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.