Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dirt Therapy

It's been a rough week around here. In response, I took out my frustration and anxiety on the rain garden, which needs to be dug by Saturday because some of my sedges will be arriving that day. Ironically I haven't had time to finish it because of all the rain, but hacking away at clay and rocks to dig six inches down is a surefire way to release stress!

These pictures are pretty ugly, but this is the reality of creating this garden. I look forward to seeing how nice the "after" pictures are. So here it is last week when I removed the sod...

As you can see, this rain garden breaks the cardinal rule of being at least 10 feet away from the house. I discussed this issue with Dr. Stacy James of the Prairie Rivers Network, a local environmental NGO, and she concurred that it shouldn't be an issue. Here's why: this spot was a natural depression even before I removed the sod, plus my house is on a slab so there's no basement to get flooded. More importantly, water has been pooling in this spot for years anyway with no damage to the foundation, so putting plants there will absorb the water faster than it would drain without the garden. I can't say that everyone should disregard the 10-foot rule, just that in this situation it shouldn't cause damage.

This is a picture of the "garden" doing its job today. The trench to the right is the depth that the whole garden will be once this rain stops and I can finish. The berm will be more even as more dirt is dug, and I've rounded the corners a little so it's an oval shape. My poor photography skills don't really capture that, but hopefully you can get the idea. You can see how this spot retains water. (That's a leggy spirea in the foreground; it will not be in the rain garden but is on the other side of the berm)

Digging this reminded me how amazing it is that anything grows in my corner of the world. The soil was nothing but compacted clay intermixed with fist-size rocks. I cursed the barrenness of the soil and the glaciers that left my property with the grimy table scraps from their earth-moving, rather than the nourishing humus of areas farther south. On the bright side, I'll be picking up my Pennsylvania sedges this Saturday, and the rest of the plants will be here in two weeks, so there will be many more in-progress pictures to come. It's not the prettiest process right now, but it's good for the soul and I'm hopeful for its future!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Arbor Day 2009

Happy Arbor Day! Be like me and hug a tree! (Or better yet, plant one.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day!

I must admit that I'm not really doing anything special to commemorate Earth Day. Today is a day of work and child-rearing like any other. I hope that my everyday actions are sufficient to make just a little difference, and I intend to continue doing those things (i.e., recycling, composting, remembering to bring my reusable grocery bags to the store, growing land-friendly plants, reducing my driving time in my very un-green SUV, etc.)

The weather has finally cleared up around here after yet another sputtering gasp of winter that kept things cold and rainy for the last few days. So in honor of Earth Day and the lovely weather it brought with it, I'd like to say thanks to my little corner of the planet for the following things that I am very grateful for:

This great blue lobelia (L. siphilitica) has been drowning in the overflow from my gutters lately. I purposely put it in such a poorly drained spot, and it's performing beautifully. It's getting bigger and greener every day!

This tulip is the first one in my garden to bud, and I hope that with the sunny, warm weather that's coming tomorrow it will flower soon.

I lost the plant tag for this goldenrod, which is now about three years old. I've been waiting patiently for it to get established and really flourish, and I think this might be the year! Its foliage is off to a very good start.

Last year I was angry with this astilbe for being such a water-hog, and I was sure my neglect killed it. It withered and disappeared early in the summer, and I felt guilty but also resentful. To my surprise, it's still alive and growing quite well. I just discovered it last week, still being a trooper despite my poor treatment of it. I have resolved to be nicer to this plant and I truly love its fuzzy foliage and unique flowers. I'm glad it's back!

So enjoy Earth Day everyone, and remember to be nice to the planet not just today but every day!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Green the Grounds Permanently

Like most gardeners, I was delighted when Michelle Obama announced the planting of an organic vegetable garden on the White House grounds. Converting a part of a water-wasting, chemical-using lawn to a kitchen garden that will help feed the family while not using pesticides and fertilizers is an extremely positive development in the land usage happening at this famous residence. But as a native plant nerd I would be remiss if I didn't advocate for the addition of native landscaping to the White House grounds. This would demonstrate to the public at large that while a vegetable garden feeds people, a restored native landscape nourishes the entire ecosystem, from the water resources to the soil to the wildlife.

