My Wonderful Weeds!

"Sears Tower" daylily
“Sears Tower” daylily

I was released from the hospital late Thursday night, after six days to treat an infection in the suture line in my chest a month after open heart surgery.  I got home close to midnight because we had to wait for the delivery of the wound vac, which the nurse then had to attach to my chest.

Friday morning, I finally was able to walk in our little yard. I have not been able to weed or do any yard work this year. The crownvetch and the Queen Ann’s Lace are everywhere run amok. Yet I planted so many daylilies and native flowers over the years that they are holding their own pretty well! The Sears Tower bloomed for the first time! Gorgeous! It is so stately right next to the huge, gangly Purple Suspenders. The Coneflowers and the Buttonwood Bush are putting on quite a show out front, next to the hyssop and liatris and brown-eyed Susans.

DSC04745The tulip poplar sapling that was poisoned by something, survived and has put out new leaves. The Florida Tetrapetal St. John’s Wort has surprised us once again. It never comes up where I scatter its seeds, but we always manage to have some in our yard. (The birds have been kind.) We just had one blooming in front of the house. While I was in the hospital a couple popped up in our Monarch Garden in front of the back shed and one is peeking up through the ‘weeds’ on the wildflower hill on the other corner of the backyard.

FL tetrapetal St. John's Wort is pale yellow, upper middle
FL tetrapetal St. John’s Wort is pale yellow, upper middle

There are little surprises on the wildflower hill: tiny false sunflowers, nearly hidden daylilies, native beebalm, a tiny holly bush. The rabbits scurrying through. It has an untamed beauty. I even appreciated the invasive, Queen Ann’s Lace as it just floated above. I wept as I beheld my wonderful, wonderful weeds!

Stoplight daylily at the end of the driveway
Stoplight daylily
at the end of the driveway


It Must Be Spring!

My postcard from Edge of the Woods Native Plants arrived today announcing their “Nursery & Gardens Opening for the season on April 1st” immediately after I finished painting my giant rendition of a buttonwood bush blossom. Spring is in the air! I don’t get paid to advertise Edge of the Woods. It is one of my favorite places in the world! It is not so much a business as it is a mission to save the planet. It is a business as well, so please go, and buy good, healthy, native plants there.

buttonwoodblossomThis post is really supposed to be about my art. I purchased the buttonwood bush at Edge of the Woods a few years ago. It is in front of our house, the first floor front of which is painted red. This bush has these cool, one inch diameter blossoms. Our bush is hard against a native Virginia Rose. The two of them are covered with six or seven different kinds of bees throughout much of the summer. I painted this blossom on a 16″ diameter canvas. I painted the edge bright yellow, intending to leave it simple and frameless. I think it would make a nice Christmas decoration for the native plant enthusiast. This is as close to abstract as I have gotten with my painting so far.

Click on the image to view it larger. Look at it and tell me what it makes you think about or how it makes you feel. The doctor is in.

An herb to help you not lose your head named for a saint who lost his.

Shrubby St. John's Wort native to PA
Shrubby St. John’s Wort native to PA

There is a genus of plants that consists of nearly 400 species with nearly worldwide distribution. It is kind of amazing. These plants all have bright yellow blossoms. Some of the plants are perennials. Some need to reseed. Some are shrubby bushes. Some are trees, growing almost 40 feet tall. They are almost all called St. John’s Wort, with other descriptors or qualifiers before it. it’s genus name, hypericum, comes from the fact that they bloom just prior to the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist on the summer solstice, June 24. The faithful would take branches of the flowers and place them over the icons in their homes and in their churches for the feast day.  Some varieties continue blooming until the feast of St. John’s Beheading on August 29.

