Showing posts with label My Yard. Show all posts
Showing posts with label My Yard. Show all posts

Friday, February 17, 2023

Liquid Winters and Time-Bending Blooms

Long time local botanist Betty Horn sent me an email some days back--February 10, to be exact--reporting that she had just found a hepatica blooming in Herrontown Woods. Hepaticas in early February? This was news. 

Without asking, I knew nearly exactly where she had found it. If you're a field botanist, you maintain a mental map of where you've found certain special plants growing, and in Princeton, my mental map has exactly one location for hepaticas, along the ridge in Herrontown Woods. Sure enough, she had found it there, given a head start by the warmth of a nearby boulder and the snowless winter. 

Hearing the news, another botanist friend, Fairfax Hutter, checked out some hepaticas she knows of in Hopewell. No flowers, nor any buds, she reported. Betty looked back at her records and told me that "the usual time for hepaticas to bloom is early to mid March, and sometimes as late as the first week in April." 

Another early flower is snowdrops--a nonnative spring bulb that decorates the grounds around Veblen House. The first bloom I noticed this year, for the record, was on Feb. 6.

Before moving to Princeton in 2003, I lived in Durham, NC for 8 years. Winters there were much like the one we've had here in New Jersey this year. The default was no snow, and if a snowstorm did come, it became a spontaneous holiday, with schools shut down for several days. It could be said that New Jersey is the new North Carolina, with Georgia in hot pursuit, so to speak. 

The shift towards a liquid winter has made for dramatic changes in our "fillable-spillable" minipond in the backyard. It's a 35 gallon tub that captures runoff from the roof, originally conceived as a pond that could be easily emptied when our pet ducks had made it muddy. 

Like an artist who has lost inspiration, it hasn't produced very interesting ice patterns the past few winters, nothing like that stretch from 2018-19, when intermittent freezes and thaws caused it to behave like a canvas for the profound artistry of nature. Each freeze would bring new and endlessly varied patterns in the ice. 

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. 

Thursday, May 05, 2022

An Explosion of Spring Weeds

Ever heard of a painter whose spouse couldn't get him to paint the house? That's a bit like my backyard. While I've been doing plant work elsewhere this spring, my own backyard was quietly, stealthily taken over by an extraordinary array of spring weeds. The day of reckoning, or more likely several weeks of reckoning, has finally arrived. 

First step, photograph them and write about them, on the chance that others might too find themselves wading through a backyard full of weeds and wonder what they all are. Click on a photo to make it larger.

This one, the most ridiculously successful, is purple deadnettle. It's in the mint family, which you can tell by its square stem, but unlike many other mints, it relies on seeds to spread, rather than underground rhizomes.

Here's more purple deadnettle, with a foreground of ground ivy. Ground ivy has other names: creeping Charlie, and gill over the ground. It spreads vegetatively above ground, across lawns, into garden beds. It could be charming if it weren't so aggressive. The same can be said for mock strawberry.

Here's the ground ivy mixed in with some white clover at the bottom of the photo. The white clover hasn't been a problem, but in some situations, it too can become a sprawling mass.
Ground ivy looks like a wave here, rising out of the lawn and swamping the stonecrop Sedums. I really like the dandelions, until they go to seed, then not so much. If the soil is soft, gather all the basal leaves in your hand and give a slow, steady pull. Feed the leaves to your guinea pigs. Do people still have guinea pigs as pets?
By now, you'll recognize the ground ivy at the bottom of the photo, the purple dead nettle in the middle. Equally prevalent is hairy bittercress, which is the now brown plant in the upper left. A gardener feels a sense of defeat when, having delayed too long in pulling the hairy bittercress, its seeds come flying up at your face. It feels like mockery, the plant having successfully completed its life cycle and populated the ground with seeds for yet another year.

