Category Archives: PRACTICE

Mentor Marsh: History Tragedy Recovery

by David Kriska

Mentor Marsh has been a National Park Service-designated National Natural Landmark since 1966 for being one of the most species-rich sites on the Great Lakes shoreline. The Marsh was named Ohio’s first State Nature Preserve in 1971 and is a National Audubon Society Important Birding Area. This unique wetland suffered dramatically in the 1960s when salt-mine tailings leached into Blackbrook Creek. By the early 1970s, most of the swamp forest trees and marsh plants had died. The 765-acre wetland basin was overtaken by reed grass (Phragmites australis), a 14-foot-tall nonnative invasive plant from Eurasia. Phragmites grew so densely within the nearly 4-mile-long former river channel that an estimated 1 billion plants were growing just a few inches apart.  Partial abatement of the salt source in 1987 lowered salinity levels to borderline brackish conditions along one-third of the marsh and lowered the salinity to freshwater levels on two-thirds of the wetland.

© Laura Dempsey

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History began a large-scale restoration of Mentor Marsh in 2012. Guided by Museum restoration ecologists, the Phragmites is being sprayed with an aquatic-safe herbicide and then physically mashed flat to allow native plants to grow. The results thus far have been heartening. Dozens of native plant species are sprouting from the soil seed bank, and Leopard Frogs are expanding throughout. Rare marsh birds—such as American and Least Bitterns, Virginia, King and Sora Rails, and Common Gallinules and Wilson’s snipe—are now nesting. Fish, such as Northern Pike, are spawning, and Yellow Perch fingerlings are starting to use the Marsh as a nursery. Otter, beaver, wading birds, waterfowl and shorebird migrants are starting to use the restored Marsh as stopover habitat. While recent surveys have confirmed Blanding’s and Spotted turtles are no longer present, their recovery is possible.

© Laura Dempsey

As Ohio’s largest stand of Phragmites, the perennial roots of these tall invaders are well established. Results so far have eliminated 85% of the Phragmites basin-wide, with some older treatment units nearly in the clear while other newer units are experiencing an anticipated bounce back rallying from the massive network of root reserves, or emerging as seedlings from the seed bank. Follow-up on the remaining estimated 15% is critical, requiring an intense commitment of time to traverse the sticky Carlisle muck soil to cover a wetland basin with 12 miles of perimeter.

During the 2017 field season, in an effort to accelerate desired ground cover to outcompete other invasive species lurking nearby, Museum staff, partners, contractors, volunteers and inmates planted over 19,000 live plants of 23 native species in the Marsh. Some of the plants were grown from seeds collected onsite and propagated at a local prison as part of a horticultural job skills program. Other plugs and live stakes were purchased from restoration nurseries and conservation seed growers. We plan to redouble our efforts in 2018, with continued efforts to raise funds towards this worthwhile project.

© Laura Dempsey

We could not have undertaken this monumental task without the assistance of the many partners, grant funders, volunteers and donors who believed in what we are doing.

David Kriska, Ph.D., is a Restoration Ecologist in the Natural Areas Program of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History

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The Revolution Surrounds Us

by Tom Gibson

What could possibly interest a driver through the landscape west of Toledo? Flat corn and soy bean fields stretch to the horizon—green in summer, gray-brown in winter. That’s the way it’s been for the nearly 25 years my wife and I have been traveling to Chicago to visit our daughter.

In the last three years, though, we’ve noticed a change.  Instead of bare, tilled soil in winter, the majority of farmland we observe remains untilled and is filled with corn and other crop stubble. Although colors remain pretty much the same gray-brown, what we are seeing is revolutionary. Conventional farmers, who have been growing crops in the best agri-chemical, paint-by-numbers style—so many pounds of artificial nitrogen, phosphorous, etc. per acre–, are now consciously prioritizing growing life in their soil.

Tilled field and…
No till. Still brown, but much more beautiful.

We’re not the only ones to notice this change. Two years ago it even made the New York Times.

Now a book has come out that puts the shift into a worldwide context.  It’s called Growing A Revolution by David Montgomery. Montgomery is a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington; author of previous popular books, most notably “Dirt,” and a winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” award.

Montgomery’s thesis is that a consensus is emerging in all corners of agriculture and horticulture—from conventional to organic—that the only path toward resilient food production must include an interlocking trio of practices that fall under the rubric of “conservation agriculture.”  These are: No till soil management, cover crops, and crop rotation.

