Tagged with "Fall"
Edwina von Gal's Radicle Thinking
Does the world need another garden gadget? Well . . . I have so many new tools pitched to me, all promising to do a better job. Ugh, so many disappointments—and so much more garbage. But, I am intrigued about a new one that has real promise. It’s a new way to mow that is winning over hearts with the environmentally conscious and the lawn care industry: Little robotic electric mowers, or mowbots, that are programmed to mosey around yards, cutting the entire lawn every day or two.
Think of the legions of trucks and trailers loaded with large, loud mowers that invade our neighborhoods weekly. Then, imagine them gone—totally gone, along with their noise, gas guzzling, and emission spewing.
Then think about all the fossil fuel saved not only by switching to electric but by eliminating all the trucks and trailers needed to transport massive machines to every lawn and then haul grass clippings to the landfill where they emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
And now think about how much time your landscaper would save by renting a robot or two to you and operating it remotely. Instead of riding a noisy, polluting machine around endlessly in circles and breathing its fumes, your landscaper could take a quiet moment to hear the birds and bees on your property and make a better home for them.
Now, imagine healthier grass. Tiny daily cuts from a mowbot are so much less stressful to your lawn than weekly big bites. As a result, your lawn will have fewer weeds because stress-free, happy grass will outcompete them. Plus, you’ll have healthier soil: Those tiny clippings are ideal fertilizer, and the tiny mowers don’t compact the soil.
Yes, it’s better for our ecosystem to have as little lawn as possible, but we all like to have some to play on, and that patch of lawn needs mowing. Why not reduce the size of your mowers, too? An added benefit … less stress for us . . . feeling less annoyed about those people who haven’t reduced their lawns yet, but have switched to mowbots. At least they are making less noise and doing far less harm to our planet.
Landscape professionals I know are convincing me that mowbots are worth trying, worth adding another gadget to the world. Do you have experience with robotic mowers? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Perfect Earth does not endorse any particular robotic mower companies, nor do we receive any compensation for saying we think they may have great potential.
FACT: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 17 million gallons of gas are spilled each year refueling lawn and garden equipment—that's more than the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez disaster.
FACT: Every year in the U.S., we use 1.2 billion gallons of gas and 100 million gallons of diesel fuel to power lawn mowers. One hour of operating a typical mower equals the emissions of a typical car driving 500 miles. (U.S. Department of Energy)
FACT: During the summer months, grass clippings can account for nearly half the weight of the waste collected in some communities. (University of Idaho)
FACT: Grass clippings contain about 4% nitrogen (N), 0.5 percent phosphorus (P), 2% potassium (K), plus small amounts of other plant nutrients. (University of Illinois) Leaving small clippings on your lawn reduces the need for additional N by up to 50%. (Cornell University)
Photo courtesy of Nick and Christina Martin.
“Mother nature is the ultimate landscape designer. We’re just her helpers,” says Emilia deMauro, who, along with her sister Anna, runs the East Hampton, NY, landscape-design firm deMauro + deMauro. Their approach to design is imbued with a sense of community and responsibility to preserve the beauty of the native environment.
The sisters grew up shuttling between the rolling hills of rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, where their artist dad lived, and the farm fields and overgrown thickets of the east end of Long Island, where their mother was farming and gardening. “Both of those landscapes play a huge part in our designs,” says Anna, who studied at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. “There’s something so beautiful in the wildness. We're constantly pulling from those memories.”
They found kindred spirits in clients architect Nick Martin and his wife Christina. The couple believed strongly in “pivoting away from green lawns that require chemicals and continual labor, and, most important, that strip our community of habitat for creatures big and small,” says Christina. They hired the sisters to design the landscape outside of Martin Architects, Nick’s new Bridgehampton office on the Montauk highway. A busy thoroughfare, situated just past a gas station and across from a bank, didn’t deter them from achieving their joint vision: a self-sufficient oasis, lush with native plants and alive with birds, butterflies, and wildlife, that looks beautiful year-round.
The property was neglected when the Martins bought it. “To transform the space, we removed the asphalt driveway, regraded the land because the pitch was so bad, with the goal that it wouldn’t need irrigation,” says Nick. He also tried to reuse as many materials as possible.
