Saturday, September 29, 2012

Take My Hostas and Anemone

The Deep Middle's front garden is getting a total redo, because when Mr. Deep started it 5 years yonder back he had no idea what he was doing, now he does.

Please come take my hostas before the compost pile does. Take divisions of my anemone, too. Monarda as well, a purple / magenta job. You have a few days, maybe a week. Message me asap.

Mr. Deep will be building a bench and sitting area in the shade, and creating a super mini mixed grass prairie in half sun. All for $100. (His wife isn't holding her breath but he promises to grow his own plants from seed this winter.)

Big blue something. Bench goes here.
Cream-splotched something.
Actually a very yellow lime something.
You can tell that hostas aren't very drought tolerant, not this year, and even a little bit of sun scorches them (I think hostas are vampires, therefore the perfect Halloween season plant for you!). They should never have gone in these places, and they have little wildlife value. So as I continue to sell them to you... uh... just please come take them, I'll divide for you if you supply the bucket or bag.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Prairie is Our Amazon & No One Cares

A recent feature in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the loss of prairie on the Great Plains has, of course, poured salt on an open wound for me. The last few years I've read book after book, article after article, about the loss of this critical habitat--and it is critical, as much as the Amazonian rain forest, but you don't hear fundraising songs or see national tv ads or billboard signs funded by "Save the Prairie." So, here are some highlights of the article with stunning maps of how much we've lost--even in just the last 5 years.

The Biggest Pressure on Prairie is Commodity Prices 

"Livestock operators just can't compete against the combined forces of crop insurance and high commodity prices. Around Highmore, they estimate they can make $50 to $100 an acre by grazing cattle; corn is fetching $300 or more per acre this year, regardless of how good the yields are [thanks to crop insurance].

In recent years, new varieties of genetically modified corn and soybeans have allowed farmers to push the Corn Belt westward, planting row crops on land once better suited to grazing cattle [because it's so arid]. Today, that tough prairie sod doesn't have to be plowed, just planted. The new corn and soybean seeds are immune to Roundup; farmers can kill the native grasses with the herbicide, then plant right over them."
[And all this marginal farmland needs irrigation--draining reservoirs, streams, rivers, prairie potholes, and the largest underground freshwater formation, the Ogallala Aquifer, which is being depleted so fast it may be gone in just a few decades. The Ogallala spans SD, NE, CO, KS, OK, KS, TX, and NM.]

How much grassland there was
Prairie is a Water Filter and Bird Nursery

"Heavy spring rains, once sequestered by wetlands and deep-rooted prairie plants, instead pour off the cropped fields. Eventually the water, often carrying fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, makes its way to the Missouri River, then to the Mississippi and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone'' -- an area near the mouth of the great river, now nearly 6,000 square miles in size, which is so polluted that it can no longer sustain most aquatic life.

"The northern plains that include Minnesota, the Dakotas and Canada are called "the duck factory," because nearly half the nation's wetland and grassland birds are born there, and many of those species are in decline. Many other animals are already gone, especially the large creatures like elk, bison and prairie wolves. Now, the smaller ones are at risk as well."

Prairie as Buffer Against Drought and Dustbowl II

"In the dry summer months, some of the richest soil in the world sometimes blows away on the wind."

"According to one federal study, the 16 South Dakota counties that experienced the greatest loss of grasslands are also the counties most susceptible to drought and crop loss. Farmers in those counties also had twice the insurance payments as the rest of the state."

How much has been converted
How Fast Grasslands are Vanishing

"Since 2008, the rate of land conversion nationally has exploded. In just four years, some 37,000 square miles of grasslands, wetlands and shrublands have been converted to row crops, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Defenders of Wildlife, which analyzed federal satellite images to document the change. Minnesota and the Dakotas alone lost an area the size of Connecticut.

Of the Minnesota land that was once tallgrass prairie, only one-fourth is in grasses of any kind today, according to satellite data. And only about 300 square miles, scattered in remnants across the state, remains in its virgin state."

