Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why we garden

I've been reading about gardening in a time of climate change recently, not a particularly uplifting topic. So I've been thinking about what it will mean for our native plants, the plants we can grow in our gardens, wherever we are, and how weather unpredictability will affect the plants (native or not) that we love.

But gardening as restoration (of place and spirit) is an excellent antidote to environmental worries. What I do understand is the essential ability of gardens to restore patches of earth to support wildlife, and everything associated with a diverse array of plants. I know that we can transform barren spaces to areas that are both lovely and life-sustaining, and that communities, towns, and cities can 'green' themselves by planting a diversity of trees, shrubs, and perennials and encourage gardening for food and wildlife, and become living spaces in the process.

This is a perspective that has grown on me, as a plant ecologist interested in the natural world, and the wild plants and the wonderful diversity of plant communities that still exist on our planet.

I think gardening, and planting, is a way to actively restore our bit of habitat, and maybe more, as we seek to make a difference in how we approach living on the Earth. Nature restores habitat even more effectively if seed sources are available. Everything we plant is helpful in terms of taking up CO2, although I'm hardly worrying about that when I plant something. But by being good stewards of the little patches of earth in which we garden, we CAN make a difference by providing habitat, growing plants that don't need a lot of extra 'stuff' and vegetables (which are waterhogs), but nevertheless are the epitome of local food.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Gardening is good for you

Maybe I'm more outdoors-oriented than many Americans, but I'm beginning to think that we're really getting out of touch with physical activity that's fun and beneficial. I read a post by an exceptional garden blogger (Susan Harris at Beyond Sustainable Gardening and Garden Rant) where she mentioned that some of her clients marvel at the idea of moving plants. You mean you dig them up? Yourself? Well, why not? Let's get to it.

Bending, digging, and planting is certainly good exercise, and equivalent to boring activities that we pay for at the gym. Lifting pots, dragging hoses around, spreading mulch, raking leaves; all of these gardening activities can be considered not really chores, but an opportunity to get some exercise outdoors, in hopefully lovely surroundings.

Our Canadian colleagues are way ahead of us -- they've got websites that promote the beneficial effects of gardening, and how to take advantage of them.

I'm ridiculously proud of myself when I do something that is beyond what I think I'm physically capable of (check out the previous post about laying a flagstone path. But why shouldn't I try to move stones, or dig my vegetable garden by hand, or drag around bags of mushroom compost? Would I rather do that or lift weights at our campus gym?

I know what's more fun and rewarding!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Laying a flagstone path (1)

We've been wanting a decent path to the front door for a long time. We bought our house from the second owner; he seemed to use the side door into the master bedroom primarily. Odd, but effective. The path to the front door was grass, with a few half-buried concrete stepping stones evident, and the whole surface quite uneven because of roots and chipmunk tunnels. After we finally had lights installed in the garage, and the front porch lights repaired, it seemed like a good idea to finally put in a front path.

It's been on my project list for awhile, along with a small wildlife pond. Last summer, with a bit more free time, I'd had a couple of landscapers come over to give me estimates. The first, working with a very reputable company, took a long time to provide an estimate, one that had my helpful gardening assistant (not Mocha, our Golden Retriever) gasping, and saying that he could easily dig the path base for me. The second estimate was a bald dollars per square foot estimate, and could he use his Bobcat to scrap down the area (no, because of the roots of the big water oak and pine).

I asked a younger colleague to give me an estimate as well. This was in the hottest part of August when the soil was incredibly hard. He and a couple of friends do work on the weekends, but clearly they weren't enthusiastic about excavating our hard Piedmont clay in the summer by hand.

So, after things had cooled down in the fall, and we'd had a bit of rain, at least enough to moisten the top inch of soil, I said that I'd get a couple of pallets of stone that Saturday morning. My gardening companion, more focused on the home game that he was heading off to, said 'great' and went off to work on writing his book and then on to the game.

