Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nine Mile Prairie Tour

This weekend my wife and I toured the largest virgin tract of prairie in eastern Nebraska, which is just 15 minutes from our house. Nine Mile Prairie is managed by UNL and owned by the University of Nebraska Foundation (UNL leases it from the foundation for $1 a year). But at just 230 acres it's a small remnant (well, quite large really, but still...). 392 plant species and over 80 bird species have been recorded at Nine Mile, and it's a genetic material seed source for restorations around Nebraska.

Big bluestem under a big blue sky -- ah, Nebraska
David Wedin, the director, started off our tour with looking at management practices and concerns. The UNL adventure club has a challenge course on the site, which is near massive high-tension wires on the south side. On the north side are former nuclear bomb bunkers now rented our for storage (Dr. Wedin said there's some very unique plants among those bunkers). The new Lincoln Police Department firing range is also slated to go in to the north in coming years -- won't that be peaceful?

No thank you, I don't even like ladders
One of the things that stuck with me was the failed management of sumac which is taking over an entire 40 acres (and more) -- failed in the sense that fire isn't working, but glyphosate applications on cut stems is. David went on to talk about the increased levels of nitrogen and carbon in the air; nitrogen is coming off of fertilizer applications in ag fields, primarily, and is accelerating grass growth rates. At the same time, increased carbon is favoring C3 plants like woody vegetation -- they've already documented the changes. In fact, they've decided to keep the trees that weren't there 100 years ago while still managing red cedar; the strategy is to manage for diversity as climate change throws more and more curve balls, because there is no going back. Tall grasses are also more prevalent than in the early 1900s, when plants like the much shorter prairie dropseed where in control.

Our cabin would like nice here
We found many forbs in bloom and some were delightful surprises on our separate plant identification hike.

Poor photo of prairie gentian, found many, surprisingly
Tall boneset with canada goldenrod
Quiz: want to see how many know this one
Rough blazingstar fading away
Lady's tresses orchid, a nice stand of them in the pathway
Stiff goldenrod remains more stiff in prairie than gardens

Thanks to the Nebraska Native Plant Society for organizing the field trip! A cold morning gave way to warm sun and wonderful discoveries.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

G'bye Lawn: Making a Sustainable Prairie Garden

For years my wife and I have wanted to remove our front lawn and replace it with a prairie garden that increases water penetration, soil fertility, and helps pollinating insects. We're up against suburban dogma that says lawn is king -- we have neighbors that mow 3x a week, hire TruGreen, trim lawn with scissors, and water every morning with auto sprinklers. But we're burning to make a difference.

We want to set a better example and use our space to teach and inspire in as many ways as we can. But of course, we need help to make it happen -- we need you to believe in us, believe in this sort of thing in our neighborhood, city, and across the country. If our project doesn't get fully funded by September 14 it won't happen. Can you help us? Will you spread the word? Here's the link to our Indiegogo campaign.

Our strategy is to get the garden in as fast as possible so any "messy" transition or years of slow building won't rile up the neighbors. We have a wide 6' swath of lawn we'll keep as a pathway through the 600' garden. We'll use plants that get less than 3-4' tall, and plants nearest the driveway, curb, and property line, will be 1-2' tall at most. I'll source my plugs from a local nonprofit prairie nursery who uses many local genotype seeds. There will be a sign saying what the garden is, why it is, and what it's doing for water, soil, and wildlife. We're ready! Can you feel it?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Morality of Extinction in Our Gardens

Folks, I got fired up this morning by a piece that strikes at the heart of my thinking over the last year. John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has the most brilliant, heart wrenching call to action I've read in some time (he's reflecting on the centennial of Martha's death, the last passenger pigeon of billions we hunted to extinction). And when he calls the loss of species a moral issue, well, you know I was hooked.

