Friday, April 30, 2010

A New Domain

I have switched to a new URL: www.ecologicalgardening.net. While the posts and other functions (except blogroll) have transitioned, the folks at Google say it will take a couple of days for old comments to show up. New comments work just fine. (Just in case you're wondering why a comment made yesterday doesn't appear.)

Update: comments have now appeared, but still waiting on blogroll.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Day in the Country

One place I love is twelve acres outside the town of McNabb, in Putnam County, Illinois. It is there that the Illinois Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has its spiritual and practical center. The 19th century meetinghouse, austere and beautiful, sits on a rise that only in Illinois would be called a hill, surrounded by vast fields with distant farmhouses marked by their groves of trees. The subtle height of the rise gives distinction to the view and strength to the wind. To the west the land gets more variable as it slopes to the wetlands and running waters of the Illinois River system, but this isn't visible from the meetinghouse.

Once this area was prairie, and then small farms, the fields bordered with hedgerows. Today all is planted to corn and soy, the two industrial crops on which the Illinois rural economy depends. Some of the houses are empty. Mostly the hedgerows are gone, and with them most native plants. There's little room here for wildlife, whether plants or animals. Yet the contours of the land, the fields, the wind, the space, the changeable sky--all engender deep love in those that spend time here.

As it happens, I am a member of the Yearly Meeting's Environmental Concerns Committee. We have regular landscape maintenance days, which seem to be timed such that whenever I'm feeling especially claustrophobic in town, with its sky-cutting houses and pinched-together yards, there's a call to go out to McNabb and do some work in the open air. On a recent Saturday eleven of us met for a fairly ambitious day of work. Among other things we were to cut down overgrown bushes, overseed a small prairie we've established, burn a brush pile, and grub out some old stumps. After a short meeting, we headed outside into a clear, chilly, and surprisingly windy day.

One part of the property was recently acquired and includes an old farmhouse. Sometime in the past a previous owner had planted a generic selection of bushes around the foundation and along the path to the kitchen door. These included some yews, a couple of boxwood, a spirea, and six euonymus, or burning bushes, that were now ten feet high and seemed like they could form part of Sleeping Beauty's hedge. These are the kinds of bushes that serve no purpose: they lack beauty, they provide food to neither human nor animal, nor do they function as a viable part of the eco-system. They are the kinds of green placeholders stuck in around houses throughout the U.S. by people who've gotten some "nice foundation plantings" from the nearby big box garden center. The effect is to take away any hint of regionalism or feeling of place from the house. While looking at the house and the random collection of bushes, one might ask, like Dorothy, "Toto, where are we?" and the answer is not the distinctive Oz, but might be Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, New York--or Kansas.

We plan to eventually replace them with native shrubs, but at the moment, they had to be trimmed, and trimmed they were, aggressively and with pleasure. Two of us did the deed, and then several people helped carry the branches over to the brush-pile fire at the edge of a corn field which others were superintending, and near where some had marked some stumps for removal in an area that is called "the old field." I stood and watched a farmer in the distance, or rather a large machine, presumably containing a farmer, move across the field. As the machine worked the ground, a large plume of topsoil lifted in the wind behind it, something like the long scarf rippling out from the dancer in a dream sequence in Singing in the Rain.

After lunch we worked more, and for me one highlight of the afternoon was when we mixed up a huge batch of grass seed--big bluestem, little bluestem and indian grass. As we mixed, I listened as two men talked who remembered when the local farms were smaller, when oat, wheat and hay were among the crops, when the farms had animals. During the sixties, with the advent of synthetic fertilizer, pesticides and mono-cropping, they all went away--animals, varied crops, and family farms--replaced by the large fields of corn and soy, mostly genetically modified, and men in large, fabulously expensive machines rumbling across the land.

We overseeded the prairie restoration by hand, looking, as an observer noted, like old-time peasants, perhaps in some picture by van Gogh, walking and casting our seed to be caught in the wind and dropping where it would. The area had been burned three weeks earlier and we were all pleased to see the rate of re-growth, though the only thing in bloom were some golden Alexanders. Several people planted trees, including some pin oaks, which are native to the area, being one of the primary species in the Illinois River valley. One hopes they'll do well in this prairie soil as well.

Our work that day was all part of a larger landscaping plan that we and others have developed for the property. The program is one of conscious reconciliation ecology. We have set out to tie that twelve acres back into the ecosystem by landscaping with native plants and trees, by considering the native wildlife--the birds and pollinators--even as we improve the buildings to increase their sustainability, and follow good habits such as composting. Besides planting, we have done such things as leave
snags in the hedgerow where some red-headed woodpeckers make their home. Yet this isn't a wildlife preserve or conservation area, but an orderly human landscape we are steadily working to make more hospitable for other species. The local Monthly Meeting, Clear Creek, uses and maintains the property year round. On weekends there are additional meetings, gatherings and retreats.

