What is this blog?

This blog seeks to answer questions about native landscaping for those who are not familiar with the practice. The author is a master’s student in Environmental Health, a permaculture practitioner, and a published journalist, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Leave your own questions as a comment on any post, and they will be answered soon!

This blog is best read from the beginning.

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What is this blog?

What are pesticides? #2

As a previous post explained, pesticides are chemicals formulated to kill living organisms. They are usually intended to kill insects, rodents, weeds, or fungi. But, these were not their original targets.

During World War II, many scientists built their careers on inventing weapons to harm enemy combatants. The most famous of these weapons was the nuclear bomb, but many chemical weapons were also devised during this period.

After the war, as has been documented by Naomi Oreskes and other journalists, some of these scientists went on to deny the link between smoking and cancer, the existence of human-caused climate change, and other serious public health issues. Meanwhile, others wondered what to do with chemical weapons during peacetime.

Soon, they hit on an idea: reformulate chemicals intended to kill humans, and market them as products for killing household pests.

Contrary to common belief, the US government does not require pesticides to be proven safe before they can be sold to the public. In fact, many of the components of pesticides have not been tested at all for their effects on human health. Many of those that have been tested have been found to cause cancer.

It should not be surprising that chemicals developed to harm humans still harm humans when they are reformulated into a watered-down version. Still, most people do not follow safety precautions – such as wearing protective clothing and not spraying more than needed – when using pesticides.

By using pesticides carefully, or by not using them at all, we can protect our own health and that of our neighbors.

What are pesticides? #2

Why do leaves change color in the fall?

Fall has arrived in the northern hemisphere, and leaves will soon be changing colors. We’ve all heard why they do this: the green color is created by chlorophyll, a substance key to photosynthesis, and when the chlorophyll is lost at the end of the summer, leaves reveal their true colors.

Now, some scientists think this story is wrong. They believe that, instead, trees actively work to create their brilliant fall colors.

Why would trees do this? One challenge plants face in life is being attacked by insects. To combat this, plants produce a variety of chemicals that deter insects from eating their leaves or burrowing in their bark.

Just as chlorophyll creates a green color in leaves, some of these insect-deterring chemicals create bright yellows, oranges, and reds. The more chemical a tree stores up, the more vibrant the colors.

In the same way that a male bird puts on showy colors in spring to prove that he is a healthy mate, trees display dramatic autumn hues to tell insects, “I’ve invested in defenses against you; don’t bother trying to attack me.”

Colorful fall leaves may therefore be not only a defensive strategy, but a method of communication – providing further evidence that plants are intelligent.

Why do leaves change color in the fall?

What are wildlife corridors?

As a general rule, bigger habitat patches are better.

Since a small yard cannot be a big patch, this may sound like disappointing news. However, suburban yards can play a crucial role in helping surrounding patches be bigger.

How does this work? Imagine two patches – say, two stands of forest – that are relatively near each other. Some species, like birds, might be able to easily move back and forth, in order to take advantage of both patches. But this isn’t an option for other species – like small mammals, slow-moving reptiles, or birds reluctant to leave the forest interior. These less-mobile animals have to make do with the resources of just one patch.

Now, imagine there is a strip of woods connecting the two forests. The less-mobile animals can move along this strip, enabling them to use both patches. In effect, the addition of this strip makes the patch twice as big!

This kind of strip is called a wildlife corridor. For forest animals, it might be a narrow belt of forest, as described above. For fish, it could be a river between two lakes.

While some wildlife corridors are naturally occurring, some are deliberately built. A common example of this is tunnels under roads, to help small animals cross without being run over. To help larger animals move, California is considering building a bridge over the 101 Freeway – the so-called wildlife overpass.

Halfway between the natural and the artificial, property owners can landscape their yards in ways that help connect neighboring habitat patches. This could mean offering food and water for migrating birds, or cover for small animals to travel under.

By thinking outside our property lines, we can choose to make our yards vital parts of the habitat networks that surround us.

What are wildlife corridors?

What is a patch?

A patch is an area of habitat.

Patches can come in any size. For example, balsam fir trees enjoy a huge patch of habitat across Canada’s boreal forest. But, a small Wisconsin yard with the right site conditions could also be a habitat patch for balsam fir.

If you own a yard – or even a balcony that could host a few flowerpots – then you have a patch. It is your choice what to do with it.

