What’s new in natural yards? – January 2016

Wisconsin has just released a State Pollinator Protection Plan. The full document can be found here.

The goals of the plan are to increase public understanding of issues facing pollinators, and encourage voluntary actions to help pollinators. The plan will not create any new regulations.

“Urban flower gardens often harbor diverse pollinator communities, but in areas dominated by skyscrapers or grass lawns pollinator diversity tends to be low,” the plan explains, in its opening section. The second section of the plan is divided into four parts, each describing what a specific group of people can do to help pollinators.

One of these sections, “Best Management Practices For Improving Pollinator Habitat in Gardens & Lawns” is directed towards homeowners. It is just a few pages long and can be read on its own. It begins on page 14 of the PDF linked above. The section suggests landscaping with a diversity of native plants that are suited to the site conditions. It also encourages homeowners to “leave things a little messy” – bare soil, leaf litter, and brush piles are all important habitat elements for pollinators.

The plan is currently in a public comment period. Its official website lists the following instructions for submitting comments:

Email comments by Friday, Feb. 19, to DATCPAgriculture@wisconsin.gov. Written comments may be mailed to: DATCP, ATTN Pollinator Protection Plan, PO Box 8911, Madison, WI 53708-8911. They must be received by Feb. 19.


What’s new in natural yards? – January 2016

What is appropriate technology?

The term “appropriate technology” refers to any method or equipment that is powerful enough to accomplish the task at hand, and not more powerful than that.

A tank is appropriate technology for attacking an enemy stronghold, but it is not appropriate for a trip to the grocery store. For that task, appropriate technology would be a car, a bicycle, or even our own two feet, depending on how far away the store is and how much we plan to carry back.

As another example, a huge mowing machine might be appropriate technology for harvesting acres of corn, but it is too big and powerful for maintaining a suburban lawn. Whether a residential-size ride-on mower, a gas-powered push mower, or an unmotorized mower is most appropriate depends on the size of the lawn and the physical ability of the owner.

As a general rule, appropriate technology is smaller, quieter, simpler, and less polluting than too-powerful technology. When we choose appropriate technology, we save money, conserve resources, and make our neighborhoods more peaceful places to live.

What is appropriate technology?

What is a guild?

A guild is a group of plants that work well together. In other words, they have complementary functions.

(When such a grouping of plants assembles itself naturally, it is called a community. A guild is a group of plants brought together by a gardener.)

To explore this concept, let’s look at an example of a guild. This guild centers around a linden tree, a common species in Madison, and its primary purpose is to provide habitat for pollinators – a recently-adopted goal of the city.

Plants in a guild work together in multiple ways. To start, they generally differ in size and requirements. For example, a linden tree is large and needs sun, while the other plants in this guild are small and tolerate shade. Thus, the other plants can be placed under the tree, conserving space while giving every member of the guild what it needs.

Plants in a guild normally also differ in their functions. In this guild, all the plants perform the function of providing habitat to pollinators. But, each plant also provides other functions. In this way, the guild collectively fulfills many purposes. Let’s look at the additional functions performed by this guild.

  • The leaves of linden trees can be eaten by people.
  • Early-blooming flowers – like crocus, hyacinth, and daffodil – and late-blooming plants, such as sage and 4 o’clock, provide cheerful color in spring and fall.
  • Rose apple (or the smaller rugosa rose) and turtlehead are medicinal.
  • Cup plant and compass plant form a screening hedge and attract birds.
  • Lovage and coneflower draw up nutrients from deep in the soil, making those nutrients available to plants with shallower roots.
  • Comfrey can be cut back and turned into compost almost endlessly.
  • Mint, dill, caraway, parsley, and fennel serve as groundcovers and are, of course, very tasty!

Advanced permaculture practitioners, who are familiar with the properties of many plants, can create their own guilds. For new practitioners, examples to borrow can be found by googling “permaculture guilds”.

Thanks to Bryce Ruddock of Midwest Permaculture for this guild example.

What is a guild?

What are functions?

A function is something useful that a plant or animal does. For example, a tomato plant provides food for the gardener.

Plants and animals can perform more than one function. For example, a tree can cast shade to keep a house cool in summer, offer a place for birds to nest, and produce fruit for people to eat. This concept is called ‘stacking functions’. Permaculture practitioners strive to use space efficiently by incorporating plants that can perform many functions.

Permaculture practitioners also emulate nature by having a ‘back-up’ for each function. That is, they aim to have each function performed by multiple elements, so that if one element fails, another is ready to take over the function. For example, a gardener might add several types of plants that attract beneficial insects.

A yard that performs many functions makes less work for the gardener. By casting shade, trees minimize evaporation, so less watering is needed. Plants that make nutrients available to other plants reduce the need for fertilizer, while a few backyard chickens will gobble down insects and weeds, making pesticides unnecessary. By arranging elements so that nature does the work, we can have a more vibrant yard and more time to spend enjoying it.

What are functions?

What are sectors?

A third method for analyzing a site is a concept called sectors.

A sector is the area of a property where some type of energy enters. For example, the sunny side of a yard is the sun sector, while the direction that prevailing winds come from is the wind sector.

Other examples include forms of “energy” embodied by living beings. The corner of a yard that backs up to a small woods might be the bird sector. Other sectors are specific to urban settings: the side of the yard that faces a busy street might be the noise or traffic sector.

Permaculture views these energy flows as potentially useful inputs. Solar panels or vegetable plants placed in the sun sector can capture the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity or food.

Permaculture also provides ways to block undesirable energy flows. For example, a tree could be placed in the sun sector to absorb sunlight before it reaches the house, lowering indoor temperatures during the summer. A row of evergreens could slow winds that sap heat from a building in winter, and provide a screen between a house and an “unattractive view” sector.

Sectors can be analyzed in three steps. First, map where different energy flows enter your property. Second, consider how the arriving energy could be beneficial. Third, plan ways to capture the energy, or to deflect it if it isn’t useful.

What are sectors?

What are zones?

Following the series on site conditions, this post kicks off a series on permaculture concepts.

Permaculture practitioners begin by analyzing their site to determine what should go where. Considering site conditions is one method through which they do this. Another method involves a concept called zones.

Zones describe areas of a yard in terms of how often they are – or need to be – visited. Zones are numbered 1 through 5, with the term “zone 0” sometimes used to refer to the house.

Zone 1 is closest to the house, and typically includes vegetable gardens and other elements that need regular attention from the gardener. It can also encompass a backyard grilling area or other elements that the homeowner enjoys using frequently.

At the other end of the spectrum, the far corner of the backyard would be designated zone 5. This could be a good spot to place native plants, which need little care and are more likely to be used by animals than by people.

The concept of zones focuses on making a yard easy to take care of. Placing a vegetable garden right outside the back door makes it easier to access and harder to forget about, increasing the chances that the gardener will produce and enjoy a good crop of homegrown food.

A zone map can be created simply by thinking about where you go in your yard. Which areas are within arm’s-reach as you walk to the mailbox or relax on the patio? Which areas do you rarely visit? These can become your zone 1 and zone 5, respectively, with zones 2-4 falling somewhere in between.

What are zones?