For the front-yard meadow, which is 90% native, the deMauros handpicked every single plant. They had roughly plotted out a matrix on paper in the office before “throwing it all up in the air come planting time,” says Anna with a laugh of their instinctual process. “Something happens when you lay out a garden,” adds Emilia. “There’s a little chaos and unknown in nature and that’s where the fun happens. You can’t be too rigid.”
While the garden is not even a year old, it already has become an attraction for wildlife and humans alike. The Martins have spotted an uncommon Henry's Elfin butterfly and specialized native bees like Colletes banksi. “The meadow has become a haven for insects and bird, all sharing space,” says Christina, who is also studying biodynamic gardening. It’s also attracted people, including Perfect Earth Project founder Edwina von Gal, who recently was compelled to step on the brakes while driving by to find out more. She’s not the only one. “We have friends stopping by to ask about our plant lists,” says Christina. “That’s the whole idea. We want to share our garden and inspire as many people as possible because the more people who do this, the better.”
The deMauros are encouraged that aesthetics are shifting. “People want to do the right thing,” says Emilia. She and her sister have seen how frustrated people are with the time, money, and effort to keep green lawns and clipped hedges. “It’s important to have these conversations. No one needs a ‘perfect’ lawn. We want to show people that they can have habitat on their property and it can be beautiful.”
Anna and Emilia planted a loose allée of native single stem Magnolia virginiana ‘Green Shadow’ trees, leading to a wood sculpture. “This space was intended to have a slightly more formal feeling from the front of the property with fewer plantings and more stone dust,” says Emilia. Photo courtesy of Nick and Christina Martin.
For the hardscape, the sisters used stone dust for the driveway and paths. It’s water permeable, acts as a mulch, and is “beautiful at all times but especially in winter when the garden has an open and serene feeling to it,” says Emilia. A Magnolia virginiana ‘Sweet Thing’ tree anchors one end of the path, which is flanked by asters, narrowleaf mountain mint, prairie dropseed grass, and three kinds of Carex. Photo by Doug Young, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.
For the meadow in the front of the property, the deMauros devised an interspecies matrix planting. They densely planted small perennials (grasses such as prairie dropseed and wavy hair grass and flowering species including slender blue iris, gray goldenrod, and white heath asters) approximately 12- to 18-inches apart to help with weed suppression and water conservation. “We are always considering plants that match each other, such as sun/shade patterns, seasonal interest/growth patterns, succession bloom, site conditions,” says Anna. Photo by Doug Young, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.
In front of the property is an old footpath that has been worn away by people walking along it over the years. “We wanted to honor it, so we covered it with stone dust with the hope that people will continue to use it daily and enjoy the insects and birds, and just the plain old beauty of the garden,” says Christina. Photo by Doug Young, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.
The whole office came out to plant the meadow together. “We wanted everyone to have a part in the garden and I was amazed at how much fun everyone was having putting their hands in the dirt,” says Christina. “It was a bonding experience.” Photo courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.
Nick wanted to use a series of rocks to create something sculptural, but “we realized that the most sculptural way of using them was to leave them as if ‘they fell off the truck.’ They formed a grouping as a gathering space hinging the composition of the grade to the structure” he says. “We modified the layout, added succulents, and nature did the rest." Photo by Doug Young, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.
The meadow is striking covered in snow. They don’t cut back the meadow in fall but keep the stems and seedheads intact for wildlife. After returning from a family vacation to Sweden, the sisters came back with an even greater appreciation for nature au naturel. “Less is more. See the beauty in leaving things be,” says Anna. Photo by Jake Lear, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro
This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on January 25, 2024.
“The garden has been an adventure,” says Brian Sawyer, co-founder and partner of the award-winning, multi-disciplinary design firm Sawyer | Berson. When he bought the property seven years ago, the yard of his Bellport, NY, home consisted of an uninspired lawn and basic foundation plantings. But Brian saw potential. From the start, he knew he wanted a PRFCT garden—one that was toxic-free and nature-based. He carved out geometric beds and filled them with loose plantings, including many native varieties, such as an array of monarch-loving milkweed, ironweed, and Coreopsis, which “made a nice, low cloud of yellow” in the beds. He transformed the dull space into a richly layered wonderland that now brims with flora and fauna, including “twice the number of birds and a ten-fold increase in insects” since he first bought the property.
