The Revolution Surrounds Us

by Tom Gibson

What could possibly interest a driver through the landscape west of Toledo? Flat corn and soy bean fields stretch to the horizon—green in summer, gray-brown in winter. That’s the way it’s been for the nearly 25 years my wife and I have been traveling to Chicago to visit our daughter.

In the last three years, though, we’ve noticed a change.  Instead of bare, tilled soil in winter, the majority of farmland we observe remains untilled and is filled with corn and other crop stubble. Although colors remain pretty much the same gray-brown, what we are seeing is revolutionary. Conventional farmers, who have been growing crops in the best agri-chemical, paint-by-numbers style—so many pounds of artificial nitrogen, phosphorous, etc. per acre–, are now consciously prioritizing growing life in their soil.

Tilled field and…
No till. Still brown, but much more beautiful.

We’re not the only ones to notice this change. Two years ago it even made the New York Times.

Now a book has come out that puts the shift into a worldwide context.  It’s called Growing A Revolution by David Montgomery. Montgomery is a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington; author of previous popular books, most notably “Dirt,” and a winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” award.

Montgomery’s thesis is that a consensus is emerging in all corners of agriculture and horticulture—from conventional to organic—that the only path toward resilient food production must include an interlocking trio of practices that fall under the rubric of “conservation agriculture.”  These are: No till soil management, cover crops, and crop rotation.

As obvious as these three practices will sound to Gardenopolis Cleveland’s cutting edge gardeners, the abiding wonder of this book is how often humanity has gotten this apparently straightforward mix wrong.  The Mesopotamians messed up the (once) Fertile Crescent. Thomas Jefferson experimented with cover crops and crop rotation, but also invented and promoted the mold-board plow—that great destroyer of mycorrhizal fungi and their nutrient-gathering capability– and thus managed to undo much of the good of his other innovations.  In the 1970s, a young researcher named Rattan Lal, now one of Ohio State University’s most distinguished professors, vastly improved small farm productivity in African test plots with a version of conservation agriculture. But a few short years after his departure, all his good work had been overgrown with trees.  Only the small-scale farmers of China and Japan appear to have been able maintain consistently healthy soil over centuries (aided enormously by their techniques for safely recycling both animal and human waste).

The main contributing factor to humanity’s soil-building failures has been a combination of population growth and an impatience with gradualism. As Europe’s much-plowed soils were running out of fertility, European colonialists replaced it with the Peruvian seabird waste known as guano. As guano supplies diminished, German chemists developed the Haber-Bosch process to produce artificial nitrogen fertilizer. Artificial fertilizers also became one of the pillars of the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, that temporarily rescued farmers worldwide from depleted soils and diminished harvests.

You know the rest of the story: monocultures, fertilizer runoff, Monsanto, glycosophate, herbicide-resistant “superweeds,” and a steady decrease in soil fertility that all of the ministrations of Big Ag have only made worse (requiring still more artificial inputs).

What Montgomery has discovered, however, is that we seem to have reached a genuine tipping point that is taking us back to soil and its neglected life-giving potential.  One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Montgomery, the bearded “Left Coast” professor  is invited to speak to a group of Kansas farmers.

Did he look like this? More gardeners ought to wear overalls. They’re both comfortable and practical. Just be careful not to walk into the Stone Oven coffee house like this!

“As I ended my talk I looked out on a sea of baseball hats.  One elderly fellow in the middle stood up, stuffed his hands down into his pockets, and said he’d taken one look at me and didn’t think I could possibly say anything worth listening to.  I braced myself for what was to come.  But then he surprised me.  He said the more I talked, the more sense I had made.  He’d seen what I was talking about on his farm. It no longer had the rich fertile topsoil his grandfather had plowed. Something needed to change if his own grandchildren were going to prosper working his land.”

What has also changed is soil science.  Mycorrhizal fungi were only named and their function thoroughly described by German scientist A.B. Frank in 1885. Frank contended that mycorrhizal fungi and plants worked in a vital system of symbiosis, with plants trading sugars made via their unique process of photosynthesis for minerals which fungi’s chemical exudates were uniquely able to mine. Frank’s findings flew in the face of conventional wisdom and went through waves of acceptance and dismissal throughout the following century. Yet today we recognize the plant/fungal relationship as the most fundamental to life on land. Neither biological domain could exist on earth without the other (let alone us animals!).

Sara Wright in her lab.

The power of the plant/fungal relationship has only really come into focus in the last 20+ years. In 1996 Sara F. Wright, a U.S.D.A. scientist, first identified glomalin, the mycorrhizal exudate that gives good soil its crumbly texture and, at a micro-level, allows bacteria and fungi to perform their most soil-enhancing functions.  (Why hasn’t Sara Wright won a Nobel Prize!)

At the same time, scientists’ recent ability to decode genomes has revealed a vast, previously unknown realm of microbiological life. To soil scientists the soil microbiome is still, literally, terra incognita. We know enough, however, to understand why the trio of conservation agriculture practices that Montgomery describes work so powerfully together.

No or minimal tillage allows mycorrhizal fungi to extend their appendages called hyphae.  These hyphae, in turn, mine rock and other geological formations for otherwise inaccessible minerals.  They also merge with other like fungi and thus create a vast underground network that, sensing some plant’s need for phosphorous, can both mine and deliver it.

Vetch fixes nitrogen and is a great cover crop.

Cover crops supply their own package of nutrients, including nitrogen (e.g. vetch) and phosphorous (e.g. buckwheat). Harvesting them off above the root, moreover, leaves carbon compounds in the soil to feed all the fungi and other microbiota.

