Thursday, February 19, 2009

Here, Between City and Suburbs

Winter seems to hold sway here in Michigan again after after a brief thaw. The fire burning out of control in Austrailia has settled.

I am reading Cadillac Desert about, among other things, how the western US used up ground water that took thousands of years to collect, in 70 years. Intermixed was a tale noir about how our political system.

Apparently there is a film, though PBS has retired the content from it’s archives. I will see if netflix can get it.

Meantime my search continues for a Hazelnut tree to plant.

In my seach for Cadillac Desert footage, I found a PBS clip The clip quoted 50% of runoff (the kind that runs off our impervious surfaces) goes into rivers through sewers. The clip was about new construction, how some folks are making healthier landscapes. Landscapes that will absorb run off.

A much higher percentage of our runoff goes into our Rouge River. Our watershed is urban, for the most part. Oh yes, there are wonderful exceptions, parks and wooded places that I will tell you about sometime. We have a lot of grass here. I mow a lot of grass with my push mower.

You can date the rings of suburbs around Detroit by the architecture. Our ranch was built in the 1960’s. We have questions, what is the best way to rerofit the building?

The most interesting question to me is “How do you retrofit the landscape? Twenty years ago, we stopped mowing a portion, thinking it would “go back to nature”. Then invasive plants grew where the grass had been in the back, by the river. It was time to learn about invasive plants. It turns out that we made an ideal enviroment for them, by disturbing the native landscape and making a farm. In the 60’s the topsoil was scraped off and all the trees removed after the house was built, grass was sodded. By the time we stopped mowing the hill, nature didn’t know if it was coming or going. We have a lot of buckthorn and garlic mustard that we remove every year down there now.

Many of our neighbors labor long hours and spend lots of money looking after the grass. Grass is still king here. I did get a common milkweed in the driveway crack in 2000. Monarchs like that and they stop here. I let milkweed grow in many places in the back now. I do not know how they find my place, as the ring of suburbs where grass is king extends out for ten miles and the city for another ten miles the other way, but they do. In August, they will lay eggs and a brood of young monarchs will flit around the milkweed every year.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gloomy/ Sunny

There is an upside to gloom and doom, though mistakes will be made. What works will be studied. I like solutions that solve at least three problems at a time. If I grow broccoli in the backyard, I only pay the transportation costs on the seeds, not the grown product, heavy with water, from California. Moreover, if I bought open pollenated seed and saved it next spring (broccoli is biennial), I would have a lot of seed. If I grow broccoli in an old garbage can on my cement, I catch the rainwater that would have run off into the storm sewer and put it into my plants who will respirotranspire it into the air. I don’t have to fire up my car to go to the store, and I don’t need a recipe book, just cook what is in the garden.

I think above I have named three things, though once I get on a roll, it is hard to stop. Gardens are fine places for finding what works. Next year mistakes will disappear sucesses can be eaten and the gardener can start all over.

Now is the time to plan out new protocols and November is the time to assess them, to figure out what works.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Rain Garden Seminar

Rain Garden Seminar

Rain Gardens could solve many problems. Bell Creek flows by our house and into the Rouge River day after day, year after year. If it were cleaner, we could swim in it and if flood waters didn’t go so high, banks wouldn’t be scoured and more types of fish and wildlife would live there. Some folks living near here get water in their basements.

If we all made a rain garden on our property, catching the water from our roof for instance, that roof water would not go to the storm sewer and thus directly to the river. The flow would drip slowly into the ground and recharge the water table if it isn’t taken up by plant roots and repirotranspired back into the air.

Rain gardens are great, like making channels in the sand at the beach when we were young. Water flowing to the lowest point, and it always does that, gravity and water are very dependable.

Rain gardens can be designed and put in by anyone. We all need at least one on every property, if we did this, it would improve the river. If people did this on every river and if we planted native plants in our rain gardens, critters would make their home there and raise families.

The good news is that making rain gardens is not an expensive or time consuming project and you can invite your neighbors to help and then make a rain garden at their house too. Or you can hire a contractor, it doesn't cost much. This is also the bad news, every one has to help to make a rain gardens at every house, the more the better. It seems easier for cities to build expensive drainage projects and tax people for the money, automate it. In a way it is easier to convince fewer people to use 20th century technology, done, meeting over, problem solved.

In the west, residents tore through aquifers that had taken centuries to charge, in about 40 years. They built a lot of dams out west, with federal tax money, we all paid for their water projects.

Here in Michigan, we have the Great Lakes, our aquifers are getting lower all the time, our water projects were pipe and pond drainage so we could build suburbs, took the water downstream. Setting aside flood plains, not building on low spots near the river, that was considered up and coming and it was controversial. In retrospect, it was pure genius, as suburbs unimagined by city planners in the 60's, sprung up. Houses in outer suburbs have sump pumps now. They need rain gardens. Everybody needs rain gardens.

Rain gardens would keep suburban basements dryer, would keep the hydrology of Bell Creek more even and would recharge our aquifers. Rain Gardens seem like a pretty good deal to me.

Rain Garden seminar put on by SOCWA If you miss this seminar, look it up. Rain gardens, for our future.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


The inside garden on the sill was getting to the top of the window. I trimmed to half of the window, put most of the trimmings in water to root, they will make nice starts for various gardens in spring. (In former years it was fun to watch as foliage got tall beyond the top of the window. Heat and light deprived folks in the north are easily entertained in late winter.)

Now is the time, as the sun creeps toward the zenith, hibernating beings are feeling the earth move, coming back to life. February is a time to make a pilgrimage to a local green house. Blooms are prevalent now in warm places, in the tropics.