In this industrial farming zone there's need for this kind of ecological landscaping. Sometimes I look at the fields surrounding the property and like to imagine that perhaps in the future farmers might start restoring the hedgerows, or might go a bit further and plant "prairie rows" along the edges of their fields, broad swaths of native forbs and grasses that could do so much to help maintain land and ecosystem health.

That Saturday, we finished our work with a good potluck dinner at and interesting conversation that included, among other things, the attributes of prickly ash; how red-osier dogwood got its name (osiers are slender stems good for making baskets); experiences with making maple syrup and the differences between sugar maple syrup and silver maple syrup (someone had brought a sample); and the botanical characteristics of Jack-in-the-pulpits, along with various business matters. At dusk, as the sky deepened in color and the stars lit up, we headed for our respective homes, in my case on a road that gets progressively busier as you near Chicago.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Gone Out, Back Soon

Well, a box of plants arrived that needed putting in; Earth Day for me is more like Earth Week (month, year, lifetime) so I've been helping at workdays or attending events; and it's nearing the end of the semester, which means loads of essays to read and mark: in short, not much thinking and writing time.

The next real post will be up within a few days. Happy gardening to all.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Burning Question

To burn or or not to burn is the question many native plant gardeners ask themselves in spring, at least in my prairie/savanna region. I'm not sure about other, non-prairie parts of the country, but here our natives' adaptive evolution has included adaptation to fire. For that reason some prairie grasses and forbs have roots that go down twenty or thirty or even forty feet. It's amazing to me to imagine roots growing down as far as my two story house is tall, searching out nutrients and bringing them to the surface, helping the plant survive frosty winters, droughty summers--and fire. In savannas, Bur oaks have thick, corky bark that helps them survive. Fallen oak leaves form a carpet that burns well without flaring up as some other leaves do. After a fire, especially in spring, it is amazing how fast the area greens up. Fire revitalizes the landscape.

Prairie fires are the stuff of legend. Lightning strikes cause some, Native Americans historically set others. When a big one got going it was a fearsome thing to animals and humans alike. In the 19th century the Prince of Wales once visited Illinois for the shooting, and hoped he might view a prairie fire, which he did. Illinois forest preserve districts now use fire much as the Native Americans did to reinvigorate natural areas, and to help keep invasive species at bay. According to the April 2010 Habitat Herald, last fall crews in six Chicago-area forest preserve districts burned almost 4,000 acres of natural landscape. This spring the controlled burns continue, and one can sometimes see plumes of smoke when driving local expressways. Last spring was too rainy, but this spring, fine and dry as it's been, has been ideal for burning. Dave from Osage + Orange took this picture of a prairie remnant our restoration group is managing, shortly after a recent controlled burn.

I've never burned my natives--confined space, mixed with non-natives--but know people who do, even areas as small as ten feet square. If you've left the dry grasses and forbs standing, they burn quickly, so the whole process might take ten minutes, quick enough that the neighbors might not even realize you've done it. What I do is leave everything native standing all winter and then chop it down in spring. Some of what's chopped gets scattered around the plants to the delight of local birds who view the area as a sort of building supply store. The rest goes into the compost pile, by this time unfrozen and starting to function again.

Every year I get a little closer to burning, though. The other week I went to Trailside Nature Museum in River Forest, where Irene Flebbe and an assistant were burning the small native gardens that front the building and make the entry patio a pleasant place in summer. Irene, who's certified to burn by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, was attired in a bright yellow burn suit, which looks and feels like cotton, but retards fire. She and her assistant had equipment that included a garden dragon (a small, specially curved propane torch), a hose, a pusher that looked like a thick heavy rake, and a flapper (used to beat out stray sparks or small blazes).

Irene mentioned that the weather was perfect for burning: warm, sunny, and most important, fairly still. As she worked, she explained her method to me and a group of fascinated children. First she thoroughly doused the perimeter of each area with water from the hose. Then she used the garden dragon to set fire across the garden so it would burn traveling into the wind (called a back fire). The fire traveled quickly along the ground, as the oak leaves burned steadily and the stalks flared up briefly. Each area took about five or ten minutes. Only a strip along a path required the assistant to use the pusher to bunch the oak leaves so the fire wouldn't travel further than necessary, and the heavy rubber flapper wasn't needed at all. What was left was a thin layer of ash that will add nutrients to the soil. By now, the gardens are already greening up, and the casual visitor would never know there has been a tiny conflagration.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

National Poetry Month in the Garden

That April is national poetry month seems appropriate, considering that it's a month of new beginnings, a time when not only do poets get all inspired, but gardeners who never wrote a poem wax poetic. To me, making a home garden is much like writing a poem, while making large estate and public gardens seems more like making movies, such large crews of designers and gardeners are involved.

