Lawns In Bloom

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Little flowers transform lawns into pollinator happy places

Helping Lawns Become Meadows

Every spring I get questions about how to keep lawns free from weeds and/or moss (or sometimes both). Personally, I’d much rather keep lawns free from turf grass. Frequent mowing and fertilizing are both boring and wasteful of resources (not to mention polluting), so why not start transitioning that useless lawn into a lively meadow? It’s so exciting to watch the transformation from inhospitable dead zones where nothing blooms into flowery places where bees and birds and all sorts of critters are welcome and nourished. To get started, why not join the No Mow May movement? A subsidiary of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (aka butterfly people), Bee City USA is a nonprofit with lofty goals for pollinator preservation. In recent years, Bee City USA has been encouraging people to observe the month of May as a No Mow time, allowing common lawn flora like tiny daisies and dandelions to bloom freely, helping early pollinators get off to a strong start.

From English estates to American McMansions, lush green lawns have long been a symbol of wealth; clearly anyone with the wherewithal to devote acreage and lots of labor to expanses of turf with no practical purpose has cash to burn. In suburbs and exurbs, having a mown and weed free lawn plays more to cultural conventions about good citizenship. Anyone whose lawn is weedy is clearly a lazy slob, or possibly even a subversive radical. No joke: even given our knowledge of the importance of pollinators and the dangers of lawn chemicals, there continue to be lawsuits about the right to maintain a lawn and garden according to one’s own taste. Those who cultivate vegetables in the front yard or plant floral tapestry lawns instead of unsullied turf can be sued and sadly, often successfully. No matter the root cause, the effects of lawn addiction are genuinely disastrous and this ecologically costly affectation needs reevaluation and redemption.

Setting Lawns Free

When every day reveals some fresh horror about earthly devastation caused by human activities, it’s easy to numb out or fall into depression. However, it’s heartening to discover that all of us can make changes that can have positive and far reaching effects. Lawns are a great place to start, since some 40 million acres in the US alone are currently lost to lawns. If every year some part of that was allowed to become ornamental borders, native plant groves, or pollinator meadows, the vast turf wasteland could return to its original role of nurturing pollinators and many other living things. To get started, simply refrain from mowing turf through the merry month of May. If there are already flowering plants in place, let them be. If the turf is destitute of flora, make a plan for introducing early bloomers (and late ones too of course).

The main gain of the no-mow movement is access to early spring blooms for pollinators, but not mowing in May also promotes the proliferation of spring bulbs. To insert bulbs into lawns, cut a three-sided flap of turf, peel it back and insert patches of snow crocus, snowdrops, daffodils, etc. Potted but bloomed out bulbs move best ‘in the green’, when the foliage is still present; if that foliage is allowed to fade naturally, it will funnel nutrients back into the bulbs, ensuring fresh flowers next season. Started off this way, early bloomers like camas, anemones, aconites and more can spread surprisingly fast into sheets of early color and nearly all will go dormant by late May. As the lawn recedes and your meadow expands, these pockets of bulbs will have a head start on colonizing, which will continue indefinitely, since pollinator meadows only get mown once a year in late January or early February to keep true weeds like blackberries at bay.

Pollen Season Is For Pollinators

As someone who struggles with burning eyes, sneezing and feeling woolly headed when pollen is shed, I am extremely grateful to all the local pollinators. Were they not hard at work, gathering up as much pollen as possible for use and storage, the effects of high pollen counts would be even worse. One great reason to plant pollinator patches is to support them in their pollen removal efforts. Every grain of pollen transferred or collected by a bee, a bug, a butterfly, a bird, a bat, is one less allergen for susceptible humans to deal with, especially since high pollen counts are becoming more common each year (thanks largely to climate change stresses). If converting a large lawn seems daunting, just take on one strip or patch at a time. Cut turf into pieces and stack them with green sides together to encourage quick composting in place. Now cover the exposed soil with a few inches of compost and a layer of wood chips (not bark!). Dig only the holes you need for plants, and scatter seeds of wildflowers and native perennials.

