Saturday, July 7, 2018


When something unexpected shows up I greet it with guarded curiosity. I peered and poked at the newly appeared grass in the year-old savanna garden, appreciating its attractive features with enough skepticism to keep me on the hunt for its identity. In a last ditch attempt to narrow down the genus (Bromus) to a species, I pestered the hard working folks at Minnesota Wildflowers with an uploaded picture to their Facebook page. Three days later I had an ID, Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum. You may have noticed the Bromes - medium height, cool season grasses whose often gracefully drooping flower arrives in late May to early July. There are many Bromes, many have been introduced to North America as forage grasses, and some are likely to be willing hybridizers.

Grass identification may be the perfect activity to teach the art of observation. Multiple points of focus are defined to aid grass identification, but most of these (too many parts, too many names, too small a detail...) induce a foggy brain and willful blindness. And, as any skilled observer knows, one day you're sharp and another blurred. Impatient, I pulled all brome grasses, concerned that they could also be Cheatgrass. To end this craze, I plucked one specimen out and potted it up, placing it in the greenhouse. If allowed to go to seed, I thought, I may be able to see the difference in the details.

As it went, close observation of the object, once detached from its environment, allowed me to see difference that I had been blind to. Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, has long awns -the long, thin, pointed thread extending from the lemma while other Bromus in my savanna plantings have short awns or none at all.

This trait now clear, I was able to distinguish Cheatgrass from the Prairie Brome (Kalm's Brome), above, I seeded and planted last summer. Unfortunately, my blindness had likely led to the removal of many Prairie Brome plants before I nailed down this difference.

Pitcher Plant (flower), Sarracenia purpurea, in the bog at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

Another tough identification was a new, singular plant with angular stem, tall stature, unusually-colored, small flowers that insects went wild for. Again, after being narrowed down by the folks at Minnesota Wildflowers, I could ID Early Figwort, Crophularia lanceolata, a potent pollinator attractant that is likely to return by self seeding.

This sloppy fellow caught my eye as it slowly climbed the remains of a Monarch-chomped Whorled Milkweed. I had seen several of these, earlier, at the base of irises and milkweeds being weeded in the front garden. Were they Japanese Beetle instars (but I hadn't seen these last year when there were so many JB) or had Colorado Potato Beetles finally discovered our potato patch (but there were no potatoes growing here, the eyes are black and the spots double on a potato beetle instar, plenty of which are available to see at a neighbors garden)? 

This picture, uploaded to Bugguide, helped identify a large lady beetle-like insect I'd seen in May. Swamp Milkweed Beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, was a good fit -that's the plant on which the beetles had been hosted. Further clicking led to an image of its instar -an exact match of my juicy milkweed climber.

Milkweed growing has been paying off this season, both in Milkweed Beetles and Monarchs.

When transplanting from another garden, especially one untended by a gardener, and doubly so when the specimen is surrounded by invasive Goutweed, Aegopodium podagraria, it isn't wise to plant with its original root ball soil. Several aggressively-spreading plants intertwine their roots or rhizomes with the roots of our favored plants and the strategy ensures their persistence by creating a home base for developing roots and shoots safely hidden beneath your favorite garden plants.

If you do rescue something, like this large Cimicifuga, from an invasive patch about to be sprayed with glyphosate, use a hose to spray out all soil from the root mass, combing through for anything that looks like it belongs to the weed you don't want to introduce. The roots, above, only partially cleared of soil, show an entangled rhizome of the offending Aegopodium -small, but enough to regenerate. Before I planted it, I thoroughly washed away any remaining soil, then disposed any foreign root or rhizome. Despite my effort, I question my choice to remove a plant so crowded by goutweed for planting at our place (although Aegopodium does already exist in our woods, introduced accidentally or planted I cannot say).

In other news, lots of ticks in the garlic plots.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Sedges Have Edges, Rushes Are Round, Grasses have Nodes...

It all started with a blizzard that pushed us right into excessive heat of summer before May was out. We hadn't had more than a few hours rain over the month, so little that, with the heat, high sun, and drying wind, even succulents were bowing to the ground.

By Memorial Day, rising heat and moisture became the cauldron from which storms could manifest. 

Our woods and garden had accumulated three inches of rain by Tuesday. Another five eighths came later that day. This broke the drought, for now, and not everywhere, but in our woods. It also spared two climbing roses that we transplanted along with an arbor from a rapidly shading garden, on one of the hottest days, when rain looked immanent, but wasn't.

