Sunday, April 30, 2017

Great Garlic Pull

On of the chores of April and early May is the great garlic mustard removal. Last spring I pulled thousands of plants, only to be dismayed to see so many more in fall, quite possibly more than I had cleared. Pulling only created opportunity for new first year seedlings to make a strong showing. The muddy soil clung to my shoes, transferring seeds to new areas; tossing pulled plants also transferred seeds to new areas. And surely animals, other than me, moved seeds along on their feet or hooves.

This year, we have a new tack, built on observations and learning. First, we have divided the woods into zones. It is an idea I formed a few years back when volunteering in Prospect Park -namely that parks employees should not be responsible for tasks, but carrying out maintenance responsibilities in zones. The idea was built around the notion of ownership and responsibility, but I digress.

We will not tackle the highest population density zones first, but last. I have observed that the dense populations compete with themselves. If not pulled, seeds will not travel too far, especially if I weed whack the flowering stalks before seed development because the newly sprouted, post cut flowering stalks will not be as tall or vigorous. Keeping the low density populations clear will give a feeling of success and be a front line against spread. Native plants can be planted in those zones to help create ground cover.

Last spring I gave spot treatment with a glyphosate spray. I was completely dissatisfied with the results. Not only did many of the plants still go to flower despite having been sprayed weeks before, I ended up pulling them anyway. If I sprayed too early (early April), the plants were not actively growing enough for the spray to have an effect. From now on I will rely on other methods.

Garlic mustard seedlings growing in a pile of buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, saplings pulled last spring. The seeds are everywhere, and the mere act of pulling the plant (or any plant) will help sprout new garlic mustard. Underneath every 2nd year stand of garlic mustard are hundreds or thousands of seeds and seedlings waiting for their chance.

One of the prime benefits of pulling garlic mustard, which is nearly everywhere, is the opportunity to see what is growing off trail. Here, along the shady edge of slope of the little wetland I found evidence of an enlarged colony of fern. We have only so much fern in our woods, most along the shady and wet northeastern slope, and I'd like to see much more. Did my work last year enable these fern to gain some ground?

A reason to dedicate so much time to limiting the spread of garlic mustard in our woods is Uvularia grandiflora, Large-flowered Bellwort. It is a rare treat that never seems to be in the same spot twice. Undoubtedly, I will be here next spring to pull the garlic mustard you can see behind it, but will the bellwort?

Dicentra cucullaria, Dutchman's Breeches, native to the region, but not found anywhere within the bounds of our property. This singular plant was brought over from the woods on the southwest side of our great wetland last spring and, with great fortune, had survived the hasty transplant. I gather that this used to grow around our woods but had been out competed or trampled by cows or people. Behind the dicentra are ramps, Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, a type of bedstraw (weed or not?) and a few seedlings of garlic mustard (I did just pull the 2nd year plants).

On the shady north facing slope where little else grows but sugar maple and garlic mustard, a rue, likely Early Meadow, but time will tell. Update: probably Blue Cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides.

Wood Anemone, Anemone quinquefolia, surrounded by garlic mustard and some buckthorn saplings  in a tree-fall clearing. This zone has to wait as it is rapidly becoming a dense stand, there is tree work to be done, and is difficult to navigate.

Colonies of Cardamine concatenata, Cutleaf Toothwort, are more charming than the swath of garlic mustard I cleared a few days ago.

Not far from the patch of fern, this low growing plant is coming up in what appears to be a fairly broad colony. It is not Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, however, a plant I could expect in this wet area but rises in denser mounds and with just a bit less shade tolerance. Another to watch as the garlic mustard season progresses.

Clearing is the first line of defense (or offense?), but of course, we also eat our share.

This area was completely cleared last spring.
But two people cannot possibly eat our way out of this much garlic mustard. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Of The Many Signs Of Spring

The birds are back, big and small, and the weather a swinging ride. Mid seventies two days ago, last night a snow fall. Garden garlic is popping up, early varieties first. Ticks are up and about in the weedy reaches of the woods and the chorus of frogs singing every day, but this one. Ramps are up as well as some unwound bloodroot.

I have a rapidly thickening list of projects to tackle, the least of which is garlic and lawn's corn meal (nitrogen), lawn seeding where it had been turned to mud last year by heavy equipment, till, add compost, and plant potatoes received from Seed Savers, plant the native seeds stratifying in the fridge, chainsawing, chainsawing, chainsawing.

