Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Last Tomatoes

Though we've had a slow, warm, La Nina fall, this weekend I finally pulled up the tomato vines. After a couple of nights of below freezing temperatures one must accept there really will be be no more tomatoes this year. Everything went into the compost heap: withered stalks, green tomatoes and all. Green tomatoes that have frozen develop an odd translucency and squishy texture when they thaw.

Meanwhile, the kitchen table was covered with a pile of tomatoes, from dark green and full of tomatine to the almost chartreuse they become just before morphing into pale yellow and then red. A row of tomatoes sat ripening on the windowsill. I'd already made and put up various kinds of salsa and sauce, some canned, some (without the vinegar or lemon juice) frozen. But there were all those green tomatoes.

My friend the British historian had recently given me a book of preserves from the British Women's Institute and in it was a recipe for green tomato and apple chutney, one of those recipes that must be simmered for three hours, a perfect project for a chilly, gray Sunday afternoon. So I converted the measurements and set out to can. I used the chartreuse and yellowish tomatoes for the job, and culled the really dark green ones for the compost heap. The rest, as they ripen, will go into salads or soups--and that, alas, will be the end of fresh tomatoes for the year.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Note: I had always thought green tomatoes were full of solanine, since they are in the nightshade family, and had been told that tomato foliage and green tomatoes are poisonous--eat too many and nausea will ensue. But it turns out that they are not so dangerous after all, according to NY Times food writer Harold McGee. You can read his most interesting article here, "Accused, Yes, but Probably Not a Killer."

Related Posts:
All Kinds of Nightshade
Walking through a Cornfield in Norfolk

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Samhain, Halloween, Day of the Dead, All Saints/Souls Days

What a lot of names there are for this time between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. It is the time in the northern hemisphere when we gather in the harvest, say goodby to growth and prepare for winter's rest, the time when the barriers between the worlds of the living and dead become momentarily thinner, and we remember friends and relatives no longer with us. It is a time of bittersweet celebration, as the days grow shorter and colder before the great turn back towards the light.

Agriculturally and for gardeners, the old year closes when the harvest is gathered in, and for the old Celts and neopagans, the new year begins. My instincts have always gone with the idea that spring is the time of new beginnings, as I wrote in Sandhill Cranes and Spring Resolutions. Each of these holidays are like buoys in time's flood, not really a beginning or end, but a marker of beginnings and endings that have no real fixed points, that blend, that submerge and emerge ceaselessly as the tides. So we pick days for remembrance, to mark and celebrate the turn of the seasons, the progress of our lives.

An Absence of Some Months

The past few months I've been involved in helping develop a sustainability center at Triton College. The process is not yet complete. More news to come regarding this exciting development.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Small Prairie Garden

Here is a piece I wrote for a Triton College email newsletter for faculty and staff:
Triton College Prairie Garden in Bloom

Triton College is known for its neat, manicured landscape featuring acres of carefully tended lawns, trim bushes, and bright annuals and perennials. However, something a little wilder is going on in an area in back of the science building, where Triton’s Greening the Campus Committee and biology students have established a small prairie garden.

In December 2009, students and committee members prepped the area and sowed into sod the seeds of nearly 100 native prairie species. We had learned that native plant areas started this way take longer to establish, but there are fewer problems with weeds. We also collected seeds in local forest preserves, which we cold stratified and propagated in the science greenhouse for planting out the next spring.
The first spring and summer not much happened, though as the soil warmed we saw a few seedlings, and the plants we had set out grew well. Would the experiment work? We weren’t sure. As advertised, there were very few weeds, but mainly it looked like someone’s badly neglected lawn. Since we had determined on a five-year timeline, we reassured a few questioners and more-or-less patiently waited to see what the next year would bring.

This spring Triton’s grounds crew de-thatched the area and removed an ailing ash tree. We set out more plants we had propagated, and waited. Would this second year show improvement? Would there be more flowers? Tall grasses? When spring semester ended, prospects seemed dim, though a diligent searcher could find many more tiny native plants among the turf grasses. The campus geese also seemed to like the area, and something—geese? deer? —was grazing when we weren’t watching. More waiting ensued.

After a hot, rainy summer, this fall we are pleased to announce that not only are flowers and native grasses in bloom, but beneficial insects rarely seen elsewhere on campus, such as monarch and sulphur butterflies, and several species of bees, moths, beetles and solitary wasps have appeared as well. The project seems as though it will succeed, and we hope to grace the area with an informative sign and possibly a bench. We have started collecting more seed to propagate, and plan to conduct our first burn when weather permits, either in late fall or early spring.

(Photos courtesy Biology instructor and Green Committee co-chair Joe Beuchel.)

Related Post:
Midewin Means "Heal the Land"


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On Summer Break, Back Soon

During the month of August I'll be on a blogging break; I plan to be back the first week of September.

Until then, dear reader, happy gardening to you.

Friday, July 22, 2011

All Kinds of Nightshade

"Deadly nightshade:" a name that makes me glad for Latin nomenclature

Purple flower
Easy post, I thought. Just write about the deadly nightshade. I happened to be thinking about the perennial, semi-woody, weedy vine that lurks along my property boundaries, and climbs up through the links of the fence. It can grow to six feet and the leaves have distinctive “ears” at the base. Its purple flowers bloom in summer, and the berries ripen to an alluring red. Warned as a child not to eat the berries or leaves, I've been pulling it my entire gardening life. A little research informed me that this plant is also called bittersweet nightshade, or Solanum dulcamara.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guest Post at Beautiful Wildlife Garden

Carole Brown, at Beautiful Wildlife Garden, has put up a guest post I wrote about giving away native plants to unsuspecting gardeners. You can find "Stealth Native Plant Gardening" here.

