Thursday, January 31, 2008

Gardening for Wildlife: Nesting Sites

The perpetuation of any species requires reproduction. If we want to help wildlife, we need to help assure that we'll have wildlife year after year. Nesting sites are a critical part of any backyard wildlife habitat.

Nesting boxes for cavity-nesting birds are easily built from pine or cedar. These boxes imitate natural cavities in dead trees. It's easy to find many plans and styles on the internet. Look for plans that include a swing-away wall or roof so that you can clean the box out at the end of nesting season. Different birds require boxes and entry holes of different sizes, so spend some time observing the birds that you have in your area and build nesting boxes suitable for them. Houses can be built for birds ranging from tiny wrens to screech owls. Leave the inside of the box rough, or score some groves on the inside under the entrance hole to help baby birds climb out. It's also a good idea to leave it unpainted so that it blends in with the background. Birds tend not to choose brightly-painted birdhouses that are too conspicuous. In addition to birds, squirrels will often use nesting boxes designed just for them.

Predators can be a real problem around nesting boxes. Raccoons, squirrels, cats, and rats will all prey on nestlings if they can reach them. A predator guard, a cylinder of wire mesh fixed to the front of the box, helps exclude predators.

Many birds prefer nesting platforms. These birds normally nest in the fork of a tree, but will often use a well-designed platform for nest construction. Other birds prefer to build nests in trees or thick shrubs. Just planting a tree in your yard if you have none already will vastly increase the value of your yard to wildlife.

Larger, permanent provide reproductive opportunities for amphibians and aquatic insects. Be sure to leave some debris in the bottom of the pond, and provide heavy rocks or drain tiles on the bottom to give protection from predators. If a pond is large enough and natural enough, it might even attract ducks.

Rock piles, brush piles, and log piles, discussed in the article on Cover, also provide nesting sites for some species of birds and for small mammals. Some insects and spiders lay their eggs in these piles, and they in turn provide food for many of the larger animals that use piles for nesting and hiding.

Butterflies seek out larval food plants for laying their eggs. Because so many people whisk out the pesticides at the first sign of caterpillar activity in their garden, reproductive opportunities for butterflies are limited in the suburbs. People don't often think that the green caterpillar that they despise is the infant form of the butterfly they admire -- or even if they do, they may still protest, "But I don't want those awful things eating my plants!" To assist butterflies, do some research on the internet to find out what butterflies are native to your area. Find out what kind of plants their larvae need, and plant these in a quiet, protected corner of their yard. Many will be native plants that need little care. If your larval garden is out of sight, perhaps your neighbors will never notice that you're providing a feast for caterpillars, and you can help boost the butterfly population in your neighborhood.

Food, water, cover, and nesting sites -- provide all four, and you'll soon see a lot more wildlife in your yard.

The entire Gardening for Wildlife series:
Gardening for Wildlife: The 4 Element
Gardening for Wildlife: Food
Gardening for Wildlife: Water
Gardening for Wildlife: Cover
Gardening for Wildlife: Nesting Sites

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Gardening for Wildlife: Cover

The third element of wildlife gardening is cover. Animals are more likely to stay around if they feel safe, and to feel safe, they need places to hide. Prey animals particularly want safe havens where they can retreat if they feel threatened. Predators, too, including toads, lizards, and garter snakes needs a place to hide as they hunt, rest, and escape from their own predators.

Ground cover provides living cover for many small animals. Insects, including many ground beetles, hide under thick vegetation. I've seen patches of ivy where garter snakes thrived, safely hidden by the thick leaves while moving freely between the vines and eating up the slugs they found there. A variety of different ground covers will give animals a choice of the green cover they prefer. Depending on the sun exposure of your site, consider Lady's Mantle, vinca, creeping phlox, creeping thyme, Roman chamomile, verbena, veronica, and evergreen ferns such as sword fern planted thickly. Be cautious of ivy, which has become a noxious weed in many forests. Ajuga, also called bugle, can also make a pest of itself.

