Monthly Archives: May 2016

Gumdrops and Bowling Balls

by Elsa Johnson

As I drive about, during this busy time of the year, observing the annual riotous explosion of nature and the never-ending human need to keep nature in check (all those tightly trimmed gumdrops and bowling ball shrubs — all those landscapes of polka-dot plants adrift in a sea of mulch)

gumdrop shrubs

I wonder: how did our sense of what a landscape or garden should look like come about?

How much do the examples of traditional great landscapes and gardens influence us?    such as the naturalistic English landscape; the elaborate, contrived, formal estate gardens of the Renaissance and early enlightenment Europe; the elaborate, formal pleasure gardens of the Middle East and Asia; the naturalist seeming Japanese Gardens, that are actually deeply artificial –  these all remnants of the gardens of the economic and political elite through time .  The gardens of more ordinary people endure less well, alas  – but, still, we do have a picture in our heads when we say cottage garden, herb garden, kitchen garden, commons (that small parcel of shared land around which a village grew).

What do these diverse examples of landscape and garden have in common? I believe that what informs them is a human need to order toward simplification what we see as disordered nature. 

There are exceptions: we know (today) that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon River basin traditionally lived in what we now acknowledge as a food forest, which was and is – where it still exists – a place where these peoples live in accord with the seasonal productivity of the forest. The food forest is an example of a complex system (rather than a simple one), shaped (somewhat) by the people who lived/live within it. To western sensibilities the food forest as garden was and remains largely invisible because the organizational principles underlying it are not simple and thus not readily visible. 

More often we see that he human need to impose order – to hold a thing quiet in time — is directly opposed to nature’s inherent mutability. We create outdoor spaces and then work hard and spend a lot of money (and endure a lot of noise) to keep them from changing one iota over time, in a climate (northeast Ohio) where garden or lawn, left untended for even one year, quickly begins the process of returning to forest. Nature is about fecundity.

nature straight

Nature unchecked.

Gardening is about controlling fecundity, holding it in check.  We want the garden to behave like architecture – a thing that once built and decorated, does not change. Hence the gumdrops, bowling balls, and polka-dot plants adrift in a sea of mulch. But, there are other options, ranging from naturalized to a careful balance of order and nature.

See naturalized gardens below:



See a balance of natural and man-made below:

combined natural and unnatural



Underlying the need to hold time quiet is the fact that simple landscapes are easier to maintain for the non-gardener, and I include as non-gardeners most of the landscape crews to whom we outsource the maintenance of our gardens, who, largely untrained, can only repeat what they see and are given or told to do. We do not hire gardeners: that word implies knowledge about the plant world. Instead we hire maintenance crews – most of whom have no specialized knowledge beyond how to mow, trim and edge in a flurry of action and noise (none of it carbon neutral), and as quickly depart.   

Some friends of mine recently sold their large house in its richly complex landscape which had been developed over a decade of time. When the realtors came to take a look at the property before putting it on the market, they said no one would want that landscape, and urged that the landscape be simplified (meaning, rip a bunch of stuff out and replace with mulch), the implication being that no one wants a visually and ecologically complex landscape.  No one, of course except the birds and the bees and the butterflies and all the other beneficial insects. 

There is naturalistic, and then there is something that is just too much like real nature. What do you think? We’d like to hear from you.            

Special GARDENOPOLISCleveland Alert!: The Devil’s Parakeets – coming soon, to treetops near you! (But not to dine)

by contributing editor, Ann McCulloh

The Locusts are coming! The Locusts are coming! Scary-looking, strange-sounding insects will soon be descending on Northeast Ohio in large numbers any day now. LATE-BREAKING NEWS – a few were spotted in Hudson on May 23 rd ! But unlike the Biblical plagues of locusts, and the hordes which devastated settlers’ crops on the Great Plains, this invasion is expected to have minimal impact on our gardens. Small fruit trees and newly planted trees and shrubs are somewhat vulnerable.

Wikipedia Devils ParakeetPublic Domain,

The short version: a brood of periodical cicadas is just about to emerge from their 17-year dormancy/pupation underground. These are large (1-2” long) shiny black insects with bright orange wing veins and big red eyes – spooky-looking! The adults crawl out of holes in the ground in the morning, crawl up the nearest tree or shrub to dry out and harden their wings and bodies, then fly off to begin mating rituals which include a deafening chorus of keening from the treetops.

They emerge in LARGE numbers in late May when soil temperatures 8” below ground reach 64 degrees Fahrenheit. The adults fly, sing and mate (but don’t eat plants) until around the end of June. They can literally carpet the ground in places where they are prevalent, and the males’ song is incredibly loud, especially during midday. Outdoor weddings and graduation ceremonies may be memorably disrupted by these unearthly looking and sounding visitors.

Protecting your plants: The adults feed minimally, sucking a small amount of sap from twigs. Damage to plants is caused when the females scratch slits into smaller twigs on trees and shrubs, in order to lay their eggs. According to an article on the Morton Arboretum website plant-advice/help- pests/periodical-cicadas , the trees most frequently affected are oak, hickory, apple, peach and pear. Young trees, especially fruit and nut trees, can benefit from protection during the June egg-laying period. Wrap fine-mesh netting over the branches, securing it tightly to the trunk to prevent the cicadas from crawling under it. Some insects may be discouraged by wrapping the trunk smoothly with a band of aluminum foil, but the majority will just fly to the branches instead.