St. John's Wort - hypericum perferatum
St. John’s Wort – hypericum perferatum

The petals of the flowers contain hypericin which is an antidepressant. For millennia people have been using the flower petals for tea for this purpose. Now drug stores sell 300mg capsules of powdered, dried St. John’s Wort that one may take three times a day. It is the only antidepressant I know of that doesn’t list suicidal thoughts as a possible side effect. (Miscarriage is a possible side effect, however.) Doctors prescribe it as it has been proven effective. We have three varieties of St. John’s Wort growing here. The photo above is from our front yard. It is a close up of a blossom on a native PA shrubby variety.  We have hypericum perforatum by the driveway side of the house and Four-petal St. John’s Wort, a native of Florida, back by the barn.

Non-native St. John's Wort in front of Telford-Souderton Post Office
Non-native St. John’s Wort in front of Telford-Souderton Post Office

I find it interesting that our local post office has loads of St. John’s Wort in front of it. Our local postal workers all seem to be happy and well adjusted. They have a couple of native bushes and then loads of these woody stemmed perennials, with giant blooms. The bees only bother with the natives. It provides a graphic lesson in the importance of planting natives. Only natives provide food for the bees and insects, butterflies and birds.

Four-petal Florida St. John's Wort
Four-petal Florida St. John’s Wort

Last summer, our plants each had one blossom on them the day before the feast and burst into full bloom on the day of the feast. This year, our native bush had only one blossom open two days after the feast. It is just now starting to fill with blooms. I think it is observing Old Calendar, this year.


St. John the Baptist icon by the hand of Constantine Youssis
St. John the Baptist icon by the hand of Constantine Youssis


What a Wonderful Daylily Season!

lilies by the driveOur first daylily bloomed on Mother’s Day, May 9. There were daylilies blooming in our yard every day except two from then until September 15. The Bitsy daylily rebloomed twice and is blooming today, November 4. I am always amazed by daylilies, but this was an exceptional season, with the extreme heat and dry spells, and still no hard frost.

One day in late Spring, I was doing a little weeding in front of our house. An old lady was walking slowly along the sidewalk. She stopped to admire the flowers. She said, “You know that God loves you, don’t you? When you see flowers like that you have to know that there is a God and that He loves us!”

A Solar Powered Water Purification System You Can Build at Home

That’s right folks! With very little skill you can build a system in your yard that will help purify streams and lakes. It will prevent many toxins from entering the waterways and improve water tables. But that’s not all! It will help freshen the air and provide shelter for some of God’s creatures. It can even help prevent some of your downhill or downstream neighbors from being flooded out! All this while adding beauty to your yard and reducing your mowing time! All this could be yours for the low, low price of  some rocks, some native plants and a couple of afternoons of sweat equity!

Adrianne L. Blank, RLA
Adrianne L. Blank, RLA, explaining rain gardens and swales

I’m talking about rain gardens and bioswales. Rain gardens and bioswales can be introduced into a landscape to help slow down the flow of water, allowing more of it to soak into the ground. This helps clean the water and alleviates flooding and improves ground water tables. A bioswale is basically a shallow ditch that slopes gradually down from the source of the water, whether that is a parking lot, a roof downspout, a roadway or a driveway. It can be lined with rocks or coarse gravel or eight to twelve inches of leaf compost and sand. It can include some native plants, but not solidly planted. It can be built up slightly on the low end to form a dam to allow two to four inches of water to remain in it and soak into the ground over the course of about two days after a rainstorm. This first level of filtering can remove most of any metals in the water and allows the water that doesn’t run over the low end to continue filtering through the ground.

The next stage of water purification and detention can be accomplished with a rain garden. For many years, building codes and zoning regulations have required detention basins for commercial developments and multiple unit housing developments. These help some, but not nearly as much as they could if they were planted and maintained as rain gardens. The average residential yard could help the water supply by using just 60 to 100 square feet for a rain garden (about the footprint of a mini-van). If commercial, church and development detention basins were to have their sod removed and replaced with a rain garden; it would go a long way to improving suburban and urban water tables and water quality.