Evergreen shrubs, both broad-leafed and coniferous, provide year-around cover for small birds. Clip them loosely so that there is good protection, but so that the shrubs are still open enough for birds to easily get in and out of them.

Brush piles also make great cover for birds and small mammals. Find a quiet corner of your yard where the pile will seldom be disturbed, and that's not directly in your line of sight since a brush pile can look messy. Lay down some logs, thick branches, or scrap lumber to provide open space under the pile. Then when you prune your shrubs, pile up the twigs and branches until you have a stack that is several feet high. If you have them, fern fronds or cedar branches laid over the top help provide a little rain protection.

Log piles, too, will provide hiding places for many small animals. If you stack wood outdoors for the winter, keep an eye out for salamanders and many beetles and spiders that will hide there.

Rock piles are favored by reptiles. Stack heavy rocks in a sunny place, preferably near a concrete sidewalk, driveway, or patio. Reptiles like to bask on the warm concrete, and can retreat to the rock pile if danger threatens. A few flat stones beside the pile also provide a basking place, as does the pile itself. Be sure the stones are heavy enough that predators such as raccoons would have a difficult time pulling your rock pile apart.

Roosting boxes are useful for birds in the winter when the weather turns foul. Cornell has a good site on birds with instructions on How to Build a Roost Box. Bats, too, use roost boxes all through the year. The boxes should be places on the side of a house, high wall, or barn, at least ten feet above the ground. They can also be placed on the side of a tree if the trunk is clear of branches up to and somewhat above the roost box, but bats seem less inclined to use a tree-mounted box than a wall-mounted box. Be sure, though, that the box is placed where bat droppings won't be a problem. Here is a site that has several plans for building bat houses.

One thing to keep in mind as you make your plans, though, is to have little cover near bird feeders and bird houses. Birds feel safer if the ground near their feeding stations is open, with few places for predators to hide.

For your own safety, be aware that lots of thick shrubbery next to your house can give burglars a place to hide. People living in poisonous snake territory may want to limit the amount of ground cover they grow, and keep the lower branches of shrubs trimmed up to limit the places where poisonous snakes might lurk.

The entire Gardening for Wildlife series:
Gardening for Wildlife: The 4 Element
Gardening for Wildlife: Food
Gardening for Wildlife: Water
Gardening for Wildlife: Cover
Gardening for Wildlife: Nesting Sites

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Gardening for Wildlife: Water

Water is a critical element in any wildlife garden. Food may be widely available, but water is often scarce, especially in the dry summer months but also during winter, when many water sources are frozen.

Even a simple bird bath like mine will help provide water. I made this one from three terra-cotta pots of increasing sizes glued together with silicone sealer, and a terra-cotta saucer glued to the top. I left it unadorned to blend in with the earth tones of the woodsy garden, but one could paint such a bird bath or decorate it with mosaic tiles. In addition, I have a ground-level bird bath which is simply a large plastic saucer meant for planters that I keep filled with water. A stone in the saucer gives birds a place to perch and bathe. The bird baths dry out quickly in the summer so I have to remember to keep them filled. I also have to remove the ice on freezing days.

Garden ponds are a good option for people with sufficient room and funds. A crystal-clear, sparkling pond looks lovely, but if you want one that will attract aquatic wildlife, let at least some debris accumulate in the bottom, and grow emergent plants in the pond. Also, don't plan to raise hungry fish, which will gobble up amphibian eggs and aquatic insects. If you're lucky, you may have dragonflies, frogs, or salamanders laying eggs in the pond. If possible, secure a concrete drain tile or similar protective structures to the bottom of pond to give your water creatures a safe haven when raccoons come looking for food.

