Wednesday, November 19, 2014

We Are A Garden That Serves Life, Not Ourselves

Gardens are one primary way to connect to the world, to lift the veil of our emotions, fears, desires, and hold a dialogue with the environment and species whose language we have forgotten or misplaced. Each garden places us firmly within the context of all life, awakens us to the web, encouragingly humbles us as we become aware of ourselves as a node in that interlinked web. When we touch the soil we touch our ancestors and our children, we know the heartbeats of worms, birds, insects, and mammals with each scrape of the nail and each cut of the skin. The taste of our own flesh is in soil. When we nestle a plant into a newly-dug hole we are reaching out to bees that will gather pollen and frogs that will take shelter in a rainstorm. A garden is our grasping for the world as much as it is a giving to the world – who are we, where have we been, where we will go; a garden is the moment, now, every emotion, every bit of knowing and unknowing coalescing into a timeless equality of mind, body, and spirit. In out best moments we are no less than a garden that serves life, not ourselves.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Are Gardens Impositions on Nature? Are They Art?

I'm really digging Pope Francis. Like this:

“Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”

If creation is not a property, I wonder what that means for gardens and designed landscapes. How often we impose our will on the world around us, and how often that will is completely alienated from the world around us. Are gardens impositions on nature? I think a majority are. If gardens are art -- ideal art -- they would act as bridges between our emotional interpretation of nature and what nature inherently is without totally erasing and reworking nature. By "nature" I mean ecosystem function, but even the term "ecosystem function" can become a very slippery slope among ecologists, landscape architects, garden designers, biologists, etc.

I think we see ourselves mirrored back to us in garden landscapes -- and not much else mirrored back. This is too bad. For a long time gardens have been places to see the self only; luckily, that's slowly changing, but I don't know if it will keep changing or how meaningful that change will become. When Europeans hit the Great Plains they obliterated it, made it into the familiar and what they needed it to be. In a lot of ways our gardens are what we need them to be -- yet we don't fully understand that need, which is maybe more of a want. We also don't understand how providing for the needs of others fills our own needs we never knew existed (here I mean other species).

A garden is an echo of our beliefs. A garden is a test of faith, and endurance of hope, a battle of the senses, a voyage against the current. In Christianity Jesus went out into the wilderness to be tested by temptation, and unfortunately this is our protestant view of nature in the western world. Too often gardens and other planted landscapes are a beating back of wildness, a clearing of the forest and prairie to see further in case predators are coming, a place more utilitarian in physical and metaphysical ways than it is a nexus for all life -- and a place for us to re-enter or return to a more authentic connection to life. I wish every landscape I drove by made me want to sing the gift of creation, but I'm more often than not abhorred and alienated from the world. Sometimes, even my own garden feels like a misunderstanding between myself and creation.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

November Newsletter Goodness

Why fall is tops for planting, garden myth busting, corn doesn't feed the world, my appearance on The Mike Nowak Show, and some gorgeous fall pics await you in this month's Monarch Gardens newsletter.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Celebrate Native Plant Seed Heads

This is the time of year when folks begin cleaning up their landscapes, cutting down grasses and stems, applying mulch and even fertilizer -- all practices most of us don't need to do if we favor low maintenance gardening. And really, seeing someone cut down grasses is like putting a knife through my heart; all of that beauty, wildlife shelter, and food is wasted. In two months folks will be crying for mercy in the middle of winter, saying how there's nothing to look out on in their gardens. Why not? Leave those gardens up. Provide shelter for wildlife. Increase the snow-capturing qualities of the garden to insulate it and provide more moisture during the spring melt. Plus, lots of things are hibernating out there in hollow stems and under leaf litter -- bees, butterflies, beetles, et cetera.

I love fall. I love what it leaves (pun intended). I love the echo of life, the shadow of memory, the absence which is more profound, the negative space that gives the garden and the gardening year substance and definition. Give me detritus. Give me barren stalks and dried leaves backlit by warm winter sunlight. And most especially, give me the seed heads that, more and more as I get older, trump the blooms they came from.

Why would you cut this down? Swoon.
Wild Senna, Senna hebecarpa, in the foreground.
Giant Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum
Purple Prairie Clover, Dalea pupurea
Dwarf Blue Indigo, Baptisia australis var. minor
Ironweed, Vernonia fasciculata
Culver's Root, Veronicastrum virginicum
Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca
Ozark Bluestar, Amsonia illustris
Tall Coreopsis, Coreopsis tripteris
Round-Headed Bush Clover, Lespedeza capitata
Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
Virginia Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum virginianum
Black-Eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta
Stiff Goldenrod, Solidago rigida
Gimme seed heads
And don't forget about the fall color that many of our herbaceous perennials and grasses give us, which often rival shurb and leaf color. No, really, I'm serious.

