Monday, March 27, 2017

Re-knitting landscapes and gardens

I'm thinking a lot about connecting our "yards" "landscapes" and "gardens" to our larger neighborhoods and surroundings, whether they're city, suburban, or rural.

It seems to me that this is becoming more essential than ever.

Thinking about an upcoming talk, it's seeming to me that the message about gardening as stewardship as well as about restoration and healing of landscapes should be even more in the forefront of my messages to whatever audience is there.

I searched around yesterday for an old sticker that I had from many years ago -- it was from Germany, in my post-doc days. I can see it clearly, as it was taped to a file cabinet in my study in our old house in the Piedmont.  I'm quite sure I kept it in the consolidation here, along with various others, but its physical presence has eluded me so far.

It was an image of a great blue heron (or possibly a stork), with the message, loosely translated, as biodiversity reflects living space (lebensraum).  Habitat diversity = wildlife diversity.

Ravine forest below the house, under restoration
As I'm trying to take a few more photos to include in next weekend's talk, I'm thinking about this.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ecological balance in our neighborhoods

I live in a historic neighborhood near downtown Asheville.  It's Asheville's oldest neighborhood, actually.  Our house was built 10 years ago on an infill site, between a  ~1920's apartment building and an older rental house.  Many houses in our neighborhood are distinctive Victorians, others are of equally historic design.

But, most importantly, because we're a historic neighborhood, we have regulations (administered through the Historic Resources Commission) about the exterior of our houses (and changes we might want to make), as well as landscape changes, including removing trees of more than 5" in diameter and review of even dying trees.

This may seem trivial to some, but does encourage preservation of our urban canopy, but we still can do more. (A friend marveled at the canopy view from a nearby hotel's rooftop bar recently, as she couldn't even see many houses, although she thought she spotted ours, which is quite close, and a distinctive adobe color.)  She wondered why our tree regulations needed to be so stringent; well, our canopy reflects that!

I wrote a recent piece for our neighborhood newsletter, which I've pasted below, prompted by a neighborhood list-serve back and forth about decreasing bird diversity and outdoor cats, as well as my continued thinking about the canopy forest, hearing Doug Tallamy, Nigel Dunnett, and Thomas Rainier speak at the Davidson Horticultural Symposium several weeks ago, as well as preparing recent talks that I've given.

It's on my mind, as I'm thinking about shaping a talk for the weekend after next, too.

Natural Neighborhoods: Ecological balance

Many of us enjoy watching (and hearing) birds in our landscapes, as well as in our historic neighborhood.  Pollinators such as butterflies, bumblebees, flower flies, sweat bees, and honeybees are equally welcome. But we don’t always recognize the attributes in our landscapes that support these animals and insects. 

Their presence is basically a reflection of available habitat:  do our gardens and landscapes support the diversity of their needs for food, shelter, and nesting sites?

For example, it’s native trees and shrubs that largely provide food for caterpillars that feed the nestlings of many birds that live in our neighborhood.  A nesting pair of chickadees needs roughly 4,000 caterpillars to successfully raise a single group of nestlings, according to entomologist Doug Tallamy (author of Bringing Nature Home).  He points out that many adult birds eat seeds and/or fruits, but most feed their young protein and lipid-rich caterpillars.  Oaks, pines, black cherries, and willows are some of the most important host plants for these caterpillars (the larvae of butterflies and moths).  A typical oak species may harbor upwards of 550 species of insects, providing food for a lot of young birds! In contrast, the species of caterpillars found on the leaves of non-native species are much fewer; Tallamy’s research documents 8 caterpillar species occurring on flowering quince and 5 species on ginkgo as examples

In Montford, we've been lucky to have a robust canopy of native oaks, hickories, pines, and other species, planted long ago, but also persisting as volunteers in remnant patches of forest throughout the neighborhood.

Squirrels in cavity
As our older canopy trees age out, we need to continue to replace the oaks and other native trees with natives (of all sizes of trees), while we leave the snags, where possible, to provide homes for woodpeckers, owls, and other cavity nesters. Preserving (and restoring) backyard edges, ravine forests, and greenway corridors also plays a vital role.

By including more natives, we help re-knit the fabric of our altered ecosystems in cities and towns, increasing ecological balance. The vibrancy of the urban forest in Montford (and Asheville) depends on us; let’s keep planting to maintain nature in our neighborhoods.

The City of Asheville has a list of recommended tree and shrub species (native and non-native) from the Asheville Tree Commission on their website (  Look on the Urban Forestry page for a link to this list.

view of the ravine forest below our house (restoration in progress!)

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A flirtation with spring warmth

Temperatures here in the mountains were in the upper 70's -- maybe reasonable in the Piedmont of the Carolinas in March, but still way above normal (historically) here.

A wasp bothered Woody on the porch this evening at dinner (he's afraid of flying insects, for some reason).  And a female carpenter bee was checking out our front porch overhand for nesting sites.

Spring is here.

But a cold front is pushing through again this evening, bringing temperatures back down to "normal."

Last year's bed --ready to plant in spring
I just planted a few more greens (collards and lettuce) this afternoon, although my chard and spinach are still hugely productive.  How many greens can we eat before I plant warm season vegetables after all?

A harvest of beet greens and chard was more than enough this evening for dinner, so there'll be plenty to eat tomorrow. Uh, and there are still greens in the freezer from fall.. Yikes!

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Almost spring

It doesn't look like spring here now, after a week of hard freezes.  The Asian species that flower early (Magnolia, Prunus, Forsythia, etc.) are toast, browned with temperatures near the 20°s for three days.

