New Year’s resolutions

Happy new year! Take some time in the midst of the next couple of days to make some resolutions that will help make our environment cleaner and greener for all of us and for our children. If everyone did just one thing for the environment, think how great the effect would be.

Here are some ideas; you’re find a lot more here and here:

— the next time you have a short errand to run, walk or bike instead of driving (good for you as well as for the environment)

— the next time you replace a car, make it a hybrid, or go down one car size. If you now drive a large SUV, can you make do with a medium-sized one?

— the next time you park your car outside the bank or dry cleaner, turn off the engine rather than leaving it running while you go inside

— as you replace light bulbs, switch to LEDs or compact fluorescents

— if you need to replace your hot water heater, get a tankless one; buy Energy Star appliances when you need to replacements

— turn the thermostat down 8-10 degrees at night (in summer, turn it up at night) and when you go out for several hours

— don’t waste water in your garden–don’t water unless it’s really needed, which really means only when you have newly planted shrubs and perennials

— if you absolutely cannot live without fertilizing your lawn (even though your lawn doesn’t need it at all) eliminate one yearly feeding from your program

— plant native perennials instead of annuals next spring–one little bluestem grass, one milkweed, and one aster will take up three square feet of space AND give you gorgeous color and attract pollinators from early summer through late fall AND be absolutely care free

— plant native shrubs such as serviceberry, gray dogwood, elderberry, and ninebark to attract birds and butterflies all season long

— start a compost pile to reduce the amount of waste your family produces and create your own topsoil

Happy new year! I can’t wait until the garden looks like this again:



Are you ready for spring?

Late spring vegetable plot--nothing but promise.

The first seed catalog of the season arrived yesterday, and I sure am ready to plan this year’s vegetable garden (above you see least year’s in late May, full of nothing but promise). In fact, I already have planned for the coming season. Because I grow vegetables in a community garden that was overrun with pests and diseases last year, I’m going to avoid crops that need to stay in the ground for a long time and concentrate instead on quick harvests. That way, I can get the plants out of the ground before the pests take hold. So I’ll grow lots of salad greens and bitter greens that pests tend to avoid, peas, one early crop of beans, and herbs like parsley and dill that the rabbits devour in my home garden (and I’ll have a nice crop of swallowtails as well). And lots of basil, of course. Beets and carrots should also do fine. But no squashes, cucumbers, or tomatoes, although I may try tomatoes in large pots at home, or devote a small patch of ground to them just off the patio.

In the meantime, this is the season for pruning woody plants–from now until mid-February is the best time to do it. There’s no excuse for staying out of the garden in winter! Photograph the birds, screen compost, and prune. There’s lots to do!

The tragedy of the commons

Take a moment during this season of good will to all to ponder the tragedy of the commons. A “commons” is a commonly held field. It was traditional in Britain for certain parcels of land to be held in common by the community. Commons could be used by anyone who needed extra pasture for their animals. Early in the 19th century, William Lloyd Foster, a political economist–a member of a very new profession that led to political science, economics, and ecology, among other fields–noticed that common land tended to be poorly maintained.

Why? Because it was in each individual’s interest to maximize the profit he reaped from use of the common land. One farmer added another cow or sheep to those grazing in the commons–after all, he wasn’t paying for the grass his animals were eating–and others did the same. Before long, the land was overgrazed and useless to everyone. In 1968 in a seminal article in Science magazine, Garrett Hardin, one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, named this phenomenon “the tragedy of the commons.”

The tragedy of the commons goes on all around us, and it can be stated very simply: “if it belongs to all of us, it belongs to none of is.” Take a few minutes to think about this. What resources do we hold in common? Air, water, parks, to name just a few. Fisheries, wildlife, oceans. The climate. The ability of the earth to sustain human life. They belong to us all. How can we work together to sustain them so they will continue to sustain us?

The wild things are in the New York Times

Today’s New York Times has an article about a Virginia couple who transformed 100 acres of abandoned fields into what sounds like a gorgeous natural habitat by planting native plants. Be sure to look at the slide show and to check out the related piece about the tiny space the landscape architect, W. Gary Smith, designed for himself in Toronto.

We don’t all have 100 acres to work with. But you can do a lot with 1/4 acre or 1/2 or even a few hundred square feet. Here’s a winter shot from my own tiny little bluestem meadow.


Invasives Strike Force

Today I received my year-end newsletter about the Invasives Strike Force, a project that my husband and I have participated in since its inception (as a Rutgers research project) in the mid-2000s. This year, the ISF monitored over 260 miles of trails in the NY-NJ region for invasive plants. Visit the ISF website for information about the important work the group does in monitoring trails and removing invasive species, as well as to find out how you can become involved in this effort. You can also view photos and a description of the hike my husband and I did this year to monitor for invasives here.


