Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I recently read that most of the biodiversity of a given area is in its invertebrates, and yet we always do conservation for plants or cute animals. That's it. I'm converted. Or "Invert"-ed. Now to try to identify these things.

My native plant garden was planted primarily to make me learn to identify rare (or not so rare) native prairie and savanna plants. Then I decided I liked how it looks. Now it is all buggy. The main attractor is the gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), so named for the color of the stem, in case you are wondering. Cup-plant and tall coneflower also bring them in. Here is a small sampling of the (mostly) native bees and flies and such.

If you, dear reader, know of any resources for identifying native bees - or better yet can identify any of these from the photo (!), please let me know. The full set of pictures is over at Flickr.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Peak Bloom in the Wildflower Garden

Now is the beginning of peak bloom time in the garden. A few of the early flowers are still ingering on, such as the lance-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata). A few of the late bloomers, such as the gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), are just starting. While I did a pretty good job this year moving tall plants to the back of beds and promoting some short plants forward, I was not ruthless pulling out sprouts of good plants in wrong places. So I have some tall 1st years screening out plants further back. Tall coreopsis and brown-eyed susan (Rudbckia triloba) are the most problematic. The tall coreopsis will be transplanted, the brown-eyed susans have thus far been biennial. Was it the drought conditions of the past few years? No sense in moving them if they may not comeback next year.That'd just give me an empty bed where they were moved from and an empty bed where they were moved to.

The front bed project continues. I am tired of my burn experiment and will now shift gears to either regular raking or (if I can find cheap mulch) smothering. I have burned the bed every 3-4 days for the last three weeks. I have exhausted by propane tank, and my back, but not the reserved of the grass seedlings. The roots are insulated from the fire by the soil, so really I am doing the same thing as very frequent, very low mowing - which may be bad for the grass in the long run, but not deadly over the span of my attention.

In the photo of the new bed, you can see hostas in full bloom. Yesterday while sitting on the front porch, a female ruby-throated hummingbird visited the tubular hosta blooms. While I have never been particularly enarmoured of hosta flowers, my opinion of them has changed from "shade filler plant" to "sometime hummingbird food."

Below is a taste of a few of the flowers, mostly native, now blooming. In order, top to bottom:

Borage (Borago officinalis, not native, but pretty and a good companion plant to veggies)

Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana), with purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) behind

Red milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), with bergemot (Monarda didyma) and spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)

Gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), with gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and ox-eye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

Cup-plant (Silphium perfoliatum, yellow), Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum, white), with gray-headed coneflower and purple coneflower in background

Purple coneflower and prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), with fleabane (Erigeron sp.)

Spotted mint (Monarda punctata)

Rattlesnake master (white), with purple coneflower and black eyed susans in background

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Insects go native

I burned the lawn again three days ago, and then again this evening. That grass just keeps growing back! Soon tho it will be exhausted. Soon.


A monarch butterfly has been frequenting our garden as of late. So far this year we have been visited by the abundant Cabbage White, a sulfur, a European skipper, a Common checkered skipper, and an Eastern tailed blue. Tally: six species of butterflies. The less desirable Japanese beetles are back as well, and really seem to be attracted to the rouge evening primrose that popped up in the garden.

I also caught this dragonfly watching me from a cup plant leaf. Cup plant is just starting to flower today.

The cup plant is a draw for many insects. The base of the leaves surround the stem and form a "cup" which holds water for several days after each rain. This water draws in many colorful little flies, wasps, and native bees - which then attract larger predator insects like damselflies and dragonflies.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bed of Fire

Whoa. Three month break and then two posts in two days. I do not do any hobby but by fits and starts. After a 6 year hiatus I am contemplating setting up the hammer dulcimer too.

This evening I smell. Of smoke. Yes, I set fire to my yard. Well, not really. I have a propane torch, purchased by my in-laws, from amazon.com, as a Christmas present. And it is just to tool I need to kill sod and create a new flower bed. Why, you may ask, not use a shovel? The answer is in our leaning catalpa, a massive hollow, sweet-heart of a tree. (A heart of honey, wax, and bee cement called "propolis.") This aged tree is leaning over our house and I am loath to sever any (more) roots. Cutting sod under the tree is just not an option. I do not want to use herbicides because I have two thumbsuckers at home. And to be honest, I simply like using fire as a tool.

I only killed the leaves. Grass is tough. It'll resprout, and I'll burn it again. And it'll resprout, and I'll burn it again. This sounds really fun.

