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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Better use for front yards

Imagine a suburban front yard. Did you picture a lawn with some shrubs along the house foundation?

Typical front yard with lawn and foundation plantings

That’s certainly the standard issue in my neighborhood. Historians say that as American suburbs developed as a place for middle class people to live outside the city, it was considered selfish to fence in your lot European style. Lawns flowing into each other without boundaries were seen as a sign of good citizenship and showed that homeowners had nothing to hide.

    I notice a few neighbors who really seem to cherish their front lawns. They’re out each spring carefully filling in bare patches with topsoil, compost, and grass seed. A lot of others pay landscape contractors to maintain a green, closely clipped, weed-free lawns. 

Contracting out lawn care

That’s trading money for time, freeing up effort and focus for activities you care more about. If you just want your front yard to look acceptably neat, that’s what you’ll get from these services.

    When we moved to our house in 1985, we had a small, scruffy front lawn that languished under the shade of the street trees. Those Norway maples sucked all the water and nutrients from the soil. Realizing that I couldn’t grow lush green grass in that situation, I replaced the lawn with groundcover. That worked visually because there’s only 10 feet of front yard from the sidewalk to the house. Now instead of a front lawn, we have a uniform bed of periwinkle (Vinca minor). It grows happily in the shade of those maples.

Periwinkle has blue flowers in April

    Recently I’m fantasizing about revamping that quiet groundcover bed to be more like some front yards I’ve been admiring. 

    Doris Lewis, who lives a few blocks away, designed her front yard garden when she moved into a newly built house in 1998. She planted a mix of trees and shrubs: white pines, upright yews, a dogwood and a multi-stemmed shadbush, and groupings of low rhododendrons. 

Doris' lawn-free front yard

Roses, lavender, sedum, and clumps of Siberian and bearded irises provide colorful accents. Doris used periwinkle, pachysandra, and creeping speedwell as ground covers, and they’ve filled in densely. I admire her design every time I pass the house.

    Ted Chapman, whose permaculture garden I visited in 2011, also skipped the front lawn in favor of a pleasing mix of shrubs, trees and perennials. Some of his front yard plantings included a walnut, a pawpaw, dwarf evergreens, jostaberries (a cross between black currant and gooseberry), and a Korean pine with edible cones. A five-flavor vine (Schisandra chinensis) with red berries in hanging clusters like grapes grew on an arch next to the sidewalk.

Ted included numerous food plants

    Most recently I toured Robin Wilkerson’s sustainable garden. 

Robin's backyard

She too had filled her front yard with shrubs and perennials, emphasizing natives such as viburnums. 

     Like mine, Robin’s small front yard was shaded by tall trees, yet what she’d planted was much more interesting than my bed of periwinkle. I came away inspired to use the front yard as more space for interesting native plants. I think the neighborhood can stand it.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Paradigm shift needed

One characteristic of the post-World War II era was cheery optimism about the potential for solving problems with synthetic chemicals. Perhaps the best example was DDT, which was going to rid the world of insect-borne disease. Look how well that turned out.

Spraying DDT over Oregon forest, 1955

    In the fifties and sixties, we all tended to trust safety and effectiveness claims for household and garden chemicals. Synthetic fertilizer was going to make soil stewardship irrelevant by spreading unlimited quantities of the basic plant nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. We learned that doing this destroys soil fertility while causing dead lakes and rivers as fertilizer runs off fields and lawns into nearby waterways.

Fertilizer runoff causing algae overgrowth and eutrophication

    There was 2,4-D, invented as a defoliant during the war and brought home as Scotts Weed and Feed to eliminate broad-leaved weeds from American lawns. 

     Imagine what would have happened if Scotts had brought home Agent Orange from the Vietnam War—by then, public attitudes toward war materials had shifted significantly. Since the 1940s, 2,4-D has taken us down a path toward increasing insistence on monocultural lawns, with all the water and chemical inputs necessary to maintain them.