Previous Guest Post at BWG:
Reconciliation Ecology and the Beautiful Wildlife Garden

Friday, July 15, 2011

Problematic Pokeweed

I was of three minds
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds     --Wallace Stevens

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is one of those plants about which it is possible to be of two or three or maybe even four or five minds. On the one hand, it is native, kind of pretty, and birds love the berries. On the other, as a food, it is so famous that songs have been written about it, and some herbalists make medicines from it. On the third, all parts of the plant are toxic to humans and non-bird animals, and many botanists suggest not ingesting any part, no matter how it’s cooked.

Sometime around 2005, pokeweed colonized multiple gardens in my neighborhood. It started out innocently enough. In spring, the attractive young plants have large pale green, ovate, somewhat shiny leaves vaguely reminiscent of Nicotiana. Later the leaves develop pinkish undersides. Any gardener might let them go, as you do a plant you might not have seen before but looks interesting enough to see how it develops. If you do, you’re in for a surprise. The plant rapidly outgrows its cuteness, to become a large, imposing specimen perhaps ten feet tall, with multiple, hollow, purplish stalks at least an inch in diameter. This happens at about the time cup plant is coming into its own, so if you’ve got both, as I do, you start to feel as if you’ve wandered into Indian in the Cupboard land. In July, pokeweed develops little white flowers in a tapering cluster at the top of the plant, which in late summer morph into flattish purple-black berries on red stalks. Striking in every regard. And birds, such as catbirds and robins, do seem to consider the berries a treat. (To which I don’t begrudge them, even if this year the robins did strip my serviceberry tree before the berries were decently ripe enough for a human to pick, so no serviceberry jam this year.)

Pokeweed is a perennial that grows from a large, fleshy taproot. As a young plant, it is easy to pull, but as it grows taller, the roots grow larger and go down deeper. If you dig it up, but leave part of the root, a new pokeweed may greet you from the same spot later in the season or next spring. Some say that if you get below the crown of the plant, it’s effective, but that’s not been my experience. You may not mind having a pokeweed or two, but be careful where you let them grow, because once you let them set up housekeeping, they’ll be with you a long time. And be prepared to keep an eagle eye out for their progeny, since the birds do scatter the seeds. Pokeweed particularly likes rich, disturbed soil, for example, as Plants of the Chicago Region says, “woodland that has been heavily trampled, especially by hogs,” but also “roadsides disturbed by machinery...and where compost and other fertilizing materials have been scattered.” Right. Our gardens. And apparently on farms among no-tillage crops, according to the Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Beware the Dreadful Bindweed

Just don’t show off!
Over the July 4th weekend, I had some of the extended family over for a cookout, in the best Midwestern tradition. One of my family-centered pleasures is cooking with my brother while my resolutely non-cooking sister kibitzes. I am a vegetarian, my brother is not. He brought some homebrew and manned the grill, I made fresh salsa, salad and desert. Between us, we put out a pretty good spread, made even better by contributions from other family members.

After a fine, noisy, friendly meal, I showed off my garden to an in-law from the East coast. We walked along, starting with the vegetable bed near the house, walked past the pagoda dogwood shading its collection of natives, past the prairie patch, all the way back to the pollinator reserve by the alley—which hadn’t been tended to in some time. After all, by permaculture standards, it more-or-less corresponds to a combination of zone four (wildish, semi-managed), and zone five (just plain native and wild).

“How nice,” she said, “you have wild morning glories. Those white flowers are so pretty.”

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Date with Some Turtles

Engraving by Karl Bodmer, 1865
On Saturday it dawned sunny and not raining, for once, in a season in which rain has been a major feature of life. In mid-afternoon, right in the middle of weekend chores, I realized I had an appointment with some turtles in Thatcher Woods, so biked the two and a half miles, locked up at Trailside Nature Museum and walked down to the pond.

The pond is on bottomland adjacent to the Des Plaines River, and every time there’s a flood, which is to say every spring, and most falls, too, it is connected to the river. All kinds of fish live in that pond, and frequently people catch dinner there. Today, however, despite the warm sun and balmy air, despite the traffic on the nearby road, despite the fact that plenty of folks were visiting Trailside, and despite the fact that Thatcher Woods is across the street from a densely populated area—the area around the pond was as still and unpeopled as a lake in the Boundary Waters.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ecological Reality Is Not What You Hypothesize

A Review of The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered

Today, the main content of politics is economics, and the main content of economics is technology. If politics cannot be left to the experts, neither can economics and technology. --E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

It’s important to get out of doors
In the early 2000’s, English plant biologist Nicholas Harberd, who had been conducting lab research on thale cress, a common weed, decided to spend a year observing and writing about a specimen growing wild in a churchyard near his home. This resulted in a book, Seed to Seed: The Secret life of Plants, which, while including the scientific disciplines of biology and genetics, recounts how this experience—in variable weather, dependent on chance and uncontrolled conditions—leads him to many other observations and considerations. Remarkably, Harberd developed a profound, intuitive sense of the interconnectedness of all things within the ecosystem. These insights and his new, holistic grounding for his discipline, he could not have found in the lab where everything was limited by the tightly focused goals of research and the necessity for controlling all conditions.