As obvious as these three practices will sound to Gardenopolis Cleveland’s cutting edge gardeners, the abiding wonder of this book is how often humanity has gotten this apparently straightforward mix wrong.  The Mesopotamians messed up the (once) Fertile Crescent. Thomas Jefferson experimented with cover crops and crop rotation, but also invented and promoted the mold-board plow—that great destroyer of mycorrhizal fungi and their nutrient-gathering capability– and thus managed to undo much of the good of his other innovations.  In the 1970s, a young researcher named Rattan Lal, now one of Ohio State University’s most distinguished professors, vastly improved small farm productivity in African test plots with a version of conservation agriculture. But a few short years after his departure, all his good work had been overgrown with trees.  Only the small-scale farmers of China and Japan appear to have been able maintain consistently healthy soil over centuries (aided enormously by their techniques for safely recycling both animal and human waste).

The main contributing factor to humanity’s soil-building failures has been a combination of population growth and an impatience with gradualism. As Europe’s much-plowed soils were running out of fertility, European colonialists replaced it with the Peruvian seabird waste known as guano. As guano supplies diminished, German chemists developed the Haber-Bosch process to produce artificial nitrogen fertilizer. Artificial fertilizers also became one of the pillars of the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, that temporarily rescued farmers worldwide from depleted soils and diminished harvests.

You know the rest of the story: monocultures, fertilizer runoff, Monsanto, glycosophate, herbicide-resistant “superweeds,” and a steady decrease in soil fertility that all of the ministrations of Big Ag have only made worse (requiring still more artificial inputs).

What Montgomery has discovered, however, is that we seem to have reached a genuine tipping point that is taking us back to soil and its neglected life-giving potential.  One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Montgomery, the bearded “Left Coast” professor  is invited to speak to a group of Kansas farmers.

Did he look like this? More gardeners ought to wear overalls. They’re both comfortable and practical. Just be careful not to walk into the Stone Oven coffee house like this!

“As I ended my talk I looked out on a sea of baseball hats.  One elderly fellow in the middle stood up, stuffed his hands down into his pockets, and said he’d taken one look at me and didn’t think I could possibly say anything worth listening to.  I braced myself for what was to come.  But then he surprised me.  He said the more I talked, the more sense I had made.  He’d seen what I was talking about on his farm. It no longer had the rich fertile topsoil his grandfather had plowed. Something needed to change if his own grandchildren were going to prosper working his land.”

What has also changed is soil science.  Mycorrhizal fungi were only named and their function thoroughly described by German scientist A.B. Frank in 1885. Frank contended that mycorrhizal fungi and plants worked in a vital system of symbiosis, with plants trading sugars made via their unique process of photosynthesis for minerals which fungi’s chemical exudates were uniquely able to mine. Frank’s findings flew in the face of conventional wisdom and went through waves of acceptance and dismissal throughout the following century. Yet today we recognize the plant/fungal relationship as the most fundamental to life on land. Neither biological domain could exist on earth without the other (let alone us animals!).

Sara Wright in her lab.

The power of the plant/fungal relationship has only really come into focus in the last 20+ years. In 1996 Sara F. Wright, a U.S.D.A. scientist, first identified glomalin, the mycorrhizal exudate that gives good soil its crumbly texture and, at a micro-level, allows bacteria and fungi to perform their most soil-enhancing functions.  (Why hasn’t Sara Wright won a Nobel Prize!)

At the same time, scientists’ recent ability to decode genomes has revealed a vast, previously unknown realm of microbiological life. To soil scientists the soil microbiome is still, literally, terra incognita. We know enough, however, to understand why the trio of conservation agriculture practices that Montgomery describes work so powerfully together.

No or minimal tillage allows mycorrhizal fungi to extend their appendages called hyphae.  These hyphae, in turn, mine rock and other geological formations for otherwise inaccessible minerals.  They also merge with other like fungi and thus create a vast underground network that, sensing some plant’s need for phosphorous, can both mine and deliver it.

Vetch fixes nitrogen and is a great cover crop.

Cover crops supply their own package of nutrients, including nitrogen (e.g. vetch) and phosphorous (e.g. buckwheat). Harvesting them off above the root, moreover, leaves carbon compounds in the soil to feed all the fungi and other microbiota.