"The State of the Birds report identifies more than two dozen “common birds in steep decline” — species that are showing early warning signals of distress, having recently lost more than half of their global populations. Mostly, these species are barometers for greater environmental issues. The eastern meadowlark and northern bobwhite are fading from rural America right along with the family farm and its smaller-scale agricultural practices of pasturing cows and keeping grass buffers. Common nighthawks, those fantastic evening acrobats that flash through our ball-field lights to catch bugs on summer nights, are disappearing alongside native pollinators like bees. Many experts suspect that continent-scale declines in the prey of insect-eating birds have resulted from agricultural and homeowner insecticide use.

I suggest that the broader conservation argument transcends cost efficiencies and scientific analyses and should focus instead on the moral questions posed by Martha. Most of us wish we could see those storied passenger pigeon flocks for ourselves, so why aren’t we doing everything possible to keep some of our most common wild things from meeting the same fate? Don’t our great-grandchildren have the right, as part of their American heritage, to experience choruses of meadowlarks singing “spring is here!” from treetops and fence posts?"

Species conservation is a moral and ethical issue. When Fitzpatrick points out insect decline as related to bird decline, this should be a no brainer call to action for gardeners. We see the insect loss, and we see the interaction of birds in our local environment. Our gardens ARE places of protest. The landscapes we have direct control over are collective refuges. Yes, we need to do something about huge swaths of monocultures, poisoned by chemical overuse, that are eradicating the last "wild" places (if they even exist anymore).

It is not a stretch at all to call our gardens a place to exercise and discover our moral and ethical imperatives. If you slather your landscape in pesticides, maintain a huge amount of irrigated lawn with multiple applications of commercial fertilizer, run that mower and spew that exhaust, then this all says something about what you think about the world and those who share it with you (human and non human).

For those who say our gardens should not be burdened with such "heavy" thinking -- to be a place of ideology and belief -- I say gardens have always been a place of heavy ideology. A quick survey of examples from Victorian, Japanese, Persian, and European formal gardens will scream ideology -- as do naturalistic gardens today. If this kind of thinking doesn't belong in our gardens, where does it? How can we hope to learn or effect change if it doesn't start at home? The imperative is to think about how gardens are connected to larger ecosystems, how we are all interconnected, and this calls for a selfless attitude -- which is the antithesis of western culture, and certainly the American ideaology of "don't tread on me, I'm free to do what I want." We also have the happiness myth that expounds the pressure to always appear to be happy and content, and to do (buy) anything to make us happy. But looking at our negative and positive rolls in the environment can make us happy -- knowledge empowers and creates action; whereas denial keeps us trapped in a cycle of stagnation, something corporate spin doctors and government lobbyists love.

Go plant a milkweed and get liberated. Trade in the gas mower for a reel mower, or the lawn for a prairie garden. Live connected and fuller and richer. Let your landscape be an ideology that screams freedom for all species today and tomorrow, including this dude below.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Native Plants in Downtown Lincoln!

When your city does something right, one should heap praise on it. Of course, when your city builds a monstrous 1/4 block concrete patio on the corner of P and 13th streets -- with not a plant in site -- you should cry bloody murder.

It's better to walk south on 13th street a few blocks, between at least K and M. There you'll find a collection of small beds between the street and sidewalk featuring the below (excuse the image quality, I was using my cell):

Monarch on Liatris ligulistylis
Love Rudbeckia and leadplant
Grasses make any utility box look charming

Aromatic aster will soon be making traffic stop

Friday, August 22, 2014

Your Garden is Defiant Compassion

Your garden is a protest. It is a place of defiant compassion. That space is one to help sustain wildlife and ecosystem function while providing an aesthetic response that moves you. For you, beauty isn't petal deep, but goes down into the soil, further down into the aquifer, and back up into the air and for miles around on the backs and legs of insects. You don't have to see soil microbes in action, birds eating seeds, butterflies laying eggs, ants farming aphids -- just knowing it's possible in your garden thrills you, it's like faith, and it frees you to live life more authentically. Your garden is a protest for all the ways in which we deny our life by denying other lives. Go plant some natives. Be defiantly compassionate.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

1 Million Article Views & Butterfly Mania

I'm pretty excited that my Houzz articles have reached 1 million total views, and 90% of those have happened in the last year since I went weekly. Topics have included the benefits of native plants, why to mitigate lawn and what to replace it with, gardening for bees and butterflies, design risks to take, climate change gardening, being more selfless in the landscape, how to cut down on mulch, drought tolerant shade plants, the benefits of aggressive plants, and tons of plant profiles. Link on over.