This year, in The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered (New Society 2011), John Michael Greer, his own understanding of the interconnectedness of all things within the earth ecosystem firmly in place, asks mainstream, neo-classical economists to take the same journey—to get out in the real world and base their economic theories on what they find, rather than on what the mathematics say they ought to find. In particular, he points out that current economic theory and policy is only exacerbating our headlong trajectory into “Nature’s brick wall.”

Calling E. F. Schumacher the "Copernicus of economic theory," Greer bases his new work on Schumacher's path breaking book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Citing Schumacher's ideas about "intermediate," or "appropriate" technology, which the respected economist developed as a way to help the people of third world countries achieve employment and a reasonably comfortable standard of living, Greer says that using these same ideas might be a sensible approach for Americans in an age of scarcity. He provides an intellectual framework for how to think about economics and brings Schumacher’s groundbreaking work into focus, while clearly explaining what is wrong with neoclassical economic assumptions. Greer also shows how reality-based assumptions--beginning with the acknowledgement that all wealth and life itself depends on earth systems--combined with a study of Schumacher, who based his work on this fact, could lead to more realistic policies and a more comfortable descent down the post-peak slope. The sooner we start transitioning, the better our relationship with the earth economy and the easier our descent will be.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How Gardening Is Not Writing

Monarda bradburiana
You know how it is in June, if you have a couple of days off work. You look out the window during breakfast and the sun is shining and you can't help yourself, you take your coffee and walk out of doors into the garden and you watch the birds and notice that the peonies will definitely open this day; you don't intend to do much, just a brief look about before heading in to write. After all, somewhere W. H. Auden mentions a walk around the garden before setting to work--and then you notice some weeds that need pulling, so you do that, and might be on the way indoors when you realize the tomatoes you'd started but hadn't planted out because of all the rain are still sitting in their cellpacks, so you put them in, and along the way you see that the bumblebees prefer the Monarda bradburiana, while the honeybees are busy at the nepeta--but the carpenter bees seem to like everything, and meanwhile, you put in the columbine and prairie dropseed starts and pull up some coreopsis that's crowding the Monarda, and then you look across the yard, past where the bees are working the clover, and decide you may as well start setting the bricks where you're making an edge for the newly-wider flowerbed around the viburnum. Several hours go by, with stops for water, and suddenly it's time to make supper. But then later that evening you can't stay inside, so you trim the yews, and that night fall in bed exhausted.

 Spring Azure (Celastrina argiolus)
And next day, the same thing happens, except this time the hummingbird shows up, a female, which means there's a nest somewhere nearby and you've achieved your goal of attracting breeding as well as migrating hummers. You remember that Auden wasn't the gardener in the house, and while thinking this you somehow end up by the compost heap, which needs turning, so you get the fork and your favorite short-handled shovel and start in, it's practically a bog at the bottom there's been so much rain, but look, there's some good compost, so you get the sifter and the wheelbarrow and set to work and pretty soon there's a barrow full of clean compost, no bindweed roots at all, so what to do? Plant the two baby oaks with a good helping of compost and dig some in where the old Norway maple had depleted the soil, and plant the little spicebushes--and a spring azure flashes by, right down the line, past the willow amsonia, the columbines and over the now-blooming peonies; then you transplant the parsley, plant the cilantro seeds, lightly cultivate around the chard and the leeks need thinning, so you do that and go put the thinnings in the bag you keep in the freezer for stock-making vegetables, and head right back out, you've succumbed, and by this time you aren't even thinking in words, just colors, shapes, relationships and movements…

Related Posts:
A Question of Trees
Hummingbird Sightings
Compost By Any Other Name
I've Been Away
The Ugly Garden Kerfluffle

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Matteo and His Fig Tree

Sustainability Is Where You Find It

Stringing Tomatoes
When you teach classes at a community college that sits in the midst of a multicultural patchwork of neighborhoods at the edge of a great metropolis, you never know who will show up. Evening classes, which I often teach, are particularly diverse.

Matteo showed up one semester and sat in the front row, a stocky, round-faced, round-headed man, balding, with a fringe of white hair. His appearance, in itself, was not unusual, since students of all shapes and sizes present themselves, nor was his age, really, which I judged to be somewhere west of sixty-five. My classes frequently include students ranging in age from sixteen and not yet out of high school, to grandparents who are finally able to begin the college education they have always hoped for. Matteo said he’d come to the U.S. from Sicily at some undisclosed period in his youth, took a job, married, had children and then grandchildren--a pretty average story for this part of the world. Other than his self-confident air and loud voice, there was nothing to make me think about him too much.

This changed one evening when I talked about gardening, which I don’t teach. However, since I believe everything is connected, wherever I am, gardening and the environment get mentioned. At this, Matteo came alive. "Ms. Fisher, I didn't know you are a gardener. I am too."

"That's nice," I said. But Matteo persisted. In a subsequent conversation he discovered that, while I have an understanding of perennial food plants such as berries and herbs, I’m a newbie when it comes to serious annual vegetable gardening. He began to share his knowledge. Some he brought with him from Sicily, some he’s picked up elsewhere, and all has been honed in his modest backyard.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Spring Dispatches from the Backyard

Gardener, 18th-cent. American
In the evening after work, at dusk, I squat near the fence on the south side of my yard, putting in bare root strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) around the chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa). My neighbor, mother of the bff toddler (now 3 1/2), comes out.