A rain garden contains native flowers, bushes and sometimes, trees. 70% of water pollution comes from runoff. 80% of water that falls on a lawn runs off. The idea is to slow down the flow of the water to allow more of it to soak into the ground. Soil and plants filter out toxins to purify the water. Larger plants use more water. Local native plants help purify the air, moderate temperature and provide habitat for birds, butterflies and other creatures.

To build a residential rain garden, first, choose a suitable location. It should be where water flows to naturally, or you can create a bioswale or extend a downspout drainpipe to it. The finished ground level of the rain garden should be eight to twelve inches below surrounding grade level, with gentle slopes into it all around, if possible. It needs to be graded in such a way that the water enters it gently and is evenly dispersed, so it doesn’t erode and the full area is utilized to treat the water. The area needs to be dug down at least a foot deeper than the desired finished grade in order to mix compost into the soil. Then the area is planted with native flowers, bushes and trees. It is important to choose plants which tolerate wet conditions, yet tolerate drought. Local natives work best for this. A few sedges or ornamental grasses may be included in this, but so much that the ground is covered. Remember to choose plants that are appropriate for your sun conditions.

If only local, native plants are used, the rain garden should be very low maintenance. It should not be mowed more than once a year, in the fall.

For photos and more information on rain gardens, visit the following links:
Passive Rainwater Harvesting
Landcare Research (New Zealand), then click on A home raingarden for more detailed instructions and do’s and don’t’s.

Rain Barrel Workshop

Terry & Rain Barrel Kit
Terry & Rain Barrel Kit

Last Saturday  I went to a rain barrel workshop at Edge of the Woods Nursery put on by the Saucon Creek Watershed Committee. For $35, they provided the tools, the materials and help to build a 55 gallon rain barrel. Rain barrels help slow down the flow of water off of roofs. Suburban sprawl with its McMansions, additional roads, big box stores, big parking lots and lawns have caused many areas to become flood prone that never had this problem before. Rain showers now cause flooding, erosion and water pollution. 70% of water pollution in our lakes and streams comes from rainwater run-off. 80% of water falling on grass lawns runs off. Anything we can do to slow the flow and allow more of this water to filter through plants and soil will help to prevent flooding and pollution.

The simplest step that we can take to slow down the flow of water is to place rain barrels on our downspouts. This reduces the amount of rain flowing across the ground by catching the first 55 gallons in a rain event, saving it to be used on dry days. This reduces the amount of nonpoint source pollution. Rain barrels provide some additional benefits as well. 30% of our water is used for lawns and gardens, on average. If you use captured rainwater to water your garden and lawn you reduce your water and sewer bills and save drinking water resources. Rainwater is better for your plants than city water that has been chlorinated.

Mosquito screen
Mosquito screen attached to bottom of PVC toilet flange with duct ring

Now you can buy fancy, good-looking rain barrels from various gardening catalogs and some big box stores; or you can make them fairly inexpensively from a salvaged, food additive barrel and a few parts from the hardware store. The thread taps are pretty expensive, so try to borrow these from a plumber or join a gardening club or watershed association that can buy them corporately to sponsor events like the one I attended on Saturday.

Here’s the recipe:

1 food grade plastic 55 gallon drum. (SCWC gets theirs from a local recycling center.)
1 PVC toilet drain flange
2 sel-tapping 3/4″ hex-top, slot screws
1 dryer vent duct ring
about a square foot of nylon window screen
1 brass 1/2″ hose spigot
1 nylon 3/4″ thread, garden hose coupler
epoxy putty

Electric drill
handheld jigsaw
Adjustable wrench
4-5/8″ hole saw
3/4″ garden hose thread tap
13/16″ hole saw
7/16″ drill bit
thread tap for 1/2″ hose spigot
screwdriver or hex driver bit


Top of Rain Barrel Complete

Use 4-5/8″ hole saw to cut a hole in the top of the barrel, leaving enough flat surface around it to place the toilet flange. Attach screen to bottom of flange using the dryer duct ring.  (See photo above.) Trace and cut space on the side of the hole for the tightening screw to fit, so the flange lies flat, screen side down in the barrel.

