September 28, 2013

Living on the edge


Lately, I've been thinking about tension zones and ecotones.

If you're still with me, you might want to keep reading because these topics are fascinating--especially for gardeners and plant geeks.

We learned about tension zones in my master naturalist courses earlier this summer. An ecological tension zone, anywhere in the world, is where two broad ecological regions meet. Any tension zone is a diverse area--where representative plant and animal species from both zones on either side overlap.

For example, here's a map from the Biota of North America Program (BONAP), showing floristic tension zones throughout the U.S.:


My state, Wisconsin, is split by a diagonal line running from the northwest through the southeast. Two major ecological zones fall on either side, and where they meet, the plant and animal species are more diverse. You can click here to see more information and maps explaining this concept, and to read about the floristic zones in other U.S. regions. (I couldn't find a simple, nonacademic online resource for worldwide tension zones, but if you research your specific country or region, hopefully a similar resource is available.)

I don't live along Wisconsin's tension zone--I'm firmly in the ecological region shared with most of Illinois and parts of Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri. This region is known for its fertile soil, deciduous forests and Oak savannas.

And then, of course, there are edges on a much smaller scale--for example, where a sandy soil region meets a clay soil region.


Or even smaller areas that you can observe just standing in one spot. For example, ecotones are defined by the Encyclopedia of Earth as transitional areas between two different ecosystems, such as a forest and a grassland. Click here to read about this fascinating topic.

This also ties in with the concepts of permaculture. Appalachian Feet did an excellent post a while back titled, "How to Learn About Permaculture." If you missed the post, it's definitely worth reading.

All of these concepts have significance for gardeners, botanists, biologists, naturalists, and anyone else who studies or simply enjoys nature. Ecotones, for example, are thought to be important ecological indicators of global change. They're thought to be sensitive to changing climates, and many scientists advocate monitoring ecotones to detect patterns of global change.


My garden resides along a small ecotone. It's a space between an open suburban area and a small forest along a glacial drumlin. The biodiversity is especially evident when the seasons change--when the migrating birds travel into, out of, and through the area, and when the deciduous trees either leaf out or lose their leaves. Back in the days before large-scale agriculture and settlement, this plot of land was probably part of an Oak opening, with less than 50% tree canopy coverage and frequent fires. The part at the top of the drumlin might have had more trees (as it does now) because of its placement on higher ground.


These concepts of tension zones, ecotones, and Oak openings were becoming common parlance for plant specialists like John Muir at the turn of the 20th century. He describes the uniqueness of Oak openings in "The Story of My Boyhood and Youth":

"When an acorn or hickory-nut [grub] had sent up its first season's sprout, a few inches long, it was burned off in the autumn grass fires; but the root continued to hold on to life, formed a callus over the wound and sent up one or more shoots the next spring. Next autumn, these new shoots were burned off, but the root and calloused head, about level with the surface of the ground, continued to grow and send up more new shoots; and so on, almost every year until very old, probably far more than a century, while the tops, which would naturally have become tall broad-headed trees, were only mere sprouts seldom more than two years old. Thus the ground was kept open like a prairie, with only five or six trees to the acre, which had escaped the fire by having the good fortune to grow on a bare spot at the door of a fox or badger den, or between straggling grass-tufts wide apart on the poorest sandy soil.

The uniformly rich soil of the Illinois and Wisconsin prairies produced so close and tall a growth of grasses for fires that no tree could live on it. Had there been no fires, these fine prairies, so marked a feature of the country, would have been covered by the heaviest forests. As soon as the oak openings in our neighborhood were settled, and the farmers had prevented running grass-fires, the grubs grew up into trees and formed tall thickets so dense that it was difficult to walk through them, and every trace of the sunny 'openings' vanished."

While the "Oak opening" ecotone in my garden is now partially cultivated, it's a fascinating little place teaming with life. Understanding what it was, what it is, and what it can be is helpful to me, as its gardener and caretaker.


September 21, 2013

Lessons and solutions


'Whatever the problem, be part of the solution.'

~Tina Fey, "Bossypants," 2011

There are many variations on this sage advice, but I like Tina Fey's take on it.