Rain gardens are a less expensive option that can provide a small marsh or a pond, fed by runoff from your roof or a steep driveway. Rain gardens are located in a sunny spot at least ten feet from your foundations, in a place where the downspouts empty. The garden itself is constructed by leveling the spot and digging a hole several feet deep. The excavated soil can be used to build a berm around the hole if needed for leveling. The hole is backfilled with soil mixed with a lot of compost, peat moss, or other organic matter. A trench may be needed to direct water from the downspout into the rain garden. Plant the garden with marsh plants which love to have their feet wet. A rain garden may have standing water during your rainy season, and may dry out during hotter weather, so native plants that are adapted to your local weather are the best choice. Many of these plants will support butterfly populations. In addition to helping wildlife, rain gardens give runoff water a place to go besides the gutter and sewer system. For detailed instructions on constructing rain gardens, see the Rain Gardens of West Michigan website.

So get creative. Where can you incorporate a wildlife-friendly water feature in your garden?

The entire Gardening for Wildlife series:
Gardening for Wildlife: The 4 Element
Gardening for Wildlife: Food
Gardening for Wildlife: Water
Gardening for Wildlife: Cover
Gardening for Wildlife: Nesting Sites

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Gardening for Wildlife: Food

The first of the four elements to provide for your wild visitors is food. While our first impulse is often to put out lots of bird feeders, the backbone of any wildlife feeding project should be food-bearing plants, preferably native plants.

Assess your yard as it is. Do you have plants that provide berries, nuts, or seeds? Do you provide plants that caterpillars can munch on? Are there plenty of nectar-producing flowers? If your yard is a little short on wild food, consider adding shrubs, trees, or herbaceous plants to create a wildlife cafeteria.

Here are some specifics to consider:

If you want butterflies, plant flowers, shrubs, and trees that will feed both adults and their larvae. Adult butterflies feed on nectar, but their larvae need the leaves of specific plants. Of course, that means that you will have to allow the larvae to feed on your plants, and not allow anyone to talk you into spraying for the voracious little things. Use the internet to find out which butterflies are common in you area, and the plants that they feed on. The Foremost Insurance Group has a nice list of the larval food plants and butterfly nectar plants in their butterfly garden. The Butterfly Site has great information on creating a butterfly garden.

In addition to flowers as nectar sources, you can also hang butterfly feeders in the garden. Here are instructions from All Free Crafts on how to make a butterfly feeder. Be aware, though, that open sources of sugary foods may attract hornets as well as butterflies.

Seed-eating birds will flock to bird feeders that are kept full. Don't fill them with cheap bird seed which contains filler seeds that birds don't like. Black sunflowers seeds are a good choice for most feeder birds throughout the year. Suet cakes are favored by many winter birds. Thistle or niger seeds will attract finches, especially goldfinches, and are a good summer food. Thistle should be offered in special thistle seed feeders. Be sure that feeders drain well to prevent the seeds from molding. Drill extra drainage holes in the bottom if you need to.

Be sure to provide lots of natural forage as well. Let your annuals go to seed, especially sunflowers, cosmos, and marigolds. If you have room, plant red-hot pokers, which attract hummingbirds and finches with their abundant nectar. Berries will attract fruit-eating birds, as anyone who has grown strawberries or blueberries can tell you! Try planting elderberry near your berry patch. Many fruit-eating birds favor the smaller elderberries over strawberries, and feel safer feeding from the taller elderberry shrubs instead foraging for strawberries on the ground. Serviceberry, rowan, Japanese aralia, and madrone all bear fruits that birds will feed on. The Japanese aralia, which grows well in full shade, provides winter fruit, and will be picked clean before winter is over. A wide variety of shrubs and plants will also attract an array of small insects, which provide forage for insect-eating birds.

For hummingbirds, provide plenty of nectar-rich flowers, such as honeysuckle, hardy fuchsia, red salvia, and hummingbird mint. Supplemental feeders should be filled with a syrup made of one part table sugar to four parts water. Sucrose -- table sugar -- is the same sugar found in natural flower nectar. Do not use honey, which can cause liver problems, and of course don't use artificial sweeteners which have no food value at all. Be sure the feeder is sparkling clean at all times to prevent fungal infections.

