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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Ornamental and proud

Growing “ornamental plants” sounds like a frivolous pastime, doesn’t it? There’s a tendency to rank plants we grow for their beauty lower on some kind of moral scale than food plants or other more obviously useful growing choices. In a September blog post, Susan Harris protests the dissing of ornamental plants, which she prefers to call nonedibles.

Perennial border at Mottisfont Abbey, UK. Beautiful, but is it environmentally sound?

    I’ve definitely gone Susan’s way. Mine is an ornamental garden. I like flowers, and that’s what motivated me to start my present garden. I started out with the goal of having something blooming from early spring through late fall. But my shady lot wasn’t going to support heavily-blooming perennial borders, so I adjusted my aims. Instead of nonstop bloom, I focused on contrasting leaf textures, sizes and colors, with a few shade-tolerant flowers as accents.

Hosta flowers bring a bright accent to a shady spot

    When I read Bringing Nature Home and got on board with growing native plants for native insects, my gardening aspirations changed again. Now I’m trying to make a pretty garden that’s also environmentally friendly and hospitable to native insects. Sure, I’ve got a vegetable bed that struggles to produce because of too much shade. But growing food isn’t my primary motivation. It’s making something beautiful.

Around the garden pond in May

    That doesn’t mean that my fellow ornamental gardeners and I are failing to do our part for the environment, though. Except for providing food for humans, ornamental plants provide the same ecological services as vegetables and fruit trees.

    My yard is sequestering carbon in a major way because I’ve got so many big trees at this point. A tall oak, horse chestnut or pine extracts more carbon from the atmosphere than a smaller cherry or apple tree. And although they're not producing edible fruit, my trees modulate temperature, hold water in the air and soil, and prevent erosion. The soil fungi feeding on rotting leaves and wood chips sequester carbon too.

A horse chestnut provides lots of ecological services

     Beautiful mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata) foliage cleans the air and converts carbon dioxide to oxygen for us to breathe just as well as utilitarian leaves of corn or tomato plants would. 

Mountain laurel offers beauty and much more

My berm of ornamental trees and shrubs—white pine (Pinus strobus), Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia), and mixed juniper and arborvitae shrubs (Juniperus and Thuja spp)--prevents stormwater runoff effectively even though I didn’t plant them for that purpose.

The berm in November

Rain percolates into the soil at their feet, replenishing groundwater instead of carrying debris and chemicals into storm drains and the nearby Charles River.

    Growing a mix of ornamental native plants and imports promotes biodiversity, providing food and shelter for animals, from insects on up. If I only cultivated a vegetable garden, they’d find less support in the yard. As I add more native milkweeds (Asclepias spp), garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), and other flowering plants that feed insects, lots of pollinators and beneficial insects show up to collect nectar and pollen and lay eggs where their caterpillars will find the right food.

A monarch on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

    Yeah, I’m an ornamental gardener. Want to make something of it?

Monday, January 14, 2019

Wall! What is it good for?

One of the many reasons that a border wall is a terrible idea: it’s a design for environmental disaster. Living in the Northeast, we picture the Mexican border territory as a barren desert populated with a few cacti and coyotes. That’s not true at all. The southern border lies in a transition zone from temperate to tropical habitat. In Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the border runs through sky islands, mountainous areas surrounded by desert.

 Catalina Mountains near Tucson-photo Brambleshire

 Protected by a chain of wildlife refuges, this varied geography makes a home for an unusually rich mix of species. The border region is one of the most biodiverse areas in North America and hosts more than 180 threatened and endangered species. 

    Sections of wall already constructed have caused serious trouble

Border fence restricts movement of wildlife

Dividing animal populations that roam between the US and Mexico creates smaller groups with less genetic diversity, leading to extinction. The wall cuts off water access during the dry season. As climate change progresses, the barrier hampers animals’ ability to adapt by choosing the best locations at each time of year. Even low-flying birds, such as pygmy owls, can’t fly high enough to make it over the wall. 

