What is plant rescue?

The previous post told a happy story about a native plant garden being acquired by some new owners. Not all stories have such positive endings, though. Sometimes a natural yard – or a wild area brimming with native plants – is bought by someone who isn’t interested in protecting the thriving ecosystem they now own.

It could be a private homeowner who doesn’t understand the value of native plants, and who plans to revert the garden to lawn. It could be a developer who intends to bulldoze the plant community in order to build a big-box store or some condominiums. Either way, those plants are in trouble.

Enter plant rescue.

If you know of native plants – especially rare species – that are going to be destroyed by the property owner, you may be able to save the plants by moving them to a new home. While you might be tempted to just swoop in and take the plants before they get flattened, it’s better to follow these practices:

  • Work with the property owner to get permission to remove the plants from the site. Agree on a time when the plant rescue will happen, and take full responsibility for the safety of all the people who will be involved in the plant rescue.
  • Provide all the necessary tools for digging up and transporting plants. Don’t forget to bring drinking water and wear appropriate clothing for working outdoors.
  • Once on site, be sure to stay within the property lines. Do not take plants from neighboring lots.
  • Take only the plants that you can truly rescue. That is, do not take more plants than you will be able to quickly place in a new home. If there are any rare species present, prioritize rescuing those.
  • Follow good plant-moving practices: Dig up a large ball of soil around and beneath each plant. Have a pot ready to immediately transfer the plant into. Put the plant back in the ground, at its new site, within a day or so – and provide it with shade and water to help it survive the move.
  • Before leaving the plant rescue site, refill the holes from the plants you took. Clean up after yourself and repair any damage you might have caused.
  • Afterwards, send a thank-you letter to the property owner.

If property owners can be persuaded to keep healthy native plants on their land, so much the better. But if not, working together to find creative solutions can be the next best thing.

What is plant rescue?

What is a cold frame?

cold frame – also known as a hot bed – is a kind of tiny greenhouse. It can be built from wood, stone, straw bales, or other materials, with a clear lid made of glass, acrylic, or clear plastic.

cold frame

Just like a full-size greenhouse, a cold frame can be used to protect plants over the winter. It can also be used to extend the growing season, allowing the gardener to put seedlings outside earlier in the spring and continue harvesting crops later into the fall.

A cold frame is simple enough that it can be built as a do-it-yourself project. After that, it’s also easy to use.

First, put the cold frame in a sunny spot protected from wind. This will allow the cold frame to do its job most effectively. Sinking the cold frame into the ground will provide additional insulation, while sitting it on top of the soil keeps it portable.

Fill the cold frame with closely-spaced plants. The plants can be growing either directly in the soil, or in buried pots. Either way, the soil between the plants should be covered with mulch or leaves, to help moderate its temperature.

A cold frame is amazingly effective at absorbing and retaining heat. If the outside air temperature will be just 35°F, the top of the frame should be left ajar, to prevent the air inside the frame from becoming too warm. The top of the frame can be opened all the way if the outside temperature will clear 45°F. This is especially important in the spring – seedlings that don’t experience some bracing temperatures will have a tough time acclimating to life without protection when they’re moved out of the cold frame.

The warmth inside a cold frame tends to have a drying effect on the soil, so it’s important to keep the plants well-watered. Be careful not to water too much in the winter, though. Plants that are not actively growing don’t take up water, and their roots can be damaged by the soggy soil.

Finally, don’t forget about your tiny greenhouse when it gets buried by snow or fallen leaves. Clear off the top so it can continue to do its job of absorbing sunlight and keeping your plants warm.

What is a cold frame?

What is aquaponics?

Some natural gardeners focus on creating habitat for wildlife in their yards. Others focus on using their land to produce food for themselves. Within this second strain of natural gardening, growing fruits and vegetables is relatively easy (though some homeowners do find themselves in the bizarre situation of being threatened with jail time for having a vegetable garden in their yard). Raising meat at home is much more challenging: most towns don’t allow residents to keep cattle, pigs, or goats in their yards, and chicken-keeping is often limited to a small number of hens.

