Monday, July 29, 2013

Wheat Harvest -- From the Memoir

I remember climbing the imposing, vertical ladder of the combine to reach the cab when I was about eight. The slick, sun-baked green paint, the shallow, dimpled treads where my feet easily slipped out, the wide spacing of the steps, the fear I’d fall and break my neck. I made it to the top and kneeled on the small deck, afraid of heights, as my dad sat waiting in the driver’s seat. Inside, the floor was dusty, the air stale, sweet, and hot. An oversized red water jug sat sweating beside the steering column. Looking out from the cab I imagined myself falling into the head, being torn to pieces, sucked up into the giant machine, then spewed out from the elevator into a grain truck.

I sat on my dad’s lap, or more accurately, stood between his legs in front of him. He reached one hand around me to turn the key and start the combine, which shook and whirred until the seat and glass vibrated like a prop plane. With the other hand he put the combine into gear, grabbed the wheel gently, and moved us away from the parked pickup truck over an expanse of stubble. We bounced along quickly, the head swaying in echo to the cab. When Dad finally lined us up for a first pass of the remaining wheat, he lowered the hydraulic head which began spinning, adding more vibration and pulse. When he nudged us into the wheat a loud hum rushed underneath us as the seed moved up toward the thresher and into the hunchback bin of the combine, the chaff violently shooting out the back. 

We seemed to move slower than I thought we would – driving a combine is methodical, hot, organ-jarring work. Even as the air conditioner made things more tolerable, I could smell the sweat and dirt on my dad’s button down work shirt. “Do you want to steer?” he asked me. I wasn’t sure. Could I drive this big monster? Would it let me?

He shifted in his seat, nudging me closer to the wheel set out before me like a carnival game, and I spread out my young arms to grasp both sides. He kept a few fingers on one corner, and sometimes when I let the combine stray a few inches, he’d put a few more fingers on the wheel and straighten us out – this happened a few times each minute until he finally pulled me back toward him, fully grasping the wheel to make a 90 degree turn. “You did pretty well,” he’d encourage me. “Want to try again once I straighten out?”

The cabin filled with the dry dust of harvest that you cannot see, but can taste on your tongue and feel lining your nostrils. It’s cigar sweet and dirt dry, this smell, this sustenance. The reel rolled over and around the wheat with a lunging embrace, then tore it from under pushing it into the cutting bar with a sort of split personality. I knew we were farmers, especially in June, but the rest of the year I was certain we were not. My dad built houses, my mom ran a toy store, I went to school, we lived in a nice house in town along a creek. I was not a farmer, nor would I ever be one. And yet the memory is like a second skin, stuck to the underside of my body but above the muscle. Every move I make in a field or my garden calls upon the echo of this memory in my blood – that when I was a child my dad and I sat in a combine for a little while, made passes over the hot, flat land until the bin was full enough to bring me back to the pickup, and then home.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Activist Garden Sign is Up

I actually felt nervous digging this in, wondering if neighbors will be offended, what someone might say, if it will be vandalized for what it says or just because it's there. But I had to say something. I have this learning lab out back that no one sees. I had to do something. What do you think?

I've found, and assumed, that those living in new subdivisions like mine are much more militant about what landscapes should look like -- namely, lawn, lawn, lawn, and a few super bland foundation plants so close to the house wall you're not sure if they're painted on or not. Go into town, in older neighborhoods, and there's more variety. Of course, that lack of uniformity means someone might have a moldy couch out front, an RV that never moves, or plastic flamingos in various colors.

I planted the sign with aromatic aster, rudbeckia hirta, stiff goldenrod, and blue sage. I'd like to find some sideoats grama grass (for some reason my seeds never germinated this year).

We'll see. Go bold or go cold.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Suicidal Lawns

I live in a young suburban development, and most of the houses have nothing but lawn right up to the foundation walls. A few homes have thin planting beds filled with the following overused, non-native, big box junk plants: barberry, hosta, spiraea, boxwood, rose (that's right, I went there), japanese maple (good luck in zone 5), and a host of others. These plants do very little to nothing for native wildlife.

I have a neighbor who just yesterday essentially scalped his lawn, making the burned areas more burned looking as we face five weeks without rain and temps in the 90s. Another neighbor mows 3 times a week no matter the weather. Sprinkler zones run 20 short minutes at a time around 4pm in the hottest and windiest part of the day, clouds of mist wafting on to the street to evaporate. But any passing pedestrians do get a nice pick me up.

