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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nine Mile Prairie Tour

This weekend my wife and I toured the largest virgin tract of prairie in eastern Nebraska, which is just 15 minutes from our house. Nine Mile Prairie is managed by UNL and owned by the University of Nebraska Foundation (UNL leases it from the foundation for $1 a year). But at just 230 acres it's a small remnant (well, quite large really, but still...). 392 plant species and over 80 bird species have been recorded at Nine Mile, and it's a genetic material seed source for restorations around Nebraska.

Big bluestem under a big blue sky -- ah, Nebraska
David Wedin, the director, started off our tour with looking at management practices and concerns. The UNL adventure club has a challenge course on the site, which is near massive high-tension wires on the south side. On the north side are former nuclear bomb bunkers now rented our for storage (Dr. Wedin said there's some very unique plants among those bunkers). The new Lincoln Police Department firing range is also slated to go in to the north in coming years -- won't that be peaceful?

No thank you, I don't even like ladders
One of the things that stuck with me was the failed management of sumac which is taking over an entire 40 acres (and more) -- failed in the sense that fire isn't working, but glyphosate applications on cut stems is. David went on to talk about the increased levels of nitrogen and carbon in the air; nitrogen is coming off of fertilizer applications in ag fields, primarily, and is accelerating grass growth rates. At the same time, increased carbon is favoring C3 plants like woody vegetation -- they've already documented the changes. In fact, they've decided to keep the trees that weren't there 100 years ago while still managing red cedar; the strategy is to manage for diversity as climate change throws more and more curve balls, because there is no going back. Tall grasses are also more prevalent than in the early 1900s, when plants like the much shorter prairie dropseed where in control.

Our cabin would like nice here
We found many forbs in bloom and some were delightful surprises on our separate plant identification hike.

Poor photo of prairie gentian, found many, surprisingly
Tall boneset with canada goldenrod
Quiz: want to see how many know this one
Rough blazingstar fading away
Lady's tresses orchid, a nice stand of them in the pathway
Stiff goldenrod remains more stiff in prairie than gardens

Thanks to the Nebraska Native Plant Society for organizing the field trip! A cold morning gave way to warm sun and wonderful discoveries.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

G'bye Lawn: Making a Sustainable Prairie Garden

For years my wife and I have wanted to remove our front lawn and replace it with a prairie garden that increases water penetration, soil fertility, and helps pollinating insects. We're up against suburban dogma that says lawn is king -- we have neighbors that mow 3x a week, hire TruGreen, trim lawn with scissors, and water every morning with auto sprinklers. But we're burning to make a difference.

We want to set a better example and use our space to teach and inspire in as many ways as we can. But of course, we need help to make it happen -- we need you to believe in us, believe in this sort of thing in our neighborhood, city, and across the country. If our project doesn't get fully funded by September 14 it won't happen. Can you help us? Will you spread the word? Here's the link to our Indiegogo campaign.

Our strategy is to get the garden in as fast as possible so any "messy" transition or years of slow building won't rile up the neighbors. We have a wide 6' swath of lawn we'll keep as a pathway through the 600' garden. We'll use plants that get less than 3-4' tall, and plants nearest the driveway, curb, and property line, will be 1-2' tall at most. I'll source my plugs from a local nonprofit prairie nursery who uses many local genotype seeds. There will be a sign saying what the garden is, why it is, and what it's doing for water, soil, and wildlife. We're ready! Can you feel it?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Morality of Extinction in Our Gardens

Folks, I got fired up this morning by a piece that strikes at the heart of my thinking over the last year. John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has the most brilliant, heart wrenching call to action I've read in some time (he's reflecting on the centennial of Martha's death, the last passenger pigeon of billions we hunted to extinction). And when he calls the loss of species a moral issue, well, you know I was hooked.

