Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why We Should Garden with Biodiversity in Mind

One of the most profound ideas I ever encountered, one that changed my gardening practices for good, is the concept of “species-area relationship.” It boils down to two rules: all living species need a certain amount of territory in which to flourish, to sustain healthy populations; and the larger the territory, the greater the bio-diversity, that is, the more different kinds of species can sustain healthy populations.

The problem for other species in the U.S. is Homo sapiens; according to biologists such as Dr. Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, some 95 percent of the North American continent is human impacted by all the necessary accoutrements of our culture—cities, suburbs, roads, industrial agriculture—and landscaping and gardens. The result? Many once common species are in decline—not enough room or food. This is bad for us, too. We depend on a functioning ecosystem to maintain the health of our own species in intricate, complex ways scientists are only beginning to understand.

Unfortunately, the natural areas set aside for conservation and restoration, seemingly vast as they are, are not enough to maintain biodiversity; but gardeners can and do play a vital role to help. Humans may have property law and fences. We may think we “own” our backyards and corporate campuses—but nature doesn’t have boundaries. When we treat our gardens as though separate from the surrounding ecosystem, when we plant only non-native trees, bushes and flowers and use gardening practices that imitate industrial farming techniques, we actively decrease the area available to other species on whom we depend. We harm ourselves as well. Conversely, when we garden mindfully, we benefit all species, including ourselves.

Thus I say to all gardeners and landscapers: Practice what Dr. Michael Rosenzweig, author of Win-Win Ecology, calls “reconciliation ecology.” Knit your garden, or whatever piece of land you maintain, back into your ecosystem. Stop using synthetic fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. If you are putting in bushes, choose native species such as Viburnums. When planting a maple, go native, not Norway. Stop trying to grow grass in shady areas and instead put in low-growing native wildflowers and groundcovers such as native ginger. Choose natives for your perennial beds. Make compost and use it.

While you are doing this, get your neighbors to do the same. Backyard by backyard we’ll all be helping to improve species-area relationship trends while improving our own relationships with other species. We won’t be creating a new wilderness, but we’ll be helping many species flourish, including our own. The birds, bees and butterflies we all love will thank us by visiting and living in our gardens.

Related Posts:
Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide
Strengthening the Biotic Community

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Do Your Backyard Plants and Animals Display Phenophases?


Of course they do. This is a blatant come-on for the USA National Phenology Network. As I wrote in Something New to Do With Your Lilacs, USA NPN is looking for citizen scientists to record observations of common plants at their website. The observations will be put in a database that will track the effects of global warming on these species. How will plants and animals adapt? Will they bloom earlier? Show up in our area earlier? This will be one way we'll find out.

I was just over at the site and they've redesigned it to make it easier to use, and have added selected animals to the species you can monitor. I've added bumblebees to my lilacs, but the Illinois list includes herps, birds and even white-tailed deer (hard to miss in my neck of the woods!).

I urge anyone in the U.S. with a concern about global warming and a garden or access to an outdoor area, wild or not, to take part in this effort.

BTW, my lilacs have leafed out. How are yours doing?

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Ugly Garden Kerfluffle


Browsing through garden blogs today, I noticed (belatedly) that there's been something of a kerfluffle* due to a post at Garden Rant condemning "ugly, unsightly vegetable gardens." Went and read the rant, which is precisely that, an exercise in hyperbole, even a polemic, if you will.

Yes, with veggies, it's better to weed than not to weed. And it's generally considered better to stake tomatoes than not. Healthy plants are better than not. However, rows do not necessarily rule. Square-foot gardening and sowing in patches is perfectly respectable. And so forth.

Mess is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. Are we gardening so things look pretty or are we gardening so that we have some good fruits and vegetables, while also fitting in with our ecosystem--and possibly helping to nourish it? if the latter, messy gardens are something of a necessity, and whatever works best ecosystem-wise probably is best, design-wise.

Myself, if forced to choose, prefer the principles of permaculture to the principles of axial symmetry and don't think I've ever met an ugly plant. (Ugly is not the same as needing help, after all.) To me the "ugliest" garden, even in need of help, is lovelier far than a manicured, chemical-addicted "landscape" of turf grass and trees.

