Monthly Archives: August 2016

Boneset Pollinator Party

by Tom Gibson

August is pollinator party time in my backyard.  Not just the steady savoring of mint by the great golden digger wasp.


Not just the business-like mining of comfrey pollen by bumblebees.

bee on comfreyAnd not just careful, trip-weary harvesting of hardy ageratum pollen by monarchs on their way south.

Monarch on hardy ageratumNo, the real disco atmosphere—one imagines a sparkling ball and an unlimited supply of rave—occurs just above my patch of boneset (Eupatorium Perfoliatum)*. Wasps (especially), bees and other insects lurch onto boneset’s little white flowerettes, hold their position for a split second, then burst off to the next plant.  They’re just so excited. And the variety! Big wasps, little wasps, bees, moths, butterflies, little flying things I don’t have a name for. Rarely do any of the feeders pay attention to their companions (though I have seen smaller, more aggressive mason wasps deliberately knock more cumbersome digger wasps off a flower).  A true feeding frenzy.

The only calm insect I observe around boneset is the occasional dragon fly, a non-pollen consumer and pure predator. It waits motionless for minutes on a garden stake and then swoops through the mayhem to gather a small insect meal.

I like insect-on-insect predation in my garden, and boneset is a great way to encourage it. In all the scientific journal articles I’ve read on the subject, boneset is at the top of the list of for attracting predators and parasitoids. (The latter lay eggs in host insects who eventually provide a greet-the-world, first meal for the hatched larvae.) The more predatory wasps and flies, the fewer insects like Japanese beetles that will eat my plants.

Boneset produces blossoms consisting of dozens of small white flowerettes (like Queen Anne’s lace, carrots, etc.) that make a good fit for wasp mouth parts. But their pollen must contain some special chemicals, too, that I haven’t seen described in any journal. Whatever they are, they drive wasps, bees and flies nuts.

Here are a few of the insects that stopped long enough for an iPhone close-up.  (I never worry about getting stung; the insects are just too intent on locating boneset pollen.)

Here’s a paper wasp:

Paper wasp

…and a carpenter bee:

carpenter bee

A soldier beetle and a black hornet.  The former eats aphids among other things and emits a poison that makes it inedible to potential predators…. like hornets. 

soldier beetle and black wasp

But what happens when a defenseless herbivore finds itself on the same flower as a hornet? The same as a zebra and a lion at the same watering hole.  Give the lion plenty of space.  I’ve seen an ailanthus web worm moth like the one in the upper right of this picture dive under a boneset bloom to escape from a wasp and hide there until danger passes. The little mason bee on the left, however, poses no such threat.

ailanthus web worm moth + mason bee

Here’s a syrphid fly, one of those parasitoid egg layers I mentioned above

Syrphid Fly

And is this a wasp or thick-headed fly?  I think the latter; the two circles on its abdomen are a possible clue. Many flies have evolved to look like more dangerous wasps.  The thick-headed fly parasitizes bumblebees.

Wasp or thick-headed fly

*Boneset gets its odd name from its use in (very) primitive folk medicine. Because boneset leaves join right through the stem (see picture below), folk healers would wrap broken bones in boneset poultices and give their patients boneset tea—all in the hopes for similar joining.

boneset leaves

Planning an Old Growth Forest for the Seventh Generation (Citizen Science in Forest Hill Park)

by Elsa Johnson

My friend Maria Armitage says that whenever her husband Keith goes for a walk in Forest Hill Park, when he comes home, he says: “It’s a jewel.” 

A few years ago the East Cleveland Parks Association (a volunteer board that works with the City of East Cleveland to help maintain the East Cleveland portions of Forest Hill Park; disclosure — I am on this board) began to become concerned about oak tree deaths occurring in two iconic areas of the park. The two areas, designed and named by A.D. Taylor in his 1936 master plan for the park, are The Great Meadow and The Meadow Vista. Both are upland oak savannahs – i.e., unique, lightly forested grasslands where oaks are the dominant species. Such savannahs were historically maintained by fire (set by man, or by wildfires resulting from lightning strikes), or were the result of grazing. In the history of the park since it has been a park, the savannah environments have been maintained through mowing.


By the time John D. Rockefeller Sr. bought the property in the late mid-century of the 1800’s, these two upland areas were pastures studded with oak trees. This was probably their beginning as oak savannahs. We do not know how old the trees in these pastures were at this time. They may have been scattered remnants of the original forests that were there in 1796 when Moses Cleaveland surveyed the Cuyahoga River site that became the City of Cleveland. Or they may have been young trees, or a mix of both. We do know that Rockefeller added a few specimen trees here when he bought the property 2/3rds of a century later, but those trees were exotic species, not oaks. We also know that the Cleveland Museum of Natural History inventoried some of the largest trees in The Great Meadow and designated some of them ‘Moses Cleaveland Trees’. What this means, in the year 2016, is that the oldest of these trees are over 200 years old, while the youngest of those original savannah trees are a minimum of 150 years old.


