Monday, December 15, 2014

“Farming with Native Beneficial Insects” Means Solving for Pattern

A necessary guide for anyone who farms, gardens, or who wants to learn more about ecology-based land management

Saying no to pink slime solutions

Our culture is awash in pink slime solutions. If you’ve seen "Food, Inc.," you’ll recognize this as“solving” the problem of E. coli in ground beef by concocting an ammonia-containing additive (pink slime) and then building large factories to incorporate it into the beef before it goes to the consumer. Other examples abound. Want to transport people efficiently while lowering emissions and congestion? Let’s build new roads and develop futuristic driverless cars rather than retrofitting to create multi-modal systems with good public transit. Want to “solve” climate change? Some foolish, hubristic people propose geoengineering, or spewing more pollutants into the air, instead of doing all the not-very-high-tech things we already should and could be doing at scale.

Thus does Rube Goldberg’s ghost haunt our culture. Pink slime solutions try to use technology to address problems caused by technological or industrial “solutions” to other problems, instead of taking a fresh look at what is actually needed in the first place, rethinking possibilities, and solving with systems thinking, ecological knowledge, and current technology. Instead of more industrialization, the proven, low-tech method of removing cattle from feed lots and letting them graze could take care of the E. coli problem. Of course, additional new knowledge can augment these systems-oriented solutions, which often require tracing a path back to where the technological fork in the road occurred and changing to an ecosystem-based approach. For example, recently developed managed-grazing practices can help regenerate the land as well as support healthy livestock.

 Given our cultural context, it’s entirely predictable that the agroindustrial complex would push ever more baroque combinations of GMOs and pesticides (a term inclusive of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) to solve the very real problems of insect pests and opportunistic plants (aka weeds).  Luckily, however, though still a minority, there are farmers, land managers, gardeners, and scientists who are traveling in the opposite direction—rather than adding new technological fixes, they are studying and learning from how nature itself works out these problems and then developing ways to encourage these natural processes on their land. Many of the methods are as old as agriculture itself, some have been developed in the last hundred years, yet there’s so much to learn that ample research opportunities exist for scientists in a wide range of fields. And there is moral agency, as well as science, at work. An ethical stance that humans should function as citizens of the biotic community, that farmers (and, really, all of us) should be, in Wendell Berry’s phrase,
“solving for [the] pattern” of ecological health, is informed by a worldview radically different from that which proposes we should “fix” nature, improve it, or remake it according to our needs. 

Saying yes to working with ecological systems
For these reasons, the Xerces Society’s newest book, "Farming with Native Beneficial Insects: Ecological Pest Control Solutions" (Storey Publishing, 2014), a companion to their essential "Attracting Native Pollinators" (which I reviewed here), is an inspiring, useful handbook. Like its predecessor, "Farming with Native Beneficial Insects" contains sections on why beneficial insects—those that spend at least part of their life cycles preying on pests—are important, relevant research, the types of habitats useful to them, lists of native plants, and a gallery of insects—who they are and what pests they go after.

Many of the same biodiversity-increasing practices that benefit pollinators also benefit beneficial insects, as the opening section makes clear in its explanation of what beneficials are and how they help control pests. But beneficials have been neglected. While bees are cute, fuzzy little creatures and butterflies are simply beautiful, beneficials are a motley crew of beetles, bugs, wasps and arachnids, many of whom (especially their super-predaceous larva) might inspire a yuck! reaction if looked at live and up close. Darwin even once used parasitoid wasps as an example of why the world didn’t seem to him designed by a beneficent God.  

However, this group also includes old childhood friends such as ladybugs, whose larva feast on aphids, and lightning bugs, whose larva eat slugs and other soft-bodied pests. Watching the fireflies from my back porch summer nights I’ve always loved to see the multitudes that emerge from my garden at dusk. Little did I know that my messy, native-plant centered garden, with its leaf litter and small rock and brush piles, provides a perfect nursery for firefly larva, as well as plenty of nectar, pollen and resting places for the adults.

A book for farmers and gardeners
Because the book is aimed at farmers, it offers very clear, practical instructions for improving and managing beneficial habitat on large tracts of land. Recommendations include use of native plants, hedgerows, insectary strips, cover crops, and buffers, and one of my favorites, beetle banks. These last, an idea imported from the UK, are long, low hillocks made with a plow and sown with native bunch grasses. They form habitat for multiple species of beetles that eat pests such as aphids, slugs, caterpillars, and rootworms. Some even eat weed seeds. Reading this made me want to try things on a much larger scale than my own garden affords, but this section also includes adaptations for the backyard—for example small-scale cover crops and beetle bumps—described so engagingly that any gardener would want to try them at home.  As I read, I began thinking as well about public parks and institutional campuses. Providing habitat in these areas could help reduce pesticide use and increase biodiversity in large swaths of the country.

This book takes a reasonable, evenhanded tone. Though the goal is to help land managers reduce the use of pesticides, and the authors, rightfully, have nothing good to say about neonicotinoids, there is no shrill preaching. The demonstration of results-oriented practices on actual farms seems well calibrated to appeal to many a person who, even if using pesticides now, would like to minimize or stop their use but perhaps isn’t sure how to begin doing so. For this reason, there’s a chapter on Integrated Pest Management, which, though not pesticide free, seeks to minimize pesticide use by paying close attention to conditions in the field, making use of farming practices such as row covers, crop rotation, beneficial insect favoring land use practices such as buffer strips and beetle banks, and only using pesticides as a last resort. 

Significant work is being done in sustainable, regenerative farming that puts it at the forefront of the field of agronomy. The case studies, reports from farms in widely separated parts of the country, are among the most appealing parts of the book; farmers and scientists describe what they have done and how it has improved their farming. The news is not complete, however: themes of wanting to find out more, of incomplete knowledge, and the need for more experimentation run throughout the book. Instead of trying to use technology to keep doing things the same old way, these people are making a new path forward; here is a record of old/new knowledge being discovered in real time, a record of farmers, scientists, and others finding practical ways to work with nature. 

One can imagine the need for an updated and revised version of this book as more farmers and agronomists try new methods and publish the results. Spin-off books with a more in-depth regional focus—as though each regional case study, plant list and so on were made into its own book—would also be useful, as would guide's specifically for urban gardeners. Based on my own experience, I would certainly want to enlarge the plant lists for my part of the Midwest, and would want to know more about how farmers in this region are utilizing these methods and what modifications they’ve made for their own situations. And if only more of our universities would get seriously involved in studying and developing and publishing region-based sustainable farming methods to help farmers find alternatives to the one-size-fits-all, land-wrecking, industrial-ag model.

