Rambunctious Garden

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Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

According to author Emma Marris, rambunctious gardening is proactive and optimistic; it creates more and more nature as it goes, rather than just building walls around the nature we have left. In this precocious look at our role in the natural world (past, present, and future) Marris walks a thin line between debunking (or at least rationally considering) the various approaches to “saving nature” and advocating for a more thoughtful approach. Using wide-ranging examples the author describes an increasing awareness in the field of ecology that the traditional goals of conservation are not only unachievable globally but also too narrow. She defines those goals as largely focusing on preserving pristine wildernesses by turning back the clock on them to an arbitrary “baseline” date before modern civilization and “non-native” species, arrived.

Marris’ argues for a more adult and more hopeful view. She argues that the whole notion of “pristine wilderness” is really untenable in practice since humans have always altered the ecosystems around them and that nature is everywhere, constantly in flux. She makes this argument by describing visits to several leading-edge conservation projects and honestly analyzing their goals and likely outcomes. While she admires the motivation and efforts of some of the best-known environmental activists, she objects to their hard-line public approach to conservation and argues for a more nuanced approach — one that does not assume that all human influence on the planet is bad. In the author’s view, the “all or nothing” approach of those who want to revert to a more pristine world only sets us up for a lifetime of mourning what has been lost (and likely cannot be regained).

Instead, the author prefers to adopt a mindset that considers the gardener a net plus in our own ecosystems. As a gardener, you are increasing the diversity of plant species on your property. If you work at it, the soil ends up more nutritious and rich than when you began. You can also garden for many different goals: to support wildlife, to increase the diversity of your property, or to give precedence to natives over exotics.

Gardeners are on the front lines of this battle. There are people who want exotics and people who don’t. That’s not to say that some plants aren’t real headaches—even “invasive”. But nature will generally sort itself out, though in some places gardeners will need to work harder than in others. But putting it back the way it was is largely a futile quest. Better to understand that change over time is always part of the equation and do what we can to move that change in a positive, more hopeful direction.

This is not a ‘how to’ book. It won’t necessarily help you get exactly the ‘look’ you are going for in that new bed you are digging for next year. But it will give you a better idea how you fit into the created world around you and help you take a more hopeful view of what you do in your own space as a gardener.

2011: Monarch Update

An update from Nan:

Last year I wrote an article about Monarch butterflies and how Mark and I do what we can each year to encourage them to visit our backyard garden. We plant several different types of Asclepias, the host plant for the Monarch, and we then bring the caterpillars indoors to increase their chances of survival. We then release the adult butterflies for the cycle to begin again. Eventually, in mid-September, the newly eclosed adults leave us and migrate to Mexico. This year we released more than 75 adult Monarch butterflies. This is about 40% fewer than we released in 2010.

We’ve been doing this for 4 or 5 years now and we learn new things every year. I think the most important thing that we learned this year is how important the state of Texas is to the Monarch migration. When spring arrives each year, the butterflies overwintering in Mexico take flight, take in nourishment and most begin to immediately mate. This allows them to deposit eggs on the milkweed that is found along the HUNDREDS of miles they will cross in their northern migration through Texas. These are butterflies that have been overwintering for months. They are the same butterflies that traveled up to 2500 miles in order to reach Mexico. They have not eaten in months. Instead, they are living off the fat they have stored from last fall during their journey south. (The generation of Monarchs that make the journey south and begin the return trip live up to five months, while all other generations of Monarchs that populate our gardens in summer live only two to six weeks.) And so, their one mission is to mate, begin the journey north and LAY EGGS! The vast majority of these butterflies will lay eggs in Texas and soon die. Mission accomplished.

Now, imagine that Texas is suffering from a drought. And temperatures are WELL above normal. The milkweed is suffering from the dry conditions and the butterflies cannot stand the extreme temperatures. Some of the migrating Monarchs will die before they are able to find suitable amounts of milkweed. Those that survive decide to move farther north to find better conditions, only to find those areas north are still too cool and/or rainy for the Monarchs or the milkweed. That is exactly what happened this past spring and so the experts watching the migration had low expectations for a ‘good’ Monarch year. Despite that, as I said earlier, I thought we had a decent turnout in our own little corner of Monarch country.