I went and selected a couple of pallets of stone, taken aback a bit at the size of the flagstones. The pallets I'd got in the past were nice small stones, which I was quite proud of myself for stacking up in attractive low walls. But I was heartened by the fellows at the stone shop -- they didn't laugh at me about how I couldn't move these stones, but said that I wouldn't need to go to the gym to lift weights after moving the stones (they're between 15 and 45 lbs.

My gardening companion, returning home after the game, took a look at me ineffectually trying to dig up the turf, and grumped about how he was planning to move mulch that afternoon, but then went to work. He's much more able than me (I didn't get the hefty shoulder and arm genes) to scrap up the turf and get it ready for the paver base, made up of the granite dust that packs so nicely.


Now, I'm figuring that our clayey soils don't need the recommended 6" of paver base (hello, what about the roots of our trees?) and these stones don't look like they're going anywhere, so I'm trying to settle them in as best I can, in an attractive pattern, and sift the granite dust around them.

After last weekend, I felt like I'd been beaten with sticks, but had recovered enough by this weekend to lay another good bit of stone, after my gardening companion dug out the base.

So, if I can do this, with decent fitness, and weight-training with wimpy weights twice a week, I figure that it's certainly within reach of fit gardeners, especially if they are stronger than I am.

For the rest of the path story, see Laying a flagstone path (2).

There's lots of help online - just google creating a stone path, or building a stone path, but my favorite reference is a book by Barbara Pleasant, Garden Stone.

The complete photo sequence of creating this path is posted in a Picasa Web gallery.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Drought and Waterwise Gardening

We had an inch of rain this week, thank goodness, since we hadn't had anything since mid-September, but I'm continuing to notice what plants are doing well in this droughty fall, following a brutally hot and dry August.

I attended a waterwise gardening symposium in Athens at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia recently, and the depths and extent of the drought we're in here in the Southeast became ever more evident. I'm certainly rethinking my approach to the challenge; I don't think my fellow participant is on the right track, when she pointed to an aloe plant on the lunch table, and said, "this is what we need to grow," nor that Mediterranean-style gardening or High Desert gardening is the answer either, but we do have a whole range of exceptional native plants with deep roots that are able to withstand long periods of drought in summer. Mix in a few of those Mediterranean plants and high desert plants that can tolerate our heat and humidity in summer, and you've got a great group of plants to work with.

Personally, I think we'll need to phase out the temperate Asian plants (Hostas and Hydrangeas) that need regular summer water beyond what we ever normally get -- this is life support, not gardening. And watering lawns and turf is just not necessary. Our Zoysia lawn areas went dormant, developed brown patches in the shallowest soil areas, but after the one drenching rain we received in mid-September, recovered quite nicely.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rain and No Child Left Inside

The rain is pelting down right now, welcome because of the drought in the Southeast. We're in a severe drought in South Carolina, but are in better shape than our neighbors to the south in Georgia, thanks to greater reservoir capacity, partially due to the cooling water demands of nuclear power and the associated lakes. Any bit of rain helps rehydrate dry soil and I'm grateful for that.

I heard a remarkable lecture today by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. His insights have resonated with outdoor educators of all sorts, from park naturalists to botanical garden educators like me, and connected with 'important' folks of all ages. He told the story of how he'd spoken to a group of ranchers, and a grizzled fellow of 65+ was moved to tears as he 'remembered the place that we hold in our heart' -- the natural, semi-wild places that many of us grew up exploring and cherishing. He also talked about how he'd testified recently in front of a Congressional committee, and the Congressmen (all men in this case) asked perfunctory questions, but then wanted to share memories about their 'special places.'

I was certainly of the group who grew up exploring nature and rambling the then open territory near our house (now covered with houses all the way to where my sister and her husband now live) and elsewhere, but my best friend in graduate school grew up in Detroit, and was a mall rat, along with her sisters, until she went to Douglas Lake Biological Station as an undergraduate, and fell in love with the natural world. She's a biology professor today teaching her students about plants and conservation in South Florida. My husband grew up in LA, and went surfing with his brothers, with little interest in biology or nature, although they did spend summer weeks at Lake Tahoe and rambled the hills near their house in Studio City. When he went to college in Northern California, the experiences of learning about plants in their natural habitats encouraged his future career (he's a biology professor, too).