As every gardener knows, a garden is never complete—and is always unpredictable. Brian is already thinking about the changes he will make later this year. He plans to add more native Rudbeckia, noting that it “works better mixed with other meadow perennials and grasses and less as a stand-alone.” He loved the beebalm (also a favorite of bees, as you might guess) when it bloomed in July but learned that he had to pair it with something that would flower when it began to fade. He discovered that hollyhocks resent the humidity of Long Island and don’t like wet feet, the Joe Pye weed grew much taller than expected, and he rejoiced at the native Lobelia, which was “really robust and flowered most of the season.” “What’s been the most rewarding is the learning experience,” says Brian. “There’s much to edit this coming year, but that’s all part of the fun.”
This is part of a series with Gardenista , which ran on December 14, 2023.
[Top] The Brown-belted bumblebee is native to much of the U.S. It gets its name from its thin reddish-brown “belt.” Photo Credit: Steven Mlodinow
It’s winter. The trees are bare, the ground is (hopefully) covered in fallen leaves, and the palette of the landscape is muted. While it might look barren, there is a whole world living just out of sight. “Native bees might not be buzzing now,” says Sarah Kornbluth, a field associate in Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. “But they are all around us, hibernating in soil, stems, cavities, standing dead vegetation, and leaf litter, ready to emerge next spring.” There are more than 3600 described species of native bees in North America, from large fuzzy bumblebees to tiny metallic green gems, some sporting masks and others flaunting their extra-long antennae, living in forests, deserts, tundra, meadows—basically anywhere there are flowers. While they might not get as much attention as, say, monarch butterflies, they are vital pollinators to our ecosystem and food web. They are also in trouble. Native bees are struggling due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and competition and disease from non-native honeybees. [To learn more about how honeybees compete with native bees, read this piece from Xerces Society.] At The Battery in downtown Manhattan, the garden team is working hard to support them. They removed their honeybee hives and are incorporating more pollinator-friendly native plants into the gardens, says Jennifer Bishop, zone gardener at The Battery. They’re also about to embark on a pollinator survey with Kornbluth.
“The Battery's been interested in learning a lot more about all of the organisms that use the garden besides humans to incorporate into their education programs and landscaping management practices,” says Kornbluth. “I'm very interested in knowing which bees are living where, what they need, and how we can provide for them. When you look at a bee community, you can learn a lot about what resources are available because you can see what specialist bees are thriving where. Are there bees that prefer soil nesting or cavity nesting? What nesting habitats are being provided here? What flowers do they prefer? What is the community telling us about what the habitat is rich in or poor in?” Kornbluth and team started with a preliminary study of native bees at The Battery this year and will launch a full survey in 2024.
The team surveys the population by observing and collecting species with nets and by setting passive traps. The traps, which they call bee bowls, are plastic cups painted fluorescent yellow or blue, or white. These colors mimic the color of the nectar guides that flowers use to lure pollinators to visit. The cups are filled with soapy water to trap the insects. “We then collect, pin, and identify each species and will make observations of species we can identify without killing,” says Kornbluth. They will also post photographs of bees on iNaturalist for identification.
“The priority in gardening is no longer just about mastering an aesthetic,” says Bishop. “There is a shift toward being more mindful and ethical. We need to embrace the natural systems that we've just forgotten about.” Here’s what you can do at home.
Grow native plants in your garden.
Native insects coevolved with native plants. They’re part of an intricate food web system. For most organisms, non-native plants are like “plastic fruit in a fruit bowl,” says Kornbluth. “It may look good, but they won’t be able to eat it.” While nectar-eating insects are able to enjoy the sugary, calorie-rich nectar from a wide range of flowers, “pollen, which bees need to feed their young, is more likely to come from the local native species that they have been coevolving with them for many thousands of years,” says Kornbluth. At Perfect Earth Project, we advocate for at least two-thirds native plants in your garden.
