Tagged with "Spring"
This post is about roots. It also marks the start of the new name for my Perfect Earth monthly posts: Radicle Thinking. The radicle, a root, is the first thing that emerges from a germinating seed, and the future of a plant depends on the radicle’s success. Seeds, miraculous tiny germs of life, are held in suspension until the world around them says, Okay, GO! A radicle then sets out to explore and engage with what it finds. It heads down into the soil to anchor the new plant, and then starts sending up water and nutrients so the plumule (the embryo’s shoot) can grow up towards the sun and start the true leaf growing process.
The radicle and the lateral roots that follow it form a root system of insanely intricate and mutually beneficial relationships with the microorganisms in the soil. These root systems form part of a two-way delivery system: nutrients and water from the soil flow up into the leaves, while sugar made from sunshine (photosynthesis) is sent down from the leaves to the roots to energize a vast community of busy soil-based lives. Roots+soil+leaves+sun = the essential building blocks of plant life.
My interest in roots and radicles makes me think about the fact that few of our commercially available plants are grown from seed. Most are cloned, propagated asexually by cuttings or tissue culture—they have no radicle. Instead, these genetically identical plants are created to meet the needs of the horticulture industry: easy to grow (compact, fast growing, unappealing to insects), easy to ship (short and tight “muffin-tops”) and easy to sell (big, bright flowers). These cultivars are often given cutesy, easy to remember, wince-worthy names, like “Incrediball”, “Pinky Winky”, and “Miss Piggy”. Many are patented, with the “inventor” getting a royalty for every plant sold. Specialty plant propagation of this sort has become very big business, encouraging lots of people to shop and plant varieties that would seem to be great for greening up the world. But how is it working for those plants and our ecosystem? We aren’t yet sure. Ecologically sensitive gardeners, especially native plant enthusiasts, are carefully watching to see how these plant clones will behave in the landscape, serve beneficial bugs and birds, and react to threats from things like pests and disease. Time will tell.
And what about the impacts of starting life without a radicle? Vegetative (seed-free) propagation relies on adventitious roots, which originate from stem tissue (not the radicle). They are fibrous, tangled, and often found circling the bottom and sides of the container in which they were grown. Can they do the same job as root systems with a radicle, formed by the natural process of seed germination? We know that asexually propagated plants will sometimes "revert" to their original species form, or otherwise grow out of the commercially driven traits that made them desirable to begin with. This is often not a concern for the breeders since replacing failing plants is good business. But it isn’t great for creating sustainable gardens, and it’s especially not great for trees, which are all about being around for a long time. I’ve been noticing clonal nursery trees, which have nothing but adventitious roots, showing signs of suffering as they age. Their fibrous, adventitious root systems have a tendency to wrap around and choke the tree (called girdling roots), which causes trees to die back a little at a time and weaken or even snap at the base. (Learn more about it here.)
Take a look at the trees in your yard, neighborhood, and community. How many of them were grown from seed right where they were dropped by their mother tree, assisted by her mycorrhizal network? Sadly, there isn’t much opportunity for this to happen in our managed lands.
So, if you find an acorn sprouting, save it. Try to plant trees grown from seed, no matter how small. Yes, it is a slow process, but think of them as your family. Don’t we love the process of raising our families from birth? The natural process of putting down a root and letting it grow is one that has evolved naturally and successfully for every life form. It connects us to nature and makes us happy and whole.
Resource: The Native Plant Trust's Go Botany is easy enough to hook beginners and deep enough to engage geeks. Learn how to identify plants and delight in the plant of the day.
Book: Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape , by Tom Wessels (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010)
Quote: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested." Stewart Brand’s statement of purpose, Whole Earth Catalogue , 1968.
Photo: Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) about two days after germination from seeds by BlueRidgeKitties.
Earth Day Optimism
Another Earth Day is coming up. And, yes, it can be easy to question whether all the work we are doing is enough in the face of so much bad climate and biodiversity news. There is still so much land being harmed all around us with noise and poison. Of course, it’s no surprise that we might be eco-anxious. Nevertheless, I am feeling optimistic this Earth Day…it is the 10th birthday of the launch of Perfect Earth Project and there is so much to celebrate.
