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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Not quite nonstop bloom

I’ve spent many winters trying to plan for continuous bloom in the garden. This holy grail of perennial gardeners is the elusive assemblage of plants that will follow each other into glorious display, like a symphony with no pauses between movements.

July in Minneapolis--admirably plentiful flowers

    When I started out, I pursued this quest in hopes of enjoying colorful flowers in the garden all season. Now that I’ve become more insect-friendly, my goal has shifted. I’m aiming to offer nectar and pollen throughout the growing season so that passing bugs will always have something to eat.

A bee snacking on some meadow rue pollen in my yard

     Mail order nurseries hold out the tantalizing possibility that a careful buyer can keep the blooms going nonstop. Each plant is listed with a putative bloom time. For example, in this spring’s White Flower Farm catalog, hellebores promise to bloom in March and April, bearded irises are listed as flowering in June (and September!), 

Bearded iris' gorgeous but temperamental flowers don't last long

reblooming daylilies offer to keep going all summer, and the asters are supposed to cover August and September. If only it were that simple!

    Hard experience has taught me that the average perennial really only blooms for about two weeks. There are a few that make flowers for months, but they aren’t just covered with flowers all the time—fortunately, because that would get boring fast. In reality they bloom, pause to regroup, and bloom again.

    Weather conditions can change everything. Those hellebores that flower in March may not help pollinators much if they’re buried under a foot of snow. 

A hyacinth caught in the snow

A heat wave in May can shorten the bloom time for spring flowers, and prolonged heat and drought in July and August often put the whole garden into a state of dormancy. 

     I’ve learned that I can rely on something flowering from late April through June and from mid-September until frost. But that carpet of bright flowers in the heat of August? It’s not happening in my garden.

Summertime, and the garden is boring

    To keep the insect buffet open, I’ve come to rely on a few free-flowering perennials for each time of year, with some annuals filling in the gaps.

    Starting around this time of year, we can count on the spring bulbs, and soon the flowering shrubs will get started. May is a riot of flowers, with lots of my favorites in full bloom.

     Bearded iris and peony flowers usually make it into June, but they don’t last long. 

Nothing's more romantic than peonies, but a rainstorm can knock them out

There’s a dull period in the heat of the summer.  A series of day lilies with overlapping bloom times stretch into August. The insectary bed keeps chugging along, with black-eyed Susan, oxe-eye sunflower, and swamp milkweed providing reliable bloom. 

     September brings cooler weather and a new wave of flowers. Asters and goldenrod flower for as much as two months, and annuals like zinnias and borage hold on into October. Fall offers lots of nectar and

Borage makes sky blue flowers all summer

    This year again I’m hoping to fill in those summer doldrums with more flowers. Seeds starting under lights might be the answer. Cosmos, here we come.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The endangered EPA

It’s been a big week for climate change deniers and polluters. First Scott Pruitt, the new leader of the Environmental Protection Agency, opined that carbon dioxide from human activity isn’t causing global warming. Then Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz sponsored a bill to eliminate the EPA altogether. Meanwhile, the Trump administration proposes to cut EPA funding by 25 percent.

    Where would we be if the EPA hadn’t been at work since 1970? Without it, gardens would be in poor shape for so many reasons.

As spring flowers open, I'm grateful to the EPA for protecting the garden environment

    Remember acid rain? Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from Midwest power plants used to drift eastward, damaging northeastern forests. The big oak tree that anchors my garden would likely have succumbed to this toxic mix, along with many of its fellows. Instead, thanks to air pollution standards, New England forests rebounded. 

    Back when America was “great,” lead from gasoline routinely accumulated in garden soil. Our lot is small; no part of it is far from roads and car exhaust. If it weren’t for the EPA’s phase-out of leaded gas, we might not be able to eat vegetables from our own yard without risking brain damage from lead poisoning.

With lead in soil from exhaust, we'd have to skip the home-grown tomatoes

    I can thank the EPA for keeping me in shape to garden. Mental health used to be a smoky job, with many of our patients chain-smoking. EPA insisted on the link between secondhand smoke and cancer, lung and heart disease. Clinical encounters are now smoke-free. If I’d breathed secondhand smoke for 40 years, would I still be able to wield a shovel or a rake?

    The EPA has banned or restricted toxic chemicals we formerly used in our landscapes, starting with DDT. In 1972, many bird populations were dangerously low, poisoned by DDT as it concentrated up the food chain. Now bald eagles are back, and healthy native birds visit my yard.

Bald eagles chicks, safe without DDT

    Businesses chafe at EPA regulations that prevent them from exploiting our natural resources and sticking the rest of us with the externalized costs in money, health, and environmental damage. That seems to be the motivation for Pruitt’s long career of suing the EPA and his current mission to destroy it.