Lawns aren't completely stupid -- if you have younger kids that need a play space, go for it. Lawns also provide negative space in landscape design, a place for the eye to rest. But lawns are ecological dead zones. Lawns are helping us destroy our planet. Lawns don't create a positive environmental impact (please, shut up before you talk about lawns aiding carbon sequestration or cooling -- stop trying to defend your antiquated thinking and comparing a lawn to prairie or woodland).

An entrance to a local park -- a mile or two in is some prairie.
Doug Tallamy notes bird species are down 50% in the last few decades, primarily as their habitat -- and habitat for the insects they eat -- is eroded by our blind insanity. Further:

"We’ve come to see plants as decorations,” adds Tallamy. Turf is one of those plants. Lots with lawns don’t clean water, don’t provide clean air, and don’t support wildlife. Developed spaces are trying to borrow ecosystems services from elsewhere, but there is no “other place” where these ecosystem services are produced. “Our yards support very little biodiversity because they were not designed to do that,” says Tallamy. “We can save nature if we learn to live with nature." (full article here)

Last night I saw a promo on the local news -- 5 steps you can take to help the environment. You know what it sounded like? Like being environmentally aware is equivalent to holding a door for someone, volunteering at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, a hobby that makes you feel better -- a craft project. I'll tell you what helping the environment really is: 5 steps to not kill your kids.

Our current great monoculuture is lawn. Slathered in chemicals we absorb and that lead to birth defects, developmental disorders, cognitive disorders, cancer.... The CDC tested 1,000 people for some 20 common pesticides and found 13 in their systems. That's not just lawn, of course, that's what we eat. I always wonder what we drag into our house on the bottom of our shoes -- what babies then crawl through.What pets roll in.

Acreages near Lincoln. AKA deadzone-ville.
Lawn does not help biodiversity. Lawn does not filter ground water (like a prairie does). Lawn is us exerting our will on the planet and being sheep -- but oh, if only we ate our grass like good sheep instead of spewing out toxic mower exhaust that leads to lung diesease and hypertension and hearing loss. One hour of mowing is equivalent to driving a car 100 miles when it comes to exhaust emissions; I've heard estimates several times that, though.

Last year's drought decimated pollinating insects -- and if you don't garden for pollinating insects, you don't garden right. Period. They are the base of the food chain for most life. Honeybee colonies are vanishing to a point where we can't keep up with food production, and now we must turn to native bee populations which are many times more efficient, pollinating a greater diversity of flowers and more of them. But native bee populations are also being decimated.

"I just wish there were more incentives for people — not just farmers — to plant a more diversified landscape that provides nutritional resources for all kinds of pollinators," says the UIUC Entomology Department chair. "Plant more flowers! And be a little more tolerant of the weeds in the garden." And not just in the garden, but in agricultural fields where prairie strips heal the soil and create better yields -- same could happen in your landscape if you have veg and cut out as much lawn as you can.

Tax dollars hard at work -- and look at those CO2 emissions.
Less lawn. Less plants that are more like statues, and more plants that are like fireworks displays or supernovas -- shooting off fragments of life, creating life, having a purpose beyond ourselves. Lawns aren't REALLY places for kids to play since there's nothing there: no fireflies (need leaf litter for them), no butterflies, no flowers, no sticks, no trees, no places to hide, no places to explore, no places to develop an imagination that makes kids smarter, more confident, and healthier. And beyond that, every school, k-12, should have a large garden space where kids in every subject area work: art, music (if we haven't cut those programs), math, science, history. We're creating a population that relies on drugs instead of nature to heal our mental, emotional, and physical ills. It's insane!

Being environmentally conscious (by having less lawn) is not a hobby -- it's a way to stave off suicide. It's a way to protect your kid's future. It's a way to live more fully. Walk across a lawn, then walk through a meadow -- the difference is emotionally palpable. When explorers first came into the Great Plains prairies there were two reactions: one seeing it as a desert, one seeing it as an eden. Lewis and Clark counted hundreds of fish species when they tossed out a single net into the Missouri river, and hundreds of wildflower species on the banks, with deer and antelope bounding across the plain. Others saw the vast horizon of monotonous grass as having nothing, no value, no life -- but in actuality this is the American lawn, our simplified, knock-off version of English aristocracy that has killed America. It's also not a space that creates a park-like feel in suburbia, or brings humans together like 19th century landscape architects professed; lawn separates us from the earth and ultimately from the ones we hold most dear. Lawn is a gentle, slow suicide.