Rotation of multiple crops, the third component of conservation agriculture, follows the lesson that almost every veteran tomato grower knows: One crop in place year after year eventually attracts more natural enemies than it can handle. The more varied crops, the safer they all become.  Moreover, different crops access different mycorrhizal species and networks, as well different minerals. (E.g. sunflowers, which draw up zinc and make it available to the other crops around them).

The lesson: in diversity there is redundancy and strength. All three practices conserve carbon and build soil.  In fact, Montgomery cites a 2014 Rodale Institute that estimates that complete worldwide conversion to conservation agriculture could offset almost three-quarters of then current global emissions.  This might not be as pie-in-sky as a realist might imagine. Montgomery emphasizes throughout how profitable regenerative conservation agriculture can be for farmers (not, however, for suppliers of agri-chemicals!).

Montgomery has clearly written this book for the next potential generation of farmer converts to conservation agriculture and to their potential policymaker supporters. But the predominantly gardener readers of Gardenopolis Cleveland will find the book a useful mirror by which to judge their own practices and act as even more informed consumers. The book is accessible in a comfortable journalistic way, but the reader is always aware that, when required, Montgomery can draw on his deep scientific training to summarize, accept and/or dismiss scientific studies as appropriate.

Some other tidbits/insights:

–Montgomery notes that many “organic” farmers fall short—and their crops suffer- -when it comes to implementing conservation agriculture. The more enlightened seem to be adopting some of the techniques of conventional agriculture—like every once-in-while application of a fungicide—to get their conservation agriculture trio of practices into proper balance. Despite my description above, soil and circumstances vary, and there seems to be a emerging productive middle ground, albeit still with very low chemical inputs.

–The two biggest obstacles to widespread adoption of conservation agriculture in the U.S.?  The first, predictably, is Big Ag, the complex of seed, agri-chemicals, equipment producers, and food distributors.  These companies dominate U.S. agricultural research and educational funding not to mention the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. They are also the only entities to consistently profit off the current system.  The second, more surprisingly, is crop insurance. The ability of make money even through crop failure keeps our present destructive system in place.  Montgomery seems to take special pleasure in describing how well off financially the new conservation agriculture farmers—who pay exponentially less for chemical and other inputs—have become–to the point of fancy wine cellars!. Most are so profitable they don’t bother with crop insurance, even if it is federally subsidized.

–Smaller really is beautiful.  Conservation agriculture with its multiplicity of crops tends to lend itself to much smaller farms than the as-far-as-the-eye-can-see, massive monoculture systems.  Because the former are more profitable, they may also make room for more -farmers and more prosperous small towns to serve them.  Check out this video to see what can happen.

Could a more prosperous rural America close our current rural/urban political divide?

–Finally, a special point of pride for Ohioans.  Rattan Lal, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog before, and David Brandt, a farmer near Columbus, emerge as towering heroes of this book. After reading this book, you’ll appreciate these two state treasures even more.

Rust Belt Riders – Vroom Vroom

by Elsa Johnson and Tom Gibson

Here at Gardenopolis Cleveland we are huge advocates for soil — you may remember that one of our early book reviews was on Kristen Ohlson’s The Soil Will Save Us – and as true believers, we’re all working on making our own soils more productive without the use of chemical fertilizers or tilling. And we know we are not alone in our belief in the importance of healthy soil.

Recently two of us dropped in on Rust Belt Riders, a small composting business located in a warehouse just east of downtown. Cleveland’s Ingenuity Festival shares warehouse space here, storing many colorful props that we had to wind our way around, which made for a strong contrast with Rust Belt Riders, who are basically three guys (all philosophy majors) doing experiments indoors (a tilapia raising tank and filtration tanks to clean the water) while cooking several large piles of compost outdoors.

As gardeners, most of the compost available to us commercially is based on the decomposition of leaves and yard waste, through the process we call composting. It is a large scale production undertaken by our local cities. Most people still, we suspect, send a lot of their ordinary food waste down the food disposal or into the trash, where it ends up — encased in lasts-for-millennia black plastic — in the dump. A smaller number of us home ‘compost’ (raise your hands, please).  