Amsonia hubrichtii in its early stage, on the way to rusty orange
Swamp Milkweed, Asclepia incarnata
Little Bluestem
Liatris ligulistylis
Wild Senna
More than winter interest -- it's winter awesome.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Fall in Minnesota & Lincoln's Wilderness Park

While fall break was happening at UNL we were able to quickly get away to visit my folks in Minnesota. I was up there last fall for the first time in a long while (during autumn), but it was cold and rainy. This year it was warm, sunny, and vibrant.

Perfectly still pond the very first evening.
A view south.
Then back north.
Like this image for the rocks and lone leaf.
Purple prairie clover looks even better now in the 2-3 acre prairie.
Even common milkweed is stunning.
When we got back to Nebraska we headed out to see the tail end of the leaf drop in Wilderness Park. Pretty cool to have this place on the edge of west Lincoln.

A marbled orb weaver making her way across the foot path.
Boy, do I love round-headed bush clover!
Yes, there are trees in Nebraska. But we still need more prairie.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pioneers Park Prairie at Sunset

We recently hit our very local prairie (minutes away) at the most special time of day in fall. As we walked back to the car a strange thing happened -- the air at head level was like a warm bath, but the air near our feet was an open fridge. Then -- with no wind -- a gust of coolness swept over us followed by warmth again. Can't explain it as there was no front or other weather nearby. Prairie is a place that truly makes me feel whole, alive, and connected to place -- more alive and awake and aware. I never get this feeling anywhere else, except, maybe, the forest and stands of trees near water while growing up in Minnesota (but that was a different awakening in a different person). I wish Lincoln and other Nebraska cities embraced prairie design in public spaces, bringing a bit of our heritage closer to our daily lives -- and saving lots of money while mitigating storm water runoff, helping pollinators, creating a tourist destination.... I still dream of a Lincoln with boulevards of prairie that people from around the country come to see. More place. More home. More Nebraska.

Better than Irish coffee!
Common milkweed is never too common.
Indian grass -- need to see more of this in designed landscapes.
As well as little bluestem.
The sky, and clouds, do magical things at twilight.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Garden Today

I'm a man of few words today; who needs them when you have this kind of autumn light?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Are "Adaptable" Landscape Plants a White Flag?

E.O. Wilson famously asked not long ago of Emma Marris, author of The Rambunctious Garden, where she was planting her white flag. The inference was her near total support of novel ecosystems -- landscapes using both native and non native plants that can better withstand climate change while accepting that we've changed the Earth forever (so conservation should no longer be the main goal). I'm the kind of person who agrees with BOTH Wilson and Marris, vacillating between the two depending on the issue. We have changed the earth, every last bit of it, but practicing conservation is not some quaint, stodgy, rose-colored-glasses nostalgia. What I'm going to say next will irk plenty of folks:

There's no reason to be using exotic plants in our landscapes.

I'm seeing more and more the term "adaptable" being used when making plant choices -- this word comes from landscape designers, nurseries, extension offices, arboretums, and the like. Basically, in a time of climate change and unpredictable swings of prolonged drought and rain, heat and cold, we need to plant whatever can survive these extremes regardless of geographic origin.

This presents a lot of problems for me. As we eradicate plant and animals species simply by pumping carbon into the air, the call to use adaptable plants doesn't begin to hold us accountable for what we've done and are doing to our ecosystems -- it's a way to circumvent the necessary pain and sad realization of our effect on the places around us. To be truly involved in a landscape, and to be a better gardener, I think we must face the depression, anger, denial, and eventual empowerment and joy that comes from knowledge. Using "adaptable" plants does little to help our deeper awareness -- and does even less to help wildlife.

Bees are in sync with bloom times of flowers; some bees forage only on one species of aster. Caterpillars and other insect young have evolved with the leaf chemicals of only certain plants. Soil microbes that benefit other plants and soil life exist only on the roots of certain plant species (the prairie is well known for this phenomenon). When we replace plants native to our region with adaptable natives we do nothing but service our own, rather surface wants -- aesthetics, beauty, and function for our benefit alone.

We can never provide enough fool-proof science to convince novel ecosystem and adaptable plant proponents that natives are better -- we simply don't know enough, and don't have enough money to study every plant in every locale, let alone cultivars of plants. It just makes sense that we should be using natives -- they are adaptable, know the local and regional climatic swings well, and provide for all kinds of life we don't even know about. Why are our landscapes choices automatically better than evolution and natural selection? Why are we right and non human nature is wrong? What are we afraid of, and why are we so unaccepting of our places and ourselves?