By any standard, old growth forest.

So when the savannahs/meadows began to lose trees – one of the first to go was a huge and spectacular Moses Cleaveland Tree in The Great Meadow, lost in 2011 – ECPA was deeply concerned, and became more so with each passing year, with the loss of additional trees, in what seemed like a ring spreading out from the site of the original losses, with Meadow Vista area suffering many, many, more tree losses than The Great Meadow.


If any area can be described as the heart of Forest Hill Park it is The Great Meadow.  It is the crossroads through which all paths must pass to get elsewhere, and it is the one place in the park with an unfettered view from the eastern end of the meadow all the way through to the western end of the meadow, a distance of about half a mile. And then, from the west end (where Rockefeller once had his summer home), the view continues out over Cleveland’s east side and on, out over Lake Erie toward invisible Canada, some 50 miles away.


Since 2011 the park has lost 6 trees in The Great Meadow, most of them in one centralized area. In The Meadow Vista area the park has lost 6 to 7 trees (or more) each year, and more than one area has been affected. In one area so many trees have been lost as to profoundly affect soil hydrology. ECPA watched, worried, and wondered how to get a handle on what was going one, and what did whatever was going on mean for the future of these iconic old growth oak savannahs? It became obvious that there was a necessity to plan for the planting of new trees to ensure oak savannahs for the future. To help answer these questions ECPA established The Great Meadow Task Force which reached out to The Holden Arboretum’s Community Forester, Chad Clink. His recommendation was 1.) test affected trees for pathogens, and 2.) do a thorough inventory using a certified arborist.


Alas, ECPA is a volunteer organization funded through donations and small grants, and this looked expensive, so the task force cast about and found : The Plant Doctor, Dr. David Roberts, Senior Academic Specialist at Michigan State University, discoverer of the Emerald Ash Borer, and specialist in diseases and pests of oak trees, who volunteered to come down and spend a day looking at trees in The Great Meadow.


Much planning ensued. What information was necessary?  Was there additional information that would be interesting? — That would help people be interested and want to invest in a Save-A-Tree/Plant-A-Tree program? — That would reforest the meadows and create an old growth forest that would still be there in another 200 years, for the seventh generation? 

The task force began by tagging each tree with a number and locating it on a photographic map. It was decided the walk-through would look at each tagged tree and list its species, general health, and recommendations for its care, and also measure each tree’s circumference (by which one applies a formula to arrive at its diameter), the distance out from the tree of its canopy drip-line, the height of the tree, and an estimate of its age (by Dr. Roberts). By using specific calculations this information can tell one how much carbon each tree is sequestering — the task force thought that would be cool information.


The walk-through revealed that, of the old trees in the Great Meadow – a total of about 70 trees – many, if not most, are close to or exceed 100 feet in height. The largest tree has a circumference of 15 feet – but many other trees are very nearly as big around. Canopy was the most variable component measured, with trees standing in isolation having larger canopy spreads than trees growing in the proximity of an oak grouping. And Dr. Roberts estimated the various ages age of the trees as around 150 to 200 years old, which fit with their known history. He said that the trees in The Great Meadow are largely in good health, and what a pleasure it was to visit such a collection of healthy old growth trees.

All of this information is in the process of being brought together in a spreadsheet. It will be used to seek funds for the necessary maintenance of these valuable trees in their unique and iconic savannah environment, and also for the planting of new trees so that the oak savannahs of Forest Hill Park remain the inspiration of exclamations like : “It’s a jewel!”

Note: ECPA is hoping to get Dr. Robert back for a return visit to study the diseases and/or pests affecting the trees in The Meadow Vista.

Note : To learn more about ECPA and Forest Hill Park go to

How to Measure the Height of a Tree (without climbing it).

You will need a stiff equilateral triangle with a drinking straw taped to one side of it which you will use to look through, and a 100 foot measuring tape. You will need two people. One person will stand at the trunk of the tree holding the zero end of the tape. The other person will walk away from the tree spooling out the tape. When she gets out to what she thinks is the tree’s height, she will stop, take the triangle, and at eye level, line the horizontal bottom of the triangle parallel to the ground and the vertical side of the triangle parallel to the trunk of the tree. Looking through the straw, she will look for the top of the tree. When she can see where the tree leaves touch the sky, she will note the distance on the measuring tape (she may have to move and try this several times). The height of the tree is the distance measured on the tape plus her height at eye level added to it.     This is fun to do.