But most of us ‘compost’ rather loosely (I know I do).  We throw organic plant material from our yards and our plates onto a pile stashed somewhere we can’t actually see it (we call this the backyard feeding station), throw a few leaves or grass clippings on top, and expect that in time it will decay into something we can use on our gardens. And hey, in time, it will. But the Rust Belt Riders approach is way more scientific and controlled. They have studied the soil food web ecosystem, that sustainable system by which microscopic organisms in the soil exist in beneficial symbiosis with plants; that system that perpetually renews soil and plant health—-in contrast to the life-eradicating damage done by tillage or chemical fertilizers.

Their stated mission is to Feed People. Not Landfills. Their goal is to restore the soil food web, not destroy it. Don’t you want to get in on that good work? — Putting the carbon back in the soil.

What is their process…?  Rust Belt Riders collect organic food waste from grocery stores, restaurants, and businesses (50 in all) mix it with other organic ingredients in measured amounts, and ‘cook’ it to specific temperatures for specific periods of time. The key is those other organic ingredients—mainly old wood chips that only fungi are equipped to decompose and that comprise close to 60% of the total compost pile. The end result is compost that is alive with the fungi,bacteria, and other micro- and macrofauna like nematodes that, in combination, take plant health to a higher level.  (Biologically active soil also requires less watering!)

In addition to selling the compost, Rust Belt Riders also offers soil consultations, zero waste events, and workshops. But perhaps the most useful way to make use of Rust Belt Riders would be their collection service. Currently they collect from various sources like restaurants and grocery stores. But it seems to Gardenopolis Cleveland that an opportunity exists for communities of various scales (from a street, for example, to an incorporated entity like a city) to get in on the collection end by having a central collection area where ordinary individuals could bring their household organic waste (no meat), and a regular collection date. That would take things to a whole different level.

Interested in the soil food web? Go to: Soilfoodweb.com

Interested in Rust Belt Riders? Go to: www.rustbeltriders.com

Garden Experiments: Sorghum-Sudan Grass and Nettles

by Tom Gibson

(This is the inaugural installment of what we at Gardenopolis Cleveland hope will become an ongoing series.  Have you read something in a gardening book or blog or article that made you want to try something new?  How did it work out for you? We’re looking for short, pithy articles not only from editors, but from you, the reader.)

Garden Experiment #1: Sorghum-Sudan Grass

One of the garden “stars” in Michael Phillips’ book Mycorrhizal Planet is Sorghum-Sudan grass (sorghum sudanese).  This annual grows up to 12 feet tall very rapidly, especially in hot weather, thus creating lots of compostable biomass. But it has two other special virtues: 1) Its roots can provide habitat for up to 50 species of mycorrhizal fungi.  And 2) when mowed, the plant responds by expanding its root mass, sometimes by a factor of two.  That means lots of carbon for microflora to feast on during the next growing season.

If ever soil needed more carbon, it was the garden plot I inherited at the Oxford Community Garden in Cleveland Heights.  Light tan in color, it was clearly more dirt than soil.  Weeds like thistle (that thrive in calcium-and phosphorous-deficient soil) loved it.  Although I reserved one strip of my plot for an attempt at tomatoes (aided by some calcium sulfate and worm castings), I seeded the rest in July with sorghum-sudan grass along with a multi-species, mycorrhizal-based fertilizer with the brand name of Dr. Earth. I bought the latter at Home Depot, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago before mycorrhizal additives started to go mainstream. 

The seed (5 lbs. that I bought online at seedranch.com for just $15) was easy to sow, though it required coverage from bird-proof netting. (Flocks of birds flew away as I approached the garden after my initial broadcast planting!)  The seed germinated right away and quickly dominated the plot. 

Then, in early October, I trimmed the grass with hedge clippers.  The cut grass should be no less than six inches high, Phillips says, for the best post-trimming root expansion.  Next spring is when I’ll take a mulching mower to the process. Then I plan to plant right into the plant-stubbled soil.  I’ll let you know what results.

Garden Experiment #2: Roasted Stinging Nettle Seeds

This idea comes from the far corners of the Web, where hairy counterculturists congregate.  (e.g.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7TJwh5nu9Y  and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD4kDo0Z7Y4).   These videos drew me in because stinging nettle has become one of my favorite garden vegetables.  It’s great with garlic and eggs for breakfast and in evening meal main courses such as stinging nettle lasagna.  And, as permaculturists know, stinging nettle offers twice the nutritional value of even vitamin-and-mineral-rich mainstream vegetables such as spinach.  (I tell my permaculture classes that nettles have developed a sting for the same reason that banks install alarms: to protect valuables stored inside!  Fortunately, deer don’t wear gloves or know how to steam the leaves to neutralize the formic acid sting, so stinging nettle offers the added benefit of being herbivore-free!)