     Now more than ever, we need the government scientists who’ve been supplying the data on climate change that the Trump team plans to ignore or shred. I can only imagine how sad and infuriating it would be to see your life’s work heading for the electronic recycle bin.

Berkeley data hack saving NASA and DOE research--photo by Jamie Lyons

Because of that data and much more from climate scientists around the world, the previous administration forged ahead on regulations like the Clean Power Plan, which restricted carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, directing us toward renewable energy sources. 

     If climate change continues to accelerate, gardeners can expect more extreme weather and increases in flooding and drought. For the sake of our gardens and our life on Earth, I hope we’ll benefit from the EPA’s protection for many years to come.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sowing diversity

It’s seed-starting season, and I’m about to start my second round of annual and vegetable seeds. 

Time to plant some more seeds

With this in mind, I was eager to hear a talk this week by Randi V.W. Eckel, an entomologist and founder of Toadshade Wildflower Farm in New Jersey. She made the case for starting native perennials from seed and then offered some pointers on how to do it.

    Entomologists advocate growing native plants in our backyards, because native insects are adapted to live off them. 

Native plants feed native insects

Randi also pointed out that seed-grown plants are genetically diverse, whereas perennial plants that are multiplied by division, cuttings, or tissue culture are clones—genetically identical copies of the parent plant. In diversity, there is strength.

    My experience with seeds comes from common vegetables and flowers bought from large mail order seed houses. I was surprised to learn how different it could be to work with seeds of native perennials. Think they’ll all sprout around the same time? Think again—it’s adaptive for them to spread out their germination times so that one disaster won’t wipe them all out. It turns out that predictably timed germination is one of the characteristics our tame seeds have been bred for.

    Randi listed at least nine special requirements that seeds may have for germination, all adaptations that improve their chance of growing into successful populations in the wild. Some require periods of moist cold conditions, some dry cold, some alternating periods of warmth and cold. Some need their seed coat “scarified,” which can be done by scratching the seeds with sand paper (I wholeheartedly agree with Randi’s point that oft-repeated advice to do this with a razor blade is a recipe for losing a finger).

Seeds of blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) need scarification to germinate

     I think I know now why I’ve never been able to grow common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), although I’ve brought home seeds with their silky parachutes several times when the pods opened in fall.  

Seeds of common milkweed are equipped to travel

Although this plant is usually regarded as a weed, I like the idea of its attracting migrating monarch butterflies. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed because it’s what their larvae need to eat. I pictured a gleaming orange and black monarch emerging from its chrysalis in my yard. Wouldn’t that be cool!

Monarchs are milkweed specialists

      Right now I’ve got a flat of unfortunate milkweed seeds mostly failing to sprout under lights in my kitchen, this time from a packet I was given by a friendly seed collector last spring. Randi pointed out that milkweed seeds need light to germinate. I shouldn’t have been covering them with soil outdoors or growing medium indoors. 

Luckily these milkweed seeds got enough light to sprout. I planted the rest too deep.

    So when I start this week’s seeds, I’ll try sowing milkweed seeds on top of the growing medium. But Randi’s talk convinced me to keep buying most of my native perennials from nurseries like hers. Let the experts provide the care the seeds and young plants need. If my native perennials succeed in multiplying in the garden, so much the better.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The emperor is partially clothed

As garlic mustard leaves start to show among patches of melting snow, I’m revisiting the issue of nonnative invasive plants. Garlic mustard takes over the North American forest floor by producing chemicals to suppress mycorrhizal fungi other plants’ roots needs. Garlic mustard pulls make plausible community projects, because the plant is small, distinctive, and easy to uproot. 

Garlic mustard in flower

    Before we pour more volunteer power into fighting nonnatives, though, I think we should take a more nuanced look at the ideology behind this effort. 

    Of course, part of the reason that gardeners are concerned about nonnatives is that native animals, including the many insects we need near the base of the food web, haven’t evolved to live off these plants. One of the most eloquent spokesmen for this concern is Doug Tallamy, whose book Bringing Nature Home inspired many gardeners to choose native plants for our backyards. I’m on board with his recommendations, and I’m prioritizing natives when space opens up in my garden.

Native flowers feed native insects

    But it turns out that the science regarding nonnatives is not as simple as “natives good, exotics bad.” Recently I’ve read two fascinating books on this subject, The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, by Emma Marris, and Where Do Camels Belong: Why Invasive Species Aren’t All Bad, by Ken Thompson. Both provide many fascinating examples that illuminate the contradictions inherent in the simplistic strategy of making war on nonnative plants (sort of analogous to the problems with blaming human immigrants for our nation’s problems). 

    Two principles I’ve learned from these authors have changed my perceptions of imported plants and animals. First there’s the issue of baseline. What’s Year One for deciding who’s native and should be protected? In the US, many conservationists would choose 1492, assuming that introduction of new species to North America started with European settlement.