Rotation of multiple crops, the third component of conservation agriculture, follows the lesson that almost every veteran tomato grower knows: One crop in place year after year eventually attracts more natural enemies than it can handle. The more varied crops, the safer they all become.  Moreover, different crops access different mycorrhizal species and networks, as well different minerals. (E.g. sunflowers, which draw up zinc and make it available to the other crops around them).

The lesson: in diversity there is redundancy and strength. All three practices conserve carbon and build soil.  In fact, Montgomery cites a 2014 Rodale Institute that estimates that complete worldwide conversion to conservation agriculture could offset almost three-quarters of then current global emissions.  This might not be as pie-in-sky as a realist might imagine. Montgomery emphasizes throughout how profitable regenerative conservation agriculture can be for farmers (not, however, for suppliers of agri-chemicals!).

Montgomery has clearly written this book for the next potential generation of farmer converts to conservation agriculture and to their potential policymaker supporters. But the predominantly gardener readers of Gardenopolis Cleveland will find the book a useful mirror by which to judge their own practices and act as even more informed consumers. The book is accessible in a comfortable journalistic way, but the reader is always aware that, when required, Montgomery can draw on his deep scientific training to summarize, accept and/or dismiss scientific studies as appropriate.

Some other tidbits/insights:

–Montgomery notes that many “organic” farmers fall short—and their crops suffer- -when it comes to implementing conservation agriculture. The more enlightened seem to be adopting some of the techniques of conventional agriculture—like every once-in-while application of a fungicide—to get their conservation agriculture trio of practices into proper balance. Despite my description above, soil and circumstances vary, and there seems to be a emerging productive middle ground, albeit still with very low chemical inputs.

–The two biggest obstacles to widespread adoption of conservation agriculture in the U.S.?  The first, predictably, is Big Ag, the complex of seed, agri-chemicals, equipment producers, and food distributors.  These companies dominate U.S. agricultural research and educational funding not to mention the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. They are also the only entities to consistently profit off the current system.  The second, more surprisingly, is crop insurance. The ability of make money even through crop failure keeps our present destructive system in place.  Montgomery seems to take special pleasure in describing how well off financially the new conservation agriculture farmers—who pay exponentially less for chemical and other inputs—have become–to the point of fancy wine cellars!. Most are so profitable they don’t bother with crop insurance, even if it is federally subsidized.

–Smaller really is beautiful.  Conservation agriculture with its multiplicity of crops tends to lend itself to much smaller farms than the as-far-as-the-eye-can-see, massive monoculture systems.  Because the former are more profitable, they may also make room for more -farmers and more prosperous small towns to serve them.  Check out this video to see what can happen.

Could a more prosperous rural America close our current rural/urban political divide?

–Finally, a special point of pride for Ohioans.  Rattan Lal, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog before, and David Brandt, a farmer near Columbus, emerge as towering heroes of this book. After reading this book, you’ll appreciate these two state treasures even more.

Crickets in the House 2017

by Lisa Rainsong

Reposted with permission from Lisa’s blog.

I’m beginning to think that “Crickets in the House” may become an annual post at the end of each singing insect season. For those of you who have expressed interest in the terrariums and their residents in previous years, this post is especially for you.

I’ve become increasingly accustomed to warmer Novembers with singing tree crickets, ground crickets, and occasional katydids through much of the month. I now expect a gradual decrescendo of insect song during the course of the month up near Lake Erie where the warmer lake temperature modifies the effect of advancing arctic air.

Not this year. A hard freeze earlier than we’ve recently experienced completely silenced the outdoor concert by mid-November. Fortunately, I’d already begun bringing crickets home.

When the first arctic cold front approached, I gathered up anyone I could catch. I could see lightning from cold-front-generated thunderstorms out over Lake Erie as I snatched my last Forbes’s Tree Cricket and the goldenrod on which he was singing.

A brief warmup followed. A few tree crickets and many ground crickets made it known that they had survived. Some species are pretty hardy and can get through a couple nights of frost, and that was true this year.

But the next cold front – the insect-killer – would be the final act for all of them. When this frigid air mass had almost reached Cleveland, I was on my hands and knees out in the back yard with my flashlight searching for our resident Carolina Ground Crickets. High temperatures were predicted to be in the upper 20s to lower 30s and lows were in the mid to upper teens in my region. No one was going to survive this cold front.

It was pretty crowded in the house.

There were two Broad-winged Tree Crickets, both Black-horned and Forbes’s Tree Crickets (who will be the subject of their own post), a Four-spotted Tree Cricket, and a Jumping Bush Cricket. The ensemble I called “the little ones” was made up of two Handsome Trigs, a Cuban Ground Cricket, an Allard’s Ground Cricket, a Striped Ground Cricket, and the three Carolina Ground Crickets I’d rescued at the last possible minute from the backyard. 

Carolinas seem to do quite well in the house and I enjoy them very much. I seldom see these common, yet elusive crickets because even indoors, they live under leaves, between rocks – anywhere they can be invisible and inaccessible. Here’s one of them getting started on his evening of songs:

In previous years, I’ve used glass terrariums with screen lids that had ample soil and cricket-friendly plants like grass, little asters, violets – basically whatever is hand in the yard and easy to dig up. The combination of soil, small plants appropriate to their natural habitats, some dead leaves and small pieces of wood, bark, or a little rock to sit on and hide under provides an opportunity to watch behavior that’s difficult to observe in the wild.