Stinging nettle seed is just as rich in nutrients as the leaves.  This year, with regular rains extending into July, my stinging nettle seed crop was exceptionally robust.  How much effort, I asked myself, would it take to collect the seed and was it worth the effort?

 

I was feeling pressed for time, so, as a test, I just cut the six longest stalks and dumped them top first into a refuse bag.  There they sat drying (until I remembered them!) for almost two months.  Then I cut off the little bunches of seed pods and pressed them into a colander.  Voila!  Tiny black seeds emerged on the other side.  We then roasted them with a little salt and oil.  The result: nutty and crunchy.

Critically, the roasted nettle seeds pass the all-important “wife test.” They added a nice crunchy texture to the rice and veggie lunch we prepared.  We thought, however, they might stand out best on simpler dishes such as scrambled eggs or plain rice.

In terms of future garden productivity, the newly-discovered edibility of stinging nettle seed extends the harvest season of what has become, for us, a staple crop.  The leaves are at their best from May through June, but become less digestible when plants start to flower in July.  (One of the visual pleasures of a breezy July day is to watch wind-borne clouds of nettle pollen drift past their neighbors.) Now we can harvest seed in quantity, roast it, and enjoy it during the winter months.

Book Review: Mycorrhizal Planet

by Tom Gibson

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mycorrhizal Planet, a new book by Michael Phillips, is a true breakthrough book, one that will provide new, valuable information for every serious organic gardener.  The book describes how mycorrhizal fungi work with plant partners and gives detailed, practical information on how to maximize the power of fungi in all sorts of gardens—from backyard tomato patches to full-fledged agroforests.

The book combines a distillation of extensive scientific literature with decades of the author’s hands-on experience growing fruit and other crops. [As chance would have it, I just completed an Ohio State mycology course  last fall and wrote my class paper on Maxmizing Positive Fungal Power in the Food Forest. So I know a little of the difficult scientific terrain Phillips had to traverse.]  You would expect such a book to be densely packed, and it is. But it is also logical, good-humored, and down-to-earth, which should be more than enough to lead the committed gardener down a productive path toward a new set of best practices.

We need them.

The 20th Century produced some of the most brutal wars in history, but none so little noticed or comprehended as its War on Soil.  Some background and at least a partial explanation of why the War on Soil was so unwitting:

Soil, understood as something orders of magnitude different than mere dirt, consists of minerals, dead organic matter, and multiple living organisms that are often measured, breathtakingly, in billions per teaspoon.  Of these organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form the connective tissue on binds most plants.     Their hyphae—microscopic filaments—exude chemicals that dissolve potential food—from minerals to wood to dead insects—and then capture it by forming the equivalent of a new stomach wall around it.  See the graphic below where the red represents all the fungus’s external chemical activity. As its “stomach wall” expands, the fungus burrows its way tens of meters from its point of origin, all in the search for more food. 

Much of the food it seeks, however, is not for itself, but for its plant partners.  In return for the phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements our fungus gathers, it trades them in for plant sugars.  These provide the fungus energy to expand and capture still more plant nutrients. Put simply, mycorrhizal fungi extend the reach of plant roots by factors of 10 or more—costing the plant far less energy than if they had to expand their root system to cover the same territory.

Fungally-derived nutrients are so important to plants that they may devote one-third of all the sugars they produce to feeding fungi. It is no exaggeration to say that this trading system forms the core of life on earth.  It has been in place since both plants and fungi crawled their way out of prehistoric seas.   The relationship is so tight that mycorrhizae and plants have evolved to cooperate at the cellular level with the most prevalent mycorrhizal type—arbuscular mycorrhizae—actually penetrating the cell walls of a given plant root.   

But that’s only the beginning.  Individual fungi merge with other members of their own species to further increase their reach.  The resulting network forms microscopic highways for beneficial bacteria to travel the landscape. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnsYh6511Ic And fungi emit a soil protein called glomalin which binds soil minerals and organic matter loosely together in a way that allows the overall soil complex to both breathe and retain water.  We call the resulting aggregation soil “tilth” —-the exact opposite of that gardening curse: soil compaction. 

