Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Monday, April 22, 2013

Yard and Garden Sustainability

      On April 17, I went to the Sustainability and Nature Symposium at the University of Richmond. There I heard two leaders in the field, Dr. Doug Tallamy, author of "Bringing Nature Home" :  http://bringingnaturehome.net/  and Richard Louv. author of several books, including "Last Child in the Woods" http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/   I have reviewed Tallamy's book in this blog, but this talk made me re-visit the power of his ideas.

     Tallamy answers the big questions: Is this planet in trouble? Yes.  Can we do something about it?  Yes. Can we depend on government to do the right thing?  No.  Can we, as individuals, do enough to make a difference? Yes.

     I will deal with these questions one by one. First the doom and gloom.  You have probably heard that we are in the midst of a mass extinction.  Species are vanishing at an alarming rate and it is due to our actions.  The planet is heating, weather getting more extreme.  But, as Tallamy and Louv both pointed out, doom and gloom does not motivate people.  Now for the second question about the role of government: the top ten priorities of the government, both legislative and executive branches and both political parties, do not include the environment, turning around habitat destruction and saving species.  But we really are enmeshed in a web of life and require other species for our food, to clean water and air (thank you plants!) and for satisfying our souls.

     The next question: Can we, as individuals, do enough to make a difference?  Tallamy says Yes! 

     And that is very good news.

     Tallamy's basic idea is that we have radically transformed our landscape so it no longer has the ability to sustain much life, or, in other words, we have reduced the carrying capacity of the land.  The most obvious example is an urban environment of concrete, asphalt, glass and steel.  Though pockets of life exist in these environments (some birds and squirrels in parks, rats, pigeons and cockroaches outside of parks), these areas are as good as a dessert to most animals.  A less obvious example is suburban settings.  On the 'burbs, we have lush lawns and specimen plantings that are green and green is good, right?  Not so fast.

      Here are two photos, one is of my front yard when we moved in, the other of it today, April 19, 2013.  The first is basically a dessert to many animals, except for the large pine tree, which offers a home to many birds and squirrels.  But grass provides little cover or nourishment to many creatures, while it takes many inputs: water, fertilizer, and herbicides.  The second photo is my yard today.  It is a much more inviting place, to creatures and to people.  Reading Tallamy, I realize I have made some mistakes, relying too much on non-native plants.  But I did some things right, using some native plants like American beautyberry, columbine, franklinia, native passion flower, and muscadine grape.  When we moved in we had dogwoods and Virginia creeper.  But I also have my share of non-natives, that offer little to native creatures. My big project is to inventory all the plants in my yard and slowly replace the ones less conducive to creatures with native plants that will provide shelter and food.  I will not get rid of all non-natives, but will establish a better balance, more natives than not.  If we all do this, or even a significant percent, we can create habitat and wildlife corridors in our neighborhoods.

     Check out Tallamy's website for a cool chart, listing, in rank order, plants and their utility to caterpillars.  Why caterpillars?  Well, remember the food web: birds and other animals eat the caterpillars, and in turn are consumed by creatures higher on the food chain.  This list is at: http://bringingnaturehome.net/news/what-should-i-plant
Next time: The words of Richard Louv. Happy gardening!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wednesday Lagniappe: Garden Garter

This eastern garter snake lives in my yard and, I hope, is attracted to eat the voles that are plaguing me...and not my beloved frogs.  I just wish this useful fellow could give me some warning before I get close enough to step on him!  On all 3 feet of him... Here he (she?) is at the door to my garage last week.
Happy gartering!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lesser Celandine: Scourge of Flood Zones or Erosion Controller?