It’s exciting to think of the growers who are experimenting with these techniques, exciting to think of the farms that are growing biodiversity as well as crops. You don’t have to be an expert or become an entomologist, but it’s important to learn about the other species with which one shares a piece of land. And for anyone, thinking about the role beneficial insects play in the landscape is one more door into ecosystem thinking. Paying attention to pollinators’ needs by planting native flowers and grasses helps beneficial insects, and vice versa—and birds. Working at replenishing the soil, by growing cover crops and adding compost, winds up helping the insects while also helping replenish ground water supplies while adding fertility. Everything is so connected that no matter where you start, as you go on, the virtuous feedback loops and proper complexity will develop that are the hallmark of healthy land inhabited by humans who are deeply, ethically invested in solving for pattern.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where Do We Find Beauty in a Landscape?

Part one of a series on the post-modern American hedgerow, a landscape form that offers benefits to humans and nature.
Working hedgerows and corridors

A settled landscape can be beautiful only in so far as it admits room for wild nature

Before we get to hedgerows’ multifaceted functionality and usefulness, and why and how we should plant them, let’s start with beauty, a quality not often associated with the mundane, anthropocentric landscapes, whether urban, suburban or rural, of many parts of the Midwest—or elsewhere in the US, for that matter. Beauty—deep, profound, emerging through complexity, impossible to quantify—matters immensely.  As Aldo Leopold and a host of others, most recently Courtney White in Land, Soil, Hope, have pointed out, though there is struggle, suffering and disease, predation and often early death among the wild denizens, enmeshed in the food web as they are, nevertheless, an ecologically sound landscape—wherever it is, however lush, arid or in between—is beautiful in a way a degraded one can never be. Beauty’s necessity is a fact of life for indigenous peoples and for us moderns who have lived close to the land in regenerative fashion, who’ve been worked on by it until we have become re-enchanted, until we’ve have become naturalized citizens of our home ecosystems. Artists, writers, poets, composers and musicians have always known and celebrated this fact, as have certain religious writers, philosophers and scientists. I believe even the most urbanized, nature-phobic among us recognize and understand this necessity, though they may be unaware of it, or may have suppressed this knowledge to the detriment of their own psychic health and much else.

Because of the extreme degradation of so many human-occupied landscapes, some people might only associate beauty with a manicured corporate campus, or Disney-fied theme park, with the neat and tidy in general. Some of these landscapes might be pretty, but they have none of the deep mystery and complexity—and delight—that beauty entails. Others might only associate wild nature’s beauty—and ecosystem health—with nature reserves, national parks, and places of spectacular scenery well away from cities. This camp includes people, even respected conservationists and scientists, who hold the ethos that true ecosystem health and beauty depend on a lack of humans in the landscape, where nature can do its thing free of our interference. This attitude is important and necessary: it is why we need and have our great national parks and nature reserves and must continue to set aside land where other species can live and humans can visit without the threat of shopping malls apartment complexes, industrial farming and, worse, extractive industries, ruining the land.

However, and this is where hedgerows and other forms of greenways such as wildlife corridors come in, human-occupied landscapes can also be ecologically sound, full of a beauty not imposed according to strictly human rules and principles. While an overly controlled landscape or one managed only for short-term gain, function or appearances never can be beautiful, a working landscape will be beautiful if it is managed with close attention to natural processes and room for the messy complexity of wild nature. Unless there is room for wild nature, there will be no beauty or health—and there will be no life, in the sense of all the processes and cycles of living and dying that form that landscape. There will only be that tendency toward cessation, toward depletion, degradation and impoverishment—toward death in its guise of “nevermore,” that is, of finality, of entropy, of extinction, of the dissolution of complexity that is the ruin of any piece of land.

As far as I know, the first peoples understood that humans can be part of an eco-system without destroying it, and that human influence is not necessarily negative.  I’m pretty sure that those original settlers of my part of the world never thought about the question of belonging or not in the terms set forth here. Often the question was, and is, one of how humans can fit in properly, can earn the right to partake of the gifts our ecosystem offers, and of what we will give back. This is obvious if you read any of the old creation myths and stories about life on our continent, sometimes called Turtle Island. Humans belong here. The wilderness that Europeans “settled” was actually land that had been lived in and managed by its peoples since the Laurentide ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago. We humans, if we live and work, think, plan and do as citizens of the biotic community, can actually be of benefit to an ecosystem, but only if we make an effort to follow the rules, sometimes called the “original operating instructions.” This ancient, vital knowledge is only now being redeployed. Combining it with modern ecological science forms a powerful hybrid that can lead to truly regenerative land management practices.

Some caveats
Commodity farms in the Midwest
Now it’s true that some farmers, the ones who grow commodity crops like soybeans and corn on vast fields, don’t like hedgerows. Nor do many developers, park districts, or conventional landscaping firms. Hedgerows are inappropriate in large prairie areas, whether remnant or restored, where grassland birds require vast, treeless areas on the order of 10,000 acres or so to feel comfortable enough to nest and start families. They are shaggy, messy, unkempt looking. They require effort to put in, nurturance while young, and regular maintenance thereafter. We have fences.

I would never promote use of hedgerows in areas of the country where they’d be inappropriate, such as the desert southwest, or arid grasslands (except possibly where trees and shrubs might occur naturally, such as riparian areas) or large public lands managed for restoration. They have their own beauty and ecosystem complexity. My aim during this series of posts will be to talk about how, in temperate areas of our country that are already built on or farmed, that can’t be restored or set aside, hedgerows can be used to help heal the land. They can be an important component of green infrastructure, complementing bioswales and raingardens.

Prairie restoration
Further, as our climate changes, hedgerows and greenways could be crucial not only for their carbon-storage properties, but also for their ability to serve as corridors linking larger, wilder areas so that animals and even plants can migrate to more favorable habitats. Some of the plant migration could even be human-assisted, though that is controversial. In all, they are a prime example of reconciliation ecology, the practice of designing human-centered landscapes to accommodate the needs of other species.

Unless you’ve visited places with thriving hedgerows and have seen how they can positively impact a landscape, you may not understand why they are so vitally important. This is partly a case of shifting baselines. You can’t appreciate or miss a type of landscape that nurtures all the creatures that live in an area unless you experience it, and beyond that, have the cultural understanding to value it. In England, enough hedgerows have continued to exist and enough people and organizations have kept the cultural and historical knowledge alive to enable hedgerows as a concept to remain viable, and as a landscape feature to be to be saved and resuscitated. Here in the US, both the concept and the reality are having to be reinvented. A friend of mine, who has been studying hedgerows and advocating their use for twenty years, calls these new efforts “post-modern hedgerows.”

Gardeners, conservationists, permaculturalists and organic farmers are already practicing hedgerow making, particularly in California. By so doing they are reinvigorating ancient art and utilizing modern science that could, if practiced widely enough, help knit back together many of our fractured landscapes, providing habitat for pollinators, other beneficial insects, birds, and other animals while simultaneously providing food, materials, and shelter—in the form of privacy and microclimate enhancement—for humans. Properly planned and maintained, they can increase bio-diversity, store carbon, help manage rainwater, and add beauty and livability for all.

