Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Beetle Daily

I've been watching these chrysanthemums for two weeks as they slowly unfurled into the flowers you see below. Inordinately early, these mums have me scratching my chin. August, maybe, but early July? 

Maybe double is the wrong terminology for this, so let me be clear: the bee balm stem leads up to the lower flower and then the stem continues through it, leading to yet another flower on top. Is that weird?

Nothing strange about these coneflower, but there they are, doing as well as can be. But it is unusual to have seen so few pollinating insects on them.

Or on the swamp milkweed, A. incarnata.

Or the butterfly weed, A. tuberosa.

Not even this creamy white mystery milkweed, A. mysteriosa, surrounded by the spreading, but also sparsely visited gooseneck loosestrife, Lysimachia clethroides.

Strike that. Yesterday I saw plenty of bumble bees, a few moths, and was even visited by a monarch.

The pom poms I ripped out from the south side of the house and used to frame the curving drive so that snow plows do not run straight over the lawn-ish front yard. A summer solution to a winter problem, these snowballs are simply massive this year. They do not turn blue or pink, a relief really. They fade to a pale pink and cream. Westward advancing Japanese beetles enjoy fornicating on these pillows, but so far have not delaminated any leaves.

The Japanese beetle, Popillia japonica. My grandmother used to give us a nickel for each beetle knocked off her roses into a cup of poison. Surprisingly, they are not yet as common in the mountain west and high plains as they are elsewhere, yet they are beginning to wreak havoc as they arrive. I hardly saw one over fifteen years of Big Woods summers, but this year there are many.

They were first observed on this year's potatoes, but again, they have not fed on the lamina (the fleshy part of the leaf). The potatoes appear quite well, have been mounded up with a yard or two of fresh compost-soil mix, and are surrounded by new, cedar raised structures. Harvesting will begin in a month or so.

This has been quite a year for sap-sucking. Two months ago I spotted whole garlic mustard plants, usually untouched, being drained by black or gray aphids. This particular arrangement, upside down with rear legs unattached is peculiar, but I've seen it before and twice this year.

Here, photographed at a client's garden, the same upside down arrangement, legs pointed out and upward.

The orange aphids love A. incarnata, swamp milkweed, that I planted along the sunny north edge of the clearing around the new studio.

Is it a hard year if they've sunken to sucking on my blue grama grass?

A closer look, not the aphid I was expecting: Russian wheat aphidDiuraphis noxia, an invasion of a different sort? Maybe, maybe not. Witch hunt. Sad.

In other news, our seeded cucumbers are producing and look quite healthy (no mildew). They are climbing up a cedar framed heavy duty fencing Betsy and I put together (it was her brilliant idea -it attaches to the raised bed).

The home garlic is forty percent harvested, and Hudson Clove garlic is now much further along with most varieties harvested. I'm teaching a two part garlic growing course at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum this fall and spring. Sign up, fly in, do a little leaf peeping, and you're all set.

Wow. All the tomatoes are in. The only vegetable I got in on time was the potatoes in late April. The last bed of yellow, leggy tomato starts was planted on July 11th. Above, the first to get planted in late June or early July -I can't remember. We have three and a half, ten foot long, tomato beds filled with arboretum classroom freebie heirlooms and random, old seeds that happened to sprout. Black vernissage, chardonnay, cream sausage paste, San Marzano paste, stone ridge, black krim, brandywine, and forgotten others are the line up.

An early chardonnay, a large cherry type, is very tasty with a touch tough skins.

Likely a young vernissage, the stripes will remain dark green and the pale green will ripen red, giving the overall "black" color. 

Black beauty -one must remember to wait for the green to turn red.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Prelude to the Understory

After two full seasons of intensive looking, I still find unfamiliar plants. Sometimes I photograph, sometimes I pluck a specimen (depends on the quantity). A fraction of those make it to the concentrated search for identification. Of course, identifying a plant isn't always remembering it, and that takes something more: a drawing perhaps, a meal, maybe, or some other triangulation of anchoring interactions that commits a new identity to memory.

