Sunday, October 4, 2015

Judging Plants by Beauty Alone

I have a dream that some day our primary metric for experiencing plants won't be just how they look. Perhaps when we visit a botanical garden plant tags will give us more than Latin, but also ecosystem services, how the plant fits into the web of life. Some day plant tags at nurseries will be both accurate and informative, telling us more than how the plant grows in ideal situations but in real situations, what role it plays, what niche it has in an ecological landscape. Does this plant fix nitrogen, or harbor beneficial soil bacteria? Does it support a plethora of pollinators, or some rare native bee? Is it an ideal companion for a specific grass or sedge, like we'd see in the wild?

Gardens are not plant museums, they are plant symphonies, plant communities, wildlife communities, life communities, life partners. I have a dream that some day the first words out of someone's mouth, when observing an evocative plant for the first time, won't be how pretty it is but the number of pollinators on it, the line of ants harvesting aphids along its stem, the birds picking off those ants or seeds. We are loathe to judge others by surface appearance, but that is apparently how we judge -- or find value / worth -- in the natural world. How can we go beyond and deeper? How can we rethink pretty? What happens to other human social and cultural viewpoints when we do?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Ecological Landscape Design

I'm two years late to the party, but I just finished Travis Beck's book, Principles of Ecological Landscape Design. It was incredibly life-affirming and instructive. But what really impacted me was how so much of what he was discussing I've intuited over the years experimenting, walking prairies and meadows, and now designing gardens (including doubling the size of my own in 2016). Here's just a little of what I mean:

"For long term stability in the face of environmental fluctuations, broad-scale resistance to pests and pathogens, and the ability to continue to evolve, genetic diversity in a plant population is essential. This is as true in the constructed landscape as it is in nature. To benefit from these advantages of intraspecific diversity, designers should use cultivated varieties selectively, consider developing regional or site-specific landraces, and insist on broad-based collection of seed for the production of straight species for landscape use."

As most of you know, I design gardens using as close to 100% straight species as possible, and when a cultivar is called for it's at least a wild-found species, not a lab-crossed hybrid. It will be interesting to see how these species fare in urban environments as the climate changes, and how their genetics will change.

"A little explored ecological approach to designed plantings is to allow self-thinning to maintain the balance between plant diversity and plant size. Applying self-thinning principles, the number of plants to include depends not on the ultimate number desired [old school thinking], but on the size at which they are planted -- either fewer larger plants or more smaller plants. In either case, plants should be planted in numbers necessary to fill the desired area, at such spacing that as soon as they are established, they face intraspecific competition."

I have literally backed my way into designing gardens in the above ways (and more in his book -- the guy is not a butterfly bush fan). I'm not saying I'm a genius, simply that while working with plants I felt what was happening and what was going to happen, and what I and the plants together desired to happen and feared would happen. My gardens are planted thickly for many reasons, from wildlife cover to conserving soil moisture (green mulch) to mimicking prairie habitat -- but now I see I was also trying to foster competition, rich competition, and a gene pool that interacts with the wilder prairies near my home (also thinking about wildlife corridors).

If every landscape in my city had a native plant garden we'd have wildlife corridors and resiliency up the wazoo. Maybe it's time to start a project that fosters this action here in Lincoln.

And now off to read Thomas Rainer and Claudia West's hot-off-the-press book, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pre Fall Pics

It's been a very warm September and we have yet to come close to a frost, but the plants that have set seed are still shutting down according to their biological clocks. Only a few native aster species are left on the bloom list, feeding massive numbers of insects in the warm sun. Franklin's gulls are migrating overhead, and the last of our monarchs are leaving. I've been seeding the back lawn with grasses and forbs, hesitant to solarize, spray, or smother the lawn in this slow conversion; will the tall fescue serve as a temporary green mulch and slowly give way to taller and more aggressive pioneer natives? We'll see. I have a good backlog of seeds.

Many Liatris often have good fall color.