One solution to this problem is fish.

Yes, fish. It’s usually legal to keep them in your yard, even if you plan to eat them. As added bonuses, fish are easy to care for, and they don’t get diseases that can be transmitted to humans.

Once people realized that they could raise fish in their yards, they quickly came up with an even better idea called aquaponics. Aquaponics is the practice of raising fish and plants together. The fish live in an above-ground tank, and the plants grow in racks suspended along the water’s surface. Adding fish food once or twice a day jump-starts an efficient and productive system: the fish turn the fish food into fish growth and fish waste, and the plants turn the fish waste into plant growth and clean water.

Within a few months, the plants and fish become people food. Buying young plants and fish and raising them in this way is cheaper than buying similar food at the grocery store, so the practice is cost-efficient – plus, you know exactly where the food came from.

The system is mostly vertical, so it uses space efficiently. And it can be energy-efficient too. First, choose fish and plants that don’t mind cold temperatures. Green, leafy plants like lettuce, spinach, and herbs (sage, parsley, and basil, for example) work well. Then, build the system in a greenhouse in a sunny spot in your yard. This way, it will mostly heat itself.

Keeping the system running is not difficult. The plants will need adequate light and humidity. The pH value of the water must be safe for both the plants and the fish. And the water will need to be warm enough. If the air temperature around the system is cooler, that’s usually no problem.

Novice aquaponics practitioners might be inclined to begin with a small system, but larger ones are actually easier to manage. A tank that holds less than 100 gallons will experience faster swings in temperature, pH, and bacteria populations than a tank with more water, and will require more active management.

Overfishing and industrial fish farming are both serious environmental problems. We can enjoy fish more sustainably by raising it ourselves.

What is aquaponics?

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard? #2

To recap a post from last spring, a native plant garden typically follows the practices and philosophies of conventional gardening, only with native plants instead of ornamental exotics. It generally features “attractive” native plants laid out in beds, often with plenty of bare ground in between. The plants are rigidly maintained and forced to conform to the gardener’s vision.

A natural yard, in contrast, includes not just native plants but natural patterns and processes. Plants are scattered semi-randomly, instead of being placed in rows or clusters. The design changes from year to year, as plants reseed and move around the landscape. And if leaves get munched by insects or plants hold seedheads throughout the winter, those are viewed as signs that the garden is thriving, rather than as problems to fix or messes to clean up.

While native plants are good, they don’t truly fulfill their ecological functions unless they are living together in naturalistic communities. When native wildflowers are planted as specimens, in limited diversity, and are not permitted to go through their complete lifecycles, they are not providing the same benefits to wildlife as native plants that live and die according to their own rhythms, knit closely together with other native plants they have evolved alongside.

In addition, native plant gardens are much more maintenance-intensive than natural yards, with all the downsides associated with that: more use of fossil fuels, more pesticides, more supplemental water, more effort and expense for the gardener, and so on.

A formally-arranged native plant garden might be right for a gardener who wants to give up their lawn but isn’t ready to embrace the wild aesthetic of a true natural yard. But when deciding how to use native plants, it is important to remember that fitting them into conventional designs with conventional maintenance really is more work for less reward.

What is the difference between a native plant garden and a natural yard? #2

What is blood tea?

If you want to fertilize your yard without supporting harmful manufacturing processes, and if you want to go beyond ordinary composting but are not yet ready for humanure, you may want to try blood tea.

As described in the previous post, nitrogen is important to both plants and animals. There’s lots of it in our bodies. If you weigh 150 pounds, about 4 pounds of you is nitrogen. Where is it?

Some of it is in your blood.

That’s right: bleeding on plants provides them with essential nutrients that they need to grow.

Classic movies notwithstanding, no one is suggesting that we open our veins over our garden beds. But if you happen to be female, you are probably bleeding profusely on a regular basis and wondering if there’s something better you can do with all that stuff.

Enter blood tea.

It is simple to make. First, stop using disposable sanitary products. They contain toxic chemicals, produce an enormous amount of garbage, and cost the average woman $2,200 over her lifetime. Instead, invest in reusable products, such as cloth pads.