"Doing a little night-time gardening?" Interested, as she often is, in what my puttering might accomplish. I explain that the strawberries have arrived in a box, and when planting bare root plants, a cloudy, cool day is best; but in any event, they need promptly to get out of the container of water in which they are soaking and into the ground. The day having been sunny, and I at work, dusk seems the likeliest opportunity. Though you do end up putting tiny plants in barely discernible holes, everything turning gray in the twilight.

She tells me about Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins 2007), which, finding I haven't read, says she'll give me forthwith. Thus does my reading list constantly expand. She goes back in. It is getting too dark to see. I fill the watering cans and spot water each plant, with a wish for each to grow well. Once years ago I read a story about Prince Charles of England doing some night-time gardening. The writer took an amused tone--our whimsical, eccentric prince; after all, gardening is for the daylight hours, and if you're a prince, for the help to do--but now I think, there you are, stuck days tending to your princely duties, or whatever. You get your gardening in when you can.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

April is Poetry Month 2011: "Segovia's Every Tree in Its Shadow"

This is poetry month and it shouldn't go by without ackowledgement, since it is the poets who from earliest times have most celebrated our deep connection with the natural world. Here is a poem by Mexican poet Francisco Segovia that I like.

First in English,

Every Tree in Its Shadow

Every tree in its shadow
shelters a different god.
In its uplifted solitude
it rocks him, whispers to him,
confides its secrets in him.

Every tree in its shadow
makes foliage from a faith
that wasn't born with him
and won't come to an end.

Every tree in its shadow feels
the depth of the immaterial
that men also feel
when they watch children from a distance.

And every once in awhile,
when it clouds up they learn
that a deeper and vaster shadow
shelters them too,
and rocks them and whispers to them
as it rains.

Translators Don Share and Cesar Perez

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Earth Day Reading Project: A Blog Meme

Earth Day is all about taking time to consider what is our place in the biotic community and how to improve our relationship with the living earth. This year, as part of a month of activities on and off line, I am taking part in the Earth Day Reading Project,  a meme begun by The Sage Butterfly in which the blogger is to "list at least three books that inspired you to perform any sustainable living act or inspired you to live green, and then tell us why they inspired you." Jean P. from Jean's Garden tagged me, and I'm only too happy to comply. The only difficulty is choosing just a few books to write about and recommend.

In her delightful autobiographical novel about rural England, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thomson describes how she learned, when asked her favorite flower or author, to say, "besides the rose…" or "after Shakespeare…" Thus it is with books. When asked about books that have influenced me to live a green, gardening life, I must say, like nearly every other imaginative young girl who became a gardening woman, "besides The Secret Garden…" but so it is.

The books I've selected for the Earth Day Reading Project are classics. There are excellent reasons why books become classic and enduring, such as profound content expressed in great prose. Each of the following I read at certain pivotal points in my life as a child, adolescent and young adult and have returned to since. Each changed my life by changing the way I saw and continue to see the world, which resulted in changing the way I lived and continue to live.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We Need More Native Plants in Our Parks

As I've taken walks in nearby parks this spring I've gotten so aggravated on behalf of the birds and pollinators that I've sent an opinion piece to a local paper. Trees and grass alone may be great for humans, but don't suffice for non-human members of the biotic community. Such public spaces are what I call "faux green." You can read the piece here at the Wednesday Journal.

Planting native trees, flowers, and (especially) shrubs in parks and other public spaces is one of the best ways any community can improve its green infrastructure and improve ecosystem health. Of course that also means no pesticides.

Many cities and towns have gotten this message and are actively planning green spaces that support birds and pollinators and other wildlife. A good source for urban wildlife habitat news and information is The Metropolitan Field Guide. I like the MFG's Facebook page, too--many good links.

How are the parks in your neighborhood? Are they completely anthropocentric, or do they support biodiversity?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Praise of Native Shrubs

Prairie rose (Rosa setigera)
One of the best things any gardener can do is plant a shrub—or two or three or four. From a design point of view, as woody plants, shrubs help form the structure of a garden, and are an essential component of the layered garden—the middle layer between trees and shorter plants. There’s nothing like a mixed shrub border to screen unsightly views, provide color, and form a backdrop for flowers and grasses.

Many people think of a shrub, or a row of shrubs, or hedge, as a place holder, usually a row of non-native, nursery-industry boxwoods, yews, Japanese privet, or the like, possibly with a couple of Japanese barberry or euonymus for color or as accents. We’ve all seen this. In common practice, hedges and bushes are given crew cuts in spring with electric or gas hedge trimmers—tools I sometimes wish had not been invented (see my post “Power Down”): it’s too easy to do too much damage, whether in the interest of expediency, or misguided aesthetics. Why should we make shrubs, with their complex, individual shapes, conform to our simplified notions of squared-off order?

Wise pruning is a subtle art. Someone once said, “ten men with shovels can do well in a week, what one man with a backhoe can do badly in a day.” I say one or two persons with good sharp loppers, hedge trimmers and pruners—wielded mindfully, at the proper time, in accordance with the shrub’s growth habits—can do well in however-long-it-takes, what a “landscaping crew" can never do.

A healthier concept of a shrub would be: a usually-native woody plant whose roots stay involved in the complex soil ecosystem for years, helping to stabilize the soil and manage water; whose branches provide shelter for birds; whose leaves may be larval food for pollinators while conducting photosynthesis, and help build the soil when they fall and decay; whose flowers offer, besides beauty, pollen and nectar to pollinators; whose fruits offer food for birds, small mammals—and us. Such an entity deserves respect.