For one thing, the media has really caught on to the urgency and importance of our message. Each week I see a plethora of stories about reducing lawns, leaving leaves, and planting natives for biodiversity. There are pollinator groups forming—and growing—in most communities. These groups are filled with passionate people who are learning about nature-based land care and sharing their knowledge with others. They are putting pressure on landscape professionals to learn about plants and provide nature-based services. Where garden centers fail to provide native plants, they hold native plant sales. They are posting beautiful photos of their wild front yards to help drive the aesthetic of what a good garden looks like. They are saying: We don’t have to wait for ordinances or laws to change. We can do this now, together. We can make a huge difference. And, for sure, they are making a difference.
Every single one of us can make a difference. On our own or with a group, we can build habitat (food, shelter, water) in our gardens, learn the names of native plants (especially keystone species) and the birds and insects they attract, and then plant them, at our homes and in our communities. We can let plants grow to their natural shapes and leave deadwood for the bugs and birds. We can be highly attentive to soil, and water properly as we enter a future of shortages. We can practice doing no harm.
I will remain optimistic. Because those of us who are doing this are doing something amazing. We are changing the way we relate to nature in how we relate to our land. We are CARING for the land. We are making landscapes that are full of life. We are, most of all, building resilient humans, who will face the future with nature on our side.
Book: In her latest book Love Nature Magic, Maria Rodale enters fearlessly into a world governed by natural forces. Her adventures are weird, insightful, humorous, and unforgettable.
Quote: "We are stardust / Billion-year old carbon / We are golden / Caught in the devil's bargain / And we've got to get ourselves / back to the garden" —Joni Mitchell “Woodstock”
Image of students planting a pollinator-friendly habitat, courtesy of Pollinator Pathway
To Nest or Not?
I like learning about things that are obvious once I know how to look for them—things that were often common knowledge in the past. In spring, birds are telling stories about where they choose to raise their young, stories based in logic, with a dash of magic. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1) Birds don’t actually live in nests.
Well, I guess it depends on your definition of live. Birds lay eggs and raise their young in nests. But once the kids have flown away, the parents either renest with a new brood that season or abandon the nest for the wild. The nests you are probably imagining right now are most likely found hidden in a dense leafy shrub or in the canopy of a tree, where they provide shelter from weather and camouflage from the sharp eyes of predators. Different birds have different nesting strategies (form, technique, and material).
A simple cup-shape is the most common nest type. You can find them in any number of places, such as along branches in the tree canopy, perched in tree forks, or nestled on ledges.
Birds that Build cup Nests: Northern Cardinal, Barn Swallow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Robin, varieties of warbler, as well as other passerines.
2) Not all birds make nests.
Or, rather, not our idea of a nest. Some birds can get by with just a depression in the ground called a scrape nest. Scrapes are popular nest types for terrestrial birds (birds that prefer grasslands and open habitats that lack trees), such as shorebirds or tundra species.
Birds that Build Scrape Nests: Bob-white Quail, Killdeer, American Avocet, Common Tern, Piping Plovers, and many other shorebirds.
Other birds are cavity nesters which take advantage of holes found in place like dead tree trunks. Some line their place with coziness, but many just lay their eggs in the space as is. There are varieties of Owl that return to the same cavity for many years to raise their young, building up a “nest” from their own poop and their kids’ poop, too. When they’re not raising kids, these Owls roost on a branch near their cavity. You can sometimes spot them by finding their pellets beneath the trees.
Birds that Use Nest Cavities: Carolina Wren and House Wren, Eastern Bluebird, all Woodpeckers, Sapsuckers, Nuthatches, Prothonotary Warblers, Chickadees, and Owls.
There are also platform dwellers (Ospreys and Eagles), mound nesters (Mallard ducks), tunnel makers (Belted Kingfishers, Atlantic Puffins), pendant builders (Baltimore Orioles), and those who chose no nests at all (Chuck-will’s-widow). It all depends on what quality habitats are available where they live.
3) Most birds don’t re-use their nests.