Green the Grounds, a national media campaign, is asking how the White House and other First Residences can improve their land usage practices. Restoring the landscapes native to a residence's location would be one of the greenest options available. What I would truly like to see at the White House would be to convert the sun-filled front and south lawns to a meadow or prairie instead of the acres of turf grass currently there. A rain garden or wetland restoration would be a wonderful use of some particularly swampy microclimate on the grounds. (There must be a part of the grounds that fits that description. We are talking about a location on the cusp of the Atlantic Coastal Plain that's also near a large river; you can't tell me there isn't a marshy spot there somewhere!)

These landscapes would conserve water because the plants' massive roots can store large amounts of it, usually negating the need for irrigation. And when downpours come, that same web of roots and above-ground foliage will hold the soil in place and prevent erosion. Fertilizer would be counterproductive because native grasses and forbs become floppy with chemical additions. A few legumes would fix nitrogen in the soil, replacing a key nutrient that's been sucked up by all that turf, and I bet Sasha and Malia would love to see butterflies all over their yard.

But the best maintenance for a large-scale prairie is to burn it, and I'm pretty sure this would present a security issue. Even though controlled burns are carried out safely every year across the country, I can understand why many government officials, citizens, and even the first family themselves would object to a large conflagration surrounding one of the most important and valuable buildings in the world.

So I advocate that the White House grounds start small. Remove patches of turf and plant beds of prairie plants. Do likewise in the borders along the building in appropriate locations. Burning small native plantings isn't necessary; if things really need to be cut back, running over them with a simple push mower can replicate the effect of fire by reducing the plants to ground level.

Use Virginia switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Virginia wild rye (Elymus virginicus) as the matrix for the forbs; try broom sedge (Andropogon virginicus) in the drier spots. Grow these grasses with flowering forbs such as false indigo (Baptisia australis, a nitrogen-fixing legume), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and heath aster (A. ericoides). For shady areas, replace turf with Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), and don't overlook spring wildflowers that look beautiful in those places, like Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria).

The grounds crew should find that soggy spot and plant a rain garden or wetland; those areas wouldn't burn anyway. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and great blue lobelia (L. siphilitica) are both appropriate for this region and they're fantastic for absorbing excess water, as is Canada rush (Juncus canadensis) and blue flag iris (I. versicolor). Throw in some New England asters (A. novae-angliae) to give a regional shout-out. Do you notice how these plants have American place names? Not only is it for a sensible reason (they evolved here), but it would add a personalized touch to the White House gardens.

These steps would improve the soil and provide food for wildlife, but perhaps most importantly they would conserve water in multiple ways, both by not needing irrigation and by preventing storm runoff from that massive lawn from reaching the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Just yesterday NPR featured Hedrick Smith, who described how six-legged frogs and other monstrosities were being discovered in the Bay thanks to runoff carrying fertilizer, pesticides, and myriad other forms of pollution. The entire watershed and other bays along the Delmarva Peninsula are important and fragile ecosystems, as are the water resources across this country. By setting a good example of land-use and water-use practices, the White House could help encourage wiser use of those resources throughout the United States.

Last but certainly not least, native landscaping would show the nation and the world that ecosystems evolved in the ways they did because everything worked together. Plants, animals, fungi, every type of organism has its place in the environment where it grew and adapted. By growing the plants that are right for the land, the land will respond by supporting communities of healthy organisms. And if we're trying to encourage renewal and improvement of our country, I can't think of a better way than through the very landscapes we live in every day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

GBBD April

Well, I definitely have a little garden envy after seeing so many beautiful posts today! I was working in my front border, and I comforted myself with the thought that I have tons of plants sprouting foliage, which at least bodes well for the future! But the cold, snowy, cloudy weather we've had lately has kept most of my plants in a holding pattern, so this lonely daffodil is the only actual bloom right now, and it can barely be called that. The tulips' leaves are out if full force but there's no buds yet. My irises and peonies are also showing vigorous foliage, so hopefully by next GBBD, I'll have more excitement to share!

