Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Practice of the Wild

I can't remember why I ordered The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder.  I'm sure I must have come across a recommendation to read it in something else that I was reading, but I'm darned if I can remember what that was.

Despite my lack of context as to how this book ended up on one of my many "To Be Read" piles, I am glad it did.  The series of 9 essays within contained numerous thoughts that zinged, thoughts that encouraged tangential ruminations, thoughts that spiraled into other thoughts or thoughts that redirected feelings I'd experienced so often myself.  It was particularly appropriate to be reading this book on Earth Day.

Some thoughts made me laugh, "Human beings are still a wild species (our breeding has never been controlled for the purpose of any specific yield),...."  (p. 76)

But most thoughts made me question my preconceptions at least a little.  For example, "When we think of wilderness in America today, we think of remote...regions that are commonly alpine, desert, or swamp.  Just a few centuries ago, when virtually all was wild in North America, wilderness was not something exceptionally severe.  Pronghorn and bison trailed through the grasslands, creeks ran full of salmon, there were acres of clams, and grizzlies, cougar, and bighorn sheep were common in the lowlands.  There were human beings, too:  North American was all populated....  There has been no wilderness without some kind of human presence for several hundred thousand years.  Nature is not a place to visit, it is home...."  (p. 6-7;  italics are in the original text; the bolding I added.)

This is a startling thought to me - although it's also a moment of, "Duh! Yeah! That's right!  Why hadn't I thought of this already?"  Maybe what so many people are searching for in endless shopping or eating or bedhopping or working is a sense of belonging, specifically a sense of belonging to the natural world, of truly being a part of Earth.

"Wildness is not just the "preservation of the world," it is the world....  We need a civilization that can live fully and creatively together with wildness." (p. 6)

Snyder is right.  It's long past time that we start constructing such a civilization.  We, as a species, can now all too easily destroy not only civilization, but also most life on Earth.  Why not take that understanding and use it as a reason to start the more complicated, but ultimately much more rewarding, process of living in harmony with nature? 

There are many, many more passages I'd love to share - but perhaps you should read the book?!  There are certainly plenty of concepts held within its relatively few pages that are worth thinking about and debating.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Helen Jane's rose

Helen Jane, the mother of one of my Clearwater friends, was the town's plant lady.  She was the only florist for many, many years, but more than that, she truly loved plants - all plants, as far as I can tell, not just flowers.  She came by this naturally, as her mother had always been fascinated by plants too.

About 3 or 4 years ago, Charlotte (my friend) had the sad duty of clearing out her parents' home before selling the house.  She invited me over to rescue as many of the plants as I could before she put the house on the market.

Sadly, my flower beds were new and not very extensive at this point, so I was only able to take a small number of the plants available in this wonderful woman's yard.

As Charlotte went around the yard, pointing things out to me, she pointed out a large, overgrown rose bush.  It was mid summer and the bush had long since quit blooming, but Charlotte said that this had been her mother's favorite rose.  I obviously couldn't dig up the entire bush, so I tried digging up a start from a low-lying branch that had developed a few roots.  I also weighted down another branch with a brick, after doing a partial cut across its diameter, then went back later to dig up the resulting start.

I don't remember which of my two attempts took, but one of them did and now, 4 years later, the shrub rose to the right of the obelisk is the result.  (The one to the left is a Knock-Out.)  Without the blossoms loading down the branches, this rose is actually much more rounded - taller, rather than shorter and wide.

It's a big, beautiful, vigorous rose that has received absolutely NO special care once it was obviously established, even last summer.  There are very few thorns along the branches.  It blooms once a year in the spring and, as you can see, it is truly loaded with highly fragrant, pink blossoms when it blooms.  The blooms average just over 3" in diameter.  I've had no problem with black spot or any other malady, specific to roses or otherwise.

For any rose people out there...do you have any idea what this rose might be?  I call it Helen Jane's rose, after Charlotte's mother, but I would be interested in knowing its "real" name, if it has one.

Whatever its "real" name is, I will forever think of Charlotte's mother when I see (and smell) this rose.  I just wish I'd had the opportunity to know this special woman.