If you aren’t familiar with native perennials, check out a few regional native plant ID books from the library and take them into the garden with you. Since few references show images of seedlings, take pictures of those that appear and record them for a few weeks until they develop enough true leaves to identify them more easily. As you get to know the actual weeds from the wild things, you can leave native volunteers in place or edit them if need be (not every fir sapling chooses the best place to grow!). In sunny areas, sow native annuals such as Clarkia, California poppies, and columbines, Baby Blue Eyes and lupines. Learn to recognize them as younglings and they will create colorful carpets for you and your friendly local pollinators. Onward, right?


Posted in Annual Color, Birds In The Garden, Butterfly Gardens, Care & Feeding, Climate Change, composting, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Plant Diversity, Pollination Gardens, Pollinators, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Stretch Or Kvetch

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Avoid unnecessary tidiness; let petals make magical, fragrant pathways

Gardening Without Pain (Or Less Anyway)

It’s finally spring and all week I’ve visited with groaning friends who can’t stand up straight, can’t turn their heads, can’t bend without yelping or don’t dare sit in a deep soft chair. I too am feeling somewhat incapacitated by painful hands and a cranky hip. What dreadful disorder lies behind all these physical woes? Sadly, the culprit is the garden, or to be more precise, the gardeners. Though advancing age could conceivably play a tiny part in this scenario, I was smugly pleased to notice that some of the complainers were far younger than I (though admittedly none were under 40. Hmmm.) I gladly shared arnica gel and cannabis muscle soothing cream as well as hopefully not-too-smug reminders about stretching BEFORE gardening as well as after.

If I am smug (I probably am), perhaps it’s partly because I have deliberately moderated my gardening techniques quite a bit over time, as arthritis and variously damaged thises and thats have cramped my original style. Also, sad but true, I am not as strong as I was a decade or two ago, nor as sure-footed on ladders or when climbing up in trees. Though I still garden often, it hasn’t regularly been a daily activity for me for some years now, largely due to family obligations that kept me inside more than out. Thus, at 72, I am finally learning to honor my own pace, balancing lifetime skills with changing abilities. I have never been fond of accepting limitations so this is not really a whole lot of fun. However, accepting reality turns out to be a whole lot less painful than denying it. Sigh.

Gardening As Tai Chi

One of the greatest aids to limitation acceptance has been my sporadic practice of tai chi. For over ten years, I practiced tai chi for hours every day, and though that practice dwindled with various life changes, I’ve been blessed to maintain a better sense of balance and better core strength even after some thirty years of very occasional practice. By now, though my mind remembers very little, my body still moves into the proper positions with very little prompting. Back straight, butt tucked under, knees relaxed, feet shoulder width apart and firmly planted. Even if I only go through the first few moves of the 108 I used to know, my movements become more fluid and feel more comfortable and confident almost immediately. I’m reminded of the research that shows that active imagining of favorite sports can do the body almost as much good as actually doing whatever it is. Yay! To put that into action is even better, so it’s well worth learning some of the basics, especially that opening stance.

A Supple Spine Promotes Athletic Gardening

Since a virus left me with premanant vertigo five years ago, I’m often appreciative of just how much that basic tai chi stance helps with balance. A few simple tai chi practice drills can also make quite a daily difference. Walking attentively, shifting weight through the feet, dropping the center of balance, keeping the lower back open, all work to restore at least some suppleness to stiffening backs and knees. This is extremely helpful as I age, and whenever I bend and stoop and kneel and crouch or roll about on the soggy ground, or find myself leaning over backwards or turning almost upside down to fit a saw or pruner into a tight tangle of branches, I am deeply grateful for all those stretching and balancing exercises.

For gardeners, the most important tai chi concept may be that of the straight and elongated spine. Sitting (which most of us do far too much of) compacts the spine and causes a lot of lower back issues. Standing around (usually withour weight mainly on one foot) isn’t much better, but tai chi offers a magic move: the Pelvic Tilt, a little forward tuck of the tailbone that involves the abs and core muscles. This small adjustment shifts one’s weight downward to the lower belly, dividing it evenly between both feet and making one’s stance a lot more stable.

Simple Warm-Ups For Safer Pruning

Every year, many unfortunate accidents occur because armed and dangerous people attempt to work with sharp tools. Pruning becomes both safer and far easier when we are internally grounded, our weight held low in the belly instead of high in the chest (or worse, up the head). We can then stand securely on one foot with our saw-bearing, outstretched arm counterbalanced by an uplifted back leg rather than a flailing foot. Similarly, planting is far easier if we adopt what an older gardener friend always called the Third World Squat; a fairly straight-backed position that allows amazing freedom of arm and hand movement. In my mind’s eye, this evokes National Geographic images of folks-around-the-fire and people doing repetitive field work all over the world.