Here's some peony canes...

...and those columbines I keep talking about.

Although not technically a bloom, my coleus seedlings are looking good, and I can't wait for the risk of frost to be officially over so I can plant them in some containers! For more GBBD, see Carol at May Dreams Garden!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

GGW Design Workshop: Water-Wise Gardening

I am new to the Garden Bloggers Design Workshop on Gardening Gone Wild, but I was moved by this month's topic, Water-Wise Gardening, because it is an issue close to my heart. Nancy's post raises a great point: xeriscaping can go beyond cacti and gravel in desert environments, which is the usual conception of that term. Here in northern Illinois we are certainly not in a desert, but that doesn't mean we can be careless with our water resources. Rainfall can be unpredictable here in more ways than one.

The short- and tallgrass prairies that evolved in Illinois after the last Ice Age were composed of extremely drought-tolerant plants, and with good reason. As any resident will remember from last fall, we can have deluges and flooding that now result in losing large amounts of rainfall as runoff and wasted stormwater. Conversely, we experience periods of intense drought when our clay soil becomes a parched brick. (Remember the summer of 2005? How about 1988?) These inconsistencies have been occurring since long before corn fields and urban sprawl consumed the prairies, so the native grasses and forbs developed huge root systems to deal with them. When the floods come, those roots store extra water for use when the rains stop. And if the drought is bad enough to exhaust that supply, the 6-foot, 8-foot, and 10-foot root systems can reach the water table underground.

What does this matter for water-wise gardening? Personally, this information helped convince me that restoring native landscapes is crucial to the health of our gardens, our soil, and our overall environment. Growing the bluestems, prairie dropseed, asters, baptisias, and the like means that gardeners don't have to water their gardens regularly, if at all. You've all heard me sing the praises of Canadian columbine for this very trait, and my asters, goldenrod, and coreopsis, to name a few, enjoy the same drought-tolerance.

On the other side of that coin, my great blue lobelia (L. siphilitica) and Joe-Pye weed help soak up the water that puddles in a certain low spot in my front garden. I'm planting a rain garden this spring in a part of my back yard that is particularly prone to flooding. The sedges, cardinal flower (L. cardinalis), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and other natives going there will use those fabulous roots to keep runoff from reaching our storm sewer.

This is an important benefit of prairie and savanna plants: they save water when it's around and go without it when it's scarce. Growing these types of plants is a water-saving gardening technique, and that is the definition of xeriscaping. This attribute definitely changed my gardening habits because I wanted to conserve water, and like Nancy said in her post, I wanted to make my life easier too. I try to explain this benefit to other gardeners in the hope that they will plant some natives, which can contribute to the broader health of our water resources. They may not be the yuccas that one pictures upon hearing the word "xeriscape," but many prairie plants can be just as important to wise water use in the Midwest!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Notable News

Here is a sure sign that vegetable gardening and conservation are solidly mainstream: The Economist is running multiple articles about these very topics! I would like to share them both with you. The first is about how community gardens are huge in England right now, which goes to show that the veggie craze isn't just happening here in America. I guess that's globalization for you; recession and tainted food scares have spread around the whole world, and so has a positive, productive response to those situations. The second is a little closer to home. It's a story about a "rediscovered" prairie remnant in St. Louis and local attempts to remove invasives and exotics. Both are some quick, pleasant news stories for a change! Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What can you tell me about hyacinth bean?

My introduction to the world of flowering vines this past weekend was informative but too short to really answer all of my questions. Before attempting to grow any vines that might fail miserably or get completely out of control, I want to learn more and so I have put vines on my to-do list for next year. (How can I be planning for next year when this growing season has barely begun?!)