Death of the Old; Room for the New

Yesterday we pushed over a dead, cottonless cottonwood tree that has been standing at the perimeter of the mowed area/firebreak in our front yard.  It was a favorite spot for passing birds to land so that they could check out my yard, so I feel a bit of a pang at seeing it go.  However, I find I'm also welcoming the chance to make the garden/yard a little more into my own creation.

When Greg had cleared out all of the deadwood from the cottonwood corpse that he could handle single-handedly, we were left with the bottom 8 feet or so of the trunk of the tree, including what little remained of the roots.  Greg suggested hooking up the pickup truck and dragging it to the burn pile;  I got to thinking that we might be able to use it another way....

The cottonwood had been sited in the middle of the main drainage path for the entire front yard.  Every time we get a good rain, this area fills up with water and eventually drains down into the draw that connects with nearby Spring Creek.  We've started trying to slow that water down to keep it on our own land, beginning with a bed that encompassed the rotting roots of this cottonwood's sibling, cottonless cottonwood #2.

Why not use this tall stump as a part dam/part visual focal point for a new rain garden bed?  Greg wasn't too keen on leaving the stump, but I got him to turn it 90 degrees and leave it there to get used to the idea.  Meanwhile I brought over my handy-dandy, bed-making hose and started making a (very) rough outline of what the bed might look like.

To anchor the newly evolving bed, I planted 3 little black cherry trees I had impulsively purchased about a month ago up in Topeka.  I hadn't been sure where to plant these new little seedlings; this spot seemed truly ideal.  On the downhill side of the cottonwood "dam", they should get a bit of extra water.  Additionally, they will be close enough to the house that I can watch as they grow and develop, but not so close that they become the main focal point...just in case they get a little straggly looking (which can happen with black cherries here in Kansas).

So here is the start of my new rain garden bed.

Obviously there is a LOT more to do before this bed becomes a reality; it may be a year or two until I get the grass completely cleared out and perennials planted and mulched - but the process has been started.  The tree trunk can begin to sink down into the soil as decomposition sets in and the little black cherries can put their roots down and their branches up as they settle into their new spot.  Life, and death, march on.

A Real Earth Day Pushover,...or He-Man Comes to Clearwater

What did we do to celebrate Earth Day?   Well, we were working out in the yard, walking around, deciding what to plant where, when I pushed on the big dead cottonwood that had given up and finally died over the winter.  (It was one of those pseudo-cottonwoods, the "cottonless" kind you buy all too often at box stores and even nurseries.)  It seemed like there was a little give in the trunk, so Greg and I started discussing whether he would take it down or if we should  call a tree trimming company to do it.

The trunk was big enough that Greg wasn't sure he could cut through it with his chainsaw, so we were leaning towards calling the professionals in. 

Just for kicks and giggles, thinking of how much the tree had swayed when I pushed on it, we decided to give it a serious push, together.  It definitely moved.

Another push or two, and we started hearing roots cracking underground.  The soil surface heaved a little.  Maybe it was our imagination, but the tree seemed to be leaning just a bit.

Quick, the camera!  Just in case we were successful, we wanted a record "on film"!  (Yeah, I'm that old - and older!)

So, here's the (almost still upright) dead cottonwood, with Greg, the soon-to-be Cottonwood Conqueror standing beside it.




And down she goes!

He-Man, the Cottonwood Conqueror, is triumphant!!!  All with one person power, the lurking symbol of loss is removed from the front yard!!!

The clean-up did, unfortunately, require the use of some stored hydrocarbons, but the Cottonwood Conqueror came through and completed the job.  Then, the loss of one tree, the beginning of a new life for that area of the yard and garden....  But that's a story for the next post!

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Lure of the Honeylocust

For most of my life I've thought of the honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) as a pretty but rather sterile tree, especially as far as wildlife was concerned.  They are native and have a light, pretty shade, but they weren't good for much more than that.  A few years ago I started to learn how wrong I was.

Five days ago I noticed that the blooms on our honeylocust trees were almost open.  They are opening at least 3 weeks early this year, so I started looking specifically for wheel bug egg clusters to see if any had hatched out yet.  (I've noticed that wheel bug egg clusters are often found on honeylocust trees and that their spring hatching seems to be timed to coincide with the honeylocust blooms.)  Indeed, they had!  In fact, it looked like the little creatures had hatched out a couple days before and were starting to wander from their egg masses in search of food.   Note the egg mass on the bottom of the big branch, directly below the smaller branch coming out on the upper surface.