Was it the rain, or the freshly loosened soil under the trellis, that brought my first turtle sighting to our clearing in the woods? By early morning, this medium-large sized snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina, made its way up the slope from one of many watery sites and began depositing her eggs directly beneath the newly moved rose trellis. By mid morning she was gone and around her clutch, Betsy installed a fence to keep out likely predation by raccoons (just steps away is a perma-puddle with not-so-little raccoon "hand" prints scrawled across the bottom). In fifty or one hundred and twenty five days the little ones may emerge from the nest.

The rain also gave a much needed boost to the garlic on both farms. Already stressed by the latest of winters, drought had begun to take its toll. The garlic is about the size it would normally be in early May, although the date is early June. The rain also gave boost to the mass of thistle, grass, and lambsquarters in this new plot, all weeded this past Sunday with one more weeding likely before harvest.

In the other plot, the weed profile is completely different: smartweed, bindweed, and purslane. The garlic is generally larger here, although still less vigorous than should be at this time, with many lost cloves of artichoke, turban, asiatic, and creole. In either of these two plots I picked up my first embedded tick, the wood type, as I wore shorts for the chore, something I have not done before. For all my traipsing around in the woods and elsewhere, I have yet, until this moment, to have a tick embed itself. In fact one would not anticipate that the garlic plots are where I would pick up ticks given how much time I spend in the woods.

In the year old savanna gardens a cool season grass has come up to fill the blanks readily and, although attractive, my suspicion is that it was unlikely to have been seeded with the shortgrass or savanna seed mixes broadcast in these sites a year and half ago. Nothing triggers plant weariness or all out blindness more than grass identification, but grass identification is often needed and difficult.

A last minute reprieve was handed out by the folks at Minnesota Wildflowers, a site dedicated to visual identification of native Minnesotan plants and those we find among them. In this instance, my picture post on their FB page lead to an ID a few days later, prompting me to immediately begin pulling. I hazarded the guess that it came with the poor quality straw purchased from a local farm supply. It was only in those areas where I had spread the straw for erosion control that the new weed, Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, as well as common oats had sprouted.

It's only then, after a positive ID, that traits of a weedy species appear to express themselves clearly. Each day since, I continue to find more inflorescence hidden among the other forbs and grasses. Like any impressive weed, this grass exhibits the ability to grow from the base of other plants and set seed at heights of only an inch. At the same time, this winter annual (cool season) grass can take advantage of rising CO2, thereby increasing its biomass, indigestibility, and fire threat. Not long after, I begin to see other grasses that appear similar to Cheatgrass, but maybe taller or with smaller inflorescence, maybe smoother stems or less blue coloration in the leaves and stem. What then?

Can you tell the difference between these two grasses? Side by side, you may notice differences, but in the field grasses can blur together.

Spot the different grasses in there? From this picture, it looks to be all forbs, but it is likely 40 to 50% grasses. As the shortgrass mix I scattered here two winters back consisted of predominantly Side-oats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula, and Little Bluestem, Schyzachyrium scoparium, a sensible guess would be that some of these grasses are present. Little bluestem is fairly easy to identify as a warm season, low growing, bluish bunch grass -not the predominant grass here.

Upon closer inspection, the grasses become more visible. Non-weed, perennial grasses tend to grow slower than annual weed grasses, but also slower than the annual forbs such as the first-year predominant black-eyed susan. In this second growth season, the grasses are making themselves known and the black-eyed susan are spread more evenly and less thickly. The site also has plants that I have cell-tray seeded and planted last summer and fall as well as more mature plants transplanted from other locations.

This grass, blooming now, is scattered through the site. It may be Fowl Manna Grass, Glyceria striata, but then again, I'm not sure. To become an expert in grass identification, one must make solid observations. The easy part is cool season, warm season or bunch or spreading, but in an ascending order of difficulty we have dull or shiny, pubescent parts or not, ligules formed this way or that, leaves folded or flat, sheaths fused or unfused, and on. It helps to know general things about a species, such as preferred habitat or weed status, but that only opens the door to more complex examination.

It is clear that the creatures appreciate these clearings repopulated with food and shelter. The milkweed planted two summers ago have begun to establish solidly among the grasses, monarda, goldenrod, asters, and much more.

These sites are a favorite of large and small dragonflies, monarchs, toads, and moths such as this Xanthotype species.

What's this? A new concept in contemporary landscape architecture? No, its a sheet of thick plastic designed to combat what was once grass, but now is one hundred percent creeping charlie, Glechoma hederacea.

