Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Evolution of the Front Lawn in Ann Arbor, MI

Back when I was writing and performing climate theater, it was a very useful exercise to view things like the earth or the economy as characters. Upon reflecting on what sort of character a front lawn might be, I realized that the expanse of mowed grass is much like a trophy wife for the House. Expected to be well manicured, passive and forever young, the front lawn serves no other purpose than to present a flattering view of the House to the public. In return for its submissiveness, the front lawn is allowed, and in fact expected, to remain perpetually idle. Any shift away from bland formality, such as a wildflower meadow or, heaven forbid, a vegetable garden, would be unbecoming and steal attention away from the House. It seemed to me the front lawn could benefit from a good turf therapist who could help her sort through how she ended up in such a one-way relationship, and from that developed a monologue called Turf Therapy

It's easy to knock suburban culture's striving for a sterile deep green conformity, and the chemical dependency and noxious lawn equipment that keeps it propped up. But most homeowners find themselves completely unprepared to own land, and the myriad kinds of plants that grow upon it. No surprise, then, that people try to turn the outdoors into as simple a landscape as possible, essentially an extension of the indoors. A lawn is the equivalent of a wall-to-wall carpet. 

In our era, the expansion of the suburban lawn has coincided with a shrinkage in knowledge of plants. Each generation sprouts more distant from ancestors who farmed or foraged. And how many schools teach children to identify even the most common trees? 

It's a brave homeowner, then, who dares take a shovel to the front lawn, bucking conformity to plant something more colorful, beneficial, and interesting. Usually, the change is wrought incrementally, expanding flowerbeds a little at a time. 

While most plantings tend to hug the edges and stick close to the house, in this yard a Salvia is boldly asserting itself right out in the middle of the yard.

Just down this street, which happens to be called Easy Street, someone dug a raingarden that catches water piped to it from the roof. They used the dirt dug out of the hole to build a berm on the downhill side, expanding the hole's capacity. The wildflowers feed the pollinators while the signs feed passersby with ideas, like Public Power, in which a town takes ownership of its electricity and moves rapidly towards 100% renewable energy.

A neighbor further down has converted even more of the yard to raingarden, and added a sign from the local watershed association: "Rain Garden: Improving wildlife habitat and water quality in the Huron River one garden at a time." This is a nice sentiment that all too often remains on the fringe, but in this neighborhood it has caught on.

Next door is a vegetable garden in the front yard. It's starting to look like the trophy wife has decided to pursue a life of her own. Any House with an ego is going to be really upset.

This homeowner, a friend of mine named Jeannine, has nurtured a burr oak savanna habitat in her front yard, with an understory of trilliums, plus black cohosh in its full mid-summer bloom. The House? Well, it's back there somewhere, having to accept that yards like to express themselves and have meaningful lives, too. 

Interestingly, some of her bur oaks are getting tall enough to start interfering with the solar panels on their garage. She has started managing her front yard forest, removing larger trees while keeping smaller ones not tall enough to shade the panels. It's a way of having your trees and panels, too. Each tree removed leaves a legacy of roots--a network of carbon consumed from the air and injected into the ground.

Even in more upscale neighborhoods, where homeowners can afford to hire landscapers, many yards are cared for by crews that carefully weed the wildflower meadows, displacing the noisy custodial crews that "mow, blow, and go." What a pleasure to bicycle through a lovely neighborhood with colorful, botanically interesting yards and a delicious quiet. Machines to suppress vegetation are replaced by skilled intervention to steer vegetation. All week in Ann Arbor, the neighborhoods were remarkably quiet. I looked online for information about bans on leaf blowers, and could only find a ban on 2-cycle lawn equipment in the city's downtown, passed in 2019.

The shift from lawn to meadow in many yards was surely inspired in part by the work of Jeannine Palms, who with her preschool kids, neighbors and town staff have carved native wet meadows into what had been a vast expanse of turfgrass in nearby Buhr Park. 

Their meadows have many of the same wildflowers we have in Princeton, with some differences. The photo shows gray-headed coneflower, which is close in appearance to our cutleaf coneflower. And they have additional kinds of Silphium (rosinweed, prairie dock, compass plant), and a grass called smooth cordgrass. 

More recently, Jeannine has led a volunteer effort to shift even more of the park away from turfgrass, in this case to create a food forest packed with grapes, apples, pears, elderberry, pawpaw, currants, raspberries, strawberries, fennel, and a "three sisters" planting of corn, beans and squash. 

Here's an effort to grow sweet potatoes, not only for the tubers but also for the leaves, which are delicious. Fabric is spread on the ground to suppress weeds, and fencing suspended above to deter the deer. 