I may have loved nature as a child, but my dad was an engineering professor, and my mom a philosophy major and eventually a psychotherapist in private practice. But both grew up in Northern California, and we went on many long camping trips as a family, with hiking and exploring part of what we did in summers. A family friend in those early years was a high school teacher who was a summer naturalist in Yosemite National Park. I was totally inspired by his programs, and perhaps, in wanting to be a park naturalist, and the round-about academic journey that I took, I'm doing what's most important to me now, trying to inspire folks to connect to nature, whether they're young or old, or something in between.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Blue mistflower

An unexpected treat is flowering in the corner of one of our garden beds. Perennial ageratum (Conoclinum coelestinum), a native relative of the annual bedding plant, volunteered behind the old metal wheelbarrow, and is flourishing even in the drought. The clear blue flowers are lovely against the evergreen backdrop of Viburnums and Winter honeysuckle.

A common plant in ditches and field edges, it's really a wonderfully garden-worthy plant, providing a late season spot of color, and to me, remarkable hardiness without any water.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day

Bloggers all over the world are posting environmental messages today as part of Blog Action Day. It's fundamental for the earth's stability and the long-term survival of humans as a species that we, as part of the world community, commit our hearts, minds, and actions to living as lightly as we can on Earth. When there were many fewer of us (humans), resource exploitation and extraction was sustainable. Now that there are 6 billion plus of us, and we all want stuff, electricity, water on demand, and bigger houses, we've got a big problem.

When I was a graduate student, I read Limits to Growth, a visionary book about how we'd run out of essential resources if the world population kept growing, and everyone kept consuming (like Americans). Unfortunately, their predications were delayed by technological innovation, and folks who don't understand the limits of the ecological capacities of our planet started to talk about how we'd be able to invent our way out of the negative impacts of population growth, energy consumption, etc.

Today we're at a critical point. I was teaching a course called People and the Environment in 1990, when PBS aired an excellent series about 'Race to Save the Planet.' We were hopeful then, but I'm less hopeful now (but I'm a bit gloomy by nature anyway). Each one of us in the developed world needs to reduce our consumption of stuff, from electricity to water to goods and services. We need to help folks in the developing world to raise their standard of living without making the same mistakes we made in the U.S.

A recent NY Times piece focused on an environmental crisis in a lake in China, where pollution had created a toxic blue-green algal bloom (I might be wrong about the algae since I read the story quickly). I was in the 5th grade when I reported to my class that a young boy had died from typhoid because he ate a watermelon floating in the Hudson River. Uh, hello?

We had Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and countless other wake-up calls about the impact of human-created pollutants on humans and the rest of the natural world.

My husband and I heard Al Gore years ago at a Georgia Conservancy meeting talking about how many signs did we did to have until the (environmental) message was clear. He was powerful in his message then, and thank goodness he's continued along that road. His book, Earth in the Balance, was one that more of us should have paid attention to.

I'm always trying, not always successfully, to reduce my impact and use of resources -- recycling everything that we use, choosing products that are recyclable or biodegradable, and produced from renewal sources, conserving energy, composting, etc, and gardening naturally and restoring habitat in our garden -- it's a positive step that provides me with hope that we can turn things around, starting with our homes, actions, yards, and communities.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fall color is coming

Leaves are finally beginning to show signs of fall color (My picture is a few years ago, however). The early reds of the sourwoods seem to have been muted by drought, although the drought seems to have encouraged early leaf color in maples, probably as leaves have shut down production of chlorophyll early this year. My sister in Texas sent me an e-mail asking about what really triggered the change in color in leaves - temperature, daylength, moisture, or a combination. Her dog park group wanted to know!

Well, what are sisters for, after all, especially if she's a botanist and garden educator? I had some fun reviewing the details and look forward to seeing how it will play out here, with the severe and continuing drought, and until today, unreasonably hot (for October) weather.