Book Review of “Gardening in a Post-Wild World” by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

A Book Review by Evelyn Hadden of Garden Rant; reposted by with permission from Evelyn Hadden

Big Ahas from Planting in a Post-Wild World


Their primary audience may be other designers, but Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press, 2016) offers many take-aways for regular gardeners too. The book outlines how to design and maintain an ecological landscape, and does so in beautifully clear, fluid language that is easy to read and absorb.

The first few pages had me reaching for my notebook to jot down phrases from the book and ideas it sparked for my own garden. Even better, Rainer and West pointed out gaps in my own way of designing. My biggest aha was their concept of “design layers.”

“The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance. The solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of compatible species that cover the ground in interlocking layers.” — page 17

I was used to thinking in terms of vertical layers of plants that physically occupy different niches; this frankly produces landscapes that are ecologically functional and diverse but not necessarily beautiful to those who don’t understand ecology. What makes them beautiful is their robust health and the life they support; visual impact is strictly a secondary consideration.

But Rainer and West present a powerful set of tools for adding aesthetic oomph while maximizing ecological function. They advise viewing a landscape in terms of four different layers (really, roles) that can be focused on individually while designing, and also while determining ongoing maintenance strategies.

Structural Layer: most powerful year-round key parts of a design. These should be retained through the years, replaced if needed, and kept clearly defined as they form the backbone on which the rest of the design hangs.

Seasonal Layer: waves of color and/or texture provided by each season’s visually dominant “design” plants. These are maintained by treating them en masse, thinning or spreading as necessary.

Groundcover Layer: provides the main diversity of the planting and therefore most of the ecological function. This layer does not contribute noticeably to the aesthetic design, except as a living mulch. Manage it by retaining and augmenting diversity as much as possible to maximize its functionality and the health of all the plants in the landscape.

Gap Fillers: self-sowing plants distributed regularly through the planting and encouraged to set seed. This builds up a seed bank of desirable plants which will ideally sprout to fill any gaps that occur.

I love how the authors separate the main aesthetic contributors (the first two layers) from the main ecological contributors (the last two). That makes it much easier to create a landscape that is strong in both beauty and functionality.

For a gardener unfamiliar with ecology (the science of how nature works), this book is a great primer. Sample insights include:

  • Plants fare better in communities.

    “When plants are paired with compatible species, the aesthetic and functional benefits are multiplied, and plants are overall healthier.” — page 47

  • Rational guidelines for moving past the natives-only debate.

    “… place the emphasis on a plant’s ecological performance, not its country of origin… The combination of adapted exotics and regionally native species can expand the designer’s options and even expand ecological function.” — page 42

  • Work with each unique site.

    “For designers interested in creating communities with a rich sense of place, the first step is simple: accept the environmental constraints of a site. Do not go to great effort and cost to make soil richer, eliminate shade, or provide irrigation. Instead, embrace a more limited palette of plants that will tolerate and thrive in these conditions.” — page 47

  • Rather than creating generic “ideal conditions” (by bringing in soil or amendments), rely on plants to gradually improve a site.

    “Hundreds of thousands of root channels will heal and rebuild even highly disturbed and compacted soils over time, and enrich low-lying soil horizons with organic matter. The more roots, the more quickly a soil is restored. In order to get as many roots in the ground as possible, plant as densely as possible and use a diversity of root morphologies to interact with the soil at different levels.” — page 194

  • Cover the ground with plants.

    “Plant ground covers wherever there is space for them: under trees, shrubs, and taller perennials. Fill all gaps between taller plants… Use them like you would mulch.” — page 180

The authors move from details to big-picture with ease. They advise starting each design with a “vision” patterned after a natural landscape (or archetype) such as woodland or meadow. This concept is dear to my heart, and I would like to see it treated in more detail  beyond the few basic archetypes mentioned in this guide. Some of the most affecting landscapes I’ve encountered were created by designers who were intimately familiar with regional ecosystems in their many variations, and were able to use them as inspiration.

Another important point brought home by the book is that a designed landscape — to stay functional and beautiful — needs thoughtful management as well as ongoing attention to its design. An installation followed by generic maintenance strategies will not preserve aesthetics or ecology. This aha combines that beloved old adage “a garden is never finished” with Abraham Maslow’s astute observation that “if you only have a hammer, it is tempting to treat every problem as a nail.”