The world's biggest calico aster?
The small bed out front.
Solicitors won't be tripped by asters or sideoats grama.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Grief is Unimaginable Love

Grief is unimaginable love. Sorrow is incalculable compassion. It's ok to be in pain & agony & sadness if it can become an agent of positive change. Don’t run away from feeling “bad,” because the loss of any feeling will make us disenchanted and disconnected from the world and each other. Such empathy is the act of deep feeling, a gateway into understanding that tears down the walls our cultures and our psyches put up to make us feel safe and sense life as something ordered – but it is the disorder, the chaos of perception that is real order, the manifestation of all life seeking out its own purposes and joys in trillions of different ways if we just let it thrive, help it thrive by being patient listeners and observers, never putting our own desires and wants over any other creature or place. If we can’t become a place by being a humble part of it, we have little hope of ever becoming our best selves, integrated into a larger consciousness that has evolved with incredible purpose and balance over millennia. We are only small if we see ourselves as something beyond, something superior, something unique – and even if we are all of these things we’re so interwoven into all life that our core responsibility becomes one of mercy and forgiveness, and an active defiance of those who give none.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

On Autumn's Doorstep

My favorite season is almost here! Right now I think the garden is at its ugliest, even though it's filled with pollinators and asters and goldenrod and ironweed and coreopsis and sunflower and bluestem and liatris and.... Soon the winter brown will be here, and with it a mythic garden season filled with negative space and metaphor.

Monarch, goldenrod, agastache foeniculum, smooth aster
Soon oranges, rusts, tans, yellows, & blacks will permeate
New England aster near sunset
Black swallowtail
Art frames life
Name that bee
Boltonia and switchgrass
Had 7-8 monarchs gorging on stiff goldenrod
Smooth aster and switchgrass
Water and sunset
Coneflowers look good at any stage
Smooth aster and palm sedge
Invasive chinese mantis mating w/ monarch lunch
Can't wait to see Carex eburnea to fill in
Thought this coneflower, calico aster, zigzag goldenrod combo looked nice
A good spider year, even as the orb weaver webs have vanished
New England Aster
Blue mistflower and sedum

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Making New Plants is Problematic

The assertion is that native plant cultivars -- those bred and crossed to produce new plants different from the straight species parents (not wild-found offshoots) -- are just as beneficial to wildlife and pollinators.

This is an assertion, and assumption, that highlights our hubris. We don't have the research yet, or the funds to produce it, that shows cultivars play the same ecological role in their environments as straight species. We need to test the nectar and pollen chemical makeup, as well as the leaves, just to hit the surface (keeping in mind most pollinator species are nectar generalists, so it's the more nutritious pollen we really need to look at, as well as leaf chemistry for egg laying). What animal and insect species are using cultivars vs. straight species, and how are they using them? How does that compare to straight species plants and wild selections? And what about geographic location or ecoregions? What about the role that plant plays in the ecosystem beyond pollen and being a host, like soil life? Can you imagine how much money and time this would require?

It seems totally logical to me to believe and accept that straight species plants fit a niche we can't easily define or explore, certainly not in a limited time frame and with few monetary resources. It seems totally acceptable to embrace the idea that evolution knows best, that the planet knows better than we do. We are so quick to change and alter and augment without understanding very much of our world, and we do it with plant breeding -- in the ornamental plant trade, we do it for purely aesthetic reasons. Totally selfish reasons. To defend hybrid cultivars is to defend a way of garden making that exploits life for our personal pleasure. That selfishness is reflected in other areas of our existence: by producing a garbage patch bigger than Texas in the Pacific, that 50% of all seabirds have plastic in their stomachs, and why tar sand oil extraction projects exist -- this world is not just for us, and when we act, think, and live in this way our lives are greatly diminished. I'd even argue we become more apt to violence and distrust, closing ourselves off from other perspectives or unable to think critically about complex issues that challenge our assumptions or status quo.

And here's something else -- are we insulting plant dignity by altering them for our purposes? Does are manipulation of life on the genetic level show how myopic we are, how little we care for the world? How far can we go in altering ecosystems and eco functions before we've crossed a line we can't return to? What are the repercussions of crossing that line? A lot of environmental literature points to our lost connection -- and certainly, we hope gardens rebuild that connection; but how can gardens do that when they are composed of plants altered for our aesthetic pleasure, or gathered from places far and wide then plunked down in a place where they fill no evolutionary niche or can't provide multiple ecosystem services above and below the soil line like their native counterparts? (The natives also need to be studied a lot more.)

The argument will be plants and animals move and migrate; yes, they do, but never with such speed and reckless abandon as in the last 100-200 years. We have accelerated natural processes and made them unnatural. Our species has become a land bridge, a stiff wind, ocean currents, ice ages, meteors, volcanoes, floods, wildfires, droughts all wrapped into one. We're experimenting and don't understand the base that such experimentation comes from. It's dangerous on a metaphysical level, it may be catastrophic on a physical level. It IS proving disastrous, as habitat loss is the number one driver of vanishing species, loss caused by climate change, invasive species, roads, farms, cities, lawns....