Anyone (all of us) who is learning while gardening is going to mess up. OK. In my book, anyone who grows good produce by organic methods has a beautiful garden, regardless of appearances. And if you include a small native flower patch as pollinator habitat, you're on the way to gardening enlightenment.

So why waste your time feeling hurt and reacting negatively to some deliberately over-the-top prose? Go out and garden in the way that best suits your site and your self. If you're just starting out, visit the Chicago Botanic Garden's page, "How to Start a Small-Space Vegetable Garden."

Happy gardening to all.

*I think chard is beautiful--to me it looks like "kerfluffle" sounds.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

How to Help Our Wild Native Bees


In a recent op-ed piece at the NY Times, Marcelo Aizen and Lawrence Harder write that, despite honeybee hive collapse disorder, the number of domesticated honeybee hives is actually growing worldwide, but can't keep up with our demand for what they term "luxury foods" such as almonds and avocados. They say the real concern should be our wild, native bees, whose habitats we keep destroying, in part to grow those favored crops.

That's why I think that all gardens, even (or especially) vegetable gardens, should have at least one wildish area planted to native flowers such as goldenrod, purple coneflower, beebalm, ironweed, Joe Pye weed and so forth. Bees also love "garden" plants such as Russian sage and oregano. This area should be kind of "messy," shouldn't be tilled, and should, if possible, include a pile of sand, and a small stack of dead branches. And no insecticides should be used, for obvious reasons.
Many of our native bees are solitary, and don't make hives. They live in burrows underground or in holes in wood, hence the sand and branches. An overly clean garden provides pollen, but won't persuade the bees to settle and "increase through the generations." I once saw a talk by Dr. Alan Molumby, a local entomologist, who said that the famed Lurie garden downtown is great for pollen, not so great for habitat: too clean. You'd think that the country would be better for wild bees than urban areas, but remarkably, our Chicago Wilderness is better for wild bees than many rural areas devoted to industrial farming of corn and soy. We have more different kinds of flowering plants, in vacant lots and our gardens.

For more information, The Xerces Society, devoted to invertebrate conservation, has great resources for the home gardener as well as the organic farmer. Their pollinator conservation resource center has plant lists for different regions, as well as how to provide nests and nesting materials.

Related Post:
Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Illinois Nature Blog: Osage+Orange

Dave at Osage + Orange writes an Illinois nature blog that is worth visiting. His posts feature photos, nature writing and interesting oddments from around the web. He very nicely sent me a shout-out, so I'm returning the favor. Reading his blog helped inspire me to start my own.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The View from the Porch

So I go out on my back porch while eating a sandwich--it's a sunny 50 degrees at noon, how could you not--to check for flickers. They come every spring and I want to write about them and the ants. No flickers. Just robins, grackles, starlings, house finches, the usual citified birds. But then I cast about a little more and notice the woodpecker in the pagoda dogwood, the nuthatch creeping down the maple trunk, the mourning dove down among the fallen leaves and-- O glory!--up in the air is a red-tailed hawk circling high, white wing feathers flashing, tail spread out, fine as anything.

Cook County Forest Preserve Stewards Mini-Conference


On Saturday, I attended a stewards' mini-conference at Cook County Forest Preserve headquarters. This is a beautiful old arts and crafts-style buildng on Harlem Ave. just north of Lake in River Forest. I had been invited by Victor and Jean Guarino, the stewards of Thatcher Woods (along the Des Plaines River), with whom I've worked for years, chopping buckthorn, pulling garlic mustard, and celebrating the beauties of our riparian woodland/prairie/savanna landscape.

The room was full of casually-dressed people, most of whom looked like they spend much time out of doors in all weathers. I favor gatherings at which the preferred attire includes hiking shoes and the conversation centers around bird monitoring, conservative plant species, and burn regimins. This one met my expectations; my working group discussed the pros and cons of photo vs. transect monitoring, and how to access information from various monitoring groups such as Audobon and the Habitat Project for use in restoration activities.

I came away newly impressed by the level of dedication and commitment that the stewards display in their volunteer work of managing the wild areas of the Chicago Wilderness region, especially in the face of all the environmental threats we suffer, from global warming to over-development.

We gardeners can learn a great deal from these dedicated folks who put the health of our eco-system and all its creatures ahead of so much else. We can look at our gardens with new eyes, and ask ourselves how best to knit our backyards back into the ecosystem, and by doing so, help repair and nurture the health of the land.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Happy Spring!