And for my mother and any other folks who might worry for my safety, I have been trained in this. I called in my fire permit and did this legally and with full permission of the fire department. I sprayed the part of the lawn I was not going to burn with water and left the hose running while I burned this very green, not-at-all flammable grass.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


After a few years of drier than average weather, the tide has turned. And when it rains, it pours. Here in Barry County, Michigan we have had two storms with over 4 inches of rain per storm. That is more than we get on average in a month. And the prairie plants are responding in a big way.

Weeds were far less a problem this year than in years past. These plants are now established and shading out the annual weeds. I keep on top of the grasses, a few maples, and the ever present catalpa seedlings.

Shown here are the black eyed susans, purple coneflowers, and few orange butterflyweed. The white is white prairie clover and a bit of daisy fleabane. I generally pull out most of the fleabane, which is weedy, but the bees and butterflies do like it.

A few weeks ago we saw flats of annuals on sale, and my lovely wife suggested we dig sod to make a new bed. I did not need to be asked twice. Over two evenings we cut about 300 square feet of sod and planted 5 flats of annuals. That may be just enough room for plants we desperately need to divide. We are well on our way to a grassless front lawn. And we were rewarded by a visit by goldfinches feeding on the coreopsis seedheads. I never thought of the goldfinch as an expert in camouflage, but they are tough to spot in a see of yellow flowers.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bursting all over the place

Some of the perennials are waking up and a few flowers are blooming. Garden season has begun again. I spent some time pulling grass from around the flowers today, in the cold. The temperature here did not venture far above 40F today, and snow was falling this morning when we left for church.

Try as I might, I have not been able to remove the violets from my plantings. I admit, I have not tried very hard.

Wild blue lupines are more fickle than I had thought. I planted many, from plugs, in fall 2006. Few survived the winter, and fewer still are sprouting now. However, I have seen lupines thirve through drought, fire, and being nibbled by deer. One thing it appears that they cannot abide is loamy, rich soil. They are only persisting in a sandy barren corner of the yard that barely supported grass when we bought the place.

This native relative of the yucca wins the contest for best name: rattlesnake master. I adopted this fellow at a native plant swap in Kalamazoo last year.

Lest you think we grow only pretty flowers, here is my May/June salad. I bought several packets of different greens in fall 2006 for $0.10 each. I did not get around to planting them in 2007, and so I dumped them all this year.

This is the parent to a plant that I am propogating from seed, I like to so much. Almost all the hawkweeds in Michigan are invasive exotics, a major weed of lawns and a minor (usually minor) weed of natural areas. However, there is one native: hairy hawkweed. The flowers are nondescript and yellow, but the foliage is a basal rosette of very fuzzy leaves.

Here you can get a little perspective on the small size of these young shoots. The small plants are one of our native Silphiums: cup plant. The taller plant is a daffodil that has not yet bloomed. In a few weeks, the cup-plant will tower over the daffodil, and by August the cup-plant will tower over me.

And lastly, I have a picture of another non-native, and one of my wife's favorite flowers: bleeding heart. (The flower of liberals?) And in the background you can see something else in the yard.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Signs of Spring


Signs of spring.

While walking through a remnant prairie is Branch County on Tuesday I was buffeted by cold winds and pelted with sleet. But the sound in a nearby wetland was unmistakable. Frogs. Amidst the western chorus frogs, Pseudacris triseriata, which sound like many fingers run along many combs, I heard my namesake - the spring peeper, Pseudacris crucifer (or "Pcrucifer" for short).

The second sign of spring came yesterday, Thursday, in the cackle and roar of a grass fire. This particular fire was set by me and several of my colleagues to stimulate native grasses that had been planted and to set back the non-native grasses and weeds.

In the garden the tulips and daffodils are up but not blooming. We have a few crocuses in bloom, but fewer than last year. They do not seem to find our garden amenable to naturalizing.

One new sign this spring: a "For Sale" sign in the front yard. Now all we need is a spring buyer.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Goats and Permaculture

I suppose I really should split those two topics into two blog posts, especially given the reputation that goats have for eating all things garden related, but both are on mind, and so here they are today, on my blog.