Mosquitoes in the dark and damp woods can make any phone photographer's shot a blur. When in doubt and plenty, pluck a branch, preferably in flower. If you can get to it quickly, bring the pluckling to your computer. If you can't, photograph it on the hood of a car, and get to it later. Here, a plant that beguiled me through the garlic mustard harvest. I now know it as Canadian Wood Nettle, Laportea canadensis.

Above, a plant that must've been easier to miss across prior years in a dark woods. Now, freed from other obsessions, I saw it everywhere, understory. It's form is suggestive of both invasive species and Eastern Forest native, a counter distinction to the many invasive forbs that to a degree appear "out of place" in our woods. Awareness of such differences is both a product of experience within the Eastern Forest, but also a diminished plant blindness.

This "new" plant was challenging due to its small white or maybe green-yellow flowers, its casual umbell, and my age-induced farsightedness. The umbell, trifoliated habit, and seed tipped identification toward an anxiety-producing, naturalized reversion of Aegopodium podagraria, goutweed or bishop's weed to you and me. We have two large colonies of goutweed on the southern slope, but something wasn't quite right about this ID. I had to dig deeper. I had to zoom closely on the seeds, had to engage with leaf sheaths, and most importantly, I had to learn to see double serrated leaves. Those cues in hand I was able to find this plant's true identity: Canadian Honewort, Cryptotaenia canadensis. Why this subtle plant has a name composed of "hidden" and "tapeworm," I do not want to discover.

Sedges fill a minor savanna between the road to the east and the house to the west, the little wetland and great wetland bounding it on the north and south sides. Oaks used to dominate this dry mound, but basswood and maple are encroaching.

Oaks die or fall in storm winds, as this large one had two summers back. The oaks, when dominant, create a canopy pierced by sunlight, an environment the sugar maples do not provide. The understory is complex; already colonized by sedge, ephemerals, and a lower dose of garlic mustard than is typical in more moist, down-slope locations. Maybe the clearing's relative isolation has allowed more native species to proliferate than in other tree-fall clearings nearer the house and adjacent, cultivated properties.

I was overjoyed to spot a strongly growing specimen of poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata, a foot from the fallen oak. I tray-planted 50 seeds of this less common milkweed last year. Only six sprouted, then five took faint hold along the edge of our septic field; five that have since been moved to the new, mostly shady clearing behind the studio. I've decided that poke is not as easily grown as swamp or common milkweed, but it is the only milkweed common to shadier, woodland locations, and I'd like to have some growing out there. Maybe I will try again, next year.

Although I intended to keep the mound of fallen oak and poke milkweed clear, time and garlic mustard always seem to get away from me. Askance of plans, among mosquitoes excited by a coming storm, a moment was wedged to clear any observable, green seedpod-bearing garlic mustard. As the lightning became daylight visible and thunder claps louder, I decided to discontinue what is always an ever expanding circumference of mustard weeding. Today, nearly all remaining second year garlic mustard is yellow fading into beige. Seeds by the thousands are lined up for distribution on sites already occupied by thousands more. If a rift in time should open, I will get into the woods, shod in mosquito net cap, to clip and bag the drying stems from areas newly colonized.


I spend a fair amount of time identifying plants: weeds, natives, and cultivated for myself as well as others. Texts roll in with pictures of pokeweed or Fallopia japonica, multiflora rose and daylily. Most pictured plants are easy to identify because most are coming from yards carved out of the Eastern Forest. In them are cultivated plants or common weed species of Eurasian provenance. In making yards -clearings designed to lessen our work (ha!), lower our exposure to pests, and provide a platform for leisure, we offer opportunity to ambitious plants.

In the process of putting up our studio building, I created about two thousand square feet of opportunity. The area is now covered in subgrade clay over topsoil because when we dig, what is beneath ends up on top. Many desirable plants won't flourish in this subgrade soil, but the adventitious do. Given my positive experience growing native milkweed, I ventured to grow several native plants for the sunnier part of our studio clearing before the weeds take hold.

