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."