanna or permaculture garden with the rest. Many smaller lots don’t even need a power mower. Lots of folks in my neighborhood use push mowers, which work just fine. They make lightweight ones now that are very sharp and don’t take as much effort as you might imagine. They also sound...nice.

    Power hedge trimmers: Why? On a great estate with formal gardens? Possibly. At home for six shrubs? Not so much. Bushes should be chosen so when mature, they’ll fit the space without hedge trimming. It’s bad for bushes, anyway. Most only need some occasional hand shaping, and periodic renewal by removing no more than a third of thick, old stems down to the ground at the appropriate time. I have deep sympathy for the poor bushes that receive military haircuts a couple of times a year and lack the opportunity to express their true shrubby natures. Few sights are sadder than an overly-disciplined forsythia that can barely bloom in spring. I myself have some ancient yews. When they need restraining, I use hand pruners to trim some branches down, increasing light to the interior, and then I smooth things over with the hand trimmers I inherited from my mother-in-law, who bought good tools.

    Weed whackers: Useful in certain, large situations. We’ve used them in Thatcher Woods on young buckthorn colonies. This first year of the Prairie Garden at my college, which we’ve seeded into sod, we’re using one to keep everything at about six or seven inches, since we can’t burn until next year. In a small lot? If you have that many weeds, you have an opportunity to make a new garden bed by mowing, putting down newspaper and mulch and planting your chosen plants later. I might add that many birds and beneficial insects thrive in "weed patches."

    Leaf blowers: An abomination used by “landscapers” and homeowners who then bag this precious natural resource and send it to the landfill. They make really good rakes these days, exactly suited to use by humans, especially those of the teenage persuasion. The principles of good soil health say most leaves should be allowed to lie where they fall under trees and bushes. Rake up the ones on your (small) lawn and put in the compost heap.

    Edgers. Having never used one, I’m not sure I understand the concept. I have a favorite half-moon tool inherited from a grandparent that I use to keep the grass out of certain mulched areas.

    Rototillers. A great way to stir up the seed bank and encourage more weeds, which especially like disturbed ground. In general, less tilling is better. Mulch is the gardener's friend. Some of my friends make raised beds. Not being a true vegetable gardener (see my previous post here), I can’t address appropriate methods with expertise. The permaculture folks have a lot to say about this. You could check Food Not Lawns, by H. C. Flores.

    It all comes down to these questions: How much extra power do you really need to do the job? Is there a gentler, less violent, less polluting way to accomplish your goals? Should some goals and practices be altered so as to use fewer power tools?

     Note: The image  is from the delightful blog Early American Gardens, which is full of all kinds of interesting historical information. The latest post mentions my favorite early botanists, John and William Bartram.

    Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    American Goldfinches, Right on Schedule

    When the purple coneflowers bloom, the goldfinches show up. They're cool that way.

    The last couple of days I've been wondering when they'd appear. This morning when I finished my writing stint, I went out on the back porch to drink a cup of coffee and indulge in what I call thinking and my beloved family calls "there's mom, staring at the plants again"--and there they were, a male and female sitting on the coneflowers, eating the seeds. They also like sunflowers, milkweed, native thistles, and bee balm. They'll come to a feeder to eat nyger and sunflower seeds. A bird at a feeder is good, but a bird on a flower is excellent. It means the garden is bioregion-appropriate.

    The males turn bright yellow during mating season. The females are a dull yellow year round and the males revert in October. They are fairly common and live in the Chicago area all year, but somehow I don't notice them until they make their flashy presence known in late June.

    The Cornell Ornithology Lab Website All About Birds, where I got the photo, is a great place to learn more.

    Friday, June 25, 2010

    The Firefly Reports

    My toddler BFF: A couple of weeks ago I was sitting on the ground putting in dill starts, when the two and a half year old who lives next door looked at me through the fence and said, “I found lightning bugs! They light up! They fly! They were all around here!” And he started capering about, as though he were a lightning bug himself and could light up while flying. It was a major discovery, one that surprised his dad who had grown up in Edina, MN where they don’t have fireflies. You have to go out in the country to see them.