Don’t use pesticides.
Even organic ones. Pesticides (and that includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides) don’t discriminate and will kill all insects—not just the ones you’re targeting. When selecting plants at the nursery, ask to make sure they haven’t been treated with pesticides of any kind, especially neonicotinoids, a systemic insecticide that is absorbed by the entire plant rendering every part poisonous to pollinators.
The Battery leaves the stems intact over winter where they provide homes for insects and structural beauty all season. Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Battery.
Provide Nesting Spots
Native bees nest in the ground and in stems and wood piles. “It’s important to remember that the standing dead vegetation you see is full of bees,” says Kornbluth. Try not to cut back stems when flowers are done blooming, but leave them for the bees. If you’re concerned about how that’s going to look, visit The Battery, says Bishop, and see how pretty it is all winter long. “Embracing a plant’s complete life cycle—from seedlings in spring to seed head or grass mound in winter—is a Piet Oudolf trademark,” says Bishop of the visionary Dutch landscape designer who created the garden’s master plan. “At The Battery we continue to display the array of forms and textures a plant possesses. By not deadheading we allow the life cycle to stay on display and integrate into design year-round. And this decay becomes abundant living matter and nest material for pollinators.” It’s also beautiful. “I love the aesthetic: the decay, structure, and different textures of every plant—they each have their own kind of personality,” says Bishop. But if you must cut some stems back, Kornbluth advises to leave last year’s stems as high as you can. While you’re at it, leave the leaves. In addition to feeding the soil, fallen leaves provide insulation for ground-nesters, like bumblebees and mining bees, as well as other hibernating organisms. “It prevents the surface of the earth from getting too cold, which impacts their survival over the winter,” says Kornbluth.
Look and Learn
“Do a small insect safari at home,” suggests Kornbluth. Bishop has been doing this in her own backyard in Westchester New York and happily admits the glee she feels when finding new species in her garden. “Give yourself the opportunity to be meditative and peaceful,” says Kornbluth. See who's coming to eat. What do you notice about them? Do you see one with full pollen baskets (indentations on a bee’s rear legs that are covered in stiff hairs that trap pollen)? What plants are they visiting? When are they appearing? Share what you find on iNaturalist. “The whole process is very eye-opening, engaging, and connecting.” You’ll be amazed at what you discover. “Pollinators are often a very good indicator of ecosystem health because of their connectedness with plants,” says Kornbluth. “Plus, they’re adorable.”
Let’s meet some native bees:
Photos by Jennifer Bishop, unless otherwise indicated.
Photo Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab
Common Eastern Bumblebee
Bumblebees are social, living in colonies. Kornbluth describes their life cycle like this: The queen overwinters, hibernating in her hidey-hole or hibernaculum, an underground spot like an abandoned mouse burrow that she had chosen the previous spring after mating. Then she comes out in the spring and starts to collect pollen and lay eggs. As her daughter workers become larvae, she feeds them, they pupate and become adult workers. Then they take over a lot of the jobs. She lays more eggs. The queen has all summer to build her nest until she produces new queens in late summer or early fall. Then she dies and the cycle continues. A closeup of a queen, Bombus impatiens.
ABOVE is a female Eastern Bumblebee with full pollen baskets. “We think that bumbles are great to include because they are some of the easiest native bees to spot and learn about,” says Kornbluth.
These tiny bees are solitary, nesting in twigs and stems. Since they’re so small, they prefer small flowers, even “ones we might not really notice, like those found in an alternative lawn” says Kornbluth, and because of their size, they can go deep inside flowers to get nectar. Not particularly hairy, they don’t carry pollen on their bodies, like other bees, but carry it in their “’crop,’ the upper part of the digestive tract.” It doesn’t get digested but is regurgitated when the bee gets back to the nest. “Many species of bees use their crop to carry nectar or water, but the masked bees also use it for carrying pollen,” notes Kornbluth. This masked bee was spotted foraging on snakeroot in Bishop’s garden. “It’s a super rigorous perennial with firework white flowers,” says Bishop, who cautions that it can spread vigorously.