When a farmer plants and manages a wide, ecologically diverse hedgerow, or enriches an old fencerow, or a government agency does the same along a road, they might say they are creating a pollinator reserve, wildlife corridor, game bird habitat, micro-climate enhancer, even a carbon sequestration system. The same goes for those of us who have smaller pieces of land to work with in suburbs or city, whose small yards can link together in beneficial ways. But what we all really are doing is co-creating beauty.

Related Post:

Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk

Sunday, September 14, 2014

An Afternoon Walk Along the North Branch of the Chicago River

Oaks, grasses and forbs at Middlefork Savanna (Alex Wild)
So there I was, alone, trudging along a path beside a small, slow river through the middle of a huge field of goldenrod, Silphiums, prairie sunflowers and asters all in full bloom, with big bluestem and Indian grasses waving their distinctive seed heads. I was hot, thirsty, a little tired, and, woodland savanna girl that I am, looking froward to walking in the shade of the huge oaks I saw in the distance. After weeks of nothing but the rectilinear constraints of city streets and institutional buildings, I was finally on a walkabout.

That morning I'd attended a Chicago Wilderness meeting held at Lake Forest Open Lands Association, quartered in what was the gatehouse of the old Armour estate. We met in a small adjacent building once used for washing carriages, now  fitted up as a classroom full of nature-related accessories useful for teaching children. Beyond the gatehouse is a swath of beautifully restored prairie owned by Open Lands; beyond that, the Middlefork Savanna, a large acreage of forest preserve land that includes some of the finest oak savanna on the planet (literally). After the meeting, I indulged myself with pretty thoroughly exploring the place, on the the theory that I might not be back, though I hope I will.

The landscape could have been a mirage, except I was walking through it. Not only were there acres and acres of all the golden and purple flowers of late summer surrounding the North Branch but the place was full of life: bees, butterflies, green darner dragonflies (very numerous since they are on migration), woodpeckers, goldfinches and blue jays--the birds all getting very alert and hopping up on willows or other scattered trees to warn others that I was coming. It's funny how blue jays used to be just another common urban bird, and now, post West Nile virus they've been somewhat elevated.

There were also numerous ponds and wet areas, much more conspicuous than the river, especially since they are ringed with snags, many boasting a white egret sitting near the top. There's nothing like the sight of an egret stepping up into the air, floating delicately down across the path, grumbling the while, until it poises upright on a rock by the river to inspect a person walking by. Willows grow all along the river and ponds, narrow leaves making that little shuffling sound they do, softer than the watery clacking of their neighbors, the cottonwoods.

In such a landscape, so beautifully preserved and expanded through restoration, one could wander for hours. I suppose we are lucky that Armour, having made so much money on the backs of the immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry, chose to spend some of it on a large, choice piece of property. Thanks in part to the company he ran there, Chicago in the summer was to be escaped if at all possible. Lake Forest was a world away, then, a world of privilege. It still is: modern McMansions hem in the preserve. They loom, discordant piles of brick sitting in swards of incongruously smooth, green grass. Everything that Frank Lloyd Wright considered wrong with Midwestern architecture, especially in relation to the prairie, these houses embody, olde world faux chateaux mash-ups that they are. If you pay millions to have an overly large house with a view of a landscape like that, the least you could do would be to create a design in harmony with its surroundings. But then, I don't understand the perceived need for grand, or even extremely large, houses in general. Smallish, olde world faux cottages might have looked a little better, if only because not so dominantly ostentatious--more easily ignored, I suppose.

Still, this is a wonderful, almost hidden place, easy to get to, and open to the public. Anyone can simply walk in, look around, and stay for hours. Many very devoted people have spent time and effort to make and maintain this preserve. It is truly a jewel. The children who take nature classes there and the volunteers who help keep it going are privileged in the more genuine sense of being able to experience first hand a working ecosystem, and in understanding and appreciating its beauties. That afternoon, I felt privileged to be able to take a walk, in peace, flowers blooming and birds singing all around.

Note to my readers: This blog is written in my spare time (as they used to call it). Posts have always been infrequent and irregular, but generally I've been able to find, make or steal a few hours to spend outside, do research and write. However, owing to an illness in the family this summer, the spare time has deflated. For the next few months posts will be even more irregular than usual.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Summer Notes: Birds, Pollinators, and Prairie Flowers Over Six Feet Tall

 See more at Illinois State Climatologist
We are at the midpoint between the summer solstice and the fall equinox, a time of warm weather but slowly declining light as the earth wheels toward the dark hinge of the year in late December. Climate weirdness continues. The summer has continued cooler than average. In fact, this July is tied for coolest on record with 2009.
Just two years ago we were enduring the second warmest on record, and in a drought besides. With the abundant rain this year, in my yard, at least, there is full-on abundant, riotous growth.

It's that time of summer when, if you are a tidy gardener, everything is weeded, ship-shape, well groomed, and so on. You could go on vacation right now, and things wouldn't be too out of order when you got back. Or you might be harvesting tomatoes, zucchini, and basil from your well-tended beds. Then again, it might be that after careful beginnings, all you can do right now is  throw up your hands before the boisterous, blooming, buzzing confusion, say "ok, ok, I give up," pick some vegetables, resolve to weed when you can, but mostly find yourself doing a lot of standing and staring full of gratitude and amazement. Particularly if you're aiming for native-plant-based, permaculture-influenced biodiversity. This year a family health issue has led to my spending a great deal of time visiting the hospital. When I am home, it continues to astound me just what plants, birds, pollinators and assorted small mammals can get up to.

Birds and Pollinators
Pagoda dogwood berries all gone
Right now in my yard the pagoda dogwood's fat deep purplish navy blue berries are ripe, hoisted delicately on their upright little red stems. Though not for humans, they are a feast for the birds. On a recent Saturday morning five robins, several sparrows and a squirrel were already brunching when a mourning dove showed up to investigate and a male cardinal reconnoitered from the garage roof before joining in. Every summer I enjoy this scene, a sign of food so abundant that the robins don't even bother contesting the territory. House finches sat on the electrical wires in the alley, gossiping, while chimney swifts circled, chittering high in the blue sky. Are their favorite aerial insects more abundant over non-pesticide-treated, abundantly planted areas?

Trying not to disturb anyone, I first observed a bumblebee buzz-pollinating a tomato flower and then walked carefully and respectfully past the dogwood to the narrow back bed where the prairie plants, assorted herbs (mint and oregano) and a couple of pollinator favorite non-natives (nepeta and Russian sage)--in all shades of bright yellow, purple, and white--are on full display. As are the pollinators. I leaned against the fence that separates this area from the walk to the alley and just watched.