Drill hole for spigot near the bottom of the side of the barrel using the drill bit. Consider carefully how you want to place this according to how the downspout will enter it, so you will have convenient access to use the water. Tap the threads and screw in spigot. Near the top of the barrel but still on the flat part of the side of the drum, cut the hole with the smaller hole saw for the overflow fitting. Use the larger tap to thread the opening, then screw in the hose coupler. Work the two parts of the epoxy putty together until it is a uniform color. Partially unscrew the spigot and the hose coupler. Work the putty into the threads and retighten, packing it all around to prevent leaks.

Your rain barrel is complete!

Tapping the barrel for the spigot
Threading the the hole for the spigot

Don’t drink the water from your barrel. If you have asbestos shingles (very old roof) or treated wood roof or a copper roof with a zinc anti-moss strip, do not use the water on edible plants. It is fine for flowers and lawns, though. Clean the bug screen periodically. In the winter, either take it in or leave the spigot open with no hose attached to avoid freezing and thawing from splitting your barrel.

Attach a hose to the overflow with the outlet somewhere like a soaker in a flower bed.
Spigot sealed with epoxy putty

Going Native

I made my first trip of the season to Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery in Orefield, PA, with my daughter, April, and her three boys. What a wonderful place! They have over 300 species of trees, bushes, plants, flowers and ground covers, all native to this area. Louise and Susan, who own and run the place, are so knowledgeable and helpful that it is well worth the miles out of the way to shop there. But I get ahead of myself.

Why go native? The answer to that is manifold.

The Audubon Society is reporting a rapid decline in bird populations in America, by as much as 80% of some of the most common backyard birds since 1967. Ornithologists attribute this to the disappearance of natural habitat with suburban sprawl with its eradication of the native plant species on which these birds depend for food and shelter. Another problem is the use of chemical herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers that poison birds. So landscaping your yard with native plants and encouraging your neighbors to do the same can recreate attractive habitats for birds. There is no fauna without flora.

Native plants are well adapted to natural conditions, so do not require the artificial life support of chemical salt fertilizers or the ‘protection’ of weed killers or insecticides. This can save you money and make your habitat safer and less polluted. Choose your plants to match your conditions and you don’t need to water much, if at all. This saves water, which saves energy, which is better for the planet and your bank account.

It is easy to propagate most native plants, so, if you are willing to wait, you don’t have to buy so many. The Virginia Sweetspire that I planted last Fall has already put out rooted runners that I was able to transplant to a second location. These plants are not patented or copyrighted, so you can’t get into trouble for propagating them to plant, trade, give or sell.

If you have acreage, and you plan carefully, you can restore habitat to a wild enough state that it sustains itself with little care and provides habitat to native animals of all sorts. You cannot just stop mowing to let land return to the wild. In fact, mowing or plowing can permanently destroy some fragile natural ecosystems. In all of the Great Plains, some estimate that less than 2% are still virgin prairie. I recall as a child in Minnesota that they determined there was less than a quarter of an acre in the whole state that was still virgin prairie. Restoration can only go so far, but wouldn’t it be fun to closely restore a place to how it may have looked, felt and smelled like 400 years ago.

Going native will help you escape the cookie cutter, McMansion look. There are very interesting native plants in every region of the continent. As Europeans started to settle and explore the East coast of America, they were amazed with all the beautiful, native plants. In fact, one of the advantages of going native on the east coast of the US is that you can have a traditional, English, country garden! That’s right! The English were so taken with all the new, exotic plants from North America that they filled their gardens with them in a more naturalizing way than those stuffy, manicured French gardens. It’s a fascinating story. You can read about it in Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners.

We are using naturalizing, native ground covers, flowers and bushes to eliminate mowing in front of our house. We hope to be able to eat whatever blueberries the birds and the neighbors leave for us, as well.