Problems certainly are overwhelming in today's world--including the natural world. But after many years of comparing wisdom and advice with gardeners and garden bloggers, I'm convinced we're part of the solution.


If you need convincing, take a look at this TED talk that has been circulating about "Why Bees Are Disappearing." If you haven't seen it yet, and without getting into too much detail, the main point is that bees need more flowers--particularly native flowering plants--for pollination, and agriculture needs healthy bees. Obviously, gardeners, in general, are part of this particular solution. Yes, of course, we can help!

As individual gardeners, we can't save the world ... or the butterflies ... or the bees. But as a large group of people working together on the solutions, we can make a difference.

That's the biggest lesson I learned this summer. There's hope and joy in knowing that gardeners around the world are making similar efforts to tend their gardens and, in the process, improving habitats for their gardens' visitors--of all species.


With that, I thank you for doing your part, and for sharing your unique lessons from the past season. Wrapping up the "Lessons Learned" meme:

Lyn at The Amateur Weeder, in New South Wales, Australia, admitted that even though she's a stickler for identifying plants by their Latin names, she misidentified Veronica hederaefolia as Stellaria media (isn't that a common mistake?). She also discovered that yellow is her favorite garden color during her mild winters, and that she doesn't want an interesting winter garden--she wants it to rest!

Karin at Southern Meadows, in Georgia, U.S., faced unusual growing conditions this season. Summers are typically hot, humid, and dry in her part of the world, and for the past three years, they've had extreme drought. But this summer, it rained ... a lot! All the drought-tolerant plants she'd planted didn't like the rain. Her lesson: Get to know the native "weeds" in your garden--they're the plants most likely to survive the extremes.

Holley at Roses and Other Gardening Joys, in Texas, U.S., finally realized it's sometimes necessary to remove plants to make her garden the best it can be. "I don't want a garden that's just alive," she explained. "I want something more.... I want the garden of my dreams."

Helene at Graphicality-UK, in London, U.K., found a great spot for Sunflowers in her garden, but some of the seedlings struggled. She planted seeds directly in the soil between her Roses and shrubs. A few Sunflowers put on a great show, but others were shaded by the other dominating plants. Next year, she'll plant the Sunflower seeds in pots first, so they can get a good start before placing them in the garden.

Diana at Elephant's Eye, in Western Cape, South Africa, recounted the lessons she has learned in her beloved garden since moving to the property in 2007. She'll move to a new place soon, but the garden lessons will all be pleasant memories and a key part of her knowledge base. The challenges of gardening in her Mediterranean climate--long, hot summers and wet winters--mean she now knows a lot about rain gardening.


Tammy at Casa Mariposa, in Virginia, U.S., shared a humorous take on the importance of listening to Mother Nature. In a laugh-out-loud post, she admitted that she failed to follow Mother Nature's guidance, which resulted in some not-so-surprising garden challenges. But she also shared some of her stunning successes.

Rose at Prairie Rose's Garden, in Illinois, U.S., shared lessons from her vegetable garden. "Just when I'm feeling rather smug that I've acquired enough knowledge to call myself a true gardener," she said, "I learn some new things that make me realize how little I really know." Rose included five excellent lessons for anyone who wants to grow vegetables--or any other plants. One key lesson: Nature can be cruel.

Susie at Life.Change.Compost., in Oregon, U.S., tied life decisions to garden lessons. We all know they parallel each other, but Susie drew a poignant comparison between planting seeds and deciding whether or not to have children. "No guarantees, this business of planting seeds," she said. "If I am going to look a heartache in the face, a garden is a good place to do it."

Angie at Angie's Garden Diaries, in Scotland, U.K., experimented with gathering seeds from plants in her garden, with mixed results. She collected seeds from Meconopsis, Primula, and Tropaeolum. She described how some of her techniques worked well, and others didn't--but she was pleased to call herself a "real gardener" and will collect and sow more seeds in the future.

Donna at Gardens Eye View, in New York state, U.S., learned that she needs to make time to simply "be" in her garden--for her physical and her mental health. "I think it's best to take our cue from the garden and nature," she said. "Feel its rhythm and connect to it. Savor the opportunities as they happen."