    The 2005 REAL ID Act permits the federal government to forge ahead on wall construction in the name of national security, ignoring existing laws, such as requirements for environmental impact studies. Crews with chainsaws appeared at the National Butterfly Center, a private sanctuary a few miles north of the border, without warning and tore out carefully chosen plantings fostered over many years. 

Fiery Skipper at National Butterfly Center-photo Bettina Arigoni

These losses will be hard to recover, even if sanity does return to our government. Meanwhile, the 24 million dollars it costs to build a mile of wall could fully fund population recovery of endangered ocelots, jaguars and gray wolves that depend on borderland refuges.

Endangered ocelots need to range freely between the US and Mexico-photo Ana Cotta

    The height of Trump’s fantasy wall varies. It’s been as high as 55 feet. In my town, we don’t have any 18-, 30-, or 55-foot walls or fences. The usual fence is 5 feet tall. My yard is surrounded by wooden fencing. 

This fence looked best when it was new and fresh in 1997

When a small dog came to visit, I noticed that in a lot of places, the fence doesn’t reach the ground, making it easy to slip under. Cats and raccoons regularly climb over the top, and squirrels hop across on overhanging branches. Even so, I wish I hadn’t opted for solid fences. Now I prefer the wood-framed fences filled in with lattice or widely spaced wire that I see in a few places in the neighborhood. 

A more open fencing option

This system creates a formal barrier, but it doesn’t keep migrating plants or animals out. It also looks better. The best thing about my fences is the support they provide for clematis vines.

Grape and clematis vines twining up the driveway fence

    Can’t we find a more sensible way to maintain our borders? As California Congressman Ted Lieu said, a wall is first century technology. It’ll kill endangered animals and ruin pristine wildlife refuges, but it certainly won’t keep out refugees who have nowhere else to go.

Monument to people who've died trying to cross into the US © Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Green thoughts in a gray landscape

During a Christmas week visit to New York, I noticed some ways city dwellers bring greenery into their surroundings. People crave vegetation. There were shrubs toughing it out in pots in the front areaways of brownstones, big planters in front of skyscrapers, window boxes, even fake vegetation, such as this plastic sheet printed to make a Brooklyn chain link fence look like a wall of ivy, 

Nice try

and this blanket of artificial turf masking a utility area on Roosevelt Island.

Something must be really unsightly

    I sure miss greenery during the shortest days. House plants help. In addition to cleaning the air and converting the carbon dioxide we exhale into extra oxygen in the house, indoor plants have many demonstrated psychological benefits. They reportedly promote calm, attentiveness and creativity and increase productivity. I’d just say they make winter less depressing and bring life to sterile man-made environments. We weren’t made to live without plants.

Houseplants remind us of greenery to come

    There’s an often-mentioned theory that the reason we surround our houses with lawns is that early humans felt safer in grasslands where they could spot approaching predators before they pounced. This strikes me as possible but completely unproveable, as are many products of the school of thought that attributes the behavior and psychology of modern-day human beings to hunter-gatherer culture earlier in our evolution.

If only he'd had a lawn!-Reconstruction by Mauricio Anton

    Now that the sabre-toothed tigers are gone, we can skip a lot of that lawn and replace it with a more diverse landscape. Even video game designers have gotten past the ubiquitous veldt, endowing their imagined landscapes with lush, region-specific vegetation. That’s what I’m hoping for in my yard. In winter, I’m glad that I planted lots of evergreen shrubs and trees that offer splashes of color in the otherwise drab view from the back of the house. They also provide shelter for wildlife, confirmed as birds pop in and out of the branches.

At least there's something in the yard that's not brown or gray

    As I survey the scene from the back windows, I’m hoping that in addition to the conifers, the thick layer of fall leaves I piled on the beds this fall is also doing good for creatures in the yard. I picture insects burrowed into the leaf litter and sleeping in the flower stalks I left standing. The theory is that lots of beneficial insects will emerge in spring ready to start their work as predators keeping leaf-eating insect populations in balance.