LW
The modified dry litter waste management system uses dry available carbon materials such as chipped coconut husks and woods as bedding materials that reduces exposure of pollutants and pathogens from animal manure to ground and surface water resources.. It requires no water. Pigs are comfortable in their bedding. Pig activity turns and aerates the litter promoting decomposition of waste materials. The system allows farmers to safely manage animals while promoting a healthy and clean environment.

Surprisingly, much of this knowledge has only emerged recently.  Glomalin, for example, was identified by a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture scientist in 1996!

It is this tightly-woven mineral/fungal/plant interrelationship that 20th Century agriculture and horticulture ripped apart.  Tillage and plowing chopped up all those fungal hyphae.   Artificial fertilizers fooled plants into happily dropping their partnership with living food providers (sort of like satisfying children with a perpetual diet of macaroni and cheese!).  Disconnection from fungal partners, however, limited the availability of trace elements that fungi help scavenge.  These trace elements—molybdenum, boron, etc.–are essential to full plant health. Fungally-trapped soil carbon also disappeared.  All together, the negative cascade of disappearing nutrients left a void that growers filled with ever more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  The ultimate result: ever less nutrition for both plants and their human consumers.

Phillips explains our downward agricultural slide in nuanced detail. But his greater emphasis is not on what went wrong, but how to make one’s own garden right. The three chapters (“Provisioning the Mycorrhizosphere,” “Fungal Accrual,” and “Practical Nondisturbance Techniques”) that make up the bulk of the book tell how to energize and expand fungal networks.

The committed gardener will find numerous possibilities for fungal enhancement of soil, ones that will require rereading and also rethinking of one’s approach to gardening.  Out of dozens and dozens ideas the book offers, here are a few that I’m either implementing now or plan to in the near future.

  1. Ramial wood chips.  These are wood chips made from fresh twigs and branches, the ones where a tree’s most recent growth has occurred. As one might expect, such high growth portions of the tree carry the highest concentration of nutrients—calcium, phosphorus, nitrogen, etc.  Fortunately, these young branches are often the ones professional arborists insert into their chipping machines and which they often have to pay to dispose of as landfill.  So it’s easy to persuade neighborhood tree cutters to dump a truck load.  I’ve done that and the chips have made my soil darker and richer and my plants happier. 

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  2. Direct feeding of mycorrhizae by air-knifing holes in the soil under a tree’s drip line, then injecting (often proprietary) fungal food.  I had this done last fall to reinvigorate what my arborist diagnosed as oxygen-deprived oak trees.   The result: more vigorous-appearing oaks, but also a tripling (!) of fruit production of my pawpaw and peach trees planted under the oak’s drip line.
  3. Planting of what Phillips calls “bridge trees.”  These are trees planted specifically to connect more of the separate fungal pathways of a given orchard or food forest and thus, as fungal networks tend to do, share nutrients to those plants which need them most.  Fruit trees typically work with arbuscular mycorrhizal partners, while oaks, maple and hickory work with ectomycorrhizal partners. Typically those two groups of fungi don’t “talk.” But a few tree species—willows, poplars, alders—partner happily bridge with both fungal communication gap. Within a broader landscape, they and their fungal partners open the possibility of tapping a much wider nutrient pool.  So I’ve begun to encourage alders—already self-seeding to some extent in my food forest—by planting more in strategic locations.

As readers can now gather, Phillips goes into considerable detail.  Yet what makes the appearance of this book especially exciting is how readable  the author is able to make it.

A typical passage will begin close to the “duh” level of simplicity; e.g. “Mycorrhizal fungi are the principal means plants have for obtaining phosphorus…the middle letter in NPK as represented by those three omnipresent numbers on a bag of fertilizer.”  But then Phillips escalates quickly into a discussion of slow- vs. fast-release phosphorus and the relative “cost” to the plant of exuding organic acids to feed phosphorous-gathering fungi.  Similarly, when Phillips must dip into scientific language—like “anastomosis,” the merging of separate fungi—he always defines it in understandable terms.

So, readable, yes, but also dense and complex.

Did I mention that this book is for gardening nerds?