The story doesn’t end there though. When September came around, Texas was still experiencing drought along with very high temperatures. Monarchs ‘bulk up’ during their migration south and again, Texas takes up hundreds of miles of that migration. Important miles. This year, because of its hot, dry summer, it did not have as much nectar to offer the butterflies.

Now, all we can do is wait and see how they fare on the mountaintops in central Mexico – and hope for a perfect Spring. Especially in Texas. We can do our part by planting milkweed for them before they arrive here starting in late June. I know Mark and I will be waiting for them with anticipation….and plenty of milkweed!

2010: A Great Year for the Orange and Black

A report from Nan:

My husband, Mark, and I have been rooting for the Orange and Black for the last 4 seasons or so. We do what we can to help out…we grow food for them, we provide housing and a nice place to hang out. They’ve done OK for the last few years, but this year was an exceptionally GREAT year. It just seemed to all come together this year for the Orange and Black. Of course, if you follow sports, you know that I cannot possibly be talking about the colors of the Cincinnati Bengals. What I am referring to is the beautiful colors of Danneus plexipus. The Monarch butterfly.

Mark and I have become Monarch ‘enthusiasts’ over the last several years and have done what we can to help increase the monarch population. We plant milkweed – Asclepias tuberosa, A. incarnata, and A. curassivica – throughout our gardens and we monitor the number of caterpillars produced each year. The summer of 2009 was a disappointing summer for our beloved monarchs. We’re not sure why, but most likely because it was a wet and cool summer (wow, do you remember that after this year’s hot, dry summer??) and we only saw a Monarch or two throughout the 2009 season. In comparison however, this year was phenomenal. We ‘incubated’ about 130 monarch caterpillars this year, lost a few of them to the parasitizing tachinid fly and watched about 125 monarch butterflies emerge in our backyard.

Usually starting in late July or early August, after the milkweed has been busy growing to its full beauty, the holes in the leaves begin to appear. Those holes…what a beautiful sight! The eggs have hatched and the caterpillars are eating. This is what we’ve been waiting for! The cleaned, plastic bins are inside our Monarch Room in our lower level and they are ready to become a safe haven for these first instar caterpillars for the next 10-14 days or so.

We bring the caterpillars in, place them in one of the MANY bins we have, and provide fresh milkweed leaves 3-4 times a day. Each bin has a volume of at least 16 quarts and is covered with a small window screen that serves two purposes: to keep the caterpillars INSIDE the bin and to provide a place for the caterpillar to ‘hang’ so it can complete its metamorphosis. We limit the number of caterpillars in each bin and we bring in fresh milkweed leaves. The caterpillar frass is removed at least once a day.

We have had the pleasure to watch many caterpillars grow through their 5 instar stages, hang in their signature “J” shape for hours before they pupate and ultimately emerge as beautiful adult butterflies. We are still learning as we go and are doing our best to recognize and eliminate parasites such as the tachinid fly and the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). We will continue to learn more each season as, hopefully, more and more Monarchs make their way back from their habitats in Mexico. And, as all good fans, we hope more and more gardeners join us in cheering for the Orange and Black in 2011!

Notes From An Accidental Tomato Farmer

Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer

Book Cover ImageMy dad grew up on a farm, but I did not. When I was too small to help (or care very much about helping) I remember my dad having a garden with some vegetables in our backyard. But when I was eight, we moved to an eastern city without room for a vegetable garden, so what I learned about local food production growing up was largely drawn from the brief experiences my siblings and I had each summer as we visited grandparents in the midwest.

