Gardens & Wildlife Habitat

Converting Lawn to Wildlife Habitat: Strategy #1

My current garden focus is to find alternatives to mowing that don’t involve my neighbors poking pins in my effigy. Rather too bluntly, I have already expressed that protecting wildlife is the reason why I am committed to this goal. Now, the task remains to research and experiment to find the easiest and fastest solutions.

Here is a summary of one of my experimental strategies:

A 10-foot swatch of rich soil runs along a usually dry creek bed that borders our property. As you can see from this photo, after I stopped mowing it, lush growth took over that includes milkweed volunteers.

Before

Unfortunately, obnoxious invasive grasses, mile-a-minute weed (Persicaria perfoliata), and other unwelcome plants are crowding out the natives.

For this area, I’m experimenting with two approaches:

  • Brown paper and compost mulch for areas with less aggressive weeds
  • Plastic and compost mulch for areas with rhizomatous grasses (that is, grasses that send roots and shoots out from its nodes)

Before laying the paper or plastic down, I hand pulled easy-to-pull weeds and whacked tenacious ones. Here is a close-up of the paper laid down and ready to be covered with compost:

3-method1-2stages

Next, I cut circles out of the paper or plastic and planted two kinds of plants:

  • Hardy ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum)
  • Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

The sunflowers will get tall so I placed them in the center of the bed. Here the plants are right after planting:

4-method1-planted

Now, here they are about six weeks later:

????

We had a tempestuous wind storm several days ago that knocked the sunflowers over, but you get the idea. The main area of mulch that you see was the section covered with paper and it has remained surprisingly weed-free.

To sum up the process, here is a photo that shows the steps:

 

My current garden focus is to find alternatives to mowing that don’t involve my neighbors poking pins in my effigy. Rather too bluntly, I have already expressed that protecting wildlife is the reason why I am committed to this goal. Now, the task remains to research and experiment to find the easiest and fastest solutions.

Here is a summary of one of my experiments:

A 10-foot swatch of rich soil runs along a usually dry creek bed that borders our property. As you can see from this photo, after I stopped mowing it, lush growth took over that includes milkweed volunteers.

Before

Unfortunately, obnoxious invasive grasses, mile-a-minute weed (Persicaria perfoliata), and other unwelcome plants are crowding out the natives.

For this area, I’m experimenting with two approaches:

  • Brown paper and compost mulch for areas with less aggressive weeds
  • Plastic and compost mulch for areas with rhizomatous grasses (that is, grasses that send roots and shoots out from its nodes)

Before laying the paper or plastic down, I hand pulled easy-to-pull weeds and whacked tenacious ones. Here is a close-up of the paper laid down and ready to be covered with compost:

3-method1-2stages

Next, I cut circles out of the paper or plastic and planted two kinds of plants:

  • Hardy ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum)
  • Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

The sunflowers will get tall so I placed them in the center of the bed. Here the plants are right after planting:

4-method1-planted

Now, here they are about six weeks later:

????

We had a tempestuous wind storm several days ago that knocked the sunflowers over, but you get the idea. The main area of mulch that you see was the section covered with paper and it has remained surprisingly weed-free.

To sum up the process, here is a photo that shows the steps:

 

2-method1-3stages

 

 

  1. Weed or whack area (being careful to scare away all wildlife first).
  2. Lay down paper or plastic.
  3. Cover with 2 to 4 inches of compost mulch.
  4. Cut circles in the paper or plastic and plant plants.
  5. If you use plastic, there is a fifth step: In above six months, or longer, verify that the invasive weeds are dead, and remove the plastic. Resettle the mulch and possibly add more.)

I'll let you know how this lawn alternative stacks up against other methods. Honestly, I'm hoping to find something a lot faster and easier!

Mowing–A Tradition That Needs to Change!

Mowing is such a violent act! Although we wouldn't even think of putting our hands into the mower's rapidly spinning blades, we subject the living layer of our lawns to this destructive treatment. Only by putting on rose-colored glasses can we ignore the trail of death our mowing leaves behind: frogs severed in half; bees' bodies churned beyond recognition, butterflies mutilated, and lightening bugs that continue to glow for a moment after death. Equally horrific are the small creatures maimed for life or destined for a slow torturous death. 