Everyone living in an urban area, if at all possible, should plant, not a single-species hedge but a mixed shrub border. Using several varieties enhances biodiversity while offering more interest to the eye. If your yard is small, even one or two thoughtfully-placed shrubs will enliven the place. And not just any shrubs, but shrubs native to their own region that offer the full panoply of ecosystem services.

Most garden centers offer a limited number of non-native species said to be suitable for a large number of situations. Deciding to go native requires more care to make sure you are choosing species that won't outgrow their spot, and that are adapted to the light, soil and moisture conditions of your yard and garden. The best place to get them would be from a nursery that specializes in native plants. The proprietors are experts, passionate and knowledgeable about their subject, not only about the plants but the ecosystem as well. They can offer good advice about what shrubs might be appropriate to your locale and specific garden situation.

As a gardener with an interest in design, I feel native shrubs, placed in a border where they are allowed to express their shrubby natures and perform as full, functioning parts of the ecosystem, are wholly beautiful. Not only that, but they help the gardener garden in his or her local, regional style, avoiding the McLandscape look. And if you can beat the robins to the serviceberries, you can make some tasty jam.

Resources: My two favorite nurseries for shrubs in my region are Prairie Moon, which ships healthy, bare-root stock, and Possibility Place, which you call and then go pick up your container-grown or bagged stock. Both are reputable, reasonably priced and sell all natives all the time.

Related Posts:
An Excellent, Timeless Book
The Three Best Things to Do for Birds in Your Backyard

Thursday, March 31, 2011

It's Time for Your Lawn to Make Peace with the Earth!

That's the title of a short, informal presentation about the polyculture lawn I'll be giving on Sunday. I'll have samples of compost, a compost screen and clover seed with me. Too bad I can't bring along some birds, butterflies and bees! Details are posted on the "Talks" page tabbed above.

"Attracting Native Pollinators"

The Xerces Society Guide
The Xerces Society's Must-Have Handbook

Since 1971, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has been working to educate about and advocate for conservation of invertebrates, not just bees and butterflies, but other species such as mussels, starfish and crabs. For some years the website has been a necessary resource for anyone interested, as I am, in helping our native pollinators. Now the Xerces Society has published an outstanding handbook, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America's Bees and Butterflies (Storey Publishing, 2011).

In my opinion, a copy of this book should be available to, and consulted by, anyone who manages a piece of land, whether measured in square feet or thousands of acres. If you are responsible for and care for a backyard garden, school garden, park, farm, or reserve, this book is for you. If you are a fan of Douglas Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home, or garden according to the permaculture principles espoused in Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden or H.C. Flores' Food Not Lawns, this book is for you. If you garden for birds or wildlife, or are a landscape designer, this book is for you. And if you are interested in reconciliation ecology or are planning a perennial border, raingarden or bioswale this book is for you, as well. A strong encomium? Yes, and here's why:

Friday, March 25, 2011

One Year on the Blog

A year ago, after my comments on others' blogs got longer and longer, I realized I could start my own. So I did. Since then, I've learned a great deal--about blogging, about writing, about whatever it is I'm writing about. Writing this blog has become essential to me. What was intended to be a blog about gardening has become a blog about living in the biotic community from the point of view of a gardener. Which I hope doesn't sound too pretentious.

Many thanks are in order.

Thanks to all my blogging friends, from Blotanical and elsewhere, you who welcomed and helped me when I started, who read and comment, whose blogs I visit regularly--a network that seems to expand daily.

Thanks to the editors, bloggers and readers at Energy Bulletin who have made me feel welcomed in that lively, most interesting community. Thanks to those who follow with Google Friend Connect and those who now have "found me on Facebook," too, where I only recently set up shop.

Finally, greetings and thanks to all of my unknown readers who show up in my stats, many from the U.S., but who also hail from, to me, far flung places, among them Iran, Israel, Brazil, the Philippines, Ukraine, the UK, Canada, Australia, India, and Russia--so many countries, so many ecosystems and ways of life!

In the midst of frightening, tragic world events, blogging, as I experience it, is a form of community building, is an activity of hope. It is hard for me now to imagine life without this cyber community.

Best wishes for health and happiness to you all during this next year.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sandhill Cranes and Spring Resolutions

When we hear [the crane's] call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.  
 --Aldo Leopold

Wednesday night and yesterday the sandhill cranes have been flying north to Wisconsin. Out for a walk in the late evening I heard their distinctive husky, ratchety calls, though I couldn't see them. Outside yesterday at lunch time I heard them again, those calls which sound nothing like geese, yet might be mistaken for geese if you didn't know, and this time I saw the raggedy wedge of birds beating steadily north. The light was too dull to flash off their pale cheeks or wings, as it sometimes does, but there was no mistaking their flight. The heart lifts.

Forget January 1st as the first day of the new year. Pope Gregory set that day in the 1750s when he instituted his calendar. This hearkens back to ancient Roman custom, since that was the day ancient Roman officials began their terms of office. However, the traditional day for celebrating the new year in Europe prior to Gregory was March 25th. Much more grounded in the northern hemisphere's reality, if you ask me. And there are so many other customs: for pagans, for example, the new year begins with the close of harvest in the fall, which also makes a certain nature-based sense.