How much has been converted in the last 4 years
The Other Side

"Brian Hefty, who is reaping the benefits of the new agriculture, sees things differently. He dismisses the arguments for preserving more prairie with a critical question:
"How much do you need?" he asked.
Hefty and his brother, Darren, are third-generation South Dakota farmers. They own 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans near Sioux Falls, and they run a chain of 34 stores that provide farmers in eight states with seeds, chemicals and equipment to drain their fields.
The Hefty Brothers are widely known among Midwestern farmers as the blond and jovial hosts of "Ag Ph.D.,'' a folksy cable TV show where they teach all the latest farming techniques and technology. Their annual farm fests draw hundreds to workshops on topics like patterned tile drainage and navigating wetland protection rules.
In making the case for modern agriculture, Hefty shows a serious side that his TV fans don't always see. He also illuminates the deep philosophical divide between agriculture and conservation. Productive land, he said, is an improvement over land in its natural state. [why do we still have this antiquated, 19th century mindset?]
"Don't tell us what we have to do with our land," he said in an interview. "We are trying to make it better."
True, he acknowledged, South Dakota is "pretty dry" compared to the rest of the Corn Belt. Still, farmers should grow corn here because the new technology and the quality of the soil allow them to grow some of the best corn on Earth.
"There aren't many places better than this," he said.
The latest advances in agriculture are also good for the environment, he said. Roundup Ready corn reduces soil erosion because farmers can plant with less plowing, he said. "Now I can plant seed without massive tillage."
And the new seeds, by generating higher yields per acre, mean less land has to be used to fulfill demand, he said. As a result, Hefty said, the United States has the cleanest water and one of the most productive food systems in the world.
"In a good share of the world, they don't care about the environment," he said. "They want to eat."

My Rebuttle to Mr. Hefty:

GMO corn that is roundup ready encourages mass spraying. Crops that grow more densely don't mean less land is used, as made evident by the amount of marginal land converted in recent years. It's about money. Greed. About navel gazing. About our eyes just on the present moment, forgetful of past lessons, unsympathetic about paying it forward. If you're trying to build a business to pass on to your kids, especially farming, it will be hard for them as global temperatures swing violently (the arctic sea ice melt may cause massive swings in the jet stream, leading to prolonged dry and wet spells).

Don't get me started on the growing links between high fructose corn syrup and diabetes, Alzheimer's and junk food, or GMO foods creating learning disabilities and allergies... or corn fattening up cattle, hogs, and chickens (all pumped full of hormones, making girls begin puberty earlier, hormones that change sex in fish and that stays in our drinking supply for a very long time)--all that corn makes for fatter meat than grass fed animals, leading to increased heart disease.

How much is left
The Ecological Effects

"Once native prairie is plowed, it's gone, ecologists say. It takes decades of careful planting and management to restore the complex web of life that includes microbes and tiny insects invisible to the human eye."

"When preserving wildlife, there are thresholds," said Joe Fargione, a prairie specialist with the Nature Conservancy. "You can keep species if you lose half or 70 percent" of an ecosystem. But if you go beyond that, you start to see losses of species. Compared to rain forest habitat, we may be closer to those critical thresholds."

Why don't you go read this lovely piece by Bill McKibben about global warming. 

Carbon Sequestration

"Perhaps least appreciated, however, is the role grasslands play in storing carbon, which, when released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, is a major contributor to global warming. Their vast underground root systems, which can reach depths of eight or nine feet, hold an astonishing one-third of the world's carbon stocks. That's almost as much as the amount stored by forests, according to the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. On average, every time an acre of grassland is plowed, it releases 60 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere -- about the amount emitted annually by 30 passenger cars.

Preserving grasslands as a hedge against climate change makes sense, even after considering the environmental benefits of ethanol, said Jason Hill, a University of Minnesota professor who studies grasses and biofuels.

It will take a century before the carbon saved by burning corn ethanol equals the amount unleashed by plowing up the grassland used to produce it in the first place."