Grass doesn't grow this way naturally

    The 1970s brought Roundup (glyphosate), marketed by Monsanto as a benign product to spare us the trouble of bending down to pull weeds. 

Roundup is ubiquitious

By the 1980s, genetically engineered “Roundup-ready” crops resistant to the herbicide enabled spraying this product on agricultural fields. Farmers took up the practice on a massive scale. As a result, we’re all eating Roundup, which a United Nations agency has declared a probable human carcinogen, a hormone disruptor, and a contributor to antibiotic resistance.

    Neonicotinoid pesticides, my garden nemesis, are the next in this series of chemicals first thought to be harmless. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the most commonly used pesticides were organophosphates, which had high toxicity for humans, other mammals, and birds. Neonics are safer for the people applying them, and since the nineties they have dominated the market, used for treating both seeds and growing plants. 

     Now we know that neonics are very persistent in plant tissues and toxic to many insects, including honeybees and other pollinators. 

Neonics poison pollinators

I recently learned that some insects have already developed resistance to neonics. That’s the predictable result of widespread use of any pesticide, analogous to development of antibiotic resistance in treated bacteria.

    Maybe we can stop thinking about living systems in such simplistic ways. Instead of charging in with blunt instruments like herbicides and pesticides, we need to think about what keeps natural systems in balance. Diverse populations and healthy growing conditions help plants to weather the onslaught of pests and diseases. Every organism has its place in a natural community.

Biodiversity protects plant health

    Insect populations are dropping worldwide. We need insects if we’re going to continue living on earth. Times have changed since the fifties. We’ve stopped watching TV Westerns. Let’s also stop thinking of plants and insects as good guys versus bad guys.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Summer gold

To my eyes, pink flowers look best in the soft light of spring. When summer sets in, I enjoy yellow and orange flowers more. I chose a yellow and blue color scheme for my new sunny perennial bed, with most of the flowering happening in June and thereafter. I’m admiring how the yellow flowers look in bright summer sun.

    The first yellow flowers of Rose ‘Kolorscape Yellow Fizz’ and cinquefoil (Potentilla atrosanguinea) have come and gone already, giving way to the deeper yellow of yarrow (Achillea ‘Coronation Gold’). 

Yarrow leaning over the deck

I’m happy to see these flowering profusely, showing that they’re getting enough sun in this location. The flat blooms are easy to see from the house as they lean away from the trees that overhang the far side of the bed. 

    Some extra color warmth is provided by the chartreuse flowers of lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis). I grow this plant mostly for its handsome round leaves, but the sprays of tiny flowers are charming too.

Lady's mantle has lots of small flowers

A spurge (Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’) adds its green and yellow bracts and yellow-rimmed leaves to the picture. While I wait for the perennials in this bed to fill in, I’m planning to use some of the open space to grow patty pan squash, which will also contribute yellow flowers. Meanwhile, on the deck I’m growing cucumbers, 

Squash flowers will be like these cucumber blossoms

black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) to attract pollinators, and Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) for edible flowers.

I like black-eyed Susans, and pollinators do too

    One of my favorite weeds has volunteered again to add drama in several areas of the garden. Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a native of Europe, northern Africa and Asia that came to North America with European settlers and was adopted by Native Americans for medicinal uses. 

Young mullein getting ready to flower

If you’re in need of a poultice, this plant reportedly makes a good one, and it can also be used in remedies for colds, earaches, and asthma. I just enjoy its statuesque presence. In starts out as a rosette of woolly leaves, sending up a tall stalk of yellow flowers in its second year. 

Yellow mullein flowers opening along the tall stalk

Mullein pops up in disturbed ground, moving on when other plants settle in, so it’s never become a problem.

    Not everyone loves them, but I enjoy daylilies (Hemerocallis cvs). The first to bloom in my yard are yellow. 

An early daylily

I’ve planted a mix of colors in a narrow bed along the driveway where they get plenty of sun. Over the years they’ve formed fat clumps, and now we get lots of flowers through July and partway into August.