"The State of the Birds report identifies more than two dozen “common birds in steep decline” — species that are showing early warning signals of distress, having recently lost more than half of their global populations. Mostly, these species are barometers for greater environmental issues. The eastern meadowlark and northern bobwhite are fading from rural America right along with the family farm and its smaller-scale agricultural practices of pasturing cows and keeping grass buffers. Common nighthawks, those fantastic evening acrobats that flash through our ball-field lights to catch bugs on summer nights, are disappearing alongside native pollinators like bees. Many experts suspect that continent-scale declines in the prey of insect-eating birds have resulted from agricultural and homeowner insecticide use.

I suggest that the broader conservation argument transcends cost efficiencies and scientific analyses and should focus instead on the moral questions posed by Martha. Most of us wish we could see those storied passenger pigeon flocks for ourselves, so why aren’t we doing everything possible to keep some of our most common wild things from meeting the same fate? Don’t our great-grandchildren have the right, as part of their American heritage, to experience choruses of meadowlarks singing “spring is here!” from treetops and fence posts?"

Species conservation is a moral and ethical issue. When Fitzpatrick points out insect decline as related to bird decline, this should be a no brainer call to action for gardeners. We see the insect loss, and we see the interaction of birds in our local environment. Our gardens ARE places of protest. The landscapes we have direct control over are collective refuges. Yes, we need to do something about huge swaths of monocultures, poisoned by chemical overuse, that are eradicating the last "wild" places (if they even exist anymore).

It is not a stretch at all to call our gardens a place to exercise and discover our moral and ethical imperatives. If you slather your landscape in pesticides, maintain a huge amount of irrigated lawn with multiple applications of commercial fertilizer, run that mower and spew that exhaust, then this all says something about what you think about the world and those who share it with you (human and non human).

For those who say our gardens should not be burdened with such "heavy" thinking -- to be a place of ideology and belief -- I say gardens have always been a place of heavy ideology. A quick survey of examples from Victorian, Japanese, Persian, and European formal gardens will scream ideology -- as do naturalistic gardens today. If this kind of thinking doesn't belong in our gardens, where does it? How can we hope to learn or effect change if it doesn't start at home? The imperative is to think about how gardens are connected to larger ecosystems, how we are all interconnected, and this calls for a selfless attitude -- which is the antithesis of western culture, and certainly the American ideaology of "don't tread on me, I'm free to do what I want." We also have the happiness myth that expounds the pressure to always appear to be happy and content, and to do (buy) anything to make us happy. But looking at our negative and positive rolls in the environment can make us happy -- knowledge empowers and creates action; whereas denial keeps us trapped in a cycle of stagnation, something corporate spin doctors and government lobbyists love.

Go plant a milkweed and get liberated. Trade in the gas mower for a reel mower, or the lawn for a prairie garden. Live connected and fuller and richer. Let your landscape be an ideology that screams freedom for all species today and tomorrow, including this dude below.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Native Plants in Downtown Lincoln!

When your city does something right, one should heap praise on it. Of course, when your city builds a monstrous 1/4 block concrete patio on the corner of P and 13th streets -- with not a plant in site -- you should cry bloody murder.

It's better to walk south on 13th street a few blocks, between at least K and M. There you'll find a collection of small beds between the street and sidewalk featuring the below (excuse the image quality, I was using my cell):

Monarch on Liatris ligulistylis
Love Rudbeckia and leadplant
Grasses make any utility box look charming

Aromatic aster will soon be making traffic stop

Friday, August 22, 2014

Your Garden is Defiant Compassion

Your garden is a protest. It is a place of defiant compassion. That space is one to help sustain wildlife and ecosystem function while providing an aesthetic response that moves you. For you, beauty isn't petal deep, but goes down into the soil, further down into the aquifer, and back up into the air and for miles around on the backs and legs of insects. You don't have to see soil microbes in action, birds eating seeds, butterflies laying eggs, ants farming aphids -- just knowing it's possible in your garden thrills you, it's like faith, and it frees you to live life more authentically. Your garden is a protest for all the ways in which we deny our life by denying other lives. Go plant some natives. Be defiantly compassionate.