Category Archives: garden

“Bringing Nature Home” changed my life

Well, ok, not my whole life, but certainly the part that I spend gardening, which is close to 15% of my life in the summer.

Bringing Nature Home, Douglas TallamyEverything that Douglas Tallamy says makes so much sense that it amazes me I didn’t know this stuff until I read this book:

1. Insects that are native to an ecosystem have evolved to eat only plants native to that ecosystem
2. Baby birds eat insects. Even normally seed-eating birds need a large insect population to support their young.
3. So, if there are fewer native plants around, there are fewer native insects, and fewer birds.
4. Suburban gardeners have a responsibility to rebuild the native ecosystem which the suburb has displaced.

Tallamy makes these points quickly, then spends a chapter on how to make a garden of native plants look attractive and formal so you don’t irritate your neighbors. The bulk of the book is descriptions of insects native to the eastern U.S. and the plants they live on, accompanied by attractive color photographs. I’ve identified the little red bugs on my coneflowers as the nymph stage of Red Milkweed Beetles.

Something is eating my Joe Pye Weed

For the last few years I’ve grown some native prairie plants because they are drought-tolerant and don’t require any attention. But I’ve also been planting various exotic ornamental species that are drought-tolerant, and it never occurred to me that they are just wasting space in my garden. Nothing can eat them, so they’re not in the food chain. I never thought about the insect part of the ecosystem, and how important it is to provide food and shelter for the insects that other local fauna depend on.

From now on only native plants and vegetables are allowed in my garden. And when I see that something is eating my perennials, instead of being irritated I’ll be happy that a tiny bit of the ecosystem is working as it should.

Time to start seeds

It’s 8 weeks to the last frost date here in Region 5, and the most recent snow is quickly melting away. It’s spring! Time to get the garden started. My seeds arrived from seedsavers.org this week and I’m getting my seed trays set up under lights in the basement. In this years batch:

Shipment from seedsavers.org

Tomatoes: Stupice, Beam’s Yellow Pear, Mexico Midget, Green Zebra, Amish Paste. This is the third year I’ve grown most of these varieties. This year I’m growing them from seeds instead of buying them as transplants. Another change this year: Beam’s Yellow Pear and Mexico Midget, which are both small-fruited huge plants, are going to be grown in containers on the patio, inside tomato towers. I’m tired of having mini-tomatoes take over my whole garden.

Beans and Peas! I’ve never grown beans or peas before. I chose Climbing French, Fin de Bagnol, and Dwarf Gray Sugar because they seemed basic and easy. They’re getting planted outside – the peas can take some cold, so I might even plant them this weekend.

Peppers: Wisconsin Lakes and Sweet Chocolate. I’ve never grown peppers before. The packets say they won’t germinate unless the soil temp is 80°; which I doubt will happen either in the basement or outside. I’ll just plant them and see what happens.

Greens: Forellenschuss and Slobolt lettuce, Five Color Silverbeet. I grew Forellenschuss two years ago and it was good but bolted a few weeks after the leaves were big enough to eat. So I’m trying Slobolt as well, which is supposed to stay leafy and tasty a long time. I planted Rainbow Swiss Chard (same as Five Color Silverbeet) last fall, and thought it was great. Grew fast, didn’t mind the cold, and 8 plants gave me enough for a salad every day.

Cupplant, Silphium perfoliatum. This year I’m making an effort to increase the insect and bird population of my yard by using more native plants as ornamentals.

My rain barrel rules

My gardening year ended with the first frost last week. The tomato plants have been disassembled, and it’s time to reflect on the best addition to my yard this year: the rain barrel.

The rain barrel greatly surpassed my expectations in the amount of water it provided. I set it up in May thinking it would take a few weeks to fill completely, and it was full after the first rainfall. From May until mid-October there was only one week when the barrel was empty and I had to fall back on municipal water to keep my garden happy.

Most of my flowers are drought-tolerant native species, but I have annuals in containers and 5 tomato plants that need to be pampered with daily watering. In hot weather I use maybe 10 gallons of water a day.

A rain barrel collects water a lot faster than you’d think it would. My 55-gallon barrel draws from approximately 300 square feet of roof area, and a medium-strength rainfall (more than a sprinkle, less than a storm) fills it in under four hours. As long as it rained once a week I had as much water as I could use.

If I were to make one improvement to my current setup it would be to raise the barrel a few feet on blocks or a frame so there’d be more water pressure in the attached hose. Right now the barrel sits at ground level, and there’s so little pressure that the water only trickles out of the hose, and that’s only if there’s no point in the hose raised more than six inches above the ground. Spraying water from the hose is completely out of the question. If I’m out in the garden working I lay the hose out and let it dribble for five minutes at a time on each plant, but if I’m in a hurry it’s much faster to just scoop water out of the barrel with a big watering can and dump it where I want it.

In some ways hauling a two-gallon watering can around is less of a hassle than wrestling and re-coiling a fully pressurized hose. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it. In any case, 55 gallons of free water a week is definitely worth the extra effort it takes to get it to the plants.

Next year I’d like to install another rain barrel to catch the runoff from the other 500 square feet of roof. Maybe work it into a nice little water feature or a tub with some pond plants. Yeah.

Residential stormwater treatment and conservation

(Catchy post title, I know, but if I want people to be directed to this guy’s site, I need to make this post findable for a search engine.)

Marcus de la Fleur is a landscape architect in my area, and he has a great website detailing his solutions for dealing with stormwater runoff at his (rented) house: 168 Elm Ave – One Drop at a Time.

Water conservation is one of my personal soapbox issues. Briefly, I know people whose houses have been ruined by a new “big box” store’s parking lot altering the water table for up to a mile around, water we use is taken from ecologies that would be prettier and healthier if we didn’t use so much, and in a few decades water is going to be as expensive and conflict-causing as oil is now, even for those of us here in the rich countries, so the sooner we figure out better ways to deal with it, the better. And as they say, act locally.

I’m all proud of myself for my single rain barrel and my passive-irrigation compost/tomato setup, and this guy has a whole water system with a fantastic looking grass gravel parking spot. If you own property and have trouble with flooding, or you just want to save some water to use on your own garden, check out what he’s done.

Aside from the impressive content, his website is well-organized. There’s PDFs with detailed directions for each of his projects and photos of the projects under way. I love the brick permeable pavement – I’m gonna make some next summer when we rip up our crappy old concrete.

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