I imagined a medium height grass and forb savanna underneath the tall basswood on the south side of the building and under the red oak on the north east corner. I winter seeded Prairie Moon's short grass inexpensive seed mix and savanna enhancement mix, both of which had some species from their exposed clay mix. Sowing seeds felt like leaving too much to chance, so I also stratified hundreds of individual species seeds through winter, then cell tray planted them in April. But, an unexpected hot greenhouse day in early May boiled many of my seeds laying patiently under their moisture-preserving cellophane wrap. Most were lost, although some did sprout near the cooler edges, and those are now large enough to be potted up.

Growing native plants from seed is not always easy. Cultivated plants have been bred and selected for viability, commercial or otherwise. Natives, however, maintain their original, sometimes fussy seed-sprouting needs. Multiply cold, heat, or cold and heat by time, then add light or darkness, subtract or add moisture, and you may have a formula that produces a native sprout. I have several more young native plants to pot up, and at least 50 clumps of grasses (mostly blue grama, side oats grama, but also a few rattlesnake and prairie brome) in need of the same. Before planting these in their final places in mid to late August, I will till in a portion of the ten cubic yards of compost mix we had delivered last month. This may give the native plants a fighting chance among the highly competitive weeds.

Some of the remaining compost will make it into raised planters I have been building. Below is one of two I have placed around my already growing potatoes -the only vegetables I got in on time this year. As they grow, I have been adding compost mix. When all is done, there will be eight raised beds, a prospect I am quite happy about. Two years of growing vegetables in beds surrounded by the lawn and excessive summer rains have led to lawn that is nearly seventy five percent creeping charlie. The other twenty five is clover that co-existed nicely with the grass. Raised beds will be easier to work, weed, plant and harvest, but most of all I appreciate the architectural structure they add to the vegetable garden on a small front lawn (of creeping charlie). For all my interest in wild-ish native planting, I still like the perception of order in the vegetable patch.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

First of Harvest

Turban strain 'Xian' is all but completely harvested from the sheep farm next door. I have a seed supply's worth of very large heads and an exceptional amount of food size. I don't think I lost any over the long season. An auspicious beginning, but I still cannot say where I will be growing next season -the itinerant farmer said.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Great Garlic Pull

On of the chores of April and early May is the great garlic mustard removal. Last spring I pulled thousands of plants, only to be dismayed to see so many more in fall, quite possibly more than I had cleared. Pulling only created opportunity for new first year seedlings to make a strong showing. The muddy soil clung to my shoes, transferring seeds to new areas; tossing pulled plants also transferred seeds to new areas. And surely animals, other than me, moved seeds along on their feet or hooves.

This year, we have a new tack, built on observations and learning. First, we have divided the woods into zones. It is an idea I formed a few years back when volunteering in Prospect Park -namely that parks employees should not be responsible for tasks, but carrying out maintenance responsibilities in zones. The idea was built around the notion of ownership and responsibility, but I digress.

We will not tackle the highest population density zones first, but last. I have observed that the dense populations compete with themselves. If not pulled, seeds will not travel too far, especially if I weed whack the flowering stalks before seed development because the newly sprouted, post cut flowering stalks will not be as tall or vigorous. Keeping the low density populations clear will give a feeling of success and be a front line against spread. Native plants can be planted in those zones to help create ground cover.

Last spring I gave spot treatment with a glyphosate spray. I was completely dissatisfied with the results. Not only did many of the plants still go to flower despite having been sprayed weeks before, I ended up pulling them anyway. If I sprayed too early (early April), the plants were not actively growing enough for the spray to have an effect. From now on I will rely on other methods.

Garlic mustard seedlings growing in a pile of buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, saplings pulled last spring. The seeds are everywhere, and the mere act of pulling the plant (or any plant) will help sprout new garlic mustard. Underneath every 2nd year stand of garlic mustard are hundreds or thousands of seeds and seedlings waiting for their chance.