The story of this heroic transformation is told in a sign posted next to the first wet meadows. In the process, they have brought diverse, edible life back to the land and the neighborhood. 

Monday, July 04, 2022

What's Bloomin' in the Barden -- Early July

An effort to document everything flowering in the Botanical Art Garden at Herrontown Woods on one day in June (the 26th):

Black-eyed Susan in the Veblen Circle surrounding the gazebo.


Fringed loosestrife is a shy native wildflower, pointed downwards, but is not shy about spreading.

This is looking like white avens, a native that's also looking pretty shy. We tend to think of it as a weed, because it isn't very ornamental and makes burrs that stick to clothing.

The tiny flowers of tall meadowrue make clouds of white in the Barden, sometimes rising to ten feet. I've found it growing wild in Princeton in only a couple places, but it grows well in a garden.
A few sundrops are hanging on, with their x-shaped stigma. This is an easy flower to grow, spreading a little but not too much.
Narrow-leaved mountain mint is a native wildflower that appeared spontaneously in the Barden. It's a fairly common wildflower of meadows in the Princeton area.
Daisy fleabane was blooming weeks ago and is still at it. There are two species.

The untoothed leaves suggest it is Erigeron strigosus

Common milkweed has spread rapidly at the Barden. I just met some Herrontown neighbors who grow milkweed, and their kids have already found two Monarch caterpillars that they adopted and grew into butterflies.

If black cohosh is blooming in the Barden, that means it will soon be blooming in the woods up on the ridge as well. 

Some nonnatives are St. Johnswort,
moth mullein,
 (moth mullein's distinctive buds)
wooly mullein, which can spread by seed quite a bit but we allow a few to grow for their dramatic shape and the velvety feel of the leaves,
and white clover.

A few native shrubs are blooming: oak-leaved hydrangia,
silky dogwood,
and elderberry.
We're being very encouraging of sedges at the Barden, planting them in swales where they get plenty of moisture. They reach a peak of lush, grassy beauty in late spring, and each species has a different shape to the clusters of seeds. There are many species of sedge. I'm going to say this is Carex lurida, the sallow sedge. 
I'd call this the morning star sedge, Carex grayi.
This is a fairly common sedge in Princeton in floodplains. I've long wanted to attach a name to it. Once I thought I'd found a name, then promptly forgot it. The mind is a terrible thing.
Rushes are not sedges, but this green bulrush is a sedge. 

That's 21 species found blooming or fruiting on June 26, 2022. For some, this diversity is off-putting, but for those who love plants, the diversity just makes it all the more interesting.

Friday, July 01, 2022

Bluebird of Happiness -- Evicted by a House Wren!

Boy, was I naive. Last year we worked with a local girlscout troop to install some birdhouses at Herrontown Woods, and it was such a delight this spring to see bluebirds taking an interest in one of them, just up from the Veblen House. I'd walk by, listening to their merry chatter, and remember that I had once again forgotten to bring along a camera with a good enough zoom to photograph their comings and goings. Surely there would be time to catch a charming shot of their auspicious presence. 

One day, however, a couple weeks ago, we were working on the Veblen House grounds, the bluebirds serenading in the background, when I noticed a different sound intruding. It seemed vaguely concerning, but I was so focused on my task that I didn't stop to take note of what was happening. 
By afternoon, however, I sensed something had clearly changed, and dropped what I was doing to go over and have a look. 

The bluebirds were nowhere to be seen, and in their place was one of the many house wrens that enliven the grounds with their loquacious chatter.
I had heard of wrens skewering other birds' eggs with their beaks, but hadn't thought much of it. This looked like an outright eviction. It was time to find out more. A website called quickly popped up on the internet. Bluebirds are so loved they have their own website, named after their latin name, Sialia sialis.

Bluebird eviction by house wrens turns out to be common. I happened to run into a neighbor of Veblen House who said she, too, had had bluebirds evicted from her birdhouse. 

The silver lining has been the discovery of the website, which is a long and true labor of love, by a woman named Bet who lives in Connecticut. It's an old school website, with most pages packed with a plethora of information and a minimum of photos. You'll learn about dummy nests (birdhouses that male house wrens pack with sticks but don't get around to using), and things like wren guards for reducing the displacement of bluebirds. A "trail" on this website is not a nature trail, but a series of bluebird houses that one monitors weekly. Birdhouses, it turns out, are not something to install randomly and then pat yourself on the back for being a nature lover. Proper installation is just the beginning of a very active management akin to growing a garden. Though native house wrens pose a threat, the nonnative house sparrow is even more destructive. 

The eviction of the bluebirds has left me newly ambivalent towards the house wren's perky chortle, but has raised my respect and appreciation for those who actively manage houses and habitat for birds.