Can you really have a Native Lawn?

white house lawn Can you really have a Native Lawn?

The White House Lawn

Lawns, hmmmm. There isn’t an issue in the landscaping world that’s more charged with dogma  and drama than lawns.  It may be due to our inability to separate the lawn from its historical symbolism of wealth and status.  Having a lawn meant that you didn’t need that space to grow crops to feed your family, and that you had the leisure time to use a lawn for strolling and lawn games.  In the post-war era the creation of suburbia included a small lawn for every family as a status equalizer.  Today most families can afford such small luxuries as lawns, and their existence in the landscape is assumed mandatory.  What’s changing (slowly but surely) is our definition of the lawn, its size, shape and role in the landscape.  Let’s look at these four trends:

Lawns are going Organic – The “natural lawn” movement is rooted in an increased appreciation of the environmental costs of traditional lawn care practices (phosphorous, pesticide and herbicide runoff, carbon emissions, lack of biodiversity, etc.).  Thanks to the work of many organizations including SafeLawns.org, and the like-minded NOFA Organic Land Care practitioners that followed, many lawns have been transitioned to an organic maintenance system.  In Vermont we also have some great programs helping to keep Phosphorous out of Lake Champlain, including the collaborative Lawn-to-Lake program.

Personally, we’ve never had irrigation or applied anything to our lawn here in Addison and after 13 years I think it’s still beautiful.  It’s green all season long partly because there’s nice wet clay underneath and partly because we let the clover grow (a wonderful nitrogen fixer and drought tolerant), and the dandelions do their thing (amazing deep rooted aerators).  I’m sure a Victorian gardener would roll over in her grave, but it works for us.

native lawns 150x150 Can you really have a Native Lawn?Lawns are going Native – at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center ecologist Mark Simmons has been leading research on a mixture of drought-adapted native grasses that cut down on mowing, watering, weeding and feeding. These fine-leafed species grown together form a dense lush lawn that takes less effort to maintain a lawn of mixed native turf grasses than a non-native lawn.  It’s called HABITURF®, and the seed mix outperforms Bermudagrass in terms of rates of establishment, thickness of the turf, mowing rates and weed resistance.  Of course it was designed to combat the drought conditions of Texas, and we usually have the opposite problem (fungus) when it comes to turf, but climate change makes it hard to predict.  There’s also the slow growing grass blends such as Pearl’s Premium, which are a mix of native and exotic grass species.  The State of Maine is growing ten different mixes, including one that is 2/3 native, in a research project called the Great Grass Experiment.  Out of curiosity we will trial some of these seed mixes up here in Vermont and see if we get good results compared to the typical VT Conservation mix we normally use.

Lawns are getting smaller - One of the first questions I ask my clients when I sit down with them is how much lawn do you really need and how do you think you’ll use it?  The answer affects the size and location (if any) of lawn on the design.  Families with children definitely need open spaces for running around and a certain amount of turf is necessary, my own family is testimony.  The area we mow still gets smaller every year, and now we have a 30′x50′ badminton/croquet area, joined to other garden areas with paths.
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Carex pensylvanica

Lawns are being replaced with low native groundcovers or transitioned to meadows.  Many large public institutions, including our own local Middlebury College, are transitioning large areas of previously manicured lawn into meadows that are brush-hogged twice annually, which is all that is necessary to maintain the open space (prevent reforestation) and reduce the tick population.  In rural areas I usually advise clients to let 90% of their burdensome multiple acres of mowed turf go – just mow paths for walking, brush hog the rest a few times a year if open views need to be maintained, and enjoy how the grasses transition over the season.  When lawns transition to meadow you see movement and song come back into the landscape – breezes sway the seedheads and birds arrive in droves.  For smaller suburban front yards I take lawns out of the design altogether – if the goal is curb appeal there are so many better choices for that space that require so much less maintenance and have a lot more “Wow” power.  In shady areas sedges are the winner – the photo above is of Carex pensylvanica, which is a clump-forming Northeast native that only grows 6-9″ high and can handle dry shade.  We plant it spaced fairly tight and it grows into a lawn-like planting that you don’t have to mow more than once a year or fertilize, and it looks soft and inviting. Now that’s drama I can live with.

 

No-Till, Covercrops and the Plan to Save Lake Champlain

hairy vetch No Till, Covercrops and the Plan to Save Lake Champlain

Hairy Vetch, Crimson Clover and rye cover crop

I have high hopes for cover crops and no-till farming methods, both to save water quality in Lake Champlain, as well as to prevent the erosion of precious soils and to increase the carbon sink capacity of farmland across the country.