Given these unsettling images that are painful to record in writing, how can I present an unbiased consideration of mowing? Honestly, I really can't except that, realistically, we are chained to mowing until our cultural aesthetics change en masse, or until we change the landscape in ways that reduce or eliminate the need for mowing.

Historically, mowing is firmly rooted as a cultural tradition, especially in the United States. With the drought in California and adjacent regions, homeowners there are beginning to reconsider lawn as a landscape option. Here in the eastern United States, however, lawns are the norm. A green expanse of freshly mowed grass makes a landscape look snappy; it's a cue that the property is cared for; and, it's often a requirement for harmonious neighbor relations. 

On the other hand, as if the massacre of living creatures were not sufficient reason to avoid mowing at all costs, mowing requires the limited natural resource of petroleum-based fuel. This fuel is not only costly, but its use for one hour of mowing is equivalent to driving 350 miles. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that a new gas-powered lawn mower produces the same amount of air pollution as 11 cars operated for the same amount of time.

g-lawnmower-air-pollution-medium

Add to this the volume of weekly noise pollution and one wonders why we, as presumably sane human beings, continue to dedicate our time each week to this archaic and ecologically insane landscape tradition. 

A cultural shift away from mowed lawns will not be an easy one considering the domination of lawns in our modern landscapes. Finding ways to ease this transition from lawns to living landscapes is, in my mind, a challenge worthy of embracing.

 

 

Native Hydrangea—A Bouquet Beauty

What a happy surprise it is that the transition of my gardens to a living landscape that better supports wildlife still yields beautiful bouquets of cut flowers, like this late June bouquet of oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). For an informal bouquet, you can quickly gather several short branches each with a bloom, as I did for the bouquet shown here. This is very quick and the bouquet has a relaxed feel.

 

g-hydrangea-branch-cuts - smFor a more formal bouquet, cut a longer branch with at least two sets of leaf groups. Leave at least 4 inches of stem intact beneath one set of leaves. Then, trim it about 1/4-inch above the leaf set. Place the bloom-end of the branch aside. Place the newly cut leaf-only branch on the rim of the vase. Repeat this with other branches so that your bouquet has a collar of leaves. Then, if there any  leaves still remaining on the bloom-ends that you set aside, trim them off. Insert them artistically in the center of the vase. I assure you, it is easier to do than to read about doing!

 

Keeping in mind that this plant’s Latin name comes from the Greek word “hydor” meaning water, be sure that every stem is deep enough to remain hydrated. The blooms on stems not in water will wilt quickly.

Blooms that have begun to age on the plant can be brought in as a bouquet and then left to dry. Dried blooms of oakleaf hydrangea fade to a cream tan and make a nice base for other dried flowers such as 'Coronation Gold' yarrow (Achillea filapendulina), native to central and southwestern Asia; or strawflowers (Bracteantha bracteata) from Australia. For additions to the bouquet that are native to the eastern United States, add dried seed heads of native grasses, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), or black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).  

 

Easy-to-Grow Native Hydrangea

Despite decades of pampering Hydrangea macrophylla “Nikko” and any number of its fellow cultivars in various climates, my visions of a bush full of blue or pink snowballs of blooms are just that—visions. Just this afternoon, I drove by an abandoned house on a country road and there beside a dilapidated fence was a garden hydrangea in full blue wondrous bloom. For some reason, I don’t have that kind of luck with hydrangeas. That is, until now. In my Pennsylvania garden, the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), native to southeastern United States, is a top-performer its branches heavy with creamy white blossoms. 

Compare the two photos below: On the left is an 18-inch tall Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar, and on the right is a 5-foot tall oakleaf hydrangea. Both plants are the same age!

Besides the oakleaf hydrangea’s substantially faster growth, and the fact that it blooms reliably producing , it also provides lovely fall color. Its native heritage makes it a useful mid-summer source of pollen and nectar for pollinators, as Darke and Tallamy note in their book The Living Landscape. They also point out the oakleaf hydrangea's utility as a site for nests and wildlife cover.

Once an oakleaf hydrangea gets established, it is likely to produce root suckers. These can easily be dug and transplanted providing an affordable way to increase your property’s native habitat. This morning I noticed some promising root suckers on the plant in the photo above. Since they tolerate partial sun, I’m envisioning incorporating them in an understory island bed. Nikko better hurry up and bloom some year soon, or an oakleaf hydrangea may be called upon to fill its spot!