Positive, Greener Alternatives to Mowing Lawns

The greenest, positive alternative to mowing a lawn is to do away with it by letting more green grow. I am not suggesting that you just stop mowing and let whatever is there just grow up, as if your place were abandoned. Land needs maintenance. Man is part of the ecosystem. Our responsibility since Creation has been to tend the earth. No, what I mean is replace the close clipped grass with bigger plants: bushes, flowers, trees, tall ornamental grasses and vegetables. Trees help clean the air; protect from and temper the weather; and attract rain. It is very important to choose plants that are appropriate for your climate. For the most part, avoid exotics, especially if they are invasive like kudzu and most bamboo. Plants that are native to a region will be easier to establish and maintain with minimal watering and protection than those that are not. Also native plants can many times be found and propagated with minimal cost. I subscribed to Mike McGroarty’s free e-newsletter to get tips on starting bushes and trees from cuttings. Another great resource is Mike McGrath’s “You Bet Your Garden” from WHYY-91FM in Philadelphia and syndicated nationally on NPR. He is a fount of information on all natural, non-toxic plant growing of all kinds.

An added benefit to growing more bushes, flowers and trees is that it provides more habitat for birds, butterflies and other creatures. These are fun to observe and beautiful and soothing to watch and hear. I had the thrill of watching an alley cat crouching behind our daylilies snatch a bird under the neighbor’s azalea. It was like a little National Geographic predators special, live, right here next to the driveway!

Vegetables and fruits have synergistic environmental effects. Replace some of your lawn with vegetables and you increase oxygen production, eliminate some lawn mowing pollution and reduce food miles. Instead of planting ornamental fruit trees, plant actual, fruit producing, fruit trees; and you may harvest some tasty fruit from your own yard. At the very least, you will provide added habitat and food for wildlife. You can plant edible cauliflower and cabbages, other vegetables and herbs as ornamental accents in your flower beds. A new specialty has even arisen among landscapers providing edible landscapes and planning.

If you really, truly enjoy a large lawn, get some sheep. I remember reading in  the Mother Earth News, about thirty years ago, about a rent-a-sheep mowing service in West Germany.

“How Green Was My Valley”?

About 40.5 million acres of land are used for lawns in the United Sates. About 300 million acres of land are used for harvested crops each year in the United States. American homeowners spent about $2.1 billion in 2001 for over 30,000 tons of herbicides (i.e., Roundup), insecticides, fungicides, etc., for their lawns. Lawn care pesticides kill about 7 million birds in the US each year. American farmers spent about $7.4 billion on the same in 2001. This is according to EPA estimates. (2001 is the last year for which they have published stats.) The lion’s share of the difference is that farmers use a lot more herbicide. Farmers have an additional 140 million acres in fallow and out of rotation cropland for a total of about 440 million acres. So US homeowners spent an average of about four times as much per acre on these toxins than did farmers. US residential use of these chemicals alone accounts for nearly 7% of the world market. This is more than a little out of proportion, just to have a patch of green around our castles. 

Then there is the whole issue of fertilizers. We use over 3 million tons annually on lawns. Over $5 billion per year is spent on fossil fuel derived fertilizers. Then there is the problem of gas powered mowers. The average gas powered mower emits as much pollution while mowing an acre of grass as driving a car 50 miles. Lawn mowers accounts for 7% smog causing particulate; and you are walking right behind it. 800 million gallons of gas are used each year for mowing lawns, of which an estimated 17 million gallons are spilled on the ground. (The Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons, just for comparison.) According to the EPA, America uses an average of 7 billion gallons of water each day to water its lawns; over half of which is wasted due to overwatering and overspray. It always frustrated me, as a kid growing up in Golden Valley, that the more we would fertilize and water the lawn, the more we would have to mow it. It seemed to me that we could save all kinds of time by not fertilizing and watering. 