First the goats. Why goats? Well, it starts with turkeys. Turkeys?! Stay with me here. For Christmas I purchased for my wife a book that I wanted to read, I mean, that I thought she would like to read. (OK, like you've never done that.) The book was (still is) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, who is one of my favorite living nonfiction writers. And this book was about a couple passions of mine: gardening, eating local, and heirloom varieties. I had always thought of heirloom varieties as plants, but Barbara and her family raised rare "heirloom" turkeys. Kathy and I (she really did like the book) discussed heirloom plants, and the topic ranged over to "if we had some land." If we did not live in the city, what livestock could we keep. Not cows (too big). Not pigs (too smelly). Maybe chickens (still smelly). Turkeys could be cool, when the kiddos can defend themselves. And then Kathy mentioned goats. Goats? Don't goats have horns and are mean? (OK, I admit it, my sum total knowledge of goats was from petting zoos and Saturday morning cartoons.) No, Kathy said, we could do dwarf goats and milk them, and make our own cheese. I decided to look them up on the internet and immediately came across a site with pictures of baby dwarf goats, and I was hooked. Since then I have bought two books, including The Year of the Goat, 40,000 miles and the quest for the perfect cheese by Margaret Hathaway, and our house will be going up for sale next week so we can buy a goat farm, I mean, shorten my commute and grow more vegetables - and goats.

Permaculture is a new word I only recently learned. My friend Eric, from Madison, WI, mentioned it off-hand the other day. He mentioned it in one of those ways like, "Can you believe so-n-so did not even know what permaculture is." Ha ha we both laughed. So I got some books from the library. Apparently it is a system of using ecological principles in designing gardens that combine flowers, native plants, and vegetables all in the same garden. Very good. Sounds like a good idea. But as I read on in Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway, I got increasingly annoyed. Toby seemed to have serious issues with the movement to plant large areas of lawn to native plants for wildlife. His critiques were many, but what annoyed me is that here we have two uber-progressive gardeners, one with native plants and vegetables, and one with only native plants, and the veggie guy just rips into the native plant guy. I mean, come on. Most Americans are still buying chemical fertilizer to make their lawn grass monoculture a more unnatural shade of green. We are allies, not enemies.

Maybe I am a little sensitive on the point since progressives in general seem determined to demonize those who are not pure feminist or pure civil rights. We should be celebrating the fact that half of the country can't decide between a black man and white woman. Similarly, we should celebrate native plants and sustainable vegetalbe gardening wherever they are found.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Budburst a Blast

For a year or two now I have thought that someone should put together a website where people all over the country could record when certain plants start blooming. The website could then map all these records, and we could watch the wave of blooms move north. The information could help scientists document the effects of climate change on different plants in different places.

Now someone has done it! Check out Project Budburst - which starts accepting records on February 15 - not that I expect anything in my garden tro start blooming until April...

Help me get the word out. The more folks add their bloom times to the maps, the better we can watch the wave of blooms move north. I plan to include my kids; and there are resources for teachers to use the project in their classes.

Yard Redemption - Hope

Can a yard, a city lot in small town America no less, be redeemed? Is it right to speak of saving, delivering, restoring land? I'd like to continue to explore those questions.

We cannot turn back the clock. What has been lost, at a landscape scale, can only be restored at a landscape scale. But what about the scale of a yard?

Inch for inch, a native wildflower garden can contain greater plant diversity than most intact prairies and savannas. My yard, for instance, has 80 different native plants on less than 500 square feet. Animal and fungal diversity are probably lower than an intact savanna, but are still far higher than my neighbors' deserts of mowed grass.

I suppose "success" depends on comparison. A restored yard does not reach the same ecological value as a native savanna, but is far superior to the typical American yard.

But is it "redemption?" I suppose that depends on what we mean by "redemption" and whether that applies to land or only people?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Yard Redemption - Maybe Not

Can a yard, a city lot in small town America no less, be redeemed? Is it right to speak of saving, delivering, restoring land? I'd like to continue to explore those questions.

Something special has been lost. That much is clear from the accounts of early Euro-American settlers of Michigan in the previous two posts. The landscape today is picturesque, pastoral. But it is tamed, simplified, and less varied.

Restoration efforts on public and private land are making strides to preserve remaining pieces of savanna on the scale of tens or even hundreds of acres. But the miles of unbroken functioning ecological communities have been altered; there is no turning back the clock, at least not by human hands. And in that sense what has been lost is truly lost. When we preserve a remaining bit of savanna, we preserve not just many dozens of kinds of grasses and wildflowers, insects, birds, and other critters. We likely are preserving hundreds, thousands, millions of fungi and bacteria that make up that system. Planting a few plants back into a yard will not bring back all the insects, bacteria, and fungi that interacted to make the savanna truly healthy.

Restoration always takes second fiddle to preservation.

Does this mean that a yard cannot be redeemed? No. The damage cannot be fully undone - but it can be healed, taken a significant way toward being undone.

