Monthly Archives: February 2016

A Book Review by Elsa Johnson: Richard Mabey’s “A Cabaret of Plants”

by Elsa Johnson

British Naturalist Richard Mabey’s book, A Cabaret of Plants, is not a book to which one can do justice in a mere few hundred words, nor can one truly do justice to the reading of it while drifting in and out of a haze of pain meds (recent hip replacement), hence, this essay – which is not so much a meditation as a meandering.

Here in Cleveland, Ohio, in the heart of the Eastern Broadleaf Forest, we have tended to take the abundance and diversity of our hardwood vegetation for granted – until we are reminded by loss or impending loss that, though seeming more durable than people, trees are vulnerable, too. Thinking that they are enduring, we are dismayed when they are stricken by disease. But we soon forget them.  We do not even remember our native chestnut trees (chestnut blight); the American elm —  anyone? (Dutch elm disease). Our memory of these once iconic trees grows limited — and it is a fact that we must remember, in order to value what we have lost.  More recently: ash (ash borer); oak (oak wilt); white pine (blister rust); hemlock (wooly adelgid ).  Who knows what is coming next to a tree near you. So, perhaps, it is time to consider the larger picture of what trees mean to us – so much more than just an (important) ability to sequester carbon.

Mabey is excellent at this sort of thing, so I picked out a chapter — From Workhorse to Green Man: The Oak — and drifted in.

There are, Mabey tells us, 400 to 600 species of oak spread across the northern hemisphere – a plant family that is quirky, opportunistic, mutable – and useful.  From the Neolithic era on, the oak has been a crucial raw material, often used for surfacing some of mankind’s earliest walkways, like the Sweet Track, that crossed the Somerset marshes in England. That wood, well preserved, has been dated back to 3806 BCE, when it was cut.  In France, an oak tree in Allouville-Bellefosse, 1,000 years old, contains, within its hollow trunk, two chapels, built in 1669. They are still used for Mass twice a year. We  learn that the roof of Westminster Hall – containing 600 tons of wood spanning seventy-five feet without a central support – is essentially a ‘super-tree’  through an arrangement of trunk and branching that ’would not work unless it copied the structure of its motherlode’.  And we learn that Ely Cathedral, built at the end of the 12th century, and called the Ship of the Fens, has an interior that resembles a ‘carved simulacrum of a an oak forest’ … and that the carpenter there altered his design to use several trees that were not quite long enough to reach all the way up to the roof’s spectacular octagonal lantern (well worth googling to see). In England, as in nowhere else, it seems, the oak became emblematic of nationhood and character.

Mabey also tells us it is not by coincidence that that oaks and humans share habitat preference and are coterminous – oaks having been an important food source. Eventually, Mabey gets around to the Green Man — those foliate heads that are emblematic generative figures of mythic — possibly demonic — creativity, and which, oddly,  often reside in churches but fit no formulaic interpretation. Mabey calls them ‘an irresistible eye-worm for stone carvers.’ In the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, many of the carven images of Mary were smashed or decapitated during the Reformation (the ISIS of its day) – but the Green Men and the symbolically sinful foliage were puzzlingly intact.

Perhaps,  Mabey suggests ‘ the exuberant carving  seems a celebration of the unbroken connectivity of the living world’.  So I leave you with that, and a poem , which also celebrates the organic vitality of the Green Man.


Green Knight

by Elsa Johnson

Look   …here are the marks of hooves and a spot

of blood on the packed snow   He’s come   It is

that coldest time before the tide of spring

sweeps in :  time of the green night   that swells

the buds of the redbud tree   the shadblow

and the maple    In the backyard late last

fall I cut spent heads off hydrangeas — 

they stood all winter in this amputated state   

Yesterday I saw in passing   below the

truncated stems   swollen buds :  that green

devil pushing that thick fluid through the tube


Morning    pale moon gone from the platinum

sky —  the birds erupt in pagan chorus


There is no no that force knows    

Down to Earth with Permaculture: Cleveland Heights’ Oxford Community Garden

by Tom Gibson

Okay, permaculture is an interesting gardening technique, but what else besides a New Age-y philosophy does it have to offer?   Can permaculture really “save the world” or, as Toby Hemenway likes to say, does it smell too much of patchouli oil?

Elsa Johnson and I have been working on a very down-to-earth project that, proves, at the very least, that people who disagree about permaculture  can still find common purpose. 

It’s the Oxford Community Garden.  Since last spring Elsa and I have worked with the gardeners to plan a 6,000 sq. ft. tasting and pollinator garden around the community garden’s periphery.

Oxford planning

Click on the following link to see the plan for the first 4,000 sq.ft.:


Pretty neat, huh?