Bumble bee on cup plant
Literally hundreds of pollinators were circling, landing, creeping, resting, sticking their heads inside blooms, getting nectar and pollen. I saw: sweat bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, miner bees,  a leaf-cutter bee, small carpenter bees; a few bees that I couldn't tell what they were but was pretty sure they were bees; two kinds of butterflies; at least three species of predatory wasps; not to mention flower flies, syrphid flies; and numerous small creatures flying so fast that though they glittered in the sun, it was difficult to tell what family they were from. It's enough to take your breath away, even if you've seen it before--yesterday or the day before, for example. It's not called high summer for nothing.

This is normal, I told myself. this is what everyone would see, would be used to seeing if we stopped using pesticides and planted gardens full of mostly native flowers.

I live in the middle of the block. To my north lives the gardening friend with whom I set out to attract hummingbirds some years ago. She raises butterflies, and grows native plants, too, and we've been trading plants-on purpose and not--for so long that it's sometimes hard to say which plants started where. Tons of pollinators and birds over there, of course.

To the south, very nice people (with cute little daughters) maintain what might be considered an average yard. They have grass with a little clover mixed in, three serviceberry shrubs next to the patio and a row of hostas in front of the garage. To their credit, they don't use pesticides (hence the clover). To look from my yard to theirs is to feel as if one is in one of those old "visible difference" ads on TV.  Or in an experiment in which their yard is the control, and mine the experimental conditions--or vice versa, now that I think of it. On a day like today you could see and compare. In my yard, birds and pollinators galore. Directly over the fence? Nothing. The demarcation is as sharp and dramatic as the fence that separates the two yards, a Berlin wall of sorts.

Prairie Flowers
Vernonia fasciculata
If you want to attract pollinators it helps to have at least eight species of native plants, preferably
selected so that they bloom from spring through fall. As I discovered this summer, I have over fifty species of natives alone and even the non-natives, including vegetables, herbs and weeds, are pollinator friendly. In spring the flowers tend to be short, attractive and well scaled for a small back yard. By late June, when the coneflowers and false quinine start, three to four feet tall is a good average, and still manageable.

But starting in late July, look out! These flowers are big, bright, sprawling and assertive. They have to be to stand up to the grasses such as big bluestem with which they share the tall grass prairies. Some designers suggest that late summer stars such as vernonia, cup plant, compass plant, rigid goldenrod and sweet black-eyed Susan might be too tall, too overwhelming for the small garden. But I love the feeling of excess, the sheer grandeur of exuberant life and well-being they impart. It's fun to see flowers at eye height or above, a pleasure to be surrounded by color, to walk under an arch of cup plant flowers leaning over the fence toward the garage. These plants demand respect. They are not charming, but  have an exuberant charisma your tame, overbred hybrids lack. To avoid feeling crowded, it does help to arrange them with shorter plants in the foreground just for balance and proportion's sake. Right now viceroys and yellow swallowtales are sunning themselves on the coneflowers. Very soon, if not already, the male bumble bees will be camping out nights on the cup plants. Later, when the plants set seed, the goldfinches and other small birds will perch and gorge themselves. And during the winter, solitary bees will be tucked in their nests in various hollow stems or in the ground, waiting for spring. A garden is so much more than flowers alone.

Related Posts:
Spring Notes: Plants, Birds and Bumblebees
A Short Journey by Bicycle
Diary of a Dry Summer
Hummingbird Sightings

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Pollinators of Native Plants" is a Great Resource for Creating Pollinator Habitat

Heather Holm’s blog Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants is a valuable resource for any gardener.  A landscaper herself, with extensive experience using natives on her own property, Heather combines this knowledge with excellent photography skills to showcase native plants and their associated insects. When considering what plants to put in my own yard, I have often consulted her blog. Equally, when wondering what type of bees are likely to visit various plants, I’ll check to see what information she offers. She has graciously let me use her photos to illustrate some of my own posts.

Now Holm has compiled a great deal of essential information in her new book, Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants (Pollination Press, 2014). This easy to use reference will prove useful to anyone interested in native plants and who wants to have the kind of garden that attracts bees, butterflies and other helpful insects. The opening sections explain the role and life cycles of pollinators and how pollination works. The bulk of the book treats over sixty flowering plants, with sections devoted to prairie, woodland edge, and wetland edge plants. 

Native plants have particular needs regarding soil, moisture and sun, but if the right plant is planted in the right place, they will do well with little extra care. The book reflects this, and is organized so that each entry includes a description of the plant, its growing requirements and natural range (mostly the eastern half of North America); you can see at a glance if a plant you are considering is right for your yard. Each entry also includes a useful discussion of the pollinating insects that are associated with the plant. The detailed photographs have caught pollinators in action, which makes it easier to identify them when outside.  Also included are handy charts, a glossary, and sample planting plans for a variety of situations.

Pollinators of Native Plants fills a niche, whether used for planning a native plant garden or for guidance regarding what you are likely to see when in natural areas. There are plenty of excellent wildflower and insect guides, but few combine the two so conveniently as this does. A whole range of people will find Holm's book useful, from gardeners, organic farmers, and permaculturalists, to garden and landscape designers, as well as those restoring and managing natural areas. I could even see a role for it in the classroom. Beginners will find the book valuable because it is an entree to the kind of broad knowledge that takes years to develop, while experienced practitioners will find worthwhile information as well.  Pollinators is a great companion to Attracting Native Pollinators (reviewed here), the Xerces Society’s compendium on the subject that was an inspiration for Holm.

The best way anyone can help native and honey bees is to provide good, pesticide free habitat with loads of native flowers. This book is a helpful resource in that endeavor.

Cross-posted at

Related Posts: 
Attracting Native Pollinators
Urban Neighborhoods Can Be Good for Native Bees 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Butterweed, Butterwhat?

A green wood by a river

A surprising flower in Thatcher Woods

At this time of year, the woodland savannah is green, green, green. The spring ephemerals have quit blooming and the summer players—woodland sunflower, Joe pie weed, the grasses and goldenrods—are still mustering their strength. So as you walk through the green shade, there’s not much color—oh, some delicate white sweet Cicely, perhaps, but little more than that. It’s enough to make one wonder how the butterflies and bees are getting their nectar and pollen. You get your "plant eyes" on, in the sense that you are identifying by leaf shape, habit of growth and shade of green: you focus on fundamentals, on what really characterizes each plant, rather than the gaudy flower.

So there a fellow forest preserve volunteer and I were last week, walking through the bottomland along the Des Plaines River, comparing specimens of Asian and native honeysuckle, avoiding poison ivy, noticing the raspberries coming along, listening to the bull frogs croaking and the woodpeckers and robins commenting on perceived conditions, and generally enjoying the green gloom, when a vast flare of sunlit yellow caught our eyes. Across a flooded river inlet was at least an acre of three-foot tall plants topped by bright yellow flowers where such things shouldn’t be, as if a crew of flashy strangers had crashed a Quaker meeting. We were compelled to investigate, which involved some navigation around the water and dealing with a muddy sloping bank.