Yup, that's my lawn. And my 1,500' non-spray-anything garden.
*I want to point out I have lawn -- 2/3 of my backyard is lawn. If I had an extra $500 I'd till it up and seed it in prairie. If local ordinances allowed anything above 6" the front yard would be gone, too. But I tell you this: I don't water lawn in the middle of the day. I don't even fertilize it. I let it burn up in August and watch it green up like moss in fall and spring. I mow once a month, if that. You can tell me I have no right to criticize lawns when I have plenty of it, but it doesn't make what I said above any less true. Why is Los Angeles paying residents $2 a square foot to rip out their lawn? Because lawns shouldn't be in arid LA -- just as they shouldn't be in great portions of North America (like Nebraska). And they certainly shouldn't be maintained with petrochemicals that poison us, our kids, our pets, with fertilizers that emit greenhouse gases as they sit in the lawn and as they are produced with oil and water. Lawns are as sustainable as a flamethrower-armed zombie apocalypse. Without greater diversity in our landscapes we are all doomed, doomed I tell you -- physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Come Talk (and Hold) Butterflies

Monarch Gardens, my native plant garden coaching business, will have an educational tent at two farmer's markets this month, August, and September. As the season goes on I hope to actually have monarchs, but right now it's all black swallowtails. Come play a game and win a prize, see native wildflowers that attract insects, touch a caterpillar, and learn about organic butterfly gardening.

7/21 -- 10am-2pm -- Old Cheney Road Farmer's Market

8/8 -- 4:30-8pm -- Fallbrook Farmer's Market

9/8 -- 10am - 2pm -- Old Cheney Road Farmer's Market

Monday, July 15, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me and the Garden, 2013

Time for my annual self love festival. It's always amazing to see how the garden looks from year to year on the same date, and to do it here on the blog for easy reference (here's a 16 month daily timelapse vid). The 1,500' garden started in July 2007, and looked decent in 2009, then came into its own in 2010. Since then, each year plants shift, fade away, reseed and come back. Natives crowd out non natives, because in the early days I did not know what I was doing (fyi, come get my iris next month please). So, let's go on a tour in pics, then at the end I'll have a link to a video tour.

Purple prairie clover is busy this year

Liatris are pretty neat pre bloom, too

Mourning dove momma and youngin' in grape arbor

And a short video tour:

If you're in or near Omaha tonight, 7/15, I'll be speaking at the monthly meeting of the Plattsmouth Garden Club at the First United Methodist Church on Main Street in Plattsmouth. 6:30pm. I'll have books for sale. Bring cake.

My wife and I will also be at the Old Cheney Farmer's Market in Lincoln on Sunday 7/21 with, hopefully, butterflies and caterpillars, info on native plants, native plant examples, pictures, other fun stuff for kids (and maybe adults who act like kids). Look for the Monarch Gardens tent.

And might I direct your attention to the photography gallery slideshow on the right? You can purchase my photos (better ones than the above) and print them lots of cool ways.

Otherwise, birthday wish list remains much the same:
1) 50-100 acres somewhere on the eastern Plains, complete with a passive 100% off the grid home, two artist residencies, shed for speaking / teaching / events / education, small native plant nursery.
2) Book deal for any of my memoirs, Morning Glory or Turkey Red, or maybe something rant-ish on native plants.
3) A job this fall. Preferably teaching.
4) More speaking gigs. More garden consults. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gardening With Natives as a Moral Act -- Part 2

Between Facebook, email, and this blog, I've received a wide variety of comments and suggestions about my original post. My thanks for the encouragement of those who enjoyed the rant, but I want to address some of the criticisms.

When I said I wasn't holding a gun to your head to plant natives, I meant it, but enough people felt threatened by me that I was surprised -- so I went out and bought a dozen guns. To essentially be called a bigot or racist a few times really made me upset and sad. I wish we looked at plants on more equal terms to humans -- if we did, we might be more sympathetic to each other and actually end bigotry and racism. But since we hate each other so often, many times based on misunderstanding or lack of knowledge, I don't hold out much hope for knowing plants on better terms. Maybe we need a bill of plant and animal rights, but then many more would feel threatened (is this part of being a human animal, a response for survival?).

