Thursday, August 30, 2012

At the End Of August

We are 7.5" behind in rain for the year, and almost 3" for the month. I've watered the garden 3 times--some plants as a precaution, some as damage control. But it's ok. The garden is doing ok. For the most part the drought tolerant plants are near normal, though I'm still amazed at how early everything bloomed, how some plants that bloom once bloomed twice, and that as the year has progressed more plants are closer to on schedule. Wet plants, placed by the rain chain and in depressions, are suffering: turtlehead looks awful, as does queen of the prairie and cardinal flower. In any case, here are some USDA choice images:

A bench framed by way-early caryopteris and indian grass
100 yesterday and four birds at once in the fountain
Lovely Liatris scariosa 'Alba' -- first year in bloom
'Prairie Jewel' and spp. Eupatoriums
This sunflower looks like I just cut it off in traffic in NYC
First year with veg, a few modest successes

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Trees or Prairie? Lincoln Needs the Latter

As the drought goes on--nearly 9 weeks without significant rain--we're forced to think about how we use our resources. Lincoln has an odd / even watering ban in force, and since nearly half of our water right now goes to lawns and gardens, it's fair to ask if we need these kinds of outdoor spaces? Water usage on Monday, when a full ban is in place, was at under 30 million gallons, over half of what it was for each day over the previous week. We are draining the Platte River dry, literally, since it's filled with fish bones. How do we use that much water? How do we conserve water and cool the city down?

This piece in the local paper advocates more trees, better managed and placed trees, and better storm runoff and more permeable landscapes--i.e. engineered landscapes. I agree. I also respect the author, but take issue with the trees. We are on theoretical prairie, at least that's what the climate zone is--boom and bust droughts and deluges, the edge of tallgrass and mixed grass.

Union Plaza in Lincoln
What we need are more prairies. I've always lamented Lincoln's inability to plant prairie within city limits. New parks and pavilions and parking islands and hell strips go in, all slathered in attention-needing grass. Union Plaza, a new large green space in downtown Lincoln, is an eyesore to me. Yes, we need a downtown park, a green space, but I see lots of areas that will be infrequently used, areas where massed plantings in the style of the Lurie Garden in Chicago would be breathtaking. Even to imitate the High Line in New York would be something that would make Lincoln really stand out--and it'd be relatively inexpensive. What a gathering place it would be.

More prairie spaces, even in small chunks of 100 square ft, would create a new community, maybe a stronger sense of community and a sense of connection to the land--that latter point being something we really need for emotional and physical health. Trees may cool the heat island, but true water conservation begins with side oats grama grass, coneflowers, leadplant, prairie clover, bluestem, milkweed--all plants that improve the clay soil digging down deep. And the wildlife benefits would be immense, especially for insects that are the base of the food chain. Who wouldn't want to sit in a park watching butterflies and birds by the hundreds? Downtown? Over lunch? Holy cowhusker. And the maintenance costs are this: mow in the early spring, wait until next spring. No chemicals. No combustion engine exhaust fumes or sound pollution. Serenity in the "prairie capitol." A little Chicago or New York (the watermark in the first image says "Lincoln's Central Park," but Lincoln is in the Plains, not in east coast forests).

Lincoln, we need prairie. We are prairie. Teach us about our state and world. Open our eyes to life and one another. Prairie us.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I've Wrastled Me a Monarch Caterpillar

Visited the Lincoln's Children Zoo and enjoyed myself.

The message is -- go plant milkweed, and lots of other native wildflowers, and begin to think like an insect (or child, not much difference I suppose, what with the compound eyes and all).

I start teaching at UNL on Monday, then the following Tuesday at Doane (four classes, my biggest load ever). Expect posts of similar caliber for the next few months.The garden will hopefully pick up some steam if it rains -- just so few insects this year after 8 weeks of 100% drought. I'm expecting an early freeze this fall, followed by weeks of unusual warmth, then a super cold period in winter with little snow, ending with a normal spring. I have spoken.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Outlive Them All

Courtesy of the Wilder Quarterly:

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”

-- Edward Abbey

It's digging season, the best season of all of them. While you're out there messing around, put in plants native to your locale. You'll hit two birds with one stone that way and please Abbey most assuredly. 

Here in Nebraska go to the Nebraska Arboretum's annual fall plant sale on Saturday, September 8. That'll show all those desk jockies who are too busy mowing their evil lawns and thinking it's time well spent with nature.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Amidst the Drought, an Environmental Rant Was Inevitable

July was the hottest month in America ever recorded. It's been in the 100s more times than I can count, the Platte river is full of fish bones, we've bad 1/3" of rain in July, and I saw a zombie downtown. Have some temp and drought maps.