The real new year comes on gradually. You can't mark it by saying one particular minute begins the new year or new season. The real new year begins now in northern Illinois, when the buds are swelling and there's a touch of green among the brown of last year's growth. When the sandhill cranes head north, and the chickadees begin their mating flights, it's time to cut down the old brown, rattling stalks to chop up for compost, and nearly time to start seeds indoors. Happy new year!

Here are my spring resolutions (besides putting in more native plants, which is not a resolution, but an established habit):
  • To rejuvenate my own small polyculture lawn
  • To figure out what to plant in the parkway now that I've smothered the grass
  • To get the raised beds I'm planning built and prepared before the seeds I'm starting are ready to put in
  • To persuade a friend who has spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) in his yard to dig some up and give them to me, since I can't find them in the nursery trade
  • To do a better job of entering my citizen science data at NPN (See my post about phenophases, or go straight to the National Phenology Network for more info)
  • To educate others in my neighborhood about the value of native pollinator-attracting plants, and persuade them to plant some this year
 What are your spring resolutions?

Note: Learn more about sandhill cranes at the International Crane Foundation Website. Here is a You Tube video of cranes leaving their winter home in Gainesville, Florida for the trek north to Wisconsin.

Update: Apparently there are now breeding pairs in Illinois. See Dennis Cudworth's article, "Sandhill Cranes Return to Illinois in Spring"

Related Posts:
Do Your Backyard Plants and Animals Display Phenophases?
Happy Spring!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Historical Precedent for the Polyculture Lawn

So there a friend and I were, at the Art Institute, viewing the new show of very precious works from the French Renaissance. Which I wouldn't mention in a gardening blog, except I was amusing myself by seeing how many flowers I could identify in the tapestries, illuminated books, and paintings.

How those people loved flowers and gardens! Columbines and daisies, pinks and lilies, roses and irises run riot--as backgrounds, in foregrounds, and surrounding the text in books of hours. And many of the paintings feature beautiful, neatly kept gardens, with familiar-looking rectangular beds and carefully maintained fruit trees. As a child, looking at these kinds of works, whether in a museum or as print reproductions, I would imagine magically stepping into these worlds and walking in the gardens and towns. Later I learned about the garden-as-symbol and its importance to Medieval and Renaissance culture.
The Annunciation

This day I decided, to heck with the featured saints and courtiers--if I could visit, I'd want to have some nice long chats with the gardeners, and talk with them about what they grew, their methods, tools, rotations, uses for herbs, propagation methods, and so on.

Then I stopped short in front of two paintings by Jean Hey, the Master of Moulins: The Annunciation (1490-95) and Charlemagne and the Meeting at the Golden Gate (about 1500). You will notice that in each a patch of lawn is depicted. What is difficult to tell here, but was strikingly evident when confronted with the paintings (so glorious in real life), was that the bits of lawn were full of...weeds, all lovingly painted in great detail. As though there were nothing wrong with them, and they had value. Botanically correct dandelions, plantains, clover--all kinds of broadleaf plants many modern Americans wouldn't countenance in their lawns, but that the French considered decorative in courtly and indeed holy scenes.
The Meeting at the Golden Gate

If that sort of lawn is good enough for Charlemagne, Emperor of Europe, and for Mary and Gabriel, if it's worth the time to paint for one of the great painters of the Western tradition, it ought to be good enough for us. Perhaps the 15th-16th century French, arriving today, would ask us why so many of our lawns are so boring. No visual interest. Hardly worth painting.

So that cheered me right up, and I wondered, what are other historical precedents for the polyculture lawn? When did broad-leafed plants and flowers in lawns become weeds, to be omitted from idealized landscapes?

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Wild Things Conference

Sometimes I wonder if I'm actually a gardener. For example, while thousands of gardeners visited the Chicago Flower & Garden Show last Saturday (it continues through March 13), I went to the Wild Things Conference at the University of Ilinois at Chicago. (There's enough overlap, though, that I'm sure many people plan to attend both.) Wild Things is a biennial celebration of--well here I try to think up some short, snappy adjective/noun combo, and can't. To me it celebrates what's green and growing and wild, in both protected areas and the city, and offers ways to help nurture the nature that surrounds us while lightening our human impact on the land. It was organized by Audubon Chicago Region in cooperation with the Habitat Project, the Volunteer Stewardship Network, and Chicago Wilderness.

Approximately 1,300 nature lovers, conservationists, ecological gardeners and landscape managers gathered to attend presentations and take part in discussions on a range of topics. In general the participants looked hale and hearty, competent and outdoorsy, and seemed energized by the wealth of learning and networking opportunities.

Friday, March 4, 2011

(GMO) Alfalfa and Our Future

However, if we conceive of a culture as one body, which it is, we see that all of its disciplines are everybody’s business…[it is] clear that there are agricultural disciplines that have nothing to do with crop production, just as there are agricultural obligations that belong to people who are not farmers.   --Wendell Berry

Who cares?
Everyone who cares about these things now knows that GMO alfalfa (and sugar beets and biofuel corn) has been deregulated. This caring, of course, should go far beyond the companies that have spent much time and money persuading the government that it ought to be grown, and beyond the farmers who may or may not wish to grow the stuff. Those who eat meat, eggs, and cheese, and drink milk, those who buy food for their pets, those who prefer to eat organic food, those who question the wisdom of inserting into a plant’s genetic make-up the genes of a bacterium that confers resistance to a broad-spectrum herbicide—basically all of us, one way or another—should be paying close attention.