What we found was a plant neither of us recognized. Now, without boasting I can say I am familiar with most of the plants in Thatcher Woods: even if I don’t yet know their names, I recognize them, like neighbors from the next block over. And my friend is pretty good, too. There are also various plants I’ve read about and then recognize when I encounter them, as when I first saw hoary puccoon in a dry prairie I was visiting. But this? Deeply lobed leaves, a daisy-like composite flower, seed puffs like a dandelion, and a ridged hollow stem—nope, never saw it before. Never expected to see it or knew to look for it. Could it be a Senecio, a ragwort, of some kind? Well, it didn’t match anything in the Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers I had with me. Those leaves. That somewhat brittle, easily snapped, hollow stem. We figured it might be a non-native invasive, introduced since the book was published.

Later I described the plant to my colleague, an environmental biology instructor, also a plant geek and a superior sleuth. The next day a name, Senecio glabellus—alternatively Packera glabella, common name butterweed—and links to Missouri and Ohio websites showed up in my in-box. The plant is also called cressleaf groundsel (“groundsel” is from an old Anglo-Saxon word “groundeswelge” meaning ground swallower) and it is toxic to grazing animals—though deer have enough sense to avoid it. Now that I had the name, I could easily check Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region: they say the plant is native to southern Illinois, but has been introduced in Du Page County. Illinois Wildflowers says the same and gives it the epithet “weedy,” adding that its native range has expanded north from southern to central Illinois. Yet here it is, ensconced and happy in Cook County.

A couple of days later I went back to take pictures. There had been rain, and the whole area was flooded. A doe and two fawns appeared nearby, sensed me upwind and moved off, not too fast. A bullfrog croaked. A great blue heron grunted in a slightly higher key. The butterweeds stood blooming bravely, up to their waists in water.

Related Posts:
A Date with Some Turtles
Gardening in Thatcher Woods, with Help
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard

Monday, June 9, 2014

Three Weeds You Can Eat

Foraging while gardening

Lady's Thumb in bloom

The other day, while engaging in my hobby of pulling weeds, I started thinking about categories: weeds, weeds, and weeds. There are the bullies, the thugs, the thieves, the ones that, unable to fit comfortably into a given plant community, will enter your garden or a natural area and through various mechanisms—high reproduction rate, extreme adaptability, quick genetic adaptation, allellopathic chemicals released in the soil, resistance to insects and pathogens, or simply shading out other plants—can and will rapidly disrupt a functioning ecosystem or garden. They are the reason I go on bindweed patrol nearly every day during the growing season and forest preserve volunteers spend too much of their free time getting after buckthorn, Asian honeysuckle and teasel.

Plants in the wrong place
There are other weeds that are plants simply in the wrong place, as determined by the gardener who, for example, gets to decide that grass shouldn’t grow among the flowering perennials, or that non-natives shouldn’t grow among the natives. Some people, such as a permaculturalist or two, might tell you there are no weeds, merely plants taking advantage of situations, filling in a niche or a vacuum, since nature doesn’t like vacancies. Ecologists might speak of “invasives” or “weedy species,” but “weed” is not exactly part of the scientific lexicon either. It is a term defined most fully by the human-designed context of yard, garden, and farm and as a result can also be a legal term. I’ve heard landscapers recommend plants that have achieved the legal standing of noxious weeds. How should one feel about this?

Weeds with benefits
There is another category of weed, however: those plants that, native or not, might take over if you let them, but if managed properly, add to a yard’s biodiversity, don’t look bad, and offer nutritious supplements to your diet and that of various pollinators and other wildlife. This is a category useful to gardeners relaxed about what fussier gardeners might consider “appearances,” who don’t like to kill plants unnecessarily, and understand that mostly, weeds are in the eye of the beholder. Thus, to me, a few dandelions in the grass are tolerable, and almost everyone knows you can add their young leaves to a salad for extra tang.

When I’m out weeding, I’m foraging as well. There are thinnings, natural microgreens such as parsley and radishes (both leaves and tiny red roots) that must be pulled so the others can grow strong and healthy, the cilantro that pops up everywhere, and the oregano that always needs cutting back. My iced tea gets brewed with handfuls of the mint that appears in unlikely places. These are plants that have been let in to the garden on purpose, however. What about the others, the ones who just show up one day? Lately I’ve been adding the leaves of young violets, Asiatic dayflowers and lady’s thumbs to the evening salad.

Bumblebees like the nectar
Our native common violets (Viola sororia sororia) grace the yard in early spring. Bumblebees appreciate them, since they bloom when little else does, but lawn fetishists loath them. In turf grass they don’t really take over, but give them some bare soil in a semi-shady, moist environment, and watch out. Not only do they have their lovely spurred flowers, but later, in late May and early June, they have a second greenish, unnoticeable bloom, at which time you’ll notice hundreds of babies around each mother plant. This is because the second, cleistogamous, bloom produces seeds which are ejected from the capsules in fall.

Unless you want to use violets as a groundcover (effective in the right
Young violets
spots under bushes and trees) you’ll want to thin them out before they develop their tubers. Young violet leaves are good in salads, though, as pointed out in Edible Wild Plants, they are “somewhat bland and best mixed with other greens.” I haven’t tried other suggested uses yet, such as candying the flowers, adding the leaves to soup as a thickener, or drying the leaves for tea. They are a source of nectar for bumble bees. Halictid and mason bees and Syrphid flies also visit the flowers and birds occasionally eat the seeds, while caterpillars of Fritillary butterflies and small mammals nibble the leaves.

Asiatic Dayflowers
Asiatic dayflower
The young stems and lance-shaped leaves of Asiatic dayflowers (Commelina communis) are also good in salads. Their flavor is also bland, but but because they are somewhat thick and fleshy they can add some body and variety of shape to your lettuce. These creeping annuals have a pretty blue and white flower, at which I have seen bees, but in my experience are best picked before they bloom. More mature, blooming plants can be steamed like spinach. You could also add them with other chopped greens to a saute. They are prolific, and will appear seemingly at random, but, in my yard, at least cause no harm and are not pernicious, though they can be pesky in the wrong place. Their roots don’t run deep and if you miss a few one day you can get them the next. The dayflower is also an alley weed par excellence, one of that wild tribe that clusters around telephone poles, along fences and next to garages. Besides their usefulness to bees, songbirds, such as mourning doves, eat the seeds.