Plant a prairie


Prairies (or meadows, to use the European term) are extremely diverse assemblages of flowering perennials and grasses. They are beautiful from spring to fall, and the seeds they produce feed the birds all winter. In this area prairies were always interim ecosystems—in a place where the forest canopy was destroyed by fire or flood or the activities of humans, a small prairie would appear and would remain for several decades until the woody growth took over.

I have three small prairies—most people would call them perennial borders. Each is four or five feet wide and up to thirty feet long. The picture above shows part of one of these gardens in June; the picture below shows a different one in August. They contain a wide variety of native flowering perennials and grasses. Two of these plots were planted around 15 years ago, one was begun about 8 years ago but has been extended several times. They have never received any fertilizers, chemicals, or soil amendment, and they are watered perhaps once or twice a season, if there’s a particularly dry spell. They provide glorious bloom from May through October and seedheads that feed the birds all winter.

You can start a prairie garden from seed (fairly difficult) or from plants (very easy). To start from plants, choose a site that gets full sun. Select plants that are well-adapted to your site, particularly in terms of whether it’s wet or dry, sunny or shady. To remove the existing lawn, you can do several different things, but the easiest is just to apply a thick (3-4”) layer of mulch, such as shredded hemlock bark. Lay the mulch down in fall and the ground will be ready to plant in spring. Plant right through the mulch. Do not amend the soil in any way.

When ordering plants, allow approximately one plant per square foot (so for a garden that is 4 feet wide by 20 feet long, you would need 4 x 20 or approximately 80 plants). As you select plants, be sure to consider height—some prairie species can grow 8 feet tall, and you probably don’t want too many of those in a small space. Choose plants of varying heights and bloom times, and be sure to select a mixture of flowering perennials and native grasses. In nature, forbs (flowering plants) and grasses always grow together; the grasses are beautiful year-round and the backbone of the prairie ecosystem. Grasses, like flowers, attract birds and butterflies, and their root structure complements the roots of the perennials so that the plants keep each other from flopping over.

Spring is the best time to plant. Once the plants are in the ground, water the garden thoroughly and keep it watered whenever there’s a dry spell during the first growing season. Some plants will be slow to take off, but some will bloom that first season. By the second season, and certainly by the third, the garden will be spectacular. You will be astounded by the variety of pollinators, butterflies, and birds it attracts.

A couple of details of care are radically different from everything you’ve ever been taught about perennial gardens. First, do not use any fertilizer or soil amendments—ever. Prairie plants are tough, and they build their own soil. Second, do not do any garden cleanup in the fall. Butterflies and other helpful insects will overwinter on the ground in the leaf litter, and birds will eat the seeds all winter.

Each spring, remove the previous season’s top growth, breaking down the tough stalks close to the soil level (they will snap off very easily). Once everything is on the ground, rake away the litter and either compost it yourself or take it to the town recycling center. That is the only maintenance involved.

Take some time this cold, snowy weekend to plan next year’s prairie garden.


Plant a forest

The forest in spring, with dogwood in bloom.

This is my backyard forest. We planted it about 18 years ago, and this picture was taken about 10 years after it was planted. Northeastern North America was once entirely covered by forests, interspersed with meadows on very wet, very dry, or recently burned sites. Any piece of ground left to itself quickly reverts to forest. So forests are the easiest type of ecosystem to create and maintain—basically, remove invasives and enjoy (as you continue to monitor and remove invasive species). From an ecological point of view, forests are also the best ecosytem you can maintain: the most friendly to wildlife, the most protective of our air and water. Once established, forests grow and change but remain for a long, long time. They are the definition of sustainability.

A forest doesn’t have to be large. Perhaps you have an unused strip of ground a couple of feet wide along the edge of your property. Stop mowing it. Within a few weeks the grass will grow long and wildflowers such as lobelia, asters, goldenrod, and milkweed will spring up. Within the first growing season woody growth will appear—native sassafras, black cherries, and oaks, but also invasives such as Norway maples and multiflora rose, depending on what’s growing around you. Pull out the invasives and allow the natives to grow. In just a few years, you will have a little strip of woodland, complete with woody plants and understory flowering plants and grasses. If you like, you can plant additional species such as ferns beneath the trees, or you can add once-common shrubs such as serviceberry, which birds adore. You will have a productive ecosystem that provides food and cover for wildlife year-round where you once had waste ground.

A forest can occupy any part of your property that is now unused. For example, leave the center of your backyard as lawn but plant trees and shrubs all around the perimeter. Or plant additional trees and shrubs around a specimen tree on the front lawn. Or join two or three widely spaced specimen trees with shrubs, vines, and groundcover. My forest stretches across the back half of our backyard. It was formerly lawn.

Start your forest with free plants—use what grows—or purchase trees and shrubs. My forest now contains a combination of plants we bought and plants that have appeared over time–volunteers. Choose fast-growing species and you’ll have a beautiful native ecosystem within five years. Whatever native species you choose, you will have improved your local environment for many years to come.