    When that family returned from a visit to the grandparents this week, the toddler’s mother said they had checked, and there are still no fireflies in Edina, an immaculately gardened, groomed and sprayed upper-middle-class suburb. Photo from Taylor S. Kennedy,  National Geographic Website.

    A good friend who spends much of her time in the UK told me that they don’t have fireflies there. They have glowworms, which creep along the ground, instead. Perhaps their population is somewhat in decline, for she said she had rarely seen them, with one exception. She and her husband had once stayed on Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, which not only has glowworms, but also a major colony of Manx Shearwaters. She said she never forgot the sight of the glowworms—nor the birds.

    A colleague in the biology department at my college said he once was doing research on prairie chickens at the Illinois state prairie chicken sanctuary in Jasper County, IL. One clear night he looked around: the stars were in full throated flickering song, and the fireflies too—so much so that he couldn’t tell where the sky stopped and the night air began. He said it was completely mind blowing, as though the stars had descended to earth and he was walking among them. He later said in an email, “…explains my revulsion for mosquito spraying. Nobody around here has any idea what fireflies are capable of instilling into the human consciousness. God bless Rachel Carson!”

    Last weekend I was in McNabb, IL for the Illinois Yearly Meeting annual sessions. On Friday night, there was dancing on the lawn in front of the meetinghouse. The wind picked up and a huge thunderstorm rumbled towards us across the fields, like a living entity in its power and movement. We retreated to the porch to watch. Later when the rain was steady and the lightning illuminated the clouds in bursts, not bolts, I walked through the deepening darkness to my cabin. The lightning bugs were out in full force, twinkling in the rain among the trees like little electrical sparks separated from their atmospheric source. (You can read an earlier post about McNabb here.)

    When I was young, we children would catch fireflies and put them in jars with leaves, hoping to keep them as pets, that they would always light up for us, their owners. But they always died. We didn’t know they are predators whose larva eat slugs, that they light up because they are mating, and that as with so much of nature, it’s better to let them live on their own terms.

    Gloria, at Pollinators-Welcome, has put together a very informative post about fireflies, with interesting facts about their lifestyle and preferred habitat. You can link to it here. You can also read more here at this University of Illinois Extension Homeowners Column by Sandra Mason, and at the National Geographic Website.

    In the U.S., June is "Great Outdoors Month"; in Illinois it is "Leave No Child Inside Month" sponsored by Chicago Wilderness; I say often and again, with the gardening aunt in To Kill a Mockingbird, “a day spent indoors is a day wasted.”

    Friday, June 18, 2010

    Gardening in Thatcher Woods, With Help

    Last Saturday was the monthly workday at my "natural home," Thatcher Woods Savanna, along the Des Plaines River. As I've mentioned before, managing a natural area is like gardening on a very large scale. And you need plenty of hands to help, especially when dealing with invasive species. One shrub we are constantly trying to contain is non-native buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica and R. frangula and four others). Along with garlic mustard (see my post here), it is a plant I love to get rid of.

    Buckthorn is a very nice, good looking shrub with dark glossy leaves, orange inner bark and berries that birds adore. It was brought to the States in the 19th century as a useful hedging material. With the help of the birds, it soon escaped and found our woods and savannas entirely to its liking. So much so that with no natural predators, it soon became the biggest bully in the woods, growing to the size of small trees and shading the ground so that native forbs couldn't get enough light. If only the deer would find it palatable! More information is available at Wisconsin DNR and Illinois DNR.

    In Illinois six varieties of non-native buckthorn were declared illegal to buy or sell in 2003, including common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, saw-toothed buckthorn, Dahurian buckthorn, Japanese buckthorn and Chinese buckthorn. Yet I have since then occasionally seen it for sale, most recently a new cultivar called "Fineline," touted as having fewer berries. No matter, it is still R. frangula, and still illegal in Illinois.

