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?

How much salt does it take to de-ice a sidewalk?

Snow and ice are a fact of life in Wisconsin. Shoveling is hard work, snowblowers make a lot of pollution – what is a homeowner to do?

Some deal with the problem by spreading salt on their sidewalks and driveways. While this is an effective practice that takes advantage of natural processes to efficiently solve a problem, many people greatly overestimate the amount of salt that is needed to accomplish the task at hand.

Just 1 to 3 cups of salt (approximately 1 to 3 pounds) per 1,000 square feet is plenty, says Dane County’s My Fair Lakes program. Property owners can use even less salt if they wet it before tossing it into the snow.

Using an entire 50-pound bag of salt, on the other hand, can pollute 10,000 gallons of water when it eventually washes down the storm drains and into the lakes. It also quickly becomes expensive for the homeowner, and the excessive salt can cause significant damage to pavement.

While salt is effective at melting snow, it’s not meant to be the sole solution to snow removal. After salting the driveway or sidewalk, wait 15 to 30 minutes. During this time, the salt will melt its way down to the pavement and unfreeze the snow from the ground. You’ll then be able to easily shovel it, resulting in a clear driveway or sidewalk.

Finally, remember to check that the type of salt you’re using is appropriate for conditions. Each kind of salt is only effective down to a certain temperature; if it’s colder than that, the snow won’t melt no matter how much salt you use.

How much salt does it take to de-ice a sidewalk?

What’s new in natural yards? February 2017 #2

For the first time since 1978, Madison has updated its ordinances related to “natural lawns”, which will now be called “natural landscapes”.

The new ordinance can be summarized as follows:

  1. Grass in residential yards may not exceed eight inches in height.
  2. Grass in residential yards may exceed eight inches in height, if the property owner obtains a permit.
  3. Grass in residential yards may exceed eight inches in height without a permit, if the area containing the tall grass only occupies a certain limited percentage of the yard, and if this area is a certain distance from the property lines, and if the tall grass is a species found on a brief list included in the ordinance.

The ordinance can be read here.

City officials hope that this will make it easier to have a natural yard in Madison, and plan to continue working on ways to encourage gardening practices that are friendly to pollinators and the environment.

What’s new in natural yards? February 2017 #2

What’s new in natural yards? February 2017 #1

Southern Wisconsin may have a short growing season, but as a trade-off, gardeners here have plenty of time to plan. Though the spring equinox is still six weeks away, events are happening right now to help you get ready for next summer’s garden. Here are a few of them.

The Garden Expo, a popular annual event, will take place February 10-12. The convention features many demonstrations of permaculture techniques, but also includes vendors who specialize in lawn care services. There’s something for every type of gardener. The demonstration garden at the center of the show floor is always a favorite.

Another annual event is the Arboretum’s native plant sale. Always held the Saturday before Mother’s Day, this year it falls on May 13. That may seem far away, but pre-orders will be opening in just a couple of weeks. Placing your order in advance is the best way to ensure you get the plants you want.

In general, January and February are the time to order native plants. Some sources are listed in this post from last year. Though the plants will not ship until spring, when it is safe to put them outside, ordering early ensures that all the available plants will not already be spoken for by gardeners who started their planning sooner.

This is also the time to start seeds indoors, in a sunny window or under a grow light. By the time the weather is warm enough to work outside, the seedlings will be ready to transplant.

What’s new in natural yards? February 2017 #1

What is a permaculture design certification?

As we have seen over the past twelve weeks, permaculture is a rigorous discipline for living sustainably on the land. Like with other rigorous disciplines, it is possible to become officially credentialed in permaculture. This credential is known as a Permaculture Design Certification (PDC).

Unfortunately, obtaining a PDC typically requires spending thousands of dollars to attend a several-week-long retreat, at which learners take intensive courses and complete a significant design project. This commitment of time and money is beyond the reach of many who are interested in permaculture.

The good news is that permaculture leaders recognize that the barriers to obtaining a PDC are steep, and that this is out of line with the idea that permaculture is for everyone. Thus, a number of more accessible ways to learn about permaculture have been developed. While these materials don’t lead to an official PDC, they are enough to enable a homeowner to get started with permaculture on their own property.