In my next post: why I am hopeful.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Yard Redemption - Oak Savanna Lost

Can a yard, a city lot in small town America no less, be redeemed? Is it right to speak of saving, delivering, restoring land? I'd like to continue to explore those questions.

This account of Hubbard is by no means unique, although it is perhaps the most elegant. My out-of-state readers probably envision rusting and shuttered factories as the current landscape of Michigan. There are shuttered factories (and working factories), but the landscape, especially the 90% of the landscape that is rural, is nice. Corn and soybean fields are intermixed with hay, pastures, and woodlots. Compared to Iowa or Illinois, field sizes are smaller more often bordered by wooded hedgerows. Residences are more frequent, and basic landscaping is common. Fewer wetlands have been drained in Michigan compared to other states. Michigan has both an East Coast and a West Coast and has more shoreline than any other state in the lower 48. More coastline than California. More coastline than Florida. Michigan is an undiscovered secret.

But it is not an "orchard" of majestic oaks scattered with small prairies and "gemmed" with wildflowers.

I want to continue to stress what has been lost, and continue with pioneer accounts from Kim Chapman's thesis.

"The annual fires burnt up the underwood, decayed trees, vegetation, and debris, in the oak openings, leaving them clear of obstructions. You could see through the trees in any direction, save where the irregularity of the surface intervened, for miles around you, and you could walk, ride on horse-back, or drive in a wagon wherever you pleased in these woods, as freely as you could in a neat and beautiful park." [Van Buren 1884, describing the oak openings settlers saw passing through the southern tiers of counties into Calhoun County]"

To-day for the first time, I saw the meadows on fire. They are of vast extent, running far into the woods like the firths of a lake; and as the wild grass, which they supply in the greatest profusion, furnished the new settler with all the hay he uses for his stock, they are burnt over thus annually to make it tender. These fires, traveling far over the country, seize upon the largest prairies, and consuming every tree in the woods, except the hardiest, cause the often-mentioned oak openings, so characteristic of Michigan scenery. [Hoffman 1835, recounting his impression of a December fire]"

Today we would call the oak openings, "oak savanna." Only 0.02% of the original oak savanna remains today. In other words, for every 4 square miles of savanna, an area the size of my yard (1/2 acres) remains. Enough has been lost to say that the landscape of savanna is lost. Enough remains that we can study it, replicate it, restore it and redeem our land, even our yard.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Yard Redemption - What was Lost

Can a yard, a city lot in small town America no less, be redeemed? Is it right to speak of saving, delivering, restoring land? I'd like to explore those questions over the next few posts.

We could start with the sorry state of the modern American lawn, and my lawn in particular. This is perhaps as much a shortcoming of religion and lawn care. Instead, let's begin with what was lost. What was this land before it was commodified, parceled, monetized, plowed, graded, and covered with lawn grass?

Kim Alan Chapman quotes many early accounts of the prairies and savannas of southern Michigan in his Masters Thesis entitled "An Ecological Investigation of Native Grassland in Southern Lower Michigan" from Western Michigan University, 1984.

"The ordinary character of the "openings" is that of a majestic orchard of stately oaks, which is frequently varied by small prairies, grassy lawns, and clear lakes. These magnificent groves were, until within a few years, kept free from underbrush by the passage through them of annual fires, allowing successive growths of herbage to spring up luxuriantly, covering the surface with a profusion of wildflowers and verdure...

The variety so essential in a landscape, of woodland, glade and sheets of water, are here combined in a manner which seems the result of art, but which is not less truly inimitable. It is difficult to resist the impression that we are surveying an old abode of civilization and of tasteful husbandry. It resembles those exquisite pictures of park scenery, where the vision roams at will among the clumps of lofty oaks, and over glades, gemmed with flowers..." from Hubbard 1840.

Can a yard be redeemed?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Fire in the Garden

A savanna is a mutt of forest and prairie parentage. Acre for acre savannas have more species than their parents, the forests or the prairies, because they have such a mix of species living together. If one compares how much has been lost to how much is currently protected, savannas are the worlds most endangered ecosystem. More so than wetlands. More so than old growth forest. More so even than rainforests.

Like much of southern Michigan, my neighborhood was once a savanna, a savanna with scattered, majestic oak trees. With waves of little bluestem, arrowfeather, and scattered big bluestem. Under the trees there were carpets of blue lupine, black-eyed susan, and bergamot. One common theme of pioneer accounts: it looked like a flower garden, like Eden. Another common theme of pioneer accounts: the savannas burned. Mile upon mile upon mile burned, often annually. And when the fires stopped, the savanna disappeared. Without fire to rejuvenate the grasses and wildflowers, and to prune the small trees back tot he ground, savanna became forest, or crops, or pasture.