     In Thatcher Woods, the Thatcher Woods Savanna Restoration Project manages buckthorn in a very direct way: we cut it down and then we burn it. Some people also cut it down and take it home to build rustic fences and trellises, for which the wood is admirably suited. When our group, headed by Victor and Jean Guarino, started twenty years ago, the woods were full of buckthorn and little else. Once the buckthorn was controlled, the native seed bank burst into germination and what had been a depauperate woods is now a fine area where flourish a number of rare and even conservative species.

     This chopping and burning is a lot of work, though worthwhile. Last Saturday, our small group was augmented by some enthusiastic members of two high school ecology clubs. One group had come from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin to join students from Oak Park and River Forest High School. The two groups are planning a trip to Africa for a service project and wanted to get to know each other. What better way than working together in the woods?
    The conditions were pure woodsy, riparian Illinois: warm, muggy and overcast, with plenty of hungry mosquitoes. Yet these students worked with a will. It was a pleasure to observe how they went at the twenty-foot tall buckthorn shrubs, cut them up and lugged them to the fire. They opened up a large area among the oaks, giving the Jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon's seals and other species light to photosynthesize and room to grow. When mugginess morphed into thunderstorms, we had to scatter, but good work had been accomplished, and I feel sure the students knew one another a bit better. I predict their trip to Africa will be successful.

    Group photo courtesy Victor Guarino, Steward of Thatcher Woods.  Forest Preserve volunteer information can be found at this Forest Preserve District of Cook County website.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010

    Bloom Day

    I've noticed many garden bloggers post what's blooming on the 15th of the month. Until now I had always associated Bloom day, or Bloomsday, with June 16, 1904, the date when James Joyce's Leopold Bloom set off on his adventures around Dublin in Ulysses. Joyce lovers everywhere celebrate that day with parties at which they read selections aloud. Is there a connection?

    Anyway, here's what's blooming in my yard at the moment:
    Exotics include tulips, Vinca minor, Iberis, dwarf irises, bleeding hearts, Brunnera 'Jack Frost,' dandelions, creeping charlie, and Norway maple. Natives include celandine poppies, wild ginger, violets, prairie phlox, Virginia bluebells, and serviceberry. A few other things, such as the lilacs, are about to pop and will be done before the next bloom day. So perhaps these lists should be posted every two weeks.

    I'm not much of a photographer, but my friend Joe took these pictures of
    what was blooming in Thatcher Woods on April 10 and shared them with me. At left are spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), at right is trout lily (Erythronium americanum).

    Blooms Day Since 1904

    James Joyce was not a gardener. His subject matter was lower-middle-class Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century and his explorations of that city's life form some of the greatest literature written in English: modern, difficult, anti-romantic, and dense with quotation and allusion. If you should say "I had an epiphany," you will echo Joyce. He took the word out of its religious context and made it into a moment of extreme insight--as though visited from above--that first his characters experienced in Dubliners, and now, over a hundred years later, all of us still experience from time to time.

    If you have  an epiphany out in the garden on a fine June 16, you have entered Joyce's world, even if you've never read Dubliners or Ulysses. On this day people worldwide celebrate Blooms Day, comemorating June 16, 1904, the day on which the events of Ulysses take place, the day during which  Leopold Bloom perambulates about Dublin (you can find more information at the James Joyce Centre). This morning I pulled out my old copy of Ulysses and was amused to find this note on the flyleaf: "Started Blooms Day, 1983 and completed August 15, 1983. Adrian Ayres." And notes throughout. So diligent I was then.

    Of course mid-June's often delightful weather is a highlight of our year, at least in the northern hemisphere. In my garden, some things are in flower that have been blooming here perhaps since my house was built in 1904. They include orange daylilies (or "grandma lilies"); tall, very fragrant white lilies; and Creeping Bellflower--all fairly degage and, some think, weedy. They're also pretty, and comemorate the first and subsequent owners who always gardened well and kept the soil in good shape.

    Other non-natives include: Stargazer Lilies, Geranium sanguinum 'striatum,' Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria), and Nepeta.