Today is the vernal equinox, also called the March equinox, and so the first day of spring. (Though according to meteorologists, March 1st marks the beginning of meteorological spring; like bankers their year is evenly divided into quarters.) Naturally, even though the past several sunny days were in the 60s, today it's 32 degrees and snowing.

Welcome to the rigors of the continental climate. The English, living in their gulf-stream-warmed "merrie green land" may write about long mild springs, but we hardy mid-western American gardeners know better. Not only do we and our plants endure great summer/winter temperature extremes, but spring occurs in what charitably could be called fits and starts. Literally. A graph of temperatures in central to northern Illinois would show sequences of alternating cold and warm temperatures, with the warm periods gradually getting longer until one day in June it's 80 degrees and darn! we missed spring again.

Not really. We just need to adjust our expectations to the climate. Our native prairie plants have. Out in the yard yesterday, I noticed that a number of my exotics have green sprouts already, but the Joe-pye weed, swamp milkweed, prairie dropseed grass? Not a sign. They sensibly won't show up until temperatures get a little more reliable, and then up they'll come in a rush. So I cut down some dry stalks and put them on the compost pile, stirred up the fallen leaves on the beds a little, and enjoyed the sun.

It's mid-March, the Des Plaines River is in flood, and it's snowing. Let's celebrate the new season.

Related Posts:
Sandhill Cranes and Spring Resolutions
Spring Firsts

Friday, March 19, 2010

Earth Day and Sustainability


The Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living Project, 2010

Jan at Thanks for Today has invited garden bloggers to "share ways that garden bloggers are actively practicing a greener lifestyle and contributing to protecting our environment."

Well, in my opinion, every day is earth day. I've gone so far down the garden path that I've reached and gone through the gate to the woods and couldn't ever go back.

Having adapted (and continuing to adapt) as much of our personal lifestyles as possible, my family and I do all the biking, walking, organic gardening, buying CSA, home cooking, chilly winter/hot summer house, saving water, limited driving, public transit stuff we can. Which is quite a lot. Which continues to be something of a struggle, and not always easy (yes, I'm lazy).

In the Garden: Several years ago I decided to only plant natives, which is working out just great. Some of my natives I'm growing for Native Seed Gardeners. The idea is to collect the seeds and give them to restoration groups for reseeding purposes. I continue in this effort.

In the Oak Savanna Near My Home: I volunteer with the Thatcher Woods Savanna Restoration Project.

In the World: I've been learning as much as possible about the Chicago Wilderness ecosystem in which I live, and have started teaching environmental issues in the classroom and giving talks to gardening clubs. I'm now writing a book. I've also moved increasingly into eco-activism, because personal lifestyle choices, while vital, aren't enough to move our culture to one of sustainability. A green lifestyle shouldn't be special, or a part of the menu; green should simply be the way things are done, so every day truly would be earth day.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Children Need Trees and Shrubs, Too

My brother told me this sad story: He is selling his house, which has in back a patio, a strip of grass, and a small wooded area with native flowers and bushes, paths, and places to sit. A prospective buyer came through and liked the house, but she was worried. Where would her children play? She discussed cutting down the trees, including some young oaks, in order to put up a swing set and gym. He tried to explain the value of a small natural area for wildlife and humans (reconciliation ecology in action). Children need nature, and what better place to find it than the back yard?

Trying to sell a house in this economy is sad, or certainly difficult enough, but my brother and I shook our heads over this prospective buyer's truly sad lack of imagination. Had her children been along she might have been surprised at their reaction to the backyard--most likely it would have been incredibly positive. My brother was relieved not to be selling to her.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Three Best Things to Do for Birds in Your Backyard


Today I went to a presentation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service given at a Chicago Wilderness meeting downtown. The service is forming what it calls Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) that will "comprise a seamless national network supporting landscapes capable of sustaining abundant, diverse and healthy populations of fish wildlife and plants."

Here in the Great Lakes region we already have cooperative entities such as the Great Lakes Initiative and Chicago Wilderness, so for many in the conservation community, LCCs seem like a logical development. The idea is that they would act as a sort of science clearinghouse, aiding and helping to coordinate across state boundaries the efforts of public and private conservation organizations.