We got there first by building soil with a typical permaculture lasagna mulch [compost, cardboard (to kill grass and weeds), top soil and wood mulch]. 


In all, about 40 people–both inside and outside the neighborhood– helped. I actually have grown to love these communal work sessions.  Some of my regular volunteers do, too.  They say,” Call me when you’ve got some mindless grunt work.”  What they’re really saying is when you do lots of shoveling and raking as a group, such work becomes deeply (if surprisingly) satisfying. 


The next part was fun, too. A half dozen OCG members took a four session permaculture course where they learned the basics and each came up with garden designs that for first-timers were pretty good!  Elsa then refined their collective ideas up to a professional level–as displayed above.  The plan is to establish an addition to the garden that welcomes the neighborhood via a combination of aesthetic landscape, edible perennials, and conviviality-promoting gathering spaces.  As Phyllis Thomas, the site leader says, “The new garden addition is something we’ve dreamed about!.”

We accomplished early stage development with seed funding from the Heights Community Congress and the First Unitarian Church, but we’ll need significantly more outside funding to complete the project.

So why would any outside funder be interested? We think the argument is pretty compelling:

1. Shoulder-to-shoulder work of the kind Oxford gardeners and friends engage in is one of the best ways to promote stable diversity.  The garden is already a mini-U.N. with half of its membership African-American and the rest a nationality and racial hodge-podge–Eastern European, Indian, Nepalese, Filipino.  If there is anything we have learned in the last 50 years about integration is that it only succeeds when pursued actively. Passive integration, even where diverse people of good will choose to live next to one another, inevitably produces “leakage” and resegregation.

2. Permaculture’s most famous saying–“The Problem Is The Solution”–applies to the Noble/Oxford neighborhood in spades.  The problem is that despite great structural housing stock the threat of racial resegregation has reduced home prices to disastrous lows–e.g., a $6,000 sales price for a single family, single lot dwelling in decent structural shape! Could this “problem” provide an especially inviting “solution” for prospective eco-pioneers? It wouldn’t cost that much to add solar, on-site water capture, and a mini-food forest as demonstrated in places like Alberta.  We’re already seeing early signs that such a transformation could happen. Tremont, the last Cleveland-area neighborhood to undergo bottom-up renewal, has gotten way too expensive.

3. The garden plan links directly–via a “Children’s Garden”– to the adjacent Oxford Elementary School, a lively, hopeful  school that is burdened by an “F” rating. The prospect of such a planting space next door has already inspired a worm-raising/microgreen/outdoor planting program just getting started with Oxford Elementary’s first grade classes.

kids and wormsOther schools around the country  have reinvented themselves through inspired eco programs.  Why not Oxford?

So, smell any patchouli oil?  I don’t, either.  Maybe we can save at least one small piece of the world!

“Tale of Two Cities” by Mark Gilson

by Mark Gilson

There are two Clevelands, two Akrons, two Northeastern Ohios.  There is the proud bustling workhorse of the past and present, turning out engines and steel, pistons and paint, tires and complex chemistries for a hungry nation.  There is also the quiet Cleveland, the soil and rivers and forests of our youth, the farms, nurseries and parks that stretch from Summit and Portage to the Lake, a vast watershed of memories, legacies and possibilities.  Our vision, our challenge, is to bring together these mighty opposites in a dynamic, responsible and sustainable partnership yielding a region where we can live and play in a vibrant emerald ecosystem, profit from our conscientious industry and ethic, and grow old with the knowledge that we work and yearn within a vital nexus of grand ideas and restless energies.

Oak Wilt in Northeast Ohio

by Elsa Johnson

Ok, dear readers, I’m sorry – but this article is about a downer. Oak wilt is a devastating fungal disease affecting oak trees and it is here in Northeast Ohio. Once trees are infected by the fungus there really is nothing one can do to save the tree.  The tree must be cut down and disposed of properly so that it does not infect other trees.

The first symptom is leaf margin browning. Also, fungal mats may form under the tree bark and may crack and lift the bark. Trees that show symptoms during the summer are usually dead by the following spring.


Oaks in the Red Oak family (red oak, scarlet oak, black oak, pin oak) (all with pointed lobes) are more susceptible. Oaks in the White Oak family (white oak, swamp white oak, burr oak) (with rounded lobes) are less susceptible – but once they are infected they also die, just more slowly.


This fungal disease is transmitted in two ways. # 1 — Insects, primarily beetles, are attracted to damaged or cut wood and carry the disease from tree to tree.  # 2 — The fungus can also be spread via roots. Oak trees growing in proximity to the infected tree can become infected through their interconnected root systems. In situations such as one finds here in our older residential neighborhoods with many large old oak trees, the disease can spread in an ever expanding circle.