    Natives include: Coreopsis, Beebalm (Monarda didyma; M. bradburiana is done), Purple Coneflower, Celandine Poppy (repeat), Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium augustifolium), Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) and  and the startlingly red and yellow Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica).

    Ate the first ripe raspberry yesterday. It's time to get some jars and lids for making jam.

    Happy Blooms Day to all.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010

    Free Plants, Conservation and Reconciliation Ecology

    As I've mentioned before, my husband and I have been helping pay college tuition. This, coupled with our ecological lifestyle, has led us to go beyond frugal into the land of thrifty, close, parsimonious, and cheap when it comes to personal expenditures. So an opportunity to get free plants does not pass unnoticed.

    Now sadly, I'm something of a plant snob. With increasing ecological education has come increasing pickiness. It's not just any orphan mass-produced Impatiens or Petunia I'll bring home. Oh no, these days it's got to be native and preferably unusual. (I do have annuals in pots, but that's for another post.)

    When I found out about Native Seed Gardeners last year, I got on it. Native Seed Gardeners is a collaboration between Citizens for Conservation of Barrington, Friends of Spring Creek, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Audubon Chicago Region--and home gardeners.

    Here's the deal: volunteers collect wild seed of rare plants from CFC and forest preserve property, folks at the Chicago Botanic Garden propagate it, and the tiny plants get distributed to home gardeners to nurture and grow. Because they are perennials, the plants mostly don't flower the first year, and in fact look pretty pitiful while developing their root systems. The second year they generally flower and set seed. A few may take longer. Then we gardeners collect the seed and return it to CFC for reseeding 3,910 acres at Spring Creek Forest Preserves.

                                                         Photo from Friends of Spring Creek Forest Preserves

    This year I got: four prairie species--Stiff Aster (Aster ptarmicoides),
    Cream False Indigo (Baptisia leucophaea), Prairie Cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta), Prairie Violet (Viola pedatifida); and one woodland species, White Lettuce, or Lion's Foot (Prenanthes alba). Photos are in order of mention.

    These are all fairly rare: not likely to be seen at a local garden center and not that often out in the field. There are mail-order outfits in the Midwest where you can order the seed, but none to my knowledge in Illinois; and of course in restoration, local provenance is very important.

    I'm looking forward to caring for these plants, to observing and taking notes on how they grow, and to harvesting and sending back the seed. It's a great way to add biodiversity to my garden while aiding a local conservation effort. It's also a good example of reconciliation ecology in action. For me that's about as good as it gets. I don't know if this kind of project is taking place in other regions, but I hope so.

    Flower photos are from Native Seed Gardeners and Dr. John Hilty's excellent Illinois Wildflowers. Both sites are well worth a visit.

    Friday, June 11, 2010

    Do You Mulch Much?

    Nature has an aversion to bare naked soil and so do I. In natural settings in Illinois, soil is generally shaded by plants and covered by organic debris (mulch) of one kind or another. Woodlands have duff, prairies have old broken stalks, and savannas have a mixture of the two—except when fire has gone through, but then there’s a layer of ash, which will quickly be shaded by fresh growth in spring or covered with snow in fall.

    So in general, mulch is a good thing. But like everything else in the garden, how, where and what you use for mulch depends on circumstances. I have read many gardening manuals that suggest a blanket of two to five or even eight inches of a material such as wood chips should be applied to general garden benefit. This practice is pursued indiscriminately by homeowners and “landscapers” alike.