Once you have cloth pads, you will need to wash them. In between the time that you use them and the time that you wash them, you will want to throw them into a bucket of water, to prevent the stains from setting. But then, what to do with the resulting bloody water? Your first thought will be to pour it down the toilet.

Don’t. Pour it on your plants instead. This is blood tea.

If a menstrual cup is a better reusable choice for you than cloth pads, the process is similar: empty the cup into a jar, dilute the blood with some water, and feed the result to your plants.

This is not disgusting or unsanitary. It is a healthy way of using our biological processes to nourish other life. “That time of the month” is far more joyful when we use it to produce more plants instead of producing more trash.

What is blood tea?

What is humanure?

Unlike green manurehumanure is actual excrement. As the clever name might lead you to guess, it is excrement that comes from humans. What does this have to do with natural gardening?

Let’s talk about fertilizer.

Fertilizer is substances – often artificial substances – that help to provide nutrients for plants. A key ingredient in fertilizer is nitrogen, an element that is important to both plants and animals. Nitrogen is found abundantly in our atmosphere – when you breathe, you are inhaling much more nitrogen than oxygen. But most plants cannot absorb nitrogen from the air. They need it in a different form.

This alternative form can be artificial fertilizer, or it can be compost. To make good compost, we must put in materials that contain lots of nitrogen. What contains lots of nitrogen? One answer is (recently) dead plants. Another answer is human waste.

Our own urine and excrement – which to us is useless and toxic – is valuable and nourishing to plants. If we relieve ourselves on plants, they will happily absorb that nitrogen.

While it might be fine to do exactly that on a camping trip in the woods, nobody thinks we should fertilize our suburban yards by defecating in them. Instead, we can use the somewhat more refined process called humanure.

We begin with a composting toilet. This device, instead of using clean, drinkable water to move our bodily waste to a treatment center, simply collects our byproducts in a bucket. A seat can be placed on top of the bucket to make it more comfortable, and a handful of sawdust after every use will hide the mess and absorb all the odors.

When the bucket is full, it can be emptied into a compost pile. At this point, it is very important that the compost be managed well. Human waste is full of pathogens, and the compost pile must get hot enough to kill those organisms. (No need for artificial heat: the beneficial organisms in the pile will generate plenty of warmth as they munch their way through all that delicious organic matter.)

Once the humanure is fully decomposed, it is indistinguishable from any other finished compost, and it is safe to use on our plants – even on our vegetable gardens. However, like greywater systems, humanure is severely frowned upon by many local health departments, due to its perceived hazards.

Humanure is a normal and natural way of recycling waste products back into valuable resources. It connects our own bodily processes to the cycles of the earth. However, because it is dangerous if not managed properly, and because it is not yet legal in many places, please thoroughly educate yourself on this topic before attempting to establish a humanure system. There is no shame in planting some native flowers today, and leaving humanure until you are more experienced and confident as a natural gardener.

What is humanure?

What does plowing do to soil?

In the previous post, we learned about soil compaction. This is one aspect of soil structure. Another aspect is layering.

We all know about topsoil: it’s the valuable layer of soil closest to the surface, that is rich with nutrients and other resources. Below this are other layers, or horizons, which are primarily of interest to soil scientists.

The point we will focus on today is that layers should stay where they are. When each type of soil is at the right depth, the plant community living on top of the soil thrives. When layers are all mixed up, plants suffer.

Mixing within a layer isn’t good for plants either. A third aspect of soil structure is the very specific way that particles are arranged in the soil. When clumps of sand or clay, water droplets, air pockets, and microorganisms get jumbled out of their proper places, soil ceases to function in the way that it’s supposed to.

What can cause this kind of jumbling? Plowing, an agricultural practice familiar even to non-farmers, is the process of deliberately scrambling soil. In other words: plowing is bad for soil.