Sue at Diary of a Suburban Gardener, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, learned why it's helpful and important to incorporate indigenous plants in a garden. One benefit is that they attract wildlife and serve as the perfect habitat for critters to live out their life cycles. Sue also learned how to create more "lizard lounges" in her garden.


Others who participated through their comments included Jen at Muddy Boot Dreams, who wished she'd planted more Zinnias. Donna at Garden Walk, Garden Talk reminded us that nature is still teaching us lessons, and she hopes it isn't too late for us to learn them. Lynne at Irish Garden House, learned to water less, let nature care, and reduce the number of bird feeders.

Sarah at Galloping Horse Garden learned that it's nicer, but more distracting, to have an office looking out onto the garden. The Phytophactor shared that sometimes Swamp Milkweed volunteers where least expected. Aaron at Garden of Aaron had a powdery mildew issue on his Zinnias, and will plant a different variety next year. Corner Gardener Sue planted her Zinnias late, but she did get some blooms in September.


That's quite an impressive collection of garden lessons this season. If you've written a post during the past few months that fits here, feel free to add the link in your comments. And, of course, if I've forgotten anyone, please let me know and I'll update the post.

Thanks to all--for sharing the lessons and for caring about the solutions.


September 15, 2013

The remains of the blooms

A hummingbird's vantage point: Fuchsias are still going strong and 
should provide nectar until the first heavy frost.

The flowers are diminishing in my northern shade garden. It's Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day (GBBD)--celebrated by bloggers around the world on the 15th of every month.

I wanted to make sure to post today because my garden's blooms might be gone by next GBBD. In my USDA zone 5 locale, we generally get our first heavy frost in early to mid-October. I will keep the hummingbird feeders and the potted Fuchsias hanging until then.

As I was trying to capture shots from the Hummingbirds' vantage point, they were buzzing around my head. I didn't want to disturb them too much, so I pulled back.

Juvenile hummers in my garden no longer need to compete with yellow-jackets
at this spot. This feeder has bee guards.

I must say the hummingbirds are plentiful this summer! I don't remember seeing so many of them during previous summers--at least not in this shady garden. By the way, I know the red food coloring isn't necessary in hummingbird feeders, but there was a reason for this. My dripping-style feeder was being overtaken by yellow-jackets. I wanted to make sure the developing, migrating young hummers would notice and adopt this new feeder, and they certainly have! Next time I fill it, I'll use pure sugar water.

Hosta of the Equinox (H. aequinoctiiantha): another nectar source
for hummingbirds and other pollinators.

Do you ever try to photograph scenes or wildlife and almost miss opportunities for other photos (or simply miss out on the observation)? As I was trying to snap photos of the hummers, I glanced over at the late-blooming Hostas, and noticed the autumn sunlight glinting through in such a magical way. My photo can't quite capture it, but it sure was pretty.

lone rose
The parting shot of a lone Rose.

And then I looked in another direction and noticed a lone late-season Rose. It's the only Rose bloom left in my garden ... kind of a bittersweet farewell.

This photo of a Cosmos bloom was taken earlier in the summer,
but they're still blooming profusely.

The Cosmos flowers are still plentiful, so I am very happy. And so are the bumble bees.

Cosmos, Hostas, Sunflower, Stonecrop Sedum, Mums, Daisy Fleabane, and Goldenrod.

Arranging flowers from the garden takes on a special significance with the season's end--when they're among the last blooms of the summer. I'm joining in the Seasonal Celebrations meme, too, because flower arranging is one of my favorite ways to celebrate new color palettes and seasonal transitions. I had to add a few fillers to this arrangement, but about half of these flowers are from my garden.

And then there are the surprises ...

First Hyacinth Bean bloom in mid-September!

Just like last year, my Hyacinth Bean vines got a late start. Long story ... but I didn't even think they would bloom this year. Then, as I was passing by yesterday, I noticed a few buds. What a wonderful September send-off!