“Because communities are dynamic, managing them is a creative process… Designers must be part of a planting’s life as regular and ongoing consultants.” — p. 221

Let us hope the well-defined and highly desirable steps laid out by Rainer and West help to hasten the end of the modern “mow-and-blow” approach to landscape management, in which we routinely cut down, poison, or prune plants without regard for their growth habits or their web of connections, applaud sterility and unpalatability, and kill off the majority while pampering the chosen few. Let us follow Planting in a Post-Wild World into a future where humans respectfully manage landscapes for our comfort, our quality of life, and our very existence, while acknowledging (in our treatment of them) the inherent value of these living communities.

Posted by on July 20, 2016 at 1:27 pm, in the category Books, CRRRI

A Song of Gentle Extirpation (Chasmanthium)

by Elsa Johnson

Some plants that you invite to your garden                                       

can never over-stay ‘welcome’                                                    even

when they overstep                                   Sea oats aren’t like that : 

they spread      take up space      crowd      sprawl like their name

sprawls on a page                      and                            given a year or   

two            they inundate                drown out phlox                 lilies

agastache                   the plants we love                 that beacon

butterflies                    and all kinds of bees                        Our eyes

need spaces          to pause          to rest          to breathe            Air   

that seems to hold nothing                  holds our eyes            which       

land         dry off their wings                                    then fly on again                       

This grass              that works to bind beach dunes                stilling 

sand against the surge                         works wrongly in my garden   

  •   graceful though it be when the soft winds  stir

Water Extreme Resilience with Rain Gardens and Urban Trees

By Diana Sette

Originally published in the Permaculture Design Magazine -Regenerating Life Together –Spring 2016, Issue #100 Water Extremes: Drought and Flood


By Diana Sette

For this issue’s Skills & Practices, we will look at ways to design for the anticipation of heavy rainfall extremes.  We know that with climate change, we are and will continue to be facing more and more erratic weather patterns that overload current infrastructure.  The more we can create built systems to function like wetlands, marshes, and prairies – among other systems that naturally handle occasional flooding– the more resilient we will be because we will be creating systems that work to, as Brock Dolman of the WATER Institute1 says, “slow it, spread it, sink it” rather than “pave it, pipe it, pollute it.” 

For the purposes of this article, we will look at two design patterns that can be resilient when facing water extremes.  Part One focuses on Rain Gardens, and the Part Two looks at how urban trees can work to manage water extremes.


I am within biking distance from the beaches of Lake Erie.  Lake Erie is the twelfth biggest fresh water lake in the world, and provides drinking water for over 11 million people.2  I regularly contemplate what happens to the Lake and its waterways when it rains.  The prompting of this consideration does not take much, as one heavy rainfall causes the beaches to be closed for swimming due to unsafe levels of E. coli.  This is because during extreme rainfalls, the stormwater overflows the water infrastructure system and puts stress on the streams resulting in the pollution of Lake Erie.   The more that this region experiences heavy rainfalls3, the more this region will experience unsafe water management.  This is because the City of Cleveland’s water infrastructure is set up as a Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) system.  CSO is a common system for many older cities that allows unfiltered and untreated sewage mixed with stormwater into the waterways when there is flash flooding that adds more water to the system for which it was designed. 

Image A_ CSO_diagram_US_EPA

While re-designing cities on a massive scale to integrate green infrastructure may be the end game, we can and must take action now to make small changes that manage stormwater on-site with what resources we have available to reduce combined sewer overflow, and reduce the storm water that is draining into our waterways unfiltered and unharnessed.

Sustainable urban drainage systems (known as SUDS in the UK) or low impact development (known as LID in the US/Canada) include the following techniques: permeable surfaces, green roofs, rainwater and graywater harvesting, and finally installing bioretention systems also known as rain gardens.  For the purpose of this article, we will focus on rain gardens. 

Image BHow-Rain-Garden-works4

As permaculture designers, creating systems that require the least amount of input with the greatest output is one of the goals.  One of the ways in which designers accomplish this is by ‘stacking functions,’ or rather, using something for multiple purposes as to get more ‘bang for your buck’ sort of speak.  Designing a rain garden is a great opportunity to practice stacking functions.  One function an effectively designed Rain Garden can be is to create wildlife habitat and increase biodiversity by increasing the food source and nesting area for pollinators and beneficial species.  Depending on the plant selection, rain gardens can also add significant edible and medicinal value to the landscape.  Rain gardens can also be places of solace and tremendous beauty.  Most importantly for considering water extremes, rain gardens work to capture, store and filter water on-site, which in turn alleviates stress on waterways, recharges aquifers, reduces erosion, and reduces pollution to our drinking water. 