    Bad Mulch

    Everyone in the Chicago area has, at one time or another, seen a “landscaped” area consisting of a sheet of plastic or weed-barrier cloth covered by a very thick layer of mulch (possibly dyed red), with a few hostas set at impossibly far distances from each other, to gruesomely neat effect. Or, my other “favorite,” a tree, often fairly young, with a small perfect circle cut around it in the grass and filled with mulch in a neat “volcano” shape extending several inches up the trunk. How these dreadful practices achieved such wide currency I’ll never understand, but they are everywhere, an embarrassment to public and private spaces and the people who maintain them. Better, I suppose, than seeing bare ground harden, crack, erode, or rise in mini dust eddies, but still: both typical instances are not only ugly, but in the case of the tree, deleterious to garden health.
    Phto from Cornell University Gardening Resources,

    Plastic or synthetic weed cloth should not be used as an underlayer if at all possible: such materials directly counteract the beneficial purposes of organic mulches. Dyed wood chips have no business in a natural landscape. In addition, lava rock and river stone, while they might serve their purpose in certain situations, are a negative influence around bushes in front of houses. They serve no beneficial purpose, and as normally used, are ugly, besides. And don't get me started on recycled rubber tree ring mats. I suppose they were designed to complement the astroturf in the front yard?

    Good Mulching Practice

    What is good mulching practice? The short answer is that good mulching is often indistinguishable from the sheet composting described here. My general rule of thumb is to mimic, more or less, conditions in the natural plant communities that your planting area most resembles. (Standard, row-cropped vegetable gardens are a slightly different topic, since they don’t resemble natural communities.)

    Shady woodland or savanna gardens often don’t need additional mulch, if you have been allowing natural duff to accumulate. I have an area under a Norway maple, reputedly one of the most difficult trees to plant under, where nothing would grow well. I trimmed the tree high. For a number of years I let duff accumulate, and added extra leaves and cut up branches. I then planted some young natives: elm-leafed goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia), zig-zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) and bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa). Some summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) self seeded and formed a colony, as did some Nicotiana that had grown in a pot. A few starts of periwinkle (Vinca minor) threaded their way around everything, bolstered by some virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) I’d planted by the fence, but which established itself on the ground as well. I took a chance on some Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), with big rewards. Today that area is lush and green. Maintenance means  occasionally sprinkling some compost around and letting leaves lie where they fall. The plants thrive and multiply, and the whole is a natural extension of my more traditional perennial border. In bare-ish shady areas, say on the side of a house, perhaps where plants are just starting out, I’ll add no more than an inch of wood chips, possibly mixed with chopped leaves, on top of an inch of compost: just enough to nourish the soil and cover the ground, but not enough to invite slugs.

    In the traditional perennial or mixed border, among shrubs or in vegetable gardens, a thick layer of mulch really does help prevent weeds, but again, it should used thoughtfully. Among the perennials I’ll add more in a newly planted area, to give new plants a chance to establish without interference. In my old bed, however, I use mulch sparingly, just enough to cover the dirt—the plants grow thick enough to discourage weeds on their own and I’m always trying to encourage many species to reseed themselves. Around shrubs, especially if newly planted, mulch can and should be fairly thick, but applications should be reduced as duff builds up. I also think appropriate groundcovers and small plants should be planted around and among many shrubs in most situations. Most vegetable gardeners know the value of a good thick mulch between rows, how it reduces weeds and necessary cultivation.

    Prairie areas in the bright sun, with their need for warm soil temperatures and their crowded growth habits don’t need mulch at all, once established. Again, a newly planted area might need mulch, but not an established one, especially if managed by fire. I don’t use fire in my small prairie plot but during spring clean-up, scatter on a little compost and some chopped up stalks around the plants. 
    Photo from Illinois Department of Natural Resources Schoolyard Habitat Program

    Trees in a grassy area should be mulched all the way out to the dripline. They gain protection from mowing damage, and from over fertilization where the grass is being artificially maintained. Their roots will be naturally nurtured by the organic mulch, and won’t have to compete with the greedy turf grass. Why try to grow grass in shady areas anyway? That way only lies heartache and chemicals. Plant woodland or savanna plants instead.

    All of these mulching practices help nurture the living soil and allow natural, composting processes to occur by which topsoil is replenished. These are healthy mulches. Like everything in the garden, it helps to be mindful in your practice.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010

    Gardeners' Work

    In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
    war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
    I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

    The other day, on a glorious green morning, I thought of that poem by poet/essayist/farmer Wendell Berry (bio here and discussion here). The BP gulf oil gusher was continuing (and continues), adding to the dead zone caused in part by nitrates from farmers' fields in my own region; and my daughter had mentioned that a young soldier in Afghanistan she skypes with told her he'd been shot (though safe--protected by his armor), and spoke of the fear that accompanies night missions. Thinking of these things, Berry's words came to mind.

