Sunday, June 28, 2015

And Justice For All Species

Now that we're starting to see more social justice and equality, let's keep the ball rolling. Our next big task is environmental justice, not just the fact that climate change will adversely impact the poor, but that it will decimate (and is decimating) entire ecosystems and species. When we can hold bees and birds in our hands and be transformed by the miracle of compassion that touch brings, when we can be transformed by the same between two men or two women, then it is not a far step to extend our compassion to all creatures on this rare and glorious planet. We are all equal, all key components in a rich web of hope, compassion, and freedom. Stand up for each other. Fight for equality and the right for all to live out their lives as they're designed to do.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Some Prairie

I was at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies field day on Friday; it was almost picture perfect with good temps and passing clouds with blue sky (after some light rain in the morning). Lot's of trips out into the prairie to see birds, insects, fish, amphibians, learn about restoration efforts, and to hear moi discussing prairie loss and how thoughtfully-designed gardens can help pollinators and bring some of the prairie home. So, just a few images I took with the phone (I'm getting in the nasty habit of not bringing real cameras with me):

Verbena stricta

A native annual barley

Common milkweed with sun hitting the prairie sand dunes

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Busy Bees in Tall Stems

This is the first year I left "unsightly" stems very high in my garden during the late April cut down. Common advice says to cut things down to about 6", but that erases possible homes for our many native bees. With 2' stems all over the place, and all covered by dense garden foliage, I can hear the garden as bees pulse and buzz in stems all over the place.

Do you see any stems in this image? I guarantee that you can hear them, though (if the lawnmowers ever stop).

Friday, June 19, 2015

Pollinators & Garden Beauty

Earlier this month the Lincoln Journal Star published an editorial on pollinators -- the issues surrounding their decline, especially here in Nebraska. The focus was on honey bees, so I had to send in a reply which won't be published, but I leave here for you to read. Look for a longer piece in a future issue of Prairie Fire.

I applaud the Journal Star editorial board for continuing to bring attention to the plight of our pollinating insects, and especially the loss of prairie which has only been exacerbated with the decrease in CRP funding associated with the most recent farm bill. We also need to stop mowing our highway edges more than 1-2 times a year, and plant native pollinator gardens at home, at businesses, and even on capitol grounds. 

However, European honey bees are responsible for so much commercial pollination because we’ve made that the case. It takes 60% of all U.S. hives to pollinate just the almond crop in California, and the stress of shipping them across the country surely exacerbates their troubles, as well as the lack of diverse flower forage. This agricultural practice is a dangerous monoculture that supports other dangerous monocultures, systems which diminish diversity and a landscape’s health and resiliency. Yes, helping honey bees will help so much more, especially if this means fewer lawns and more prairies, but we have 4,000 native bee species, too.

These native bees are, collectively, over 90% efficient at flower pollination whereas honey bees are only 70% efficient. Many native bees have evolved very specific relationships with native plants – in some cases, the absence of one leads to the absence of the other. The more bees of all species we have pollinating, the higher the fruit yield, the better the quality, and the longer the shelf life at grocery stores (I’m especially thinking about produce like strawberries that require a diversity of pollinators to set fruit). 

The Xerces Society has recently begun a pilot program on about 100 acres of almond groves in California, planting the edges with native hedgerows and underplanting the trees in a meadow of wildlfowers – the goal is to end the dependence on honey bees, reduce water consumption, and mitigate the need to spray for pests. We should also look to the Prairie STRIPs program at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. 

Here in Nebraska, and Lincoln specifically, I’d love to see us become the prairie capitol of the nation: prairie along road edges following the lead of New Mexico and Iowa, native plants in our garden beds and in the new pedestrian mall downtown, and one side of the state building in designed prairie gardens vs. a desert of lawn. Our lives, and the lives of other species, may depend upon a new landscape aesthetic that incorporates both human concepts of beauty and unseen ecological function that supports native bees, monarch butterflies, and far more; what we need is a beauty that extends to species beyond our own.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Art of Selfless Garden Design

After reading this article on the moral imperative of renewable energy, and being fueled by the Pope's call to ethical rethinking of nature -- I feel lots of momentum regarding how we interact with nature on personal, emotional, cultural, scientific, and ethical levels; it's as if everything is coming together! Here are my thoughts.

