Wednesday, September 13, 2017


There are things you must do that you decided are a must, but no one else, or maybe someone else, but why should we care about the rules of others in matters not of their concern? A lesson graciously provided, over and over again.

 Although house work looms at the preface of autumn, the introduction to day.

Early autumn is a fantastic spectre of shortened days, shortened seasons, and shortened lives. Who decides what must be your day?

I stop to photograph the sand hill cranes whose prehistoric call so often heard, their bodies little seen. 

Walk to see small victories of woods gardening -an aster...

recovering jewelweed...

and the appearance of zig zag goldenrod along the drainage we attended to for three springs.

Now, on to applications for grants, house painting, plant planting, drainage installing, arboretum course development, and all the other allergenic musts that occupy any given day.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


Four year old buckwheat seed still a hearty sprouter in this year's garlic field. A fast-growing cover crop, it is now tilled in.

My neighbor's giant pumpkin patch: all those leaves to support one pumpkin.

My tray seeded royal catchfly, Silene regia, finally flowers, weakly, in its first year.

Eastern tiger swallowtail grabbing a drink from a rain filled cell tray.

A frog poking its head out of the same. 

The tomato patch, post tomato. One plant has retained a healthy posture, but continues to blight its fruit. The plants directly to the right are peppers, unaffected by the blight. The container near the hydrangea are potatoes that have somehow, to date, resisted succumbing. I pulled all the plants, anyway, leaving the tubers in the ground for my picking as needed. The tomato plants filled three 45 gallon trash bags.

The very green Eastern gray tree frog, notably Hyla versicolor, on its spiked throne.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Pickling Pond*

For the first time in probably two months I headed to the western side of our woods. The light has been hazy, the mosquitoes just this side of intolerable. Now that the water has killed off all of the trees, it's time to hack back the weeds and garden this part of the woods.

I spend my time looking at plant parts with purpose to divine the weed from the wanted. A seed is one clue and my digital camera a prosthesis of magnification and memory.

Could the seed, above, and node, hairs aimed down, point to Leersia virginica. White Grass? It's hard to be absolute without an expert on hand. I composed a little poem about grass anatomy.

Lemma, awn, sheath 
and palea. 
Ligule, node, culm 
and glume.

The bridge I tore apart in late winter still in shambles. I did create a working drawing for its replacement and designed a steel post and wooden beam structure, prototype section yet to be built. These places belong to mosquitoes in summer, and with so much else to do, the bridge project has languished. 

From the head of the bridge, looking east, southeast. Reed canary grasses, willow, cottonwood, cattail, some sedge. Behind me a forest of invasive buckthorn that has accelerated since the 2012, thunderstorm downing of a giant old bur oak. 

The prototype for this bridge will be built as a pier into the wetland in the photo at the beginning of this post. Why there? The heavy rains of the last few years has created constant water that has killed off every tree near and within the bounds of the forest slough. Without the basswood, ash and maple that tolerated seasonal wetness only, there is quite a bit of sun hitting the water and land. Invasive species are gaining ground and water, or have already taken it. Garlic mustard, reed canary grass, Canadian thistle (not from Canada, originally) are the powerhouses, here. Late growing natives, like clearweed, Pilea pumila, fill in after the garlic mustard dies back. An aster, here and there, and some hogpeanut too. The soil washes down a severe slope just to the north of the water. By September there are few leaves left by earthworms and decomposition to help slow the heavy rains. The soil pathway created by this down rush of water grows little. This bare patch will be the entrance to the water edge.

I know this spot well. It is a mass of garlic mustard in spring and early summer, yet a few plants, like clearweed, hold on or can work with the seasonality of the invasive species. I've recently seen what is likely to be white grass, Leersia virginica, and what I believe is marsh skullcap, Scutellaria galericulata. In spring I tray-seeded sweet joe pye weed which tolerates some shade and wet for part of this area. I have some fringed brome, iris versicolor, cardinal flower, blue vervain (tolerates wet soils), ironweed, and a couple of others I cannot recall from my desk. We also have enough blue lobelia, physostegia (obedient plant),  and even some chelone glabra (turtlehead) volunteering around the gardens to shift to the back. Near the small pier I will clear for these transplants and, come mid fall, will be on the look out for pull out of garlic mustard first year rosettes.