But before we get to stacking functions in our design, let’s talk about the basics of rain garden design.


First: Choose a site.  Choosing the right location for the rain garden is key. 

To start, rain gardens must be a minimum of 10 feet from a building to prevent any damage from overflow during heavy rainfalls.  Rain gardens work well when they catch and filter stormwater runoff from permeable surfaces like roofs or parking lots, so placing a rain garden in juxtaposition to a paved surface is a wise consideration.

Secondly, rain gardens should be placed in locations with good drainage (not areas where water tends to pool).  A rain garden can allow the land to soak up about 30% more than a patch of lawn!4 That being said, rain gardens are not a solution to wet areas in a lawn, nor should they be placed near the drain field of a septic system. 

Second: Design the garden.   

Deciding on the size of the garden depends very much on the amount of anticipated runoff from the roof and/or lawn that the rain garden that will flow into the rain garden.  Ideally, a rain garden will be able to absorb all of the stormwater that drains away from the site.   

If you are connecting a rain garden to the downspouts of your home, you can calculate the amount of rainwater using the following steps.  First, figure out the footprint of your home by taking the length of the building multiplied by the width of the building.  This will give you the square feet of your home footprint.  Then count the number of downspouts on that building.  Divide the square feet of your home footprint by the number of downspouts directed to the rain garden, and you will have the square feet of the roof area draining to the garden.

If you are placing your rain garden more than 30 feet from a downspout and using a rain garden to manage stormwater from an impermeable surface like lawn turf, driveway, or parking lot, you can calculate the amount of rainwater that will drain to the rain garden using the following steps.  Measure the length of the uphill lawn area and multiply it by the width of the uphill lawn area.  This will give you the square feet of impermeable surface that will drain into the rain garden. 

If your rain garden will be managing runoff from both your house and lawn/parking lot, add those two total square feet together to get the total drainage area.  The general ratio of drainage area to rain garden is 5:1 for a well drained, sandy soil profile.  For example, if you had 500 square feet of drainage area, you would build a 100 square foot rain garden5.   Then again if your rain garden site’s soil is compacted, poorly drained or clay soil, use a 2:1 ratio.  It is also possible to excavate soil and replace with layers of compost and mulch to improve soil porosity.  Many landscaping companies even offer ‘rain garden soil mixes’ now.

Also, it is important to consider the slope of where you want the garden to be. The ideal slope for a rain garden is between 3% and 8%.  A general rule is that the steeper the slope the more work it will be to level out the area to create a flat basin.  That being said, in general a slope over 12% are generally not suitable for rain gardens, as they require a depth for the rain garden depth above 8 inches, meaning that it might hold water for too long.  You can use Table 1 below to determine the depth of your rain garden.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 2.36.09 PM

   Table 1

The shape of a rain garden.  Shapes vary with design aesthetics, but they tend to be in the kidney shape, as it allows for the natural container of water in-flow and storing of the wide brim.  A solid berm is carved out and reinforced on the downhill of the rain garden to allow for water holding.  This is one area that will be important to monitor over time, and do any maintenance work if needed.

Third:  Get to work!

Before you starting digging, it is useful to call the “Call before you Dig!” hotline to make sure you are digging in a safe place.  In the US. You can call 811, or go to to find out the direct state line to “call before you dig.” 

Finally, invite friends and neighbors, and get a group together to help!  Nothing builds community like collective work.  What a great way to share knowledge and give purpose to a gathering!


A common requirement for all rain garden plant species is that they must be able to tolerate periodic flooding.  From there, you can choose plants based on their needs for sun versus shade, and what is available at your site.  Sun and partial sun for rain garden sites is best, though shade gardens are possible as well.

In order to optimize benefits of the rain garden, it is useful to plant perennial native species that tend to thrive in your region.  With particular attention to their zone and soil moisture tolerance, you can find a broad range of color that can bloom from first to last frost.  Currently working in a cool temperate moist forest climate, with some anticipation for the climate to be shifting towards a warmer temperate moist forest area, Table A lists some of my favorite herbaceous and shrub species for rain gardens.  Listed in the footnotes are resources for plant selections for rain gardens in other climates6.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 2.34.23 PM


1 The WATER Institue (Watershed Advocacy, Training, Education and Research) is a project of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in Occidental, CA.  See Brock Dolman’s article “Watershed Relationships” In the Winter 2010-11 issue of Permaculture Activist # 78 for a more in-depth discussion and explanation of watersheds.


3. Research of Cleveland climate patterns shows a 25.8% increase in annual precipitation from 1956-2012 with a 57.4% increase in precipitation in the months of Sept – November.  Rajkovich, Nicholas B. “Climate Change and Cleveland” presentation, University at Buffalo.  2015. 