But think carefully...
There are some animals that you don't really want to attract. In our neighborhood I've seen raccoons, opossums, rats, and skunks. Raccoons are adorable and fun to watch -- until they break into your house and raid your cupboards. They're intelligent animals with dexterous paws and can learn to turn doorknobs. Besides the potential for raccoon break-ins, raccoons can harbor rabies, roundworms, and distemper. They also kill kittens may kill adult cats -- though I watched a big orange tabby tree a young 'coon once. 'Possums can break into sheds and houses, and can get into fights with cats. Rats are great for spreading disease, and can find all sorts of ways to get into houses. As for skunks, I think we all know why we don't really want them in the back yard!

To make your home less attractive to pesky sorts of wildlife, the number one rule is don't feed them! Don't leave pet food out at night, and be sure to secure all garbage cans. Don't even store pet food outside in one of those fancy containers with the screw-on lid. Raccoons can figure out how to get them open. I put our kitchen waste into an Earth Machine composter which has a fairly secure lid. This helps reduce the amount of food available to pests. Only weeds and other garden waste go in the open bins.

The entire Gardening for Wildlife series:
Gardening for Wildlife: The 4 Element
Gardening for Wildlife: Food
Gardening for Wildlife: Water
Gardening for Wildlife: Cover
Gardening for Wildlife: Nesting Sites

Friday, January 25, 2008

Gardening for Wildlife: the 4 elements

And by 4 elements, I don't mean earth, air, fire, and water. I mean four things that wildlife need to survive and thrive. Since I've issued forth a challenge of creating wildlife habitat in your yard, I suppose the least I can do is offer some instructions. The National Wildlife Federation website, which I linked to in the last post, has quite a bit of information for getting people started.

Nevertheless, here are the basics. I'll expand on these in the next posts.

Food: A habitat must provide wildlife with something to eat. Natural food is preferred, so think in terms of native shrubs, grasses, flowers, and trees that provide sustenance for native animals.

Water: A reliable source of drinking water can be hard to come by. You can attract more wildlife with a small pond than with a dozen bird feeders. Anything from a simple bird bath to an enormous koi pond can add wildlife value to your yard.

Cover: Animals need safe places to hide from predators and to rest. Birds, for example, can hide in shrubs, brush piles, or brambles to avoid marauding cats. Small reptiles appreciate rock piles. Bats often use roosting boxes. Does your yard provide places for small animals to hide?

Nesting sites: While not necessary for the survival of individuals, nesting sites are critical for the survival of a species. Bird houses are good for cavity nesting birds, but other birds prefer platform nests or thick brush for hiding their nests. Frog and aquatic insects may reproduce in a garden pond. And butterflies will lay their eggs on certain plants that their larvae eat.

The entire Gardening for Wildlife series:
Gardening for Wildlife: The 4 Element
Gardening for Wildlife: Food
Gardening for Wildlife: Water
Gardening for Wildlife: Cover
Gardening for Wildlife: Nesting Sites

Monday, January 21, 2008

An Earth Day gardening challenge

Yes, it's still three months until Earth Day 2008, on April 22nd. So there's lots of time to take on my Earth Day challenge and complete it before Earth Day itself rolls around.

What's behind this: I've long been interested in the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat program. I've included wildlife-friendly features as I've worked on improving different parts of my yard, including native plants, a birdbath, nesting boxes, rock and brush piles, and a runoff garden. While I meet the minimum qualifications now, there are a couple more projects I want to complete before I apply for certification and buy one of the nifty metal yard signs that says "Certified Wildlife Habitat." My goal is to be done with my projects, register, and have the yard sign by Earth Day this year.

The challenge: How many Reading Dirt readers will have gardens (or other spots of land that you can influence, like workplace or church grounds, etc.) that qualify as a backyard habitat (whether you choose to officially register or not) by Earth Day 2008? If you have native plants, feeding stations, water features, and shrubs or other cover, you might already qualify.