As Tom Philpot explains in his September 2013 article One Weird Trick to Fix Farms Forever in Mother Jones, our soil is a limited resource, and we should be concerned with its preservation. According to University of Washington soil scientist David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, it takes between 700 and 1,500 years to generate an inch of topsoil under natural conditions. Cornell agricultural scientist David Pimentel reckons that “90 percent of US cropland now is losing soil faster than its sustainable replacement rate.”   And then there’s climate change.  Under current farming practices, US farmland only acts as what the USDA has deemed a “modest carbon sink”—sequestering 4 million metric tons of carbon annually, a tiny fraction of total US greenhouse gas emissions.  However, if all US farms adopted the use of cover crops and no-till planting methods their fields could absorb 25x more carbon - equivalent to taking nearly 10 percent of the US car fleet off the road.

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Sediment Plume into Lake Champlain

Soil loss and carbon aside, our biggest motivator to use No-Till Drill cover crops is to protect water quality.  Since EPA disapproved the Vermont 2002 Lake Champlain Phosphorus TMDL on January 24, 2011 there has been quite a bit of activity on the subject of cover crops, culminating in the recent No-Till and Cover Crop Symposium hosted by UVM Extension – Champlain Valley Crops, Soil and Pasture Team, VT Agency of Agriculture and the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

There are many advantages us using no-till drills to plant both cover crops and main crops.  They allow farmers to get on a field later in the season (up to October 15th), and put in a crop of winter rye.  Winter rye grows fast, holds onto nutrients, and in the spring it can add nutrients to the field.  The roots help minimize soil loss from erosion and protect soil structure and health. The crop also conserves soil moisture, limits surface water runoff and requires fewer field operations.

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UVM Extension No-Till Drill

In 2012, UVM Extension provided the use of no-till drills to 49 farmers who used them to plant 1,672 acres. Farmers no-till planted 560 acres of pasture on 19 farms, 802 acres of hayland on 20 farms and 310 acres of winter grain cover crops on 13 farms.  I can’t wait to hear what some of the initiatives are for the farms in our end of the watershed – I truly hope they can embrace the new practice soon and reduce the annual spring flow of sediment into the Otter Creek.  I love the fact that the Agency is getting behind the initiative and provides financial assistance to farmers for cover cropping and no-till, but there’s still work to do.  The majority of farms around us have been uncovered bare soil all winter – not a lick of winter rye cover crop in sight, and the Roundup Ready Corn planted in spring means that the soil is bare between corn rows all year long.  Our Clayplain soils are so fine that they are easily suspended and carried into surface water, where their Phosphorous content contributes to algae blooms.

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Clover as a cover crop

I found a great introductory blog post about written by Kirsten Workman who works for UVM Extension as an Agronomy Outreach Professional for the Champlain Valley Crop, Soil & Pasture Team.  She works with farmers to implement practices to improve crop production and protect water quality.  She has a great list of things you can do on your farm to protect water quality.   I think many of her suggestions can be applied to gardens as well, especially cover cropping.  A great source for cover crop seed for vegetable gardeners, homesteads, and small farms is Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  Many clovers make great semi-permanent cover crops between rows of long-term crops like strawberries and grapes.  Check it out, and plant some green manure this spring!

 

 

Heartbreak and Hope – When you Lose a Beehive

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The dead hive opened

On a walk past the bee yard the other day I paused to put my ear to the hive, something I do regularly throughout the winter.  I discovered that only one of our two hives was making its normal faint buzzing sound.  It was a warm (45 degree) sunny day so I opened the silent hive and found it full of dead bees, many of them near the top but also many with their noses deep in the comb, a sign of starvation.

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our hives under snow

I felt terrible – I thought I had left them enough honey for the winter, but maybe not?  On closer inspection I found a few frames of capped honey not far from the cluster of bees.  The upper entrance showed evidence of cleansing flights and there were quite a few dead bees outside on the ground in the snow – had they been sick or was it just too cold?  Each hive had an insulated winter cover with plenty of air flow to keep them dry.

I tried not to get teary, but instead stomped around the bee yard in frustration.  Like any new parent I was plagued with doubt  and guilt – what did I do wrong?  Plenty, I’m sure, but how do I make sure I don’t make the same mistakes again?

Our adventure with bees began three years ago at the Burlington screening of the award-winning documentary film “Queen of the Sun: What Bees are Telling Us”.  I then took Ross Conrad’s Organic Beekeeping course and passed the exam given by the Vermont Beekeeper’s Association.

Our two hives did fairly well the first year, but to be safe we didn’t extract any honey.  They came through the winter very strong, so strong that I missed preventing one of the hives from swarming, leaving it mostly empty with a Queen cell.  I’m afraid I did something to interrupt the acceptance of the new queen or she didn’t return from her mating flight, because after 6 weeks there were no new eggs.

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The two hives after splitting and new Queen

So I split the strong hive and introduced a new Russian Queen.  I made notes on which boxes had nectar, eggs, and capped brood.  Throughout the rest of summer they seemed very strong, I added supers as they needed them, and then we extracted honey in early September.