Culver's root in action.
What I am advocating for is self education -- that once you begin gardening more and more with native plants, you begin to understand the delicate roll of a healthy, balanced ecosystem. You will see how native plants, in general, bring in more insects and a greater diversity. You will begin wanting to know what that bee is on the joy pye weed, and when you discover the life history of the bee, you might be led to what it needs to thrive in your garden. That might lead you to adding additional native plants, hollow stems for bee houses, learning about soil microorganisms, about the wild ecosystem your plants come from, about beneficial predator bugs, about what goes on out there in that greater wild ecosystem that you might want to try to replicate in your backyard. Is this a bad thing? Apparently so, based on some of the irate comments dubbing me a purist. 

So let's talk about purism. In my native plant garden (which is becoming more so, about 80%, since I bought whatever the nursery had when I started out, not knowing much) I'm trying to recreate a semblance of prairie. Why? Not because I believe prairie can exist in 1,500', or that we'll have much luck recreating it even on 30,000 acres, but because the prairie wildlife is still here. The bees. The butterflies. The birds. They developed over millennium to work in concert with the plants native to this region. I will not deny these native creatures like so many of us do in our culture, and so that makes me an outlaw, a purist. Without these plants, the wildlife begins to vanish -- ask a Harris's sparrow or lesser prairie chicken or regal fritillary. If only we could talk to plants and insects how richer our lives would be! (David Abrams, in The Spell of the Sensuous, says we once did and can again).

Bluebirds in winter waiting their turn for a drink.
A garden full of properly sited -- properly sited -- native plants to you locale will never be truly wild. By definition a garden is human artifice, it is art, it is personal interpretation and expression, so herein perhaps is the anger and backlash to my proposal to plant new spaces with 100% native plants. I'm not saying you can't do your thing (and my god, you'd actually listen to me and not do your thing???), I'm just saying do it with natives and see what happens, stretch yourself, open yourself to the ecology around you in new, profound ways. Only in America, it seems, do we feel so threatened of our personal freedoms that knees jerk up wildly -- if only they jerked enough to stop special interest lobbyists from owning our politicians, from allowing 1% of the population to control 20% of the wealth and erode the middle class, to stop pipelines being built through sensitive prairies and wetlands.

But back to landscapes -- to say a native plant garden cannot be formal or Victorian or Japanese or whatever is just plain nonsense. If you believe native plants are "wild" and "messy" and only fit for one design ideal, then your vision as a gardener has yet to expand and grow, and this is one reason I am pimping native plants -- they help you grow in ways a hosta and daylily and barberry cannot. You know what those plants will do, and you know their ecological benefit is momentary and selective. Humdrum. Zzzzz.

A native New England Aster. Call the Plant Police!
When we are deprived of natural places, we are deprived of ourselves. Ecologists, philosophers, and environmentalists have known this for a long time. To not have prairie plants in my backyard is to deprive myself of my city, my state, and my region. I am diminished as a gardener if I don't focus on natives. I can't hope to understand local ecology, flora, and fauna without experimenting with and embracing native plants. If Aldo Leopold were alive he'd tell you these things more eloquently -- shoot, he does, go read this sad snippet from Sand County Almanac.

So this is how I see gardening with natives as a moral act. You may think this sounds superior, elitist, or purist, but to me it sounds like freedom, knowledge, and power -- something Home Depot, Scott's, and Monsanto don't want you to have. Gardening with natives is as much an act of defiance toward those who destroy our natural world as it is a willingness to listen to our deepest selves and embrace the joy and terror of our connection to this planet. Without that mental, physical, and spiritual connection to place through native plants, we are diminished to the point of insanity and despair -- hence the depredations on Native Americans, hence the dust bowl, hence diabetes.

And for the one person who said any article that uses the word "bupkis" is worth a read: bupkis. Now go find plants native to you and help save the planet and yourself! Rock the boat!

Monarch caterpillar at the Lincoln Children's Zoo

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gardening with Natives as a Moral Act -- A Big Rant

This week I tested the waters on Facebook for a bold new view I'm taking with private and public managed landscapes (gardens, right of ways, parks, businesses). This is where I started: daylilies and hostas, along with much of their ilk (visit Home Depot), are pointless, wasted plants in gardens. I don't want to see any more of them ever again. They are bupkis for wildlife and are overplanted. Neighborhoods of hosta are like McDonalds on every street corner -- homogenized, dull, empty calories.