The yard of a friend is being inundated by lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria (see above from the infested Bartram's Garden in Philly).  My friend has conducted a multi-year assault on this plant, trying to reduce its numbers, but with little luck.  And here is why:  it is a very vigorous grower, a non-native invasive perennial.  It produces abundant, tiny, cream-colored bulbets after flowering (which it is doing now) in early spring. It has multiple finger-like tubers that you can can see when you pull the plant up, often leaving some of the tubers below ground, which then re-sprout.  If you do carefully pull or dig this plant, all the tubers and bulbets must be removed and the plant bagged for trash.  There are no bugs or animals that will eat this plant to keep it in check.  Lesser celandine inhabits flood plains and riverine habitats.
     I like the advice of Mike McGrath of "You Bet Your Garden" on WHYY in Philadelphia:  http://whyy.org/cms/youbetyourgarden/
McGrath says there are two feasible strategies with lesser celandine: 1. Let it be.  Lesser celandine is pretty good at controlling soil erosion and this is good thing in the flood plains it inhabits. Of course, if you let it be, eventually this is all you have.  2. Compartmentalize:  define flower bed areas in your yard.  In these areas, work hard to remove all lesser celandine, shifting the top few inches of soil to another area of your yard if you have to, and bringing in new soil.  Then, create a barrier- use at least 2 in deep edging (even deeper is better) around this bed. I would, for about a foot around the bed, install brick pavers with a barrier underneath. Wait a few weeks to see if more celandines sprout in the bed and remove them.  Then you can plant, but you must be vigilant to make sure no new celandine seedlings take hold.

By the way, don't mistake lesser celandine for the non-invasive, charming celandine poppy:

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Wednesday Lagniappe: Pleasing Your Canines

Garden tip: if you spill a 2 gallon bucket of prepared fish emulsion solution on you, your dogs will become very interested in you.  Your spouse, partner, lover, family or friends, however, will not.
Happy spill-free gardening!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Big Trees and a Lush Lawn?

I try to take a walk every day. It is the best form of exercise for me and it is the perfect opportunity for me to spy on the landscaping and gardening practices of my neighbors (hey, could be worse!)  One homeowner in my neighborhood is yet again attempting to establish a lawn in a front yard that has several, very large trees in it.  This is most likely a doomed effort, a waste of time and money.  Think about it: when you walk in the woods where there are mature trees, what do you see on the ground under the trees?  Lush, green grass?  Nope.  You might see a few clumps of grass here and there, but you are more likely to see moss, clumps of ephemeral wildflowers, seedlings, and decaying leaves and branches.  (Look at the photos above: both are yards with large, mature trees).  Why is this?

The first reason most people think of is light.  Yes, some shade trees do a fairly good job of blocking light from the grass and grass needs sun.  But this is not the main reason lawns under large trees fail.  Trees have deep roots, often as wide and deep as the above-ground dimensions of the tree.  The sheer biomass of a tree has a huge capacity to soak up and store water and nutrients.  You might get rain, but little of that will be available to a lawn for long. You might water that lawn for a longer time, but the trees will soak up that water, depriving the grass of it.  Water too much, and you doom the grass to fungal rots that attack the blades and shallow roots.

What to do?  Planting shrubs can lead to the same problem, but I have had luck growing the following under or near a large pine tree: Japanese maples, Rose of Sharon, viburnum, daylilies (they like it dry), and American beautyberry.  Other than that, a pine straw mulch and some moss would be nice!

So can you have big trees and a lush lawn?  What, want a pony too?

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wednesday Lagniappe: Orchid Killer

I enjoy having orchids around the home, especially now that they have come down in price significantly (most phalaenopsis or moth orchids you can buy are tissue clones, made in huge numbers in Asian plants, and this is what has brought the price down- this blog entry is not about the politics or socioeconomics of this practice, though I am happy to hear your comments in these areas).  I often buy orchids instead of cut flowers, because orchid flowers often last for months, giving some indoor color over a longer period of time than cut flowers.  My orchids usually end up dying from (what I suspect to be) my overcaring for them (overwatering; not transplanting them from the pot they came in, which often has life-limiting, poor-drainage).  So, for the last year, I have been neglecting the poor things, not watering them often, nor fertilizing them etc.  After the flower spike is gone, I stick them under florescent bulbs and in cool-ish attic and, other than a rare watering and picking off scale insects, I do little to nothing to them.  Well, these orchids have rewarded my neglect with...new flower spikes!  The one above, so far, is the most impressive, with multiple, branching spikes of buds.  Three of the other four orchids I have are spiking too!

In general, I find that my houseplants do best if I "neglect" them. Most people over water their houseplants anyway and I certainly do not do that.  I water, at most, once a week (except for that fainting peace lily), keep my house cool at night (62 degrees) and they do just fine.  It's just that I had read orchids need moister, warmer air than exists in most homes.  Not my orchids!  At least so far.  Not sure what the effect of these drier, cooler conditions will be on their longevity, but I have orchid flowers again!
Happy gardening.