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

Nutrition News I

by Tom Gibson

It is common knowledge, both among scientists and educated consumers, that food is less nutritious than it used to be.  Here’s a chart that shows how great mineral loss was between 1950 and 1999:

Later studies confirm that the situation has only worsened. One familiar culprit is the need by our modern industrial food system to require “efficiencies:”synthetic fertilizers, plant breeds that withstand long distance shipping, feed-lot-fattened meat, etc.  Less familiar, is humanities’ fatal dietary flaw, its sweet tooth that can’t resist anything sugary.  As Jo Robinson relates in her great book, Eating on the Wild Side, even blueberries, those alleged carriers of anti-cancer, anti-everything-bad nutrition, have lost much of their natural potency through over-breeding to accommodate humanity’s too-sweet palates. The more sour the blueberries, the better they are for you.  (Robinson recommends the semi-wild “Rubel” variety. Sour, but good for you.

Two recent developments that shed new light on the nutrition issue, however, caught my eye.  First, the bad news:  Declining nutritive value may well also be a consequence of the general rise in CO₂ concentration in Earth’s atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide not only causes global warming, it also speeds photosynthesis and, with it, plant metabolism.  Multiple scientific studies now show that this process weakens uptake of vital mineral nutrients like zinc.  The most convincing evidence of causality is that even non-crops like goldenrod, samples of which have been collected and preserved since the 19th Century, have also lost nutritional content.  The only variable, apparently, affecting goldenrod has been rising CO₂ concentration. 

                           Please Don’t Eat the Goldenrod

This is especially depressing news since it identifies a variable that impossible for individuals to correct on their own. Even if you work to balance micro-nutrients in your own garden, global conditions will always be tugging in the opposite direction.

 (For a well-reported article accessible to lay readers, see http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/soil-health-agriculture-trend-usda-000513)

But don’t give up hope. The second item I noticed (the good news) gives us at least some chance to take better nutrition, quite literally, into our own hands.  It’s a prospective I-Phone app—a Bionutrient Meter– that will allow you to perform an instant spectroscopic analysis on fruits and vegetables in grocery bins.  Does that spinach at Whole Foods contain the iron you want it to?  Or does the farmer’s market offering outperform it? Just point and click. And the larger question: Will a small army of consumers demanding better nutrition put enough pressure on suppliers to change their standards?

An organization I greatly respect, the Bionutrient Farmers Association**, will unveil a prototype Bionutrient Meter this fall.  In this podcast, Dan Kittredge, gives more detail. ((https://soundcloud.com/wpkn895/digging-in-the-dirt-37-dan-kittredgeexecutive-dir-bionutrient-food-assoc/ )  His hope is that an affordable handheld device will be available to consumers a year-and-a-half from now.

*I’m ignoring here the far worse role played by manufacturers of highly processed food scientifically formulated to create junk food addictions among naïve populations.  For a truly depressing, but well-reported article that includes a quote from Cleveland’s (and Switzerland’s) own Nestle Corporation, see https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html?_r=0

** (bionutrient.org.  Note that “bionutrient” is not plural.  Adding an “s” will take you to the wrong website.)

Nutrient News (You Can Use) II

It may be news to you that many good elderberry recipes exist.  Although American use of these tiny, astringent black fruits is pretty much limited to elderberry jelly and elderberry wine, European cooks take them much more seriously.  This is a good thing, since elderberries are off the charts in their nutritional value—double, for example, the anti-oxidant power of even the most nutritious blueberry. (Sorry, Rubel blueberries! See above.)

                                                       Sambucus Nigra, a European variety, though                                                          we also use the North American Sambucus                                                              Canadensis*

The best sources for many of these recipes are online and often not in English. But don’t let that stop you! All you have to do is look up the foreign word for the fruit you contemplate cooking, enter that and the foreign word for recipe, and you’ll get an extraordinary variety of good ideas. Just right-click on any given recipe, and it will appear in English. It’s really that simple, with only a mental barrier to stop you.

In the case of elderberry, several years ago I looked up its German translation, “Holunder” and the German word for recipe, “Rezept.” The resulting search led to a fruit compote that has become a family favorite.  The genius of this particular dish is that it takes the “bass note” astringency of elderberries and lemon peel and matches them with the treble notes of sweeter pears and plums.    The result is an unusual symphony of fruit flavor that we like on ice cream and on cereal.

Here’s a free adaptation of the recipe:

8 firm pears

1 liter water

1 lemon, juice and zest

1.5 Kg of Italian prune plums, de-stoned

1 Kg of elderberries

400 g sugar  (yes, the best flavor requires some additional refined sugar sweetness!)

Core the pears and chop into bite-sized chunks, add water and lemon zest, then cook until almost tender.  Add the plum halves, elderberries, sugar, and lemon juice and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes.   We pour into jelly jars and freeze.

*The elderberry bush is an especially useful permaculture shrub since it allows easy “function stacking”—the permaculture term for getting multiple benefits out of the same piece of land.  In our case, we grow tasty king stropharia mushrooms in wood chips in the shaded soil beneath the elderberry bushes, which, in turn, benefit from the decomposed-wood-chip soil.  We also grow groundnuts, a frequently-found-in-nature companion plant to elderberries. The groundnuts vines curl up the elderberry bush branches, even as its roots fix nitrogen and feed the plants around them.  Three foods in one patch of ground, ever better soil, more nitrogen, plus a privacy hedge between us and our neighbors.  Now that’s function stacking! (Though it’s taken more time than I thought it would.)

The Peripatetic Gardener Visits the Jersey Shore

by Lois Rose

Jersey Shore?  You gotta be kiddin me.

I am going to refute that impression I hope with a description of a recent trip over Labor Day to Long Beach Island, about two hours south of New York City.  Naturally there was traffic—gimme a break, it was Labor Day weekend. Surprisingly, cars never stopped moving and we arrived in the afternoon at our rental house at the very end of the road on the sand bar island. 

(picture of the lighthouse, then the balcony with chairs overlooking the state park)We were at the edge of the 32 acre Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. Barnegat is from a Dutch word for breakers of which there were apparently many when the light house was constructed to prevent grounding of ships in the area. The light has been restored after many years in darkness, and the original fabulous prisimed light is on display down the block at the museum.

 

Houses here are raised with many sets of stairs on the outside of buildings between wrap around porches on two floors or more—even on the roof for a great view.

 Older houses do not have the storm surge protection which is now probably required, or at least desired. In our place, bedrooms were on the first floor and kitchen, dining area and living area were on the second.

We were very close to the excellent tram line which ran from several nearby streets to the beach through interesting trees and shrubs and sand happy perennials.

 

 We could walk fifty feet and jump aboard and be near the crashing—or somewhat modulated breakers—in ten minutes. Some of the family saw dolphins. Sand castles, shore birds, not crowded.

Poison ivy unfortunately flourishes along the tram line.

 

  There are areas with a wooden board walk but mostly if we didn’t use the tram we walked on shifting sand.  A well-illustrated trail guide near the lighthouse (217 steps up a yellow spiral stair case with not enough room for two large people to pass each other in either direction) was instructive about the usual suspects. 

There was a lot of pitch pine, 

and Russian or Autumn Olive, a seriously invasive plant which curiously is featured in many yards on the island.  I saw few well-tended or diverse plants in the area where we stayed.  I did see a strange juxtaposition of pokeweed and the often planted and flourishing Crape (or Crepe Myrtle) trees. 

 The island forest is dominated by Black Cherry, Sassafras, Eastern Red Cedar, Cedar, and American Holly. 

I found a few beach plums to munch on—as soon as I started eating them a ton of nearby tourists jumped in and finished off the crop. 

I had better luck with the Russian Olive.  I found it on a walk with my granddaughter—stopped and picked enough to make a small recipe. I packed it into a carry on but TSA decided it was suspect and examined it for explosives.  I got it home eventually.

People were very friendly, especially a woman I ran into while walking the baby—again. She was walking with a huge bouquet of fresh cut flowers, and I stopped and started a conversation. I started naming the flowers—some in Latin—and she said, you must be a Master Gardener. Who else would name flowers in Latin, right?  Turned out she was an MG too. She invited us to visit her back yard, meet her husband (reading in their hot tub) and see her fig trees. 

So, I would say that the trip was very pleasant and also informative with some surprises. The Jersey Shore is newly appreciated in our view.

The Peripatetic Gardener Visits Hocking Hills

Hello dear Gardenopolis readers –

Our prolonged, unplanned vacation is over. Our Gardenopolis party (3rd one, celebrating two years of Gardenopolis Cleveland) was a success, with 50 people attending, enjoying good food in beautiful surroundings, and the rain politely held off until closing hour.  And now – drumroll here, please – co-editor Catherine is now the delighted new grandparent of a lovely little girl, Mira; co-editor Tom’s visiting grandchildren have returned to Chicago; and co-editor Anne has settled into a new living arrangement. Time for all of us to get back to work. I had hoped to have my interview with Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Jim Bissell done by now, but I’m still working on transcribing it, so, not this time; instead I will share my mini-vacation visit to Ohio’s spectacular Hocking Hills.

I can’t believe I waited so long to visit this place (actually a series of places). I remember once as a teen going to a state forest down there to attend a forestry conservation camp. Alas, I was 15 and more impressed with the boys than with the scenery. LOL, as we say today. Then when I was studying landscape architecture at OSU, and the Hocking Hills were close, I was too busy. So the Hocking Hills have been on my bucket list for kind of a long time.

An explanation of the topography; It is all hills and valleys, ups and downs, with no seeming rhythm or natural order and no straight line roads. If you’re not used to the windy roads you might not want to drive after dark with the rising and falling multiple ssss curves, especially with some hot rod local in a semi’s-cab riding your car’s back end. Just off Rt.466 is the winner of the most-lethal-looking-driveway-entrance-to-a-school award, ever. Period. Why? Why? Why put an entrance to a school there?

Anyway, among those roads and tucked into those gnarly hills are wondrous places, cliffs and caves, and waterfalls, and grottos.  Some of these spaces fight the camera — the cliffs, for example, and the caves. Without a human or human structure in the picture to give a sense of scale, they are just jumbles of rocks and trees, lacking depth perception.

     

We started, as I suspect most people do, with Old Man’s Cave, which, along with Cedar Falls, and the Ash Cave are probably the most popular and most visited of the natural attractions in the Hocking Hills (there are unnatural attractions, but we won’t go into them here). All this chaotic multitude of big and little hills drain water into twisty-rocky-cliffy little streams that drain into twisty-rocky-cliffy bigger streams, and eventually become twisty rivers — which drain, finally, into the twisty Ohio River). One of these little streams carved Old Man’s Cave, which is a huge recess cave, created by the wearing away of a softer layer of rock from between harder layers of rock – here sandstone. There is an upper falls, a trail downstream to lower falls into Old Man’s Cave, and then the trail follows the stream that meanders between the walls of a gorge for roughly a mile. You eventually get to Cedar Falls, misnamed. The first colonists mistook the trees, which are hemlocks, for Cedars. Then from Cedar Falls you can pick up another trail to the Ash Cave, the area’s largest recess cave, or across a fun small suspension bridge to Whispering Cave, almost as large, I’m told, as Ash Cave.

What was interesting, to me, was observing that the infrastructure of stairs and bridges and trails that encourages and supports intense public use of this place/space — most of it created by the CCC in the depression years of the early 30’s (and they did a spectacular job), though it is showing signs of wear and much use over some 80 plus years, has largely endured.

Old Structures

New Structures

One enjoys a mix of ‘artifacts’ – Mother Nature’s, on one hand, and man’s, on the other — and both are beautiful. The CCC artifacts sometimes incorporate the former and often feel organic, and stand in contrast to the more contemporary man made structures. On the negative side, this place shows the effects of so much love, of so much use. The paths, and beyond the paths, are worn, the soil is bare. There is little vegetation along the main pathways, other than the trees, and these often have their roots fully exposed. This is the inevitable erosion and compaction of the access path too much traveled, and that tempting short-cut too often taken. Everywhere there are the signs of our human insatiable curiosity (what’s up that ledge? What’s in that cave? Gotta see!). Interesting, too, to me, that not until four years ago was there a precipitation event that damaged this otherwise so durable man-made infrastructure.

We also went to a place called Rock House, a collapsed recess cave — impossible to photograph with one’s android phone) a little more off the beaten track. Much the same story of wear and tear there.

Contrast these with Conkle’s Hollow, within a similar gorge, but somewhat – considerably? — less visited, and considerably less worn down, located in a state nature preserve rather than a state park or state forest. Does this explain the difference? I can’t answer that question. We hiked both the loop rim trail (two miles, not counting the ups and downs) and the inside-the-gorge trail. The rim trail takes you close along the edge of 200 foot high cliffs, and even if you do not get vertigo and thus are brave enough to go right to the edges and look down, all you can see are the tops of the trees below. The footing is uneven, challenging. The east rim, which gets the western sun, seems drier. There is mountain laurel and briar edging the path among the hemlock trees. The west rim, which gets the eastern sun, seems wetter, shadier. It is more open and ferny. 

The gorge itself is a religious experience! The path in and out is flat concrete that is handicapped accessible, and — thanks be to God, the ODNR, and the well placed fence — people largely stay on it. It helps that there are frequent signs asking one to stay on the trail to help preserve the vegetative ecosystem — ferns, ferns, ferns and more ferns, densely carpeting the steep slopes under the tall straight trees, clinging to the rock walls, growing on large stones, with lots of stinging nettle (don’t touch!) and little bit of a native broadleaved carex for contrast.

The air is moist, cool. There is a natural hush here, similar to what one felt during the recent eclipse. Perfect.    

                                 

Canadian Anemone: A Frenemy Becomes My Enemy

by Tom Gibson

The story begins with well-intentioned advice from an expert horticulturist friend who suggested Canadian anemone for my backyard Food Forest.  “Yes, it’s a little invasive, but it’s such a great plant for wildlife!” (As I remember her comment.)

And her assessment has proven at least partially true.  Not only do the white blossoms attract diverse insect pollinators, but the roots provide an unusually hospitable home to worms, millipedes, and, no doubt, trillions of other creatures (food to the aforementioned invertebrates) visible only via a microscope.

  ( Canadian anemone looking innocent)

I observed some of this soil life cornucopia as I tried to pull out proliferating Canadian anemone, which wants to pop up everywhere it’s moist.  When it can, it tries to squeeze out any competitors with a thick, fine matt of roots that covers every millimeter of soil surface; with a Cape Cod scraper it comes off like a soil-infused, hairy human scalp.  The moist root mass and regular root die-off probably explains the thriving microbe-to-worm food chain.  So, while I was aggravated by the plant’s aggressive spread, I was delighted by the rich soil it left behind.  Talk about tilth!

( What’s left after weeding Canadian anemone: beautiful soil)

Remembering the permaculture mantra “The Problem is the Solution”, I resolved to keep some Canadian anemone and use it as a nutrient factory for a deeper-rooted plant—the goji berry bush. The roots don’t compete and the anemone root nutrients would trickle down. And, in fact, the combination planting caused an explosion of goji berry production.  When lecturing our various permaculture classes, I liked to pull out this home-developed solution to illustrate permaculture principles in action.

Goji Berries with Canadian Anemone

Alas, even permaculture principles have their limits.  I never found enough time to keep my Canadian anemone under control.  My Food Forest floor was overrun.  It was either get rid of Canadian anemone once and for all or sacrifice too much space to a non-edible, aggressive invader.  (I’ll have to find some other productive ground cover for my goji berries.)

That’s what I’m doing this August. Elimination, of course, requires multiple passes as the Canadian anemone rhizomes refuse to die off.  But, by September, I think they’ll be gone or, at most, require occasional plucking.

( Canadian anemone returning for a second try.  They’ll be gone soon!)

One silver lining:  the beautiful soil they’ve left appears ideal for planting shade-loving salad greens.  Witness my happy new komatsuma sprouts.

 

Stinging Nettle: A Potential Frenemy Becomes a Generous Friend.

I’ve had better luck with stinging nettle.  It could have become annoyingly aggressive, but has pretty much stayed along the south edge of my raspberry patch.  There it accumulates calcium and magnesium, among other minerals, which become more easily available to other neighboring plants.  Thus, its frequent inclusion in lists of superior companion plants.

But stinging nettle is good for us, too. According to Martin Crawford, author of Creating an Edible Forest Garden, stinging nettle contains approximately double the nutrients of even our most nutritious annuals like spinach.  It is also tasty when cooked. (That’s when it also, conveniently, loses its chemical sting.) 

(Stinging nettle and mushroom omelet)

In growing it, I’ve discovered one other benefit: cutting the fresh young tip—the sweetest and most edible– causes the plant to respond with three more of the same! Production triples and, with further cuttings, sometimes even more.

(a second flush of stinging nettle leaves)

Unlike my Canadian anemone experiment: a clear winner!

  

Weather

by Lois Rose
 
Watching the seasons unfold this year after the unusual spring weather has been exciting and puzzling. 
 
Going back four winters, I am reminded that 2013-14 and 2014-15 were very difficult in terms of extreme and sustained cold.  Many plants that had survived in my garden for decades were damaged severely by the first of these winters.  The second dealt a glancing blow but it did not do as much damage. 
As an example my fig trees which had been in the ground for twenty years and had produced five hundred figs in the summer of 2013, were knocked to the ground. They produced new branches but no figs in 2014.  Last year, 2016, I had a few dozen figs and this year my considerably larger trees are covered with baby figs, much earlier than usual, on their way to ripening in the fall.  Everything in the yard seems to have come in two to three weeks early.

My hardy orange trees, Poncirus trifoliata have a lot of fruit now…small so far, fuzzy green oranges, the first since 2013.  There were flowers last year but no fruit. Again, they flowered a few weeks earlier than usual.

Looking at my other fruit crops, black and red currants started ripening in mid June,weeks ahead. Raspberries were similarly ahead.

I have been doing some research online and asking friends from OSU to find some explanations for the patterns which reflect the weather conditions in this part of Ohio this spring. The mild winter, second in a row, is the foundation of the story..very warm temperatures in January and again in February started the ball rolling.  Plants that had completed their chill hours…needed to set them up for their normal spring routines…were thrust into advancing buds which formed last summer and fall early. Maple trees started to open their signature red flowers a month earlier than usual.  Soil temperatures rose early (get a soil thermometer if you want to be on top of this) and crab grass was ready to germinate in early to mid March (time for pre germination treatment)  earlier than usual. Growing degree days (http://www.oardc.ohio-state.edu/gdd/ moved ahead quickly by March. Then some cool and cold weather slowed things down. May have produced some very cold weather (not unusual) which damaged various plants, especially those that had started to open buds or were in flower. The damaging cold was defined by temperatures at or below freezing for many hours.  Michigan as well as Ohio received a cold spell on May 8 and 9.  But depending on the specific place, its altitude, proximity to water, etc.,the results were varied.

Depending on your garden niche, proximity to the cold lake, how far to the east or west and how high above the lake, snow  cover…all of these things contributed  to the damage or lack thereof to our plant material.
Friends have observed a good crop on their berries, and also on hibiscus, roses,  and many other flowers and shrubs and trees.
I am speculating that the two mild winters, generous amount of rain this spring compared with the three month drought last year…plus the recovery of many plants after two damaging winters..has resulted in this year’s bounty.

In my yard, I  see very little damage after the cold spells in March and May which included freezing  and snow after many plants had been exposed to the warm air and warm ground earlier than usual.  Magnolia stellata had buds covered in frost. Daylilies were bent to the ground as were hellebores
and many other perennials. Yet my magnolia blossomed well, and the hellebores were very floriferous.
On the whole it seems that the outcome has been favorable despite the gyrations and surprises of the spring. Cannot wait to see what is going to happen next year!