Wildcrafting is the practice of collecting plants from nature in order to use them as medicine.
This should be done with caution. Contrary to what corporations imply with their labels, something that is natural or organic is not necessarily safe. Many plants are poisonous to people.
However, many plants are beneficial. The best way to learn the difference is to study with an experienced wildcrafter.
Beneficial plants are often common, popping up in parks, along roads, and even in your own backyard. A plant should only be collected from a place where it grows in abundance. Don’t harvest from areas contaminated by pesticides; watch out for traffic; and be aware of laws regarding collection of plants from public areas.
More information can be obtained from professional herbal pharmacists. Madison has several.
Wisconsin has over 400 species of native bees. Unlike imported honeybees, they rarely sting. This is because our native bees lead mostly solitary lives. Not having a colony to defend, they have no interest in attacking anyone.
Instead, the bees peacefully visit flowers, pollinating them as they eat the nectar. Females then seek out a nesting site, where they lay their eggs, providing each one with a store of pollen for the larva to eat when it hatches.
Different types of bees use different types of nesting sites. Like birds, some will use artificial “bee houses”. This website has information on how to provide nesting sites for different types of bees.
Many types of native bees will happily live in a suburban yard, finding food in dandelions and clover. Pesticides, even those not targeted to bees, often hurt them. While mowing doesn’t hurt bees directly, it can leave them without a food source. Studies show that when suburban lawns are maintained with pollinator-friendly practices, they can support just as many species of bees as rural areas.
Monarch butterflies used to be ubiquitous across America. Each year, billions of them migrated from Mexico to Canada and back. Along the way, they visited many types of flowers, providing valuable pollination services.
When female monarchs were ready to lay their eggs, though, they sought out a specific type of plant: a member of the milkweed family.
The reason for this choosiness is that plants don’t like to be eaten. Not being good at running or hiding, they instead deploy an array of chemical defenses to discourage would-be predators. Each species of plant has evolved its own mix of chemicals, and each toxic concoction is palatable only to the herbivores that have evolved just the right defenses against it. Thus, with few exceptions, plants can only be eaten by the animals – including insects – that have spent millions of years adapting to them.
Adult butterflies avoid this problem by eating nectar, which plants provide toxin-free in exchange for pollination services. But caterpillars eat leaves, which plants want to keep unmunched in order to produce food for themselves through photosynthesis. Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars can safely consume.
And it used to be a common plant, found along the edges of farm fields all over the Midwest. Now, however, milkweed is disappearing as farmers seek to maximize yields by planting crops all the way to the edge of their property.
A monarch waystation is a little patch of milkweed – small enough to tuck into the corner of a suburban backyard – that gives butterflies a place to rest, feed, and lay their eggs. It is easy to establish, and a network of them just might save an iconic species from extinction.
More information on creating a monarch waystation can be found at this website.
Almost all living things on Earth ultimately get their energy from the sun. Plants turn sunlight into energy through photosynthesis, and almost everything else eats either plants or plant-eaters.
Insects are very good at turning plant energy into animal energy. While a cow turns 10 kilograms of plants into just 1 kilogram of beef, insects will convert the same amount of plant matter into 9 kilograms of bug meat.
Insects are therefore very efficient at transferring energy up the food chain. They are a critical component in the diets of birds, foxes, and even bears.
Unlike other plant-eating species, insects also play a key role in ensuring there will be more plants to eat. Insects that forage in flowers, like bees and butterflies, carry pollen from one plant to another, helping plants to produce seeds that will become more food for many species.
There are almost a million species of insects on Earth, and virtually all of them are harmless to humans. While many people’s first reaction to seeing a bug is to reach for pesticides, a place without insects is a place in serious ecological disarray. Give the bugs a chance, and watch life return to your backyard ecosystem.
In the context of a lawn, fallen leaves are often seen as a mess to be cleaned up and sent away as waste. In a natural system, however, leaves are a valuable resource.
In nature, fallen leaves stay near the plant they fell from. Lying on the ground over the winter, they cover and insulate the plant’s roots, protecting them from temperature fluctuations, freeze-thaw cycles, and frost heaves.
Leaf litter serves as an important habitat element for many insects, which overwinter in, or lay their eggs in, the fallen leaves. The insects or their offspring emerge the following year to continue their life cycles. Raking away leaves interrupts these cycles, leaving a crucial gap in ecosystem functioning.
With the return of warmer weather, fungi and microorganisms get to work decomposing the leaves, returning them to the soil. Plants are then able to reabsorb those nutrients, and turn them into a future year’s leaves.
When leaves are raked to the street, they must be taken away by fossil-fuel-consuming vehicles. While they are waiting to be picked up, rain can wash their nutrients into stormdrains and then into the lakes, where they contribute to harmful algae blooms. For these reasons, Madison encourages homeowners to “leave the leaf“.
When people think about growing food, they normally think about annual crops: fruits, vegetables, and grains that are planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, and planted again the next year. While this is the dominant model in both industrial agriculture and backyard gardening, it’s actually a very inefficient way of producing food.
A much more efficient way, in terms of land area and maintenance effort required, is to plant what’s known as a food forest. A food forest is an intermingling of perennial crops – like fruit trees, berry bushes, and vines – that produce food year after year without needing to be replanted.