There is so much garlic mustard in the woods you'd think I didn't pull thousands of plants last year. I've tried to enlist the local scouts to help this year, but I have yet to hear back. There is much much much buckthorn, and I am blazing a new trail to get around the permanent inundation in the back slough, a trail that opens up the cedars and an unusually placed, young apple tree. There are bridges to repair or replace in every corner, all which will find their way onto the business page.

I have three or four or five art projects running. Just came back from New Mexico where I was making images of space over the border, another dealing with athletic fields, yet another of artists situated in landscape, and of course, Phenology.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Peculiar Petunia

A blooming petunia sits on the chest of overwintering. Rosemary, lantana, prickly pear, agave, lavender are companions, all known for their ease of transition from garden to window, and back. The petunia, however, has had a more interesting life, a touch of mystery and adventure, and an uneasy, surprising transition.

I've been busy spinning plates. Photographs, details on the studio shop, painting the attic post bat remediation, many websites. Tomorrow I am off to southern New Mexico to work on some art, see some old friends, make some connections up in Santa Fe, and eat at two or three favorite local establishments. Upon my return, finish the attic, make sample work for my business (three bridges and two planters), begin the gardening season, pour two concrete pads, seed the plethora of native seeds I have stratifying in the fridge, move on to buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica chopping in lieu of garlic mustard removal. It's been so mild this year that I cannot walk the woods to remove garlic mustard without seriously compressing the wet soil. And despite last year's two dozen fifty-gallon bags and countless rotting piles of pulled garlic mustard, there appears to be more growing this year than last. Maybe this spring I can post about last year's experience.

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Friday, March 3, 2017

Stairway, a Repost

As I work on my new Artist & Builder website, I revisited the building of Rex's steps. It still chokes me up, and reminds me of the power of material things, and writing, and images, and the working with one's hands to give meaning to the ordinary.

Could a dying man's last wish be a new set of steps? In his slow decay is it trying or comforting to see rotten and skewed rebuilt upright? Is time best spent fixing the things that can be fixed? Our answer was yes, so Betsy and I spent the last ten days or so in Minnesota rebuilding the porch legs and constructing a new staircase with Rex's blessing. He and his aide sat porch side, observing, while we took to our work.

The porch was sinking in the northeast corner, evident at the junction of house and porch where a gap had formed over the years. It wasn't until we removed the porch steps and it's stock standard, 45 degree, three step stringer that we could begin to see the whole of the problem. The house architectural drawings indicated below the frost-line 12 inch concrete piers and 4x4 treated posts. The problem was that these posts were to some degree covered at the base with wet clay soil, not at all elevated above the moisture-holding concrete, and not at all anchored in any way to the concrete piers.  They simply rotted and moved from their original position allowing the porch to slowly pull downward. Although our intention was only to replace the staircase, and as is so often the case, when you look into it you realize the full extent of the work before you.

First, remove the old staircase, the lattice work under deck, then the fascia boards.

Old, rotten-bottom posts removed as we jack up the porch with a very old school jack. 

New treated posts installed with steel post-header ties (the old were toe-nailed).

Not choice, but available: plastic post bottoms to separate the new post from the concrete pier. Each is said to be good for five thousand pounds.

We also compromised on the anchor -galvanized steel angles at the back of each post, then each post backfilled with course gravel.

I found this blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale, under the plastic near one of the posts. Trying to get it out, it only climbed in deeper, so I let it be. I wonder how it keeps dirt out of those bulging black eyes.

After the posts were set and anchored we set about doing the staircase. The main complaint about the old steps was their steep incline and rickety railings (they had rotten) so we stretched the run to five feet from the porch. This changed the configuration from four, eleven-inch treads with eight-inch risers to six, twelve-inch treads with five and three quarter-inch risers.  The longer run had the structure landing on the concrete pad, adding concern about frost heave (which every one else was less concerned with). We compromised by designing the railings so that they are integral to the staircase structure but do not attach at all to the posts holding up the porch roof. This allowed us to remove the chance that frost heave pressure would be applied to the porch posts.

I reused as much of the original cedar risers as I could, but this also meant that I was limited by their length. We had wanted to overshoot the stringer sides by an inch or so but the old boards wouldn't allow it. We compromised by bringing the riser board to the top of the tread instead of behind it, and extended the tread board just a half inch on either side.

The treads were notched around the posts.

I fitted the post notch with a small piece of cedar to fill.

The different shades of cedar on a cloudy day.