There’s plenty of information about the fascinating 17-year cicada in a booklet produced by the Ohio Biological Survey. In Ohio’s Backyards: Periodical Cicadas (Gene Kritsky, 1999) includes detailed biology, historical accounts, superstitions, maps of various emergence years all over Ohio, and a recipe for Cicada Pie from a 1902 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer! I’m putting my fellow foragers on notice! If I can collect enough recently-emerged cicadas (they need to be collected early in the morning before their shells have fully hardened) I plan to try pan-roasting some. Recipe-share, anyone?

Green Fusion

by Elsa Johnson

                           We’re not really in control here I realize

stepping out my back door this May morning

and there assaulted by spring’s green bore              that

tide-like overrules my plans and inclinations    

Sensations of attack                      The trees green leaves

burn neon                  a visible vibration                  and

where backyard grass grows inch an hour       a buckeye

sprouted overnight                     Meanwhile honeysuckle

sends out tendriled shoots  :  wends tight to the ground   

War   :   irresistible                  Green Peace a misnomer

                             pitiful our arrogance as this great wave

builds a sea                           Only with great effort do we

maintain primacy                         Sovereigns of the world

we think ourselves  :                       nature a biddable she

Calling Cards and (Wild) Life in the Inner Suburbs

Calling Cards

by Elsa Johnson

                      They take one full cycle of the light to

cross as they return to the park through the south

east gate after visiting the neighborhood            

as though knowing well brought up geese cross at

lights and cross-walks          use proper entrances :

today they are just two car lengths off               No

mystery why they are returning to

the park   the lake    the safe island where coyotes

can’t go                  But why do they go in the other

direction ?                to the houses with manicured

lawns on the park periphery                   escorting

the goose children through traffic to come calling

leaving behind the           soft    rich    calling cards

home owners      should be grateful       to receive

(Wild) Life in the Inner Suburbs

by Elsa Johnson

Walking to my car parked in the street                 I find

urban livestock grazing the sidewalk                two of

them        studies in dun     Looking like big dun dogs 

Looking like someone opened the closet door  

found moths in all the good dun suits                 the no

color suits of shadow              Looking patched up and

lean          with long dun bodies a-top legs like twigs  :

gazing at me with soft brown eyes      a bit      anxious   

like              there’s a name on the tip of their tongues   

— if they could remember                              everything

would be all right        like they think      I’m thinking     

there goes the neighborhood          when all I’m really

thinking is                         up to now you haven’t eaten

my daylilies                 Dammit  :           Don’t start now 

How I Learned to Like (Though Not Love) Lush Lawns

by Tom Gibson


My property doesn’t have a lawn like this.  It’s all native plants and/or permaculture Food Forest.

Gibson side yard

The crowd I hang out with doesn’t much like lawns, either.  Why grow grass, my Food-Not-Lawns friends say, when you can raise and harvest your own vegetables and do your small bit toward saving the planet?

This attitude can fall a bit on the humorless, rigid side, of course.  Where are young children (e.g. my grandchildren) supposed to play catch or turn cartwheels?  Certainly not in the potato patch.

My views on lawns softened still further this spring when I had the good fortune to take an Ohio State University course in “Soil and Climate Change” with Prof. Rattan Lal.  

rattan-lal-award-476x357 (2)

Dr. Lal, winner of multiple awards, is one of this state’s great treasures—a world leader in soil science, a driving force behind the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore); incoming president of the International Soil Association; and a prime source of the science behind the new Paris Climate initiative to transfer carbon out of the atmosphere into agricultural soils.  Dr. Lal’s co-teacher of this course, Dr. Berry Lyons, Director of OSU’s School of Earth Sciences, (no slouch, either), put the climate in geophysical perspective.   

berry lyons

The course is required for all graduate students in OSU’s School of Environment and Natural Resources.

So, wow, what an intellectual adventure! (and under Program 60, I could take the course for free!)

Our main task as students was to make class presentations that related our current scientific research into climate change.  Since I’m not a science graduate student—far from it!—I chose, as best I could, to evaluate other people’s research into the question of carbon capture by suburban landscapes. Plants, of course, breathe in carbon dioxide (CO₂), turn it into sugars, and send those sugars into the soil via root growth and microbial interaction.  And that holds just as true for home landscapes as it does for rain forests.

Has research advanced enough, I asked, so that we could easily estimate how much carbon each home landscape—grass, trees, perennials, etc.— captured from the atmosphere and “sequestered” (the technical term) carbon in the soil?   What if homeowners could erect a small sign in their front yards that said, “This landscape sequesters 1 ton of carbon annually?”

In other words, could homeowners consciously start measuring and saving carbon and make their own individual contribution to reducing Greenhouse Gas-induced global warming?  There’s plenty of social pressure, especially in “neatnik” suburban neighborhoods, to keep every blade of grass trimmed.  How about creating an alternative social pressure that’s aimed at saving the planet?