If post-gardening soreness has plagued you in the past, there are some excellent ways to avoid it in the future. For starters, to keep heavy gardening chores pleasant and invigorating, don’t try to make up for a winter of neglect in a weekend from hell. Do just a bit at a time, and stop as soon as your body begins to complain. Eliminate unnecessary chores that are more about tidiness (aka control over nature) than about creating a healthy habitat for plants, pollinators and people. Even more importantly, create a new habit: always start any gardening session, heavy or light, by warming up your neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. The whole routine takes just a few minutes so there is really no excuse for not doing these very simple, body-saving stretches. Right?

Heads Should Roll

When my neck gets stiff, I remind myself that heads are supposed to move flexibly. To get there, do 10 neck rotations, avoiding the backward position: Drop your right ear toward the right shoulder, letting the shoulder slope away earthward. Roll your chin to your chest, then repeat to the left. Return your chin to your chest between each side, but don’t roll your head backward, which can strain the neck muscles and trigger vertigo. Next, circle both shoulders 10 times, forwards and backwards. Raise your arms and rotate them at shoulder height 10 times in each direction. Next, with your arms at your sides, lightly clench your hands and circle your wrists 10 times forwards and backwards, then squeeze and release your hands 10 times. Shake out your hands lightly; they should tingle just a bit.

To loosen the waist, do 10 hip circles forwards and backwards (pretend you are using a hula hoop successfully, something I have never managed). Stand on one leg and shake out the other leg for a few seconds, the repeat on the other side. Now jump almost-but-not-quite off the ground on both feet together 10 times, VERY slightly jarring your head (this is part of the Eight Pieces of brocade Qi Gong series). Now with feet shoulder width apart and shoulders relaxed, shake out your arms and hands again for 5 seconds. After all that, you should feel brisk and warm, with all joints loosened up and ready for action. If you feel sore after working, do the hula hoop rotation again, then add a few pelvic tilts, gently rocking the spine forward and backward. If your back still feels tight, lie down on a yoga mat or rug and press the small of your back to the floor, holding through five full breaths before releasing. Do that gently a few times and then take a few minutes to reverse the blood flow to your legs by lying on your back against a wall with your feet up, heels pointing toward the ceiling, and your legs supported by the wall. Onward!

Posted in Care & Feeding, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, Pruning, Safer Pruning, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Spring Without Bees? Plant More Flowers!!!!

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Beeless blossoms are everywhere this spring

Where Are The Bees?

Here we are in the middle of April, many gardens are bright with blossoms, and all those luxuriant spring flowers ought to be alive with bees. But they’re not. Granted it’s been cold (44 degrees this morning) and often windy too, and bees are most apt to be seen when temps are in the 50s and winds are breezy rather than gusty. To top it off, it’s also been scary dry all year so far, especially for a month that’s been famous for rain for hundreds if not thousands of years. In dry, windy years, blooms may shatter faster, giving pollinators less time to get the goods. On Saturday I checked in with my friend Charles, aka The Bee Guy, at his farmers market booth and he and several other folks said they also hadn’t noticed much or any bee activity this spring. So far, I’ve seen two big bumble queens (both on a glorious flowering currant) and one Mason bee on some Oregon Grape blossoms. But that’s it.

Super sadly, this is not a new trend. I’m not going to list all the dire information that’s accumulating about warmer autumns and hive collapse. Instead, I’m going to suggest that we work harder than ever to provide as close to an ongoing supply of blossoms as we possibly can. Cruise the nurseries every month and stock up on whatever is blooming strongly (as long as you can accommodate it in your garden, of course). Where will you put these new delights? If your garden is like mine, just remove the dead and the weak and you’ll have plenty of room for newcomers. The Big Freeze killed off quite a lot of plants that had been struggling after several challenging weather years, and this year, with five days in a row below freezing, many gave up the fight. That used to break my heart but these days, I’m focused on opportunity rather than loss. Out with the old and in with the new!