    A true orange flower is finally blooming in my insectary bed next to the vegetable garden. 

Butterfly weed, flowering at last

I’ve been trying for several years to grow butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), but the plants dwindled, probably not getting enough water. Last year one took hold, and this spring it came back strong, grew bushy, and set flowers. Its cousin common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has also survived in another sunny spot. Between the two of them, I hope to provide food for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Trees make good urban citizens

The Boston Globe recently checked in on the city of Boston’s promise to plant 100,000 trees by 2020 and found execution woefully lacking. Mayor Thomas Menino made the promise in 2008, responding to concern over climate change. Urban trees across the nation are aging and dying. Planting trees helps absorb carbon and reduce energy use. Last year Boston notched a net gain of only 4,000 trees.

What would Central Park be without its trees? New York is way ahead of Boston in planting new and replacement trees.

    My city's director of urban forestry, Marc Welch, reports he gets more requests to remove street trees than to plant them. Some residents regard trees as pests dropping leaves on their yards. Others want them out because of roots growing into pipes or making driveways and sidewalk surfaces uneven. Some of our street trees need to be removed because they’ve died, falling victim to drought, vehicle strikes, and nonnative insect pests such as winter moth and gypsy moth.

    Marc is pro-tree, though. He and the Newton Tree Conservancy are bucking the trend, planting new street trees since. In my post of May 14, I described the planting process.

Planted last month

    Trees do much more than offer shade in summer. One of my favorite garden authors, Toby Hemenway, describes the many ecological services provided by trees: 

• Creating insect habitat and hunting grounds for birds. One example: as the air warms in the morning, the leafy canopy stays cool longer than the air just above it. Insects swirl around in the layer of warm air, allowing birds to find food.

Cedar waxwing feasting on fruit of an amelanchier tree

• Conserving water. Soil stays moist under the shade of the tree’s leaves, watering plants and contributing to stream flow.

• Filtering groundwater. As leaves transpire, releasing water through pores in the leaves called stomata, the tree cleans out impurities from the water it draws up from the ground. 

• Making rain. Up to half of rain over tree-covered land comes from water transpired from leaves. In addition, pollen and dust that mixes with air as it flows through the leaves form nuclei for raindrops, seeding the clouds.

Trees make rain for the plants and creatures around them

• Harvesting moisture. Fog condenses on cool leaves, gathering water even without rain.

• Sequestering carbon. During photosynthesis, leaves take in carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen.

• Stirring breezes in summer and blocking wind in winter. In warm weather, convection starts air moving when the tree absorbs sunlight and mixes warm air with cooler air near the ground. A tree can also act as a windbreak, reducing heat loss from buildings in winter.

Conifers make good winter windbreaks

• Preventing erosion. Leaves catch falling rain and funnel it toward the tree’s trunk, dispelling energy so that soil is not displaced. Leaf litter and roots keep soil in place.

• Making their own fertilizer. Pollen, dust, bird and insect droppings, bacteria and fungi collect on leaves and fall to the ground with rain, carrying plant nutrients and also organisms that will help break down organic matter in soil into forms roots can use.

Trees build soil

Our predecessors knew that trees enhance city life. By continuing to plant trees along our streets, we can maintain that environmental benefit.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Milkweed's evil twin

I'll be selling gardeners' gift baskets at the farmer's market in West Newton, MA 9:30-12:30 on June 23, June 30, and every other Saturday thereafter until October 6. Stop by and say hello if you're in the neighborhood! The market is on Elm Street between Washington Street and Border Street.

Recognizing nonnative invasive plants can be discouraging. There are so many thriving along sidewalks, in parks, and on conservation land that it’s easy to feel that it’s too late. There’s no way to weed them all out. We have to pick our battles.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) taking over a local parkway

    One manageable thing we can do in our own gardens is to keep an eye out for black swallow-wort (Cynanchum louiseae). 