Only females have pollen baskets, as you can see on this fuzzy Brown-belted Bumblebee. Kornbluth explains how you can identify them: “A female Brown-belted bumblebee has 5 visible stripes (or segments) on its abdomen. The first stripe (closest to the thorax) has yellow hairs, the second stripe has a patch of yellow to brown hairs in the middle and black hairs on the sides. Stripes three, four, and five have black hairs and are hard to tell apart.” These large ground-nesters can be found in prairies, meadows, and fields where they reuse abandoned burrows or cavities.
Photo Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab
Green Sweat Bee
Sweat bees are small, docile, and great pollinators. They are also attracted to salt. Some are even attracted to mammal sweat. “People often mistake bright green sweat bees for flies,” says Kornbluth. One way to distinguish between the two is to look at their eyes. “Fly eyes take up more than 75% of a fly's head, while bee and wasp eyes take up less than 50%,” she says. “You'll be surprised how visible insect's eyes are once you're looking for them!”
Male Longhorn bees feature very long antennae. These bees are specialists of Asteraceae, and especially love sunflowers. Look for them buzzing about in July and August.
The pollen basket of the female Longhorn bee sits on much of its hind leg. It’s composed of dense hair to help trap pollen as it flies from flower to flower.
Edwina von Gal’s Radicle Thinking
As we head toward the shortest, darkest days of the year, we humans always start pondering big topics, like life, death, love, thankfulness, peace, and then set out to be better in the New Year to come. I, of course, am also thinking about plants and what they have to say about the world right now. Plants are the basic stuff of our lives: We need them for food and oxygen, and wouldn’t survive without them. They also provide great beauty. They are the “lilies of the field.” They serve us all and make no judgments—but how harshly we judge some of them!
Let’s consider "invasive plants" and the warlike language we have come to use when speaking about them. I’m well aware there are places where plants are taking over in a way that is very unfair for other species, and we might need to take a bigger role in a better outcome. But let’s bear in mind that some of these plants were intentionally introduced by humans. Others hitched a ride, as we spread around the globe. Of these introduced species, some, considered naturalized like Queen Anne’s Lace, have fit right in. Others, like clover and dandelions, have been targeted by the lawn industry as weeds, when they actually improve soil quality. And then there are those plants, such as Phragmites, Japanese knotweed, and mugwort to name just a few, that are considered so sufficiently aggressive and difficult to remove that they inspire attack strategies that involve mechanical and chemical warfare (flames, electric currents, toxic chemicals, and more).
What does the language we use about invasive plants say about us? For instance, ”the war on invasives.” Does their behavior warrant the intensity of our responses? How much do the words we use affect our feelings and our management policies? It is well accepted that aggressive language can have significant negative effects on relationships, collaboration, and overall well-being, while peaceful communication leads to more positive outcomes and healthier interactions. I believe the way we talk about plants can affect the way we interact with them.
Stop and think about these words associated with plant management strategies: fight, invasive, battle, eradicate, suppress, control, exterminate, zero tolerance . . . war. Is this how we should be making plans to “help” nature? Is this why smart and devoted environmentalists feel justified to use glyphosate (Roundup’s main ingredient) and other synthetic chemical herbicides? To arm themselves for battle?
A primary goal of removing invasive species is to restore diversity; we learned this from nature itself. A diverse system is generally more stable. Ecosystems tend to evolve toward higher levels of diversity and complexity—on their own. So, why aren’t we trusting nature to do that now? Maybe we want results to happen faster because some plant is causing us some inconvenience? Maybe there is money to be made in large-scale management schemes? Surely, we do have a role to play, but maybe it is time to be less aggressive, less harmful. Maybe we are not listening closely enough. As we approach the winter solstice, let’s stop for a moment, hear the plants, recognize their lives as good, and think in peaceful terms.
[Top Photo] Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), feared and targeted for its exuberant growth potential, contains high amounts of resveratrol and anti-inflammatory nutrients, which people have used to treat mobility, immunity, and circulatory system issues. Photo by OttoBlotto from Getty Images.
About one billion pounds of conventional pesticides are used each year in the U.S. Photo by Worledit from Getty Images.