Why would farmers engage in a practice that damages soil? The answer is that plowing boosts plant growth in the short term. By turning over the first few inches of topsoil, farmers can introduce more air to the soil. While air in soil is good, this is a case where too much of a good thing is not better. Soil microorganisms gorge themselves on the extra oxygen, and start breaking down organic matter in hyperdrive. That makes lots of nutrients available to plants, which consequently grow very vigorously.

The problem comes when those voracious microorganisms run out of organic matter to decompose. Then the amount of nutrients available to plants suddenly drops, leaving them struggling to survive. Farmers start feeding their plants artificial fertilizers in an attempt to maintain their yields from the depleted soil, and the whole system becomes expensive, unproductive, and environmentally damaging.

The practice of rapidly wearing out soil was not much of a problem when there were few people, when the American plains seemed to go on forever, and when farmers could plan to just move to a new quarter-section every few years. Now that pretty much all the land is spoken for, farmers need to farm as if they intend to stay where they are. Plowing is not a form of sustainable agriculture – and, indeed, the practice of no-till farming is becoming increasingly popular.

But many gardeners still use residential-scale equivalents of plowing, like rototilling and double digging. Just like with plowing, these practices increase fertility in the short term, but result in damaged soil that can’t sustain plant life over the long term. Many gardeners now are adopting practices that involve disturbing soil as little as possible.

People today have different knowledge and different values than people in the past. Plowing was once an iconic practice in the agricultural landscape. Now we know better ways of sustainably managing our land.

What does plowing do to soil?

What is green manure?

Is it a euphemism for plants someone views as being comparable to excrement? Not at all. Green manure is a valuable resource closely related to green mulch.

While there are plenty of contexts in which manure is not desirable, it is good in the garden: it is an excellent fertilizer, providing the nutrients plants need, while not involving any of the environmentally-harmful industrial production processes associated with artificial fertilizer. It is this positive aspect of manure that the phrase green manure refers to.

But what exactly is green manure? Quite simply, it is plants that have been uprooted and lain on or plowed into the soil. Essentially, it is the practice of composting in place. Instead of pulling plants, bringing them to a compost pile, waiting for them to break down, and then carrying the resulting compost back into the garden, the organic material is simply placed where the compost is wanted, to gradually break down and return its nutrients to the soil.

That is, of course, how the process works. Plants are made out of exactly the stuff that other plants need (even more so than animal droppings), and when a plant is no longer alive to hoard and use those resources, it passes them on to other plants. Thus, green manure is the perfect fertilizer in terms of its effectiveness in providing nutrients to plants – as well as being cheap, abundant, and readily available without the need for manufacturing or transportation.

Pretty much any plant can be used for green manure. We can cut down the stems of plants that have died back (after insects are done overwintering in them) and use those as green manure. We can pull weeds and use them as green manure (though we should take care to educate ourselves about which species will simply take this as an opportunity to spread themselves around more). Or we can cultivate plants that are especially good at being green manure.

Two characteristics make a plant suited to this role in the garden. First, the plant must either spread rapidly – so the gardener can harvest some individuals for green manure and still have plenty of living plants to continue reproducing themselves – or the plant must regrow rapidly, so that it can survive having its leaves harvested on a regular basis. (When a gardener cuts down a plant, uses the leaves and stems for green manure, lets the plant regrow, and then harvests it again, that’s called chop and drop.) Second, a great green manure plant is a dynamic accumulator.

What is a dynamic accumulator? All plants pull nutrients from the soil and incorporate them into their bodies. But some plants are especially good at finding and absorbing nutrients. When these plants are used as green manure, they are similarly talented at making nutrients available to the next generation of plants.

As one example, many permaculture practitioners cultivate a plant called comfrey for its value as green manure, as well as its many other uses. Comfrey is not native to North America, though, so those who strive to be native plant purists may prefer to find another species to provide this valuable function.

What is green manure?

What is green mulch?

We all know what mulch is – it’s that stuff we pile around our plants to prevent any other plants from growing. That’s good, as far as it goes. But mulch is pretty limited in its ability to provide any other benefits to our gardens. And the need to constantly bring in more mulch from off site creates a variety of costs. Is there a better, more multi-functional way we can stop unwanted plants from sprouting?