Being Bee Positive

To start off well, I’m planting a lot of native annuals, from Baby Blue Eyes and Clarkia to Meadowfoam, Phacelia, and California poppies. And why stop there? With weird weather on the rise, annuals are a safer bet than many perennials, so I’m also planting Alyssum and Bidens, Cosmos and Calendulas, Petunias and Sunflowers, Lavatera and Nigella, Marigolds and Zinnias, Flowering Tobacco and Morning Glory (annual!!!). Herbs are hugely popular with pollinators, so I’m restocking those too, from Borage, Fennel and Dill to Sage, Oregano, and Rosemary. Among the most visited perennials in my garden have been Agastaches and Gauras, Hardy Fuchsias and Salvias, Heleniums and Helichrysums, Bee Balm and Joe Pye Weed. Just thinking about these makes me smile as I envision these lovely blossoms covered with eager insects.

These plants will invite many generalist pollinators, but in the interest of encouraging native bees, I’m also allowing native perennials to stay where they put themselves, including Tiarella cordifolia (aka coralbells), Tellima grandiflora (aka foamflower), Tolmeia menzeisii (aka chocolate bells), and Vancouveria hexandra (aka inside-out flower). All these do well in shade that’s moist in spring and dry come summer, much like our native woodlands. Over the years, I’ve found several very persistent native perennials for hot dry sunny places, including Penstemon davidsonii, low grower creeper with vivid lavender blossoms, and a lovely native milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, which spreads slowly into large mats in full sun and dreadful soil without supplemental water. Though Monarch butterflies are not regular visitors to this part of the PNW, changing weather patterns may make occasional visitors become more frequent, and in any case, the starry, cream-soda-scented milkweed flowers are popular with a wide range of pollinators.

Beneficial Weeds

IS there really such a thing as a beneficial weed? Well of course there is! The idea of dividing plants into garden-worthy and weeds is rather arbitrary and often based on outdated research. Indeed, many gardeners consider native plants to be weeds when they appear in our gardens, despite their natural beauty and popularity with pollinators.  Native or not, Thistles are often rooted out relentlessly yet goldfinches will flock to any garden or meadow where thistles are permitted. Nettles are pesky plants if they invade garden beds or play yards but they are delicious as spring greens and highly sought after medicinal plants as well as pollinator magnets. Pretty little Self-Heal (Prunella) has both native and introduced forms and all are prized medicinals and pollinator pleasers. Lowly dandelions are eagerly visited by pollinators, as are all kinds of clovers, which also build soil nitrogen (in fact, they are indicators of nitrogen-poor soil). Though introduced, mostly from Eurasia, various Plaintains have become valued medicinal plants and are all pollinator pleasers.

Whether weeds get to stay or not depends largely on how aggressive they are; perennial morning glory can take over a garden in a single season (ask me how I know). Shotweed (aka hairy bitter cress) is far too successful a self sower to tolerate, and False bamboo, aka Japanese knotweed (Polygonum spp) is even worse; in some parts of England, properties infested with knotweed lose all value. Kudzu is another do-not-plant, as is English ivy. Weeds that appear on your local Noxious and Toxic Weed list do not belong in gardens, but that leaves a wide range of less invasive plants that may be more helpful than harmful. To tell the difference, check out vacant lots and meadow areas; where certain weeds predominate, beware. When the distribution is less dramatic, consider leaving self sown seedlings in place to see who is attracted to them. Onward, right?


Posted in Annual Color, Birds In The Garden, Butterfly Gardens, Care & Feeding, Climate Change, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Design, Garden Prep, Gardening With Children, Hardy Herbs, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Plant Diversity, Pollination Gardens, Pollinators, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Weed Control | Leave a comment

The Bliss of Going Wild

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Native flowering currant is a pollinator magnet

Rewilding Our Property Plant By Plant

My favorite garden spaces always have at least a touch of the wild about them. Sometimes it’s a matter of allowing plants to tumble over the edges of beds and borders, erasing hard lines and blurring angles. Sometimes it’s offering an area of native plants as a bug bank, dormitory and mess hall to serve pollinators and pest predators, from ladybugs and lacewings to birds and bats. At best, such gardens merge seamlessly into natural surroundings, as when a flowery meadow is encircled with tiered shrubs that lead the eye upward in gentle steps to the tree line. With larger properties, there’s an opportunity to allow the natural progression of pioneer plants such as alders, willows and hawthorns to sprout and weave together into young if miniature forests. Even a single cluster of trees and shrubs will quickly become home to thousands of small creatures that help keep the world in balance.