    It is one of my favorite poems because it speaks of the work that we gardeners do; and by gardeners I also mean organic farmers, naturalists, biologists, ecologists, conservationists--all those who tend the living earth. Our work is work of peace and work of faith. We create beauty and help things grow, despite war, disaster and despair. We sow seed, with faith that plants will grow, that flowers will be beautiful, that we and our children will eat. We strive to understand other species with whom we share the earth and work to make sure that they, as well as we, have a place. We learn and share our knowledge. This work is sometimes disguised by overt and covert cultural messages, is sometimes subverted by issues of race, class, aesthetics, and politics. Yet it goes on, in all times and all places, helping to mend what has come asunder in the world.

    Related Posts: 
    (GMO) Alfalfa and Our Future
    National Poetry Month in the Garden
    Meteorological Winter
    Walt Whitman, Deep Ecologist (Poetry Month 2013)

    I've Been Away

    What have I been doing? What gardeners do in June: working outside, away from all things electronic.

    At my college, the native plants we propagated this winter and spring had to go in the prairie garden. At home the bee balm overwhelmed the hybrid day lilies and had to be restrained; a thunderstorm demolished the peony blooms, which then needed cutting back; the window boxes needed planting; bees and butterflies needed watching and identifying; and the serviceberries got ripe enough that I had to pick some ahead of the birds (hard to do) in order to clean and plant the seeds. They apparently need warm and cold moist stratification. Hopefully they'll germinate next spring.  It's a long time to wait, and germination is only about 50%, but thus gardeners demonstrate faith in the future.
    Photo from "How to Identify Serviceberries in the Wild."

    Saturday, May 29, 2010

    May Has Almost Slipped Away

    And I haven't posted blooms. So here is a list, sans the beautiful pictures on display at other blogs.

    Non-native: Peonies (Shirley Temple? very old); Salvia 'May Night'; Siberian Iris 'Caesar's Brother'; Geranium sanguinum 'Striatum'; Geranium 'Johnson's Blue'; Clove-scented pinks; Nepeta; Centaurea montana; Gas plant (Dictamnus); Bleeding Hearts. White clover in lawn.

    Native: Prairie phlox; Monarda bradburiana; Viburnum dentatum; Columbine (A. canadense); Honeysuckle vine (L. brownii); Amsonia; Blue-eyed grass; Prairie phlox; Viginia waterleaf; Coral bells; Jack-in-the-pulpit.

    Unknown: raspberries.

    Today is a beautiful blue-sky day.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    Midewin Means "Heal the Land"

    On the last day of April, an acquaintance and I were talking about the Illinois landscape. She, raised in the Adirondacks, confessed she doesn’t quite get why so many Illinoisans find our landscape beautiful, especially in farm country in spring. What beauty? Where? Not much in the way of trees, mountains, or picturesque scenic diversity. I admitted that perhaps one must be raised here to appreciate it, and we agreed that perhaps “getting” the beauty depends partly on what one is “seeing,” when one looks at a landscape.

    I thought of her the next morning when two other instructors, a volunteer naturalist, and I took a group of students on a field trip to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, located about an hour and a half southwest of Chicago. We left the miles of houses, roads, strip malls, and industrial buildings and arrived at 20,000 acres of…not much. At least if you didn’t know what to look for.

    Some History
    The land that comprises Midewin Prairie remained relatively unspoiled because it once, as the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, belonged to the US Army as a site for manufacturing and storing munitions. Consequently there was no development, and the area was completely off bounds to the public. The vast acreage not devoted to manufacture and storage was used for grazing cattle. Unwittingly, in the midst of creating death-dealing weapons, the US Army gave safe haven to creatures and ecosystems that might, in the normal course of things, have fallen to destructive development.