(Dmitri and the terrariums, October 2015. The stones at the corners kept the lids securely in place)

I’ve seen crickets sit up on leaves and twigs in the sun, females ovipositing in the soil, and tiny nymphs growing up the following year. I’ve also learned about where and how they so successfully conceal themselves.

However, other creatures live in that soil and hide out on the plants as well. Spiderlings from a hatch-out somewhere in the kitchen will slip through the screen and mature in a terrarium, remaining undetected until a bit of a web (or an unfortunate prey item) reveals their presence. These are not orb weavers with stunningly beautiful webs. No, they’re much sneakier common house spiders (Parasteatoda tepidariorum). It is most disheartening to find a tree cricket or even a ground cricket strung up on a line of web.

There were also tiny white dots in one of the larger terrariums that hatched into an entire civilization of ants which traveled in and out from the terrarium to the far reaches of the kitchen. I eventually had to relocate all the soil out to the back yard, trying to keep the ant family unit intact as best I could.

Crane flies would occasionally hatch out, much to the cats’ delight, and the best surprise was a lightning bug/firefly (they are really beetles) that emerged as an adult in February and flashed every night for a month. Lightning bug larvae eat slugs, which were always in residence and forever feasting on the crickets’ lettuce. 

The spiders were my main concern, however. I decided to try to control the ground level a little more since this is an area where they would retreat to hide. Perhaps sand from the lakeshore areas instead of our heavy clay soil would be less hospitable to the spiders and might also help eliminate the layers of algae that always seemed to accumulate on the glass walls. 

The crickets who were at home in sandy soil were fine with the change. Those that were not probably missed having a basement level filled with little holes and channels in which they could conceal themselves. The plants generally did not appreciate the dryness, and after a year of mixing humus back into the sand I decided to just try dried leaves and grasses. 

I switched to plastic cricket carriers, added an inch of sand to the bottom, and covered it with dead leaves along with their usual tiny food dishes and pieces of lettuce and apple. Just to be safe, I covered the lids with fine mesh fabric to deter the house spiders if the carriers were near the sunny south windows where spiders are more common. 

The resident Striped Ground Cricket is not much to look at, I suppose, since he was already a little battered and worn down when I caught him.

He sings every day, though, and you’d never know from listening that he’s such an old guy. I’ve included a sonogram excerpt so you can see both the steady rhythm with which he sings and how each individual song is a quick series of wing strokes. (By the way, that’s a Jumping Bush Cricket up on the second floor that also can be heard in the recordings.)

I add lettuce and a tiny slice of apple along with dry cricket food and water cubes to the singing cages and cricket carriers every evening, and they’re set. Replacing the heavy glass terrariums and screen lids with plastic carriers did make them easier to move and care for. (They like this little radiator space heater and sing much more when I turn it on.)

The Handsome Trigs and the tiny Cuban Ground Cricket can escape virtually any enclosure – even the miniscule opening where the handle of an insect carrier attaches to the lid. Only my beloved mesh singing insect cages, cherished presents from Wil and Donna Hershberger, keep these insects safe. They have lettuce, a tiny piece of apple, the smallest dishes of cricket food and water cubes (caps from one of the cat’s pill bottles), and a bit of blackberry leaf in season each evening. 

Even a few small, dead leaves in the bottom of the little singing cages will please the Handsome Trigs, and they appreciate having a curled-up dead leaf in which to sing. This seems to be a preferred concert venue, which is one reason that singing males are so difficult to locate.

Here’s a recording of trig in the photos above singing his crackling, sparkling song. You’ll see that there are little spaces between the wing strokes; it’s those spaces that separate the texture of his song from those of our other trigs. He’s also astonishingly loud for such a tiny individual! (Maybe you’ll be able to hear Tatyana purring softly on the E below middle C as well.)

It’s the tree crickets who typically are the challenge. They don’t live on the ground – they live in plants. I do my best to replicate the habitat in which they were singing when I found them, but there are challenges. Appropriate vegetation grows in soil, along with all the other life forms – including cricket predators – that are found there. I needed leaves: leaves to hide in, leaves to sing from, leaves that possibly might even be a preferred food.

Blackberry leaves.

I use small, empty plastic pill bottles as little vases for the end growth of blackberry canes. The leaves last for at least a few days in the water, and I cover the bottle opening with a folded, dry blackberry leaf to prevent anyone from falling in and being unable to escape (this had not happened, but I was trying to think of potential tragedies to avert.) When I’ve had a couple inches or more of soil, I’ve used stem holders stuck into the ground. I’m still experimenting with the new configuration.

I also mist the leaves including the leaf litter in the ground crickets’ carriers – every day. I’m careful not to get any water on the dry cricket food because it molds. I also don’t spray the crickets directly because they get very indigent about it. Broad-wingeds scuttle under a leaf. Ground Crickets dash for cover. One of the Forbes’s Tree Crickets would jump right up at me as if he were going to take me on. The Allard’s Ground Cricket, too, would pop straight up in the air almost to the top of his carrier. They all said, “Just NO!”

I included thick twigs beween blackberry stems for the Jumping Bush Cricket because this species travels along twigs and branches. Slender twigs also function as stakes for apple pieces in tree cricket carriers. There are goldenrod and aster flowers earlier in the fall and seed heads later that are much appreciated by Forbes’s, Black-horned, and Four-spotted Tree Crickets. Because they do occasionally go down to the “ground level” of the carriers, I added some leaves, bits of flowers and seed heads, cricket food, and water cubes if anyone wanted them.