On the upper right in the photo are a few garlic mustards. They are edible, so I pull them, eat the seedheads, then toss the plant where it won't reroot. My yard would be full of them, too, if they were as stealthy and quick to generate seeds as the bittercress. Being larger than bittercress, garlic mustard is more satisfying to pull, and since it is slower to mature its seeds, we can go through a period of procrastination and still pull it in time. Garlic mustard is a biennial, meaning it grows some basal leaves the first year, building up energy in the root, then launches a flowering stalk the next spring. If not pulled, it will go to seed, then turn yellow and die in mid-summer, its work done. 

That's a different approach from many of these spring weeds--hairy bittercress, purple deadnettle, common chickweed, henbit, etc.--which sprout from their seeds in the fall, overwinter in the vegetative state, then get a quick start in the spring, blooming and setting seed before distracted people like me can pull them. 

At the top of this photo is hairy bittercress before it turns brown. On the left is Canada thistle, which has taken over many a garden bed in Princeton, spreading underground, popping up all over. I keep it at bay but have not been organized or persistent enough to fully get rid of it. 

At the bottom there are violet leaves. 

I'd like to say that the violets are less aggressive. They integrate into the lawn rather than taking it over, sprinkling attractive blooms hither and yon, and the leaves and flowers are good in salads, or steamed. But even they started being way too pushy in the flower beds a couple years ago, prompting a major weeding out. If salad makings weren't so easy to get in the local store, we'd be eating violet leaves, feeling just fine and with more balanced gardens to show for it.

Happy to say that I have no lesser celandine in my yard--the most problematic of the spring weeds, given its capacity to take over and then spread into the neighbor's yard and nature preserves. There was one in the yard a few years ago, but one medicinal spritz of herbicide was all it took to nip it in the bud. The leaves are reminiscent of violets, but are less curled, lighter green, and more leathery in appearance.

Mugwort, down there at the bottom, is a tough customer that has taken over many gardens, raingardens, and fields. Recurrent pulling has limited it to one place in my garden, but it spreads to form monocultures along the gas pipeline right of way along the Princeton ridge. Above and left in the photo is a kind of horsetail that has inculcated itself into one of the flower beds, probably planted decades ago by a previous owner.

I remember Veronica (speedwell) from my field botany days. It has an interesting bi-colored flower, and in our Michigan yard it had seemed harmless enough. When it showed up in our Princeton yard a few years ago, I let it grow here, but, perhaps due to a sunnier yard and abundant rains, 
it exploded this year and became, like so many problems in the world, too much of a good thing.

Chickweed hasn't been much of a problem. 
Curly dock is easy to undercut with a shovel. 

You see that little triplet of leaflets sticking out at the bottom? That's wild strawberry. I thought it would be great to have wild strawberries in the garden--native, tasty little berry. But they spread like crazy and I happened upon only one berry over the years.
Another weed that's here and there and can easily be pulled from wet ground is rough avens. To its left in the photo is a native weed called willow herb. Both of these look like they might generate attractive flowers, but don't quite generate enough show to be considered ornamental.

Wood sorrel, bottom of the photo, is a common greenhouse weed, but not much of an issue in a garden. Its leaves look somewhat like clover, but are tangy with the taste of oxalic acid.

The green leaves towards the top of the photo are jewelweed, a native annual that can be rambunctious, but which I appreciate for its tubular orange flowers that attract hummingbirds.

Most of these weeds originally hitchhiked to America from other continents. Finding early on as a gardener that most of my labors involved saving the intended plants from these overly enthusiastic weeds set the groundwork for understanding the problem of invasive species in nature preserves.

The reader may by now have concluded that my garden is largely a battleground where a distracted gardener is little match for weeds that grow 24/7. But there are areas where balance is easier to maintain, where celandine poppies, redbuds and dogwoods start a pleasing progression of flowers that continues through the spring. 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Where Have All the Pollinators Gone? -- Summer, 2021

Wherein is discussed the season's paucity of pollinators, the curiously prolific presence of hornets, and possible causes thereof. 