Why do gardens matter? Because they are the main entry point for so many of us into the natural world. Because when they are linked together they become de facto wildlife refuges. Because gardens can heal the rift between our conflicted, complicated selves and the world we come from -- a world whose natural process can teach us how to live better lives if we become a part of those processes, not work to be apart from them. Nature heals. The act of gardening smarter, and with an ethical awareness that is expansive (includes the non human world / perspective), will always bring us closer to our home. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

We're in Nebraska Life Magazine

You might have noticed an awkwardly-posed, grey-haired fellow in the fall issue of Nebraska Life -- yeah, that's me, with my wife in support (and the garden the main attraction). Rumor has it lines are a few blocks long at local magazine stands as the issue sells out in a mad fury.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Research & Write Your Family History -- Online Class

Besides gardening, lots of you know I'm an essayist / poet and have an English PhD; two of my memoirs focus on discovering family history and turning that into a story. This fall I'm teaching a 10 week online class that explores how you can research your own family, what material to look for, how to create a narrative from that information, and the strategies and tools necessary to form it all into effective creative writing. All of the course material -- lectures, links, powerpoints, sample essays, discussions -- will be available a full year after the course ends, so if you can't go along each week you can still do it all later. There's also ample opportunities to work one-on-one with me and others in the class.

Link over for a detailed week-by-week schedule, previous student comments on my teaching, and everything you'll need to know. And please, share this with anyone and everyone. I mean, wouldn't this make a fantastic holiday gift, a project to share with family? Huh?

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Moment

I'm standing behind a hedge of indian grass watching a monarch lift from a Liatris that has sprouted among the tallgrass. The west wind pushes against my back, whips milkweed seeds into the air that race past me then up out of the garden. I still haven't moved a muscle when a white-lined sphinx moth comes, dabbles on a few blooms over the course of half a second, darts to within a few inches of my ear, hovers, drones in its spiked, low pitch like someone whispering in a crowded room, then is gone. I keep listening to the memory, but as the moment fades I'm less certain of what was said and to whom.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Front Yard Prairie Coming In, Seeding the Back

A few images of what's been going on at the homestead this month.

No filter on this morning scene.
Black chokeberry is stunning.
August is a very yellow month.
Wild senna with bumble bee. They LOVE these flowers.
I've started tossing seed in the back lawn, trying to do it in waves and drifts.
A good year for milkweed bugs.
Back under the arbor.
Sometimes sideoats grama and rudbeckia is enough.
The front is coming in, though those shrubs are a problem.
Little bluestem is a workhorse!
Not as many monarchs this year.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Clearing the Air -- Ethics, Native Plants, Climate Change

Several times over the last few months I've had someone, most gently and kindly, message me about my ideas and beliefs related to native plants and gardening. I am thankful for this. I have known for some time that landscape designers, specifically, have felt unsettled by me and seen me in a most negative light. I'm hoping that through this post -- and opening up to some perspectives I've tried to keep hidden for fear of reprisal -- I might generate a discussion that helps us think more deeply about our role on a quickly-changing planet.

I suppose the primary response to my advocating for near 100% native landscapes, especially when I talk ethically about it and in light of climate change and mass extinctions, is one of anger from a diverse set of folks, particularly when I let my passion and urgency deliver the content of my thoughts (we all do this -- go visit any social media site). When I ask for us to design 100% native landscapes because wildlife depends on it, I'm not being frivolous in my hopes or dreams because we must strive for the best to get to the good. Countless studies show the connections -- the literal lifelines -- between insect species and native plants, birds too. When we alter a landscape so drastically for whatever reason then life disappears; this seems like an ethical dilemma to me. When we deny life cycles and ecological function, this seems unethical to me -- it's like telling a person they can't reproduce, it's like sexism or racism.

Native plants aren't limiting, but limitless for so many organisms.

When we totally privilege our own aesthetic desires and practical needs over those of other species, I don't believe it's a good thing -- I think it's a very myopic thing, a very narrow vision, perhaps natural for humans (in fact, lots of studies show it IS natural on a genetic level, as we are hardwired for survival at any cost). Such thinking spills over into how we treat each other, often poorly. Luckily, we're making strides with marriage equality and wildlife conservation, just as we are with landscape management and discussing social inequality.