April is a time for fresh starts and new journeys such as the famous pilgrimage to Canterbury in the 14th Century. Here is how Chaucer began the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
When April with his showers sweet

The droghte of marche hath perced to the rote
The drought of March has pierced to the root

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
And bathed every vein in such liquor

Of which virtu engendered is the flour
From whose virtu is engendered the flower…

(from Vincent F. Hopper's Interlinear Translation)

In Japan, cherries bloom between January and May, depending on species and location, but I like to think that in the 17th century, zen poet Basho wrote this haiku on one of those mysteriously warm April evenings when we linger outside for the first time:

Cloud of cherry-bloom . . .
tolling twilight
bell . . . Temple
Ueno? Asakura?

April also brings memories and mourning. In the 19th century, Walt Whitman wrote the great pastoral elegy for Abraham Lincoln "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd":

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd--and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love...
T.S. Eliot, an embittered thirty-four year old with a rage for scholarship and allusiveness, played off Chaucer and Whitman in 1922 with his famous opening lines of "The Wasteland":

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
a little life with dried tubers.

Somehow, I don't think he was a gardener. Emily Dickinson, who was a gardener, wrote poems that were, as Marianne Moore put it, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." So many of her poems mention garden life, it's hard to choose just one. Surprisingly, she wrote more poems each about summer, fall and winter than spring, but perhaps that's an indication of the New England climate in the 19th century. Here is one that might be about April:

The Dandelion's pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas-

The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower,-
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o'er.

(poem #1519,from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Ed. Thomas H. Johnson)

There are many excellent modern poets who have written about flowers, gardens and spring in its varying moods. A good selection can be found at the American Academy of Poets website, and lots of other good poetry, besides.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Spring Firsts

I love the first occurrences that welcome in a new season. Here are some for this spring:
Saturday I saw my first bumblebee emerge from under some fallen leaves, totter about, and then fly off at speed. Bumblebee (Bombus ssp.) queens over winter in underground burrows and emerge at this time to search for a good place to lay eggs and rear young. Maybe it was a spring first for her too.

Yesterday, I planted some leaf lettuce in a big pot and then put wire mesh weighed down with half a brick on top to keep the hungry birdies out. It was one of those days on which you could look at a tree in the morning and when you looked again an hour later the leaves were visibly larger. In the afternoon several family members and I sat out on the front porch for the first time and watched the first real thunderstorm of the season blow in from the south. Good cracking thunder and netted lightning, and later on, steady rain, to which comfortable drumming I fell asleep.

Related Posts:
Sandhill Cranes and Spring Resolutions
Happy Spring!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mostly I Don’t Grow Veggies

(Inspired by a visit to The Gardens of Petersonville)

Know how. Have done. Don’t much any more. Oh, I do have what my friend Wil calls an edible landscape with herbs, basil and nasturtiums in pots, raspberries, and I did reset my rhubarb two years ago (it’ll be ready to harvest next year—you have to wait three years for some reason). But rows or patches full of tomatoes, beans, zucchini, and winter squash? Nope.

There are several reasons for this, the two main ones being my CSA grower Dan Gibbs and a lack of space leading to strict priorities. Dan grows such great produce that eating a big mixed salad from his farm in summer makes me think the angels should be jealous, limited as they are to manna, ambrosia, and other such insubstantial fare. He has a lot of space and he’s local and he’s a professional. My family believes in strengthening the local economy, especially family farms, so we’re happy to subscribe. He earns a living and our summer is full of one delicious fresh-vegetable-based meal after another.

The fresh produce problem taken care of, I’ve felt free to garden my small backyard according to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, to garden with a focus on helping preserve biodiversity. Though my garden is full of flowers, it is not an ornamental garden, with plants chosen strictly for aesthetics. I consider my yard a working landscape, and nearly every plant in it earns its keep one way or another. I won’t put in a plant simply because it’s pretty. My criteria are thus: Is it native to my region? Is it suitable to my soil, light, water conditions? What are its "faunal associations" (what pollinators, other insects and birds depend upon it, pollinate it, eat the fruits)? Is it a good companion to my other plants? I also put in certain native plants to see how they do, so I can recommend them to others. Last year it was black chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, and what a pleasure to see the birds eat the berries in September! This year I hope to get some of the berries for myself.


There are some exceptions to the natives-only rule. One is that I’m not going to rip out well-behaved exotics (e.g. snowdrops, scilla, daffodils, lilacs, peonies, butterfly bush and clematis) that I put in as a beginning gardener. Another is using perennial herbs such as oregano and mint, which the bees like as well as I. Since one of my aims is to preserve soil health--which means don’t till or dig if possible--when I succumb to the lure of a lantana or geranium, well, that’s what containers are for. (Yes organic farmers do till, but they also use manure, cover crops, and other methods to strengthen the soil)


My gardening philosophy has changed as I’ve matured as a gardener. When I began, besides vegetables, it was all about the bright ranks of hybrid annuals, exotic perennials and striving to make my yard look like one of those pictures in a magazine. When I heard statements by more experienced gardeners who said that eventually gardeners become more interested in foliage and habit than bright colors, I didn’t believe it. But it happened to me, especially as I learned more about the complexities of the eco-region in which I live. Beauty now wears a very different face for me than once it did.