This has been very successful – they sing and sing from the blackberry leaves. I’ve seen one of the Broad-winged Tree Crickets eating the leaves. I think the others do as well, because I never see them eating the lettuce I place up there. The Broad-winged Tree Crickets hide on the undersides of the leaves. The Forbes’s and Black-horned Tree Crickets occasionally do this as well, but they also bask in the sun on the upper surfaces of the leaves during the day. 

The Jumping Bush Cricket is right at home in blackberry as well. 

Members of this species are intriguing and quite odd, and I’ve learned enough about them to give them yet another post of their own. For now, though, here’s the Jumping Bush Cricket in the photo above singing up on the second floor of our bungalow. The “little ones” all come into the bedroom at night, but he’s so loud that sleep would be impossible if he were to join them. 

You’ll notice in the sonogram that his song, like that of the Striped Ground Cricket, has a predicable rhythmic pulse. Also like the Striped, each chirp is actually a little cluster of wing strokes. 

Unfortunately, obtaining blackberry became a challenge much earlier than usual this year. Not only did NE Ohio had that surprisingly cold spell in mid-November, there was also no snow to insulate and protect the meadow and woodland plants that still had leaves. Even along the lakeshore, where temperature don’t reach freezing until considerably later than inland areas, most of the blackberry leaves were scorched and desiccated. Normally, I’d head out into the NE Ohio snow belt counties, dig under the snow, and retrieve blackberry leaves that were still relatively green and soft. Not this year.

It’s December 13th now and tree crickets often seem to fade away after Thanksgiving. The few that have lived until late December, including the phenomenal Snowy Tree Cricket who survived in his blackberry until early February, were the exceptions. 

The Broad-winged Tree Cricket in the opening photo sang so assertively for such extended periods of time that perhaps it’s not surprising that the less ambitious Broad-winged outlasted him.

That elderly individual is still quietly hanging on the underside of his blackberry leaves though he hasn’t sung at all in the past several days. It almost seemed that once the overachiever passed on, this one didn’t even try to bother. Maybe he’s just old and decided to retire, but he’s still welcome here.

Since motionless camouflage is his strategy, I can actually remove the sprig of blackberry on which he’s hiding and place it on the kitchen table while I freshen up his house. He’s on the back of a different leaf each evening, but the photos below document one of the only times I actually saw him change locations.

(You can see he’s pretty old. This cricket had already lost a back leg and part of an antenna when I found him)

The eccentric Jumping Bush Cricket still sings every night, but otherwise, all the songs are from the ground crickets and the Handsome Trig. Maybe the last of the blackberry I searched for and harvested a few days ago will survive longer than all the thorn scratches that I inevitably find on my legs and arms afterward. 

If you’d like to read about making “singing cages” for keeping crickets and katydids at home, you can find more information at Songs of Insects.

If you have John Himmelman’s book, Cricket Radio: Tuning In the Night-singing Insects, explore the detailed chapter called “Assembling Your Cricket Radio.” There’s lots of information on the requirements for various crickets and katydids. 

Coming up next: two specific posts about the crickets I’ve learned more about this year both from studying them outdoors and getting to know individuals very well indoors this year: Jumping Bush Crickets and especially the look-alike/sound-alike Forbes’s and Black-horned Tree Crickets. 

I’ll close with a recording I think you’ll enjoy. It’s a Broad-winged Tree Cricket (the powerful singer) and a Forbes’s Tree Cricket singing simultaneously on the dining room table one evening. The Forbes’s sings a major 3rd higher, which is commonly true in the field as well. It was so peaceful in the evening to listen to this duet that graced our home until only recently. The remaining crickets, however, will carry on for a little longer…

Meditations at the Winter Solstice

by Elsa Johnson

I

Night comes early        this time of year             Short twilight

days          fade to dull   washed over dim                  northeast

Ohio winter days                                      edged to collapse   — 

dark         into deeper darkness                           Entire days of

not-day-not-night          almost-but-not-quite            gloaming

Solstice    in a few short days                                  Not a good

climate for   New Grange effect                                   The sun  

so rarely shines                            one would not think to build

a long      cold       slot of stone                        for sun to creep

up    and back down   again             One might wait years    —

How many                  millennium                        would it take

to connect                cause and effect                in this climate?    

Brighter gloaming on   snow-glow nights                   Brighter             

nights than days                                   when snow is grounded

II

When I was young             I stacked my skis          outside my

door       strapped them on       on winter nights            floated     

almost       soundless      past blackened woods     and     fields

gleaming       bright      in darkness                 (hint of borealis

in blue-black sky)    But these days      creep     to Solstice  —

to beyond                               when     we begin to look for  —

notice     hope     for                       the almost     imperceptible

lengthening      of curtailed light                          toward larger

hours                  The bulk of winter looms ahead             cold

and beautiful                                   but someone has to shovel

walk    and drive         —        at this age one feels     once     is

enough         :        Lake effect weather          dark       to aging

bones               that wish to strap on skis        and flee        fear

less           into wild and quiet         snow-stunned          nights

Rust Belt Riders – Vroom Vroom

by Elsa Johnson and Tom Gibson

Here at Gardenopolis Cleveland we are huge advocates for soil — you may remember that one of our early book reviews was on Kristen Ohlson’s The Soil Will Save Us – and as true believers, we’re all working on making our own soils more productive without the use of chemical fertilizers or tilling. And we know we are not alone in our belief in the importance of healthy soil.

Recently two of us dropped in on Rust Belt Riders, a small composting business located in a warehouse just east of downtown. Cleveland’s Ingenuity Festival shares warehouse space here, storing many colorful props that we had to wind our way around, which made for a strong contrast with Rust Belt Riders, who are basically three guys (all philosophy majors) doing experiments indoors (a tilapia raising tank and filtration tanks to clean the water) while cooking several large piles of compost outdoors.