Lady’s Thumb
Lady's Thumb in an alley
Another player in the alley mix is lady’s thumb (Polygonum persicaria), though you’ll also find this low plant sprawling in the woods, vacant lots, and neglected corners of your yard. The narrow leaves have a dark triangular “thumbprint.” The tiny pink flowers are clumped tightly together on erect stems. They have a mild flavor and again are best in salads when young. You can also steam or boil them like spinach if you collect enough. Caterpillars also like them; those of coppers eat the foliage while gray hairstreaks eat the flowers and fruit. Birds like the seeds. Though the plant hails originally from Europe, as Dr. John Hilty at Illinois Wildflowers says, “the ecological value of this little plant is
rather high, notwithstanding its weedy nature.”

None of these three plants will go away without a lot of effort and the use of toxic chemicals. They are so generally pervasive that if banished from the yard they’ll surely reappear later, or most likely sooner. Yet they aren’t thuggish, look pretty nice, and offer benefits to humans and non-humans alike. These are weeds I can live with, and do.

Note: It goes without saying that no one should eat any foraged plants unless sure of their identification. References include Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America, by Lee Allen Peterson, and Illinois Wildflowers.

Related Posts:
Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love
Creeping Charlie Love

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Backyard Plant Species Count

Permaculture biodiversity
How many plant species live in your backyard? How many are native? How many provide food for you or for birds, pollinators, and other non-human persons—or for everyone? I am not a trained scientist, but I sometimes hang out with biologists, and one thing they like to do is count things, especially living things. One reason is to assess the health of a place, on the principle that the more biodiversity, the better. I’m no permaculturalist, either—no official certificate—though I have polyculture beds and am deeply influenced by the design philosophy and methods. The basic idea is to work with natural systems and imitate their function when establishing a food garden. Again, the more biodiversity, the better.

However, it had never occurred to me to do a backyard species count until I read Eric Toensmeier’s Paradise Lot, an ebullient book about urban permaculture so full of enthusiasm that if you are fortunate enough to have a backyard, you will immediately want to try out some of what he’s doing. He writes about biodiversity and the benefits of a garden full of diverse species and mentions at one point that when people have asked how many species he and his gardening partner Jonathan Bates have, he doesn’t know. Then when he does a count, he comes up with something like 185 different species. More or less, in a small backyard roughly analogous to mine in size.

Inspired by this, I went on a field trip out back to do my own species survey. I knew I had “lots of species” (a term of art), and an actual count came up with between 100 and 120. More or less. More if one counts the seeds I’ve just planted, and the prairie plants I know are there, but haven’t quite emerged from their torpor, less if the seeds don’t take, or the prairie plants have indeed been winter killed. Of the total, half are native. The half that aren’t include weeds that I keep at more or less manageable levels but have never quite eliminated. Every plant provides food and/or shelter for someone. Perhaps a quarter provide food for the human residents. When one counts also affects the totals. Spring ephemerals go dormant. There are, at the moment, hundreds of cotyledons that haven’t declared their allegiance in the form of a second set of leaves (though one can make an educated guess in most cases). You always miss something. Besides time, this exercise depends on memory, and like all things botanical, the result is more approximate than definite.

More than 100 separate species, then. Not too bad, considering, for example, the fact that most of the backyards in my neighborhood might have only ten or twenty species, and all non-native, at that. These are, in my opinion, what might be called ecological deserts, analogous to those urban neighborhoods termed food deserts. Many of the species in these yards may be “ornamental,” and the yards themselves neat and green, but they are not biologically beautiful or elegant, since by definition these terms require good ecological functioning and an ability to help support other living species.

The numbers tell other stories, too. In general, I prefer native species. That half the species are non-native is because when I started to add natives, I did so gradually, as I had funds, and will not pull out (that is, kill) a non-native that is good looking, useful, and non-invasive. That half the species are still non-native also reflects that many things I like to eat, such as parsley, basil, chard, radishes, lettuce, and tomatoes came from elsewhere. The numbers change over time: new species volunteer, I add new plants and regretfully (mostly) remove others. I can’t say I was sorry when I finally vanquished the bishop’s goutweed I inherited from the previous owner. This year I removed a sweet autumn clematis that was more than adequately demonstrating its invasive tendencies. Also this year I’m putting in some American currants and more raspberries. Next spring, after I’ve learned more about the subject, I plan to put a dwarf espalier fruit tree on the fence where the clematis was.

What should the balance be among plant species? It’s hard to know. There are six species of berries. Pollinators love the flowers. Two kinds of berries are only for birds and squirrels. We more or less share the other four. I will put in more prairie plants and may put in more native berries or try out some different non-native vegetables and herbs. I cannot imagine ever reducing the number voluntarily. Perhaps there should be some sort of species count competition among backyard gardeners, with an emphasis on native plants and ecological health, and including local and regional championships. Perhaps that would help people take advantage of the wonderful opportunities inherent in their backyards. What I know is, I feel sure I’ll catch up with Eric Toensmeier soon. Maybe. More or less.

Related Posts:

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spring Notes: Plants, Birds, and Bumblebees

Native ginger emerging
Spring is coming on by fits and starts, mostly fits so far, which is appropriate for our continental
Bloodroot, past bloom already
climate, but frustrating after a record cold and snowy winter. Yet I’ve noticed that my native plants are coming along just fine. The ginger, which is always expanding its area, has suddenly jumped after two years of slow movement. In the fall the patch was about two and a half feet in diameter. After months of snow, it is three feet wide, moving in among the native strawberries. The honeysuckle draped over the fence is bushier and healthier than in several years. A single bloodroot has become several. Various other prairie plants are emerging slowly, as they always do, waiting until sure the season has definitely turned, but clearly thriving.

Why is this? Did it take this long for full recovery from the effects of the drought in 2012? Do these plants really respond better to cold winters than the string of warm ones we’ve had for a few years straight?

Robin. After reading What the Robin Knows, I've become much more conscious of bird behavior in relation to my presence. A friend of mine told me that the same robin has come back to his yard for the third year in a row, a bird easily identifiable due to a genetic mutation that has caused  white streaks in its red breast. I have often noticed that the robin in my back yard seems to know me, though it doesn't have easy i.d. markers. It’s always about, standing stock still in the middle of the yard, or pecking at the ground to pull some hapless insect up for eating with relish. I’ve seen it chase another robin away. When I go outside, as long as I move respectfully, it watches me with its fairly large, white-rimmed black eye, and doesn’t fly away, or give any kind of alarm. It does keep a distance of several feet, moving backwards or sideways as I move towards it. It also seems very interested in my digging, delving, weeding and planting activities and seems to follow me around the garden as I work, often sitting on the fence nearby, watching me and everything else going on.

What are its birdy thoughts? How does it view me? Am I an interloper, keeping it from its own morning rounds? Is it hoping I’ll turn up a tasty worm for it? Does it see me as simply another denizen?