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extracting honey

We took 3.5 gallons total from the two hives, leaving a full shallow on each, and an empty shallow for the bees to fill during the goldenrod flow.  In October one of the two hives seemed weaker and hadn’t filled their second super, so I did a mite count using my IPM board and they both had a fairly heavy infestation, so I fed the hive, adding BeeHealthy, and treated them both for mites with ApiVar.  There was no evidence of Nosema or Foulbrood.   We did have some pretty cold weather this winter, but I’m questioning how much honey I left them, and plan to leave them more next year.

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Bee inspection in September

So what’s my plan for my dead hive?  First I’m going to clean it out and do some more investigating.  Here’s my plan - Take out the frames one by one and brush off the dead bees and vacuum out the ones still in cells.  Scrape of any bridge or burr comb and propolis from the frames and inspect the comb to see if any frames need replacing.  Do the same with the hive bodies, cleaning off the frame rests etc. where the propolis really gets in the way.  Then I’ll work my way down to the bottom board getting everything cleaned up.  It might be a while before the new bee package arrives so I’ll store the empty hive in the barn (where it’s still freezing) in a plastic bag until it warms up outside and then air it out in the greenhouse so it doesn’t mildew.

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installing new bees with Gabbie

I have to decide soon if I’m going to order a new package of bees with a new Russian Queen or try to raise a new queen from the overwintered hive, and split it in June.  The advantage of splitting an overwintered hive is that hopefully some of the genetic material of the bees that survived can be passed to the new hive, breeding tougher, more resistant bees.  This is the approach of both Ross Conrad and Kirk Webster, a well-known Vermont honeybee queen breeder, who didn’t use chemicals at all when tracheal mites were first discovered in the state in the late 1980s. He lost 95 percent of his bees the first year, but by breeding the survivors, now has a resistant stock.  I would love one of his queens but there’s a two-year wait-list.  Knowing how busy we are in spring, I’ll probably start with a fresh box of bees in early May.

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zombie bee

Losing hives is fairly common now (30% is the average) – honey bee colonies are overrun with difficulties (Colony Collapse Disorder, Nosema, and now Zombie bees.  Our wild bees are almost extinct (the national Academy of Science reported a 96% decline in the four abundant species), and it’s now being shown that wild and domesticated bees are passing diseases to each other.

To make matters worse the U.S. market is being flooded with cheap honey from China (laundered through other Asian countries – see this article on Honey laundering) and this honey is often contaminated with banned antibiotics and diluted with corn syrup, yuck.  The flood of cheap foreign honey is reducing demand for local honey = fewer hives = fewer pollinators = less local food.

So, yes if we want to keep eating healthy food we need to become advocates for healthy bees and local raw honey.  Let’s all cross our fingers, and say a prayer for a warm spring full of blossoms and healthy bees.

 

 

10 Years on the L.A.N.D. and 60 Things We’ve Learned

2013 10 19 09.14.46 e1393004531238 1024x671 10 Years on the L.A.N.D. and 60 Things Weve Learned

The New Year brought the classic moment of looking back to look forward – and I realized that in September we will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of our business, designing and building landscapes here in the Champlain Valley of VT.  We have experienced significant growth and change during that time and I am very grateful for Tim’s infinite patience, as well as the extreme hard work performed by Tim and the crew, and the faith of our clients as we have evolved our design process and methods.

Looking back at some of our first designs I admit it’s a bit like looking at photos of myself in the 80′s and wondering how I could possibly have thought shoulder pads were a good idea.  Thankfully, we’ve learned along the way, and continue to do so, and we have found ways to successfully integrate our interests in ecology, agriculture, and landscapes.  Recently I was giving a particularly interactive lecture to some UVM students about Ecological Design and the discussion turned to whether I thought they should go to grad school in order to secure a job.  I told them that “it depends”, but that no matter where their path takes them I believe that education is continual beyond any formal school setting, and needs to be a part of daily life.  We choose to be Learners and our identify morphs with our constantly evolving body of knowledge.  I am not the same gardener-designer-farmer-wife-mother that I was yesterday or 10 years ago, and it’s the process of sharing those experiences that has proved more valuable than any piece of paper.