4.  Cornell Cooperative Extension.  Introduction to Rain Gardens.

5. There is also a guide chart for assessing proper rain garden in Cornell University Cooperative Extensions “Installing a Rain Garden” manual.

More worksheets available at Rain Garden Manual for Homeowners: Protecting Our Water, One Yard at a Time.  Geauga Soil and Water Conservation District/Northeast Ohio Public Involvement Public Education Committee (NEO PIPE), 2006.

6. Brad Lancaster’s  “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond” website provides numerous useful rain garden plant lists for Dryland Regions (especially considering AZ, CA, CO, MN, NM, UT, WY climates)    The “Rain Gardens for Nashville” Resource Guide provides a thorough species list with particular attention to Southern US region climate.  Many of the other Rain Garden Manuals cited in the End Notes provide plant recommendations as well.  Numerous seed companies are selling ‘rain garden seed mixes’ as well.  See Prairie Nursery, Ohio Prairie Nursery, Prairie Moon Nursery, Roundstone Native Seed, Ernst Seeds, The Vermont Wildflower Farm, among many more you can find online.

Other Useful Resources for Rain Garden Design Inspiration…

Part Two: Urban Trees

The industrialized “pave and pipe paradigm” is “disastrously flawed and hydro-illerate”1

Many cities are completely paved and piped with little to no green space, or daylighted rives, creeks, or streams.  On the other hand, some of the most enjoyable spaces in a city are where there are urban trees thriving.    The temperature is cooler, people tend to feel more relaxed in the environment, and interestingly the density of tree canopy is reflected in income levels as well.2  Cleveland, OH, historically known as “The Forest City” has lost about 100,000 public trees since 19403..  Some now call it “The Deforest City,” though many people and organizations are working to make it “The Reforest City.”  The efforts to plant more urban trees is for many reason, one being that the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District based in Cleveland is under a federal order (aka a consent decree) to reduce the volume of sewage that overflows into the local waterways due to gross amounts of water pollution.  By focusing on the replanting of urban forest canopy, significant steps can be taken to improve water quality and restore the local hydrology. 

“Cleveland’s urban forest intercepts an impressive 1.8 billion gallons of rainwater every year, a service valued at just under $11 million”4.  With the increased frequency of water extremes in this region, we can plan to see more and more rainfall, and urban trees that are well-planted and cared for present a significant design solution to managing water extremes in a resilient way.

Trees & Stormwater Management

Trees have numerous benefits in stormwater management including: runoff absorption, water filtration, erosion prevention, recharging aquifers, reducing impermeable surfaces like compacted soil through root growth, and helping control water temperatures that may otherwise lead to high temperature waters prone to algal bloom.

For a minute, imagine rain as it falls from the sky.  If the ground is bare or paved, the raindrops hit the ground hard, bounce off and head downhill as fast as possible.  However, if the rain falls on a tree, the water first collects on the leaves, branches, and trunks and is either evaporated or absorbed.  Some of the rainwater never even hits the ground.  That sort of initial crash pad delays the onset of initial water surges, and reduces the volume of peak flows and flash floods.  The water that was absorbed in the soil near the tree is transferred from the earth and transferred up to the leaves, where it can evaporate. 

Trees can intercept rainfall from 8% to 68% of a rainfall event, and sometimes higher, depending on the species.5  Trees also manage heavy rainfalls through the process called Transpiration.  The rate at which trees transpire is different for different species, and only recently have studies been attempting to quantify the rate.  “A mature tree can, on average, transpire 100 gallons of water every day”6.  In addition to interception and transpiration, trees also increase soil infiltration rates and overall infiltration capacity through the growth of tree roots, and the decomposition of roots and leaf litter. 

Finally, trees have proven to be extremely successful at removing pollutants from stormwater.  Bioretention systems planted with trees have been shown to be a best practice, and more research is proving tree plantings to be a best practice7.

Key Steps to Successful Urban Tree Plantings

Right tree, right place:  Make sure you consider how big the tree will be when it is at its full capacity.  Will it be 30 feet or 100 ft tall?  Will it be 10 feet or 50 feet across?  If you are planting a tree near a power line, or close to some other building or sign requiring visibility- take notice and plant accordingly.

Also consider the horizontal needs of a tree.  Trees need enough space for their roots to grow as mirrored by their canopy.  Which means, do not plant a tree sapling in a 2’ x 2’ cement box and except it to be living a year or two later.  Make sure the full growth size of the tree you are planting matches the space that is available.