Cooper's Hawk from below
Cooper's Hawk. Another local bird that seems to have no fear of me—or much else, for that matter, is the Cooper’s hawk that’s taken up residence in the neighborhood. I assume there are actually two, and that there’s a nest somewhere nearby. One several occasions in the last month I’ve noticed it up in the maple in front of the house, watching intently as I move about. Viewed from below, its brown wings and streaked breast blend right in with the pattern of bark, branches and sky, so it’s hard to spot: but the noise it makes is unmistakable, an almost squirrel-like scolding. After I stop moving, it shuts up. All is still for a moment. Zoom! It takes off down the street flying at speed below the canopy, straight as a torpedo, not noticeably slowing as it disappears into a tree 150 feet away.

If I didn’t know that Cooper’s hawks hunt songbirds, would I still think of their affect as fierce? It’s definitely not so friendly as the robin in the back yard. Do I imagine the hawk’s glare is sharper and fiercer, or is it a trick of the shape of eye and bone structure? After all, the robin is also a predator.

An enduring mystery is where the bumblebees that frequent my backyard have their nests. Every spring two or more young queens zoom around my yard with a zig-zaggy flight pattern peculiar to them, feeding and getting ready to nest. They are drawn to the patch of Vinca minor I tolerate purely for their pleasure, working the little blue flowers, but also apparently sleeping, or at least resting, in among the foliage. Later in the season, of course, males congregate on the blooming cup plants. And all summer numerous workers visit the yard, which is, after all, designed to attract them. Yet they don’t seem to nest in the yard. I wish they would, for then I would know they are relatively safe. I often imagine I’ll follow them down the alley or across the street and discover their homes; but they can fly where I cannot trespass, so I may never know. They nest under prairie grasses’ dry last-year’s leaf hummocks and in disused rodent holes in the ground, both of which the yard has, but no luck so far.

Why do the bumblebees find my yard a great pasture area, possibly even a good place to winter over, but not a good place to settle in and raise a family? What element is missing? Or what am I missing? Could there be a nesting area I’m simply overlooking? I must keep sharper watch this summer.

Related Posts:
Listen to What the Birds are Saying
Spring Dispatches from the Backyard
Happy Spring!
Non-native Plants I Won't Deep Six

Monday, April 14, 2014

April is Poetry Month 2014: Kumin's "The Brown Mountain"

Maxine Kumin
This past year, we have lost fine poets that I grew up reading. Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Maxine Kumin all made nature their poetic home and the source of their word-hoards.  Each was from a different home ecosystem and thus utilized different language and imagery. Yet their subject matter carried in common the themes of beauty, death, love, and life with others that great lyric poetry entails. Walcott’s high-flown eloquence, Heaney’s stubborn earthiness, Kumin’s plain speech; all are worth reading and savoring.

Just recently I was out in the backyard stirring my still-frozen compost heap, muttering incantations--imprecations--under my breath as I endeavored to wake it up for spring.  Maxine Kumin lived on a horse farm, and her compost heap was of another order entirely. For Poetry Month this year I present her meditation on compost.

The Brown Mountain

What dies out of us and our creatures,
out of our fields and gardens,
comes slowly back to improve us:
the entire mat of nasturtiums
after frost has blackened them,
sunflower heads the birds have picked clean, the still
sticky stalks of milkweed
torn from the pasture, coffee grounds,
eggshells, moldy potatoes,
the tough little trees that once 
were crowded with brussels sprouts,
tomatoes cat-faced or bitten into
by inquisitive chipmunks,
gargantuan cucumbers gone soft
from repose. Not the corn stalks and shucks,
not windfall apples. These
are sanctified by the horses.
The lettuces are revised
as rabbit pellets, holy with nitrogen.
Whatever fodder is offered the sheep
comes back to us as raisins
of useful dung.

Compost is our future.
The turgid brown mountain
steams, releasing
the devil's own methane vapor,
cooking our castoffs so that from
our spatterings and embarrassments--
cat vomit, macerated mice,
rotten squash, burst berries,
a mare's placenta, failed melons,
dog hair, hoof parings--arises
a rapture of blackest humus.
Dirt to top-dress, dig in. Dirt fit
for the gardens of commoner and king.
 (From Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010)

Related Posts:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk

Hedgerows in Norfolk
One night during my October visit to the British historian's cottage the wind blew hard from midnight on, roaring in off the North Sea, carrying on in unabated vigor all the way from Iceland. I'd woken at dawn, listened to the wind and rain for a bit and gone back to sleep before getting up for a late-ish breakfast. The rain continued in spurts all day, and in between showers we went out and did garden chores, such as spreading well-rotted horse manure in a new garden bed where some raspberry canes would be planted in spring and planting out garlic and onions. It seemed strange to me to be planting food crops in autumn, after harvest. The process brought new understanding of why the ancient peoples of this land could celebrate the New Year directly after harvest: planting season lasts all year, nothing ever seems to stop growing, and little appears to go completely dormant in the way an Illinoisan understands the word.

After the weather cleared a little more, my friend and I went for a walk along a narrow lane edged on both sides by hedgerows in order to pick blackberries from eight-foot tall brambles that were growing up through a tangle of roses, sloes, buckthorn, small oaks, holly, hawthorn and all kinds of other things--a crowded community also including turf grass, nettles, nightshade, English ivy, bindweed, creeping Charlie, poppies and dandelions. Again, as in the cornfield we had traversed previously, I had an eerie sensation of familiarity, as though I was slipping between continents. We Americans might not grow sloes, and consequently not produce sloe gin, as the historian's friends do, and our oaks and hawthorns are of course different species--yet it was easy to recognize the plants. It was even odder to see buckthorn, that bully of the Midwestern woodlands and savannas, behaving itself--no more and no less than a citizen of the hedgerow.

Blackberries have a deeper, wilder taste than raspberries, almost smoky, if you were describing them like a wine. My friend makes a compote that is a delightful topping for the breakfast muesli and milk or yogurt. Her aim was to gather enough--the season was almost over--to put up enough to carry through for several more months. We addressed ourselves assiduously to walking and picking, water falling off the leaves--still green!--on our hands and coats, our boots going damp from the low plants and grass at the verges. Proceeding at this rate can take a very long time to get even a hundred feet, so we were truly lingering, which gave ample opportunity to observe what was growing. There were a few late raspberries, too, that I ate and savored as we went.

Though there seemed to be a luxurious abundance of hedgerows in the area I was visiting, they are endangered in England, for many of the same reasons that Midwestern fencerows, once the refuge of birds, wild plants and beneficial insects, have all but disappeared. On the train through Cambridgeshire I had seen fairly large American-style fields, all plowed furrows inhabited by big tractors with nary a hedgerow in sight. I imagined getting off the train to go talk to those farmers: don't repeat our misdoings, I would say. Learn from our mistakes. You'll be sorry, someday, in the way that some of us in Illinois are sorry, with our nitrogen and phosphorus run-off, atrazine-laced groundwater, our plowing up of even marginal land, our lost habitat and consequently lost species (and our own lost selves?). But there's money to be made, they, I'm sure, would answer, as almost any Illinois farmer would. Though one good sign lately is that a few of the latter have started to put small areas of erstwhile corn acreage into produce production. Some have been taking classes to learn how to grow not-corn and not-soy. The new US farm bill even throws a pittance of support at what are called “specialty crops,” e.g. fruits and vegetables. And once Illinois farmers truly embrace fruits and vegetables as worthy of growing, can rejuvenated fencerows and hedgerows be far behind? One hopes, fervently.