It only took three years for it to go from sporadic lawn weed to total ground cover and the reason is largely due our garden choices. Putting vegetables in the lawn area, where we had our only sun, or making a hedgerow along the driveway edge created shade that charlie took advantage of. The wet weather over the last two years and our heavy clay soil worked well with our yard plans to bring us this new idea in lawns.

Why is it that a monoculture of grass is more desirable than a monoculture of charlie? After all, charlie feeds the bees and smells great when crushed (insert someone offering its medicinal value here). Is it a texture thing, a cultural, or visual thing? Lawn grasses, like charlie, are weeds around the world, but maybe we don't see grasses (remember grass blindness...). For us, a creeping charlie lawn comes down to at least three negatives: this "lawn" will always be the spring of more charlie invasions in the woods, the visual texture is off putting, and it's a pain to have to weed this out of every shady nook in the yard and garden.

Charlie hides out in the shady base of perennials, between stones, under dense shrubs, and just about anywhere there is shade and moisture. Its stolons spread in every direction, with a preference to run toward shade. At our place that means downhill, toward the woods, where it is becoming an increasingly problematic ground cover. Its seeds roll downhill in rainstorms and get stuck in clay-filled shoe treads, but worse is how its bits and pieces follow raked leaves onto slopes.

I have my eyes on several infestations, one of which looks not all that different from the lawn, but under the canopy of trees on a north facing woodland slope. In fact, charlie is giving garlic mustard that grows there a hard time, but the garlic mustard is much easier for me to eradicate, with or without its help.

After the plastic comes up this summer, the idea is to till the soil, add compost, and place thick sod in its place. It's a good idea if we do not grow vegetables here any longer. Maybe we should grow vegetables here, but add sand and brick between the raised beds? No matter what we do, charlie is instigating a lot more work and we've already plenty of that.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Month Spring

The Weather
The last spring snow melted in the gardener's lot the night of May 10th. It will now be in the nineties.

The Farm(s)

On the ninth, I had a moment to look on the garlic, strike the weeds with a hoe. Never before have I seen the garlic so small so late.

The effervescence of lambsquarter and thistle is contained with mats of semi-wet straw remaining from last fall.

The Greenhouse

Three rows by five of ear leaved brome, Bromus latiglumis, out front of 4 rows of bottle brush grass, Elymus hystrix, and three rows of silky wild rye, Elymus villosus. An ability or want to grow in the shade is a commonality among these monocotyledonous Poaceae. These will likely be established on the culvert embankment, partially collapsed last fall, once restored.

It takes an especially observant person, and some years of experience, to decipher one seedling's visual cues from another. Identification -what is that? Dicotyledonous plants, with pubescent stems and leaf edges, slightly wavy heart-spade shaped leaves, pale green, growing thickly (indicating small seeds to the planter of seeds). This blindness to leaves and stems, the miniature, and impatience allows many undesirable plants to survive the hoe.  Refining possibility by my seed order leaves only Campanula americana, or Tall Bellflower. When I return from Cedar Creek, the tag will tell how experienced I am.

Blue lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica, whose seeds are only a fraction of a millimeter, have a stellar germination rate. Competition must be the thinning mechanism.  These seedlings are for the northern edge of the great swamp, that two acre depression of drowned trees, duckweed, and fluctuating water levels toward the back of our woods. On that partly shady slope -weedy garlic mustard, thistle, canary reed grass and me. I've got black plastic on part of the water's edge covering canary reed grass, and been hoeing then planting Iris versicolor, spotted joe pye weed, blue vervain, big blue stem grass, and others. The seed bank of garlic mustard and root network of thistle is deep, while canary reed grass forms dense, fibrous mats that are bears to pull, but there is also a surprising amount of diversity in this highly disturbed site at the edge of a former commercial gravel pit.


Hepatica, Anemone americana, trailside, Cedar Bog Lake trail, May seventh Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

Large flowered bellwort, Uvularia grandiflora, like many ephemerals growing in our woods, had a prolific season. Is this is due to winter weather resembling winters these plants have evolved by? Last year, after yet another overly warm winter, I stumbled upon one, maybe two bellwort. This spring there are possibly dozens of clumps scattered in previously barren understory sites. Our only known patch of trillium, nibbled by the hungry deer this spring, now has peers. A display of randomness that throws off any rational sense of seed distribution and opens us to the potential of seeds storing in ground until conditions are right, to a migration of seeds via ants and mice, and, as is the case with trillium, to the slow process from fruit to flowering plant. A warming climate, should it create a warming winter here, won't be hospitable to these spring ephemerals, more likely favoring the weedy plants that take advantage of disruption and do not have such particular requirements for germination.

Nodding trillium, Trillium cernuum.