With the coming and the going of this year's autumnal equinox, it's time to look back on a long summer and ask, "What happened?" Or, more precisely, "What happened to the happening that didn't happen?" 

There's lots of talk about how insects are in decline and that we need to plant more wildflowers to support them. A local ecologist and avid birder, David Wilcove, co-wrote an oped in the Washington Post about the danger posed by insect decline, and the need to better monitor populations, as is done with birds.

In past years, a summer's climactic buzzfest on the boneset

This year, there was a steep decline in pollinator numbers in Princeton. Each year I grow a banquet of wildflowers in my backyard for all manner of insects to feast upon. In past years, they'd come from near and far, their numbers building through summer, climaxing in late August in a buzzfest on the boneset. Though mountain mint is another great draw for insects, in my yard it was boneset in particular, clustered here and there in the garden, that in past years drew the multitudinous shapes and sizes of the insect world. Its broad disks of tiny white flowers seemed like a Serengeti in miniature, an open plain perched conveniently four feet above the ground, teaming with life. It was a chance to see the insects close up, they being so focused on the nectar or each other that they took little notice of me.

Then, two years ago, and again last year, the numbers of insects were down--still numerous but not enough to stir that late-summer's jazzy feeling of frenzied activity. 

2021: An astonishing diminishment

And this year? This year, boosted by the rains, the wildflowers grew to fabulous size. Broad arrays of blooms mounted on multiple stems stood at the ready. In early summer, while periodical cicadas held center stage, the numbers and variety of pollinators were building nicely. 

But then, as the wildflower meadow's heavy hitters--the cutleaf coneflowers, Joe-Pye-Weeds, bonesets and wild sennas--unveiled their fabulous blooms for the mid-summer festival of nectar, the insects were no-shows. Abundant flowers had few pollinators, and sometimes none at all. Diversity dwindled to some tiny somethings, a few bumblebees and even fewer honey bees. 

Sifting through possible causes for the decline

Possible causes for the dramatic decline have been offered: extreme heat, more homeowners fogging their yards for mosquitoes, expanding monocultures of lawn and invasive species. Or perhaps the climate-changed winters have messed with insect dormancy.

The rains of July, the rains of August

What I have particularly noticed over the past three years, however, is the increase in rain during the summer. Rutgers precipitation data for NJ show increased precipitation particularly over the past two years in July and August. Not only has there been more rain, but the intensity of the rain has increased. The sound on the roof is different--one can hear and even feel the extraordinary density and weight of the rain. The deep trauma of Hurricane Ida was the climax among multiple intense storms before and after. The ground and foliage are literally getting beaten up by these deluges. Insects try to hide during storms. Some live in the ground. The harder the rain, the fewer places to hide, and the more likelihood that a ground nest will be flooded out. All that sustained moisture could increase the risk of disease, which an entomologist friend says can play a big role in bee numbers. 

Some of us noticed other changes as well. Gladly, the numbers of odorous house ants invading our kitchen were down from previous years. Mosquitoes in our area seemed relatively rare in early summer, though numbers surged later in the season--tiny ones, probably asian tiger mosquitoes. 

A proliferation of hornets

What was most striking and very strange was a proliferation of hornets. Last year, I seldom saw them, but oftentimes this summer, approaching a patch of flowers, the first thing that would catch my eye was not pollinators but the hornets that can prey upon them. 

We have two kinds of insects called hornets. One is the European hornet, which looks to me like a stocky bee--black markings with a particularly thick yellow abdomen.

The other is the bald-faced hornet, a native insect with black markings and a whitish face. 

Both are hard to photograph because they don't land, but instead keep cruising around the flowers. Periodically they may bump into a bee that was minding its own business on a flower. The contact lasts a split second, then the hornet flies on. The purpose of this brief harassment is not clear. 

Here's a bald-faced hornet in adult and larval form, found on a fragrant of nest someone left at the curb. Both kinds of hornets live in nests that are in or hang from trees. The paper they make, by the way, is beautiful when looked at close up.