Plant migrations didn't start with the Pilgrims or even Columbus

     That presumes that Native Americans didn’t alter the landscape, which is completely untrue. It also ignores the climate shifts and changes in geography that have occurred over geologic time. Different plants grew in Massachusetts in warmer epochs than when glaciers advanced southward. We humans have a problem with historical perspective.

    Second, when introduced plants take over, it’s usually in response to human-caused changes in habitat. We’re blaming the plants for the results of our own action.

I was surprised to learn that purple loosestrife is not reducing biodiversity in our wetlands

    How ever you come down on this highly emotional issue, there’s little chance of wiping out introduced plant species except in very special circumstances, such as on islands. We might pull all the garlic mustard from a beloved park, but seeds would be left behind in the soil, and plants don’t respect park boundaries. It’s a permanent commitment to moving a mountain with a teaspoon. 

     We’re just starting to understand invasion biology. Before we add more nonnative plants to our enemies list, let’s get more scientific evidence about how plant populations really work and save some energy for combating climate change, the biggest challenge of all for plants in the wild.

Plants can't migrate as fast as the climate is warming

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mouths to feed

On a cold, snowy winter’s day, it’s lovely to see wild birds in the backyard. Last week I spotted nuthatches and a woodpecker at the suet feeder, chickadees hopping around the big hydrangea vine, and a female cardinal scoping out territory for this spring’s nest. Although my garden doesn’t attract rare, shy birds (or if it does, I don’t know enough to spot them), I like the idea of providing food and habitat on my suburban lot.

Thistle seed attracts small birds, including goldfinches

So it was a jolt to read in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s magazine that “. . . although feeding birds may not be harmful to the species that use feeders the most, it also isn’t helpful to the species that most need our help.” Emma Grieg, leader of the lab’s Project FeederWatch, goes on rather condescendingly, “But don’t take down your feeders in despair. One of the most important impacts of feeding birds is that it allows people to feel connected to the natural world.”

    Wait a minute—harmful? Research by Grieg and Cornell Lab Citizen Science Director David Bonter assesses the balance between positive impacts of bird feeders—supporting populations of regular feeder guests such as northern cardinals—and negatives, such as “disease transmission, deaths from window strikes (when birds fly away from a feeder and into a house), and increased predation pressures," as when hawks eat bird feeder birds.

It's squirrel-proof, but is this feeder bad for backyard birds?

    I’m one of more than 50 million North Americans who feed backyard birds. I have a tube feeder for mixed seed, a hopper feeder for sunflower seeds, a thistle feeder, and the suet feeder for woodpeckers and nuthatches that like to eat hanging upside down. Last fall I bought ten 20-pound bags of birdseed at Mass Audubon Broadmoor Sanctuary’s Bird Seed Day Fundraiser. 

Blue jays are fun to have around

     I’d never thought there could be anything negative about bird feeders until I read George Adams’ book Gardening for the Birds: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard.

     In addition to the potential harm noted by the Cornell researchers, Adams points out that birds evolved to forage for seeds and insects on their own. If they come to depend on food from our feeders, they could go hungry when we leave town. Also, we may be changing population dynamics, causing booms in feeder-reliant species, including nonnatives such as European sparrows.

Flocks of European sparrows can grab all the available food--Hopkinton News photo

     Is feeding birds just a feel-good activity, another ham-handed human intervention that gets in the way of natural processes instead of helping?  The Cornell article presumes that our goal in feeding birds is to save endangered species. 

     That’s one goal, but I have others. In winter, I’m proud to feed ten native species on Mass Audubon’s list of common backyard birds of the Northeast. I think they deserve to flourish, even if they’re not rare, and I know they’re contributing to the health of my garden ecosystem. 

Downy woodpecker hunting for insects

       To encourage birds to do their part in the garden by eating insects, I’ve stopped putting out seed in summer. I just need to get in the habit of washing those feeders more often.

Feeders need cleaning so they won't transmit diseases between birds

Monday, February 13, 2017

Less lawn in 2017

Although there’s snow outside my windows, plans for the 2017 garden are swirling in my head. One gnawing issue is the lawn around the deck. It mostly doesn’t exist. 

Spring photos and avoiding looking straight down help disguise sparse lawn grass

     It’s tempting to imagine that this time I’ll really work on that lawn, improving the soil with compost, reseeding, and pampering the new grass with frequent watering. It’s never happened before, but this could be the year. 

     To be a sustainable gardener, though, I resolved NOT to pour resources into lawn grass. Mowing, fertilizing, and extra watering all make lawns environmentally undesirable.

Just about any other plantings are more environmentally sound than a lawn

     Last year I became aware of a major problem for this supposed grassy area—me. I walk over it constantly on my way between the garden, the house, the tools in the garage, and the compost piles in the utility area. The soil is well and truly compacted. What’s to be done? 