I Go On

I feel terribly angry and impatient when it comes to conservation. People look out for themselves in the moment, there's no larger image in their minds, no community, no one species looking out for the larger whole. If you want to change the world, you have to do it slowly through red tape, grass roots organizing, petitions, creating awareness, fighting the "don't tell me what to do I'm an American" syndrome, and dealing with corporations and governments bent on self interest--it all feels like a juggernaut of spikey anvils crashing into my head. And I feel we're out of time. How do conservationists keep fighting, especially as they lose more and more no matter what victories might happen? And we need big ones--like a buffalo commons, a Grassland National Park the size of Yellowstone (we have no national park which is prairie).

If I have kids I know the world I'm giving them will be worse than mine. Resources will be more scarce. The luxury of time we had to plan ahead, afford those changes via alternative energy and conservation, that time will be gone--the money will be gone, the priorities shifted in a panic of oil and clean water running out. We borrow the future from our youth, and we're borrowing most of it. We don't care about our children.

I want to leave something more. I want to stand up and shout that I did something, some of us tried our best, some of us wailed hard against the ignorance and the power hungry, money hungry, uncaring majority (or is it a minority). What do I do? How do I do it? How do you change a species? How do you change centuries of culture? How do you change what surely must in the end be human nature? How do we learn that in innovation and restraint comes even more possibility? Like a sonnet whose form is so structured that when you order the syllables and rhymes--when you creatively push against the limitations--something far more incredible transcends the boundaries of imagination. Have we lost the ability to imagine our full potential?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Not My Birthday

But it's my mom's, a big one that I'm sure she'd rather just ignore for a myriad of reasons this year. But seeing as she planted a seed 'o' nature in me--or it's at least convenient to think so--this blog post will honor her. Really, I think when my parents moved us up to Minnesota is when nature opened up to me, especially as I was on the edge of my teenager moody years. My solitary nature, penchant for introspection, and USDA hardiness zone four's distinct seasons collided and turned me into a garden god. Wait. Strike that. Just a minor deity.

I've lost the images I took of my mom's garden before they moved from my childhood home--they may still be on some rolls of real film in a drawer. There was an extensive rock garden out front across the whole hillside, and out back a shade garden with stream and small pond. I asked her to walk the landscape on my last visit in 2006 or 2007 and we mapped out each plant, I even did some sketches:

My "drawing"
Nature's "drawing"

Here's an interview Fran Sorin did at Gardening Gone Wild about growing up outside with my mother.

And maybe you'd like to read an excerpt from my unpublished memoir, Morning Glory, which has a most lovely elevator pitch: "When a relationship between mother and son meets in the garden, her past confronts his future."

But really, this is what you should read, also from the memoir: my essay "Across the Flats" about our car trip to a new nursery in Minnesota after the big move.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An Absence of Prairie

I’ve not seen a real prairie. Haven’t stood on a ridge to see grass to the horizon, or been lost up to my shoulder in bluestem or Indian grass. I’ve put as many plants in my small garden as I could—coneflowers, clover, liatris, winecup, side oats grama, milkweed, aster, mountain mint. I have walked the twenty feet to the edge of my parent’s property line in MN to look over 3 acres of seeded prairie, and in a small stand of perhaps a hundred square feet the inverted turkey feet of bluestem seed heads flail against a pale blue sky. I have walked the never-plowed 800 acres of Spring Creek Prairie in Nebraska where my wife and I were married, where wagon ruts of an Oregon Trail cutoff are almost discernible. I have seen edges of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Kansas, the sheltered Wichita Mountains short grass, and the mixed grass of Black Kettle National Grassland in Oklahoma, but not even all of them together could give me a clue.
Maybe the closest I’ve come to prairie is flying over the Plains, a field of clouds beneath, dark blue above, or on the mossy Irish coast looking west toward Iceland. I feel a gunshot hole in my chest, see its shadow on the ground in front of me, feel the air chill my insides, know I’m not just incomplete but desperate—absolutely desperate—to plug the absence. I think about tearing up my small front lawn, seeding with buffalo grass, placing clumps of little bluestem here and there like hiccups. 