Why the proliferation of hornets, cruising relentlessly among the flowers with a sense of urgency but no clear goal? Maybe they just seemed more numerous due to the lack of other insects to catch one's attention. Or maybe the fact that they live in elevated, waterproof nests allowed them to better survive the intense storms. 

The seeds of change planted over centuries

In any case, this summer was not the lively pollinator party I was used to playing host to, both in my backyard and at our Botanical Art Garden (the "Barden") in Herrontown Woods. One interpretation is that the carbon dioxide we've been scattering to the winds is now coming home to roost, in the form of weird winters and intensified storms. In Princeton, basements flooded that had never flooded before. It's not a stretch to hypothesize that many bees also find themselves newly vulnerable to the merciless power of the rain. And then, on the sunny days when pollinators can make it to the flowers, there's the haunting background of patrolling hornets.

In a docile wasp, some small comfort

As students returned to the university, I remembered helping my daughter move in to Whitman College two years ago. In the courtyard, I had noticed thousands of wasps cruising just above the grass. It was a mating dance, of no danger to the parents and students passing by, of blue-winged wasps. I had recognized their distinctive orange abdomen from those that would frequent the flowers in my backyard, a mile away from campus. 

This year, I had seen only one in my yard, and wondered whether their improbable annual ritual was still playing out at Whitman College. 

What I found on Sept 2nd were perhaps a hundred wasps flying in their usual criss-cross manner a foot above the lawn. Some seemed fatigued by it all, and would abandon their flight to sit among the grass blades for awhile. Though their numbers were down from the thousands I'd seen two years prior, I was glad to see any at all. And a student sitting in a lawn chair, scrutinizing his computer, told me there had been many more ten days prior when students first began moving in. 

It would be nice to think that the paucity of pollinators I observed this summer was an isolated affair. But others around New Jersey have made similar reports. An entomologist friend who lives in Oregon told me that he's seen "a very significant decline in pollinators" this year, probably due to drought, though he also said that each species can vary in numbers year to year. 

An ark is built of something more than flowers

We take so much for granted in our lives. When something breaks, that's when one has to study up and figure out how it works, what went wrong, and how possibly to fix it. The insect world has been taken for granted since forever. Annual bird surveys benefit from a community of avid birders, but citizen scientists who are up to speed on the mind-boggling diversity of insects are fewer to come by. We thought we could just plant some flowers and the insects would come, but the needs appear to be far deeper than that. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

What's Bloomin' As June Ends

As June draws to a close, and the song of the cicada fades into history for another 17 years, here are some of the flowers blooming in my yard and in sunny openings at Herrontown Woods. 

Purple milkweed is less common than the common milkweed--a rare example of common names making sense. It spreads underground a little too aggressively, like the common one, but has a richer color to the bloom and slightly narrower leaves. Its blooms go through an evolution of color as they form--a very nice feature. We (that's the first person singular form of "we") found it growing near Veblen House and transplanted some to the Veblen Circle of wildflowers at the Barden (Botanical Art Garden).

Foreground here is another native milkweed, butterflyweed, which is lower growing and doesn't spread underground. Rarely seen in the wild around here (a couple specimens in the Tusculum fields that may still be there), I've seen it mostly in midwestern prairies with black-eyed susan and other prairie wildflowers.

The red in the background is beebalm, another incredibly bright and beautiful native wildflower, seen in gardens more than in the wild. It spreads underground, but not in a dominating way. We'll see if hummingbirds come to visit after their long migration.

Most people know the purple coneflower, from gardens rather than in the wild. 

Less known is the fringed loosestrife, not to be confused with the invasive and unrelated purple loosestrife. Fringed loosestrife has a shy flower that faces downward, yet the plant itself is surprisingly aggressive, and should only be planted where it can't spread. Yet another example of a native wildflower that is relatively rare in the wild yet gets rambunctious in a garden. Other examples would be groundnut, virgin's bower, and bladdernut. 