Here's what to do:
  1. Go to the Garden for Wildlife page and look over the information.
  2. Read about the Basic Elements for getting started.
  3. To find out if you meet the minimum requirements, go to the Certification page, and download the printable PDF application.
  4. If you want, you can keep an online scrapbook of your progress.
  5. When your yard (or other spot of land that you can influence) qualifies, post a comment here. You might want to bookmark this post for later reference.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Eating Local - Taking it to the Limit

If you haven't seen the Path to Freedom website, check it out, and discover how a family is making a living by homesteading in Pasadena, California. Yes, Pasadena. California. Home of ridiculously high land values and a stratospheric cost of living.


You might expect people as nuts... er, as ambitious as that to issue forth an equally ambitious challenge. And here it is: The 100 Foot Diet Challenge. They figure, as many of us gardeners do, that a 100 mile diet is all well and good, but why buy food that has traveled 100 miles if you can grow the same food in your own yard?

The challenge isn't to get all of your food from your own yard all of the time, which is a good thing. Grain takes more room that a suburban backyard has to raise, and some of us live in communities that forbid keeping livestock, even poultry, within the city limits. The challenge is to do what we can to eat an entirely homegrown meal at least once a week. If some part can't be homegrown (like oil, butter, or vinegar), then buy local, fair trade, or organic.

The challenge might be a bit hard for northerners to pull off at this time of the year, but the website does include the words, "as soon as you can." That is, I may not be able to serve up a mixed-greens and tomato salad from my garden right this minute, but I can lay out my garden plans and order seeds so that later in the summer, I can have that salad.

Besides the "greenness" of it all, there's a deep sense of satisfaction from serving up a meal and saying, "All this food you're eating? I grew it!" Or, "Look, everyone, this is as fresh as fresh gets!" So who else wants to get on board with this challenge?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Spring is a-comin' - Let the chores begin!

I know spring is springing soon because the snowdrops are in bloom. I took a flower's-eye view of the first blossoms of 2008 in my front garden. There were a few violets, too, a bit worn from the spate of bad weather, but with a certain rugged, "I don't care if it's January, I'm blooming, okay?" look about them.

After a thick morning fog, the sun came out briefly, and the rain held off, so I could actually get some work done. Among my tasks was setting out the cold frame. There's a mostly sunny spot in the front, with some shrubby conifers backing it, where the frame fit well, so I dug up the soil, added the last bag of cheap discount-store potting mix from the carport (lousy potting soil, but okay for making clay soil a bit lighter), and after setting the frame in place, raked loose mulch and leaves around it to add some insulation.

The bushy pine behind it got a severe cutting back, since it was sprawling all over the place. Not something I planted -- it came with the house. I left a single leader, and I'll see if I can train it better. Once the frame was in place, I planted my lettuce seedlings that I started a while back:

The bottles of water are heat sinks. And if the temperature drops below freezing, they'll release small amounts of heat as they freeze, protecting the seedlings. Of course, it would also help if I put a blanket of Reemay or bubble wrap over the seedlings if frost threatens.

And this? No, it's not an encampment for the Grand Order of Garden Elves:

It's a pair of tunnel cloches for my little kale plants. I used Gro-Therm Perforated Film over hoops of thin bamboo for a little protection from the weather. I've used it with overwintered lettuce before, though the lettuce needed more protection in frosty weather (which I supplied with a large sheet of bubble wrap, an office discard). Kale, which is a lot more frost-hardy, should do fine.

A little Sluggo sprinkled around will keep marauding slugs in check. In a couple of months, I should have some fresh garden greens. Yay!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Return of the Univent

The cold frame that I got for Christmas (see Christmas Loot!) has been awaiting better weather so that I could put it to use. At long last the sun emerged today, and I got a few outdoor chores done. I also dragged the cold frame out from the garage and into the living room to try installing the evil Univent one more time, this time without injuring my fingers.