One of the prime benefits of pulling garlic mustard, which is nearly everywhere, is the opportunity to see what is growing off trail. Here, along the shady edge of slope of the little wetland I found evidence of an enlarged colony of fern. We have only so much fern in our woods, most along the shady and wet northeastern slope, and I'd like to see much more. Did my work last year enable these fern to gain some ground?

A reason to dedicate so much time to limiting the spread of garlic mustard in our woods is Uvularia grandiflora, Large-flowered Bellwort. It is a rare treat that never seems to be in the same spot twice. Undoubtedly, I will be here next spring to pull the garlic mustard you can see behind it, but will the bellwort?

Dicentra cucullaria, Dutchman's Breeches, native to the region, but not found anywhere within the bounds of our property. This singular plant was brought over from the woods on the southwest side of our great wetland last spring and, with great fortune, had survived the hasty transplant. I gather that this used to grow around our woods but had been out competed or trampled by cows or people. Behind the dicentra are ramps, Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, a type of bedstraw (weed or not?) and a few seedlings of garlic mustard (I did just pull the 2nd year plants).

On the shady north facing slope where little else grows but sugar maple and garlic mustard, a rue, likely Early Meadow, but time will tell. Update: probably Blue Cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides.

Wood Anemone, Anemone quinquefolia, surrounded by garlic mustard and some buckthorn saplings  in a tree-fall clearing. This zone has to wait as it is rapidly becoming a dense stand, there is tree work to be done, and is difficult to navigate.

Colonies of Cardamine concatenata, Cutleaf Toothwort, are more charming than the swath of garlic mustard I cleared a few days ago.

Not far from the patch of fern, this low growing plant is coming up in what appears to be a fairly broad colony. It is not Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, however, a plant I could expect in this wet area but rises in denser mounds and with just a bit less shade tolerance. Another to watch as the garlic mustard season progresses.

Clearing is the first line of defense (or offense?), but of course, we also eat our share.

This area was completely cleared last spring.
But two people cannot possibly eat our way out of this much garlic mustard. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Of The Many Signs Of Spring

The birds are back, big and small, and the weather a swinging ride. Mid seventies two days ago, last night a snow fall. Garden garlic is popping up, early varieties first. Ticks are up and about in the weedy reaches of the woods and the chorus of frogs singing every day, but this one. Ramps are up as well as some unwound bloodroot.

I have a rapidly thickening list of projects to tackle, the least of which is garlic and lawn's corn meal (nitrogen), lawn seeding where it had been turned to mud last year by heavy equipment, till, add compost, and plant potatoes received from Seed Savers, plant the native seeds stratifying in the fridge, chainsawing, chainsawing, chainsawing.

There is so much garlic mustard in the woods you'd think I didn't pull thousands of plants last year. I've tried to enlist the local scouts to help this year, but I have yet to hear back. There is much much much buckthorn, and I am blazing a new trail to get around the permanent inundation in the back slough, a trail that opens up the cedars and an unusually placed, young apple tree. There are bridges to repair or replace in every corner, all which will find their way onto the business page.

I have three or four or five art projects running. Just came back from New Mexico where I was making images of space over the border, another dealing with athletic fields, yet another of artists situated in landscape, and of course, Phenology.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Peculiar Petunia

A blooming petunia sits on the chest of overwintering. Rosemary, lantana, prickly pear, agave, lavender are companions, all known for their ease of transition from garden to window, and back. The petunia, however, has had a more interesting life, a touch of mystery and adventure, and an uneasy, surprising transition.

I've been busy spinning plates. Photographs, details on the studio shop, painting the attic post bat remediation, many websites. Tomorrow I am off to southern New Mexico to work on some art, see some old friends, make some connections up in Santa Fe, and eat at two or three favorite local establishments. Upon my return, finish the attic, make sample work for my business (three bridges and two planters), begin the gardening season, pour two concrete pads, seed the plethora of native seeds I have stratifying in the fridge, move on to buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica chopping in lieu of garlic mustard removal. It's been so mild this year that I cannot walk the woods to remove garlic mustard without seriously compressing the wet soil. And despite last year's two dozen fifty-gallon bags and countless rotting piles of pulled garlic mustard, there appears to be more growing this year than last. Maybe this spring I can post about last year's experience.

