Saturday, June 9, 2018

Sedges Have Edges, Rushes Are Round, Grasses have Nodes...

It all started with a blizzard that pushed us right into excessive heat of summer before May was out. We hadn't had more than a few hours rain over the month, so little that, with the heat, high sun, and drying wind, even succulents were bowing to the ground.

By Memorial Day, rising heat and moisture became the cauldron from which storms could manifest. 

Our woods and garden had accumulated three inches of rain by Tuesday. Another five eighths came later that day. This broke the drought, for now, and not everywhere, but in our woods. It also spared two climbing roses that we transplanted along with an arbor from a rapidly shading garden, on one of the hottest days, when rain looked immanent, but wasn't.

Was it the rain, or the freshly loosened soil under the trellis, that brought my first turtle sighting to our clearing in the woods? By early morning, this medium-large sized snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina, made its way up the slope from one of many watery sites and began depositing her eggs directly beneath the newly moved rose trellis. By mid morning she was gone and around her clutch, Betsy installed a fence to keep out likely predation by raccoons (just steps away is a perma-puddle with not-so-little raccoon "hand" prints scrawled across the bottom). In fifty or one hundred and twenty five days the little ones may emerge from the nest.

The rain also gave a much needed boost to the garlic on both farms. Already stressed by the latest of winters, drought had begun to take its toll. The garlic is about the size it would normally be in early May, although the date is early June. The rain also gave boost to the mass of thistle, grass, and lambsquarters in this new plot, all weeded this past Sunday with one more weeding likely before harvest.

In the other plot, the weed profile is completely different: smartweed, bindweed, and purslane. The garlic is generally larger here, although still less vigorous than should be at this time, with many lost cloves of artichoke, turban, asiatic, and creole. In either of these two plots I picked up my first embedded tick, the wood type, as I wore shorts for the chore, something I have not done before. For all my traipsing around in the woods and elsewhere, I have yet, until this moment, to have a tick embed itself. In fact one would not anticipate that the garlic plots are where I would pick up ticks given how much time I spend in the woods.

In the year old savanna gardens a cool season grass has come up to fill the blanks readily and, although attractive, my suspicion is that it was unlikely to have been seeded with the shortgrass or savanna seed mixes broadcast in these sites a year and half ago. Nothing triggers plant weariness or all out blindness more than grass identification, but grass identification is often needed and difficult.

A last minute reprieve was handed out by the folks at Minnesota Wildflowers, a site dedicated to visual identification of native Minnesotan plants and those we find among them. In this instance, my picture post on their FB page lead to an ID a few days later, prompting me to immediately begin pulling. I hazarded the guess that it came with the poor quality straw purchased from a local farm supply. It was only in those areas where I had spread the straw for erosion control that the new weed, Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, as well as common oats had sprouted.

It's only then, after a positive ID, that traits of a weedy species appear to express themselves clearly. Each day since, I continue to find more inflorescence hidden among the other forbs and grasses. Like any impressive weed, this grass exhibits the ability to grow from the base of other plants and set seed at heights of only an inch. At the same time, this winter annual (cool season) grass can take advantage of rising CO2, thereby increasing its biomass, indigestibility, and fire threat. Not long after, I begin to see other grasses that appear similar to Cheatgrass, but maybe taller or with smaller inflorescence, maybe smoother stems or less blue coloration in the leaves and stem. What then?

Can you tell the difference between these two grasses? Side by side, you may notice differences, but in the field grasses can blur together.

Spot the different grasses in there? From this picture, it looks to be all forbs, but it is likely 40 to 50% grasses. As the shortgrass mix I scattered here two winters back consisted of predominantly Side-oats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula, and Little Bluestem, Schyzachyrium scoparium, a sensible guess would be that some of these grasses are present. Little bluestem is fairly easy to identify as a warm season, low growing, bluish bunch grass -not the predominant grass here.

Upon closer inspection, the grasses become more visible. Non-weed, perennial grasses tend to grow slower than annual weed grasses, but also slower than the annual forbs such as the first-year predominant black-eyed susan. In this second growth season, the grasses are making themselves known and the black-eyed susan are spread more evenly and less thickly. The site also has plants that I have cell-tray seeded and planted last summer and fall as well as more mature plants transplanted from other locations.

This grass, blooming now, is scattered through the site. It may be Fowl Manna Grass, Glyceria striata, but then again, I'm not sure. To become an expert in grass identification, one must make solid observations. The easy part is cool season, warm season or bunch or spreading, but in an ascending order of difficulty we have dull or shiny, pubescent parts or not, ligules formed this way or that, leaves folded or flat, sheaths fused or unfused, and on. It helps to know general things about a species, such as preferred habitat or weed status, but that only opens the door to more complex examination.

It is clear that the creatures appreciate these clearings repopulated with food and shelter. The milkweed planted two summers ago have begun to establish solidly among the grasses, monarda, goldenrod, asters, and much more.

These sites are a favorite of large and small dragonflies, monarchs, toads, and moths such as this Xanthotype species.

What's this? A new concept in contemporary landscape architecture? No, its a sheet of thick plastic designed to combat what was once grass, but now is one hundred percent creeping charlie, Glechoma hederacea.

It only took three years for it to go from sporadic lawn weed to total ground cover and the reason is largely due our garden choices. Putting vegetables in the lawn area, where we had our only sun, or making a hedgerow along the driveway edge created shade that charlie took advantage of. The wet weather over the last two years and our heavy clay soil worked well with our yard plans to bring us this new idea in lawns.

Why is it that a monoculture of grass is more desirable than a monoculture of charlie? After all, charlie feeds the bees and smells great when crushed (insert someone offering its medicinal value here). Is it a texture thing, a cultural, or visual thing? Lawn grasses, like charlie, are weeds around the world, but maybe we don't see grasses (remember grass blindness...). For us, a creeping charlie lawn comes down to at least three negatives: this "lawn" will always be the spring of more charlie invasions in the woods, the visual texture is off putting, and it's a pain to have to weed this out of every shady nook in the yard and garden.

Charlie hides out in the shady base of perennials, between stones, under dense shrubs, and just about anywhere there is shade and moisture. Its stolons spread in every direction, with a preference to run toward shade. At our place that means downhill, toward the woods, where it is becoming an increasingly problematic ground cover. Its seeds roll downhill in rainstorms and get stuck in clay-filled shoe treads, but worse is how its bits and pieces follow raked leaves onto slopes.

I have my eyes on several infestations, one of which looks not all that different from the lawn, but under the canopy of trees on a north facing woodland slope. In fact, charlie is giving garlic mustard that grows there a hard time, but the garlic mustard is much easier for me to eradicate, with or without its help.

After the plastic comes up this summer, the idea is to till the soil, add compost, and place thick sod in its place. It's a good idea if we do not grow vegetables here any longer. Maybe we should grow vegetables here, but add sand and brick between the raised beds? No matter what we do, charlie is instigating a lot more work and we've already plenty of that.