It all comes down to capacity and energy resources. Small birds often make their nests from delicate materials that don’t weather well. While some of them will reuse their nests to raise another brood or two in the same season, they almost always build new ones the following spring. Starting from scratch reduces the possibility of ectoparasites (mites, lice, etc.), which can negatively impact the health and survival of chicks. It also helps avoid predators who know the locations of the nests from last season. Big birds, like Bald Eagles and Ospreys, who can carry large branches and twigs, will return year after year to the same nest, adding to the old one and making it larger over time—unless another bird steals it first.
4) What about Birdhouses?
For cavity nesting birds, birdhouses replace lost habitat, like standing dead trees. So the answer is yes, birdhouses are good. In fact, they have helped restore populations of Eastern Bluebird and Prothonotary Warblers. They are even better when they are cleaned out each spring to reduce the populations of mites and other pests from the previous breeding season which can harm the newborn chicks. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, the birds will only select the ones you do right.
Birds likely to use birdhouses (nesting boxes): Wrens, Bluebirds, Titmice, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Owls.
5) What about the way YOU nest?Your garden lifestyle is intricately connected to the life of birds. Think about it from the birds’ perspective and relate it to your place.
- Leave a dead tree or two, for food (insects) and nesting opportunities.
- Plant shrubs in groups. Dense clusters of varying heights provide options and protection.
- Plant natives with lots of fruit.
- Resist the urge to prune shrubs. Instead let them grow into their original natural shapes: tall, short, dense, twiggy.
- Leave a matrix of habitats including places on the ground that you don’t mow or “tidy up.”
- Make habitat piles with fallen twigs.
- And yes! Put out some birdhouses.
6) What to Plant?
Shrubs and small trees that provide great food and nesting areas. Most of these fruits are delicious for you too, but most often than not the birds will get them first. Don’t worry about insects, birds will eat them too. In fact, caterpillars are the primary food for their young. Here are some of my favorite native trees and shrubs:
- Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
- American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
- Chokeberries (Aronia spp)
- Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
- Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
- Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- American holly (Ilex opaca)
- Shad (Amelanchier canadensis)
Learn about the keystone plants, like oak trees, which support more than 400 species of insects and are vital to bird survival, in your area by visiting The National Wildlife Federation. Here is the list for the Northeast: Eastern Temperate Forests.
With thanks to Chris Gangemi and Matt Jeffery.
To learn more about birds:
American Bird Conservancy
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The National Audubon Society
Types of Bird Nests (The Spruce)
Birds That Build Nests With Domes May Be Doomed (NYT)
Book: Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh is a little handbook of consciousness to guide your relationship with your land. When you see it this way, you just can't use harmful practices.
Quote: “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art anybody could ever want.” – Andy Warhol
Podcast: For the Wild: TIOKASIN GHOSTHORSE on the Power of Humility. Thought provoking ideas about our relationships to nature and "saving the earth.” Try going outside with these ideas in mind.
American Robin on her nest, photo by wwing from Getty Images Signature.
Yes, You Can Compost (Closing the Loop, Part 2)
In November, I wrote about why it is so important to keep biomass (organic matter) on your property and some easy creative ways to manage various types such as branches, leaves, grasses, and garden clippings (Closing the Loop, Part 1).
The way to make the bulk of your biomass into free fertilizer is composting. It is the best-known way, and the most misunderstood.
Composting is simply the act of decomposition; like aging, it is inevitable, just do nothing at all and your various landscape stuff will eventually break down into the ground; that is what happens in the wild. If composting is so easy, and so important an environmental act, why doesn’t everyone do it?
In the managed landscape we like to play a role in how and where the decomposing happens, so we make compost piles. Anything organic can go into a compost pile, and if you just leave it, you will, eventually, absolutely have compost.
But, without some assistance, the process will be slow, and, depending on what you put in there, it could attract pests. In an informal survey of young homeowners (courtesy of my niece April) the amount of work required, the amount of space needed, and the possibility of smells and rodents came out as the top reasons why people don’t compost. But do not worry, these are all very easily overcome.
You really should be composting.
Composting relies on microbes, which can do the job with oxygen (aerobic) or without oxygen (anaerobic). Home composting is aerobic; the key components for happy, hungry microbes are the right balance of air and water. Happily, microbes are very tolerant. If they aren’t getting the right balance, they just slow down.
