Monday, September 10, 2018

City House Country House

When I lived in NYC, which has been most of my adult life, there was gardening to talk about. This may have been due to how little gardening was truly going on. There was time for talk, for idle thoughts, for chit chat. There was standing on the corner, taking waves and how you doin', little to the garden footprint but such large human imprint. There were complaints that people could relate to (really, diapers on the hydrangea, again?). Glitter faced prostitutes offering assistance, Russian emigres with effortless tongues, kids who saw onions in tulip bulbs, landlords with teeth to gnash, unskilled laborers who knew how to dance in a garden, familiar weeds, oceans and peas, garlic and sand, and the sticky, salted skin when the onshore turned in for the evening. There were myriad plots across countless yards, tree pits, sidewalk strips, and undeveloped dreams. People have a passion for growing things in the city because the passion is on parade, is persistently evident from the walk to the subway, from overtures to our agrarian past on highrise rooftops to the panacea of the hyper-local, from the artist-led food garden to that curious moment when enthusiasm ran wildly into a business growing food in your backyard. The city a counterpose to the garden, an architecture for the gardening posture, a context that convinces us that a garden is the cure when it is merely a salve.

I now garden in a different context, one that is younger to the white man, but has seen its share of rapaciousness. With enough trees around even I can convince myself that my place is not an island in a sea of suburban plant homogeneity and millions of acres of either corn or soy. The optimist will extend the metaphor to an archipelago, but little more. To garden on the scale of fifteen, even thirty acres is an arrogance, and so me at my most arrogant goes about gardening the woods, weeding the woods, fretting over the rising and falling water levels in various swamps and wetlands, watching opportunistic plants move rapidly into space available, making plans and haphazardly executing them. This is to say nothing of the vegetable growing, the cultivated gardens or lawn and shrubbery that make up much of the country house.

Despite all that is going on, all that there is left to do, I have come to accept that there is not much time to talk about it. Exposition is the garden work of the city house.

In defiance of this conceit, I offer a picture of the country house -its autumnal prairie-ish planting east and north of the studio. Now in its second summer, many new plants have begun to mature. The pollinating and predatory insects love it, although the birds enjoy the much simpler savanna-ish planting on the building's south side. The deer all too much love the woodland planting on the west side of the building, now under revision. 

This week I'm in the middle of expanding the prairie-ish as I restore our one thousand foot gravel driveway, a process that includes digging drainage swales alongside the drive, loose soil slopes covered in burlap, winter seeding and fall planting of woodland natives I'd started last spring, moving boulders to shore up one or two hundred square feet of new cultivated garden space, and a whole hell of a lot of 3/4" minus crushed red limestone spread by myself in a track loader that will then be compacted by Betsy with a vibratory plate.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

In Stillness and Warmth There is Mosquito

On an unusual summer day I come to fully appreciate how little I venture into the hot season woods. Like winter, or maybe more so than winter, the summer time woods belongs to others. But on those two days, when temperatures plummeted into the fifties by night, only the sixties by day, with a supplementary breeze from the northwest, the woods invited my eyes and skin as if it were a day in early May or mid October.

Few mosquitoes made a stroll of getting to this laetiporous in the once wet middle slough.

How little I experience the woods in summer dictates my familiarity with its cycles of growth and senescence. On this walk I was thrilled to find plant species I have yet to see here, more vigorous growth than in the past, and less encroachment by aggressive species in some places. This could have been my own doing, attributable to three years of pulling garlic mustard, or was it the longer, cold winter that favors those that have evolved with it?

What I have experienced this year, one too busy with other activities to commit to the two month long pull, is roughly a ninety percent reduction in garlic mustard seedlings and a nearly one hundred percent reduction in second year rosettes. Why is this? Although it is tempting to enjoy the reprieve, it is more helpful to understand the process. Has our pulling had an effect? Or was it the temperature and frozen ground through out April (garlic mustard is some of the earliest of greens)? Is there a natural rhythm to biennial growth that gives way to an unproductive season?