Many of the grasses, wildflowers, trees, and shrubs in my garden are savanna plants. They love fire, especially wild blue lupine. I have a propane torch and will burn individual plants, when the setting and weather make it safe to do so. (In the spring I also assist my employer with burning remnant savannas and prairies.)

Today I mimicked fire in the garden. The bed in question is only a few feet from the vinyl siding of my house. We are experiencing an unseasonable thaw (average temperature 32 F, 0 C, today's temperature 50 F, 10 C). I noticed that wet, slimy leaves were lying over the lupine and other savanna plants. Lupine is very sensitive to rot, and most savanna plant seeds will only germinate when exposed to open soil. So I mimicked the effects of a good fire and hand picked the leaves out of the garden. Like a fire, I exposed the soil to the air and (someday) sunlight.

I was just happy for a rare mid-winter chance to get my hands dirty.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Native Plant Profile: Bergamot

Moptop, originally uploaded by pawpaw67.

I heard on my Wiggly Wigglers podcast that the crew did not know what bergamot is. It is a wildflower native to eastern North America in the genus Monarda.

In the fall of 2004 I purchased my first four native plants: rosinweed, cup plant, prairie smoke, and bergamot. The former three were purchased to aid my plant identification skills. My job often require me to identify rare plants before or long after they have bloomed, and I thought (rightly) that seeing them everyday would give me a familiarity with these state threatened plants. Bergamot was my first plant purchase with the goal to attract wildlife to the garden. Many gardeners are familiar with a close cousin of bergamot: bee balm. Bee balm, and to a lesser extent, bergamot, attract large numbers of bumblebees and the occasional hummingbird.I once spent a breathtaking quarter of an hour in a garden on the campus of the University of Maine, where a veritable hedge of bee balm was alive with male hummingbirds fighting over the profusion of red blossoms. It was a formative experience, and I have yearned for hummingbirds in my garden ever since.

Every plant has personality. Bergamot loves sun, and will form large colonies if given the chance. It blooms in mid summer, but should be planted behind a good fall plant, like an aster or goldenrod. Like bee balm, bergamot gets downy mildew – especially if you water the garden – most especially if you water in the evening. The white droopy leaves look pretty sad through fall, but the stem stays erect into the winter and adds interest with its seed heads, which also make excellent snowman facial features.

I have heard that bergamot is also used to make an aromatic tea and was a common medicine for Native Americans.

Bergemot is not rare in the wild, and it is often found in native prairies, savannas, or old fields and pastures.

(Note to European readers, the European “bee balm” and American “bee balm” are two totally different plants. American bee balm, Monarda didyma, you may know as “Oswego Tea.”)

P.S. The photo is not my own. Suffice to say I did not have a good pic in my files and they are not blooming right now.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Gardening as Spiritual Discipline

For several hundred years Christians have argued about carts and horses. Catholics have argued that faith without action is not faith. Protestants have argued that works divorced from belief is barren. We argue which is the horse and which is the cart, and who has what before which. The fact is that faith and action are related, and separable only in theory. Every action arises from a belief; every belief comes from and leads to an action.

Protestants like myself are increasingly coming to understand the value of action, doing, and ritual. Many of the actions Christians have done for centuries are called "spiritual disciplines." Discipline is a word with a bit too much negative baggage, but as I find myself way out on a tangent, I'll return to the point of the posting.

I have not found gardening listed as a spiritual discipline, a faith activity, etc. in any of the many great books I have read on this subject. Not in Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, nor in the more recent Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner.

Nevertheless, I find gardening listed as a spiritual activity in other Christian books: Genesis (unsigned, but probably written by Moses, of anti-slavery fame), Matthew (self-titled.) Indeed, Christianity is probably the most pro-gardening of all world religions. Paradise is a garden, humans (lively humus) were created to garden, and new life begins in a garden, where Jesus was mistaken for a gardener.

Today, like most winter days, I learn faith from my garden. It is dormant, dead, frozen and white. I know there is life there, but I cannot see it, not in this season. I hope. Despite the snow and the wintery evidence, I hope. I have faith that come spring the wildflowers will do what wildflowers were created to do: green, grow, bloom.

It is a good lesson in life in this materialistic, unjust, and too oft hurting world. There is hope. Spring and life will come.