Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Kids in Nature

Richard Louv's important book, Last Child in the Woods, was written in 2008 and brought attention to the reality that few children actually get to spend much time playing freely outdoors.   It sparked a subset of parents and other adults who have been trying to encourage families to get their kids outdoors in nature.  Unfortunately, it's seemed (from the outside, at least) like a bit of a slog, fighting through the mud that is the way our society is currently set up - barren yards full of chemicalized lawn and non-native plants, schedules jammed with activities that require all of our highly scheduled time and attention, parks given over to sports' fields rather than natural areas, and a general distrust of free time as "unproductive", the ultimate sin in the U.S.

When I was in elementary school, I spent days...weeks... months exploring the woods and creek near our home in College Park, Maryland.  There were tadpoles and crayfish to try to catch, minnows and frogs to watch, and many, many special places where my imagination could run wild.  The holly glade magically hid me, the tiny islands became my kingdoms, the paths (deer?) became trails leading me to new lands.....  When we moved to Massachusetts, I continued playing in the woods but I was getting a bit older.  Now I had a favorite log on a hillside overlooking a pond where my best friend and I would go after school to talk and just generally try to figure out life.  I led a band of neighborhood kids in catching toads and keeping them, naming them and "training" them to race in sandbox toad races such as high jump, long jump, and speed or distance trials.  (What can I say?  I knew I'd never have a horse;  maybe this was scratching that itch!)

In junior high, in the Panama Canal Zone, I tried my hand at gardening (I was awful at it) and explored the sea shore as much as I could, bringing home hermit crabs and other sea creatures to form my own attempt at a personal zoo.  Sadly, coming home with me was generally a death sentence for the poor animals, but I tried my best to provide good habitat and food for them.  Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, which my maternal uncle had introduced to me, was one of my favorite books - and a real inspiration.  More mundanely, I collected shells, too.  A lot of shells, which I carefully worked to identify and which I housed in cigar boxes, grouped by "type": moon shells, pen shells, scallops, whelks, cowries, etc.  I wanted so badly to be a marine biologist...but our next move was to Kansas and I didn't know any marine biologists.  How did you actually make a living as a marine biologist?  My courage and my imagination failed me in figuring out how to step in that direction, and life soon led me in other directions.

All of this is to say that playing outside, freely and with little oversight, was incredibly important to me and was influential in forming the person I became.  Greg and I were able to give our kids a taste of that freedom in the natural world, too, when they were in late elementary and middle school.

And now we're trying to give the gift of free play in nature to our grandsons as well.

It's a goal that seems to get harder with each generation.  If my parents worried about where I was while I was gone for most of each day, playing in the woods, I was unaware of it, and the wild area was right down the street from where we lived.  I walked there.  When our kids were playing outdoors, we lived in farm country and they were able to ramble through a wooded draw behind our house and through a neighbor's cow pasture.

Where do kids play now?  There are few natural areas left where they can roam and wander at will.  There's so much fear about "danger" that parents actually get prosecuted for letting their children roam freely.  (Or, at least, that's the story we're told.)

So I'm working to make our personal landscape an interesting natural area for our grandsons to explore and play in.  I've come across a wonderful book by Nancy Striniste, Nature Play at Home, which has a plethora of great ideas for changing your yard from bland to fascinating.   I highly recommend it if the topic interests you at all.

When dead wood was trimmed out of our trees last month, I had the tree service leave the major branches and trunks.  One of the things I've done with that dead wood is create play areas for the boys in our yard.

Good habitat for people AND animals.

Even their dad has gotten in on the action!

Bare feet are the norm for the boys, not the exception.  In fact, it's hard now to get them to wear shoes, even in cold weather.  Talk about "grounding"!

And imaginations run wild.

My heart truly swelled with happiness and pride the day that the boys came outside, on their own, with notebooks, guidebooks, binoculars, and pencils to "study nature".

They are not always successful in their endeavors - patience was not their strong suit as Connor tried to entice birds to eat out of his hand.  But that's part of the learning.

Even meal times have an element of outside nature for all of us, as we watch our bird feeders from the table on the back porch.  The boys have become excellent birders.  For example, it was our older grandson who first noticed the immature male Baltimore oriole feeding on the bark butter feeder a few weeks ago.  I'm not sure I wouldn't have quickly glanced at the bird and dismissed it as the pine warbler that had been frequently visiting.  I never expected a Baltimore oriole in January!