On the home front, I had a rare visitor on my Liatris ligulistylis -- for over 3 hours this queen butterfly (a male) nectared over and over on every Liatris. Their range is typically far south of Nebraska.

And I've had a ton of monarchs and swallowtails, also on the above Liatris -- what I'd do without that plant is beyond me. Every day there are at least 4 monarchs, and I'm well on my way to raising nearly 100 just a year after 5.

Hackberry emperor
Hold on a second, be right with you.
Native plants that are just about done blooming and have been covered in literal clouds of bees of all sizes, flies, wasps, moths, etc -- culver's root, boneset, and short-toothed mountain mint. Just amazing how full these plants have been. The joe pyes are set to take over the job, though, and after that goldenrod and asters. Let's hear it for timely succession gardening! Want to come over and play?

Coneflowers look good in any season.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Native Plant Gardens in Lincoln

Last month I showed you images around the Pioneers Park Nature Center and prairie. Now I've got three more locations that show various degrees of design intent, from more formal to utilitarian to semi natural. It's hard to find these places around town, so if you know of any private or public gardens featuring a significant percentage of native plants, please contact me.

First up is Union Plaza just east of downtown and off of O Street. I've been critical of the park before, and in many ways I still am. However, several groupings of plants are now maturing and it's good to look at them as inspirational examples.

You'll find this mid summer vista on the northeast corner of 21st and Q. This combo of Rudbeckia and the blue grama cultivar blonde ambition is a standout in the raised planting bed.

In the same raised planting area is the silvery-white rattlensake master. It was covered with insects until I spooked them away, but it is a great pollinator plant and very adaptable. Following are additional images of Union Plaza:

Northeast of the previous images is a new "meadow" area going in.
You can't miss Colossus north of 21st and P.
Wine cup makes a nice ground cover.
Ducks in the stream looking for bread crumb handouts.
Next up is the rain garden at Fireworks Restaurant at South 84th and Old Cheney Road. This garden filters runoff from the parking lot and is filled with native grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs. It's a very long space that curves with the adjacent bike trail -- just a very pleasant area. Stop by here in late September into early October for the fall show.

Monarda fistulosa and grey-headed coneflowers.
Monarda, cones, and joe pye weed.
Button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) full of insects!
Finally, and new to me, is Tyrrell Park at North 67th and Baldwin. I was late for the mid summer flower show, but I still took pics. The entire area serves as a massive rain garden -- and I mean massive. Posted throughout are signs with some cool info on the park, the plants, wildlife, rocks, and why prairie matters. Pretty neat to see.

So again, if you know of other areas in or around Lincoln please let me know. I'd especially like to see more formally design spaces, like homes or businesses, using native plants in many aesthetic ways (i.e. they aren't "weedy").

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Morality as Imagination

I know -- you just want pretty garden pictures. But I'm a thinking guy, and in that thinking I fall in love with the world around me -- which is where my ethical imperatives in the garden come from:

"Logical thinking alone can only elaborate what it already knows; it is at root tautologous. To make a real scientific discovery requires more than logic or data collection; it requires imagination. As Einstein remarked, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Imagination reaches beyond what we already know to the new. Every true innovation and original insight will make use of data and logic but simultaneously transcend them. In like manner, every moral insight or judgment will make use of past experience and moral reasoning, but also transcend them.