Control is challenging and preemptive. When a tree has died due to oak wilt, that infected tree must be removed. The wood can be used for firewood but should be debarked.  Or if not debarked it should be stacked and covered and sealed during the warm months (April to October).

Preemptive treatment of healthy oaks is possible through application of a fungicide. However, once a tree shows symptoms, it is too late to do this.

Other things you can do?  Avoid compaction under trees.  Mulch under trees (preferably out to dripline) – but no ‘volcano’ mulching please (that means no mulch piled up around the base of the tree – that is precisely where the tree does not need it).

Do not prune or have your oak trees pruned during the warm months, roughly April to October.

And — If you suspect you have a tree with oak wilt, have your tree (s) looked at by an ISA Certified Arborist. Help protect one our most vulnerable natural resources – our venerable old oak trees.   


The Biting Lilt   The Rush

by Elsa Johnson

The first transcendence is a reaching out   as chest

expands to create pull for the first breath     drawing

all that is other inwards            a bellows sparking

marriage  :   air —  fueling flesh     Our beginnings —

like this    depend on words and on the worlds of

others  :   immanence and exhalation similar for tree

and fig and the black-cap chickadee  and us     We

know that the tree breaths silent and unseen and

the nipple of the fig begins at the throat swell

where the bee pillaged pollen and the sweetness

entered and was stored    Desire  :  as in the bright eyes

of the black-cap chickadees whose small breasts 

lifting    take inward clean bare breaths and

Sudden!   Songs of the world fling outward   

The LEAP Native Plants of the Year

Submitted by Cathi Lehn on behalf of the LEAP Native Plant Promotion Committee

The Lake Erie Allegheny Partnership for Biodiversity (LEAP; is a consortium of forty-five (45) conservation-related organizations located in the Glaciated Allegheny Plateau ecoregion.  This ecoregion is defined by a common glacial history and climate and includes northeastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and western New York.  LEAP member organizations are dedicated to the identification, protection and restoration of biodiversity in the region and to the increased public awareness of biodiversity.  Current LEAP members represent park districts, conservation organizations, universities, and governmental agencies in Northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania.  

The LEAP Native Plant Promotion Committee (NPPC) was formed in 2008 in response to the threat of invasive plants to our natural areas.  The mission of the NPPC is to educate the public about the many benefits of native plants in the LEAP region and to join the nursery and landscaping trade in promoting the purchasing, selling, propagating and planting of our area’s native plant species.  In 2011 the Committee initiated a Native Plants of the Year campaign providing the gardener with three choices each year through 2022 of recommended native plants which are easily found in local nurseries. 

Using native plants in public and private landscapes and gardens can help reduce the threat of invasive non-native species to the region’s biodiversity.  The LEAP Native Plants of the Year campaign highlights native species that can make exceptional additional to area landscapes and gardens.  Native plants in the garden offer the following benefits:

  • Attract native wildlife
  • Reduce soil erosion
  • Require less fertilizer and watering
  • Promote native regional biodiversity
  • Thrive under natural conditions
  • Connect people to nature

LEAP Native Plants of the Year 2016

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Spicebush is a deer-resistant shrub with early-season nectar for butterflies and bright red berries for migratory birds.  The common name refers to the sweet, spicy fragrance of the stems, leaves and fruits when bruised.

Spicebush berries_Judy Semroc   

Spicebush_Judy SemrocPhotos courtesy of Judy Semroc

Swamp Candles or Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia terrestris)

This showy perennial blooms vivid yellow in mid-summer adding color to rain gardens and wet areas.  Its sturdy stems make it an excellent cutting flower.  Native pollinators, like this syrphid flower fly, are attracted to the flower’s nectar.


syrphid flower fly_Cheryl Harner   

Photos courtesy of Bill Hendricks (top) and Cheryl Harner (below)

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

A colorful native prairie grass with striking blue-green foliage and pink overtones.  In the fall, its foliage takes on a coppery hue. It works well in areas prone to deer damage. 


Little Bluestem_Roger Gettig   

Photos courtesy of Bill Hendricks (top) and Roger Gettig (below)

To find more information about the LEAP Native Plants of the Year (2011-2015) please visit:

Also found on this page is a Native Plant Nurseries map created by Cleveland Metroparks that provides information on nurseries that sell native plants to our region. 

Brief Biography

Cathi is the Sustainable Cleveland Coordinator for the City of Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability which is a member of LEAP.  Cathi serves as the Chair of the LEAP Native Plant Promotion Committee and the LEAP Wildlife Conflict Committee.  She has recently revived the Sustainable Heights Network and serves on the Composting Committee.  Her true passion is in addressing the threat of plastic pollution to our waterways and hosts the Great Lake Erie Boat Float each year at Edgewater Park.