Consider the soil:  It is important to consider the soil of where you want to plant trees.  Many urban soils are extremely degraded, compacted or even contaminated and require significant remediation before it is ready for a tree to thrive there.  First, have the soil tested.  Second, depending on the results, make some decisions.  If the soil is heavy clay, make sure to work with a broadfork to break up soil to make room for water, roots and air to move through the soil.

Another option that is being used to integrate trees and pavement is a designed soil medium called Structural Soil which can be compacted to pavement design & installation requirements, yet allows for root penetration and optimal tree growth.

However, if you can plant trees in natural soil with adequate space for its growth, a good rule of thumb for prepping the soil for urban trees is to top dress 1-2 inches of compost, rip to 1 foot, top dress with another inch of compost, and 2-3 inches of woodchip mulch and prepare an 8 foot diameter tree rings, and let the mycelium get to work!

Know that whatever steps you take to help repair the soil and plant a tree, you are improving the soil.  An established tree’s roots can help to break up compacted soils and build organic matter as it draws carbon from the atmosphere.   The increase in organic matter of the soil, increases soil’s water holding capacity- again strengthening its resiliency when facing heavy rainfalls.

Plant a tree correctly:  Go around many cities and towns and you will see trees with volcanoes of mulch piled around the base of their trunks.  People do this thinking they are giving a tree what it needs.  Little do they realize that by “volcano mulching” or piling mulch high up on the base of the trunk, you are actually damaging a tree’s ability to transpire properly.   It is more likely to be susceptible to disease, decay, and potentially even result in strangling itself through girdling advantageous roots.  That being said, the same is true for planting a tree.  Do not plant it to deep.  A tree’s root flare (the base of the trunk that curves out into the roots) must be level with the ground, and then a donut shaped circle of wood chip mulch should be placed around the tree leaving the root flare open to the air and able to breath at least a fist width distance from the base.  See Image C for more details.

Image C Tree_Planting_Diagram1

Anticipate the Water Management Needs:  If you track or research the climate trends in your area, you may be able to anticipate about how much water you may need to manage on-site.  Start by assessing how much water any pre-existing trees on-site are managing. One way to do this is using a tool like i-Tree8 which allows you to assess how much stormwater a tree may be intercepting by inputting its location, species, size, and condition.  Comparing the number of how much water is already being intercepting, and how much water you must anticipate in an extreme moment, you may base your urban tree specie selection on that.

It is important to note, however, that even if your region expects higher rainfall, it is essential to have a water maintenance plan in place when planting new trees in the city.  Newly planted trees are experience transplant shock and can require up to 15 gallons of water a week for the first three years after planting!  So be ready to have a watering plan for trees in between heavy rainfalls to ensure their long-term thrivelihood. 


The following list of trees (though some are more often considered shrubs) are all species that tolerate drought to flood conditions in a more temperate climate.  Depending on your site, some varieties will thrive more than others.  These species were chosen for their diversity in function from stormwater management capabilities, edibility/usability, wildlife habitat, beauty, and adaptability.  They are as follows: Willow, Downy Serviceberry, Dogwood (Flowering, Red-osier, Yellow Twig), Eastern Red Cedar, Black Gum, Oak (Swamp White, Overcup, Chestnut, Nuttall), Black Walnut, Elderberry, Plum, American Hazlenut, Redbud, Sugar Maple, and Paw Paw.  Check out the End Notes for more tips on selecting urban trees for transitioning climates9.


1. The WATER Institue (Watershed Advocacy, Training, Education and Research) is a project of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in Occidental, CA.  See Brock Dolman’s article “Watershed Relationships” In the Winter 2010-11 issue of Permaculture Activist # 78 for a more in-depth discussion and explanation of watersheds.

2. Trubek, Anne.  “Money Does Grow On Trees: Canopy Cover Reflects Income Inequality.”  Belt Magazine.

3. The Cleveland Tree Plan, 2015,

4. The Cleveland Tree Plan, 2015.

5. Stormwater Management Benefits of Trees by Stone Environmental, Inc.  Many additional resources can be found in this article as well, including more on tree selection, siting and planting, more on engineered systems for trees, and soil restoration resources, among others.

6. Stormwater Management Benefits of Trees.

7. Stormwater Management Benefits of Trees.

8.  “I-Tree Design v 6.0.”  i-Tree: Tools for Assessing and Managing Community Forests.  i-Tree Design is also useful for assessing and understanding other tree benefits related to greenhouse gas mitigation, air quality improvements, and energy usage reduction.  i-Tree Eco can be used for quantifying annual avoided runoff of trees.  i-Tree Hydro can be used to quantify hourly and total changes in stream flow and water quality based on vegetation and impervious cover.