The sassafras are right on target with last year's flowering! Delayed slightly.
But spring is coming for sure.  And it's welcome. The native red buckeye (from the Coastal Plain) and bottlebrush buckeye (from the Piedmont) have emerging leaves, and with the warmth to come this week, I'm sure our sassafras trees will be in flower, and the rest of the canopy forest won't be far behind in unfurling their leaves.

Spring is welcome, even after a mild winter!

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Plants for pollinators

A program this evening in Johnson City, TN, for a lovely group of folks, sponsored by the Southern Appalachian Plant Society (SAPS), has me continuing to think about the importance of strengthening the ecological food webs in our urban, suburban, and rural environments.

I hope I provided inspiration and encouragement around planting for pollinators. (Both an older version of the presentation that I gave, as well as the handout, are on the sidebar).

Ultimately, I think that gardeners are going to make the difference, as we move forward in a human-influenced age on our planet, by planting native plants that help re-knit the fabric of our altered ecosystems in cities and towns.  Ditto, in "rural" landscapes.

Taking a detour towards historic Jonesborough, I drove past more small houses surrounded by nothing but lawn than I'd like to see in a rural area.  Where were the trees and shrubs?

Let's plant (or encourage volunteer) native trees that support pollinators and other insects. Oaks, yellow poplar, black gum, black cherry, sweetgum, etc.

Why not use shrubs that "work for a living"? -- that is, why not consider if they provide food for pollinators, herbivores, as well as shelter for birds?  There are lots of great choices.

pocket meadow late August 2013
And herbaceous perennials that support pollinators -- well, there are lots of them, as long as we avoid ornamentals that don't produce much or any nectar or pollen  -- these include highly modified perennials (bearded irises, gladiolus, tulips, peonies, mop-head hydrangeas, etc.)

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cuba travel

We've been back for almost a month now, and I've just now batch-labelled my photos (after a lengthy importing process, and consolidating WAY too many duplicates, etc. via Lightroom.

The digital age is lovely, of course, my iPhone photos want to be merged in iCloud, synced across all of my Apple devices, swamping my iPhone's capacity syncing everything on my laptop and iPad, yada, yada.

Anyway, small steps.  I've been tempted to just send links to a fellow traveler's photo galleries -- his photos are excellent -- and send them on to friends and relatives who are waiting to see photos!

Cuba is a destination to be digested, and it's not necessarily an easy one. 

The contrasts between the travel hype around Cuba -- the "locked in time" aspect, the myth around natural Cuba, and the reality of a wonderfully vibrant country, but one that's relatively poor, with constrained availability of fresh foods (and really food of any kind), unless you have tourist income to spend, is something that I keep thinking about.

And, there aren't the organic vegetable gardens/farms everywhere that you'd think, based on the organic vegetable garden stories that I'd read.  I saw a few, but really not many.

So, I'm hoping to post (and link) to edited photo galleries to come.

There are wonderful places to be visited in Cuba, and their historic cities are totally amazing (Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Remedios, and Santa Clara are the ones we visited).

Here's a wonderful image of a cenote near Playa Larga.  My gardening companion took a swim here!

In the national park near Playa Larga

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Cold to come

Oddly, we may have up to three (or more) inches of snow overnight.  And then, temperatures in the teens in mid-week for several days (hmm, not good).  This, after a mild winter.

But I'm thinking that most of my overwintering veggies are well-hardy by now, but I draped my spinach and beet bed with remay this afternoon, just in case.  My spinach has been so wonderful this winter, there's no reason NOT to protect it a bit.

This bed will be just fine, I hope, with kale, cabbage, leeks, and parsley.
I'm keeping flats of lettuce, collards, and mustards, as well as a few herbs on my deck - destined for the Southside Community Garden.  I don't really have a better place for them (except inside in mid-week), but they don't need to be out there planted, or in the unheated hoophouse either. Next weekend, hopefully, we'll be able to transplant them all.

It's an interesting time of the year.  Changeable, it's always been in spring in our part of the world.

Whether it's more changeable - hard to say -- but I guess I'd have wished for warm weather at this point!

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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Thinking about gardens and gardening

Early on in my garden blogging days, I remember a fellow blogger asking a question.

Do we create gardens that we aspire to?  Or, do we create gardens that reflect ourselves?

I'm firmly in the second camp, having created gardens now in two places (with my gardening companion) that thoroughly reflect our preferences and sensibilities as gardeners (and being native plant folks by background).

As I realized the connection between my own creativity and gardening, I started to encourage folks to think about their gardening styles and expressing their creativity through gardening in some of my presentations and workshops.  Fran Sorin's book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening was a catalyst, over a decade ago, in my thinking.

Hmm, I thought, that's what's been my end round back to being creative again, it's gardening.  And almost 1,850 blog posts later, I'm realizing that writing is my first creative love, although I continue to love gardening and art.

I truly enjoy reflecting on nature and gardening on a regular basis, and getting ready to do a talk tomorrow on creativity and gardening, I was rather surprised to look over the titles of blog posts over the years (looking to see if I'd written about this before).

Both the diversity and similarity of posts struck me, as did the seasonal rhythm of the topics.  It's almost spring now, so the emergence of spring empherals and early flowering native shrubs and trees are part of the vocabulary, as are the vagaries of spring temperature.

This year is remarkably early. That's part of the equation of a changing climate. But I'm also continuing to enjoy the swelling sassafras buds outside the upstairs window, harvesting the overwintering kale as it's starting to bolt, and planting sugar snap peas, with a hopeful thought that maybe I'll be able to harvest a bowlful, before summer heat sets in.

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