We gardeners have a part to play in this: migrating birds, for example, don't distinguish between public lands and private gardens when they are looking for a place to rest. According to the presenter, with whom I spoke after the talk, many suburban yards, which comprise grass and trees, serve as "death traps" (his words) because they look green and leafy, but there aren't enough mid-level shrubs to serve as cover, nesting areas or food sources for birds.

Hence the three best things you can do for birds in your backyard:
  1. Don't use insecticides or pesticides. Birds, especially when nesting, eat insects and feed them to their young. In fact about 90 percent of their diet can be insects. A gardener who uses insecticides is actively discouraging birds from nesting--and potentially starving baby birds.

  2. Plant native bushes that produce berries and don't over-prune. Your standard barberry, boxwood or privet just doesn't cut it when compared to native Viburnams such as arrowwood (V. dentatum), nannyberry (V. lentago), American cranberry bush (V. trilobum), or blackhaw (V. prunifolium). Asian viburnums, while lovely, don't fit the complete ecosystem as well. Other bird favorites include chokeberries (Aronia species), serviceberries (Amelanchier species), and native dogwoods, especially pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). To see a list of birds that eat viburnum berries, go to Illinois Wildflowers.

  3. Plant seed-bearing native flowers such as coneflowers (Echinacea species) and bee balm (Monarda species). And don't cut them down until spring so birds can eat the seeds.
Don't let your yard be a beautiful death trap!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Something New to Do With Your Lilacs

In my opinion, every home gardener should join the USA National Phenology Network. What's that, you ask? The teacher in me wants to say "go to the website and find out," but I'll say something about it here. USA NPN is an organization that, among other things, is collecting data on plant phenology from citizen scientists. According to the site, "phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle stages, or phenophases, such as leafing and flowering of plants..."

Why are they doing this? To monitor changes possibly caused by global warming (or climate change, global weirding or climate disruption, as others call it). What you do is pick a plant or two from their list of over 200 species, observe it daily or weekly to record leafing out and blooming dates, and enter your data at the site on an incredibly simple-to-use form. Do this and you have just become a citizen scientist doing your part to study the effects of climate change.

Two lilacs happen to squat at the back of my yard next to the compost heap, overlooking the raspberries, rhubarb, oregano, and beebalm. It's high time they worked for their keep! So out I toddle on a fine, early spring day such as this one (sun and 58 degrees) and check them out. Today there were no leaves (late winter budstage), but there'll definitely be action within three days, with the weather this warm. On the way back I greet a red squirrel who is up on hind legs like a meercat facing the sun. Then indoors, about one minute on the computer, and I feel I've done the ecosystem a small good deed.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The First Post

For some years I volunteered with the Thatcher Woods Savanna Restoration Project and gardened at home. I also trained and volunteered as a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener, and later worked at an independent garden center. As time passed, what I did in the garden seemed to conflict with what I was learning about conservation and restoration.

Without trying to make my small yard a conservation area, my gardening practices began to change. Without getting rid of the lilacs and peonies, I began to bring in native plants. I stopped using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Many birds and insect pollinators showed up. I learned about the historic Chicago Wilderness landscape, our region's history, about soil and animals and compost and the virtues of the messy garden. More birds, bees and butterflies showed up. I began to propagate plants and grow native plants to harvest the seeds for use in forest preserve restoration work. I began to understand how my tiny piece of land fit into our regional ecosystem, and selected plants accordingly.

Yet my garden was, and continues to be, a garden in a small back yard on an urban-size lot. I wasn't exactly gardening for wildlife. I haven't removed my well behaved non-native perennials. While informal, it doesn't look wild. I've chosen all the plants (though a few volunteers have shown up). I look after things.

I wasn't sure what to call what I was doing. Yes I was practicing ecological gardening, but it seemed to me that this didn't quite cover the holistic, region-specific aspects of what I was doing. Then I read Win-Win Ecology, by Dr. Michael Rosenzweig. His term "reconciliation ecology" seemed to be the perfect fit. Here in the Chicago Wilderness Region, we have many conservation and restoration areas. Yet hundreds of thousands of acres in private hands are treated as though separate from the ecosystem that contains them, to the detriment of all living species--including humans--who live here.

It has become a great purpose in my life to share what I've learned about how and why to garden with reconciliation ecology in mind. I give talks to garden clubs, am writing a book, and now am writing this blog.