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Friday, March 3, 2017

Stairway, a Repost

As I work on my new Artist & Builder website, I revisited the building of Rex's steps. It still chokes me up, and reminds me of the power of material things, and writing, and images, and the working with one's hands to give meaning to the ordinary.

Could a dying man's last wish be a new set of steps? In his slow decay is it trying or comforting to see rotten and skewed rebuilt upright? Is time best spent fixing the things that can be fixed? Our answer was yes, so Betsy and I spent the last ten days or so in Minnesota rebuilding the porch legs and constructing a new staircase with Rex's blessing. He and his aide sat porch side, observing, while we took to our work.

The porch was sinking in the northeast corner, evident at the junction of house and porch where a gap had formed over the years. It wasn't until we removed the porch steps and it's stock standard, 45 degree, three step stringer that we could begin to see the whole of the problem. The house architectural drawings indicated below the frost-line 12 inch concrete piers and 4x4 treated posts. The problem was that these posts were to some degree covered at the base with wet clay soil, not at all elevated above the moisture-holding concrete, and not at all anchored in any way to the concrete piers.  They simply rotted and moved from their original position allowing the porch to slowly pull downward. Although our intention was only to replace the staircase, and as is so often the case, when you look into it you realize the full extent of the work before you.

First, remove the old staircase, the lattice work under deck, then the fascia boards.

Old, rotten-bottom posts removed as we jack up the porch with a very old school jack. 

New treated posts installed with steel post-header ties (the old were toe-nailed).

Not choice, but available: plastic post bottoms to separate the new post from the concrete pier. Each is said to be good for five thousand pounds.

We also compromised on the anchor -galvanized steel angles at the back of each post, then each post backfilled with course gravel.

I found this blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale, under the plastic near one of the posts. Trying to get it out, it only climbed in deeper, so I let it be. I wonder how it keeps dirt out of those bulging black eyes.

After the posts were set and anchored we set about doing the staircase. The main complaint about the old steps was their steep incline and rickety railings (they had rotten) so we stretched the run to five feet from the porch. This changed the configuration from four, eleven-inch treads with eight-inch risers to six, twelve-inch treads with five and three quarter-inch risers.  The longer run had the structure landing on the concrete pad, adding concern about frost heave (which every one else was less concerned with). We compromised by designing the railings so that they are integral to the staircase structure but do not attach at all to the posts holding up the porch roof. This allowed us to remove the chance that frost heave pressure would be applied to the porch posts.

I reused as much of the original cedar risers as I could, but this also meant that I was limited by their length. We had wanted to overshoot the stringer sides by an inch or so but the old boards wouldn't allow it. We compromised by bringing the riser board to the top of the tread instead of behind it, and extended the tread board just a half inch on either side.

The treads were notched around the posts.

I fitted the post notch with a small piece of cedar to fill.

The different shades of cedar on a cloudy day.

While it was a marathon effort for him, Rex made the journey out to see the finished staircase. The following afternoon, I found him sitting on them.  I don't think I will get as much joy out of doing these projects without him there to appreciate it. Things need to be done, to be sure, but his glowing appraisal makes it worth the extra effort. As I had to leave to get back to work in NYC, not two days after I wrapped up the work on the staircase, I knew I could be seeing him for the last time. He said to me "you have value, remember that." Seems like such a simple thing, but it chokes me up. Rex was motivated to get the staircase rebuilt because his elderly friends were having trouble climbing the old set when they came to visit. I suppose, then, that a staircase could be a last wish. It's a way to extend oneself beyond the boundaries of life and death, a courtesy to those friends who will thank me for the effort and good work, at his house, soon enough.