That afternoon was warm, and I noticed that I was starting to hear a bit of humming from the direction of the honeylocust trees.  By the next morning, it seemed as if the entire yard was humming, as bees and flies (and the quieter butterflies) flocked to the honeylocust blooms to sip up some of that delicious honeyish goodness.

I took a few photos of some of the visitors....

While I saw a monarch occasionally sipping high up in the trees, this red admiral was down at eye level...and at one point a honeybee cruised by to see if the red admiral's bloom was "better" than the other ones that she had obviously been visiting.

Near the red admiral was a butterfly that I didn't recognize.  Several guidebooks later, I decided that it's a border patch, also known as a sunflower patch (for its preferred larval food), that was visiting a little outside of its normal range.  The patch butterflies - named for their solid patches of color - are generally a butterfly of the southwest and more tropical regions.  They are part of the crescent and checkerspot clan.

If you look below the patch, there is also a dark bee, probably a solitary bee of some sort, feeding on the pollen and nectar as well.

While bees, especially honey bees, were probably the most common feeders on the honeylocust blossoms, there were some flies as well.  I managed to catch reasonable shots of these two different types of flies as they briefly rested in the sun, taking a break from their "arduous" task.

I've never tried to time how long the honeylocust bloom time lasts, but I'll be enjoying the literal buzz while it does.  Be sure to check yours out, if you're lucky enough to have a honeylocust in your vicinity!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Visiting Blue-winged Teal

For some reason, every spring we seem to have a pair of blue-winged teal that visit us for a week or so on their way north.  Their visit seems late this year, but then maybe it's just that everything else is so early!  (I have to wonder if it's the same pair, too, or if it's just coincidence that I see a pair each spring.)

The teal are usually very spooky, but I was able to sneak up on them yesterday and get a couple photos before they flushed.  I appreciate their generosity in letting me capture their image for my photo album.

The Simple Art of Weeding

I am a firm believer in hand weeding, when possible.  When I weed, I see my garden up close and personal, in a way that I almost never do otherwise.  It helps me to understand what's going on in the soil and with the microfauna that are so important to a well functioning natural area.  It's also relaxing, almost meditative, when I can let go and "get into the zone."

As many of you know, we spent much of last summer's heat and drought on our hands and knees planting buffalo grass plugs that I'd ordered with a complete lack of 20/20 foresight.  We've been thrilled this spring to see that most of those plugs survived both the bad timing of their planting and the winter.  I'm sure that this spring's more normal rainfall has helped immensely.

Unfortunately, this spring's more normal rainfall has also given the weed population a good start...and I've found myself feeling the necessity of hand weeding much of our buffalo grass area.

It's not that the buffalo grass won't make it just fine, as long as we don't water or fertilize.  Sooner or later, with no supplemental care other than mowing when the weeds get too high, the buffalo grass should triumph.  It's just that I want it to fill in as well and as soon as possible, because the areas we plugged are right by the house.

So I've been sitting on my rear end, hand pulling henbit and assorted other weeds for several hours a day over the last week or so.  (This is, by the way, too much weeding even for me, despite my like of the process!)  I thought I'd share a little of what I've been seeing as I weed, though, and in the process maybe encourage a few other hardy souls to resist the blandishments of the weed killers so sweetly advertised on television.

As I weed, I work on one small area at a time - about 30 inches by 30 inches.  Here is a shot of one such area as I'm about to begin weeding.  Note that there is a little area already done on the lower right-hand side of the photo.

As I carefully pull out the henbit and other weeds, usually slicing off the roots just below the surface, I start seeing some of this area's inhabitants.  Here is one of the 7 earthworms that were disturbed by my efforts in this little patch.  (Note:  I rarely hurt an earthworm because I'm not digging deeply, but the noise of the roots being disturbed must bother them, because they come to the surface regularly and try to glide away.)

Here is a ladybug beetle pupa, attached to a henbit leaf.  (After taking this photo, I put the leaf and the attached pupa into another area of the lawn, where it hopefully wouldn't be disturbed.)