What I've really been awakened to lately, especially as I research the memoir, is just how blind and stupid and stupid and stupid we are. Have it all now and suffer hard later, or get smart now while discovering new ways to live which means some amount of sacrifice. I'm thinking big agriculture, how farmers carved up 24 million acres of land (map) in the last four years--marginal lands, prairies, marshes, woods--for more money. Cash that's guaranteed to them whether the crop grows or not. Farm subsidies are killing us. The American public gives farmers twice what farmers pay in insurance premiums, so there's no risk to planting water-loving corn on the high plains where it's supposed to be dry. And we over produce corn anyway. Sure don't need it for making ethanol, which uses almost as much energy to make as it will provide in your car (switchgrass would be far more sustainable as an ethanol source).

But what about corn for feeding the world? We produce so much corn that it's cheaper for people in Africa to import it than grow it on their own. You can teach a man to fish, or send him fish via FedEx. I spent last week driving along I-80 and in farm fields to see 90% of center pivots spraying water, taking that moisture from streams, ponds, and the quickly vanishing Ogallala aquifer, the largest freshwater underground ocean in the world that's lost 200' in the last century.

We need to take better care of the Plains. We need less monoculture and more crop rotation. We need to avoid a farming bubble like that of the housing crisis. We need to preserve resources unless we truly despise our bratty little kids. Yesterday I read the perfect article outlining all of the above, and saying we won't lose anything at all by being proactive about our farming practices.

You can't count on government to look out for our best interests. I don't know how to change anything--maybe that's me feeling angry and hopeless, or even lazy. Sometimes I feel like there are so many causes I can't pick one, if I were to devote myself to one completely. Ultimately, who you vote for president doesn't matter, or into most any federal office. They are bought and paid for by big companies and their lobbyists. We aren't informed about what's really going on, about how our decisions trickle up to the highest levels, maybe because we don't care or because the a/c just feels too good right now on the couch. My neighbors water their brown lawn every morning and it isn't getting greener--should they be fined the $500 and 6 months in prison for breaking the watering ban? Should companies be taxed for CO2 emissions that are likely contributing to the drought? Should all the foam cornheads be burned?

I guess I woke up feeling "liberal." I consider myself moderate because no one has the right solutions. I'm not an activist. I don't like crowds. I'm not an extrovert so I feel limited in what I'm capable of doing. But I can write. I can scream here, because if I screamed downtown I'd be arrested or put into a straight jacket. I'm CrAzY. I could wear a corncob hat and paint "Corn is Murder" across it. Because I'm beginning to think corn is murder--it's intensive to grow, destroys habitat (new fields, unknown gmo effects, spraying), corn fattens our beef and then us, the ethanol it produces is a joke fuel, high fructose corn syrup is doing god knows what to our bodies and brain synapses and fetal development. What we really need is a $60 million dollar high school football stadium.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mow Better Blues

This first appeared in the July issue of a regional paper, but people keep reporting link errors, so here it is to hopefully a wider audience. Now you really know what I think about lawns.

Finally, it’s the weekend. Lazy mornings where the fog of a long sleep creeps delightfully into every waking observation—the robins feeding their young at the nest, bees hopping from coreopsis to coneflower, the cool breeze before a suddenly warm afternoon. And the belching vibration of the neighbor’s lawnmower along the fence, the sweet exhaust stinging one’s throat on the retreat back inside.

It is impossible to have coffee on the deck or to be heard in casual conversation on most any summer evening or weekend. I have a neighbor who mows three times a week, tossing nutrient-rich clippings, one-third of a lawn’s needed amount, into the trash; and yet the perfect lines this neighbor leaves of “cut” grass do not seem any lower than those of the uncut. Another neighbor clearly prefers to mow less often—he scalps the yard once a week so it turns brown, then sprinklers come out a few days later, usually on a hot and windy late afternoon, evaporating long before the water hits the roots. Why doesn’t he leave the lawn at 3 inches in height and save on the water bill and time moving hoses?

Each weekend 54 million lawns are mowed, together equivalent to the size of Virginia, using up 800 million gallons of gas (17 million lost due to spills). All kinds of cancer-causing, asthma-irritating, blood-flow constricting, sperm-killing compounds are inhaled by the person pushing the mower. In California lawn equipment accounts for 10 percent of the air pollution, pollution that is equivalent to over one hour of driving 10 to 43 new cars (estimates vary) hundreds of miles over the same amount of time. Mowers also run at 90 to 95 decibels, the same level as a Harley. Anything over 85 decibels creates temporary or permanent hearing loss.