A tangle of black swallow-wort vines

This vine is popping up all over my neighborhood. The reason it’s a problem, other than its swarming over shrubs and shading them out, is that it fools monarch butterflies. 

Monarch on a real common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Females confuse it with native milkweeds, to which it’s related, and lay their eggs on the impostor plant, thinking it will provide food for their larvae. When the caterpillars hatch, they can’t live on black swallow-wort leaves, and they don’t survive.

    The first black swallow-wort vine I noticed in my yard grew up from the base of a particularly thorny rose bush and twined around the canes like a morning glory. I didn’t spot it until it was 3 feet tall. I never was able to uproot that plant. I couldn’t dig deeply without risking killing the rose. 

A hard place to dig

When I grabbed the base of the vine’s stem and tried to yank the roots out, it snapped at soil level. I keep working at it every year, watching for new tendrils as they appear in spring and pulling out as much of the plant as I can. Some year, I hope, it will run out of energy and die.

    Fortunately, that’s good enough to protect monarchs. Here’s a link to a helpful guide published by Newton Conservators, a local environmental group. As they explain, it’s useful to cut the plant to the ground. Later in the season, you can even help by cutting off the seed pods and throwing them in the trash to keep browsing animals from eating the fruits and then excreting the seeds to germinate somewhere else. Like other parts of invasive plants, the pods should go into the trash, not the compost or even the yard waste. They have awe-inspiring reproductive powers.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is another milkweed relative and does support monarchs

    Down the block, black swallow-wort has overwhelmed a privet hedge that grows thinly because of the shade of a sugar maple. A net of vines drapes over the low hedge, hiding it completely. That means many seeds will be ready to spread around the neighborhood by the end of the summer.

    With that kind of population pressure, I can’t expect to keep black-swallow-wort out of my yard. I’ll just have to watch for it as I deadhead, prune, and weed. If I catch the sprouts when they’re small, I have a chance to keep them from taking over.

    Newton Conservators and other groups regularly mobilize teams to pull invasives on conservation land. Will this work have to be repeated every year to keep the culprits from growing back? Let’s hope volunteers replace the unwanted plants with native species vigorous enough to hold the ground.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), left,
or common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), 
right, could be good replacements for black

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The little squirrels that could

I'll be selling gardeners' gift baskets at the farmer's market in West Newton, MA 10-2 on June 23, June 30, and every other Saturday thereafter until October 6. Stop by and say hello if you're in the neighborhood! The market is on Elm Street between Washington Street and Webster Street. 
Baby needs acorns—that seems to be the imperative for squirrels in my yard at this time of year. Local squirrels are in high gear, digging everywhere. 

Squirrels are persistent in their search for food. They've got all day.

I wake in the morning to find holes dug every six inches in the wood chip paths. There are few edible seeds or nuts around at this season. Squirrels are digging for food wherever soil is loose.

Wood chip paths make for easy digging

    Whatever I plant in the ground is in danger of being thrown back out by foraging squirrels. This year’s plan to grow vegetables and berries in containers on the deck is in serious jeopardy unless I can keep squirrels out of the pots until the plants are firmly rooted.

      Checking Google, I learn that other people are having the same problem. 

Can you see where squirrels dug a hole in the bottom right corner of this pot?

Writers promoting “natural” gardening recommend non-toxic repellents: human hair or dog hair, cayenne pepper, or bone meal spread on the soil surface. Folk remedies like these get passed on from gardener to gardener, but I’ve never found they had much effect on wildlife.

    Instead, I’m opting for mechanical barriers. One recommendation that recurred in my Internet search was to lay down chicken wire or wire mesh fencing and plant through it. Cutting a hole with wire clippers every time you plant a seedling sounds to me like a recipe for frustration and laceration. 

    I prefer to cover rows of seeds with row cover, a spun-bonded synthetic textile. I keep the fabric off the ground with rectangles of wire fencing with 2-inch openings. These are held down with small stakes. 