One thing that has really surprised me as I've worked is all of the ladybug beetle larvae I've been seeing. If you look closely, here is one (almost in the center of the photo) trying to escape to calmer ground....

The earthworms and ladybug beetles are positive findings;  I'm also finding quite a few caterpillars.  Some are inchworms, many (I suspect) are cutworms.  The individual below is one such suspect.  That said, the individuals that I think are cutworms seem to be curled up around or near the henbit, not the grass.  And I see absolutely no sign of damage anywhere from their presence.

In the long run, I'm not too worried about their presence, because my experience leads me to believe that their predator will come - whether that's a bird, scrounging for food to feed its young, a predatory wasp, or even a mole.  Sometimes you have to let a population of prey build up enough to attract in its predator(s).

When I got done weeding this little patch (and I didn't think to time myself, so I don't know how long it took), here is what it looked like.  The buffalo plugs are the fine-leafed, lighter green grass;  the big, thick, dark clumps are leftover fescue.  I really ought to be weeding those out too, but Greg wants to leave them in and see how they do compared to the buffalo.

After this experience, though, I would highly recommend against any attempt to jointly grow buffalo grass and fescue - they are just too different in appearance to gracefully co-habitate.  Truthfully, the combination of the two looks ratty at best.

The last shot to share is this picture of a solitary bee hole, an earthworm and the weeding tool I like best.  I've wondered what these perfectly round, little holes in the ground were from and, after all the research I did last year on solitary bees, now I know!  It's great to think that I have such a thriving population of native pollinators living so unobtrusively in my (soon-to-be) lawn!

So, after this spring's weeding and last summer's plugging and watering, what conclusions have I come to about putting in a buffalo grass lawn?  It's a little early yet but, as of right now, my biggest regret is not hiring some young, healthy landscaper type last summer to plug it all in for us at one time.   Not only would that have saved us a lot of time, sweat and knee pain, it would have gotten the plugs in the ground while they were still in their prime.  By the time the plugs in the area I'm currently weeding were put in, they were at least half dead from being in a flat for almost 2 months - no matter how much I watered, I couldn't seem to keep enough water on them to keep them healthy.  It's truly amazing to me that the buffalo grass in the front lawn survived at all!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hell Hath No Fury Like A....

...planet whose weather is disrupted.  Last night, the mid-section of the country got to experience one of the increasingly severe weather events that seem to coming so frequently these days.  Living smack dab in the middle of said mid-section, Greg and I were along for the ride.

For only the second time in history, the weather forecasters had predicted a severe outbreak of tornadic activity almost 2 full days before it was due to occur.  TV, newspapers, radio, the internet - there was talk of the forecasted severe weather everywhere.  Schools rescheduled their proms, many community activities were cancelled.  By late afternoon, it seemed like all eyes were on the sky and on the radar images filling the television and computer screens. 

Trained weather spotters were out in droves.  (Some of the best video and still images are their work.)  These weather spotters provide the important visual confirmations of what the meteorologists are seeing on the radar screens.  They are trained to understand what they are seeing, and to keep themselves safe.  But in tornadic storms, "safe" is a relative term.  Weather spotting can be a very dangerous business, despite all their training.

The clouds and the winds lived up to expectations.  It was an edge-of-the-seat sort of day, an even edgier sort of night.  Storms formed, strengthened, weakened, and strengthened again.  Several paths across the state seemed to favored, with storm after storm "training" along the same trajectory.  Wedge tornadoes, the most destructive type and supposedly only 2% of all tornadoes, seemed common.  Tornado tracks were wide and long - the tornado that hit Wichita was well formed (by radar signature) for about 6 hours, travelling along the trailing edge of its parent storm from north central Oklahoma clear into the eastern central part of Kansas before finally weakening and fading away.

Not too long after full dark, as that particular half-mile wide, long-lived monster crossed over into our home county of Sedgwick from the south, the tornado's predicted path went directly over our local community and, shortly afterwards, over our little 10 acres' specific location.  It was due to arrive in about 25 minutes time. 