So I am turning to the community at large for some tips. Who knows about and/or grows hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus)? This annual really caught my eye because I love blue and purple blooms, and its seed pod is extremely ornamental (plus what a great botanical name). Can it survive in partial sun? Will it flower if grown in such conditions? Can it withstand a little dryness or is it a water-hog? Does it twine with petioles? Is it aggressive? If you can shed any light on this plant, please leave me a comment!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

LSM update

You know the sound that Homer Simpson makes when he's surprised? That quick, high-pitched "AAH!" that he lets out when shocked or scared? That's exactly the sound I made this morning when I checked my seedlings and found this.

Yup, that's my Eupatorium seedling, which apparently is determined to drive me absolutely crazy. Upon further investigation I found that he isn't wilting or dying, but rather flopping over from the weight of his own leaves. So I added a little more soil-less mix to prop him up. Here he is now, still precarious but better.

I keep going back and forth over what to do. Should I transplant him into a larger peat pot and hopefully avoid more of this flopping? Or is it too risky to move such a clearly delicate seedling? Why is this making me so crazy?

In general this has been a very interesting experiment with seedlings. A couple years ago I started some annual flowers from seed in March, and they sprouted beautifully and all was well and good until I moved them into the garden where they languished and didn't flower. I figured out two problems: 1) I didn't plant them in full sun locations, and 2) they were tiny when I planted them outside in the first place. Basically they didn't have a long enough growing season or enough sun to reach their full potential. Frustrated with myself, I gave up on starting seeds until this miserable winter when I figured even wimpy plants were better than endless barren darkness. So I started a bunch of seeds in mid-January. That seemed to solve the first problem, because these annuals and perennials alike are getting a long growing season. Look at how well these coleus are doing:

But I think I jumped the gun a little, because now my annuals are outgrowing their little pots (and the few well-lit locations inside my house), but it's still too early to transplant them outside. I am making a mental note to start annuals in February next year. The perennials, on the other hand, are probably benefiting from the extra time to grow and toughen up before I start acclimating them to the outdoors. I also chose shade-tolerant perennials (Agastache, Aquilegia, Eupatorium) to deal with that whole not-getting-full-sun-in-the-garden problem.

I have thoroughly enjoyed having a tray full of vibrant herb and flower seedlings brightening up this place for the last six weeks, despite the stress the LMS has given me. I only hope my efforts turn out better than last time! I will certainly keep agonizing over when and how to transplant this little guy. But as I watch the hail/sleet mix coming down outside, at least my seedlings offer the hope that one day I will again be able to garden in the actual ground outdoors. At this point, that seems like quite the pipe dream.

One last note: I know I'm just discussing flower and herb seedlings (and foliage plants, to be technical), and I will soon have a spiel about vegetable seeds. But to keep this from becoming a truly rambling post about seedlings of all sorts, I will focus my thoughts and get into that discussion in the near future. Anyone with tips on Eupatorium seeds, I again appeal for your help!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Looking to Learn

I am pleased to say that I'll be spending tomorrow at Gardenfest, an annual day-long collection of gardening seminars at McHenry County College. I'm particularly looking forward to the seminar I'll be attending on climbing plants, because this is one group of plants that I don't know as well as I would like. It would be nice to incorporate at least a trellis or two in my garden, and I must admit that I drool over pergolas draped in climbing roses and such. A pergola would look ridiculous in my tiny yard, but I can dream, right?

Most of all I'm just happy that tomorrow will be a completely garden-centric day, albeit not in the garden itself. I usually leave this event extremely motivated to get gardening, which is good because it's almost time to begin my two major projects for this year: expanding my front bed and planting a rain garden. Both will involve removing sod, fighting the clay, and planting (the fun part).

I hope the weather holds for all of you actually getting your hands dirty this weekend. Here in northern Illinois the snow is finally melting and maybe, just maybe, spring is here!

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