    During the 1980s, when the Army decided to vacate the land, it could have sold at a profit to developers and what we’d see would be yet more unnecessary strip malls and subdivisions. Instead, the US Forest Service took over the land: biologists had discovered that many species of grassland birds such as upland sandpipers, grasshopper sparrows, loggerheaded shrikes, and others flourished there, while they’d been declining elsewhere.

    Unlike the familiar birds of parks and gardens that appreciate edge habitats formed by trees and shrubs around a grassy clearing, grassland birds, those of the vast prairies and wetlands that once dominated much of the Midwest, need space, and lots of it. They are as conservative as some of the species of the deep woods, for opposite reasons. The thousands of acres of inadvertently protected area had given many species that space.

    In 1996 the Army Ammunition Plant became Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The name Midewin comes from an old Potawatomi phrase roughly translated as “heal the land.” The Mide was also a multi-tribal medicine society of healers believed to have close association with the spirits of the land. Today, there is an education center with dedicated staff, and it serves as a destination for naturalists, hikers and school groups. The area is so vast it may take fifty years to fully restore. In one sense it is like a very, very large garden, not natural at all. Yet humans have lived on the land for over 10,000 years, and at some point began managing it through fire, encouragement of desirable plants, and later, when corn and beans arrived from the south, through agriculture. The restoration effort is a return to large-scale management.

    What We Saw
    On that chilly gray morning, when we got out of the van, I realized we were in yet another Illinois landscape that might cause a visitor to say “and…?”

    So what was there to see? A vast, tumbled-cloud sky that impressed itself upon one’s consciousness as it never does in the woods and savannas; a muddy prairie full of low green plants, giving little indication of lush summer growth that would culminate in the tall, glowing grasses and goldenrods of late summer; a rare dolomite prairie; a unique sand ridge; many species of birds; and old bunkers that had been used for storing TNT.

    Yet we each saw different landscapes. We instructors, I think, had the most comprehensive, informed view, and helped each other see the parts where our specialties diverged. I know more about plants and history: the others, birds, geology, wildlife.

    Some of the students seemed caught, and interested, especially when we saw the huge Cecropia moths in full amorous display, or the little garter snake.

    But I could see that most were merely patiently waiting while we exclaimed over the ancient but decidedly plain and wet dolomite prairie (only 120 acres extant in Illinois, the dolomite millions of years old, drab in the extreme).

    They perked up at the bunkers--which reminded me at first of a hobbit village, but then, considering their use, seemed more like ancient burial mounds at Troy, or where Frodo nearly got caught by the barrow-wights--built tough enough to withstand accidental explosions. We went in one, shivering in the chilly dimness, and walked among various relics of the old Army occupation arranged neatly along the floor. This sparked interest and comment in the students. Then it was back to patience, while we inspected the plants on the sand ridge.

    But I wondered again, what do people see when they look at “empty” land? I think what we see depends of our worldview, on an abstract construct in our brains made of nothing science has been able to find so far. In some ways you can’t see what you don’t know about, or what you see depends on what you’ve seen before, or what you expect to see, based on culture, experience, knowledge, imagination and desires. Seeing involves interpretation. I’m thinking that unless imprinted early, many people won’t see “presence,” when in a natural setting. Some people may only see “absence”—as though what is not human made or built in some sense doesn’t exist. If one is only accustomed to human order, natural order might be invisible.

    When I walked through the landscape at Midewin, I saw a place that was, in layers of human culture and natural ecosystem, simultaneously once and to come, a place I could love because much of my life has been spent in natural areas, playing there as a child, learning about them and working in them as an adult. I had scaffolding to support my new experience. I knew that bison had once lived here, and when humans first arrived, and that those anonymous low green leaves would be a plant ten feet tall and topped by yellow flowers in late August. What did the students see? Did some initially think, with Gertrude Stein, that “there’s no there there?” Were any of them caught by the extreme beauty of open space with birds flying? What would they think about the place later on? Would they seek out natural areas in the future? Did we help them see enough to want to learn more?
    Photos courtesy Joe Beuchel