We are empathic beings. As such we are profoundly connected to other human beings, as well as to all of nature. We can feel the joy and suffering of others, and as innately moral beings, we seek to mitigate suffering and promote the flourishing of others, even at a cost to ourselves. True morality carries the marks of insight and imagination. Every true moral act is made in freedom. Yes, we are informed by experience and the values of our society, but ultimately through self-knowledge, we have the potential to become free of their determinative force and choose the good (or evil) freely. In my view this is the moment in which love takes on the character of knowing. Love allows us gently, respectfully, and intimately to slip into the life of another person or animal or even the Earth itself and to know it from the inside. In this way, love can become a way of moral knowing that is as reliable as scientific insight. Then our highest challenge and aspiration is to learn to love with such selflessness and purity that love becomes a way to true moral insight, one that transcends social construction and biological imperatives." http://www.humansandnature.org/mind---morality---arthur-zajonc-response-124.php

Love is a way of moral knowing that is as reliable as scientific insight? This will aggravate a lot of people. But in a world of black vs. white, science vs. religion, native plants vs. exotic, it's true -- the lines really are blurry, and to find direction one has to hop between them and think from multiple perspectives at once (some call this empathy, some magical thinking). It's hard. Imagination is freedom, and to put it into words creates a statement of belief, which can both be even more liberating as well as restricting. The words may open up new insights for you, but once focused into letters you open yourself up to external perceptions and other people with other imaginings and beliefs. In this way language as we know it fails -- but thank goodness we always have the garden and nature to come back to, to help us fall in love again and remember who we are.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Agreeing & Disagreeing with Emma Marris (Again)

It's hard to save nature when we're eradicating it. Every article I read, now a year after reading her book, sends me into tirades of frustration and commiseration / understanding with Marris. I wish for once, though, she'd delve deeper in to the issue and stop pounding the table (as I suppose I do) with the native / non native and conserve / accept it debate; this is the tip of the ice berg, and boy we all have a hard time getting past it. You can read her piece at National Geographic, and then maybe my response to it will make more sense. I suppose my biggest beef is always going to be not looking hard enough or honest enough at ourselves -- she does that toward the end of her piece, but it feels like lip service (I felt this way in her book, too, so it's not just the nature of a short article). Anyway, my reply to her thoughts:

Maybe we should be looking at the deeper issues here -- we cause climate change, we cause extinctions, we exacerbate drought and deluges and swings in the jet stream. It's fine to adapt, embrace the change that's upon us (novel ecosystems), but we need to be looking at the deeper socio-economic causes at play here, and if our ethical codes toward life (other species and our own, especially our future generations) are up to snuff. We show no intention or ability to think about the future. Look at the annihilation of prairie in the Great Plains, North America's Amazon rainforest, that could store massive amounts of carbon in the soil; we continue to eradicate it, watch topsoil slide away, poison the land and water with agricultural chemicals, leach out soil life and erase food sources for pollinators, but we don't learn to farm smarter. Yes, the real bad guy is us -- we are facing an ethical imperative here and failing badly at adapting in more profound, deep, and fundamental ways. We can embrace non native species in new habitats, but the fact is 30% of global plant species may be gone by 2060, and they will take a massive amount of animals with them -- no amount of non natives will make up for that biologic erasure. Plant your nonnative whatever out back, but recognize that this act echoes a larger system of our navel gazing and self-privileging in the anthropocene, and it might have larger consequences when we collectively plant like this. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Mid Summer Meditation After 100 Degrees

In the cool heat of late evening the soil is breaking open, but the bumblebees are still working, the butterflies diving, the hummingbird moths pulsing. Near the dripping garden hose a baby mourning dove holds so still that for ten minutes I think it's mulch. I place milkweed leaves inside a rearing tank as the caterpillars quickly crowd over. A cicada scratches its call into the air while haze mutes the sunset. The wind is so still I can feel everything waking again in the brief moment before night.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Images from Pioneers Park Prairie

Last week I picked a cloudy, breezy day to visit the prairie near my home. I'm embarking on a project to record and highlight local, designed native plant communities that we can get garden inspiration from -- and below is a snippet of my look at Pioneers Park. July is a good time to get out and about for the flowers, and then September will be next, followed by late October for the foliage.