WORK: You can do nothing and let your compost pile break down slowly or you can help with the air and water to make the microbes more active. Turning a compost pile keeps it aerated. Occasional watering keeps it from drying out. Covering with a tarp helps keep the moisture in but also keeps it from getting too wet. The more you work to keep your pile turned and the right amount of moist, the faster your compost happens.
Compost piles can be cold or hot. Hot compost heats up and kills off pathogens and weed seeds. It is faster than cold. It requires a carefully monitored mix of nitrogen, carbon, water, and oxygen. Sometimes compost heats up all by itself but creating a reliably hot compost is a lot of work. Hot compost is important for garden nerds and compost professionals, but as I think EVERYONE should compost, I focus on the easy version, cold composting. It is simple, it works. It closes the loop just fine.COLD COMPOSTING (it is logical, there are no mysteries):
- Air? If you don’t want to turn the pile, start with a layer of twigs and/or wood chips and add more fluffy stuff (leaves, small branches) between successive layers to provide airflow.
- Time? The smaller the pieces, the faster they break down. So, if you wish to speed things up, as well as reduce the size of your heap, run your mower over the leaves and chop up garden trimmings into smaller pieces before adding to your pile.
- Bulk? For large amounts of compost and faster results, use the 3-pile system (see below).
- Moisture? Remember the moisture: if dry, add some water and then cover the pile with a tarp weighted down with bricks or logs.
- Weed seeds? Make a separate pile for plants with seeds or viable roots. Don’t use compost from this pile in your garden beds until you are sure the seeds and roots have been there so long, they are dead. If you aren’t turning and your piles start sprouting, do your best to cut or pull the growth before it goes to seed. Or just keep heaping stuff on top to suppress growth.
- Rodents? Not a problem if you are turning your pile very frequently, but if that’s not happening, don’t put “food” (kitchen scraps) in the heap; use a rodent-proof closed bin system (see below).
- Smells? It is anaerobic decomposition that stinks. If your pile has enough air, it will smell earthy-good. Kitchen scraps add a lot of moisture and can get anaerobic/smelly (not to mention the rodent thing), so turn them a lot or used a closed bin system.
- Additives? What about adding manure or other inputs? This is only needed if you are growing produce like fruits and vegetables that require high fertility. If you are removing food from your garden, you need to replace what you have taken, that’s another story. PRFCT focuses on food for non-human life forms; they live, eat, poop, and die in your garden; that’s the closed loop.
- Sun or Shade? Warmth is good to keep the organisms going, but too much sun can overheat them and dry out the pile. Best (but not essential) to pick a spot that gets a bit of shade in the heat of the summer and sun in the winter.
- Done? Compost is ready when there are no big chunks. If you want to get fancy, you can screen it before adding to your plantings and throw any chunks back on the pile.
- Don’t? Put anything in that has been exposed to pesticides (pre-emergent herbicides, broadleaf killers, insecticides) which may kill the microbes and/or inhibit growth of beds where the compost is eventually applied. Best not to use pesticides in the first place.
- More Don’t? Avocado pits, corn cobs, citrus peels, dog and cat poop (except if on certain medications) – too slow to break down or too icky for an open pile but fine in closed bin.
- Piles: heap everything in one or more places that are convenient and let it go or turn as your time and energy allow. Push the pile aside at the edges to remove finished compost beneath. Very big piles will take longer (less oxygen) so best to spread them out if space allows.
- Bins: build enclosures to contain piles and help you look and feel organized. Warning – most prefab bins are squares and make it fairly impossible to reach in and turn; you need at least one open side to access. Although it is nice to have some air flow in your bin walls, avoid using wire cages, as your spading fork (preferred tool for turning) will get stuck in it – very annoying.
- Configurations: If you have the space for lots of yard waste, and feel a bit more energetic, a 3-bin system is great – one space each for new, mid-process, and done. You can move the compost from bin to bin as it matures, or you can simply stop adding to a bin when it gets full and go to the next. Ideally, by the time the last bin is full, the first is ready for harvesting. That will depend, of course, on how big the bin, how much you add, and how often you turn.