In addition to a variety of books, there are websites such as the Open Permaculture School, which offer hundreds of hours of free videos – mostly recordings of lectures from credential-granting PDC courses.

The principles and methods of permaculture are easy to learn, and implementing just a few of them around our homes can make our lives infinitely richer.

What is a permaculture design certification?

What is the twelfth principle of permaculture?

Creatively use and respond to change.

“Maintenance” means keeping something the same. To “maintain” a yard means to prevent it from changing. In a natural yard, it is accepted that change will happen.

Some of this change is predictable. Different flowers bloom at different times of the year, and plants grow bigger from one year to the next.

This predictable change isn’t always desirable. As a tree grows and progressively casts more shade on our yard, it causes problems for our sun-loving plantings. We can respond by pruning the tree, or we can choose to accept and work with the change by gradually adding plants that are adapted to shade.

Sudden, unpredictable changes can interfere with our plans as well. What to do when branches fall from a tree during a storm? We could throw them away. Or, we could use the change creatively. As it is said, when life gives you fallen branches, build a Hugelkultur berm.

Observing change – from sunny days to rainy ones, through the seasons, and across the years – is one of the most enjoyable parts of having a natural yard. With an open mind and a creative spirit, we can make constructive use even of the changes we don’t initially appreciate.

What is the twelfth principle of permaculture?

What is the eleventh principle of permaculture?

Use edges and value the marginal.

We know that there are different kinds of ecosystems in the world: forests, prairies, deserts, and so on. Logically, this means that there must be places where one kind of ecosystem stops and another begins. These transition areas are sometimes gradual and sometimes abrupt. They are called ecotones, and they are often more biologically rich than the area to either side of them.

In a natural yard, edges are important in several ways. First, even in the smallest yard, there will be edges between different areas – the border between a sunny patch and a shady spot, or the place where a vegetable garden meets a planting of wildflowers. Where space permits, gradual transition zones can be established between different areas. Where this isn’t possible, abrupt transitions can offer interesting opportunities.

One of the most abrupt transitions in a yard is the edge between a planting area and a paved area – a sidewalk, driveway, or patio. While these edges can be tough locations for plants, they can also be very favorable sites. The edge of pavement is typically warmer and drier than nearby areas, as well as sunnier, with less competition. Establish plants that like these conditions, and they will be very successful. Be sure to plan ahead, though, and avoid species that will lean or spread over the pavement.

Finally, suburban yards are defined by edges – that is, by the property lines. These may be areas in which to exercise restraint, in order to keep the peace with neighbors who prefer a different style of gardening. But, there is also a valuable opportunity to collaborate with neighbors in order to garden as though property lines don’t exist. Typically, nothing but the adjoining property owner’s agreement is needed to establish a planting that flows from one yard into the next.

When we start linking natural yards in this way, we can truly begin to restore healthy habitat in our communities.

What is the eleventh principle of permaculture?

What is the tenth principle of permaculture?

Use and value diversity.

Aldo Leopold once wrote, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ … To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

More recently, Breitbart published an article titled “Animals That Aren’t Delicious or Useful Deserve to Be Extinct.”

The more scientists study ecology, the more they discover that every species is important. While some plants and animals are more crucial to the healthy functioning of their ecosystems than others, every species plays a role.

Since humans can’t survive without healthy ecosystems, this means that every species is useful to us. It is in our interest for every species to not just be present in its native range, but to be present in sufficient numbers to perform its function within the ecosystem.

If we want our yards to be functioning ecosystems – and we should, since for our own wellbeing we need healthy nature near where we live, and not just in a park somewhere – we need to welcome a diversity of species. We need tall grass to be distributed throughout the yard, playing its role of supporting wildflowers. One ornamental clump doesn’t do the job. We need plenty of bees to pollinate the flowers. We need predatory insects to limit populations of insects lower on the food chain, preventing them from eating all our plants. We need the occasional large predator to stop rabbits from doing likewise.

We may not like all these members of the community. We may not understand what some of them do. But they are all almost certainly doing something useful for us, and we will be much better off if we leave them to it.

What is the tenth principle of permaculture?