I still don’t have a vegetable garden, but I have experimented the past two or three years with growing some tomatoes. And this year I’m experimenting with some heirloom varieties—largely as a result of reading Tim Stark’s book Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Farmer. Though I didn’t grow up in a family that grew its own food in the backyard, I did grow up in Eastern Pennsylvania which is, apparently, a primo spot for tomato growing. Tim Stark figured this out back in 1994. Stark did not imagine he would be a tomato farmer. He started out as a management consultant and would-be writer. In 1996, he started growing tomatoes on a whim, growing hundreds of plants in his fourth-floor walk-up under fluorescent lights. That’s when tomatoes took over his life. After getting booted by his landlord, he took them home to the family farm in Pennsylvania. “Farm” is putting it generously—at that time he had 2 acres dedicated to growing—land he did not even own. Twelve years later, he farms tomatoes like Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Garden Peach and Hillbilly on 12 acres in Amish and Mennonite country not far from where I grew up. And what he grows on those acres get shipped every week to the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC. His tomatoes have made him a favorite of chefs throughout the city.

Heirloom is largely a collection of anecdotes put together from 14+ years of farming without chemicals in Pennsylvania and selling the produce in Manhattan. What makes these anecdotes matter is that, in addition to being a good writer, Stark sees himself as a farmer. And being a farmer isn’t the easiest job out there these days. Stark’s stories are about farming in the 20th/21st century, with its ups and downs, gains and losses. “After 12 years of growing vegetables, I have learned to accept that every farming season presents a unique set of conditions that invariably prove to be, on the whole, less than optimal.” The stories are at once compelling and downright funny. But most wonderful is the beautiful description of the land and the soil, and tender portraits of the people who grow the food we eat.

And as for tomatoes, Stark says that it’s the ugly tomatoes — the ones that “tend to split and crack and get beaten up a lot” — that taste the best. “The uglier, the better,” he says. So this year, I’m trying to grow some real ugly ones!

The Brother Gardeners

Book Cover ImageI recently read that garden books and winter go together.  After the garden has been covered over – first by autumn leaves, then frost, and finally a dusting of snow – what’s left for a gardener to do until March but read? Perhaps that’s what Cicero had in mind when he said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

I agree. I’ve been reading because it’s too cold to garden! And one of the books I have discovered during this winter hiatus is The Brother Gardeners by British journalist Andrea Wulf. This book tells the story of a small group of eighteenth-century naturalists who made Britain a nation of gardeners and the center of horticultural and botanical expertise. But it’s the story of a garden revolution that began in America.

In 1733, the American farmer John Bartram dispatched two boxes of plants and seeds from the American colonies, addressed to the London cloth merchant Peter Collinson. Most of these plants had never been grown in British soil, but in time the American trees, evergreens, and shrubs would transform the English landscape and garden forever. During the next forty years, Collinson and a handful of botany enthusiasts cultivated hundreds of American species. The Brother Gardeners follows the lives of six of these men, whose shared passion for plants gave rise to the English love affair with gardens. In addition to Collinson and Bartram, who forged an extraordinary friendship just before the war of revolution, there is Philip Miller, author of the best-selling Gardeners Dictionary and the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, whose standardized nomenclature helped bring botany to the middle classes. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander are also followed as they explore the flora of Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia on the most celebrated voyage of discovery of their time, aboard Captain Cook’s Endeavour.

By focusing on these six personalities and telling their extraordinary stories, the author uncovers the roots (pun intended) of our modern approach to gardening without causing the reader to feel weighted down by the detailed historical research on the Age of Enlightenment and its impact on botany. Here’s the opening paragraph just to whet your appetite:

“On an early summer’s day in 1716, Thomas Fairchild went into his Hoxton garden, closed the door of his potting shed and set in motion a chain of events so momentous that in time no gardener would ever think about plants in the same way again. At the same time, it led Fairchild, a devout Christian, to live in fear of God’s wrath for the rest of his life.”

Throughout The Brother Gardeners, the author’s flair for storytelling demonstrated above makes this a most delightful book—and you don’t need to be a gardener to enjoy it.