Beneficial lacewing prepares for winter

    Last year in late winter we went south to New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville seeking an earlier spring. We did see some green leaves, 

New Orleans has ferns that don't grow in New England

but I learned what I was really yearning for was the day-by-day unfolding of spring at home. 

     One of the pleasures of tending the same garden space over the years is adding to your store of observations about how it changes through the seasons. I know that winter doesn’t mean an end to all natural processes, they’re just happening where I can’t see them. Roots are still storing nutrients, ready to send them up into new growth in spring. Until then, I’ll crave green things.

Come back soon!

Friday, December 21, 2018

Feeding the birds

With the trees bare, I have more opportunities to see the birds that are flitting around my leaf-covered backyard. On one memorable afternoon, I saw a flock of dark-eyed juncos foraging in the leaves on the ground while two blue jays flew back and forth from the birdbath to the big oak near the garage. 

I usually see juncos in flocks

A chickadee hopped along the oak trunk, jumping between the protective horizontal shoots of a climbing hydrangea. Meanwhile a cardinal couple appeared and disappeared among the dense evergreen needles of a large nearby yew.

This husky hydrangea vine provides cover for birds even after its leaves drop

     A week later at twilight, my attention was drawn to a loud chirping from the newel post of the front steps railing. I was able to identify the small bird that perched there, vocalizing officiously, as a house wren, Troglodytes aedon

House wren - photo JanetandPhil

This is not a rare species, but it’s not one I’ve seen in my yard before. I was proud to read on the Audubon Bird Guide app that this bird feeds on insects and likes to forage on the ground where there’s dense low growth—like here! 

     The house wren reportedly has a distinctive bubbling song. What I heard instead was its “excited chit call.” Listening to a recording on the app confirmed my bird identification. House wrens spend the breeding season all over North America, from southern Canada to the Mexican border. My wren may have been on the way to winter grounds in the southern US or Central America, migrating by night. How a five-inch bird weighing a few ounces can accomplish this long journey remains a wonder to me (For more on birds’ amazing powers, don’t miss The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman).

     All these bird sightings seem to vindicate this year’s plan of piling up fall leaves on my garden beds. The reason for doing this instead of sending them out as yard waste or shredding them for mulch was to provide shelter for insects through the winter. When I see birds busily foraging in the yard, I can believe that leaf litter is doing its job.

Insects weather the winter among the fallen leaves--unless predators find them

     It turns out that those chickadees I see on the oak trunk are champions at coping with the cold. They can’t put on a lot of extra fat or a down layer like larger birds, because that would mess with their aerodynamics. Many small birds adapt by fluffing up their feathers, huddling together, and shivering in a special way by activating opposing muscle groups. Chickadees go further, dropping their nighttime body temperature by as much as 22° Fahrenheit in what’s called regulated hypothermia.

Chickadees are ready for the cold - photo USFWSmidwest

     How can we not want to help these birds with some winter calories to keep them warm? I’ve stopped filling my bird feeders during the warmer months, but now they’re back in action, and birds are using them. It’s encouraging to see them also hunting insects in those piles of fall leaves. This is the balance I’m aiming to achieve.

Coming soon

I'm off to visit the kids. See you in the New Year!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Insect-friendly in 2019

Judging by last year, seed catalogs will start arriving this month. I’m beginning to think about how to keep neonicotinoid insecticides out of next year’s garden.

Seed catalogs should be arriving soon

    Evidence is piling up that “neonics,” widely used in agriculture, are ubiquitous in the environment and the food supply. This class of chemicals was developed in the 1980s to replace earlier pesticides that were more toxic to humans. In the years since, they’ve played a part in a massive insect die-off. Neonics persist in plant tissues and kill or disable non-target insects, traveling by wind and water to affect untreated wild and cultivated areas.

