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.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Garlic Mustard Update

Today in the woods I discovered several garlic mustard plants with the telltale holes in the leaves that indicate insect munchers, and several others that appeared to have some sort of fungal disease. Perhaps some sort of shift is beginning, so they'll eventually settle into the ecosystem?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard


"What is that plant?" someone asked as we drove along a forest preserve border. "That plant," a dainty light green thing with scalloped leaves and delicate white flowers growing in large stands was garlic mustard, a noted scourge of woodlands across the eastern US, including Illinois. Used as a potherb to flavor soups and stews in Europe, settlers brought it here as a tasty, easy-to-grow bit of home. And it is pretty good, its faint garlicky smell translating into fine taste in cooked dishes.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and I go back a long way. I've spent whole Saturdays in the company of others pulling plant after plant. Just two weeks ago I spent a rainy Sunday morning helping the stewards of Thatcher Woods lead some fifty girl and boy scouts and their attendant adults into the woods; and while introducing them to the delights of such plants as Jack-in-the pulpit, and explaining how that reddish plant really is poison ivy and next time you go to the woods you should wear long pants, we got them to pull whole bags full. To say it is omnipresent is an understatement. May is Invasive Species Awareness Month (see it on Facebook), and I nominate garlic mustard as my personal poster plant.

Why did we put it in bags? Because if it's in flower and you leave it on the ground after you pull it, this biannual will both produce seeds and re-root itself. A single parent plant will produce hundreds of children, and if not harvested prior to seeding, each will produce seeds that are viable for five to seven years. In addition, the roots are allelopathic, that is, they produce chemicals that render the soil great for garlic mustard, not so good for other plants. American insects don't like it, and deer, who feast on trilliums and other beloved flowers, won't touch it.

Now the thing is, it is a pretty plant, and potentially useful--but it's out of control. I thought my garden was safe. I'd seen little of it around town, but maybe because of the rain we got last year, this year there's been a population explosion, and last week I found a healthy stand in my neighbor's back patch by the alley. It volunteers in people's yards and they innocently leave it be. Like I said, it's pretty. Trying to keep my voice low and reasonable, so as not to sound like a maniac, I persuaded them to let me pull what I could and smother the rest with my favorite weedkilling mulch of six layers of wet newspaper covered with several inches of wood chips.

In Gaia's Garden, permaculturalist Toby Hemenway says that such plants shouldn't be called invasive, but rather "opportunistic," since they take the opportunities offered by disturbed environments and nature uses them to fill niches otherwise unoccupied. He says that often, as the ecosystem recovers, such plants will decline to a more reasonable proportion of plant species. Maybe so. However, in my experience, sometimes you have to control the plant to help the ecosystem recover. In Thatcher Woods, once we began to get rid of the garlic mustard and buckthorn, plants that not seen in decades started to grow in the woods, which now is a healthier ecosystem.

How is it controlled? In Thatcher Woods we pull, pull, and pull some more. Some land managers pull it in spring and then in fall use herbicide on the low rosettes that regrow before winter. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a very informative page, as does the Illinois Natural History Survey. But lately I've been thinking about how we humans are so good at depleting resources and decimating species. Perhaps we should put this talent to good use. Several local examples come to mind. Asian carp approaching Lake Michigan? Start a serious commercial fishing industry--with no catch limits--process the fish and export it to China. Buckthorn? Start a commercial business to make rustic trellises and garden furniture and promote them online and at farmers' markets. Problems solved.

And garlic mustard? Recently I learned that it makes ok pesto. A little online searching found several tempting recipes that look pretty tasty. Some enterprising folks could harvest it and start a business, making and selling pesto at farmers' markets and gourmet food shops. Maybe Whole Foods would be interested. It would be the perfect locally-produced food item, and would compete favorably in cost with that expensive basil stuff from Italy. After all, the basic ingredient is free. You could exploit this resource without feeling the least bit guilty. So hey everyone, let's go.

This Saturday, as I go out to pick again, I plan to bring some home and make pesto. The Mid-Atlantic Exotic Pest Plant Council has some recipes here, at least one of which I intend to try. I'll post the results.

Note: There are, of course, many other invasive, or opportunistic, plants. Go here for a general list of fact sheets. The Chicago Botanic garden offers information here. Unfortunately, many growers and nurseries are not always as responsible as they could be, and sometimes sell known invasive species. To find out about garden invasives and good, native or non-invasive alternates that are easy to find at nurseries and plant centers, here is a list at the Chicago Botanic Garden.