9.  More tips for plant selection can be found at: Urban Forest Adaptive Planting List with consideration given to the warming climate. “Trees for 2050” Chicago Botanic Garden; “Plants and Your Stormwater Control Measures.”  Restoration and Recovery.


Image A: Combined Overflow System diagram, sourced at “Combined Sewer”, Wikipedia.

Image B: How Rain Gardens Work, courtesy of Lauren’s Garden Service,

Image C: How to plant a tree. as borrowed courtesy of International Society of Arboriculture.


Diana Sette is a Certified Permaculture Teacher and Designer working primarily in Cleveland, OH, after almost a decade of growing in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  She serves on the Board of The Hummingbird Project ( and Green Triangle (, two permaculture-based non-profits working locally and abroad.  Her work in social and urban permaculture is centered at Possibilitarian Regenerative Community Homestead (PORCH) and Possibilitarian Garden (Facebook: Possibilitarian Garden) in Cleveland, OH.

What We are Eating Now: Groundnuts

American Groundnuts: Another Perennial Vegetable Worth Trying

by Tom Gibson

American groundnuts (Apios Americana) were a staple of Native American diets, particularly in New England.  Not to be confused with African groundnuts (good old “peanuts!”), Native American groundnuts grow much thicker than their African namesake.  I’ve harvested Apios Americana tubers as big as 3 inches in diameter. 


As plants, they offer several advantages.  They’re native and all that implies for supporting native pollinators. They’re easy to plant and require no maintenance thereafter. And, they’re a legume, which means they fix and add nitrogen to your garden.  The groundnut vines emerge with the onset of hot weather in June and shoot up rapidly any near-by trellis or bush. I‘ve seen them climb 10 feet or more in a summer, and I bet they could grow taller yet.


If nothing in your seedling’s vicinity is growing higher, though, the little vines just sit there, a few inches long, and sulk.  Think of them as the very definition of a companion plant and a natural fit to permaculture gardening.

But, as is always the case with unfamiliar perennial fruits and vegetables, how the heck do you eat them? (I think harvesting and eating may be the single highest barrier to permaculture gardening—cited both by famous permaculturists like Ben Falk and Eric Toensmeier and experienced every year by unknown, everyday permaculture gardeners like me!)

It’s always best if there’s a simple, no-fuss way to eat and enjoy something new.  Fortunately, for groundnuts there is. Simply slice the tuber thinly, fry, salt, and eat. They’re better—at least to a non-fast-food addict—than French fries.  They have 3 times the protein content of potatoes and their nutty taste reflects it.


For a more complicated recipe, I plan to try this bean dip from the website hunter-angler- gardener-cook ( and designated by another name for groundnuts: “hopniss.”


Photo by Hank Shaw

Hopniss Skordalia

Make only enough you think you will eat in one or two sittings because hopniss tightens up a lot once you put it in the fridge. You can loosen it with a little vinegar or water, though.

Serves 4 as a dip.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 35 minutes

  • 1/2 pound hopniss tubers, peeled
  • 3 to 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup high-quality olive oil
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • Black pepper


  1. Boil the hopniss tubers until they are soft enough to mash, about 35 minutes. Drain and mash roughly in the pot.
  2. While the hopniss is cooking, mash the garlic with the salt in a mortar. Add a little olive oil and mash to emulsify it. Pound in the mashed hopniss until well combined. You will notice that hopniss is more fibrous than potatoes. It’s mostly visual.
  3. Mix in the olive oil and vinegar to taste. You want a very loose mashed potato, or a nice dip consistency. If it’s too tight, add a little water. Grind black pepper over the skordalia when you are ready and serve with bread or on crackers.

Downsides? Yes, there can be, especially if, as I did, make the less-than-smart decision to plant groundnuts in among my raspberries.  I thought I’d nicely stack functions on the same piece of land—groundnuts and nitrogen production under the ground and nitrogen-hungry raspberries and fruit above.  But the groundnut tubers can be hard to extract from raspberry roots and, besides, there are those thorny canes around which to maneuver!  (The extra nitrogen, at least, contributes to solid raspberry production.)

Instead, I’ve decided to shift my planting focus to combining groundnuts and elderberry bushes. Not only do the 12 foot high elderberry bushes give Apios Americana ample room to spread, they reflect the natural growing habits of both plants.  In natural settings the two often grow together.  The elderberry roots are also easier to negotiate when digging for ground nuts.

Sourcing: I’ve had good luck with the groundnuts I’ve bought online from Oikos Tree Crops. (