Neonics kill and disable bees

    The problem goes beyond pollination. Insects also play a crucial role at the base of the food web and do essential work recycling waste through decomposition. Without insects, Earth wouldn’t support much human life (My thanks to reader Patricia McGinnis, who forwarded a revealing New York Times Magazine piece on this subject).

    In the midst of this gloom, I got some good news recently when I phoned a local garden center, Allandale Farm, to ask about their practices. I knew that the farm uses only organic controls on their site. The grower I spoke with reassured me that they also don’t buy any plants that have been treated with neonics. They’ve been able to find smaller nurseries that don't use these pesticides, she said. I was delighted to hear it. 

May plant shopping is a fun tradition

My lingering doubts about buying perennials at the farm were dispelled. Because garden centers source some of their stock from other growers, I’d feared that the farm might be selling neonic-treated plants from elsewhere. Now that I know their plants are neonic-free, I can enjoy a shopping spree in May. It’s great to hear that there are small wholesalers out there producing neonic-free plants. I hope they prosper!

    I feel good about shopping at local garden centers like Allandale Farm. At the other end of the scale of plant retailing, Home Depot promised in 2015 that they would phase out neonic-treated plants by the end of 2018. In the interim, they required their suppliers to attach a warning label to plants exposed to the chemicals. This is all progress, but I don’t see any statement on Home Depot’s web site announcing that the neonic phase-out is complete. Let’s hope that will be forthcoming next spring.

    Meanwhile, I’ve developed a short list of seed catalogs that offer organic seed. Conventional growers use treated seed to introduce neonics into a plant’s life cycle; organic growers don’t. Unfortunately it’s much easier to find pesticide-free seed for starting vegetables than for flowers.

Organic basil seeds weren't hard to find last year

     There’s still not enough consumer demand for organically grown ornamental plants. As one grower said to me, “You’re not going to eat them, so what’s the point?” The point is that we want to protect the soil and the creatures that live around us!

Here’s my list so far of catalogs that offer some organic alternatives: 

*Natural Gardening Company 
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Renee’s Garden
*Adaptive Seeds

Botanical Interests
*Seeds of Change

                        *organics only

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Better red than dead

The ground is frozen, the leaves are down, and the landscape is a drab gray-brown, relieved occasionally by evergreens. 

Yellow coreopsis flowers turned to brown seedheads--just not the same

There’s one splash of color in the picture: red berries. The wildlife and I appreciate the trees and shrubs whose red fruits stand out at this time of year.

    Right outside the back door, a crab apple, Malus ‘Donald Wyman,’ still holds some small red fruits.

Crab apples at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn producing lots of fruit in full sun
 After we moved our tree from a spot against the back of the house to its current sunnier location, it started to make fruit every other year. Now we see red crab apples among the green leaves in August. The sour fruits aren’t squirrels’ first choice, but as the cold weather sets in, the easy ones to reach disappear, leaving a few bright holdouts on the outer branches. Eventually we see squirrels shimmying along wildly swinging twigs to grab the last few crab apples.

    I’ve been waiting for years to see red berries on a low-growing winterberry, Ilex verticillata ‘Nana’ Red Sprite, not far from the crab apple. A few dozen of them finally appeared this year. This shrub is a deciduous holly that’s native to eastern North America. Because it’s dioecious, I planted a male shrub nearby, a cultivar named ‘Jim Dandy’. Pollen from male holly flowers is needed to fertilize flowers of the female plants to produce the red berries, technically called drupes. A bigger version of this species that’s grown into a small multi-stemmed tree farther back in the yard makes lots of fruit, but birds pick and eat it enthusiastically. By winter, the fruit is mostly gone.