I’ve been paying attention since 2007 when, while researching something else, I encountered an article in High Country News  that said, wonder of wonders, a federal district judge had ruled in favor of controlling genetically modified, Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa pending an environmental impact statement. Three cheers for the judge, I thought, and added alfalfa to my ever-growing list of environmental concerns. When, in due course, there were rumblings that it might be deregulated after all, I signed the petitions, wrote emails, and discussed the issue with my friends. We all know how the case turned out.

My personal objections to GE traits are based on my environmental understanding coupled with my moral sense of how we ought to behave ourselves as members of the biotic community. I am not a scientist or a farmer. I am an urban knowledge worker. My life, in certain cultural respects, has more to do with the concrete, grimy public transit, computers, and multicultural milieu (minus the plot complications and extra-legal shenanigans) of some recent William Gibson novel than the farmer’s wide skies, seasonal anxieties, and betting on the markets.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guest Post at Beautiful Wildlife Garden

Carole Brown, at Beautiful Wildlife Garden, has put up a guest post I wrote about reconciliation ecology and its importance as a first principle for gardeners. I feel honored to have been invited to post at such a well-known and popular blog. You can find "Reconciliation Ecology and the Beautiful Wildlife Garden" here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Hedgerow Project

Photo courtesy of Chris Goode and Dick Ashdown
This morning I’m writing with that happy spring feeling small children get. I’ve just completed an initial proposal for the first large-scale landscaping plan I’ve ever helped make. Later today I’ll put in the order to Possibility Place Nursery in Monee, Illinois to contract grow native shrubs and small trees for the first phase, restoring a remnant hedgerow that separates part of the property from an adjacent field planted to corn and soy in rotation.

Some background: I am a member of the Environmental Concerns Committee of the Illinois Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers). The Yearly Meeting Campus is in Putnam County, Illinois, about two hours south and west of Chicago near the Illinois River. The land has belonged to Quakers since the mid-19th Century and has long served both as a retreat center for the Yearly Meeting, and as the regular Meeting House for the Clear Creek Meeting, composed of local residents. I’ve written more about it here.

Until two years ago, the property was three acres that included a historic Meeting House and a camping area with cabins and a shower house. Then the opportunity suddenly came up to purchase nine acres of adjacent land that included a farmhouse, barn and several other buildings. This land had belonged to an old Quaker family, which wanted the land to go to the Yearly Meeting. During the past two years, the house has been renovated for use as a year-round meeting place, and other improvements have been made.

Consideration is now being made for what to do with the property so as to best serve the needs of the local Clear Creek Meeting, as well as the Yearly Meeting, whose members reside in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri.

Photo courtesy of Chris Goode and Dick Ashdown
Naturally, the ECC, whose members have long been involved with site maintenance and landscaping, was asked to develop a landscaping plan. Our interdisciplinary group includes an architect, a tree farmer, an ecologist, several environmentalists, a U. of I. Master Gardener, two local residents and myself. My job has been to facilitate idea generation, to research various things such as local history and ecology, and to organize and write up our proposal, which is centered in the philosophy of reconciliation ecology: we are planning as much for ecosystem health and non-human species habitat needs as for human use.

Now that we have written the proposal, we will begin the next stage: making drawings and developing a timetable for projects. Luckily, while we are doing that, we can restore the existing hedgerow, a remnant of old-time land management practices.

This is the first part of an occasional series, about this hedgerow project in particular and about hedgerows, fencerows and mixed shrub borders in general. 

Related Posts:
A Day in the Country

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pollinator Garden Resources on the Web

Now that those of us in the northern hemisphere, much of it snowbound, are planning for, dreaming of, impatiently awaiting spring, I hope we are all planning to make our gardens ever more pollinator-friendly.

My own impatience was somewhat relieved this week when I visited the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago's Lincoln Park, a large, greenhouse-like space where the visitor can sit among and watch over 75 species of butterfly from around the world fluttering among tropical plants and basking on sunny flat surfaces. But then, of course, I had to tromp through the snow and get back on the subway for home. Back to dreaming! 

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is my favorite go-to source for pollinator information. They have great down-loadable fact sheets that include regional plant lists, so gardeners can plant local for local pollinators. I just ordered their new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America's Bees and Butterflies, and can hardly wait for it to arrive.

Celebrating Wildflowers, sponsored by the U. S. Forest Service, includes all kinds of pictures and information, including a "pollinator of the month" feature. Gloria at Pollinators Welcome posted a link to the page on squash bees when she commented on my rant Let's Talk about Bees.

Two go-to blogs for me are Clay and Limestone where Gail Eichelberger is doing a weekly pollinator series, and Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants, where Heather Holm frequently features interesting insects. Both blogs have marvelous photos, great for identification. As a non-photographer, I admire those who have mastered this skill--and their products.

Lastly, I really like it when plant information includes faunal associations. I check Dr. John Hilty's Illinois Wildflowers whenever I wish to learn more about a native plant I'm thinking of adding to the garden.

Related Posts:
Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide
Let's Talk about Bees
The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer 
Time Off
Do Your Backyard Plants and Animals Display Phenophases?
How to Help Our Wild Native Bees

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Two Classic Accounts of Living with Nature

A Place in the Woods and The Inland Island
One recent evening my husband dropped a book next to me on the couch and said, “here’s something for you to read.” One way he shows his love is by bringing me things to read. He, himself, tends to read big, weighty biographies of outsize men—Churchill, Lyndon Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt—as well as other history and analysis that seeks to explain our politics and wars and how we got in the mess we’re in.