Villanelle for Garlic Mustard

by Don Abbot aka The Snarky Gardener

garlic_mustard_flowering
I fell in love with an uncommon weed

Garlic Mustard is the way she’s known by some

Though others name her an invasive breed

Immigrants concealed in their coats her seed

America bound via boats they’ve come.

I fell in love with their uncommon weed.

During spring I gather, harvest, and bleed,

Loading bags until my hands are numb.

And people dub her an invasive breed!

In times when skies are dry and there’s great need

Gardeners grow her without a green thumb

I fell in love with this uncommon weed

Abundance and charity are my creed

This strong herb fills many stomachs with yum,

Though experts term her an invasive breed

Prepare pesto with her bounty, I plead!

For us, many a meal she will become

I fell in love with my uncommon weed

Because they call her an invasive breed.

Perennials that won’t tolerate leaf mulches by Thomas Christopher of Garden Rant

GARDENOPOLIS Cleveland thanks Thomas Christopher and Garden Rant for this interesting and relevant article.

Perennials that won’t tolerate leaf mulches by Thomas Christopher

In a recent post, Evelyn Hadden shared some very useful tips on how fall’s leaves can be used in the garden.   As a perennial enthusiast, I’d like to add a couple of caveats – a mulch of autumn leaves can be fatal to certain kinds of perennials.

A mulch of freshly fallen leaves applied an inch or two thick, or even just a heavy leaf fall from nearby trees, tends to keep the ground beneath it damp, especially if the leaves are large and you don’t shred them before applying them (I always recommend shredding leaves with a dedicated leaf shredder or a lawn mower when using them as mulch).

Because they keep the ground damp, leaf mulches of any kind, shredded or otherwise, are not beneficial for silvery, woolly-leaved plants such as lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) or lavenders (Lavandula spp.).  These plants are adapted to dry sites — their silver hue and hairy surface are adaptions to protect them against dehydration and drought – and they will rot if  kept consistently damp.

IMG_7115

Gray, hairy plants like this lamb’s ear won’t tolerate leaf mulches 

Other perennials that won’t tolerate prolonged dampness include many culinary herbs such as thyme, oregano, and sage, all of which are native to the dry, rocky soils found around the Mediterranean. In fact, Mediterranean plants as a whole generally do not flourish when swaddled with leaves.

Succulents likewise will rot if kept damp; keep leaf mulches away from your sedums.  Alpine plants are also vulnerable to damp, especially in wintertime – do not use leaf mulches in the rock garden (a gravel mulch is far better there).

Finally, as Dale Hendricks emphasized in a recent email, leaf mulches are also problematic for herbaceous evergreens such as heucheras and hellebores.  If the mulch is applied simply by raking or blowing leaves onto the garden bed, then it is likely to bury the perennials’ foliage and interfere with their wintertime photosynthesis (a heavy leaf fall from nearby trees can achieve the same thing if left undisturbed).  When used around evergreens, I recommend shredding the leaves thoroughly and then tucking the mulch in by hand so as not to bury the foliage.

IMG_6941

Care must be used in mulching evergreens like these coral bells

Photos by Susan Harris.

Perennials that won’t tolerate leaf mulches originally appeared on Garden Rant on November 28, 2015.

GARDENOPOLIS Cleveland Plans Pollinator Pocket Project!!!

News from the trenches: GARDENOPOLIS Cleveland proposes planting Pollinator Pockets around the city!

Gardenopolis_PollinatorPocket_final_o

The need to establish habitats for pollinating insects has been much in the news lately. Many homeowners have been inspired to do their part and we are inspired to help them to do so. Our grand goal is to facilitate the planting of a series of carefully curated 5’x5’ pollinator pockets throughout the Cleveland urban area. According to a number of sources these small plots are enough habitat to nurture and sustain a variety of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, moths and other needed insects.

butterfly on coneflower 2

We think this is a great idea—a manageable  and incremental way for each of us to do our part. And, just think how beautiful it would be if each block had a series of such plantings!

Right now we are preparing the soil of 7 sample plots around Shaker and Cleveland Heights using the lasagna mulching technique (layers of newspaper, straw, leaves, manure, compost and wood chips.)

jane lasagna mulch

In the spring we will install  pollinator plants for all-season bloom and deer-resistance. We will provide participating homeowners with an instruction manual for the maintenance of the chosen plants. You will be able to identify our Pollinator Pockets by the yard signs posted near the pollinator pockets. Sound appealing? Next year you may yearn for one of your own. We will keep you posted as to pollinator plot progress and how you may sign-up.