Mockingbird eating winterberry fruit-photo qmnonic

    Birds have visual powers that we lack. Many can see in the violet range, beyond the blues we see, and others can actually perceive ultraviolet light. To see these short wavelengths, birds’ retinas have four types of cones, compared to our three. They also have cell organelles called cone oil droplets, derived from carotenoids in food, which allow retinal cones to shift the range of wavelengths they perceive, like using filters to shift the color values of a digital photo. 

Birds can see ultraviolet light reflecting off waxy berries-photo kdee64

For both birds and humans, red anthocyanin pigment in fruits jumps out in the visual landscape, tempting us to take a bite.

Red is eye-catching

The first freezing weather causes starches in berries to turn to sugar and ferment, so if you see blackbirds that can’t fly straight, they may be drunk on fruit alcohol.

    At this time of year, you’re probably also spotting the small elongated vertical fruits of Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii). 

Japanese barberry-photo Leslie Holzmann

This thorny bush was a landscape darling for a while, but now it’s considered invasive in Massachusetts, and its sale is banned. When I see barberry in parks and conservation areas I worry, because it’s a strong competitor that can edge out native plants. Those pretty red berries are snapped up by birds who spread the seeds around, planting more barberry shrubs. But I have to admit that the bright red berries lift my spirits when everything else is gray and brown.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), another bearer of bright berries

Monday, December 3, 2018

A journey of a thousand miles

Sunday at Celebrate Newton, a local craft fair, several shoppers asked me why I use the phrase “sustainable-enough.” I found myself replying, “My idea is that you don’t have to go from conventional to perfect in one step.” Back when it came time to choose a title for my book, I was stumped. My editor, Lorraine Anderson, suggested The Sustainable-Enough Garden, and that was just right.

Sustainable-enough gift basket

    There’s a nod in the title to pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough mother,” a mother who recognizes and meets her baby’s needs but sometimes fails at perfect attunement, allowing the growing child to experience some manageable frustration. Similarly, I aim to be a good enough environmentally conscious gardener: trying my best, developing new insights over time, but not perfect.

On the path to 100 percent sustainability, but not there yet

    I think every step we take toward making a sustainable garden is a plus. If you can’t do everything, so be it. Do what you can now and add more as you go along. It’s foolish to think we know everything about natural processes. We’re bound to learn more as time goes on, and we’ll adjust our approach accordingly. For example, we now know that nonnative flowering plants do have a role to play in insect-friendly gardens. 

Nonnative butterfly bush draws lots of native insects

Thanks to active research, we’re getting more information in this area every year. Meanwhile, we can hold off on tearing out our beloved peonies and hydrangeas!

    It’s easy to get impatient with incremental changes. Compare the approaches of two effective environmental organizations. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), known for fiery defense of natural areas under attack, has been in high gear during the Trump administration, filing and winning lawsuits to block environmental deregulation. Their strategy seems to be to shoot for the stars.

NRDC fights to preserve wilderness

    In contrast, back in the 1980s, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) chose a more gradual, collaborative approach, showing industries how they can save money (and generate good PR) by eliminating waste and conserving energy. The idea of working with McDonald’s and Walmart must have been hard to stomach at first, but the results are undeniable. Over a decade, McDonald’s eliminated 300 million pounds of packaging and reduced restaurant waste by 30 percent with EDF’s help.

EDF persuaded McDonald's to skip the polystyrene clamshell packaging

Walmart has cut their greenhouse gas emissions and leveraged their clout to create a market for sustainably produced food and other products. I don’t want to support either corporation with my dollars, but I have to admit they’re positioned to be influencers in combating climate change.

Solar panels at Walmart in Caguas, Puerto Rico

    Recently EDF is working with Corn Belt farmers to reduce fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Using less fertilizer saves money for farmers, and it promotes healthy soil and clean water. A goal of the program is to shrink the dead zone caused by man-made chemicals in the Mississippi Delta to “a safe level.” Is that enough? Even if it’s not, it’s still worth taking steps now, until we can do better in the future.