While it was a marathon effort for him, Rex made the journey out to see the finished staircase. The following afternoon, I found him sitting on them.  I don't think I will get as much joy out of doing these projects without him there to appreciate it. Things need to be done, to be sure, but his glowing appraisal makes it worth the extra effort. As I had to leave to get back to work in NYC, not two days after I wrapped up the work on the staircase, I knew I could be seeing him for the last time. He said to me "you have value, remember that." Seems like such a simple thing, but it chokes me up. Rex was motivated to get the staircase rebuilt because his elderly friends were having trouble climbing the old set when they came to visit. I suppose, then, that a staircase could be a last wish. It's a way to extend oneself beyond the boundaries of life and death, a courtesy to those friends who will thank me for the effort and good work, at his house, soon enough.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Spring Ahead

February thaw is in play. We will be 30-40 degrees above the average temperatures today. I read the arctic is as well. Our ice is becoming water. Our solid ground is becoming mud. Meanwhile, I've ordered and received a plethora of native seeds from PrairieMoon that will be cold stratified and then planted in cell trays this April. Native plants require a use of the mind not at all like domesticated species. Each has very specific challenges to successful germination and growth. My success with six varieties of milkweed last year has given me the confidence to try a range of species.

We are almost done with the barn studio and quite a building feat for me. My primary use will be as a wood shop in the main space and north side storage shed for potatoes and garlic. I have started a business limited liability company under the name Artist & Builder. I will be building yard and garden structures such as custom planter boxes, raised planter boxes for institutions that serve handicapped, elderly, or children, small bridges, the basic arbors, pergolas, and furniture for the garden. I may do planting, I may not. When I have my website up and running, I will link to it here.

I bartered with my sheep farming neighbor to continue growing garlic in his field. Despite the insane warm up, the garlic is likely to remain under the soil through the week. I will offer some for sale late this summer at Hudson Clove.

Spring is advancing early, as you can see in the Phenology Network maps. There is a danger that trees will bud or leaf out and then be hit be a hard freeze. Here in Minnesota, the hard freeze can happen anytime into May.

Meanwhile, I am continuing my art practice with photography and have several exhibits up or coming this year. You can see my regular postings on my Instagram account with a caveat that the photos are of limited quality on such a site. I do make Epson Ultrachrome prints on archival matte paper for sale, so feel comfortable inquiring through my art website. I've also been making more digital movies (hard to say films when no film is involved) of the land around me. You can see those on my Vimeo channel or Youtube channel. You can subscribe to any to get updates.

Finally, I have been busy with many things and have taken to blogging quite a bit less. I hope this changes, but that remains to be seen. With over 2000 posts over 8 years, there is plenty to read here about my landscape, garden, farm, and other adventures. Stay tuned: as the business gets up and running, there will be more to say, and of course, spring is around the corner.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The View as Enclosure

In the autumn of 2001 I had an experience at the Mattituck Museum, in Waterbury, Connecticut. The exhibit, Images of Contentment: John Frederick Kensett and the Connecticut Shore was on display upstairs. His Hudson River School style is typically described as Luminism, its hallmark a tranquil scene with evanescent light, and in Kensett’s case -more often than not an image of the conjunction of water and land. The impact of each work is an experience of restfulness and calm, a bath of even, transcendental light in the reassuring, supportive bosom of nature. 

On the first floor was Mattituck's permanent exhibit titled Brass City –a brutal display of miserable working and living conditions in Waterbury, one of Connecticut’s several industrialized river cities through the 19th  and early 20th century. 

In this contradiction I recognize how the Hudson River School paintings were a looking or turning away.

The history of the Hudson Valley is one of industrial and commercial enterprise, of resource extraction, where the hills, especially those closest to the river, were cleared of timber for use in iron production, charcoal production, tanning, building, and of course, cleared for farming. The valley was home to quarrying for road making, building, brick making, and of course, cement production. Rail and steam terminals, dikes and dredging, and other riverside alterations were commonplace thanks to the opening of the Eerie Canal in 1825. One hundred or so brilliant white ice houses, many hundreds of feet long, were built along the river to store ice cut from the frozen river to ship to NYC. Yet it is the rarest of paintings from the time period that represents any of this. The image below was made by one of the "lesser" artists of the time -it depicts industry on the shores of the city of Hudson, NY.

Samuel Coleman, 1866

I expect people to desire the dream, but what never occurred to me is that anyone would confuse Hudson River School pictorialization with truth. The painters of the time, like any artist, did not stay true to the world before them. No, they were creating visages of a dream and they were as well aware of it as we are today. 

The Viewshed

A view shed has been defined as:

"the geographical area that is visible from a location. It includes all surrounding points that are in line-of-sight with that location and excludes points that are beyond the horizon or obstructed by terrain and other features."

This singular point of view sounds awfully like perspective, a system that prioritizes the view of a single eye, a single individual, or in the case outlined below, a single institution. This singular point of view is an expression of the utmost power, not the benign locus of landscape appreciation.

I've always found the term view shed indigestible, primarily because it shifts meaning from laws of fluids and gravity to laws of man. So how does eyesight flow, how is it "shed?" That single viewpoint radiates outward from a point somewhere on a 3.5 mm retinal disc. The shedding is done by the human brain, and what flows from it is not out there, a part of nature, but something within the mind of the shedder. Optics prevent us from seeing around obstructions creating what amounts to blind spots, but what of the "view shed" in the age of technological prosthetics like drones or remote cameras?  

Nowhere has the application of this idea been more apparent than in the Hudson Valley, where the view shed has been legitimated by the apparent "truth" of Hudson River School paintings. While there are many grand views in the Hudson Valley, the most often cited, preeminent view is that from Olana, the home and landscaped acres of the Hudson River School's Frederic Church. While there is plenty of evidence, if one aims to find it, of quite a different landscape in his day, it appears that plaintiffs commonly utilize the "historic" view as the basis for legal argument against any industrial activity that may alter it. 

“This discussion, while it addresses the prospect of a nuclear power plant, is not about nuclear energy,” commented Sara Griffen, President of The Olana Partnership. “It is the story of how the importance of the Olana Viewshed factored into the siting of a plant, and how this mattered on a national and regional level.” “Olana is famous for its breath-taking panoramic views that draw thousands of visitors to this magnificent historic site every year,” said Kimberly Flook, Site Manager of Olana Historic Site. “It was Frederic Church’s vision that actively shaped his landscape to frame the Hudson Valley’s unique natural beauty."

"The resulting Environmental Impact Statement caused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff to recommended denial of a construction license for the proposed nuclear power plant (just south of Catskill). This was the first and only time that such a recommendation had been made on any grounds—let alone environmental or aesthetic." 

The image below is an "artist" rendering of the view of the proposed power plant, looking south from Olana. The rendering isn't terribly offensive, except that the image of a parabolic cooling tower has become an architecture of anxiety.

Again and again the "historic view" is used as justification to halt or alter proposed industrial projects in the Hudson River Valley. One of the more recent and controversial was the case of the proposed St. Lawrence Cement plant in the town of Greenport, NY, just upriver from the now hip town of Hudson. The National Trust for Historic Preservation cited the St. Lawrence Cement Plant as an imminent threat to the area, declaring the Hudson River Valley one of America’s eleven most endangered historic places, as its scenic areas and historic landmarks are constantly threatened by sprawl and industrialization. 

Mark Brobowski's study, "Scenic Landscape Protection Under the Police Power," shows us that the Supreme Court decision in 1954, Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26, helped pave the way for future landscape preservation efforts based primarily on aesthetic values." Further, he states "The increasing value of tourism to local economies has prompted local governments, under their police powers, to move towards legitimizing aesthetic regulation, and landscape protection based on aesthetic values has evolved from a secondary purpose to a constant theme in environmental protection (Brobowski 1995, 700-702).

The view shed is not so much something to protect as it is an enclosure of a kind, a way to exact a great, limiting influence over many square miles of land and the human activity within it. At who's expense is the view kept a dream? We all dream of a land unspoiled by industry, but we have to engage it to deal with it. A quote from the brilliant Paul Shepard:

"My point is that their origin is inextricably associated with a surplus agriculture, that cities tend to grow beyond what the local agriculture will support, and that there is an urban attitude toward nature which is insular, cultivated, ignorant, dilettante, and sophisticated. At the same time, by virtue of the very polarity in the landscape that cities create, they contain and educate and produce men who retreat to nature, who seek its solitude and solace, who study it scientifically, and who are sensitive to its beauty. The very idea of a sense of place is an abstraction, a sort of intellectual creation like sex or climate or fashion, which is impossible except in a world of ideas whose survival depends on the city. The dilemma is that those who yearn for the warm garment of landscape security are already deflowered. They can only go back so far. They can regain the hunter's, pastoralist's, farmer's nonverbal responses, limited to an extent by their self-consciousness; but the yearning is thrust upon them in any case, for they were all children once and they had wild ancestors and they dream and to some degree all have premonitions of special places."