How about the dangers to life and limb? A number of these pesticides and fertilizers have been shown to increase risk of asthma, childhood leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, birth defects, fetal death, etc., according to the Ontario College of Family Physicians: Pesticides Literature Review. Every year, about 75,000 people are seriously injured in lawn mower accidents in the US, including 10,000 children. 25,000 accidents result in an amputation. OK. Have I scared you enough? Just leave the lawn alone for a while.

I’ll get back to it with some positive, greener alternatives. I promise.

Are Lawns Green?

From the time I was six until I was twenty, we lived in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Golden Valley is a suburb of Minneapolis. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was home to General Mills, Honeywell’s MIRV control plant (making it the #16 strategic nuclear target for the Russians), Carl Sandburg Junior High (right across the street), Glenwood Hills Hospital, Theodore Wirth Park and Golden Valley Country Club. We were told that the village took its name from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. This was Steinbeck’s journal of the time he bummed around the country with his standard poodle, Charley. They sat down in a field of amber grain and John said: “Now this truly is a golden valley!” I now know this is not true, but this is the myth of the place that we were taught at Carl Sandburg. Poetry apparently trumped science. Travels With Charley happened in 1960; the village was incorporated in 1886. By the way, Carl Sandburg attended the dedication of the school in 1959 and our family was there and we met him. I don’t remember. I was only four at the time and wasn’t that interested in poet/historians yet.

At any rate, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The point of this whole ramble through Golden Valley is that the valley still had some golden fields when Steinbeck may or may not have travelled through with his poodle in 1960. By the summer of 1961 my dad had built our house in a subdivision of the last one. The fields of wheat were gone. We had a clean, new suburb with lots of green lawns.

But how green are lawns?

Before we get into the whole chemical fertilizer, gas power mower, crabgrass killer end of things; let’s take a look at just the idea and physical presence of lawns and see how things add up.

Why do we have lawns, anyway? Years ago, in a magazine called Country Journal, there was an essay on lawns on the next to the last page. From it I learned that the idea of the individual lawn came from English and northern European aristocracy. It was a sign of great wealth. It indicated that you had so much land that you could afford to mow some of it. You already had more than enough for your crops, more than enough for your livestock, more than enough, even, than for your herbs and flowers. You had so much land, in fact, that you could afford to intentionally waste some of it. It was the epitome of conspicuous consumption. This idea was carried forward to American farmers. It was a sign of prosperity and overabundance to have a small lawn around the farmhouse.

Then came the mechanization of farming with its accompanying great migration into cities. Those who managed to benefit from industrialization and centralization chose the same sign to advertise their prosperity. They had enough wealth to have a piece of ground that they could mow without even having to farm at all. On top of that, came the expanding middle class with the idea of a consumer society. Then came the cold war with its xenophobia which led people to want to have a buffer zone between themselves and their neighbors, as well as enough space to build a bomb shelter in the backyard. Then came the urban race riots of 1965 and 1968 that caused more people to be afraid of cities and flee to the perceived safety of the suburbs. Television evening news with its “If it bleeds it leads” policy combined with the economy of showing all the news that is convenient (i.e., urban) only reinforced these fears. White flight from the cities has caused so much urban sprawl that on a night time flight from Philadelphia to Minneapolis in 2000, I saw only suburbs below.

Just the fact of lawns existing, increase the need for transportation, because they increase the distance between us. Paradoxically, lawns cause more land to be paved as we need more and longer roads to get around them all to get anywhere. The more paved land there is, the higher the incidence of flash floods with its damage to life and property, not to mention the accompanying erosion. Lawns take land out of agricultural production and deplete wildlife habitat.  By the lawns being clipped short, they do not produce as much oxygen and sequester as much carbon as would a farm, pasture, meadow or woods with undergrowth.

By taking land out of possible agricultural production, we have limited our opportunities for energy independence by means of biofuels. Although I have looked into the possibility of replacing my lawn with switchgrass or poplar trees to produce home heating fuel.

The bottom line is: No matter how green they appear to be, lawns are not green.

Next time, I’ll talk about the effects of lawn maintenance and some greener options.