*An artist friend told me that duckweed covered waters like ours were called pickling ponds by locals and young kids were warned to stay away from them, lest they be pickled.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

It's Not All Bad

 I mean, look at that Bok Choy, only 3 weeks old from seed.

 More cukes from four plants than we can handle.

 Herbs, herbs, herbs.

And the savanna prairie is coming together -all this from seed scattered in the icy depth of winter.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Had you asked me one week ago, before my excursion to New York City, about my tomatoes, I would have told you how wonderful they look, not a blemish, not a spot, so much growth if but a little slow to produce. The weather had been perfect -mid eighties daily, mid sixties nightly, occasional rains, some quite heavy, but spaced well enough to dry the soil and leaves consistently.

But you did not ask me a week ago, you asked me today, after temperature and moisture have acted in concert to produce a bloom of quick death, the ebola of tomatoes, a harshly sudden and lethal affliction with the curious botanic moniker P. infestans, late blight.

We can only watch as the plant withers, top and bottom, leaves, stems and fruit. Picking from this blackened tangle of vines is like stealing from the dead; the experience of tomato too close to mush and slime, one picked from this vine makes an appetite for it tarnished, rotten.  

It will be only a matter of days, maybe by this weekend, that the once strong will be blackened and slumped. I will watch them die and think about what little control we have over life, the one we wish for and the life we wish away.

This is the tomato patch after severe cleaning.

Monday, August 21, 2017

August Regis Portendat

I chose not to photograph, or rather attempt to photograph, today's eclipse. A little roughed up from a work trip drive to New York, then a delayed flight that had me return to Minnesota at four ayem Saturday. The body seems to lag behind the return, so for three days after there is a sluggishness. This final day is a good day, then, for a solar eclipse. Cosmological events were often held in more superstitious times to be portents of revolution and other negatively viewed events. It's hard to say what the 2017 eclipse portends, other than my time in our woods with camera to photograph perpendicular to the rays of our sun. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Beetle Daily

I've been watching these chrysanthemums for two weeks as they slowly unfurled into the flowers you see below. Inordinately early, these mums have me scratching my chin. August, maybe, but early July? 

Maybe double is the wrong terminology for this, so let me be clear: the bee balm stem leads up to the lower flower and then the stem continues through it, leading to yet another flower on top. Is that weird?

Nothing strange about these coneflower, but there they are, doing as well as can be. But it is unusual to have seen so few pollinating insects on them.

Or on the swamp milkweed, A. incarnata.

Or the butterfly weed, A. tuberosa.

Not even this creamy white mystery milkweed, A. mysteriosa, surrounded by the spreading, but also sparsely visited gooseneck loosestrife, Lysimachia clethroides.

Strike that. Yesterday I saw plenty of bumble bees, a few moths, and was even visited by a monarch.

The pom poms I ripped out from the south side of the house and used to frame the curving drive so that snow plows do not run straight over the lawn-ish front yard. A summer solution to a winter problem, these snowballs are simply massive this year. They do not turn blue or pink, a relief really. They fade to a pale pink and cream. Westward advancing Japanese beetles enjoy fornicating on these pillows, but so far have not delaminated any leaves.

The Japanese beetle, Popillia japonica. My grandmother used to give us a nickel for each beetle knocked off her roses into a cup of poison. Surprisingly, they are not yet as common in the mountain west and high plains as they are elsewhere, yet they are beginning to wreak havoc as they arrive. I hardly saw one over fifteen years of Big Woods summers, but this year there are many.

They were first observed on this year's potatoes, but again, they have not fed on the lamina (the fleshy part of the leaf). The potatoes appear quite well, have been mounded up with a yard or two of fresh compost-soil mix, and are surrounded by new, cedar raised structures. Harvesting will begin in a month or so.