Allowing at least some part of our property to remain or revert to wildness is such a generous act, and one that rewards us hugely. In exchange for NOT mowing, pruning, watering and fertilizing, we get to watch the land heal into wholeness, attracting and supporting a host of living beings, from native plants to wild critters of many kinds and sizes. Instead of hearing and smelling mowers and blowers, we hear birdsong and smell the mysterious perfume of plants in community. What a relief to let go of our endless control seeking and relax into the rewilding process. I recently read about a large scale rewilding project in England where an old family castle estate has been turned back into a wilderness. To support the shift, the family brought in wild pigs and let them root and wallow in what had been groomed grounds for centuries. As they made their seemingly destructive way through the formal gardens, they dug up exotic plants and created puddles and mud holes that attract wildlife from bees and butterflies to birds and mammals. In their wake, native plants and creatures returned to the increasing habitat.

The Bountiful Land Of Long Ago

Not that long ago, probably less than a century, our back yards looked much like the magnificent forests that draw thousands of visitors to our region. Tall firs and bushy cedars rose above thickets of flower-and-fruit bearing shrubs; huckleberry and snowberry, salmonberry and thimbleberry, currants and wild cranberry, wild apple and wild cherry. Foamy ocean spray frothed above wild roses and hazelnuts, flowering currant and salal, mock orange and honeysuckle. Rhododendrons and maples throve under the high canopy, interlaced with annuals and perennials, ferns and mosses. The woodlands supported huge numbers of birds and other wild creatures, including several hundred species of native bees and other pollinators. They also supported Tribal people who knew how to coexist with the natural environment that provided everything they needed.

Today, these same places often look pretty much like a yard in Anywhere, USA; some lawn (often mossy), a few classic (ie non-native) shrubs, maybe some perennials. Oh, and lots of bare earth (so tidy!). How did this rather bleak model become a standard of “proper” landscaping? There are many factors, including conformity, the urge to control and tame nature, and favoring a simple yardscape that doesn’t require much thought to maintain, all understandable. For people moving here from other regions, whether a century or a year ago, wild woods may seem intimidating and it might feel comforting to have the same kind of yard they knew back wherever.

Welcoming Homes

Unfortunately, such bare bones landscapes are not hospitable places for wildlife or people. As the world is changing, fewer places are hospitable and most are getting less so each year. Though we can’t control corporate solutions, everyone with a patch of land (or even a patio) can make a home for the living things we share space with. Many native pollinators have a very limited range and even a small patch of native plants can become a haven for them, and for birds and frogs and other critters as well. I’m often asked if we have to give up all our beloved garden plants and grow only natives. Not at all, as many non-invasive garden plants, from kale to crepe myrtles, provide food and shelter for wildlife. However, one practical way to make our landscapes more hospitable is to remove any plants on weed watch lists and replace them with natives. Which plants should be removed? Your County Extension Agent and/or local Weed Board can provide a list of noxious weeds; mine includes butterfly bush (buddleia, aka lilac, though it is not related), ivy, purple loosetrife, and tansy ragwort. Since these plants are sadly common, many people don’t realize that they can outcompete natives and infiltrate wild areas.

In my area, among the most invasive are English laurel, English holly, Scotch broom, Scotch thistle, European daphne, European hawthorne, European mountain ash, European viburnum, Norway maple. Do you detect a theme? Plants brought by early colonists came across country with them, seeding themselves freely along the way. When invasives are removed, we can replace them with a native version; vine maple, Western hawthorne, Western mountain ash, Western viburnum, Western mock orange, and many more. A wonderful guide, Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, contains both illustrations of native plants and lore about how native plants have been used by Native people for millennia, making for fascinating reading. The more we learn, the more we come to admire, respect and even love the plants that were here from time immemorial. Onward, right?


Posted in Birds In The Garden, Butterfly Gardens, Climate Change, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Design, Gardening With Children, Growing Berry Crops, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Plant Diversity, Plant Partnerships, Pollination Gardens, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments