Monthly Archives: October 2015

On the Day of the Dead

by Elsa Johnson

My mother will unpack herself from her box of

ashes   move to a comfortable chair   look at me

critically   and say : You’re wearing that?  And maybe

this time I will have the will to not run and change

my clothes   My father will reassemble himself from

the soil under the lemon tree in Arizona   come

north for the day    sit at the table drooped scowling

over his cigarette like a crow or Ichibod Crane   

while my brother who brought him mutters  humph

humph at all he disapproves of on principle 

which is everything —  my house   my head   my heart

Toward the end my dead lover will come   line them up

and dance them all back to dust…   while I smile and wave 

Crying :  Goodbye!  Goodbye again…    Same time next year?


–How Much to Mulch?– by Lois Rose

by Lois Rose

I recently attended a talk by Linda Walker-Scott, an Associate Professor and Extension Horticulturist at Washington State University (see her blog theinformedgardener.comHer talk about mulch and sustainable landscape provides the backbone for my comments.

Organic mulches are by far my own choice. I use many kinds of mulches, including straw (left to sprout its seeds for a few months before using),

IMG_4790 pine fines,


compost from my husband’s heap,


bark chips, wood chips(aged, free from the city),


(By the way, let wood chips age before using them if you are concerned about disease. Add compost underneath the chips if you are concerned about nutrient deficiencies. Dr. Walker-Scott pointed out that well aged wood chips do not drain soil of nitrogen. Myth exploded.)

compost and manure,


and closely grouped living plant material.


Why Mulch? Beside providing nutrients to the soil, organic mulches are helpful to beneficial microbes, enhance biodiversity of “macrofauna”, help trees and shrubs get established, and improve soil structure, lessening compaction and allowing soil aggregates to form. (Tilling and digging can destroy the colonies of microbes, mycorrhizae, other important soil components.)

When to mulch:  before annual weeds become established—fall or spring.  Remove perennial weeds in early spring (easiest to pull or dig), then apply mulch. Better than pulling or digging is mowing or cutting to the ground.  Remove everything to a brown bag away from your garden

Deep mulch decreases weed germination by limiting the amount of light that reaches seeds.  Weed seeds can remain for years in the soil until—voila—exposure to light and moisture encourages them to get growing.  Coarse mulch can help retain and increase the amount of water getting to the soil beneath. Weeds and plants that grow through the mulch are easier to pull. Meanwhile the mulch is preventing erosion. 

Thick layers of mulch, 8-12 inches, are excellent for restoration sites and control of invasive weeds like ivy.  She recommends heavy layers (4 to 6 inches) around ornamentals for a low-maintenance landscape. I was taught that no more than 4 inches of mulch should be applied to the soil around shrubs and trees. This is definitely a different take on depth of mulching.

Deeper mulch, and courser mulch, gives the most benefit and the fewest drawbacks.

Mulching No-No’s:  Keeping mulch away from trunks of trees and shrubs is necessary to prevent rodents, insects and diseases from being given a free ride. Never pile mulch on perennials, only around them. “Volcano” mulching, where the ignorant landscaper piles mulch up against the trunks of trees, making it look like a volcano, is definitely a no-no. The question is: when you see this on the street—do you stop your car, go over to them and say, “what the hell are you doing?”   Or, do you give them a sheet printed with the proper way to mulch. Or do you stop door to door to let your neighbors know that they are damaging their trees and shrubs by doing this?

I have been sorely tempted. Considering that you are investing in the hopefully long life of your tree, why treat the trunk this way? 

Notching the Wheel

by Elsa Johnson

There goes another notch on the wheel  :  goldfinch

changing his summer garb to drab sparrow guise –

the way the missus goes all year    only a hint

of yellow leaking through as he barbers sunflowers

And now comes actea round again   she of many

names —  cohosh   bugbane   cimicifuga  :  Fairy

candles    that open their small white asterisks

and cast out their honey-scent to draw in late

bumbling bees    The trees are breaking their too-

green-too-chemical bonds    Origami is at

her drawing board in the attic lost in dreams of

color:  crimson   vermillion   and coral lake   In

the wings   dragon quietly fans his icy breath

listening for the next notch of the wheel

Garden Sloth: Fall Clean-Up…Or Not

by Elsa Johnson

IMG_2556 Most of us were brought up to think good gardening means a yard that is all cleaned up and neat-as-a-pin. To this end we blow all the leaves out of our gardens and remove every bit of organic debris – the leaves, the floppy stalks, the gone-to-seed-heads of various grasses and flowers.  We take all of this organic material and get rid of it, or hire someone to get rid of it. As if the aural assault of leaf blowers all summer has not been enough, in fall it ratchets up even more. How do we stand it?

The answer is : we don’t have to. We should be keeping all that good but messy stuff on site. To pay someone to cart it away is like giving away gold (on several levels).  What??? ! …You say.

Yes — a messy garden is a good garden for lots of reasons.  You don’t see mother-nature out there with a leaf blower (well, yes, there’s the wind). The leaves fall, the other vegetative debris topples onto them, and over time this material decays, adding stored nutrients and organic bio-mass back to the earth. This is how you grow soil that doesn’t need annual applications of manufactured chemical ferilizers to help plants to grow.

Part one is: it helps to have an area where you can stockpile vegetative debris, preferably somewhere out of sight.  Ideally this is a compost pile where you put your other vegetative organic wastes.  Part two is you can bed down some of your plants for the winter under a blanket of leaves.  If you can shred the leaves, that’s even better; they will break down faster. Some lawn mowers can do this. Leaf mulch under shrubs can be left on all year-round.

And if you leave some seed heads on at least some intact perennials, the beneficial birds and insects will thank you (dropping a tiny note through the mail slot) … the birds for leaving a food source, and the beneficial insects for leaving a place to lay eggs and overwinter. But be careful to choose native plants for this purpose and avoid non-native or invasive plants.

If you must tidy up the garden, make it a part of the garden where neatness really matters to you (what will people say?!).  Be strong. Walk away.

A Gardener Reviews “The Martian”

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 8.33.53 AM

by Catherine Feldman

“The Martian,” in theaters now,  revels throughout in the abilities of the New Man: the kind of person who uses numbers and computers to manage daily tasks as well as to innovate. Almost all of the diverse roster of characters are supremely capable in this way and they are fun to watch in action. But only our hero, Mark Watney (Matt Damon,) stranded alone on Mars, has the full range of skills necessary for survival.

Like Adam, Mark is the  First Man on a planet, yet he has thousands of years of human development and knowledge at his fingertips.  In addition to his technological abilities, he is a botanist with the inspiration and ability to increase his food supply by growing a garden. He confidently takes the risk of  planting his ration of  potatoes! He knows that he needs water and fertile soil, so he uses his background in mechanics and chemistry to create a water-making machine and in ecology to inoculate the soil of Mars with bacteria from recycled human waste. He also has character traits that enable him to survive the loneliness: he is humorous, brave and persevering. Using these strengths to meet these challenges, Mark becomes the Future Man, a hero who grows a version of Eden out of next to nothing. This delights us.

Mark faces and overcomes challenges on Mars that may have some similarity to the consequences of  climate change on Earth: devastating storms, barren soil, extreme temperatures, lack of water. What appear to us heroic abilities now may become the basic survival skills of the future.  A big scary challenge!

Fortunately, we would not be alone. There is another component to Mark’s survival that is at the core of this movie: community and friendship. The world and his teammates come together to bring him back to Earth. Will we be able to  work together with bravery, ingenuity, and skills to survive the coming changes? And  even to grow a new Eden here at home?

Ohio Trees for Bees by Denise Ellsworth

by Denise Ellsworth

Many people are concerned about the health and survival of bees, including honey bees, native bumble bees and the hundreds of lesser-known native and wild bees that call Ohio home. Bees are threatened by an assortment of factors such as pests, pathogens, pesticides, climate change and a lack of nesting habitat and forage plants.

Bees and flowering plants have a critical relationship. Flowering plants provide nectar and pollen for a bee’s diet. Pollen is an essential source of protein for developing bee larvae, and nectar provides a carbohydrate source. Honey bees convert nectar into honey by adding an enzyme which breaks down the complex sugars into simple sugars. Bees, in turn, transport pollen from flower to flower as they forage, allowing for plant fertilization and the production of seeds and fruit.

While trees provide many well-known ecological benefits, the importance of trees as a source of food for bees is sometimes overlooked. Ohio trees can provide food for bees from early spring through late summer, with most tree species in Ohio blooming in spring and early summer. This factsheet describes some of the Ohio trees that provide food for bees. Trees included in this list have been described as important by multiple researchers and bee experts.