The difficulty before was that the jaws of the thing stayed wide open when the temperature-sensitive cylinder was in place, making it difficult to install. It was also devilishly hard to get the cylinder in place without the jaws snapping shut and causing bodily harm.

Then it hit me -- the cylinder is temperature sensitive! It closes the lid or greenhouse window or whatever when the temperature is cold!

Well, okay, genius, I thought, put the contraption in the freezer. Duh.

As you can see from the picture, the jaws are closed when the cylinder is cold. Okay, so I took the cylinder itself out of the freezer, installed it in the jaws, and put them back for the photo. But this conveys the idea.

Things would have been so much easier if the company had just put that little tidbit in the instructions.

The next challenge was actually installing the Univent in the cold frame, make all the more difficult when I discovered that the screws I needed were missing. After finding a packet of screws of suitable size in the basement tool box, I set to work. One difficulty still remained: the metal bracket that holds the redwood slats together in the lid is smack in the way of the metal pad on the Univent that needs to be screwed to the lid. I had to do a little jury-rigging with some bits of metal, but I think this will do, since the metal pad only had to push the lid up:

The shot is taken as the cold frame sits upside-down in my living room. Thus it is the bottom of the lid that you see, and the bits sticking out on the right are the bits I had to put in there to make the thing sit right.

Now to find out if it actually works in the real world. I found a place for it outdoors. If the sun comes out tomorrow and warms the inside up, I'd better see it open the lid, or the evil thing is definitely going back where it came from.

An experiment

This jar? It's full of peas. These will grow into snap peas. Last Sunday I soaked them in water overnight, drained them the next day, and let them sit on the kitchen counter with a lid set on lightly, shaking them gently once in a while to keep them aerated and non-moldy. Today they were sporting these lovely "radicals," the proto-roots that first spring forth from a germinating seed.

Why do this? Because I've been reading that in my area, we can start peas in January, well ahead of my grandmother's pea-planting date, which was Washington's birthday, in February.

So I'm going to find out if that's so. But doubting that cold soils would encourage germination, I did the germinating on the kitchen counter. I put the seeds in the ground this afternoon with some pea inoculant. We'll see what happens. I'll try another batch later in February and see if there's a difference in harvest date.

And another rooftop garden - this one edible

From the Dig In with Kym blog on, a post about great gardens from 2007, featuring the city's first commercial rooftop edible garden. The garden, atop the Rocket building near East Burnside in Portland, feeds the Rocket Restaurant just one floor below. Discarded kiddie pools hold enough dirt to support fresh arugula, lettuce, and other fresh foods for hungry diners.

That's a trend I would like to see spread even further -- restaurants striving for the freshest of produce by growing at least some of it themselves.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Keeping Your Resolutions, Now Easier Than Ever

Let me guess, your New Year Resolutions, if you made any, include one or more of the following:
  1. Lose weight
  2. Get fit
  3. Save money
Good news! According to this article in The Telegraph, you can do all three at once by doing what you're already doing: gardening!
  1. Lose weight: Heavy garden chores like shoveling or mowing use as much energy as jogging.
  2. Get fit: Ditto, and besides, all gardening tasks involve moving your body.
  3. Save money: Who needs a gym membership or expensive exercise equipment when you've got a complete workout just outside your door?
In addition, being outdoors and working in the garden often help alleviate the post-holiday blues. So your call: spend time on the treadmill down at the gym, running and running and getting nowhere, or go turn your compost heap and actually get something accomplished. Me, I know where I'm headed, and it doesn't involve running in place.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Review: Cultivating Delight

Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden, by Diane Ackerman (2001, HarperCollins)

Diane Ackerman, well known for her delight in the senses and the sensual, as told in her book A Natural History of the Senses, takes on the garden in this series of seasonal essays about delight, sex, squirrels, roses, Gertrude Jekyll, and more. Ackerman's essays ramble from topic to topic like a strolling observer wandering down a winding garden path. From picking beetles off of the roses in her New York state garden, to tagging Monarch butterflies in the eucalyptus groves of California, to grieving over the death of hatchlings in a toppled birdhouse, to pondering the mystical writing of John Muir, Ackerman details both the dramas and delights of nature and of the garden.

