Showing posts with label Ann Arbor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ann Arbor. Show all posts

Thursday, August 19, 2021

My First Public Planting--a Prairie Circle in Ann Arbor, MI

Each time I travel to Ann Arbor, where I lived off and on for 20 years, I make a pilgrimage to several special spots. 

One of them is a small demonstration prairie I planted just a few years before leaving. It was my first public planting and, incredibly, it continues to flourish. I say incredibly because I've seen many idealistic native meadow plantings degrade over time, overrun by any number of aggressive plants, be they trees, shrubs, and native blackberry, or a host of nonnative weeds like mugwort and Canada thistle. 

One reason it has survived is the native plants themselves, growing densely together, leaving no room for incursion. A tallgrass prairie is a robust plant community. In sunny conditions, flowers like rosinweed and purple coneflower can hold their own.
The gray-headed coneflowers--a species much like the cutleaf coneflowers we have in Princeton--have hung in there with the big bluestem and Indian grasses. There are also some wonderful goldenrods--"showy" and "stiff-leaved"--that stay in one place and don't encroach like many other kinds of goldenrod do. Even the nonnative queen Anne's lace, which you'll see taking over along midwestern roadsides, is somehow remaining limited in its aggressiveness. It's possible that a well established planting like this could need little more tending than a late winter mowing to keep the woodies at bay, but there may be some low-key TLC going on to keep things in balance.

I planted it in the early 1990s. The county naturalist at the time, Matt Heumann, helped with seed and design. His successor, Shawn Severance, sent me a very nice note about the prairie:

"That prairie planting has gone on in time to spread seed into the surrounding 4 acres and has enriched the diversity of the park far beyond the original footprint. It’s a continual reminder of the power of small actions. Since you did that planting, we have restored several acres of prairie habitat nearby and so what you set in motion has expanded."

Heartening to think that focusing attention on one small planting could ultimately have a ripple effect on its surroundings. The prairie even made it onto the preserve's map, as the "Prairie Circle." There's another advantage this prairie has. Ann Arbor is a progressive town that has invested in the management of its open space. In addition to the county staff, the city has a Natural Areas Preservation Manager who oversees restoration of diverse habitats, controlling uber-invasives like buckthorn and conducting prescribed burns to bring back bur oak savannas and other historically prevalent habitats.

Having absorbed that culture and brand of wild horticulture, I was able to take what I learned in Ann Arbor and apply it in subsequent migrations to Durham, NC and then here in Princeton. It wasn't a matter of taking favorite plants along on the trip, but rather getting to know the species indigenous to any locale, and finding public places where they could be encountered by people otherwise surrounded by generic, nonnative landscaping. 

There's a bench nearby that faces the Prairie Circle. I don't know who Omry Ronen was, but his loved ones must have thought he'd like an enduring view of tall grasses and wildflowers flowing with the breeze.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Parallel Prairies in Ann Arbor

Most summers in recent years I've traveled to Ann Arbor for a reunion performance with a jazz/latin group I've played with since 1983 called the Lunar Octet. It's also a chance to see my old neighborhood down along Easy Street, where our first house came with a beautiful garden of poppies, delphiniums, blue thistles, Miscanthus grasses and other perennials. These I loved and tended to, though by the time we headed to North Carolina my gardening interests had shifted strongly towards native plants. I have a friend in that old middleclass neighborhood who in many ways lives a life parallel to my own. Jeannine Palms leads the Wet Meadow Project, which in collaboration with volunteers and city staff has transformed much of the nearby sprawling turfdom of Buhr Park into native wet meadows designed to catch runoff. She often gets kids to help out, and calls them "superswampers."

The project is flourishing, with many of the prairie species we have, like sweet bergamot, and a few we don't see here in central NJ, for whatever reason.

Gray-headed coneflower is one of the midwestern species whose range doesn't quite extend to New Jersey. You'll see in the lower left corner of the photo some Queen Anne's lace, a non-native which Jeannine almost certainly works to limit in her wet meadows. It's a pretty flower, but a trip to the midwest makes one realize how it tends to take over in ways we have not yet seen in New Jersey. Other invasives of midwestern fields, like teasel and spotted knapweed, have yet to become extensive in the east to my knowledge, but it may only be a matter of time.

Some of my favorite prairie wildflowers are Silphiums that are much more numerous in the midwest, like rosinweed, compass plant, cupplant and prairie dock. The bright yellow flowers rise on tall stems out of the enormous basal leaves of prairie dock.

The towering Silphiums in the background are cup plant, a species that we now have in Princeton at the Riverside Elementary gardens and our Herrontown Woods botanical garden.

Along with some of the Silphiums, like the big leaves of prairie dock in the background, Ann Arbor's meadows also have some very attractive goldenrods that have the desirable quality of not spreading aggressively underground. Stiff goldenrod (not yet blooming in the foreground) is one of these, as is showy goldenrod.

During my visit this past month, I arrived late for one of Jeannine's workdays, just in time to find her walking home with a young assistant--a girl full of wonder at the natural world. They had been hanging some tallow soap in the Edible Forest--yet another patch of grass that Jeannine had transformed into a botanically rich oasis for the community. She had heard that the soap will deter deer. We saw a hawk land in the very top of a tall evergreen tree in the distance, making an insistent, plaintive sound that could have been the hawk's prey or the hawk itself. We wondered whether it might have a nest there. When it flew over to a a telephone pole, a rodent hung from its talons--all part of a food chain that Jeannine nurtures with her native wet meadows.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

One World--Seeing Earth Stripped of Artificial Boundaries

(Note on upcoming events: Original climate theater and jazz performance, Labyrinth Bookstore, June 13, 6pm, Sustainable Jazz at the Public Library, 2pm June 17, birthday picnic for Oswald Veblen at Herrontown Woods, June 24, 2-5pm)

Traveling recently to play a reunion concert with a jazz/latin band I used to perform with in Ann Arbor, MI, I stopped by the public library and saw this map on the wall, entitled "One World." I found it immediately calming, stripped as it was of the artificial boundaries between countries--boundaries that so often are depicted in terms of strife.

No "red state/blue state" divisions, just rivers and mountains that make the continent look like living tissue, vibrant, interconnected. 

Here is Africa, freed of its political instability and suffering, the Zaire River running free, its tributaries like the thick fur on a gorilla.

And South America, wrapped in blue, the mighty Amazon and Parana Rivers making the continent a coherent whole, relieved of the artificiality of political boundaries. If only human societies were knitted together with such natural beauty and coherence as the land beneath our feet. That's the sentiment I feel as I look at these maps, or play a tune the band has traditionally ended its performances with, also entitled "One World."