It is easy to feel attacked when someone presents an opposing and vocal (even confident) viewpoint, which is in a way what I hope I'm doing -- I am trying to start a conversation, shake the walls and rock the boat, while also taking ownership of what I'm saying; I'm asking us to look deeper at the ramifications of how we garden every single minute. If you want to plant a lilac among bluestem and aster, do it, but be aware that the liliac may not have as much wildlife value. I don't believe asking us to think like this is an attack or a condementation, or should be interpreted as proselytizing -- often, name calling or labeling (extremist, radical, purist) can be a defense mechanism, an act of denial which is also one of the necessary steps to dealing with grief. I do believe asking us to think in this more out-of-the-box way, to make a conscious decision about our plant choices, is a good thing. I'm not saying you should feel guilty for planting a lilac, even if you might over time (I have), I'm saying you should be well aware of what it means to plant a lilac where you are.

Besides, guilt does not have to be a bad emotion -- just like anger doesn't have to be. These are natural and primal steps in overcoming grief, and surely as we realize more and more the effects our species has on the planet, then grief, anger, and guilt will play integral rolls in reshaping how we interact with life and what rolls we will play as stewards through gardening, through what we purchase, to how far we drive, to what we eat, to how we love, etc.

So when I say designing landscapes with native plants is an ethical issue, I am not trying to talk down to anyone; I am trying to get us to think more critically, deeply, and honestly about how our plant choices impact other lives, and in turn, our own lives down the road since a biologically rich, diverse, and redundant planet means an easier life for us. The more we understand how the world works biologically, the more we will be a part of it -- and I believe, the happier and more peaceful we'll be. But it's not an easy road.

So to that end, let me say something I've tried not saying for many years -- at least not directly -- because I've been totally afraid to say it.

I am disturbed by the mainstream plant industry. I am disturbed with how we alter and grow plants for our own aesthetic desires, changing plants on levels we maybe don't fully understand. What happens when we change the leaf or bloom color, or when bloom sizes are altered? What nectar, pollen, or leaf chemistry changes? How does this effect wildlife? Which wildlife? Where? How does this effect hybridizing with communitites of nearby wild plants? How does it effect soil life? And so much more.

These questions are not a blanket attack or condemnation of the horticultural industry -- they are, I think, very important questions to ask about our species and how we manage the planet, addressing if something needs to be changed about the way we grow and produce plants. We have these same conversations about industrial agriculture, precious metals sourced for disposable cell phones in 3rd world countries, island nations flooded by rising oceans.

I know, gardening is simply supposed to be fun and therapeutic, light and carefree, and these thoughts disturb that romantic ideal. And I know, my "critical" thinking sometimes comes off not as "what if we looked at it differently, I wonder about this, I wonder about that" but instead as "you suck more than a tricked-out Dyson." I think by pondering the above and struggling with these thoughts, we can gain a deeper joy while gardening -- the more we know, the more we think, the more we question and seek to understand, the better gardeners and landscape designers we'll be. Confronting our worst selves in the garden also means confronting our best selves, as it is any aspect of life -- we're complicated like that. Which path will we choose? And how?

It behooves us, in a time of mass extinctions that we have caused, not to turn away from our impact on the planet but to turn forcefully into that strong wind and create a better world. It will be hard to turn into that wind, harder than anything we've ever done. I believe every single plant in our landscape matters -- both from a practical / aesthetic viewpoint as well as metaphorical or metaphysical viewpoints; an aster might save a bee's life, a lilac might not. A milkweed might open the door to seeing how our plants interact with a great variety of interdependent wildlife, a hosta may not. You may certainly plant a hosta or lilac, but it might be closing a door to our world that we won't ever realize (this door closed over just a few decades with the 99% eradication of tallgrass prairie). Questioning and perturbing and thinking is not bad or negative, it's how progress is made -- it's how we learn, you and me both.

These are my ideas. These are my opinions. These are my feelings here on this blog. Yours may be different. You may wish I had said it all in another way or had not said anything at all. But this is one of the most important conversations we should be having right now and ARE having -- as landscape designers, as gardeners, and as humans. Everything is connected, beautifully and wondrously so. Here's to a brighter future even as we struggle so mightily for it.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Pollan's Nativism Needs a Major Refresh

I recently reread Michael Pollan's 1994 essay "Against Nativism." In it he argues against a loud minority (a minority I float in and out of freely depending on the topic) who, according to him, believes the following:

A vocal army of designers and taste makers has decreed that the “new American garden” is henceforth a place that:
1. Outlaws any human artifice in its design;
2. Grants citizenship exclusively to native plants (any immigrant to be treated as “flora non grata,” with “invasive aliens” subject to deportation);
3. Resembles as closely as possible the “presettlement” American landscape of its particular region; and
4. Guarantees the right of self-determination to all its flora and (nonhuman) fauna, and bans the “brutal” practice of pruning.