I think there’s a myth out there that good garden design for humans can not also be good garden design for other species (and other humans, in the case of filtering groundwater, cleaning the air, etc). It’s not an either or proposition.

Speaking in generalizations, garden designers, to me, feel beholden to a function and a style that comes from another time and another country; maybe it’s 1700s England or 1600s France. An outdoor space isn’t just a room to relax in, to escape to, to express our status -- it is a bridge between the world we hold at bay in almost every moment and our incomplete selves that hunger for contact with nature. This is where the theory of biophilia comes in – that we have an innate need to connect with the living world around us. Do gardens that inhibit other lives and biological functions fill that need? 

We gain completeness through experience and knowledge. When I began learning about native plants I felt more in control of my garden-making process – I wasn’t picking up any old thing at a nursery, letting current trends or tired choices (hello, hosta) be my guiding light; no, I was beginning to understand how plants interact with the world, how they are part of a larger system, not just a cog in the wheel but integral fibers of muscle and tissue. When I realized I could be a part of that fiber by how I gardened and what I learned through more informed plant choices, I was generally happier, more confident, and more passionate about life than in any other point of my short existence. I fully realized my garden mattered as much to me as it did to bees – that collectively all of our gardens mattered so very much.  

Gardening is therapy? Yes, but not just in the sense of walking through a flowering meadow or dipping toes into a babbling creek to calm our nerves ; gardening is therapy in the sense that it circumvents the cultural systems we’ve made up that say there’s a hierarchy, a certain way to do things, universal beliefs that are tried and true. Gardening shatters the wall between rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white, human and monarch butterfly. Maybe gardening is for radicals in the sense that when we become empowered advocates who study, observe, and nurture open curiosity, we challenge the exploitative systems that hurt our world and ourselves.

Designed landscapes can be for us – utilitarian in their sidewalks and fruiting trees, gorgeous in their flowers and foliage – but there’s no reason in the world that at the same time they can’t be places for birds to raise their young, butterflies to lay eggs, bees to forage for nests, and soil life to flourish. To think that gardens are just for us is self-defeating and selfish, and is simply a lack of imagination; I even believe it’s an inability to extend our ethical circles in some really cool ways that would enlighten and heal many of our cultural and social problems. If nature calms us, if nature helps us recover from illness faster, if nature eases ADHD, why can’t gardens also help us see through another’s eyes, champion equal rights and equal pay, become the people we dream ourselves to be in our best moments (like those stories that end every news broadcast).

A designed landscape that does not see beyond the human is a landscape that is devoid of the human – it’s devoid of forgiveness, mercy, hope, equality, and community. 

Human art is an attempt to express the inexpressible, a way to bridge how we interpret the world emotionally, how we internalize and experience life, what we value in our most authentic moments of reflection and connection. Plants themselves are not art. What we do with them -- how we honor their life processes in a garden -- that's art.

Prairie smoke doing its thing.
“Lilacs disconnect one’s yard from the prairie that is around and so disconnect our lives from reckoning with the real wonders of the grassland. The Nebraska plain is not barren, after all.”
-- Richard Manning

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Quote of the Century

I will never apologize. You shouldn't either. Feel.

"We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don't ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don't apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time." — Joanna Macy

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Very Wet Spring

I think we're up to about 14" of rain in the last 5 weeks. The front prairie garden -- composed off 100% drought tolerant natives -- is languishing. Out back things are thick, lush, and breeding mosquitoes by the truck load. Chiggers will be next. Still, there are reasons to celebrate.

Arrowwood viburnum and indian grass

Shell leaf penstemon

Baptisia autralis minor

The front beds. A soggy mess with mulch floating away.

Pasque flower seed heads. Better than blooms.

Leave those cut plant stems high! Many native bees buzzing in and out.

My wife's PhD graduation gift. Can't believe it's been a year.

And I leave you with this thought:

“Lilacs disconnect one’s yard from the prairie that is around and so disconnect our lives from reckoning with the real wonders of the grassland. The Nebraska plain is not barren, after all.”
-- Richard Manning

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Creating Art as a Way to Grieve, Heal, & Connect With Nature

I was reading this interview and kept thinking about gardens and garden making -- especially with wildlife and ecological function in mind. What do you think?