Peas under row cover
 I take the row cover off when the seeds sprout. I can remove the fencing when the seedlings have several leaves or let it remain to deter digging all summer. 

    I have to admit that this approach adds extra time and work to the job of starting the vegetable garden in spring. It does increase the chance that squirrels will leave the seedlings in peace.

    Protecting young plants in pots is even more complicated. This spring I’ve potted strawberry plants, a blueberry bush, a patio tomato, a bush cucumber, and two eggplant seedlings. I’ve planted radish and lettuce seeds in shallow containers. The question is how to keep these plants safe, short of standing guard all day. Past experience warns that they have little chance of surviving or producing without a barrier to keep squirrels out.

    I covered the little blueberry bush with a chicken wire cloche I bought from Gardeners Supply. 

Chicken wire cloche: adorable but pricey

Glass cloches were originally invented as mini-greenhouses, providing a warm, moist environment to encourage individual plants to grow. This one is just a barrier to keep marauders out. It’s not cheap at $25 plus shipping, otherwise I’d purchase a fleet of them. 
    After squirrels started digging in the other containers, I covered the pots with window screen or wire mesh or laid cut pieces of these around the plants on the soil surface, holding them down with small stakes or tomato cages. Still the squirrels find ways around my barriers. They never give up!

A squirrel found a way past the protective screening and threw mulch out of this tomato's pot

Monday, June 4, 2018

To cram or not to cram

My new perennial bed is approaching its first birthday, and I’m taking the opportunity to assess how it’s doing. Just about all of the plants made it through the winter, probably because the project was blessed with adequate rainfall in fall and spring and good snow cover during the winter. 

Bulking up for summer

I’d like to believe that letting a thick layer of whole leaves lie on the bed through the winter also helped the young plants.

    Now I’m seeing flowers on the new perennials and low shrubs. A yellow shrub rose (‘Kolorscape Yellow Fizz’) is blooming, 

and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium ‘Lucerne’)is covered with purple flowers.

Yarrow (Achillea ‘Coronation Gold’) is covered with buds that are about to open. One of the things I love about this new bed is its relatively sunny exposure. There are few spots in the yard that get as much sun as this area right off the back deck. I was able to choose species that need direct sun for at least part of the day, and they’re getting enough sun to flower generously.

    I tried to restrain myself from planting this new bed too densely. In the past, I’ve often crammed in so many plants that they suffered from lack of space. The more aggressive growers tended to take over, shading out the timid or out-competing them for root space and access to water. That’s one way I learned what will grow in my yard and what won’t. What’s here now is what survived.

    Over-crowding is hard to resist, because there are so many plants I’d like to grow and only limited space to put them in. This time, though, I tried to think about the mature size of the plants as I placed them in the bed. As a result, they’re currently surrounded by lots of open space. They should fill in by their third summer.

More mulch than foliage this May

    Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, on the cutting edge of landscape design, advocate a different approach to plant spacing in their book Planting in a Post-Wild World. They argue for cultivated landscapes that evoke archetypal natural plant communities, such as grasslands, shrublands and forests. Instead of making the soil and site hospitable to a list of favored plants, they match plants to existing site conditions.

    There are no open mulched areas between plants under their scheme, and there's no bare soil. Their herbaceous layer, which features perennials and grasses, is surrounded by low, spreading species that fill in all the gaps, both above ground and in the root zone. By allowing each type of plant its niche, they achieve a landscape as dense as a patch of weeds. Some plant uses every inch of soil.

All niches are filled as this lawn returns to nature

    As it happens, I did choose some low-growing native species for my bed: bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), and three-leaved stonecrop (Sedum ternatum ‘Larinem Park’).  

Who knew cranberry plants were so pretty?

I’m watching to see which will grow best. Perhaps they’ll weave themselves into the kind of tapestry Rainer and West describe.

Bearberry reaching out to surround taller perennials