If I were asked what the book was about, I'd have to pause and give it a good deal of thought. I could be flippant and say, "It's about 260 pages long." The only running theme is a close observation of nature, followed by deep pondering. A single essay may start with cicadas, soar to William Blake's poetry, flutter like a butterfly through several herbs, and finally focus in on a female hummingbird and her young offspring visiting a feeder and a sphinx moth that resembles them. Yet when the author says, "Look here! Look at that!" one feels compelled to look and delights to wonder alongside her.

Perhaps it's really garden-themed poetry disguised as prose.

One phrase toward the middle of the book gave me pause. Not long after describing a laborious morning spent picking Japanese beetles off of her vast herds of roses, Ackerman relates why she doesn't grow vegetables: "I've never grown a vegetable garden. I envy those who do, but in my yard that would mean taking a number behind such a long line of vegetable lovers -- raccoons and squirrels and groundhogs, birds and insects -- and demand constant vigilance with little reward. Also, I only eat organic fruits and vegetables, and organic farming takes a lot of labor. I bless all the kind souls who devote their lives to it."

Oh, come now! Can home organic vegetable gardening be any more laborious than organic rose culture? And as for "little reward," surely the author has experienced the beauty of the French-style potager, or well-designed pattern gardens, both of which may take advantage of the natural beauty of vegetable plants and combine them freely with flowers -- which by itself is an organic measure for confusing pests. I wonder what she would think of garden beauties such as Flashy Trout's Back or Devil's Tongue lettuce, what she would make of Drunken Woman, Frizzy Headed lettuce and how it might have gotten its name? How about Purple Peacock or Veronica broccoli, Nero di Toscana kale, or the crimson-and-cream blossoms of the Painted Lady runner bean, as attractive to hummingbirds as to people? Tomatoes, when first introduced to Europe, were grown as ornamentals, and a mauve-tinted, green-shouldered Cherokee Purple, the dusky Purple Calabash, and the weirdly different Ananas Noir have all the colorful subtleties of many a garden flower.

Certainly there's nothing wrong with wanting a bower of roses instead of a vegetable patch, or of wanting a potager instead of a rose walk. But let's not pretend that one is "easier" than the other. We're only more willing to tolerate the dirty work if we're working for something we love.

The book concludes with a section of winter essays, full of the angst of a snowbound gardener waiting for spring, when the novelty of the first snow has long worn off and one longs for an end to the seemingly endless cold. At this point one might emulate the cycle of the seasons and cycle back to the first section, Spring. There is certainly plenty in this book that a second reading -- or a third or fourth -- still feels fresh and full of discoveries.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Gardening at 17 Stories

Many is the time I've been in a big city for one conference or another, and have looked across acre upon acre of black tar rooftop, thinking, "Look at all that space that could hold solar panels and help power those buildings."

Horticulturalists at Oregon State University looked across the same urban roofscape and thought, "That could be a meadow."

Rooftop gardens have been around for a long time, but those meant to be human-centered gardens, with tables and chairs and trees to shade them, generally require extra structural support to hold up all the dirt that's required. OSU researchers are investigating extensive gardens with low-growing plants, some requiring only a few inches of lightweight growing medium, which can happily co-exist with ordinary rooftop structures. Add a rainwater collection system to store water for dry summers, and you have a sustainable garden that can help mitigate runoff, clean the air, and mitigate the effects of putting concrete structures where wild nature used to be.