"Humans desire, more than anything else, to be creative, and we desire to participate in the creative processes, in the future and in life—that’s what having children is about. But we can be life-generating in a variety of ways—creative, participatory, oriented toward something larger than ourselves. What is larger than ourselves that we really care about? It’s Life, as far as I can see. We are on the verge of knowing how to express comprehensive gratitude, acknowledging that we are dwelling within a living system. This gives rise to a sense of resonance with lifeforms that certainly earlier peoples understood, and native peoples still do. This is a new moment for our awakening to the beauty of life that is now in our hands. And because we are life-giving humans and care about our children and their children and future generations of all species, I think the universe story can sustain us and inspire us in so many ways yet to be fully discovered [....]"

"My greatest hope would be that these life systems are so powerful, are themselves so resilient, that we can take inspiration from the natural world and its fantastic, intriguing mystery and complexity. In this way, our own generativity can become woven into the vibrant communities that constitute the vast symphony of the universe. There are hundreds of thousands of people on the planet who are aware and ready and already participating in this epic story. They want to help write the story into its future, participate in its unfolding, so that we get through this hourglass of loss and extinction, of sorrow and mourning. We need to articulate this sorrow and ritualize our grieving; the humanities can help us do that. But we need to create, in this hugely difficult birth passage, new ways of being vibrant and mutually enhancing creatures on this planet."

-- Mary Evelyn Tucker interviewed in Orion May / June 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

State of the Main Garden in Pics

A cavalcade of images. I've been spending more time out back lately (school is over) before the chiggers get bad in a few weeks and make it less fun to garden for two months -- well, chiggers and the heat. I've been having to do catch up weeding this spring -- I haven't weeded much in 2-3 years so some areas need help, like along the fence that borders the neighbor's 3 acres (land which, heartbreakingly, they just let sit and become overrun with red cedars -- no flowers at all!).

First week of May
Wettest May on record, so says the prairie smoke
Shooting stars smell great but don't last long
Amsonia is a treat to queen bumbles
I've seen several of these masses 'o' baby spiders. 
Dwarf indigo, Baptisia australis minor
A ninebark cultivar -- insects love the blooms, not the leaves
Aster vs. iris. I'm pulling for the aster!
Last week of May

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Gardening Needs to Change

The same self interest that dominates our consumer-driven capitalist culture -- and that destroys biodiversity, ecosystem health, and planetary resiliency -- is evoked in how we garden. If we garden for ourselves, choosing only those plants whose blooms or leaves are pretty to us but not to pollinators and other wildlife, we are directly harming the planet through wasted space and denied life processes. Even if we see one bee on a hosta bloom or a bird perched in a Japanese maple, it does not mean these plants are beneficial to wildlife or the ecosystem -- the web of life is much more intricate than a momentary observation; it's so intricate we may never know, and that's ok. 

A new gardening ethic that is required does not limit your options, attack you, or condemn -- but it is easy to feel that these things are happening because the larger implications are that even our smallest actions matter in some negative ways; but such a revelation can be empowering if we embrace the challenge, and the joy, of living with nature and not against it (and learning from it). While gardens are totally artifice and may never be fully integrated into the larger / wilder world, in an age of novel ecosystems where nothing is left untouched by us, gardens become lifelines -- both for other species and ourselves, physically and emotionally. Garden with regional native plants. Celebrate your unique home. Get in balance with a life our cultural systems say are invalid, dangerous, and of another time and place when we were "lesser" as a species.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New Front, De-Lawned, Prairie Garden Coming Back

Last May my wife and I received a letter from county weed control that our front lawn was too long -- this was likely brought to their attention by a neighbor. Unlike my neighbors who mow weekly, or thrice weekly for one of them, I tend to mow once a month at most. The front yard always grew slowly, being on a slight slope and in full sun. Still, the lawn was probably around 8-10" on the edges where neighbor sprinklers helped it grow unnaturally fast; this surely led to a slightly unkempt look.