This is not to say that there is no more garlic mustard in the woods, there is. A few lush, large-leafed specimens grow around the water line among large patches of Pilea pumila, clearweed, a native annual that sprouts in the heat of summer. Without the garlic mustard cover, it has been able to rise up from its own large bank of seeds in areas dominated by garlic mustard for years. Even the small patches of first year seedlings on barren slopes seem to be the exception proving the rule.

The swamp in the back has largely drained for the first time in three or more years. It is now a topography of muck covered in still-green duckweed shifting toward brown, nearly perfect growing conditions at the old waterline. The low water means we do not host wood ducks that have been in residence since we've moved here. The changing shoreline, three years wet, another dry, has created challenging conditions for almost anything, trees included, that isn't the nearly ineradicable reed canary grass, Phalaris arundinacea. If you do not know this plant, then it is likely not in your neck to the woods, yet. In the upper Midwest, where it is likely there are more pothole wetlands than anywhere else in the nation, it is still being planted as a wetland "forage" grass to make "useful" what was once too wet to grow anything a farmer might describe as useful.

Growing on the edge of the swamp: Pilea pumila, Leersia virginica, a few Bidens spp and Impatiens capensis
I was delighted to see these patches of healthy growth along the eastern swamp edge where the water line has receded. Now that the trees have died from inundation, more light enters here, giving a greater diversity of plants a shot at growing.

One of those plants is mad-dog skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora.

Only a few stems and rhizomes at the edge of high water late last season, this mint is now such a prolific grower that, if I knew less, would think it could compete with reed canary grass. It is known to take advantage of disturbed sites, whether made or naturally occurring (this site is arguably human-altered). Although some have nosed out above the mad-dog, it has handily out-competed last autumn's planting of joe pye, iris versicolor, big bluestem, cardinal flower and verbena. Yet I accept this because, is a native.

Why is that? After all, ignorant of its origins, I might think this grass is doing a great job of greening up a mucky swamp of dead trees. It's the analysis that triggers concern, the conceptualization of homogeneous communities that also send up red flags, and maybe an aesthetics of bio-diversity that has me lurch into action.

That action can take the absurd form of a twenty by ten foot plastic sheet. Placed last summer to smother the reed canary grass, yet appears to have only made it stronger. Once the grass takes on these proportions it is impossible to eradicate by hand pulling. The dense mat of roots and rhizomes have such a tenacious grip that standing in the muck pulling on it produces a feeling of futility and a frustrating clump of leaves in hand. In placing my efforts elsewhere I may have to accept that what was once a forested vernal swamp is now, in wetter times, a clearing, an occasional pond, and quite soon a reed canary wet meadow.

Just up slope from the reed canary grass and mad-dog skullcap is a mighty patch of the weedy Canada thistle, Cirsium arvense. Whereas reed canary grass provides little support for other creatures, Canada thistle at least offers food for pollinators and birds. 

Despite the near drought conditions (you can still have one even when there are occasional heavy thunderstorm rains) that led to drying of the back swamp, water is flowing more heavily than is typical from the spring tree. Why is that? I have seen high water in the swamp with much less flow from this seep, only fifty feet from the swamp and about the same elevation, if not a few inches lower.

The spring tree seep is the only year-round flowing water in our woods, typically runs orange with oxidized iron fixed by iron consuming bacteria. Perfectly natural.

For us "coasters," where certain introduced insects, aquatic organisms, and plants have been around for generations, our relationship to them is different. Can you imagine the idea that Queen Anne's lace is an upcoming threat? How about the notion that your garden is suffering a never seen before invasion of Japanese beetles? Although some species are new to the area, plants like buckthorn have been spreading from yards and nurseries for long enough that a generation or two do not know what the woods looked like without it. In this slippage change becomes fixed and the concept of paradise is born as a way to process that faint, nearly imperceptible loss of the unknown.

Some images from around the new plantings...

American Bellflower, Campanulastrum americanum, tall, short, welcome.

Bottle Brush Grass, Elymus hystrix, great medium height grass in the shade.

Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, a red like the Scarlet Tanager, loved by humming birds, although not native to Minnesota, it does okay, if a little sickly in the leaf by flowering time.