Enter green mulch.

“What stops plants from sprouting?” some inventive gardeners asked themselves. One answer is herbicides. Another answer is the absence of sunlight, water, and soil. But a third answer is other plants. In general, a plant simply can’t grow in a space already occupied by another plant. And so these creative gardeners came up with a simple strategy: to keep out plants you don’t want, fill all the available growing space with plants you do want.

Well, how do you that? The trick is layers. In order to create a planting so dense that nothing new can squeeze its way in, the members of that planting community must grow in a variety of shapes and sizes, so that they fit around each other, leaving no room for anything else. A monoculture – of pine trees, corn, bluegrass, or anything else – will always be made up of repeating plant shapes with predictable gaps that can easily be colonized by opportunistic newcomers.

And in a dense, layered planting, gardeners have discovered that the real gatekeepers are the lowest-growing species. Trees, shrubs, and other tall plants will always have open space underneath that unwelcome guests can sneak into. In contrast, plants with a creeping habit – that is, plants that spread along the ground, putting a few leaves into any available spot and then stretching onward to the next opening – efficiently cover soil, making it very difficult for any arriving seeds to germinate and get a foothold on a new life.

This is green mulch – living plants that take up space and crowd out unwanted interlopers. It serves this purpose just as well as traditional mulch, while involving less long-term cost and maintenance, and providing a host of additional benefits associated with healthy plants.

Wherever you live, there is sure to be a native plant that will happily serve as your green mulch. These little plants may not be eye-catching showstoppers, but they pull their weight in the garden, helping the community as a whole to thrive.

What is green mulch?

What is a green roof?

The conventional approach to gardening has been to place a few “landscape” plants in the yard, then fill all the remaining area with lawn. The recent film Hometown Habitat advocates a different approach: deciding where people will need to walk or run or play, putting lawn there, and densely planting everywhere else with naturally-growing trees, shrubs, and flowers. Some people take this idea seriously by packing plants into every available space on their property, including on their roof. The result is called a green roof.

Aside from creating more room for plants to do all the wonderful things that they do, putting a garden on the roof creates some special benefits. First, it converts a typically impermeable area into a space capable of absorbing water. Thus, green roofs reduce runoff and flooding. Second, plants and soil are an excellent form of insulation, keeping the building below the roof both warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Third, far from damaging a conventional roof, a well-designed planting actually protects the roof underneath and extends its lifespan.

Of course, you can’t get these benefits just by climbing up on your shingles and scattering some seeds. A functioning green roof requires a little bit of planning and knowledge.

First, the aspiring roof gardener must check that their house, garage, apartment complex, office building, or other structure will be able to hold the weight of a planting, with all its supporting layers.

Second, the gardener must familiarize themselves with those layers: a roof garden consists of plants, of course, but those plants must be rooted in soil. A green roof, due to the challenges of weight constraints, doesn’t use soil dug up from the ground below, but rather incorporates a special lightweight planting medium. Below this is a root barrier, to prevent plants from growing too far downwards and working their way into places that are not improved by their presence. Next comes a drainage layer, to ensure that any water not absorbed by the plants will be channeled safely to the ground. Below that is an insulation layer, and finally a waterproof membrane, to make absolutely certain that no water will penetrate into the building underneath.

Finally, with all of that accounted for, the gardener must turn their attention to the most vibrant layer: the plants! A green roof can include more than just tough, low-growing groundcovers, but it won’t provide a suitable home for every kind of plant. The gardener must choose plants that can withstand the challenging conditions on a roof, such as harsh sun, strong winds, and only a few inches of soil.

Putting plants on a roof may seem like a crazy new idea, but in fact – as with many sustainable ways of living – it’s simply a return to the way things were traditionally done. In Iceland, houses were constructed with turf roofs for over 1,000 years, in part because of the superior insulation offered by sod against the frigid climate. This practice continued well into modern times; examples of turf houses can still be seen in Iceland today.

turf houses

What is a green roof?