Basically, our fall colors in the Eastern U.S. are revealed as chlorophyll production slows down, cued by the shortening days and lengthening nights. The interplay of pigments in leaves determines the fall colors of different species, with the temperature and moisture determining color intensities. As the chlorophyll (which provides the overriding green color of leaves) breaks down, the other pigments in the leaves become evident. The carotenoids produce the yellow and oranges and anthocynanins produce the purple and reds. Anthocynanins are actively produced as a reaction between sugars and proteins - in the watery vacuoles of leaf cells, and their colors are influenced by acidity. They start showing up as the chlorophyll breaks down, and corky deposits start blocking the downward flow of sugars between leaves and stems.

Different trees have different combinations of the basic pigments, and here in Eastern North America, we have the largest diversity of species of trees that exhibit fall color, so many of our natives are prized in Europe for fall color -- our sweetgums and tulip poplars for example.

Some of the trees that are shades of oranges, reds, and purples include the red, white, and scarlet oaks, persimmon, sassafras, dogwood, sweetgum, as well as the maples. Hickories, River Birch, Redbud, Tulip Poplar, and Sycamore turn yellow and gold.

Beech leaves also accumulate tannin, adding a bronze color to the underlying yellows. The fall weather plays a key factor in whether it's a particularly good year for color, especially in the reds and purples. Day and night temperature and general moisture levels are important. Warm sunny days (with lots of sugar production) with cool crisp nights produce the best reddish and purple colors – the anthocynanin pigments. at the time chlorophyll production is declining, generally affects how bright the colors are.

Yellows are fairly consistent from year to year, since the carotenoids Overly dry weather will produce more brownish leaves and early leaf drop, with washed-out colors in general.

So no two falls are alike!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Garlic, woodchucks, and fall flowers

I planted garlic yesterday in the satellite garden. I'm quite confident our trap-lining woodchuck (I think that s/he roams around the neighborhood looking for tasty tidbits) isn't interested in onions or garlic, at least the Welsh onions haven't been bothered. I can't say the same for newly planted collards, chard, or red cabbage, clearly favorites. Amazingly, s/he/they nibbled the perennial Italian dandelion in the main garden down to nubbins (actually a chicory) recently. Those leaves are so bitter that they require par-boiling prior to cooking to be edible. Worrisome, however, that s/he is now becoming brave enough to visit the main vegetable garden next to the house. I put Mocha out today on 'woodchuck' patrol. He'd much rather lounge around inside where it's cool, but I told him "Woodchucks, No." Ha! He slept on the shaded side porch all morning, so hardly was any deterrent.

Fall flowers are lovely -- the swamp sunflower is in its full glory in one of the perennial beds, and I've enjoyed this volunteer Blue Ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum, now Conoclinum coelestinum) near the old metal wheelbarrow.

I also sowed more flats of fall and winter lettuce and some extremely hardy lettuce varieties called 'North Pole' and 'Arctic King' that have sailed through our last winters here without damage. Check out the Cook's Garden catalog for seed!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Brown thrashers and garden toads

Yesterday, I surprised a rather large garden toad next to the hose faucet in the back. I was surprised myself. We had a toad living in the basement a few years back (the basement is bare floored and unfinished), but I hadn't seen one outside for sometime.

This evening, I saw a brown thrasher getting dinner through the kitchen window. She/he was very vigorously poking through the straw mulch into the recently clipped radicchio bed. Interestingly, when I did a web search about the diet of brown thrashers, I found out that they're prodigious insect-eaters and eaters of all sorts of garden critters bad and good -- insects of all sorts, from beetles to grubs and earthworms, etc. They also eat fruits, but insects are over half their diet. One source, I'm not sure how reliable, suggested that a single thrasher ate over 6000 insects a day (this sounds like a lot to me, even for birds with a high metabolism). Brown thrashers build big twiggy nests, and sing beautifully in spring. We've had a nesting pair in the large Ternstromia hedge along the vegetable garden for the last two years. They're also fun when they visit the ground-level saucer and have a bath, vigorously cleaning all their feathers and fluffing up.
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