Above is a shot on the east side of the nature center. In the foreground is a pollinator garden, with prairie behind it. Taking a walk north and west will get you into some nice tallgrass with stands of common milkweed perfuming the air in a spiced vanilla. Lots of birds and insects taking advantage of this semi urban oasis.

Just before you park at the nature center is a bioswale of native forbs and grasses that filters runoff from the road. Right now, being a disturbed area, Rudbeckia is in charge, but there's a decent succession of diverse plants coming up.

A closer look at some perennials and annuals in the bioswale.

Canada milkvetch is blooming along the prairie paths; why I don't have this in my garden is a question for the ages.

A shot of leadplant, then grey headed coneflower behind it, then the cistern for the nature center further back. The nature center has a bit of green roof to it, as well, which you can see in the next image.

The west side of the building features slightly more formal beds were many events are held on the green space. Some good pollinator plants in here to learn about, but also in the entire 668 acres of prairie, woodland, and creek. I'd have images of elk and bison for you if I'd not committed a photographer's cardinal sin -- not bringing a backup camera battery.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is There Any Difference Between a Land Ethic and a Garden Ethic?

Here's Aldo Leopold on the land ethic; think about how it relates to gardening, in both public and private landscapes.

"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.... That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.... A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land.... We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.... A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it...it implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

And I found this definition of ethics interesting: 

People tend to use the term "ethics" in two different ways.

1) Ethics help us decide how we ought to live. In their most general form, we might say that ethics are standards we employ (among other factors) to determine our actions. They are prescriptive in that they tell us what we should or ought to do and which values we should or ought not hold. They also help us evaluate whether something is good or bad, right or wrong. 

Leopold's example: "A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it...it implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

2) Ethics explain why things are important to us. Ethics are also concerned with how and why we value certain things and what actions properly reflect those values. In this sense, ethics appear more descriptive. Just as it is possible for taste to be a neutral and descriptive term -- appreciation for a work of art can be a matter of taste -- ethics can operate the same way.

Leopold's example: "Sometimes in June when I see unearned dividends of dew hung every lupine, I have doubts about the real poverty of the sands... do economists know about lupines?"


I think we need to do a much better job of applying Leopold's land ethic to the garden. Too often the garden is a place mostly for us -- our desires, our vision, our life; it's there to serve just us. This is not an ethical garden, and I don't think it truly reflects how we act or think of ourselves as part of a human or planetary community. At least I hope not. Thinking deeper, as part of a community of all life, frees us from the false ethics of self-privileging.

When we breed plants for traits we want, is this ethical? When we buy a plant that sees few insects using its blooms or leaves, but that we find beautiful, is this ethical? If we value ourselves above all else in the natural world, what will inevitably happen to us? These are hard, penetrating questions that disturb what we believe and shake the foundation of our perceived free will. This is how ethical thinking begins. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

An Ode to Prairie Clover

Ranchers refer to this protein-rich perennial as a candy plant because cattle love to eat it, so much so that in an overgrazed field you won't see any Dalea purpurea. And yet in a sandy or well drained loam it will spread vigorously, with roots reaching seven feet down. It thrives on disturbance. It's a survivor on the prairie. 

Blooming from top to bottom, each spike won't last but a few days in high summer. Bees will come in droves of varying sizes and colors, some so small you can only hear them. A stand of purple prairie clover is subtle until the right light hits it -- usually morning or evening, sleep heavy across the landscape.

It's the perfect garden height at around two feet -- not so tall as to overwhelm, not so short as to underwhelm. In masses purple clover is like a transition from full season groundcovers to showier blooms that flaunt their dalliance with pollinators and garden visitors. It is a shadow which gives definition to other perennials.

"To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee" wrote Emily Dickinson. And with its penchant to add nitrogen to the soil, purple clover helps the plants around it -- creating a more hospitable environment. It gives and it takes in equal measure.

Dalea purpurea. DAY-lee-uh prr-PUR-ee-uh. It echoes across the prairie, an ocean in an ocean of grass anchoring the world into this place.