This list could not be more out of date. Maybe two decades ago, when the native plant movement was certainly in its infancy -- and as wildly disparate viewpoints from all over the place were being expressed as it tried to find its footing -- it seemed more "radical." There are plenty of folks who find my belief in the wildlife value and design potential of straight species native plants radical and limiting, and particularly my philosophical and ethical reasons for doing so in a time of climate change and extinctions, but the design of native plant landscapes is not as rigid -- and should not be -- as Pollan assumes. Let's go through each point:

1. You can't avoid human artifice in design. The very act of creating a garden is artifice. Once you arrange plants according to your aesthetic and / or site requirements (the latter is often quite different than a wild, natural site), artifice is the name of the game. Naturalistic garden designers (or New Perennial or New American) try to blend human needs with environmental and wildlife needs, echoing and evoking that natural landscape which the plants came from. But even I don't believe we can have prairie in the city in the way it exists on the Plains; I do think we could replace lawns and seed in prairie for some cool habitat and effect, but that prairie would exist, work, and be managed much differently than one outside the city limits. 

2. Yes, I design with as close to 100% native plants as I can, and I believe we should all strive for this goal. Wildlife has co-evolved with those plants, the plants call us out into the wilds of our home places and connect / awaken us to the place we supposedly love and respect, and we do not know better than nature. I believe a hosta or daylily or lilac and even butterfly bush are dead zones for wildlife, especially pollinators, and deny life instead of providing it. But I'm not going to personally condemn someone for having these plants if the majority of the remaining landscape is in native plants -- even if I'd love to see the remaining landscape fully used by natives for maximum benefit. We have to have an ideal goal in mind, a reach that outstretches our grasp by miles, to get to an even better place; if the goal or reach is only halfway, then the reality will be even less then it could be.

3. Once again, a designed garden is an evocation and an interpretation. It may use the same plants as presettlement / annihilation / eradication -- it may even copy the plant communities in ecological design -- but it can almost never be the exact landscape that was lost. The reasons for that are complex, starting with the loss of soil life, urban pollution and heat island effects, all the way to having to create landscapes that function for people as well as wildlife in an almost infinite array of configurations, from parks to hellstrips, to suburban yards to road edges to businesses, and to storm water mitigation and treatment.

4. In a human landscape you have to prune woody plants -- from reasons involving safety to design. I do advocate letting perennials self sow, letting plants move around a bit to find their way and teach us about what they want and how they act. A garden is not a static sculpture, it is alive and evolving, rich with the chaos of fractal geometry which helps it evolve, grow, and exercise itself in a web of life. We are free to pluck seedlings if we wish, or move them about -- it is a garden, after all, not a "wild" prairie or forest.

There are many other points I could argue, especially Pollan's idea that plants move around naturally, so who cares if exotics mix with natives (yet never before have they moved so quickly and thoroughly as during the last century or two, and never before with such blindness and narrow-minded purpose / hubris as to the effects that such movement causes).  Pollan wants multihorticlturalism, but shockingly in that view Pollan is part and parcel of the system that has severely diminished biodiversity, leapt without thinking or knowing, and works primarily to seek immediate human good first and everything else second -- even if everything else contributes to our long term good. For someone so aware of the agricultural issues of our culture, it's a surprise and a travesty. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Oh, Prairie Flowers!

Two weeks ago I read from my Oklahoma memoir at the Iowa Prairie Conference, along with John Price, Mary Swander, and Elizabeth Dodd (what fun people and great writers!). I was able to tour plantings the Tallgrass Prairie Center is working on at the UNI campus, as well as their production plots and cool seed cleaning room. Then I visited my folks in Minnesota and their 2-3 acres of prairie restoration -- following is some of what I found in the land of 14,000 lakes (for more, follow me on Instagram:

Monarda, Verbena, Ratibida, Bluestem
Grey-Headed Coneflower
The sunsets were pretty good.
How many monarchs do you see?
Sweet joe pye weed.
Oh, those sunsets.
Did I mention the sunsets?