Some people choose to have a lawn, maybe with some non-native ornamental flowers or shrubs, and to prevent any other plant or animal from living on their property. Other people choose to make space for many species in their patch.

Even in a small yard, it is possible to have multiple patches. For example, one corner of the yard might include trees, along with plants that like shade. Squirrels may nest here, and forest birds might drop by. Another corner of the yard could host sun-loving plants, and the insects that frequent them. A third corner could feature a pond or rain garden, providing a habitat patch for wetland plants and birds that like to bathe.

Patches differ in quality as well as size. While a grouping of woodland plants in a corner of a suburban yard is not as good as a forest, it is better than a single aggressively-pruned tree standing in a lawn. Even relatively small, low-quality patches can provide critical resources for struggling species.

By taking small steps to improve the quality of our very own patches, we can enjoy seeing species not normally observed in the suburbs.

What is a patch?

What is habitat?

Habitat is an area where a plant or animal can live.

Whether or not a particular area is habitat depends on which species’ perspective you’re looking at it from. For example, the ocean is habitat for a whale, but is not habitat for a squirrel.

To count as habitat, an area must provide for a plant or animal’s needs. For example, habitat for a bird must include water sources, appropriate food, safe shelter, and a place to nest. Habitat for dandelions must include plenty of sun.

Lawns count as habitat, since by definition grass lives in them. However, few other species can meet their needs in or around a lawn. Overall, lawns are not very good habitat.

Natural yards provide better habitat by inviting in many plant species. These plants, in turn, provide much of what an insect or bird needs to call a place habitat.

Habitat loss is a major factor in species extinctions. Hundreds of North American bird species, as well as popular insects like bumblebees and monarch butterflies, are in decline. If we exchange poor habitat in our yards for better habitat, we can increase these species’ chances of survival.

What is habitat?

What’s going on in That Yard?

This is the 100th post on That Blog. While the blog was started just over a year ago, That Yard has been a work in progress for three summers. Since permaculture practitioners say it takes three years for a design to come together and start functioning as a self-sustaining system, this seems like a good time to review what’s going on in That Yard.

The first summer was spent observing, learning about the site conditions, and planning for subsequent years.

In the second summer, several different plantings were established. These formed the nuclei for miniature ecosystems, including a prairie, a forest, and a rain garden.

In the third year, these ecosystems were expanded on, and remaining unconverted areas were turned into a Hugelkultur bed and a pond. Now the entire yard is planted with native species, except for a few oddly-shaped corners, which will be filled in next year.

All of this has been accomplished with no chemicals and no powered equipment. What have been the effects?

First, life abounds. At any given time, from early spring through late fall, multiple species of plants are flowering. These plants attract a wide assortment of pollinators, among them bumblebees and monarch butterflies. The yard has hosted at least 49 species of birds, and thanks to the pond, a pair of frogs has recently moved in.

There are lots of benefits for people, too. All those plants provide plenty of clean air for the neighborhood. They don’t need to be mown, eliminating noise and air pollution. They capture rain before it reaches the street, while taking nothing from municipal water supplies.

What remains to be done? In summers four and five, the new plants will continue to get established. As they do, the number of species flowering will increase, and the odd corners will fill in. Non-native species, such as buckthorn and garlic mustard, will be pulled out to help with this process.

Before long, the yard will be a healthy, mature system, providing a variety of benefits and requiring minimal work.

Like any kind of transition, establishing a natural yard can be difficult and messy. But success is virtually guaranteed, and the results are more than worth it!

What’s going on in That Yard?

What is an herb spiral?

Ask a permaculture practitioner to name a design pattern, and they’ll probably describe the herb spiral – a way of creating a lot of microclimates and producing a lot of food in a small space.

An herb spiral is built by piling up a mound of soil. Stones are then placed in a spiral pattern down the sides of the mound, and the soil between the rows of stones is flattened out. This forms a sort of spiral path, which serves as a planting bed.

As the name of the design suggests, it is customary to plant herbs along the spiral. The plants are placed according to their preferred microclimates. A species that likes cool, damp spots can go at the bottom of the shady side of the mound, while a species that thrives in hot, sunny, dry conditions can go on top.

herb spiral

By building up, the spiral creates a lot of planting space in a small footprint. It also makes plants easier to reach.

Building an herb spiral outside your kitchen door can provide you with fresh flavor all summer long.

What is an herb spiral?