Other trees not listed here can also provide food for bees. For example, Ohio horticultural experts have noted significant bee foraging activity on trees such as Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides), goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) and Japanese pagoda tree (Sophora japonica) in landscape settings.

Consider selecting from this list of trees when choosing species to plant in urban, landscape and rural settings: Maple. Buckeye, Alder, Serviceberry, Catalpa, CommonHackberry, Red Bud, Yellow Wood, Cornelian Cherry, Hazelnut, Hawthorne

Xerces example:

What’s the Difference between Pollinator and Pest?: Getting to Know your Neighbors

 by Diana Sette

In the City, many people can be put off by ‘bugs.’  Maybe it is because people think the bug may bite or sting you.  Or maybe they are just annoying and buzz.  Often people are simply flat out scared by something flying around them – even a beautiful butterfly.   While city culture may bristle at the thought of bugs, we must work to cultivate a vision that embraces bugs and can tell the difference between a pest and a pollinator, because our survival may depend on it.

How can that be so?  Well, three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce.  Flowering plants equates to most of the fruit, vegetable, and seed crops we eat – and other plants that provide fiber, medicine and fuel we use; these plants are pollinated by animals.* 

What kind of animals you may ask?  Pollinators are not just bugs like bees (though this is an essential one!) and beetles, they also include bats, butterflies and birds.  These pollinators are by no means ‘pests,’  when we support them we can actually support the reduction or effect of pests in our garden and life (ie. Bats eat mosquitoes, parasitic wasps make their cocoons on the backs of tomato hornworms!).  For the sake of this post, we’re going to focus on just a few pollinators you may find in your garden- especially if you have some plants that provide them food and habitat.**

IMG_20571st photo: Goldenrod Soldier Beetle or Pennsylvania Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) with two bees I’m not able to identify.

2nd photo: Locust Borer (Megacyllene robiniae) on tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)
IMG_20613rd photo:Short-Horned Grasshopper (orthoptera caelifera)
IMG_20644th & 5th photos: Eastern Carpenter Bees – Xylocopa virginica
image16th photo: Locust Borer (Megacyllene robiniae), two bees, and one Eastern yellow jacket Vespula maculifrons or- wasp (most likely yellow jacket- but hard to tell)

Thank you for getting to know your neighbor pollinators!  Together we can support our long-term livelihood by supporting theirs!

*More information on pollinators at

** Tips on how you can help support pollinators


by Elsa Johnson

In spring you can

eat her :           green honey

and white             dripping

from fingers    toes    even

skin       is        How sweet.

But now Gleditsia’s shedding

Her honeyed skins

drift                her hoards

of gold                        wash

through our streets.

Here comes             dragon


scales a-chink              fire

in his eyes                    ice

on his breath:

Mine          he says         all

mine.            In a few weeks

selfish as death               he

will burn these trees


A Reader’s Post : garden learning – summer 2015

by Daniel Homans

Like so many, once the summer growing season is over I am happy with a single real and lasting takeaway from my annual gardening experience.

This year rather than a strictly botanical lesson, my garden learning was more social in nature. And how very simple. How could I have missed this one? All you need is a bumper crop of your best garden grown tomatoes, a friendly dog and you can become your neighborhood’s new garden rockstar.

The events leading to my learning this year began with a simple walk with my dog Olive. As we set out and passed my tomato garden I plucked a ripe Italian Red Pear and dropped it in my pocket. With no particular plan for my tomato as I reached the outside bounds of my customary walk I encountered one of my “hows-it-going” vaguely familiar neighbors. To my own surprise I pulled my Red Pear from my pocket and extended it declaring “you look like you could use a quality tomato”.

The conversation that followed was pleasant and lighthearted centering on home gardens, juicy tomatoes and Olive. Having experienced this impromptu social success I found my self repeating this routine during my morning and late day dog walks, saluting neighbors familiar, and not so familiar. Over two full months no one refused a tomato and my late summer walks became remarkably upbeat and much longer than in June.

Looking back now with Halloween in sight, I can say with certainty, I have more neighborhood friends than I did this time last year. So take notice, the lesson is simple: tomatoes can be a powerful social wampum.

Italian Red Pear

Song to Fall

by Elsa Johnson

Witness   the leaving –

the green

leaves the green leaf    


the edges

where filigree begins

Witness    the spread

of potlatch color on

leaves’ palms     

veins     blazing

the green



the green receding.

Eclipse the crime : 


too green 

too chemical