Thanks to Carol for Hosting Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day and Donna for hosting Seasonal Celebrations. You'll want to visit their blogs to find out how gardeners around the world are celebrating the transition from one season to another!

September 11, 2013

Plant of the Month: Ground Cherries


This is a fun plant. I didn't know much about Ground Cherries until I discovered them recently on the "wild" section of our second property.


From the top, the plants are pretty basic--green foliage, 10-12 inches tall, no bloom in sight.

bell flower

But under the foliage, in midsummer, you'll find yellow, bell-shaped flowers.


The blooms are about one inch long, with dark purple centers.


After blooming, they form a papery husk, and inside that husk is a small berry. (**Note that all parts of the plant are toxic to humans, except the berries--when they're fully ripe! All parts are toxic to horses.)


Apparently, early Pennsylvania Dutch (German) communities used Ground Cherries frequently in jams, pies, sauces, and other dishes. I seem to remember seeing them at farm stands here in Wisconsin in the past, too, but because I didn't know much about them, I didn't think to try them.*

They're in the same family (Solanaceae) as Tomatoes, and the same genus (Physalis) as Tomatillos. Several species and cultivars are available, but I believe the plants I found (shown here) are Clammy Ground Cherries (Physalis heterophylla).

With a little research, I found out that the Ground Cherry plant:
  • Prefers sun, sandy soil, and good drainage;
  • Produces up to 300 fruits per plant;
  • Is native to most of the U.S. and Eastern Canada; and
  • Is a host plant for the sphinx moth caterpillar.
Harvested berries stored in their husks can last up to three months. And they last out of the husks in the refrigerator for about one week. The Pennsylvania Dutch historically pulled entire plants up by the roots and hung them in their homes as a winter food source.

Most sources say the berries are fully ripe when the husks fall to the ground. Descriptions of the taste range from "Tomato-like" to "sweet/tart" to "refreshing." Depending on the variety, you'll notice hints of Tangerine or Pineapple. I found the taste of Clammy Ground Cherries to be quite sweet, with a hint of Tomato and Pineapple, and definitely refreshing.

I wasn't able to harvest many Ground Cherries earlier in the summer, and with the recent dry weather the yield might be small. But I did pick a few to show their transition from toxic green to ripe, tasty gold.


*Information in this post comes from the Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium, Organic Gardening, "Wildflowers of Wisconsin" Field GuideMother Earth News, and my own observations.

**Note: It has come to our attention that Physalis heterophylla plants are toxic to horses and can kill them. The plants sometimes grow in fields, and if hay from the fields is produced for horses, it's very dangerous. For more information on its toxicity, visit this site.

September 06, 2013

A little zen on a summer's day

A few weeks back, Mom and I took a day trip to the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, Ill. It was a pleasant destination even on a warm summer day. The bright sun was a bit harsh for photos, but some of them turned out OK.

I can only imagine how stunning this place is in autumn, with Japanese Maples in full splendor. Or in springtime, when the Azaleas and Magnolias are blooming. I think I'll return next May.

Here are some of the highlights:


One of the first things that greets you at the entrance is a fountain with drinking water. Paper cups are available, which is a thoughtful touch.


Many of the well-manicured paths wind through shaded walkways.




Stunning Japanese Maples greet you at every turn. They're blended effectively with other trees, shrubs, and plants, along with calming yet whimsical decorations and hardscapes.


An obvious highlight is the "garden of reflection" pond.



The strolling garden around another pond features a cobble beach.



Comfortable seating areas throughout the facility invite relaxed reflection, as do ...



the waterfalls, ...



the gently trickling water features, and ...


the raked gravel garden.



Finely crafted structures, buildings, and gates also catch the eye.




Decorative garden accents mix the formal and the traditional with a bit of whimsy.


Even native Wild Ginger plants look comfortable growing in shady nooks between rocks and stone.


And the three angels, though unusual in a Japanese garden, seem to add a special blessing to visitors.


To learn more about the gardens' highlights and history, click here. The Anderson Japanese Gardens are well worth a day trip from southern Wisconsin or Chicago, and they're a great destination for tourists visiting the upper Midwest.