But I don’t have the guts or the faith. There is something about dining on ashes that comforts me. Is it nostalgia for something I never knew? Is it solipsism or self pity? Is it just easier to romanticize what we don’t know and never experienced and create an image only, an interpretation whose personal experience makes the unknown seem more real? This is what impressionistic painters must feel—caught between an inner and outer world and unable to completely express the place in between where we live in fear and hope. 

I remember walking railroad tracks as a boy, balancing on one rail, the sharp rock between timbers, the faint sound of an invisible train coming fast from behind; this is what it’s like walking a corn field where prairie once was, and where it could be again. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Life Returns to the (Dry) Autumn Garden

Yes it's been a long, hot summer, and I'm just now getting out into the garden as nighttime temps reach into the low 40s. Dividing plants, moving seedlings, setting up pots for winter sowing. The garden is coming to life though as the temps cool--hoards of insects, masses of blooms (I do garden for fall). I love fall. The different blooms remind me of family and specific memories--for instance, the scent of zigzag goldenrod is my grandmother's perfume. I wish I could bottle the goldenrod, the asters, the joe pye, the sunflower. All I have is a blog.

We finally had rain this week! 1.7"! Previous 3 months we'd had 0.7"!
Caryopteris is a good, long bloomer for me, and insects, and spiders.
One of the few mantis I've seen this year. Huge, too.
Eupatorium altissimum is covered in 100 insects right now. I swear. There's a joe pye for every season!
One of the monarchs we've released.
Monarch batman?
I love this closeup. Very rich, like autumn.
Coughing, sneezing, or shy? (or angry?)
Sunflowers at sunset.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Do You Have Any Butterflies?

I remember last spring, which feels like last week, when a million red admirals and sulphurs descended on my blooming ninebarks. Then the two weeks of spring we had ended abruptly when it was 90-105 every day for a good two months, with 0.7" of rain since mid June. I haven't spent much time in the garden this summer because I'm a fairly heat-sensitive guy. But I've seen very very very few butterflies this year and perhaps 50% of the normal amount of insects. Right now certain species of joe pye weed are blooming and are always covered in soldier beetles--but this year I've seen perhaps a dozen or two.

We usually raise anywhere from 100 to 200 monarch butterflies from May to September. This year I found a few eggs in June, raised and released. Then three weeks ago I found 16.

That's it. For the whole summer. Apparently butterflies overshot this year into Canada, but you can't deny the effect of drought, coupled with the ongoing threat from spreading agriculture into Conservation Reserve Program lands now expiring (the price of corn is just too tempting not to plant on hillsides, drained marshes, marginal land), and willy nilly chemical applications by farmers and suburbanites.

I believe that no issue our government faces is more critical than that of how we influence our planet. You can't argue healthcare, welfare, and equality if you're starving, have no electricity, no clean water, and the economy tanks because we rely on oil. I believe the one issue no one risks their political fortunes on is the one issue that can solve, in large part, all of the above issues and more. I'm naive, perhaps. But when it rains this fall and we forget about the drought, when we forget about the BP oil spill (we already have even as Issac washed up sunken tarballs on to shore), the climate will still be changing at warp speed in geologic time.

I am terrified when I hear that governments are already clamoring for drilling rights in the arctic as sea ice hits record lows, because I hear no concern at all for the methane bubble in the cold water that will be released once the pressure of ice is gone, nothing about CO2 sequestered in frozen permafrost set to wreak havoc on global temperatures, nothing about the end of arctic animal species, nothing about being farsighted or caring not just for the planet but each other. If I have a child I'm terrified for them. What we do to the planet we do to ourselves one hundred fold. If we're so self centered why don't we care for our own species? A recent poll showed that the majority of Americans believe human pollution is significantly hurting the planet, but a much smaller number believe in climate change.

In 10 days I'll release my only large batch of monarchs of the year into an uncertain future that most will not survive--and then climate change will, in the next few decades, destroy their winter grounds in Mexico even as we prevent logging now. There's always maybe. There's always the human ability for immense compassion, faith, and hope manifested in inspiring action in unexpected moments. There's always that I suppose.