As gardeners, most of the compost available to us commercially is based on the decomposition of leaves and yard waste, through the process we call composting. It is a large scale production undertaken by our local cities. Most people still, we suspect, send a lot of their ordinary food waste down the food disposal or into the trash, where it ends up — encased in lasts-for-millennia black plastic — in the dump. A smaller number of us home ‘compost’ (raise your hands, please).  

But most of us ‘compost’ rather loosely (I know I do).  We throw organic plant material from our yards and our plates onto a pile stashed somewhere we can’t actually see it (we call this the backyard feeding station), throw a few leaves or grass clippings on top, and expect that in time it will decay into something we can use on our gardens. And hey, in time, it will. But the Rust Belt Riders approach is way more scientific and controlled. They have studied the soil food web ecosystem, that sustainable system by which microscopic organisms in the soil exist in beneficial symbiosis with plants; that system that perpetually renews soil and plant health—-in contrast to the life-eradicating damage done by tillage or chemical fertilizers.

Their stated mission is to Feed People. Not Landfills. Their goal is to restore the soil food web, not destroy it. Don’t you want to get in on that good work? — Putting the carbon back in the soil.

What is their process…?  Rust Belt Riders collect organic food waste from grocery stores, restaurants, and businesses (50 in all) mix it with other organic ingredients in measured amounts, and ‘cook’ it to specific temperatures for specific periods of time. The key is those other organic ingredients—mainly old wood chips that only fungi are equipped to decompose and that comprise close to 60% of the total compost pile. The end result is compost that is alive with the fungi,bacteria, and other micro- and macrofauna like nematodes that, in combination, take plant health to a higher level.  (Biologically active soil also requires less watering!)

In addition to selling the compost, Rust Belt Riders also offers soil consultations, zero waste events, and workshops. But perhaps the most useful way to make use of Rust Belt Riders would be their collection service. Currently they collect from various sources like restaurants and grocery stores. But it seems to Gardenopolis Cleveland that an opportunity exists for communities of various scales (from a street, for example, to an incorporated entity like a city) to get in on the collection end by having a central collection area where ordinary individuals could bring their household organic waste (no meat), and a regular collection date. That would take things to a whole different level.

Interested in the soil food web? Go to: Soilfoodweb.com

Interested in Rust Belt Riders? Go to: www.rustbeltriders.com

Happy Thanksgiving from Gardenopolis!

This Thanksgiving, we thought we’d share some of the garden plants we’re most thankful for. 

Ann McCulloh:

Seems like I’ll be planting bulbs until the ground freezes solid, and some of my very favorite bulbs are the Alliums. There are many varieties of this charismatic onion relative, which bloom at various times in spring, summer or fall. All the tiny florets provide wonderful nectar for bees and butterflies. Best of all, the deer don’t like ’em!

The appeal of Eastern Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) for me is the wonderful fragrance of the leaves and berries. Since this salt tolerant, semi-evergreen shrub makes a beautiful hedge when pruned regularly, there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy the scent when trimming it. Lots of birds eat the berries, too!

I welcome frost this time of year, once the houseplants are safe inside – it means a break from laboring in the garden! Another benefit is the softening, sweetening effect it has on the fruits of the native persimmon, Diospyros americana. The variety ‘Meader’ is hardy, self-pollinating and can be easily kept at 12′ tall. Beautiful orange fall color, too.

Catherine Feldman:

Pyncnantheum… native mint. Grows in part shade. Fresh pepperminty smell. Extremely attractive to pollinators midsummer through fall. Spreads by runners. Lovely blue grey foliage — color seems to deepen as the season passes.

Elsa Johnson:

A pleasing combination in fall is Amsonia hubrichtii, Sedum spectablis, and carex.

Amsonia hubrichtii… the amsonias are big clump forming perennials, though not at first, so patience is needed for the first couple years, especially in semi shade. All amsonias have pale, pale blue flowers in spring. Hubrichtii has fine thread-like leaves that turn a deep gold in the fall and is an aesthetic wonder, adding both color and billowing soft texture.

Sedum spectablis…a common garden perennial that is also a great pollinator attractor. The blossoms darken to shades of rosy russet in the fall and really stand out against a background of amsonia hubrichtii.

Carex… this is a cultivar I found ….it reminds me of hair. I find that if carex looks too much like ordinary grass my non-gardener clients think they are grass and weed them out. A non grass color like variegation seems to help.

Nyssa sylvatica… one of my favorite trees. Common name Black Gum . This is an easy to grow tree that is adaptable to many environmental conditions once established, and resistant to many diseases and pests. Has shiny dark green leaves that turn to crimson in the early fall. Deer like to browse the young leaves, so protection is needed while the tree is young.

Sassafras… Tends to grow in a thicket. In a good year the leaves turn marvelous mixed shades of yellow and gold flushed with coral.

Tom Gibson:

My favorite pollinator attractor?  Without question it’s boneset, eupatorium perfoliatum, which not only attracts the usual cast of honey bees and bumblebees, but all kinds of wasps, beetles and flies that often rely on pollen for just part of their diet.  I’ve already written about boneset, but the annual early August show continues to pull me in.  I will stand for 15 minutes at a time just to watch the ecstatic, oblivious activity of the dozens of insect visitors.  Here’s an ailanthus web worm with a mason bee:

Another favorite is the hardy ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum).  It’s not mentioned nearly as much as milkweed as a food source for monarchs, but the butterflies always make a stop on these light blue flowers on their way south during the fall.