The full article is here: Greening the Concrete Jungle


When, oh when, will this cycle of storms end? Seems like we've been having a steady stream of windstorms since the end of November. The winds kicked up hard on Friday, whistling through the power lines as I took a noon walk at work, and knocking tops out of trees around the area and then dumping a deluge of rain over the Willamette Valley. We didn't get it quite as bad as the east side of the mountains, where winds were knocking over semi-trucks near Pendleton and blowing rocks -- rocks! -- into people's windshields.

We're getting the winter snowpack we need to keep the rivers fed in the summer, but at what cost?

I watch the rain sluicing down the downspouts and down my driveway in the back and I'm thinking seriously about rain barrels. Something I'll have to look into.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Locavore Baby-Steps Resolution

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2008 be the best year yet. May your lives and your gardens be fruitful.

The longstanding tradition at the New year is to make a list of resolutions for the coming year, so why buck tradition? If you want your resolutions to actually happen, experts suggest writing them as goals, and to be specific as possible. That is, rather than say, "I resolve to save more money this year," say, "I resolve to put $300 in savings at the start every month," or, "I resolve to fully fund my IRA this year."

So in the spirit of the running theme of local eating that has prompted a number of posts here, I propose a baby-steps approach to eating locally to add to your list of resolutions:

The weekly locavore/organivore grocery cart item check system:
Here's how it works: Each week when you shop for groceries, pull one item from the cart and find out where it is grown or produced. If it's not a local product, try to find the same or similar product that is locally grown or produced. You may not be able to answer this right away at the grocery store, but you can carry on your homework for that product during the week. For produce, check out farmer's markets or fruit stands to find out if the item is available now or if it's out of season. Check seed catalogs to see if you can grow it yourself. Find out if it's something you could buy in bulk when it's in season and preserve it for later. In the case of manufactured food products, look up recipes to see if you could make the same thing at home or something better. Are the ingredients that you need locally grown? Can you find local sources for them?

If there is no local source and you can't make or grow the product, look around the store to see if you can:
  • find an organic version of the product (but let's not succumb to silliness in organic labeling, such as this post from The Gardener's Pantry describing an "organic" prepared pancake batter in a spray can).
  • find a fair trade version (for teas, coffee, chocolate, or spices if you can't do without them).
  • find a substitute, such as using locally-produced honey instead of sugar.
  • do without entirely.
Will you count "locally manufactured" as fair if you can't find locally-grown? I leave that up to you. Patronizing local businesses is usually a good thing. By the end of the year, though, you'll have made a thoughtful decision regarding up to 52 items you commonly buy at the grocery store. And if there aren't 52 different items that you commonly buy, you'll finish your resolution before the end of the year. Everybody wins.

Here are a few of my more interesting finds from the past year:
  • Bob's Red Mill products: Bob mills all kinds of flour, grain, and gluten-free products, many of them organic. I'm trying to find out where Bob gets his grain from, but at least the mill itself is well within my 100 mile radius, and I can get high-quality organic flour for my pantry.
  • Zhena's Gypsy Tea: Until I can grow my own Camelia sinensis (tea plant) and make my own tea, I'm buying my tea from Zhena. It's 100% fair trade tea, and comes in the most fabulous flavors. Gypsy King Chai (a spiced black tea), Ambrosia White Plum, Sense of Peace (a rose-scented tea), Gypsy Love (another rose-scented tea), and Lemon Jasmine are my favorites. Not locally-grown or produced, but a compromise: supporting a fair-trade product.
  • Dagoba Chocolate: Dagoba is manufactured in Ashland, Oregon, a little outside my 100 mile radius, but still within my home state. They use organic, sustainably-grown cacao and support rainforest reforestation. They also make the best dark chocolate ever, leaving Hershey's dark chocolate tasting nasty, bitter, and grainy by comparison. Try their Lavender bar for something different. Or go full-strength with the New Moon 74% cacao bar.
I'll keep posting my discoveries as I learn more about local eating over this next year. Who cares to join me on this journey?