This photo doesn't do it justice, but here is tall meadowrue growing in a sea of jewelweed. The orange tubular flower of the jewelweed is visible in the lower left. Deer love to graze on the jewelweed, which is a native annual that often is seen trying to compete with Japanese stiltgrass in the wild. Hummingbirds love the jewelweed flowers, which keep appearing throughout the summer, and kids love to explode the springloaded seedpods. The tall meadowrue flowers need to be viewed up close to appreciate their subtle beauty, with each one bursting like a miniature firework.
One of the easiest plants to grow and take care of is the common daylily. We (again, first person singular form of we) planted the extension with them, and also the autumn joy stonecrop. They take zero care, and spend the month telling passersby to have a nice day. Each flower lasts a day, so you can cut some stems, put them in a vase, and have a steady stream of flowers inside as well, as each bud opens in series. Not native but doesn't spread or escape to the wild.

Among native shrubs, bottlebrush buckeye is doing its version of glorious, 
along with oak-leaved hydrangia. I've created a grove of these hydrangias by looking under the original shrub for sprouts or rooted limbs that could be dug and replanted nearby to quickly form new shrubs.
Maybe this year we'll get around to picking the elderberries, if the birds don't beat us, and make a delicious elderberry pie. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Video Tour: An Intro To Steve's Garden

A video tour to help you gain acquaintance with the classic native wildflowers of mid-summer in Princeton. The video is a good companion to the previous post, Wildflowers of August. 

Friday, November 08, 2019

Leaves -- A Love Story

Leaves are easiest to love during their "fifteen days of fame" in the fall. But though a true love of leaves may first take hold in the fall, maybe in a particularly colorful leaf picked up by a child on the way to school, it ultimately deepens and matures to include the less showy times that leaves go through, from an obscurity of green up above to an obscurity of brown underfoot, to a slow return to the air and ground from which they came. A love of leaves is so richly rewarded, by the oxygen they give in abundance, the shade, the transpirational, transformational cooling in the summer, the remembered exhilaration of raking and leaping into leafpiles, and the fabulous pulse of surface area and food leaves give to the ground each fall to insulate and feed the life of the soil that in turn sustains all life. Such abundant gratitude they show for the ongoing gift we give without even thinking, "a breath to build a leaf on." Leaves, after all, are built to a great extent from the carbon that we and other animals exhale.

Here are some photos collected this fall:

A sweetgum tree on Princeton University campus across from McCarter Theater. Of course, you expect leaves in such a setting to be above average,

but even the wild ones can put on something of a show, as in this field of sweetgum seedlings in a field next to Snowden Lane,

and even rival the cultivateds. This photo was taken only with the intent of showing variation in size of leaves that fell near Veblen House. The car's hatchback windshield was the closest horizontal surface. Only when looking at the photo later on did I see that nature, ever the artist, was composing the photo as much as I.

This photo of a native witchhazel planted next to a house on Linden Lane led to the unceremonious end of a phone conversation, as my cellphone battery died moments later.

In Herrontown Woods, witch hazels were more the color of these backyard pawpaw leaves. Shade can mute the brilliance of color, and sometimes alter the color itself.

The leaves of mapleleaf Viburnum vary year to year and place to place along the Princeton Ridge.

Wasn't expecting a musclewood to be so colorful. This is a lovely understory tree of Princeton's forests, but my neighbor has one flourishing in her front yard, close to a busy street. (Carpinus caroliniana)

Virginia creeper hanging from a blackhaw Viburnum. Lots of sun, lots of color.

The oakleaf hydrangia and stonecrop "autumn joy" can be a fine combo, their colors slowly shifting through the fall. The stonecrop isn't native, but stays where it's planted, and gives pollinators a fine late-summer dinner plate of nectar.

And lastly, another form of autumn joy--my older daughter when she was discovering the pleasure of leaves while growing up in Durham, NC. The child within us can make that love and delight last a lifetime.