In other interactions with animals, we and the boys watch fireflies at night in the summer - last summer we noticed 3 different waves of them: one in April, one in mid summer, and one in early fall.  The April fireflies seem to stay 30' or more above the ground.  I've even found the firefly larvae occasionally as I weed.  

We planted around 30 swamp milkweed last spring and we watched for monarch caterpillars all summer long;  we did find a few and we're hoping for more next summer.  Our plants are still young.  We've found large numbers of black swallowtail caterpillars on parsley, enough that we've had to hit the grocery store for organic parsley when the hungry hordes decimated the plants they were on.

Late this summer, a box turtle wandered through the front yard - the first one I've seen in our yard in 2 years.  We see skinks and a few baby toads.  The boys haven't shown any interest in toad races yet, though! 

I hope we're building happy memories for them, strongly grounded in the natural world, that will last the boys for a lifetime.  Most importantly, I hope we're helping to create a new generation that cares enough about the Earth to help care for it in the future.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

A New Home, A New Yard, A New Challenge.....

 It's been almost 3 years since I last posted to this blog, for which I apologize.  Life has presented challenges for me, personally, during that time, as it has for all of us around the world.

We moved from Florida to southeast Virginia in August 2019, so I had to leave my Gulf Coast garden behind for others to tend and begin a new garden here in the Williamsburg area.  This is proving to be a real challenge.

For the first time in many years of gardening, I find myself floundering, even with the basic thoughts of what I want to do in this yard.  While I love trees and woodlands, I'm unsure how to proceed in our secondary growth, eastern deciduous forested yard.  My goals seem strong, yet confusingly nebulous:  use native plants and improve the habitat, while designing a yard that encourages others to WANT a native landscape and that fits in with the somewhat traditional neighborhood we live in.

This photo was taken today from the front of our house, looking towards the street.  I've started incorporating fallen wood and wood from having our trees trimmed, but that's a post for another time.  As always, during the winter, you can see the "bones" (which are rather bare), but there are perennials and ferns moving in... you can see from this photo, taken from the front porch taken in mid October.  So far, however, it's all very haphazard.

So, to give you an outline:  our yard is 2/3 acre, with 100' tall deciduous trees and understory trees.  The only shrubs present were planted by prior owners and are almost exclusively non-native ornamentals, while the ground layer was dominated by Japanese stilt grass and assorted other non-native weedy plants when we moved in.

I have spent the last 2 summers learning about and observing our yard.  Weeding has been my primary activity, pulling out stilt grass and other weeds like false strawberry, oriental hawksbeard, and ground ivy. While I've weeded, I've watched to see what plants I find buried within the weeds and seeding in.  There have been some fun finds along the way:

striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata),

cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor),

cutleaf grape fern (Sceptridium dissectum), 

and southern adder's tongue (Ophioglossum pycnostichum).  None of these plants are large or showy, but all 4 of these species are dependent on mycorrhizae in the soil, which tickles me because it means that our soil still has some serious life in it and is, presumably, fairly healthy.

Moss covers many areas of the soil - and I have quickly learned that it is a wonderful seedbed for other plants, desirable and otherwise.

Serendipitously, I am finding seedlings of wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and a few perennials like old field aster (Symphotrichum pilosum), mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and golden ragwort (Packera aurea), a healthy clump of which showed up on its own.

Above is a clump of aster that self seeded into the front bed by our walkway.  I think it's an old field aster, but I'm not completely sure, since this one is taller and airier than the others.  That could, of course, simply be due to higher levels of shade.  If you look closely, you can see some mist flower in front of it - they make a nice combination, I think, blooming at essentially the same time.  The aster is much too large for this spot, though, and will be moved this spring.  I'm not sure if I'll be moving the mist flower along with it.

Several different kinds of ferns have shown up in the yard as well, including the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) you see to the left here, sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), and others that I'm still leery of naming with any certainty.

Now that I'm ready to change from focusing on weeding and discovery to planning and planting, I'm stuck on dead center.  The best I've come up with so far is to create a path through a "woodland garden", then plant the garden alongside it that will make the path enjoyable.  I also dearly want some sort of screen between the front of the house and the road. 

Meanwhile, I'm "leaving the leaves" and hoping to encourage a healthier soil microbiome and more invertebrate life.  So far I've seen few invertebrates at ground level, which worries me.

So wish me luck, please.  On this project, I can use all the luck and good wishes that I can get!

And help me, please, to keep perspective about my fellow "gardeners" here: the deer, the voles, and the Asiatic garden beetles.  They, too, are an integral part of the challenge of gardening in this beautiful area.

At least they don't seem to like ferns.