Watch for our sign: 

Gardenopolis_PollinatorPocket_final_o

The Peril of Plant-Lust

“You Will Regret It.” I have said that at times to my more willful landscape clients – and even on occasion to myself — when they or I have succumbed to an ill-advised plant-lust. Live and learn, with the emphasis on the latter.

We have written in Gardenopolis about akebia, the vine that’s willing to take over the world of your back yard and your neighbor’s too; …and we have also heard a rebuttal argument that through the practice — the firm hand — of good husbandry, akebia can be made to behave appropriately and thus be enjoyed. Good husbandry in this context means being a responsible gardener, which means understanding any potential negative long term consequences of planting specific invasive plants, and either undertaking the maintenance needed to contain them, as with akebia, or deciding that perhaps it would be better not to plant it at all: after all, you may control your akebia, but should you move, will the next owner of your house? 

Some other plants that also fall into this category are most barberries, multiflora rose, and many non-native honeysuckles (lonicera). The problem with these plants is that their fruits are eaten by birds, the seeds are ingested, and then released elsewhere, perhaps miles away. So, for example, barberry can now be found deep in the pristine woodlands of Holden Arboretum, or closer to home, in our secret jewel, Forest Hill Park, where multiflora rose has volunteered itself, as well as the barberry. When I go to visit my son in Connecticut I sometimes walk a power-line nature trail near his house that is completely overrun with multiflora rose. No one planted them.

In some states the nursery trade is discouraged from stocking certain barberry, while a few other barberries, such as ‘Crimson Pigmy’ or ‘Helmond Pillar’ are allowed as they are considered less invasive.  I have a ‘Helmond Pillar’ in my own yard and I watch it closely. This year it is loaded with berries (most years berries are sparse). My own theory for why it may not be invasive is that because of its very tight, upright growth habit birds just don’t use it; I never see birds landing on or roosting in this plant.

Helmond Pillar

For years I had an ordinary green barberry that grew right under a window. It came with the house when I bought it. I kept it for its deterrent value, but cut it back hard several times each year (well gauntleted). The birds loved this barberry and roosted in it all year, but especially in winter, with a nice layer of snow on top.  This year I ripped it out.  I will plant something else for the birds– maybe next week. I’d like to get something in before the snow flies; my cats like to sit on a cushion in the window and watch the birds. Since they are indoor cats I allow them this indulgence.

More on other invasive plants another time.

It Ain’t Over (Don’t start Persephone’s Lament, just yet)

by Ann McCulloh

This ecstatically blue and gold November day, with temperatures in the 70s and honeybees buzzing happily in the purple aster blossoms, gives ample support to my passionate assertion: “The season’s not over, everybody!”

allyssum and parsley

I resist with every fibre of my being the common idea that gardening in Cleveland begins on Memorial Day and whimpers to a close around Labor Day. End the calendar’s tyranny! Don’t go inside before the snow flies! Everywhere you look there’s evidence of abiding life. It’s in the late blooming asters, monkshood and mistflower. Witness the fresh blossoms of borage, calendula, allysum and roses that spring forth with new vigor now the nights are cooler and the rains more abundant.

allyssum and parsley

My zucchini and summer squash are putting out new fruits.

zucchini in november

Fresh rosettes of tasty foliage emerge at the base of all my herbs: parsley, mint, oregano and lemon balm – just in time for me to cut and dry for the onset of winter. One of my favorite salad greens, mache (aka corn salad, and Rapunzel salad) scattered its seeds in May, to lie dormant all summer. Look at it popping up through the straw everywhere!

corn salad

This is a tender little rosette like miniature Boston lettuce, which can be harvested from now through March from under a covering of straw and snow. Kale, collards, chard and tatsoi are other cold-hardy greens that won’t quit for just a few frosts.

tatsoi

All this and more tell me there’s always plenty going on both above and below ground (where the growing never really stops.) I may retreat indoors for a month or two. But come January there’s “winter sowing” of hardy perennials and cold-loving annuals (more on that in a future post), branches to cut and force indoors, and the flowers of witchhazel, Lenten rose and snowdrops to call me back outside.