Actually, research into home landscape carbon capture and emission is extensive.  For example, a 2012 study compared a landscape with grass, two trees and six bushes….

sequest 1

…..with a landscape with less lawn, but 4 more trees and 17 more bushes…

Sequester 2

The landscape with more trees and bushes (and, of course, deeper carbon-filled roots) sequesters more carbon, but the grass roots sequester carbon, too.  According to this study, the latter landscape could sequester up to a quarter ton of carbon annually.

But there are tradeoffs, too, which other studies make clearer. What if the homeowner fertilizes the grass with artificial fertilizer?  And how about the Greenhouse Gas effect of power mowing with gasoline?

A 2013 study of home landscapes in Nashville shows some of the impact:

1.Fertilization of grass creates lots more soil organic carbon (SOC):

Sequester 3

2. But at the cost of lots fertilizer-induced emissions of nitrous oxide (N₂0), a Greenhouse Gas with almost 300 times the potency of carbon dioxide (CO₂)

sequester 4

3. Add in the effects of gasoline-powered mowers and you can see that conventional lawns emit more Greenhouse Gases (vertical axis, called CO₂ equivalents) than they sequester carbon and have a net positive Global Warming Potential (GWP):

Sequester 5

So where’s the problem and what can we do about it?

A final study sheds some light (and hope).  It looks at ornamental lawncare in San Diego and reveals the main culprit: gasoline-powered mowing.  Look for the heavy black section in the right box.  That’s how much fuel contributes to Global Warming Potential.  Without gasoline-powered mowing, lawns would capture more carbon than they and their fertilization emit.

Sequester 6

For all the research I located, I still felt I lacked complete information.  I found no similar studies that addressed organic lawncare—compost instead of artificial fertilizer, aeration that increases root growth and carbon capture, etc. Nor could I find studies that measured carbon capture in temperate food forest systems—the kind we permaculturists might construct. In short, nothing that could be reduced to a simple sign that says “This Landscape Sequesters X Amount of Carbon.”  (If any reader knows of such studies, please let me know.)


What does science tell you about how maintain your landscape in the most planet responsible way?  Mainly, at this point, generalities:

1.Leave your lawn clippings in your grass and make them the sole source of fertilization. (If you want more fertilizer for your lawn, use compost instead of artificial fertilizer.) What you lose in N₂O you’ll more than make up in carbon capture.

2. A hand mower is best, but if you must use a power mower, use an electric mower and contract with your utility for only renewable power (possible in Northeast Ohio, but not advertised). By the time those utility-provided electrons get to your house, they won’t know whether they were generated by coal or wind, but at least you’ll be supporting the renewable contribution to the system. Your lawn will become a net sequesterer of carbon, at least on paper, in anticipation when you’ll have your own home-generated renewable electricity.

Wind turbines farm
Wind turbines farm

3. Still, growing as many trees as possible, especially food forests, is your most responsible option.

food forest

Spring Plant Sales 2016

spring plants

by Ann McCulloh, contributing editor

The great plant grab is on! Suddenly it’s May, and the best and freshest of plants are offered in all corners of our region. There’s always a sense of urgency about getting around to the various sales (many on the same weekend) and making your selections before they sell out. My best advice: 1) look at offerings online ahead of time (when available) and make a realistic list 2) Plot a route that lets you visit several on one day 3) Go early 4) Bring cash (and set a budget) 5) line your car with a tarp or old shower curtain.

This is a list of 2016 plant sales by not-for-profit groups in Northeast Ohio. Some of them emphasize annuals and vegetables, others focus on native plants, perennials or shrubs, others offer some of everything. Despite my best efforts, this list is not comprehensive, so additions are welcome in your comments. Please do keep it to promotions to not-for-profit organizations, though.

Sat May 7 9am – 4pm Larchmere Community Association

Corner of East 127th and Larchmere Blvd

Sat May 7 9am -1pm, Shaker Lakes Nature Center

May 7 and 8, 10 am-4pm, Cleveland Metroparks Native Plant Sale

North Chagrin Nature Center Auditorium 3037 SOM Center Road, Willoughby Hills, OH 44094 

Sat May 7 2-4pm, Lakewood Earth and Food Community

Lakewood Garden Center 13230 Detroit Rd., Lakewood. Several local seedling vendors, local food and craft vendors, too.

Thurs-Sat May 12-14 10am – 4pm, Rockefeller Park Greenhouse

750 East 88th St., Cleveland, just off Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Free, secure parking.

Fri-Sat-Sun, May 13, 14, 15, Holden Arboretum

Sat May 14 10-4pm, GardenWalk Cleveland

12541 Cedar Road, Cleveland Heights, OH.  Parking in the Cedar Hill Baptist Church lot.

Sat May 14 9am-1pm, Secrest Arboretum

(Sat May 20 and Sun May 21 are scheduled pickup days for Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s member’s only native plant sale. There’s still time to join and pre-order. More info at

Sat June 4 9am-2pm, Master Gardeners Plants in the Park

City of Independence Complex, 6363 Selig Drive, Kiwanis Pavilion