Gardening is a moral act. Gardening is an act of learning about your local ecosystem, getting in tune with it, and gardening / living on a higher level -- a level of connection we work hard to sever in our managed landscapes; native plants can mend the break as local ecology is witnessed. The American lawn is supposed to be a bridge between what is yours and what is mine, creating a democratic, equal playing field among people. But what lawns do -- what standard / overplanted non native plants do -- is dull our senses and provide almost nothing for wildlife when compared to native plants. I have butterfly bushes (I shouldn't, and I might not for much longer), and when the mountain mint, coneflowers, asters, joe pye weed, and goldenrod are blooming the insects bypass butterfly bush; I'd say for every one insect on butterfly bush, there are 30 on native plants.

I have seen two butterflies in my garden so far this year. Two. A red admiral and a sulphur. With the garden coming on now in its summer flush, I still see a massive lack of insects, even compared to last year when it rained about an inch over three months. This is a profound crisis we seem blinded to or dulled by. Without insects we lose one out of three bites of food we take, and up to 70% of what's in the grocery store. You've read about massive die offs of bees. If you care about your children not being stung, you should care about them having something to eat. Personally, I don't want a full time job hand pollinating crops like they do in China due to lack of bees.We should probably stop plowing up the last marginal prairies, destroying bee / wildlife habitat, and planting corn the government subsidizes whether it fails or not.

Gardening is a moral act. Gardens are wildlife refuges. I don't see insects nectaring on hosta or daylily too often, and I most certainly do not see leaf damage -- a sign that bees are making nests or caterpillars are using them as host plants. Do not forget that we aren't just talking about sources of nectar, we are talking about raising insect babies. Plants from China or Russia don't work. Indeed, some cultivars of natives don't even have pollen (check out the front cover of the current Horticulture magazine).

Insects and plants in North American have grown together through evolution -- there are specialist insects for particular native plants, and vice versa. So here it is on the line for you:

I believe any new landscape should use 100% native plants from that locale. We have ripped up everything. We have remade "nature" into something that relies on us to survive. We have no choice but to manage our landscapes lest they fall apart into perceived chaos because we've imposed our will on the planet.

Let me tell you what a non native plant is to me: it's manifest destiny. It's cavalry riding into a Cheyenne village and wiping them out to pave way for settlers who unzip the prairie and plant rows of wheat and corn. It's blind hubris and a lack of will to understand other cultures. America's history of eradication is subversive and thorough, and to talk about it causes alienation (like I imagine is happening right now). We still don't have equal rights for humans, so maybe I shouldn't hold out much hope with equal rights for plants and ecosystems -- even if those ecosystems literally keep us alive. We can't deny our own evolution -- we need this planet as surely as a bumblebee needs a baptisia or penstemon and an environment free of pesticides and gmo crops laden with pesticide pollen.

The argument that I often hear is native plants are limiting. First, there are over 7,600 native plants in North America, so stop sounding like a teenager who is bored by everything. Second, exotics are limiting; they are limiting for wildlife, and they are limiting for low maintenance gardening. The right native plant in the right place doesn't need fertilizing or spraying or supplemental water in a normal year once established (prairie plants go dormant in drought -- pretty darn smart). You can argue this point with me to some degree, but my 1,500' garden out back will fight you for it. Come look at it if you like, especially as I slowly take out the remaining non natives.

Gardening is a moral act. It is no longer just about aesthetics. If we combine morality and aesthetics we have prairie. Or forest. Or desert. Or wetlands. A wildlife refuge. Whatever your pleasure. I refuse to compromise any more -- we need 100% native plants in new landscapes. There is no time to wait. We need cleaner air, water, and fertile soil. We need less crap in our bodies causing learning disabilities, early puberty, disease, etc. We need insects. We need birds and amphibians that feed on insects. We need food. We need nature back. In the 21st century we need to at least try and right the wrongs of our culture's narrow vision of excess and greed, a culture that discounts the world out there and works hard to deny the connection of our flesh and blood with that of a bird's, a bee's, a flower's. This may be one reason we're so depressed and prone to violence.