Finally, there’s Jacob’s ladder.  It’s one of the first plants to bloom in the spring and is a great source of early nourishment for queen bumblebees, whose self-heated “blood” enables them to begin establishing nests in cool weather.

Jacob’s ladder grows prolifically in my shade garden.  It happens to bloom at the same time as my red and black currant bushes, so Jacob’s ladders provide a nice assist in getting fruit started.

Garden Experiments: Sorghum-Sudan Grass and Nettles

by Tom Gibson

(This is the inaugural installment of what we at Gardenopolis Cleveland hope will become an ongoing series.  Have you read something in a gardening book or blog or article that made you want to try something new?  How did it work out for you? We’re looking for short, pithy articles not only from editors, but from you, the reader.)

Garden Experiment #1: Sorghum-Sudan Grass

One of the garden “stars” in Michael Phillips’ book Mycorrhizal Planet is Sorghum-Sudan grass (sorghum sudanese).  This annual grows up to 12 feet tall very rapidly, especially in hot weather, thus creating lots of compostable biomass. But it has two other special virtues: 1) Its roots can provide habitat for up to 50 species of mycorrhizal fungi.  And 2) when mowed, the plant responds by expanding its root mass, sometimes by a factor of two.  That means lots of carbon for microflora to feast on during the next growing season.

If ever soil needed more carbon, it was the garden plot I inherited at the Oxford Community Garden in Cleveland Heights.  Light tan in color, it was clearly more dirt than soil.  Weeds like thistle (that thrive in calcium-and phosphorous-deficient soil) loved it.  Although I reserved one strip of my plot for an attempt at tomatoes (aided by some calcium sulfate and worm castings), I seeded the rest in July with sorghum-sudan grass along with a multi-species, mycorrhizal-based fertilizer with the brand name of Dr. Earth. I bought the latter at Home Depot, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago before mycorrhizal additives started to go mainstream. 

The seed (5 lbs. that I bought online at seedranch.com for just $15) was easy to sow, though it required coverage from bird-proof netting. (Flocks of birds flew away as I approached the garden after my initial broadcast planting!)  The seed germinated right away and quickly dominated the plot. 

Then, in early October, I trimmed the grass with hedge clippers.  The cut grass should be no less than six inches high, Phillips says, for the best post-trimming root expansion.  Next spring is when I’ll take a mulching mower to the process. Then I plan to plant right into the plant-stubbled soil.  I’ll let you know what results.

Garden Experiment #2: Roasted Stinging Nettle Seeds

This idea comes from the far corners of the Web, where hairy counterculturists congregate.  (e.g.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7TJwh5nu9Y  and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD4kDo0Z7Y4).   These videos drew me in because stinging nettle has become one of my favorite garden vegetables.  It’s great with garlic and eggs for breakfast and in evening meal main courses such as stinging nettle lasagna.  And, as permaculturists know, stinging nettle offers twice the nutritional value of even vitamin-and-mineral-rich mainstream vegetables such as spinach.  (I tell my permaculture classes that nettles have developed a sting for the same reason that banks install alarms: to protect valuables stored inside!  Fortunately, deer don’t wear gloves or know how to steam the leaves to neutralize the formic acid sting, so stinging nettle offers the added benefit of being herbivore-free!)

Stinging nettle seed is just as rich in nutrients as the leaves.  This year, with regular rains extending into July, my stinging nettle seed crop was exceptionally robust.  How much effort, I asked myself, would it take to collect the seed and was it worth the effort?

 

I was feeling pressed for time, so, as a test, I just cut the six longest stalks and dumped them top first into a refuse bag.  There they sat drying (until I remembered them!) for almost two months.  Then I cut off the little bunches of seed pods and pressed them into a colander.  Voila!  Tiny black seeds emerged on the other side.  We then roasted them with a little salt and oil.  The result: nutty and crunchy.

Critically, the roasted nettle seeds pass the all-important “wife test.” They added a nice crunchy texture to the rice and veggie lunch we prepared.  We thought, however, they might stand out best on simpler dishes such as scrambled eggs or plain rice.

In terms of future garden productivity, the newly-discovered edibility of stinging nettle seed extends the harvest season of what has become, for us, a staple crop.  The leaves are at their best from May through June, but become less digestible when plants start to flower in July.  (One of the visual pleasures of a breezy July day is to watch wind-borne clouds of nettle pollen drift past their neighbors.) Now we can harvest seed in quantity, roast it, and enjoy it during the winter months.

Happy Halloween from Gardenopolis Cleveland!

poem and images by Elsa Johnson

To celebrate the holiday, we have a poem and some pictures of local yard decorations.

Vulture on the World Tree

It was         new territory to us                                                     We

rode the air currents to get there                                    up-drafts

We spread our wings out        wide                          the tips tilted

up      the wind    riffling    through them          There were three

of us         circling               We smelled dead things           We eat

dead things          The scent of dead things travels              When

we catch          that           smell                    we will fly a long way

A meal should be dead        but not ripe  :                     You need

presence in the land of the dead                                  You need a

tree       that stands alone                    You need to see what else

is out there    in that land                            We can clear a corpse

in a couple hours        —        thorough        —       we don’t notice 

what it is                                                     If you have a dead thing

to get rid of                                             you can do worse than us

One of Our Own, Part 2

by Elsa Johnson

Goldenrods of Northeast Ohio, A Field Guide to Identification and Natural History, by Dr. James K. Bissell, Steven M. McKee, and Judy Semroc. 

Yep— OUR Jim Bissell.