This has been quite a year for sap-sucking. Two months ago I spotted whole garlic mustard plants, usually untouched, being drained by black or gray aphids. This particular arrangement, upside down with rear legs unattached is peculiar, but I've seen it before and twice this year.

Here, photographed at a client's garden, the same upside down arrangement, legs pointed out and upward.

The orange aphids love A. incarnata, swamp milkweed, that I planted along the sunny north edge of the clearing around the new studio.

Is it a hard year if they've sunken to sucking on my blue grama grass?

A closer look, not the aphid I was expecting: Russian wheat aphidDiuraphis noxia, an invasion of a different sort? Maybe, maybe not. Witch hunt. Sad.

In other news, our seeded cucumbers are producing and look quite healthy (no mildew). They are climbing up a cedar framed heavy duty fencing Betsy and I put together (it was her brilliant idea -it attaches to the raised bed).

The home garlic is forty percent harvested, and Hudson Clove garlic is now much further along with most varieties harvested. I'm teaching a two part garlic growing course at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum this fall and spring. Sign up, fly in, do a little leaf peeping, and you're all set.

Wow. All the tomatoes are in. The only vegetable I got in on time was the potatoes in late April. The last bed of yellow, leggy tomato starts was planted on July 11th. Above, the first to get planted in late June or early July -I can't remember. We have three and a half, ten foot long, tomato beds filled with arboretum classroom freebie heirlooms and random, old seeds that happened to sprout. Black vernissage, chardonnay, cream sausage paste, San Marzano paste, stone ridge, black krim, brandywine, and forgotten others are the line up.

An early chardonnay, a large cherry type, is very tasty with a touch tough skins.

Likely a young vernissage, the stripes will remain dark green and the pale green will ripen red, giving the overall "black" color. 

Black beauty -one must remember to wait for the green to turn red.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Prelude to the Understory

After two full seasons of intensive looking, I still find unfamiliar plants. Sometimes I photograph, sometimes I pluck a specimen (depends on the quantity). A fraction of those make it to the concentrated search for identification. Of course, identifying a plant isn't always remembering it, and that takes something more: a drawing perhaps, a meal, maybe, or some other triangulation of anchoring interactions that commits a new identity to memory.

Mosquitoes in the dark and damp woods can make any phone photographer's shot a blur. When in doubt and plenty, pluck a branch, preferably in flower. If you can get to it quickly, bring the pluckling to your computer. If you can't, photograph it on the hood of a car, and get to it later. Here, a plant that beguiled me through the garlic mustard harvest. I now know it as Canadian Wood Nettle, Laportea canadensis.

Above, a plant that must've been easier to miss across prior years in a dark woods. Now, freed from other obsessions, I saw it everywhere, understory. It's form is suggestive of both invasive species and Eastern Forest native, a counter distinction to the many invasive forbs that to a degree appear "out of place" in our woods. Awareness of such differences is both a product of experience within the Eastern Forest, but also a diminished plant blindness.

This "new" plant was challenging due to its small white or maybe green-yellow flowers, its casual umbell, and my age-induced farsightedness. The umbell, trifoliated habit, and seed tipped identification toward an anxiety-producing, naturalized reversion of Aegopodium podagraria, goutweed or bishop's weed to you and me. We have two large colonies of goutweed on the southern slope, but something wasn't quite right about this ID. I had to dig deeper. I had to zoom closely on the seeds, had to engage with leaf sheaths, and most importantly, I had to learn to see double serrated leaves. Those cues in hand I was able to find this plant's true identity: Canadian Honewort, Cryptotaenia canadensis. Why this subtle plant has a name composed of "hidden" and "tapeworm," I do not want to discover.

Sedges fill a minor savanna between the road to the east and the house to the west, the little wetland and great wetland bounding it on the north and south sides. Oaks used to dominate this dry mound, but basswood and maple are encroaching.

Oaks die or fall in storm winds, as this large one had two summers back. The oaks, when dominant, create a canopy pierced by sunlight, an environment the sugar maples do not provide. The understory is complex; already colonized by sedge, ephemerals, and a lower dose of garlic mustard than is typical in more moist, down-slope locations. Maybe the clearing's relative isolation has allowed more native species to proliferate than in other tree-fall clearings nearer the house and adjacent, cultivated properties.

I was overjoyed to spot a strongly growing specimen of poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata, a foot from the fallen oak. I tray-planted 50 seeds of this less common milkweed last year. Only six sprouted, then five took faint hold along the edge of our septic field; five that have since been moved to the new, mostly shady clearing behind the studio. I've decided that poke is not as easily grown as swamp or common milkweed, but it is the only milkweed common to shadier, woodland locations, and I'd like to have some growing out there. Maybe I will try again, next year.

Although I intended to keep the mound of fallen oak and poke milkweed clear, time and garlic mustard always seem to get away from me. Askance of plans, among mosquitoes excited by a coming storm, a moment was wedged to clear any observable, green seedpod-bearing garlic mustard. As the lightning became daylight visible and thunder claps louder, I decided to discontinue what is always an ever expanding circumference of mustard weeding. Today, nearly all remaining second year garlic mustard is yellow fading into beige. Seeds by the thousands are lined up for distribution on sites already occupied by thousands more. If a rift in time should open, I will get into the woods, shod in mosquito net cap, to clip and bag the drying stems from areas newly colonized.


I spend a fair amount of time identifying plants: weeds, natives, and cultivated for myself as well as others. Texts roll in with pictures of pokeweed or Fallopia japonica, multiflora rose and daylily. Most pictured plants are easy to identify because most are coming from yards carved out of the Eastern Forest. In them are cultivated plants or common weed species of Eurasian provenance. In making yards -clearings designed to lessen our work (ha!), lower our exposure to pests, and provide a platform for leisure, we offer opportunity to ambitious plants.

In the process of putting up our studio building, I created about two thousand square feet of opportunity. The area is now covered in subgrade clay over topsoil because when we dig, what is beneath ends up on top. Many desirable plants won't flourish in this subgrade soil, but the adventitious do. Given my positive experience growing native milkweed, I ventured to grow several native plants for the sunnier part of our studio clearing before the weeds take hold.

I imagined a medium height grass and forb savanna underneath the tall basswood on the south side of the building and under the red oak on the north east corner. I winter seeded Prairie Moon's short grass inexpensive seed mix and savanna enhancement mix, both of which had some species from their exposed clay mix. Sowing seeds felt like leaving too much to chance, so I also stratified hundreds of individual species seeds through winter, then cell tray planted them in April. But, an unexpected hot greenhouse day in early May boiled many of my seeds laying patiently under their moisture-preserving cellophane wrap. Most were lost, although some did sprout near the cooler edges, and those are now large enough to be potted up.

Growing native plants from seed is not always easy. Cultivated plants have been bred and selected for viability, commercial or otherwise. Natives, however, maintain their original, sometimes fussy seed-sprouting needs. Multiply cold, heat, or cold and heat by time, then add light or darkness, subtract or add moisture, and you may have a formula that produces a native sprout. I have several more young native plants to pot up, and at least 50 clumps of grasses (mostly blue grama, side oats grama, but also a few rattlesnake and prairie brome) in need of the same. Before planting these in their final places in mid to late August, I will till in a portion of the ten cubic yards of compost mix we had delivered last month. This may give the native plants a fighting chance among the highly competitive weeds.

Some of the remaining compost will make it into raised planters I have been building. Below is one of two I have placed around my already growing potatoes -the only vegetables I got in on time this year. As they grow, I have been adding compost mix. When all is done, there will be eight raised beds, a prospect I am quite happy about. Two years of growing vegetables in beds surrounded by the lawn and excessive summer rains have led to lawn that is nearly seventy five percent creeping charlie. The other twenty five is clover that co-existed nicely with the grass. Raised beds will be easier to work, weed, plant and harvest, but most of all I appreciate the architectural structure they add to the vegetable garden on a small front lawn (of creeping charlie). For all my interest in wild-ish native planting, I still like the perception of order in the vegetable patch.