Welcome to Old Garden!

Perhaps, you are experiencing the same alarming reduction in butterfly populations in your garden as I am in mine. These lovely little creatures who so captivate us need to be recognized as the sobering bellwether that they are. Just as the single sheep wearing a bell on its neck warns the rest of the flock that there is danger nearby; the butterfly population decline serves as a solemn warning that thousands of other species are facing steep population losses, and, in some cases, extinction. Hopefully, the beauty and seemingly carefree flight of surviving butterflies can enchant all of us into transforming our yards and public lands into lush wildlife habitats. This transformation takes more than elbow grease and plants, it also requires the bravery to give up plants and activities that are dear to us. In short, we must change in ways that feel uncomfortable.

With all of this in mind, it is helpful to explore the intersection of our human needs and preferences with those of plants and wildlife. If each of us can transform the land that surrounds us at home and beyond in some small way, we will increase the odds that our flora and fauna will survive and thrive along with us. How can we create landscapes and gardens that fully support wildlife that are also efficient to maintain and visually satisfying? How can we ensure that native plants are freely available to people in all different settings? How can we change our cultural norms of beauty from manicured mowed lawns to a greater percentage of land dedicated to mixed beds, meadows, hedges, and woodlands? How can we do all of this in a way that is fun and compelling? I look forward to exploring all of that with you!

Painting in the Garden: Daffodils and Pansies

It was a glorious day for painting in the garden with daffodils and pansies in full glory. This was a very early photo during block-in.  Before I took another photo a strong wind blew the easel over and upended my palette!

My experiment here was to paint with sunglasses on. Apparently, untinted glasses that provide UVA protection are available. I need to get a pair of these. Although, quite frankly, I didn’t notice much difference in the color quality of the painting.

Drawing for Painters Workshop

Workshop StudiesWhile in California recently, I had the pleasure of attending a Drawing for Painter's workshop taught by Fred Hope in Laguna Beach. Shown here are a couple of studies I made there. Fred made a compelling case for drawing as a powerful means for becoming a better painter. To be sure, I've found the more I draw, the more likely my brushwork is to be fresh and spontaneous. I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop and recommend it!

Drawing Workshop & Lots of Snow!

Drawing workshops

Drawing workshops

Yesterday's "Drawing for Pleasure and Expression" workshop at the Oxford Art Alliance was humming along with such focused dedication on the part of the students until . . . 

 

 

 

 

 

Snowy Day for Drawing Workshopthe snow arrived in full force and blanketed the streets! Despite the abrupt snowy ending, it was such a joy to share a day of drawing. I never cease to marvel at how the elements of art are, simultaneously, so simple and so complex. And, that despite our personal point in the journey, art meets us right where we are and beckons us onward!

Video: Painting Supports

Easy Lightweight Painting Supports for Travel and Workshops

Video: Painting Supports

“In this video, I'm going to demonstrate the way I set up my linen or canvas for painting. Not only is it easy and economical, but it's also a perfect lightweight solution for traveling and attending workshops or classes. And, the super nice thing about this approach is that you get a whole lot less paint on your hands and clothes. . ." and so starts the third video in a series about supports for oil and acrylic painting. The series includes how to seal panels, how to gesso, how to easily set up lightweight supports, how to make a wet painting carrier, how to glue linen or canvas to panels, and, finally, how to frame paintings. These videos will be especially useful to painters starting out. Feel free to share them with your painting friends and students! Click here to watch this video.

 

Video: Sealing Panels for Oil and Acrylic Painting

Painting Workshop Video #6 Sealing Panels

Before gessoing and painting on hardboard or wood panels, they need to be sealed. Sealing, also called ‘sizing’, prevents the gessoed surface from discoloring caused by naturally-occurring acids in the wood. Sealing panels is really easy to do. This video (3:48 minutes) shows exactly how to seal panels successfully.

In the video, I mentioned two sealing solutions:
Golden Multi-Purpose Acrylic Polymer GAC-100 – 16 oz Cylinder and Gamblin’s PVA: Poly Vinyl Acetate Size: 32 oz

Click here to watch the video!

Once your panels are sealed, the next step is to apply gesso.  Stay tuned! Next in my bi-weekly oil painting technique videos, I’ll be uploading a video about how to gesso panels and canvas. Let me know if you have any questions about the process.