A little backstory here. I’ve known Jim since around 1980. I was living on the east side of Twinsburg, in Summit County, where I’d grown up amid forest, fields, swamps, and ledges, but by the late 70’s Twinsburg had been continually developing since Forest City built the Glenwood development in the mid 1950’s. By 1980 development had finally arrived on the heretofore totally undeveloped east side, where I lived, in the form of a developer buying up a couple thousand acres directly across the street from me, consisting of fields and swamps and ledges that were in the headwaters of Pond Brook (which feeds into Tinkers Creek, which feeds into the Cuyahoga River). Horrors.

Some of us – conservation minded and appalled by the idea of such development there – formed a group to fight this threat and one of the first things we did was ask Jim Bissell to come out and hike the two sets of ledges with us. Which he obligingly did, this youngish (early thirties, I guessed at the time) sandy haired fellow, already a fount of knowledge. This was in the early days of land conservation through purchase by the museum. We were hoping the museum might be interested in our 2000 acres. Unfortunately, while Jim agreed it would be a shame to see it developed, it was not pristine enough or unique enough to be of interest to him or the museum (In case you’re wondering – we did eventually find a way to save it. The area is now a Summit County Metropark.)

Flash forward to now, thirty some years later.  Jim is still out there doing what he loves to do, fighting for natural areas, and me too, I’m doing what I love to do, fighting for places I love. Neither of us is young or even youngish anymore. Occasionally we run into each other, which for me has always been both a pleasure and an education.

As a kid growing up in the country I took goldenrods for granted. Goldenrods were just — goldenrods. They were considered ‘weeds.’ They grew everywhere and pretty much looked the same. In fact, to me, they mostly still do. I do not appreciate them with a botanist’s interest but rather for the beauty of their abundant glory when they are all in bloom. I no longer consider them weeds. So it is with delight that I mention that the beginning of this definitive book on goldenrods begins by celebrating that glory and their role as “the cornerstones of ecosystems across the region.” 

We learn that 100 species of goldenrods have been described, with the greatest goldenrod diversity – 60 species — within North America, and that they support 430 types of insects. We learn that goldenrods are not huge nectar producers, but that this is offset by the vast number of flowers produced per plant, and that their pollen is heavy. Native bees, we learn, and bumble bees, rely heavily on goldenrod nectar, and that there are at least eight butterfly and moth species that feed exclusively on Solidago species. We learn that after the flowers die back for the season the seeds feed chickadees, finches, siskins, juncos, and sparrows. And we learn much more. One interesting aside gives a list of goldenrod uses —  for tea, for dye. This natural history section is followed by a section on how to use the guide, a dichotomous key, and then a species by species description of the goldenrods to be found in Northeast Ohio, with both elegant drawings and clear photographs, and discussion of preferred soils and habitat.

This year a goldenrod volunteered in my front yard garden. It grew into a sizable clump while growing taller, and taller, and taller, growing ultimately about 5 or 6 feet tall. Late in August the flower heads developed and in mid to late September they bloomed. Using the guide descriptions and pictures I was able to identify it as most likely either Tall goldenrod, Canada goldenrod, or Late Goldenrod. The flowers were so heavy that they bore their supporting stems to the ground, and were covered with all sorts of insects – many different kinds of wasps and bees and flies. It was glorious.  Thank you, Jim Bissell, Steven M. McKee, and Judy Semroc.

As a side note, Jim’s work in the region has been recognized by many, including the Nature Conservancy. The Dr. James K. Bissell Nature Center opened October 21. Located on the Grand River Conservation Campus of the Morgan Swamp Preserve in Ashtabula County, the center is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 – 5 pm from the first weekend of April through the first weekend of December. 

One of Our Own

by Elsa Johnson

One of Cleveland’s own, landscape designer Bobbie Schwartz, has written a book: Garden Renovation, Transform Your Yard into the Garden of Your Dreams (Timber Press, 2017). In case you cannot tell from the title, the book is written to the homeowner who isn’t prepared to just hand the whole task over to a designer or landscape architect with the invitation to “knock my socks off—do something spectacular.” Which is almost everybody. So the book is not one of those drool-over-pretty-pictures-of-high-end-gardens type books (the kind our bookshelves are so chock full of ) ….and though there are plenty of pretty pictures in this book, some of expensive landscapes, many are of small scale gardens and spaces easier to replicate. So in many ways this book is aimed toward the do it yourself gardener.

The first chapter, Choosing Change, covers all those ordinary reasons that lead one to undertake a re-do, and I will skip over them, but I like that the final paragraph in that chapter introduces the not so frequently seen goals (in garden design books) of gardening for sustainability, permaculture, and diverting storm water run-off to on-site uses, although these are not explored nearly a fully as they could be. I was/ am much taken with the picture here showing a hillside that hides a children’s play tunnel charmingly disguised as a hobbit house.

The second chapter, Understanding Landscape Essentials, gets down to business by mentioning the obvious (which surprisingly, isn’t so obvious to many people): unlike houses, unlike architecture, landscapes change, natural environments change, so the first step in any redesign is taking stock of those existing on-site elements that will affect a garden’s success — soil, light, drainage, wind, microclimates, animals (deer and other pesky wildlife, but also one’s own pets), water, drainage, slopes, retaining walls, steps (and safety thereof) electrical access, lighting, and maintenance. There is a tidy little section on what Schwartz calls design “themes” – i.e., those defining and unifying concepts a designer uses to integrate a garden’s parts, such as rectilinear, diagonal, curvilinear, and arch and tangent. Thorough, but not overwhelming. Lots of helpful pictures.