    Thursday, May 13, 2010

    Compost By Any Other Name

    Inspired by recent posts at Jean's garden and African Aussie.
    I've been gardening long enough to observe changes in fashion and terminology that perhaps bespeak deeper cultural changes. My once "cheap," "old-fashioned" methods (bad) are now "frugal" and "sustainable" (good); the "weeds" I once grew are now "desirable native species"; and the closely-planted area where I mingle raspberries, rhubarb, herbs, and pollinator-attracting flowers, once a "disorganized mess," is now graced by the names "edible landscape" and "permaculture." (Yes, I know the French have long practiced the art of the potager, but hey, I'm an American--why let historical precedent get in the way of anything?)

    Such it is with compost. I've long kept a compost pile going, or I should say the soil creatures have kept it going for me. Originally, I couldn't understand throwing away, in garbage cans, perfectly good grass clippings, etc. Later I had the same reaction to yard-waste bags that you have to actually buy and then pay to have carted away. Not only is it not waste, but I recently learned that much "yard waste" ends up in landfills anyway, only in layers instead of co-mingled. The new theory is that it somehow helps other landfill materials break down. I'd rather have it break down in my own yard. Besides, I'm cheap. I have other things to spend money on, like my children's college tuition.

    But I digress. In the course of researching my book, which may never get finished, I learned that I'm no longer a lackadaisical gardener, too lazy to properly dig new beds or do a fastidious clean up to bare soil each fall and spring: no, I've been practicing "sheet composting" all this time. Now that it has a name, sit-in-the-shade laziness has morphed into method.

    Let's say you want to make a new bed where presently grass grows, in my opinion nearly always a good idea. Sometime in late summer, mow the grass short and leave the clippings. Sprinkle on a little compost, or other organic material. Water well. Lay on six to eight layers of newspaper and wet thoroughly. On top of that spread several inches of wood chips. Spend the winter planning and dreaming. Next spring the area is ready to plant. This beats double digging, or even single digging every time, though it does take the patience of letting nature do the work instead of self or crews of "landscapers."

    Here's what I do in my established "savanna" bed: In the fall I cut down non-natives such as peonies, but leave the natives standing. If I have any more-or-less finished compost, I scatter it around. When the leaves fall, I leave them be, and in fact add more. Long, cold, rainy-freezy-snowy-clear-cloudy-miserable-beautiful winter passes. In early spring I stir up the leaves a bit to let in some air, often with a stick I find lying around, too excited and impatient at this point to go in the basement for a rake. Later, when I judge the weather to be settled enough, I rake up the top layers of leaves down to the wet yucky layer, which I leave, and put them on the compost pile. When things warm up a bit more I chop down and chop up the natives. Some stuff goes on the pile, but some gets scattered on top of the partially-decayed leaves. The nest-building supply store is now open for business.

    When I notice that not so many birds are rummaging through the debris, and I've finished grading final exams for spring semester, I go out, get some finished compost and spread about an inch on top of the other material. Then I lay on on an inch or so of wood chips, which my town will deliver for free; it's an urban forest--there's always plenty to spare. Much more than an inch invites slugs. If planting something new, I gently push the loose mulch aside, dig my hole, add a little compost, put in the plant and move the other materials back in place. That's it. I'm done for the summer, other than a little weeding and occasional watering and deadheading. Fall starts the cycle all over again.

    My "prairie" and "woodland" areas get similar, but area-appropriate treatment. Everything seems to grow just fine, and I should add that I haven't bought or used fertilizer or pesticides in probably ten years or more. For more elaborate techniques, I highly recommend Toby Hemenway's book on permaculture, Gaia's Garden, which includes methods for dry, even desert, areas and spiffy charts and diagrams. Happy, lazy gardening to all.

    *"Woman Reading in a Garden," Richard E. Miller. Image borrowed from
    Russel Bowes, Garden History Lectures
    *"Couch on the Porch, Cos Cobb," Frederick Childe Hassam.