Sunday, January 8, 2017


The Wekiva (Weh-kee-vah or wah) Spring Run flows onto the Wekiva River which descends from the Florida central highlands into the middle sub-basin of Florida's longest river -the St. Johns. To the canoe or kayak paddler the riverside can appear strange with its palms, bromeliads, and trees bearded by epiphytic Spanish Moss as much as boats captained by duck dynasty types.

Among these, however, are familiar plants and animals of the north -water birds, trees and forbs like red maple Acer rubrum, pickerelweed Pontederia cordata, heron, egret, and white ibis (above).

The red maple, its trunk visible on the far left of this photo, is likely one of the most adaptable tree species in North American native silviculture. I am familiar with it from road travel throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic where it can often be seen in lakeside swamps turning red before autumn gains a foothold. Cultivated forms are also common to streets and yards. Although I have not seen it among our wetland edges or woodland swamps, it certainly grows here and farther north in Minnesota. It is both water tolerant and drought tolerant, shade tolerant and sun tolerant and quite obviously, heat and cold tolerant. A red maple grown in the south may not do well in the north as well as the reverse, but the tree exhibits great genetic variability and adaptability.

Given that our once vernal swamp has become, for the last three years at least, a year-round swamp due to frequent heavy rainfall events, geomorphic characteristics and a rising water table, nearly all of the vegetation has died. The last of the very large trees, namely green ash Fraxinus pennsylvanica and basswood Tilia americana, that tolerate a few months of standing water every year, have finally succumbed to three years of permanent inundation.

The adaptability of a tree like red maple struck me as a good fit for such a situation -able to tolerate the standing water or, should things change, do fine in simply wet soil or even withstand a drought. Research shows that the native tree has increased its population since the time Europeans arrived to the continent, and in some cases may be viewed as an opportunistic, invasive species. This is something I will need to weigh against the other invasive, exotic species that have taken advantage of the sunlight provided by the sudden death of the slough's canopy.

A struggle I've had over the last two years since I have moved to our place in the Minnesota woods is how to preserve and restore the woodlands and wetlands around us. It is disheartening to see government maps describe parts of our woods and wetlands as of "moderate" quality or "altered non-native plant community: no native species present" which are both misleading descriptors. However, after two years' time I believe I understand the extent to which this place has been altered by human interaction and all the species that have followed it.

In acceptance of these changes, why not be proactive? Why not plant species that can take advantage of the new conditions? Why not plant pickerelweed and red maple in the flooded slew even if they are not currently growing on site? The wish to return such a drastically altered site to a pre-human condition is not only foolish, but nearly impossible. What I am likely to consider, now, is gardening the woods and swamp with native plants, without the restrictive edicts of restoration.

Lizard's tail Saururus cernuus was identified on one Florida boardwalk trail. Is it beyond its cold tolerance in our slough? We are likely on the edge of its range, but I'm game for a try.

Any time spent in Florida with plants leads you to think about "houseplants," those typically subtropical and tropical plants we attempt to grow indoors. Seemannia sylvatica, above, may be hard to find locally, but it promises to be a great winter friend in a west facing window.

In a surprise turn, our limited collection of easy care houseplants has increased dramatically despite the winter's desiccating indoor humidity level. Beyond the easy pothos, sprengeri fern, and oxalis we are now overwintering a substantially larger rosemary shrub (2nd year), lavender, two opuntia spp (2nd year), two agave spp (2nd year), a rather large pineapple sage Salvia elegans (which blooms so late here that this may be only way to get it to flower before frost), dusty miller Senecio cineraria (last year it overwintered outside), and the odd petunia.

Now, for the peculiar case of the petunia. At some time, maybe it was August, I noticed a petunia flower underneath our terribly diseased tomato plants (a terrible year for them). We had no petunias at the house this year or last and certainly had none in the vegetable garden. I gave a pass to the notion that it self-seeded from petunias that may have been located in the long window box along the garage in years before our arrival. After all, I find tomato plants sprouting all over the gardens despite occasional -15 or -20 F nights over winter. After a few weeks I decided to dig it up and move it to a more visible location in the raised herb bed, near the parsley, where it continued to flower until the first frost sometime in November. There it lay for another couple of weeks, its pink blooms preserved by the cold. When the first deep freeze was about to set upon us we cut back the herbs for use in the kitchen but left some of the parsley under cover to keep fresh for another few days. On that last day of natural viability, when all over-wintering plants were required to come in, I realized that the petunia was still green, pliable, quite alive. I dug it up, potted it, and it is now doing well on our window sill with a mass of new leaves.