We are all the same star dust, products of supernovas. This planet is so unique we can't even find another one like it. So if native plants are limiting, if native plants are weeds, if native plants aren't as pretty, than we have no right to call the shots. If you want to have a peony or hosta to remind you of your mother or father, go for it -- but why not start a new tradition where some day your child plants a milkweed in honor of your memory. Why not take the leap and make a difference in whatever small spit of land you have -- especially if no one else will. Planting a native species aster is like calling for an end to genocide or racism. Democracy and freedom is "limiting" yourself to native plants, plants that will connect yourself to the ecology and world around you, in the end wake you up to the miracle of built-in, redundant safe guards in nature, and erasing our nihilistic eradication of that redundancy. I want my country back. I want my prairie.

Final point anticipating a deluge of angry notes: I do not advocate totalitarian law forcing people to use only natives. Talking about using more natives in gardens oddly develops into an argument akin to saying we shouldn't allow immigration or discussing the merits of abortion or lethal injection. I will not stand with a gun pointed to your head and say "Plant milkweed or your family gets it." I'm saying gardening is a moral act, and driving through my neighborhood, our morals our way off base. We keep planting exotics (not knowing when or where they may become invasive), mismanaging landscapes, mowing down butterfly habitat on highway edges, spray spray spray, and just assume the planet will take care of us no matter what we do. Right. We can't think like that any more! And you know it.

Planting mountain mint and New England aster is saying hey, I won't go down like this, I see the planet, insects, wildlife all on equal terms and necessary. I see ecological redundancy that keeps me alive and I want it to stay intact. I'm tired of monoculture that can fail in a heartbeat due to disease or weather. I'm tired of being poisoned. I'm tired of not feeling like I belong. Using native plants is the tip of the iceberg I'm talking about here, the very beginning to healing and understanding. The issues are much larger, much more culturally based, much more spiritually based. I've lived these changes. I want you to see that. And I'm darn tired, no damn tired, of the high maintenance non native landscapes requiring massive carbon and chemical inputs. I'm tired of the fallacy of a perfect lawn. I'm tired of the buying into of commercials with western film music while a guy "shoots" weeds from a RoundUp wand "holster" on his hip. It's time to do a lot better. Now. If I have kids I want them to have a planet somewhat similar to the one I'm screwing up for them. This is our last great chance. Gardens are a moral act. Native plants (and more natural management of them) are one huge way to right our wrongs -- and facing those wrongs is never easy because we have to admit our mistakes, which is why talking about natives creates such backlash and knee jerk reactions, particularly from established landscapers and land managers. Gardening for nature with natives is a moral act, it is not passive, it requires our full awareness and risking who we are and want to be. This is how great, good change begins.

Link here to read Part 2, my response to criticisms and suggestions. 

And here I am saying it all as clearly as possible, via butterfly bush.

Monday, July 1, 2013

In Praise of Species Coneflowers

When I started gardening in Ludicrous Speed (please see Spaceballs for that reference), I bought all kinds of pretty coneflowers in the local nurseries -- purple, white, orange, yellow, umber, red. I'm not sure any of those are still alive. Well, there is a white one.

Most of these cultivars and hybrids died out within 1-3 years; one constantly got some sort of leafspot, defoliated, and called it quits by August. Most were stunted and didn't bloom all that much. Someone once told me you shouldn't let these cultivars bloom the first year, instead help them work on establishing good roots. But I just don't mess with them anymore -- plus, those frankenflowers like 'double decker' and 'coconut lime' were just the last straw.

Here's an image of a dry corner that's finally taken off this year for me. It took me 5 years to figure out I should just go species, and 1-2 years after planting I'm getting some sweetness:

That's Echinacea pallida up front, simulata in back, and paradoza to the left. Now, they all aren't native to Nebraska, but I'm not being picky with my cones -- they still get lots of insects and are robust. Maybe I'm cheating by not going 100% native here, but I think these species are close enough, and a lot closer than mutants, er, cultivars that have been bred to a weaker or unproven form.

I also use Ratibida pinnata, grey-headed coneflower, though you'll hear lots of folks say not to use it in a small garden. Blah. It gently self sows in my THICK, MULCHED garden, and if I don't like a seedling where it is I move it, or easier yet, yank it out. This still leaves you with other Ratibida's and Rudbeckias, so why use cultivars and hybrids?

I've also been enjoying Rudbeckia missouriensis this year. No, it's not native to Nebraska, but it grows fast, has lovely blooms in June before the main July show, and I can winter sow it easily. Plus, I've never seen fuzzier leaves, not even on Echinacea pallida, which makes it good for a tactile children's garden. Don't forget Rudbeckia maxima, giant coneflower, with its large blue leaves. Any other suggestions?