The third chapter, Working With Hardscape Elements, covers all those garden parts that do not change – sidewalks and paths, driveways, patios, decks, fences, walls, fire-pits, hot tubs, arches and pergolas – but must come together into a harmonious whole to create enjoyable outdoor spaces and ‘rooms’. One brief section dwells on illusions – always a nice touch.

The chapter Assessing and Choosing Plants starts with a brief discussion of natives vs. exotics, invasive species, and what she calls “plant thugs” (interesting word application, that). This is a bit of a slippery slope for garden designers these days and Schwartz begs the question a bit (the question being: what is native?) (in my own practice I aim for 60 percent natives, and of that 60%, most must be species or cultivars with flowers attractive and accessible to pollinating insects). Oh well. Trees, shrubs, and perennials are a garden’s living components, and the book does a nice job of offering ideas and possibilities without becoming encyclopedic.

The next to last chapter is the practical how to’s: how to start (with the soil, then pick the plants); how to add plants to existing beds; how to choose and work with perennials.

Finally we come to the concluding chapter, titled Success Stories. This is the chance for the author to show her stuff, and she does not disappoint. She shows us a series of front yards and backyards in their before and after personas, as they successfully mature over time. (I do not know that they are all her own designs but I assume most are). My favorite is a low slung ranch style house deck and backyard re-designed with a distinctly minimalist, contemporary feeling, with the once closed-in deck opened up and flowing down to a low maintenance yard of stones and gravels of varying textures and sizes laid out in blocks like a Japanese grandmother’s quilt. Nice. This stands in stark contrast to another redo in which the only pavement is the broad walkway leading to the front door – all the rest is planted with low shrubs, perennials, many types of textural grasses. Also very nice. Kudos to Bobbie Schwartz for a book many will find helpful and useful, rather than intimidating.

Meet Bobbie at Loganberry Books on Sunday, November 19!

Of Birds and Bugs and Trees

by Elsa Johnson and Tom Gibson

A few years back I was cruising on Facebook and ran across a posting that showed a humming bird gripped in a praying mantises’ claws. They looked about the same size and it wasn’t clear the mantis was going to win a meal. Reading further in that posting I discovered it turned out that the hummingbird got away – that time. But that image stuck in my mind, and so one day I sat down and wrote a poem about it.

Lady Mantis Prays Before Lunch

Dear Lord                       I am devout          about            devouring

Every day          I raise my arms         and pray                    claws

clenched tight                 please    send me      something bright

and beautiful       to bite                                        I am no different

than the stealing fox            or soaring kite                       Send me

red twig gossamer                                            a dainty damselfly

in flight                                   I’ve heard   she  is a mighty huntress

too                  though     I do not understand         her weapons

Dear Lord                                     how much      better       beautiful

tastes to bite                                     Just yesterday           as I clung

to a branch                     one bright     bejeweled     hummingbird

flew by and           snap !              oh!         the joy       of the green

struggle !                              I held him for a long      long      time

feeling the heat of his heart                                   We both prayed

Then very recently my co-editor Tom Gibson sent me a link to a story that tells how some praying mantises routinely prey on hummingbirds, complete with pictures of the gruesome feast. I include that link here. Perhaps it is time to think about where we hang our hummingbird feeders that is nearly impossible for mantises to climb or jump to. Not this year, of course … the hummers are gone. I hope they missed the hurricanes.

 NYT article about praying mantises and hummingbirds

I miss their background chitter – one day it is there, omnipresent in the air, and then it’s not, and that’s how I first know they’ve flown. But every year there is one humming bird that lingers on for about another week after the others have flown south, and that little bird and a neighbors’ locust tree inspired another poem about humming birds. It anthropomorphizes the tree (oddly—not the hummingbird) which of course is a ‘no-no’, except I think it’s legitimate to look a something and try to imagine it’s inner life. I’ve never been particularly compliant about ‘no-s’ — why start now?

Black Locust     Missing Hummingbird

For two days she sat                                 and watched a swarm of

honeybees       lay waste her feeder                         golden bodies

fuzzed over its sticky surface                                 avid for syrup 

while she perched                                           at the very top of me

chipping her feisty song of chitter                                         that all

summer long                   my leaf-ears      loved        to listen to  

this time in such protest!                                  (and a long journey

ahead of her                    the ways deep                       the weather

unpredictable                                                        her kin       already

flown)                      Why  so many ? !            In the morning when

my heartwood woke          its         slow          fall          awakening

she’d flown                                            perhaps hungry because of

bees            My leaves grieve                  All around me        the air

is vacant                                              Only the hard of me endures

Then in the August of  2016 my street got hit particularly hard by the min-tornado or micro-burst that went through, which was especially damaging to the black locust trees – of which, on my street there are many, very old, very tall, and very brittle. And the locust that every year succored the last hummer before she left had its head struck off, allowing me to ‘see’ that loss through the eyes and heart of the hummingbird. A little over the top — it is, after all, a projection of my own feelings. We cannot really know what the hummingbird feels.

Hummingbird Missing Black Locust

He lost his head            you see                          Soon after dark

when that    sudden     wind came through         like a smack

to the face                     He was there                  then he wasn’t

I did love him                      the way a bird       does        love

a tree                    sitting      way up       high      in his green

top-most branches                           chitting             about    how I

could see     everything     up there                                 my cousins

forever            fighting                                    over the stiff         red

nectar flowers                                 at that big blue nest    where

the two-legs live       across the street                                His head

cracked                            then fell                    crashing onto another

two-leg nest          shattering him            smashing that nest

awry                                    I think the two-legs miss him     too   

If he could grow another       head                           I wish he’d try