Clover, dandelions, plantain, and crab grass predominate in the compacted lawn

     Now that I think about it, the neighbors who maintain lovely lawns stay off them. But not walking on this section of my yard isn’t an option. I could aerate the soil, but my footsteps would soon pack it down again. I could replace the whole lawn with gravel or stone pavers. I don’t want to take on the never-ending job of keeping soil and weeds out of gravel, though, and paving the whole section seems excessive, as well as expensive.

Gravel is kept clean in this British garden. They make it look easy.

    I considered an approach I’d have thought completely philistine until recently—artificial turf. In 2014, my sister-in-law Jennifer Gilbert Asher, a garden designer and sculptor in Los Angeles, tore out the lawn around her swimming pool and replaced it with recycled artificial turf. Her reason was southern California’s longstanding water shortage. I thought she was heroic, but I still couldn’t see it for New England. That was before the Northeast’s 2016 drought.

    This month I noticed some good-looking green grass around a building owned by our electric utility. I’d walked by the place many times and never recognized that the lawn was artificial. I can see why it fooled me, because the “grass” is deep green, soft, and doesn’t look plastic. 

Artificial turf in Florida. It looks a lot better these days.

     Jennifer laid her artificial turf on a layer of sand, which I think means that her lawn doesn’t include the toxin-containing “crumb rubber” layer that’s used in artificial athletic fields. Of course, it doesn’t require mowing, watering, or fertilizing. 

     There are negatives, though. Artificial turf doesn’t provide the animal habitat offered by a natural lawn. It might heat up uncomfortably on summer days. When it came time to remove the polyethylene artificial turf, it probably wouldn’t be recyclable.

    Jennifer replaced her front lawn with a thick layer of arborist wood chips. That might be my best option for the area around the deck. I could replace part of the lawn with low-growing perennials and make some wide wood chip paths to get me where I need to go. 

More wood chip paths could be a solution

Then I could stop feeling bad about this pathetic grass and focus on plants that are more fun.

Coming soon--spring bulbs

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Doing something about the weather

I thought snowdrops blooming this week were the earliest I’d recorded, but looking back I see I spotted some on January 31 in 2012, another winter with very little snow.

Snowdrops are blooming early

In recent years, I’ve noticed spring growth starting earlier. Scientific data confirms this trend is affecting wild plant populations. Our climate is changing, and gardeners are on the front lines.
Witch hazel buds are already opening

     I’m finding the lack of snow cover ominous this year. Is this the new normal? Last year demonstrated the kind of damage that our plants suffer when they experience blasts of cold weather without the insulating protection of snow.

    The New York Times recently reported that farmers in Kansas are talking about changes in the weather, although many still don’t blame human actions for causing global warming. One farmer they spotlighted also spoke about sequestering carbon in the soil. On a much smaller scale, that’s something we can do too in our backyards. 

     Brooklyn Botanic Garden offers The Climate Conscious Gardener, a handbook of useful approaches for minimizing the carbon footprint of your garden and sequestering carbon in your soil and plants. 

    With Congress and the Trump administration rolling back restrictions on methane leaking from oil and natural gas rigs and wells, it’s even more important for us to seize the opportunity to be good climate stewards. 

     Methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Federal regulations restricting its release were intended to fight climate change. Now with climate change deniers having their way, oil drillers and frackers hope to be spared the trouble and expense of preventing methane release. The planet and everyone on it will pay the price.
Gas flare from North Sea oil drilling--photo by Varodrig

    Some of the steps the BBG handbook recommends:

Planting trees. We’ve all heard about this as a way to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. Long-lived trees are best.

The dense wood of this tall white pine sequesters lots of carbon

Siting trees and shrubs to provide windbreaks and shade. This will reduce your house’s energy needs for heating and cooling—and save you money. 

Minimizing digging or, even better, switching to no-till gardening. When we dig, we introduce oxygen that speeds up decomposition of organic material, releasing carbon into the air.

Recycling fallen leaves and garden waste as compost. When you keep organic material at home as compost, you’re holding onto carbon. 

Applying organic mulches. Mulches made from materials you can get close to home are especially carbon-thrifty. I like to mulch with shredded or whole leaves and arborist wood chips.

Wood chip mulch holds carbon

Shrinking your lawn
. Every other landscape feature requires less energy, petrochemicals, and water for maintenance.

Skipping peat-based potting mix
. Peat bogs are a major carbon sink, sequestering more carbon worldwide than trees. When peat is extracted, carbon is released, and the carbon sink it provided is lost. It’s easy to make homemade potting mix from compost and coir (coconut fiber).

By following some of these recommendations, we can be part of the solution locally, even when the federal government is going in the wrong direction globally.

Neck deep in the Big Muddy