We've had countless monarchs this year. They love the new plantings, as do swallowtails and more.

For about a month she rebuilt the web daily outside our kitchen window. Spider watching and dish washing -it's all the rage.

Side Oats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula, or as I like to call it: Grandma.

The warm season grasses, unlike those of the lawn, have colorful flowers.

Saturday, July 7, 2018


When something unexpected shows up I greet it with guarded curiosity. I peered and poked at the newly appeared grass in the year-old savanna garden, appreciating its attractive features with enough skepticism to keep me on the hunt for its identity. In a last ditch attempt to narrow down the genus (Bromus) to a species, I pestered the hard working folks at Minnesota Wildflowers with an uploaded picture to their Facebook page. Three days later I had an ID, Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum. You may have noticed the Bromes - medium height, cool season grasses whose often gracefully drooping flower arrives in late May to early July. There are many Bromes, many have been introduced to North America as forage grasses, and some are likely to be willing hybridizers.

Grass identification may be the perfect activity to teach the art of observation. Multiple points of focus are defined to aid grass identification, but most of these (too many parts, too many names, too small a detail...) induce a foggy brain and willful blindness. And, as any skilled observer knows, one day you're sharp and another blurred. Impatient, I pulled all brome grasses, concerned that they could also be Cheatgrass. To end this craze, I plucked one specimen out and potted it up, placing it in the greenhouse. If allowed to go to seed, I thought, I may be able to see the difference in the details.

As it went, close observation of the object, once detached from its environment, allowed me to see difference that I had been blind to. Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, has long awns -the long, thin, pointed thread extending from the lemma while other Bromus in my savanna plantings have short awns or none at all.

This trait now clear, I was able to distinguish Cheatgrass from the Prairie Brome (Kalm's Brome), above, I seeded and planted last summer. Unfortunately, my blindness had likely led to the removal of many Prairie Brome plants before I nailed down this difference.

Pitcher Plant (flower), Sarracenia purpurea, in the bog at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

Another tough identification was a new, singular plant with angular stem, tall stature, unusually-colored, small flowers that insects went wild for. Again, after being narrowed down by the folks at Minnesota Wildflowers, I could ID Early Figwort, Crophularia lanceolata, a potent pollinator attractant that is likely to return by self seeding.

This sloppy fellow caught my eye as it slowly climbed the remains of a Monarch-chomped Whorled Milkweed. I had seen several of these, earlier, at the base of irises and milkweeds being weeded in the front garden. Were they Japanese Beetle instars (but I hadn't seen these last year when there were so many JB) or had Colorado Potato Beetles finally discovered our potato patch (but there were no potatoes growing here, the eyes are black and the spots double on a potato beetle instar, plenty of which are available to see at a neighbors garden)? 

This picture, uploaded to Bugguide, helped identify a large lady beetle-like insect I'd seen in May. Swamp Milkweed Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, was a good fit -that's the plant on which the beetles had been hosted. Further clicking led to an image of its instar -an exact match of my juicy milkweed climber.

Milkweed growing has been paying off this season, both in Milkweed Beetles and Monarchs.

When transplanting from another garden, especially one untended by a gardener, and doubly so when the specimen is surrounded by invasive Goutweed, Aegopodium podagraria, it isn't wise to plant with its original root ball soil. Several aggressively-spreading plants intertwine their roots or rhizomes with the roots of our favored plants and the strategy ensures their persistence by creating a home base for developing roots and shoots safely hidden beneath your favorite garden plants.

If you do rescue something, like this large Cimicifuga, from an invasive patch about to be sprayed with glyphosate, use a hose to spray out all soil from the root mass, combing through for anything that looks like it belongs to the weed you don't want to introduce. The roots, above, only partially cleared of soil, show an entangled rhizome of the offending Aegopodium -small, but enough to regenerate. Before I planted it, I thoroughly washed away any remaining soil, then disposed any foreign root or rhizome. Despite my effort, I question my choice to remove a plant so crowded by goutweed for planting at our place (although Aegopodium does already exist in our woods, introduced accidentally or planted I cannot say).

In other news, lots of ticks in the garlic plots.