For a few years I'd been trying to get the nerve to do something different out front, and when my wife agreed, we started a plan. We used crowd-funding for the 100% native plant conversion, and many generous donors shared our vision of wanting to create a more sustainable yet beautiful example for suburbs and cities alike. Hopefully, my plan of drought-tolerant drifts and masses, while using a matrix of 50% grasses, will look like wildness ordered -- and be a boon to wildlife while being much less maintenance than lawn. Once the space fills in more, I'll do some writing for local pubs on it and host tours / workshops (it did appear at Houzz this winter). For now, this is what it looks like.

The hellstrip needs weeding / sodding. It's there to help the garden blend in.
Two weeks ago we received 7" of rain in a few hours, which resulted in permanent waves of soil in parts of the garden, washed out mulch, washed out soil, and a few plant losses. Add to this the fact that fescue is poking up through the mulch -- we clearly didn't have the sodcutter set deep enough -- and there's plenty of first-year work to do. Overall, it looks like 90-95% of the grasses and flowers came back. I think the largest challenge during the first years of establishment will be the gangly stage -- namely, forbs outpacing grasses... little bluestem, sideoats grama, and prairie dropseed. Already, pale purple coneflower is shooting up over a foot and the warm-season grasses are barely stirring. I can't wait for the green mulch to fill in and cover the necessary-beast of wood chips.

If you're in the area and would ever like to see the front garden, or the back (nearly 8 years old now), please contact me. Hopefully, the front "yard" will be an inspiration for others.

Back garden last week.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Less Honey Bee, More Native Bee

Stop with the honey bees. Every day I come across a half dozen new articles on the plight of the European honey bee. It's become sheer agony for me. Frankly, even though neonics and modern farming techniques play a key role in honey bee loss (among many other life forms), I think the attention the news media and everyday folks subsequently place on honey bees does nothing but bolster modern agriculture; and what I mean by that is the image of a bee shifts the mental image away from sprays and rows of corn to something different, more human and feeling. I especially love the irony of Bayer's Bee Care Center.

Of course the focus on honey bees also takes us away native bees and other pollinators. When it takes 60% of ALL U.S. honey bee colonies to pollinate just the almond crop in California (some 80% of global almonds come from CA), we create one dangerous monoculture supporting another. The Xerces Society has recently begun planting native plant hedgerows in 1,000 acres of almond farms in California, as well as pollinator ground cover among the trees, as a way to increase pollination success, mitigate pesticides, and lesson the need for water.

Native bees are vanishing as fast as honey bees, maybe faster. Many require native plants -- plenty of species forage on only one species (oligolectic bees), let's take aster, gathering pollen and nectar for winter larvae to eat before they emerge as adult bees the next spring and summer. Native bees collectively have a pollination efficiency rate of 91%, compared to honey bees at 71%. Tomatoes can only be pollinated by native bees, and crops like squash, blueberries, and alfalfa are better pollinated by native bee species evolved for the job. It's been shown that strawberries are more uniform in shape and have a longer shelf life -- making them appealing to consumers and grocery stores -- if a diversity of bees pollinate them. Honey bees are more inclined to visit generalist flowers, those more often visited by a wide range of pollinators, which reduce seed yield and genetic diversity of other plants. Often, when you take just one bee species out of the foraging equation, total pollination rates fall.

75-90% of native bee species are also solitary, nesting in the ground or in holes found in trees, for example (which makes farm hedgerows a necessity). That solitary nesting leads to more benign bees -- they don't have that "protect the hive mentality" that gives all bees -- maybe most flying insects -- a bad rap and a high fear factor. I once did a garden consult where the client asked that I keep away any flowers that might attract bees from the front porch or sidewalk, which is a lot like asking me to stay out of the candy drawer.

With 4,000 native species who have and still could pollinate more effectively than honey bees, I'd like to see more articles written on providing native bee habitat. Let's start talking about prairie STRIPs. Let's look at New Mexico, who's been planting 7,500 miles of road edges with native forbs and grasses -- increasing pollinator habitat and significantly reducing the amount of carbon pollution caused by passing motorists (not to mention maintenance bills from mowing too often). Let's get to the root of sustainability and the trillions of dollars worth of free global pollinator services that happen each year -- more habitat with native plants, starting in our gardens, parks, city grounds, highway edges, and farm margins.