- Closed Bins: rodent proof, odor free, space saving, self-aerating bins can take meat, fish, and dairy, and chunky stinky stuff. Turning is suggested but not essential. Most important is to add plenty of “carbon” (leaves, wood chips, sawdust, clean shredded paper, cardboard). For a very small property, one or two of these can be your entire composting system. I love my Green Johanna but have just purchased an Aerobin to test it. The problem with both is they are plastic and shipped from overseas.
- Contraptions: Rotating bins are another type of closed system now offered on most every garden retailing site. The concept seems solid: turning a handle is easier than turning a pile with a fork. The problems: 1) too small for most needs as they get too heavy to turn when larger. 2) At some point you need to stop adding material so you can finish what is in there. Buy, or make two or more of them. One of our respondents uses two barrels which she just rolls around. 3) Some require the purchase of proprietary “activator” pellets, which is contrary to the concept.
- Vermiculture: fun but fussy. Not recommended for those seeking low-maintenance options.
Compost is organic matter; every teaspoon can contain billions of microorganisms, ready to help your landscape thrive. Compost, however, is not the same as soil as it doesn’t contain minerals. Use compost to improve moisture retention and enrich soil, but not to replace soil. Compost is organic matter; every teaspoon can contain billions of microorganisms, ready to help your landscape thrive. Compost, however, is not the same as soil as it doesn’t contain minerals. Use compost to improve moisture retention and enrich soil, but not to replace soil.
If you turn your compost occasionally and maintain average moisture, it should be ready for use in 6 months to 1 year. Lazy version, figure on 2 years. Ready to:
- Fix bare patches in your lawn
- Top dress the entire lawn
- Add to soil when planting trees and shrubs
- Add to soil in raised veg beds
- Mix into new flower beds or scratch into old ones
- Let it be
Honor what your place produces; sending it to the dump uses fossil fuels for transport, generally involves dump fees, and creates methane (highly potent greenhouse gas) when it decomposes in the anaerobic landfill system.
Your yard does not produce garbage, it makes its own perfect food. It is free.
General info https://www.nrdc.org/stories/composting-101
About microbes https://compost.css.cornell.edu/microorg.html
Full on compost nerd info https://www.compostmagazine.com/
Quote: “This beautiful gift of attention that we human beings have is being hijacked to pay attention to products and someone else’s political agenda. Whereas, if we can reclaim our attention and pay attention to things that really matter, there a revolution starts”. Robin Wall Kimmerer, NY Times Feb 2023
Book: The Uninhabitable Earth , David Wallace-Wells
Which Way to Spray
For reasons both good and bad, the environment is so in fashion.
Earth Day is BIG.
Lots of causes, lots of requests. I am asking too. But, not for a donation; not to sign a petition; but for something not to do.
Please don’t spray your yard for ticks and mosquitos.
Why? Because there is no proof that it reduces tick borne diseases. (https://www.caryinstitute.org/science/tick-project) And because tick sprays (even the organic ones) kill much more than ticks: they kill butterflies, and bees and fireflies. They aren’t good for you, either (https://www.nytimes.com/2019)
What to do?
Spray yourself: You are the target, so put the spray where it is of max effect and minimum harm: on you and your clothing.
Check yourself: The most effective preventive measure of all. Property spray programs give people a false sense of security and they stop being vigilant. There is no way that blasting your garden with a pesticide can guarantee that you are never going to encounter a tick, but it sure will mess with the lives of your pollinators and birds.
Please take a moment this Earth Day think about it. If it is safer for you, your family, pets and the earth, why wouldn’t you spray yourself, not your yard? Choose a spray with picaridin, it’s not “organic” but it is least toxic and very effective. (EWG.org)
And, if you haven’t already, check out Two Thirds for The Birds www.234birds.org, and learn more beautiful actions you can take, for free, to help the health of the planet, you and your pets.
Tues May 4, Free Webinar: basic toxic free landscaping Edwina von Gal/Rodale Institute
Weds May 19 Presentation: Holly Merker, author of “Ornitherapy” and Edwina von Gal, PRFCT Earth Founder, hosted by Southampton Arts Center https://southamptonartscenter.z2systems.com/np/clients/southamptonartscenter/event.jsp?event=223