No doubt if we want "pretty" landscapes our plant choices will have to adjust -- eco regions are moving north and uphill, pinching out some species at a rapid pace. In coming decades we may have no choice but to be planting things native two or three or four states south. But how in the world can we give animal and insect life as much time as possible to adjust -- to evolve quicker than most are even capable -- if we don't give them the plants they need to reproduce? How can we give them what little buffer we're able to if we privilege "adaptable" plant species from around the globe? If anything, that will speed up their demise and lesson their chance to adjust -- which has more profound repercussions on our species than we care to acknowledge or will ever understand.

Of course, we could just switch to renewable energy, rethink modern agriculture, and stop having so much of our golden age dependent on planetary exploitation. I know. I know.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Monarch Landing & Latest Newsletter

What will you find in the Monarch Gardens monthly newsletter? Moments to carry you onward, that's what.

Of course, there are links to some outstanding environmental articles, my Houzz pieces (native plant alternatives to common exotics is one), and my experiences in Nebraska wildness. Link on over and subscribe if you'd like. We averted our first freeze last night, and our front lawn is about 50% replanted with natives, so let the games continue! More prairie wherever you can get it during this best season to plant just about anything. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Husker Football Balloon Releases & Nebraska Littering

This post was written by my wife; we're both passionate about Nebraska and what's left of the prairie along with the wildlife in it. Releasing balloons to celebrate the first touchdown at Husker football games is nothing short of mass littering -- punishable by fines most everywhere else -- and the practice kills wildlife while polluting Nebraska and states thousands of miles away. This is not a "tradition" worth keeping if we love Nebraska, our home. BV

This balloon landed in our garden after the September 1, 2012, Husker game. It was part of a final send off, meant to give UNL football fans the opportunity to photograph the 60+ year tradition of releasing 4,000-5,000 helium balloons after the first touchdown of every home game, before the practice was temporary suspended due to a global helium shortage.

In my mind, the suspension came as a relief, since balloons do not simply float into the sky and disappear. Instead, they can drift hundreds and even thousands of miles away, polluting our countryside, waterways, and oceans. Birds, fish, turtles, and other small animals ingest the debris, resulting in intestinal blockage and death, while others become fatally ensnared in the string.

Photo from The Ocean Conservancy
The self-imposed balloon ban at UNL lasted only two weeks, however. By the following home game--and for every home game since--the balloon release was reinstated. When I contacted the UNL athletic association about environmental concerns related to balloon releases, I was assured via form letter that the balloons are biodegradable, a statement underscored by Chris Anderson, Associate Athletic Director for Community Relations, in a 2011 interview with the Daily Nebraskan. "'Many years ago we switched to biodegradable balloons,' Anderson said. 'That way we can keep the tradition alive without hurting the environment.'" See the full article here.

Photo from

The problem with "biodegradable" balloons is that they take years to decompose, giving wildlife plenty of time to ingest them before they disintegrate. My spouse and I decided to see how long it would take for the Husker balloon that landed in our garden to decompose. In September 2012, Ben buried the balloon in a vegetable bed, under compost and clay soil, where it stayed for 14 months. He dug it up on December 1, 2013, to check on its decomposition status. The balloon was intact, with no holes or fading to the ink. The remnant of the attached ribbon still looked new. He returned the balloon to the ground for another nine months. 

It's now September 21, 2014, and we dug up the balloon again this afternoon. The attached string remains intact, and for the most part, the balloon does, too. The latex does feel more brittle, and the ink is now crackled. But, the balloon has yet to decompose, even after two years.

Photo from Balloons Blow
Another claim made about latex balloons--biodegradable or not--is that "when the balloons reach their maximum height of about five miles, the atmospheric pressure causes the balloons to expand and eventually shatter into thousands of tiny little pieces, which makes it nearly impossible for animals to eat" (as described by Matt Havelka, reporting for the Daily Nebraskan in the above referenced article). 

Photo from Balloons Blow
The reality is that while the balloons may indeed shatter, the pieces are not impossible for animals to eat. In fact, the fringe of shattered latex balloons mimics the shape of jellyfish, a favorite meal for many ocean animals [in addition, fish, birds, and other kinds of aquatic life also see pieces as food].

Let's create a new tradition to celebrate Husker pride--one that doesn't pollute our streams and fields, harm wildlife, or sully the Nebraska so many of us love and call home.

Photo from Balloons Blow

SIGN THE PETITION to encourage UNL to end balloon releases.