We have a basement - with windows - but no safe room.  We decided that staying to "protect" our home wasn't likely to impress the storm, so we made the quick decision to hightail it up to one of our parents' homes in Wichita, where we would have the benefit of a safe room as well as the advantage of being out of this particular tornado's predicted path.  Five minutes later we were on our way, dogs in the car, riding the north edge of the storm cell for much of the way.

Shortly after we arrived at the folks' home, the local TV station reported that the hooked tail of the storm (the radar signature of the tornado) was directly over Clearwater.  We thought of all our friends and their families there, wondering what they were experiencing. 

It wasn't too long, though, before the Sheriff's office reported that the tornado appeared to have lifted and skipped over Clearwater.  The town was safe, and we heaved a sigh of relief.  Presumably the people of the town were safe too.  We still had no idea about our own home, though.

We waited and watched for another hour or so, watching as the tornado continued up into Wichita, tracking across the south and southeastern parts of the city.  Besides trying to figure out how badly Wichita had been hit, we were trying to assure ourselves that another supercell wasn't forming in the wake of the one we'd been running away from.  Certainly that exact scenario had been happening all evening in other areas of Kansas; it seemed stupid to head home, only to have to turn around and run away again.

But the storms forming were lining up in a huge squall line, stretching from Kansas, across Oklahoma, deep down into Texas.  The meteorologists were assuring everyone that the energy of a squall line was very different from that of the supercells.  We should expect hail, high winds, and maybe even small tornadoes, but massive mega-tornadoes rarely formed in such a set-up.

So we headed home around midnight.  With each mile, we looked ahead and tried to see lights.  Yes, there was a farm light ahead...and someone's kitchen light.  There didn't seem to be debris in the road and, in the dark, we couldn't see any obvious damage anywhere.  We passed an electrical truck about 2 miles north of home, but the porch light was steadily on when we pulled into the driveway.  The house and even the yard appeared to be fine.  Going inside, we realized that the electricity had been restored just 2 or 3 minutes before.

The night wasn't over for us, yet.  The huge squall line was slowly advancing on us, with severe thunderstorm warnings and some isolated tornado reports.  Greg and I tried to stay awake to watch, but we both kept drifting off into sleep in front of the TV.  Finally, around 2 a.m., as the line was going through, Greg woke up enough to watch the radar and determine that there were no tornadoes in our vicinity, so we both dragged ourselves up to bed.

Our sleep wasn't terribly restful, but at least the weather threat was finally done.

We drove around this morning, trying to see where the tornado had gone through.  There was less damage than even a normal summer thunderstorm was likely to produce.  Obviously the funnel had retreated well up into the clouds when it went over our area, sparing us from so much damage and heartache.  We were SO lucky.  Our heart goes out to those whose luck was not as favorable as ours' yesterday....

The wind has been strong and gusty all day today, but the sun came out and the air feels bright and crisp.   The sense of threat is gone.  As soon as Greg and I recharge our personal batteries, life will be back to normal activities.  The changeable prairie weather has stormed itself out...for now.  This spring is certainly challenging our flexibility and our ability to react to change.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Potting Day

Today is Potting Day for the Sedgwick County Extension Master Gardeners.  It starts in an hour, meaning I need to leave in about 30 minutes.  With 30 minutes to fill, I decided to share photos of what my offerings look like in full bloom.

Larkspur.  Yes, it's an annual.  But, if you put it (in full sun or light shade) where you'd like it to reseed, it will come back reliably year after year.  I'm not sure what the species of my variety of larkspur is, so I can't say for certain whether or not it is native.  It certainly needs no extra care and seems to attract bees readily.

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius).  I originally planted both 'October Skies' and 'Radon's Favorite', which have long since cross pollinated.  The species is native.  This somewhat washed out photo is from last fall, towards the end of our horrible heat and drought.  It shows the aromatic aster underplanted with gaillardia along my front walkway.  These plants got very little water all summer, yet still they bloomed beautifully.  Word of caution:  aromatic asters look like yellow-green mounds of nondescript shrubbery (about 2' tall and 3' wide) for much of the summer, but they are covered with purple blooms in the September-October time frame.  They bloom for a long time and are some of the last flowers to come into bloom in my garden.

Wild bergamot/beebalm (Monarda fistulosa).  I have seen this species growing in the middle of a hot, dry prairie in SW Iowa, so I am going to transplant some into a similar locale to see how it does.  So far it's doing very well in my garden bed, where it also got almost no extra water last summer.  The clump has expanded to a large (3') diameter over several years, but it has not "run" like many of the other Monardas do for me, so I do not consider it invasive or particularly aggressive.

Sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes).  This beautiful, relatively small prairie grass is wonderful, although it will seedreadily, so watch for seedlings nearby and pull them if you don't want a clump in that spot.  Sand lovegrass tops out at about 2', with a light airy seed head, looking very much like a smaller, refined version of switchgrass.  This photo was taken 3 months ago, in January.

Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis).  Judging from the number of seedlings that I have under my "bird trees", this relative of elms is one of their most popular foods!  It's reputation is that "everything eats it, but nothing kills it".  The leaves are rather rough and ready, but the overall form of the tree is attractive, it's hardy, and (did I mention?) the birds love it!  I do not, however, have a photo of it at this time.

Early, deep/bright purple iris.  A passalong from my father-in-law, this iris has done exceptionally well for me.

So that's this year's line-up of passalongs.  I'll be curious to see which ones are most popular!

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A "Weeding Mantra" Time of Year

It's the time of year when I find myself reciting my weeding mantra over and over, sometimes even in my sleep, "A year of seed equals 7 years of weed.  A year of seed equals 7 years of weed.  A year of seed equals 7 years of weed."  It's amazing how much motivation that simple sentence can provide for me!

Along with weeding, I am also mulching my beds, especially those beds that are having weed issues.  Primarily these are the new(er) beds that need this important blanket spread to keep weed seeds that were present in the soil from sprouting.  Of course, all the beds benefit from mulch to maintain soil moisture, keep roots cool, and feed the soil; I'm just starting with the ones that need it the most.

This photo shows my newest cleared area from last year, with fresh mulch applied, plus the bark mulch path I'm creating through the beds, and (to the left) the new bed that I'm starting this year where a pine tree stood that was felled last year by pine wilt disease. You can see why I need to keep the already present weed seeds from getting a foothold in the new bed!

Here on the relatively open prairie, I rely on a 2 part mulch layer for most of my flower beds.  For the first part of this mulch combo, I put down a fairly heavy layer of chopped leaves.  I love chopped leaves as a mulch for perennials - they decompose quickly to feed the soil, plus it's easy to dig into and mix with the soil if I suddenly need to add a new perennial or move one to another location.  The second layer is a thin layer of mixed hardwood chips to weigh the leaves down and keep them from blowing away in the ever present Kansas wind.

Both parts of my preferred mulch duo have the added benefits of being basically free and of giving me the good feeling of diverting yard waste from the county landfill.  Greg and I leaf rustle in the fall, driving through heavily treed neighborhoods to pick up bags of leaves that have been put out by the curb for the trash companies to pick up.  If the leaves have been gathered with a lawnmower, all we have to do is empty the bags into our big "leaf mulch storage bin."  If the leaves were hand-raked, Greg dumps them into the bin and then runs the lawnmower over them a bit to chop them up.  (By chopping them up, we decrease their wind resistance and increase the speed at which they decompose in the beds.  They are also simply easier to handle this way.)

For the wood mulch layer, I was lucky enough to find a tree-trimming company (one that I had trim our trees, actually) that was happy to dump a free load or two of chipped up wood from another, nearby job.   The only downside to this abundance is that we now have a huge mountain of wood chips sitting next to the smaller mountain of topsoil, both easily visible when you pull in our driveway.  It's not optimal siting visually, but it's the best place to let a commercially sized dump truck empty its load without driving over large areas of our yard. And I'm darned if I'm moving the mountains more than one time (to their final destinations) wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow!

We didn't do our normal leaf rustling in the fall of 2010, so I went into last year's dry, hot summer with little leaf mulch to use in protecting my plants' roots.  I suspect that I lost several plants because of the lack of this good, protective layer.  I'm not going to make that mistake again this year!

So, "Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It's off to work I go!"  If you can't reach me this spring, there's a good chance it's because I'm outside mulching.