However. The Cambridgeshire farmers perhaps haven't gotten that far along through the wreck-regret-repair cycle, and the train carried me on to Norfolk, where plenty of these diverse, edge habitats remain and people dedicated to their preservation seemingly prevail. According to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk has lost nearly half its hedgerows, mostly since World War II. But that has slowed down as people have come to understand just how valuable they are as a way to store carbon, provide habitat for rare and endangered species--and berries for foraging. The Trust defines a hedgerow as "any line of trees or shrubs, over 1 meter tall and over 20 meters long, less than 5 meters wide at the base and with less than 30% of the hedgerow being gaps." This definition neglects the understory and ground cover layers of grasses and forbs, yet seems reasonable. The 5 meter dimension is interesting to me, since hedgerows here in the States can potentially be well over 15 feet wide, especially when they involve large trees such as hickories and unless someone keeps the osage orange trees seriously chopped back. Still, that width does seem appropriate. Wider than that, and what you have is probably another kind of woodsy area that is no longer a hedgerow meant to separate fields and line roads.

Workers laying a hedge
Also, it might be wise to distinguish between those hedgerows maintained according to the ancient craft of laying, in which branches are interlaced and pegged down so that everything grows together, forming a living fence, and the ones such as those between which we were ambulating, which clearly were not, though they obviously had been kept trimmed.* There is an old story that laid hedgerows never caught on in the U.S. because Americans were just too lazy to go to all that trouble. Alternative explanations claim that American farmers were too busy establishing farms and then lighting out for the territories shortly thereafter, so there was no point in taking on a project that could last a lifetime to do right; or that we just plain had too much space to enclose and had to do it quickly.

At the time it didn't occur to me to ask how English hedgerows are maintained these days, much as I'm sure casual visitors to the woodland savannah I help manage usually don't wonder how in spring and summer it is so full of wildflowers growing in such profusion. It's easy to imagine humans had nothing to do with it. In my experience, backed up by that of many native peoples I have read about, a landscape in the middle of the continuum between un-peopled wilderness and the manicured suburb, where people dwell as citizens of the ecological community, can be managed in a way that is beneficial for other species besides humans. Even though it is cultivated and has been "tamed," a patchwork, mosaic landscape with hedgerows, coppices, and managed woodlots as well as less managed areas like wetlands and riparian bottomlands can be a healthy landscape, abundant and fertile, with room and habitat enough for all.

Note: You can see the Norfolk Hedgerow Action Plan here:

*Update 4/18/14:  British nature writer Richard Mabey has this to say about a hedgerow in Norfolk:
"The hedges that line [the lane] aren't the planted strips of hawthorne you find in planned countryside ...And they hadn't been laid, but coppiced, cut back to the ground level every eight to ten years as was the local tradition." (From Nature Cure, U of Virginia, 2005)
Related Posts
Walking through a Cornfield in Norfolk
A Day in the Country
The Last Tomatoes

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Walking Through a Cornfield in Norfolk

"A Norfolk Hedgerow" by Edward Seago
In October, I went to visit my friend the British historian and her husband at their home in Norfolk, England. I hadn’t been out of the country, much less the Midwest, in years, and I missed England, to which I have an attachment. My friends live in a very old cottage with solar panels on the roof, a big garden out back, and a share in an allotment. This was just the kind of visit I like: staying in the country, going for long walks, working in the garden, birdwatching at the seashore—so much in so many ways so different from Illinois, though I must say the part of Norfolk where they live is about as flat as the Chicago Lake Plain, and for analogous reasons. Which is how I found myself doing something I’ve done on multiple occasions in Illinois—walking through a cornfield.

One day, after a lunch of cheese, apples and bread, we went to the allotment to harvest vegetables for dinner. We decided to take a long, scenic way back, walking along a footpath along hedgerows and through fields. This is one of the things I like about England, all the walking paths that go across farms and alongside pastures—ancient ways some of them are, even thousands of years old. It seems that landowners have a responsibility to make sure these paths are kept clear, whether by law or not, I don’t know. These narrow paths certainly beat trying to access scenery in the U. S., where what’s private is no trespassing and what’s public is either on the highway or in some park with clearly defined borders. The driftless region of Wisconsin, for example: this is one of my favorite places, an ancient, never-glaciated, enticing landscape of winding little valleys and worn and weathered, pine-covered, rock-girded hills that begs one to get out of the car and off the road to do a little exploration. But can one? No, one cannot. A perfect illustration of what makes the US countryside so frustrating.

So we walked along, me identifying plants and my friend supplying names for those I didn’t know; but when we got to where the path should have been kept open through a cornfield, it wasn’t. So, nothing for it but to trudge through, beating our way through the corn to the next part where the path clearly resumed through a copse. To an Illinoisan accustomed to vast, chemically-saturated, completely weed-free fields where the stalks stand up straight in phalanxes, in legions, in platoons and companies whose genetically modified ranks tower over one’s head, where if you go in far enough you could conceivably get lost, this small field was a novel experience. It was field corn, almost, but not quite, ready to harvest. The stalks, clearly not gmo, and apparently planted at random, lounged in a haphazard, casual crowd whose members stood between four and a half and six feet high. We could see where we were going but couldn't walk far in one direction. The soil was not hard clay, but was fairly soft, and had been fertilized with manure. There were copious weeds, many instantly identifiable. I realized I was standing in the middle of a prime example of the Columbian exchange, from the other side, as it were, “our” corn interplanted with “their” field poppies, nightshade, creeping Charlie, and a few others not immediately recognizable—at least there wasn’t any hedge bindweed. It also seemed to me that this was a site I might have seen in Illinois maybe a hundred years ago, or even fifty.

Who knows what the yield would be; it was easier to imagine the farmer harvesting for his own animals than selling it. And there were animals, too, on this farm, as my friend informed me, something else unusual to an Illinoisan. But in the soft English light the corn seemed healthy, the soil in fairly good shape, and the weeds not overwhelming. The air turned mizzly. Eventually we found ourselves at the copse and entered in under the trees, the path then continuing along a hedgerow where blackberries hung plump and tempting, mixed in with tall rose bushes—the roses gone to big fat hips—holly bushes, and an occasional young oak. Tea was very welcome when we got back.

Related Posts
The Last Tomatoes
A Day in the Country