So, fine, lawnmowers are the scourge of suburbia, the hope of our mini kingdoms to serve as quiet and sheltered acreages away from the stress of work and school. But what about other tools we use to create and maintain our lawns? Chemical companies have us believing we need to fertilize our lawns four times a year with nitrogen-laden products; the excess nitrogen that lawns can’t use turns into a powerful greenhouse gas, and much of it leaches into groundwater and storm drains, polluting and choking aquatic life. Take a look at the dead zone near the Mississippi delta and in our farm ponds. Artificial nitrogen also sets up a cycle of lawn dependency like a drug addict—the soil life dies, and the lawn needs more juice, so you fertilize and mow and water more often. Don’t forget about the process to produce all that fertilizer—an energy-intensive ordeal that releases many greenhouse gases as a result.

The argument will always be that we need lawns for kids and pets to play in. But trust me—you don’t want your kids running barefoot in a lawn slathered and sprayed in who knows what. Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, for example, 19 are linked to cancer, 13 to birth defects, 21 to reproductive effects, 26 to liver and kidney damage and 15 to neurotoxicity (brain development). Twenty-four of these pesticides are toxic to fish, 11 to bees and 16 to birds. And what about cost? An acre of lawn at a church, apartment complex or industrial park over 20 years will cost roughly $20,000 to maintain—whereas the same acre in native vegetation will cost $3,000. Why don’t we see more native vegetation at our workplaces? Why don’t churches and community centers, especially, take a lead in this? And schools? Students who interact with nature are proven to have higher creative and cognitive skills, and children with Attention Deficit Disorder show astounding improvement.

Have some lawn, but border it with relatively low-maintenance native shrubs and wildflowers. Have some lawn, but don’t use inorganic chemicals or even any chemicals at all—top-dress it with one-quarter inch of free city compost, like LinGro in Lincoln. Let those prairie flower and shrub roots amend the soil underneath and create thriving, self-sustaining ecosystems that provide free nutrients and filter our groundwater. Think about using an electric mower, which runs at 70 decibels and costs $5 a year to operate, or the innovative Fiskars reel mowers.

Our backyards are nature preserves—for the birds and bees, and for our children and ourselves. As native ecosystems lose their ability to sustain themselves, through habitat loss and chemical overspray, we can create environments that physically and emotionally sustain ourselves (and other species) with less effort than we give our landscapes now. If anything, think about how good that morning coffee will taste when you’re mowing less and your kids are following a monarch from coneflower to coneflower and across the naturally green lawn. You might even be able to hear the hummingbird at a penstemon.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Purgatory Blooms

The trick for any gardener is to always have something, lots of somethings, in bloom. I'd say late fall is #1 for trouble in that regard, and August is #2. August? It's hot. It's dry. 50% of your perennials are done for 2012. Purgatory. (Of course, maybe the true #1 goal is to create interest without blooms--structure, texture, foliage, sculpture, hardscape, scarecrows, machine gun nests for squirrels.)

Some of my newly favorite plants are going strong right now. Butterfly bush, joe pye weed, culver's root, and some liatris are the obvious workhorses, but here are some blooms (and some not) that keep on giving. I should have an image of white nodding onion, but I don't--it's also doing fantastic.

Wild Senna -- Cassia hebecarpa, saying "come hither bumblebee" for a month.

The microscopic blooms of bushclover -- Lespideza capitata.

This is an 8' sunflower. Ladders are good.

Sunflowers are just as interesting before petal time.

I know, invasive thistle thug. But butterflies love it. I deadhead before it seeds.

Why can't swallowtail caterpillars be blooms?
For three days last week it was 104. Around those days it was 102, 100, etc. Now, it's 94 and it feels comfortable (keep in mind anything above 75 makes me melt like a Greenland ice cap). No rain in almost 6 weeks--0.33" the whole month of July--but the garden isn't complaining as much as the trees and shrubs. Maybe with everything having bloomed 2-6 weeks early this year, the most vulnerable time is over. Insects are slowly returning, having been a bust year for them. Yesterday, I saw both a monarch and a black swallowtail after two months of no butterflies (in spring we had 5 billion). All I know is I'm slowly returning to the garden just in time for the fall school year to pull me away, and the life that makes my garden worth having is also returning--like a long sigh after the first crocus bloomed in March. I hope fall, my favorite season, is a long Spring Part Two: The Butterflies Strike Back.