So yes, research is important but so is hands-on experience, and most importantly, learning from each others’ hands-on experiences.  With this in mind I have assembled an index of the topics that I’ve written about in the last three years to share with you – think of it as a distillation of our recent experiences.  I write about 20 posts per year, so there are 60 articles here organized by topic for you to pick through and hopefully find something useful.  Be sure to sign up for our newsletter if you would enjoy getting our happy rantings each month.  Have fun and please share your thoughts.

http://conta.cc/1eNl1BB

Children in Nature – The Importance of Getting Muddy

getting muddy 238x300 Children in Nature   The Importance of Getting MuddyI love this photo of Gabbie – it was taken eight years ago on her first birthday at a jobsite on the south end of Lake George, about 2 hours south of us.  The usual routine for remote jobsites includes Tim and the crew staying in a nearby hotel and working long hours until the project is complete, while I visit periodically for design oversight.  This project was special - the clients very graciously let us stay in their guesthouse on the property, and so we took the whole family, including my mom who watched the girls while we worked.  The days were punctuated with barbecues and swimming and even birthday cake.  Occasionally the girls both got to “help” which was code for getting reeaally muddy, much to their delight.  I’ll never forget that project, not only because Elsa had her first asthma attack/emergency room visit, but because the girls had the unique opportunity to “help” us and understand what we do all day while we are away from them.  I have learned that the strength of our family is built through participation in each others’ lives, and it seems even more true as the girls get older.  I have to dig deeper now when they get off the bus and I ask them “what did you do at school today?” and the first response is “not much”.  The answers take their time and usually emerge during a walk up to the woods or a stroll through the garden.  It’s difficult at times to remember to take this time to connect when I have a design that’s due, or I’m deep into preparing a presentation, but the best things happen when I step away from the computer or the phone, and walk outside.  So yes, getting muddy is important – all pretenses are shed, our true selves revealed, smiles emerge and bonds are formed.  I’m off to meet the girls at the bus stop and maybe get my hands in the dirt…

Fall Harvest on the Farm

view from porch1 300x253 Fall Harvest on the FarmIt was a big harvest year for us – we had four weeks of clear warm sunshine in a row in September/early October and we spent every weekend filling the cupboards and freezers. It was also our first year extracting honey – such a rich reward for the last two summers with our hives.  Here are some photos of the bounty.

pantry games Fall Harvest on the Farm

The anti-hunger games

Creating Monarch Waystations

monarch caterpillar Creating Monarch Waystations

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed in our meadow

Search “monarch decline” on the web and you’ll find articles from every major news source talking about the record low numbers this year.  It’s been alarming how few we’ve seen this fall here at the farm – just a few years ago you could walk up the field and pass hundreds.

The #1 reason given for decline is the loss of habitat, and specifically milkweed, the Monarch’s top food source.  There are two varieties of milkweed that we see in our fields, Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and we’ve been actively spreading the seeds in a fallow part of our property to help create a Monarch Waystation.

If you’ve been reading the blog lately you know that we’ve been talking a lot about the value of margins for biodiversity.  Chip Taylor, the Director of Monarch Watch also believes we need to pay more attention to these fragmented edges and marginal areas created by development and agriculture since it is these edges that support monarchs, many of our pollinators, and the many forms of wildlife that are sustained by the seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, and foliage that result from pollination. “In effect,” Taylor argues, “we need a new conservation ethic, one dealing with edges and marginal areas that addresses the changes of the recent past and anticipates those of the future.”

Monarch Watch has registered over 7,000 Waystations so far, and they need more.  You can create your own Waystation by visiting Monarchwatch.org’s website and following their instructions.  Here are some photos of us spreading milkweed seed at Linden Farm.

 

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NWF Schoolyard Habitat installed at Flynn Elementary

Here are some photos from today’s installation.  We set the bird post in concrete, and once it cures we can return and install the feeders.  The bird bath and bench will get installed next week.  Many of the plants are from American Beauties, a NWF partner.  The Schoolyard Habitat project was completely donated by Linden L.A.N.D. Group as the prize in a sweepstakes run during the month of May.  The native plant varieties were selected to provide color in the late fall and early spring, but most importantly provide nectar, forage, seeds and fruit for birds, bees, moths, butterflies, and caterpillars.  The design also provides cover, water, places to raise young (the Oak tree actually had a bird nest in it when we planted it).  The habitat demonstrates sustainable gardening to children as part of a curriculum that encourages them to become stewards.  We had a great time today and look forward to meeting with the students later in the school year.

Linden Farm Summer 2013

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July sunset

 

 

The summer goes by so quickly – there’s always something going on here at the farm before the landscape crew heads out, after they get home, and with our family on weekends.  Planting, harvesting, weeding, haying, herding – the list never ends.  Here are a few images of the homestead in summer.

Sunrise Farm Tour

Yesterday it was 90 degrees, hot and humid, and today promises the same.  I woke up early and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I crept out of a silent house and walked around the farm.  An altered perspective – stumbling upon sheep still asleep in the pasture, dew suspended.  The Rooster and hens come tumbling out of the coop when I open the door and look at me as if I was a stranger.  Mist and geese rise off the lake, the tree frogs chirp, the pair of Orioles call to each other from their nest in the Silver Maple.  The sun gains strength and so does everything else, rising with the arms of a golden conductor.  Makes me realize how much life is here, and how it carries on without me each day when I’m not looking.  I’m grateful to be a part of it.

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