The book was A Place in the Woods, which he’d seen posted about at UpNorthica, a site devoted to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. He and I share a love of northern Minnesota’s rocks and trees and water. We also share that common urban fantasy of somehow going to live in a place where you don’t have to drive to get to the woods, where the living earth is not constrained by the urban grid, and taking a walk doesn’t involve crossing streets.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rambling around the Web

Three weeks ago Diana at Elephant's Eye posted Ten Fine Blogs on her fine blog. Inspired by that post, but not nearly so good at manipulating internet images, I have done sort of the same thing, only different.

So here goes, twelve sites, not all gardening related.

Before we start, I'd like to commend to you the blogs featured on my sidebar; some post often, some don't, but all are worth visiting for one reason or another.

Blotanical is a network that feels like home. When I started blogging last March, experienced Blotanical bloggers made sure I felt welcomed. Now, every so often I go and welcome new Blotanical bloggers.

Here are two popular Blotanical blogs:

I visit Town Mouse and Country Mouse  in California to see completely different terrain and native plants than I'm used to in Illinois.

I only visited Ink and Penstemon, a fine combination of pictures and writing by Susan in the Pink Hat, for the first time the other day. She gardens in Utah. I'll return frequently.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Let's Talk About Bees

Buttersafe, January 4, 2011
Our bee problem is quite the topic of conversation these days--at social gatherings, in meetings, over coffee. Everyone agrees we should save the bees, though many of us think of them in the abstract as little buzzing yellow flying things, maybe as cartoon characters, or as creatures that exist to help us.

I could say, and have—for example at Christmas dinner when apologizing for my not-quite-stellar pumpkin bread—that last summer the CSA grower from whom I get my produce planted five hundred pumpkin plants and only got three pumpkins (so I had to buy canned, rather than processing my own). No pollination, he thought. And just the other day an acquaintance mentioned that friends who live in a tony suburb north of Chicago had, also last summer, had their own pollination troubles in their vegetable garden. Why? she wondered.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Non-native Plants I Won't Deep Six

Shirley Temple Peony
Usually, I'm singing the praises of native plants, and these days, any plants invited to reside in the yard--besides things like herbs, vegetables and potted annual flowers--are native to the Chicago region. I love native plants: they are exciting in themselves and in how they strengthen ecosystem connections. However, plenty of non-natives stick around, plants that came with the house, or as presents or that I put in long ago when I thought gardens were supposed to be primarily non-native and as English as possible.

Because my general attitude is not to harm living plants if they fit in with the garden ecosystem, I don't entirely sympathize with those who, after their natives-only epiphany, go and rip out all the offending exotics and completely redo the whole garden--it's a little too baby and bathwater for me. Better to evaluate on a case by case basis, and to make substitutions as opportunity occurs. For example, a climbing rose I loved died of rose rosette disease. Naturally I wasn't going to put in another hybrid rose, especially in that spot--but now I'm looking for a place to put a prairie, or Illinois, rose. In late summer or early fall you'll see me smother mulching a little more grass to make room for more native shrubs, forbs and grasses (described here).

Yes, I do draw the line at invasive species, many of which are dangerous to native ecosystems and plant communities--to have bishop's goutweed is to battle it, to see garlic mustard is to pull it out, and buckthorn exists to be chopped. In my garden, gone are some euonymous bushes, and I'm still working (forever) on the goutweed, old-fashioned orange daylilies, lily of the valley and English ivy. Unfortunately, many growers still produce and nurseries still sell all kinds of plants they just plain shouldn't. And don't forget, some natives can also wreak havoc in the garden: no old field goldenrod for me, thank you very much.

Yet there are plenty of non-natives that I'm not such a purist as to take out just 'cuz, though I wouldn't buy them now.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Hummingbird Facts and Nature Rants

Right now I'm finishing a piece about making a backyard hummingbird habitat for Way of the Wilds magazine. The more I learn about hummingbirds, the more amazing they seem--although one could say this about almost any part of wild nature one studies--take puffins, for example: I just learned today that they spend much time during their first summer of maturity digging burrows with their large bills and webbed feet and often don't raise young until the next year. They spend their winters at sea. See this article at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But I digress. In the Midwest we have, not the pelagic puffin, but the ruby-throated hummingbird, whose wings move in a figure eight, enabling it to fly backwards, as well as up, down and sideways, not to mention hover and swoop. Whose young are larger than their 3.5-inch parents; whose iridescent feathers are not colored by pigments but contain crystal-like cells that break down light and emit certain wavelengths; who must visit a thousand blossoms a day for nectar that they suck with their long, grooved tongues; who snap flying insects right out of the air. Worth encouraging in the garden, I'd say.

Ill Nature is a book of most excellent, powerful rants by Joy Williams (Vintage, 2002). She has an ability to gather her moral outrage at what American culture is doing to wild nature and hone it into fine dense prose.  Well worth the reading, best in bits, like reading a book of serious lyric poems--these essays need air and reflection time between them. I read the book in one great rush and then woke that night feeling the pity and terror of it all and that I must do something more to help. Thanks to Benjamin Vogt at The Deep Middle who recommended it.

Related Posts:
Hummingbird Sightings
An Excellent, Timeless Book