Snow began to melt today, at temperatures above freezing, ice breaks up pretty fast.

Time to order peppers, as they will like a start this month, they take a long time to get to garden size.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Indoor Gardening 3

Indoor Gardening three

Stacked pots is the word I use to refer the the artful towers on my windowsills. You have to have a saucer below indoor pots to catch the water. The watering is theoretically done from the very top pot.

I prefer large containers for saucers, the width of the window sill or a little larger, depending on traffic flow by the window. (My sills are 5” wide. Four inches wide on the the replacement window.) I have collected long trays and containers for saucers, but am not above using plastic organic greens containers (recycle number 1).

My containers are a collection of discards and art fair spectaculars. I find plastic containers that can be cut down in my neighbors recycling bins, as the container industry gets creative, recycling containers are gold mines. I have found long narrow plastic things that work, at garden centers.

Pots for the stacking can be plastic (although if I am growing food, I am mindful of bisphenol A, and there are probably other nasty things leaking from the plastics) or ceramic, they must be the right size in order to drain into the containers below. Plastics are nice for shaping and putting holes in. (note to self: cultivate relationship with local ceramics makers, design stackable pots) Smaller pots fit on top of the ones below. Roots from the small pots often grow into the ones below. Trimming your bonsai roots etc. in spring is literally a snap, when the pots take their summer vacation outside, they are moved and usually decoupled.

I often have stacked pots in the pot-place in the back yard. Particularly in large pots, I put seeds around the sides of pots, so as to leave a place in the middle. A mistake I have made is to smother seeds planted at the middle by putting a potted plant on the top of them.

Filling vacant places in the garden, places that have no current blooms or interest, can be done by moving pots. I move things around, especially for areas in transition, see what works where.

I have already mentioned the plastic v. ceramic issue. I love old garbage cans, and they are mostly plastic now, for growing potatoes and sweet potatoes. It is a nice sight when things cascade out of the top. Pots on downtown streets often use manzanita, or sweet potato, just for looks. I also like to use tall garbage cans in the far ends of the garden where the ground hogs think they own the place and eat young cucerbits, greens, beans , pretty much everything but tomatoes and nightshades. Ceramic and cement containers are heavy. I have a few garden carts and some saucers with wheels, but love plastic pots for their weight.

Pots of any type add another dimension to growing and living with plants. Stacking them is great, adding space to small spaces. Those who have no windowsills may put hangers or shelves by their windows.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Indoor Gardening 2

Before starting into the spring catalogs, I want to mention indoor gardens. All of my windowsills, clever of the builders to make them of marble, have little gardens on them. Newer houses have no window sills, will need window high tables. I have sage in the kitchen, handy for Thanksgiving. Geraniums, scented but names forgotten, so many years have they been with me, dominate, some bloom salmon all winter. Misshapen Norfolk Island Pine struggle, get decorated at holiday time. Aloe, Christmas cactus and coleus, Kalenkahoe and various other sedum of zone 9 tenderness as well as carasula (starts easily and makes a good base along with baby’s tears) all come in from their summer vacation. Many of these were rooted last fall in jars full of water, stems cut from outside pots when the winds begin to blow cold. A few of my windows have curtains, but most of them have a curtain of green plants.

Impatiens bloom all winter inside and are easy root. They are not native and I don’t buy a lot of them as bedding plant annuals, but keep a few around, as they are reliable bloomers in winter, along with geraniums.

I also like to raise cacti and desert plants like saguaro from seed. They don’t really like the amount of sun they get here and don’t grow as fast in my northern location as they would in the desert. I left them on the unheated porch one year and wiped out ten years of saguaro. I want to raise them until they are large enough to take to the Southwest, where friend’s zeriscapes will find room for them. I love saguaros and that is the reason for the room I leave for them, just love.

On the unheated porch broccoli and chives from the summer garden grow, greens and other plants too will survive a zone 7 (Maybe 6) climate.

Potatoes that have sprouted in the cupboard have been tucked into pots. Soon it will be warm enough to put them on the porch in larger pots. Little blue ones are the most cold hardy, followed closely by red skins. Fingering potatoes snatched from garbage can gardens outside in the fall await the middle of February when the world seems to awaken. I have soil waiting in the garage, will bring it in for them. Soon it will be time to plant peppers under lights.

I put wheat and rye seeds in some pots my cat can reach. My cat is old and appalled at the cold when she sniffs at the door. She likes catnip. In warmer times she will find sprigs of tasty greens in the garden. In winter, when snow covers the ground, she appreciates wheat grass.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Chickadees in the Asters

Chickadees visit the asters out back, looking for seed. Perhaps I will put out some thistle seed, as the snow is not melted, and I don’t know how much aster seed is left. I assume these chickadees were here all winter, although I have not seen them until about a week ago.

I have not put out a feeder, as it will attract sparrows. I met a woman who goes to sparrow nests on her property and takes the eggs. Sorry, unless I’m hungry I have no interest.

There were sparrows that used to nest in my porch over hang. Papa would call and put out his chest in February. The babies, supervised by mom or pop, took their first flights from the roof. They were very entertaining in February when everything was brown.

Such is life when the ecosystem changes. I set out to change the ecosystem. It is a possibility that the ecosystem on my little piece of property has been changed by my efforts, the chickadees have become more dominant.

I still have a next door neighbor who uses lawn chemicals. He does use capsulated fertilizer now, the run off does not reach the creek as easily.

There are sparrows that nest in the ivy growing on the front of the house. If I go outside, I can hear them and see the family antics. Some day, the ivy will be torn down and the Sparrow family will have to find another home.