The downside of food forests is that they take a long time to become established, and may produce little or nothing in the first few years. After that, though, they provide a lifetime of fresh food with minimal work.
Paradise Lot tells the story of two permaculture practitioners who produced an amazing amount of food in a tiny yard in Massachusetts by using food forest techniques. Find it on Amazon here.
A rain garden is a planting designed to catch and absorb water, rather than letting it run off.
Rain gardens are typically sited in a naturally low or wet spot – the place where water collects during a heavy rain. They are constructed by digging a shallow pit, then adding plants that enjoy a moist location. A relatively small one can be built in a day, and requires little maintenance after that. Instead of having a mud puddle or a stream running to the storm drain, the homeowner can enjoy a profusion of flowers, along with the birds and butterflies the plants will attract.
Stormwater is filtered as it is gradually absorbed into a rain garden, instead of going directly to the lakes with any pollutants it may pick up along the way. While a rain garden holds standing water, it does not attract mosquitoes, which need at least ten days of standing water to complete their life cycles. A rain garden usually empties much faster than this, and in one that doesn’t, the problem can be easily remedied with the addition of an overflow drain pipe.
Madison encourages homeowners to establish rain gardens. The city’s website includes instructions and sample designs.
If you are lucky enough to live in Verona, the city’s rain garden rebate program will give you up to $150 to help cover the cost of plants.
Lawns are homogeneous by design. A homeowner with a sandy site in the desert Southwest, and a homeowner with a shady slope in New England, will both strive to have a perfect green expanse. In contrast, a natural gardener seeks to design a landscape that suits their site conditions.
Site conditions include regional temperature ranges and precipitation patterns, as well as local soils and the amount of sun or shade in a particular location. A natural gardener spends time learning about their site, then tries to find a happy medium between the plants they would like to grow and the plants that will thrive in the available conditions.
Natural gardeners typically include a lot of native plants in their designs. A homeowner in Wisconsin may establish a prairie in their yard, while a homeowner in Arizona would choose plants adapted to tolerate hot, dry conditions. Besides contributing to local ecosystems, designs incorporating native plants evoke a sense of place, rather than looking like “Anytown, USA”.
Natural yards also vary according to the specific set of principles followed by the homeowner. A wildlife gardener may use exclusively native plants, alongside habitat features such as a pond or brush pile, in order to attract and support local birds and butterflies. A permaculture practitioner, on the other hand, may assemble fruits and vegetables from around the world to maximize food production for themselves.
By working with nature instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all design, a gardener can create a beautiful, unique space that performs many functions and connects them to the place where they live.
While natural yards are becoming mainstream, there are a number of reasons why lawns are still a popular landscaping choice.
Default decision. The easiest thing to do with a lawn is to continue maintaining it as a lawn. Converting it to any other type of landscaping requires physical and mental effort, and never becomes an urgent project. A homeowner may have a lawn simply because they’ve always had one.
Perceived social pressure. In past decades, keeping a neat lawn was part of how people maintained social harmony in the new living arrangement known as suburbia. Today, many people no longer believe that a lawn is the only acceptable landscaping choice. However, they may think their neighbors still believe this, and so they continue having a lawn in order to keep the peace.
Advertising. Americans spend forty billion dollars a year maintaining their lawns. In Madison alone, over fifty companies depend on being able to convince property owners that a perfect lawn is worth spending money on. Fewer companies stand to profit from natural yards, and they don’t tend to advertise as much.
Lawns can be useful. A prairie does not make a good surface for barbecues or soccer games. In a yard that sees frequent active use, a lawn can be a good landscaping choice. Some people choose to establish a natural yard only after their kids are grown and no longer need a lawn to play on.
Human beings tend to perceive familiar things as safe and unfamiliar things as dangerous. This is one reason why some people are uncomfortable with natural yards. It also means that people who have always maintained a lawn may underestimate the hazards associated with lawnmowers.
About 74,000 Americans a year end up in the emergency room after injuring themselves with a lawnmower. About 1,500 of those are admitted to the hospital. Each year, approximately 60 Americans injured by lawnmowers don’t make it to the emergency room because they are killed on the spot; 20% of those are children.
The most common type of lawnmower-related injury is people (often bystanders) being struck by objects launched by the mower’s blades. The most severe – short of death – is accidental amputation of hands and feet. Not all injures are dramatic, though: the second-most common cause is pain and strain related to normal operation of yard equipment, while some hospital admissions result from a person tripping over a lawnmower while it is stored in the garage.
If you choose to mow your lawn, please do so safely! The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following precautions:
- Wear closed-toed shoes, close-fitting clothing, safety goggles, and hearing protection.
- Do not pull the mower backwards. When mowing on a slope, go across, not up and down. (Unless you are using a riding mower, in which case you should do the opposite.)
- Avoid running over obstacles such as toys, sticks, tree roots, and curbs. Fixed objects may damage the mower; loose objects can be launched at up to 200 miles per hour.
- Do not allow children or pets to play near where you are mowing.
- Do not mow wet grass. In wet conditions, it is easier to slip and fall under the mower.
- When turning off the mower to cross a grassless area, reach underneath, or walk away, wait for the blades to stop completely.