Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Stop Trying to Change Your Soil

Tell me when to stop -- in order to have a successful garden we must have highly-amended soil. That soil should be a rich, puffy loam that smells like a damp woodland. Such soil will need regular amounts of fertilizer, and it wouldn't hurt to water it every two days. Additionally, a constant layer of wood mulch will not only add more organic matter and help plants grow, but it will help the garden be more aesthetically pleasing.

Mulch for landscapes was created as a byproduct of the timber industry, a way for them to make more money selling the scraps they had no consumer for. We go to nurseries and big box stores buying bags of mulch, and then bags of topsoil; who knows where that topsoil is from, how it was gathered (destructively is my bet), or how it's going to help / hinder the soil life you have now in your landscape. The best mulch I know of is living, breathing, pollinator-producing green plants structured in such a way as to mimic natural ecosystems in nearby wilder areas.


If you have clay soil I want you to fall in love with it. I want you to stop working against it, seeing the stuff as imperfect. We already have enough problems perceiving the natural world as imperfect, needing to be "improved" upon; what happens when you work with what you have? What joy, peace, and centering purpose arises when you celebrate the miracle of clay soil and thickly-planted landscapes? What happens when you realize that large chunks of the planet have clay soil and, wouldn't you know, thriving ecosystems (including tons of plants) growing very well?

Clay soil is high in organic matter. Its structure helps it hold on to more nutrients and for longer periods, reducing the need for fertilizer and amendments. It's also great at sequestering carbon. Link here to read more on this miracle soil, and strategies to work harmoniously with it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Nature is Not a Garden. Or is it.

Why don't you read my latest Houzz piece:

"Nature is not a garden, but it’s too easy to see nature as something imperfect. When we can take a step back and see a fallen tree as beautiful and purposeful or appreciate an assassin bug enjoying its moth dinner, we can see that the world doesn’t seem to need us in it, and we can start to become a more humble and rewarding part of it. A garden can teach us how to interact with life and guide us into deeper self-discovery if we design with purpose, then let that design evolve with the species that come to call it home."

Link to the full article here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Our Century's Garden Legacy

It's been argued that we live in an age of novel ecosystems -- wild landscapes now so altered by humans that they no longer function as they once did. Climate change influences species life cycles, migrations, and food supplies. Plants escape cultivation and become invasive. Urban areas can’t support native plants and ecosystem function. Wildness now is something very different -- something we have created.

It's also been said our managed landscapes -- parks, roadsides, and gardens -- are wildlife refuges; places where a little could help a lot. But in reality, these spaces make up only a small percentage of what can help wildness thrive, and yet they are also the key places that can wake us to the larger changes we can make (agriculture, consumerism), helping us become intimate again with a faltering  natural world defined by human estrangement. 

Our gardens matter not because they can literally save species, but because they are a call to action. They are living testaments to our wonder and joy, our part of the larger world and the web of life. Gardens matter because they bring birds and butterflies closer to us, they help release endorphins that make us feel happy, maybe even spur empathy as we learn again to care selflessly for other species simply because it's the right or ethical thing to do. 

When we learn what our landscapes can do, how they can help directly for wildlife and as symbols for people -- when we learn how essential native plants are, how gardens can sequester carbon and filter water and serve as larval hosts -- then the choices we make after these revelations carry even more weight. Do we choose to garden for ourselves only, for our idea of beauty alone, or do we more fully -- more equally -- integrate a selfless gardening that creates mini ecosystems composed of essential native plants and designs that mimic the natural, wilder areas just beyond the garden fence? Or do we embrace our role as an indifferent species, bent on emotional and physical conquest that will undermine our health, happiness, and peace in the years to come. 

Does a large home need all that grass and boxwood parterres? Does that fit the local environment aesthetically and ecologically? What happens when we go against the grain of our home places, when we can't or won't accept the natural beauty and purpose of our immediate world? What happens to a species that sees landscapes as never quite right, never perfect enough, not entirely what we want? Does that species lose any right to be part of the larger world, does it lose its identity and potential to be something better?

Our gardens matter, and the way in which we create them, grow them, and rethink them matters on a level far more important than whether they simply function aesthetically. While we must always find a garden beautiful, and while it will always be a kind of artifice, the truth is the entire world is now a garden we have made. How we tend it, how we honor those species we've ignored, dishonored, and betrayed, will say much about who we are and who we will become. Our legacy won't be how pretty our gardens looked; our legacy will be how gardens and other managed spaces woke us to a revolution of belonging in this world, and a renaissance of ethical thinking that helped us evolve into our fullest potential as stewards of life and as gardeners of our own hearts.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Winter Beauty, Silence, & Purpose

I know lots of folks find winter unbearable -- a season of darkness and imprisonment. I find winter liberating, though. The garden is so tranquil, the smallest sound an echo piercing into the heart with more genuine resonance. The shadows and light take on greater profundity, too, and the way plants bend in the ice and snow, the sheltering birds, the sunrise moving up, over, and through the bare branches and stems still holding their autumn leaves defiantly.

Freezing fog a week ago

My American Elm died, but is still alive

There's so much to learn from winter in the landscape. Not just about biological processes and a celebration of aesthetic simplicity, but about ourselves, too. For me, winter is a great time of repose and purposeful thought, a regathering. I get some good writing done, interruptions are less. I don't feel like I'm missing so much outside that I can't concentrate on the inside -- my spirit, my soul, my restoration. This is what the winter garden teaches us -- that while there is apparent stillness and quiet, a whole world is gathering like a coiled spring, strengthening and learning from the past seasons. Coldness is a lesson not in endurance but understanding. Snow is as warm a blanket as hand-spun wool. A different kind of beauty wakes us to a deeper understanding of other types of beauty we associate with joy, happiness, and freedom. Give me my full measure of each season so that I might live more purposeful, understanding life from every angle, a seeker of a finite moment that if lived openly will humble and open me to the world.

Red chokeberry after a dusting of snow

Switchgrass and freezing fog

Sideoats grama and little bluestem in wet snow

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Closest I've Come to Prairie

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.

Friday, January 1, 2016