The New Home Economics


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Garden mania

Time for an epic garden update! We’ve been very busy the last two months, but we have much to show for it.

Ramp pestoWe’ve been having a very nice spring this year, neither too cold nor too warm, and it made for some early harvests of various wild things that grow in and near our yard. I pull out the entire patch of stinging nettle that grows under our old maple tree every spring, roots and all, and yet every year it comes back bigger. Hmm. This year we had enough to make pesto–we simply steamed the nettles briefly, then processed them with olive oil, lemon juice, some garlic, and whatever nuts we had on hand. I’m not a purist about pesto recipes; my favorite nutty addition is actually sunflower seeds.

Herb spiral in progressAnother April project was our herb spiral. First, we moved out all the coneflowers and other various perennials that were crowding this area—most ended up filling in our two new gardens. We priced different options for the stone; I originally wanted natural stone but we couldn’t afford it. So we went with these bricks. Shown in the photo is the bit of hugelkultur we used to help fill in. Bottom layer was sticks and logs, then went a whole bunch of last year’s leaves, then a whole bunch of compost, and finally topped with a few bags of topsoil. Saved us a bunch of money to not have to have a whole cubic yard or two of topsoil delivered; we just filled it in with what we had laying around. Read more about hugelkultur; it’s awesome.

Hugelkultur herb spiralAnd here’s the spiral, complete with planted herbs. We planted: cilantro, dill, two kinds of parsley, lemon balm, lemon verbena, sage, two kinds of chamomile, feverfew, stevia, two kinds of thyme, oregano, rosemary, and basil. I’m also growing catnip in a pot out back. We use many of these for herbal tea. Several are new to me for this year, so I’m very excited to try them.

Serviceberry in bloomSpeaking of our new gardens, our yard has supplied endless blooms this spring thanks to all our new shrubs. It started with the magnolia, then cherry, serviceberry (shown here), and this week we should see chokeberry, nannyberry and highbush cranberry blossoms. Our currants and gooseberries also bloomed somewhere in there, but they’re not terribly showy so I’m guessing nobody except me noticed. (I squealed with glee.)

New plantsFriday morning I made my annual pilgrimage to the Friends School Plant Sale. Is it me, or is that event getting completely out of control? I had to wait 2 hours just to get in. I picked up: two more currants (Ben Sarek and Red Lake), two more gooseberries (Pixwell and Hinnomaki Red), Dutchman’s pipe (an important larval food for butterflies), two grapevines for my new arbor (Frontenac Gris and Marquette), two cascade hops plants (also for the arbor), one prairie rose, one snowberry, and all my veggies. Phew. Good thing I had and stuck to a list.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is, if you want to get into edible landscaping, to expand your mind beyond typical grocery store fruit. Currants, serviceberries and gooseberries can handle some shade and need little to no care, and they have wonderful flavor. Raspberries are pretty easy, too. I can’t say I’m too crazy about the flavor of my highbush cranberries or chokeberries (the name is appropos) but I could do *something* with them if I added sugar. Strawberries? A pain to keep weeded, plus the rabbits eat them. Blueberries? Require acidic soil.

Rhubarb PieSpeaking of fruit that I grow that’s easy–we harvested enough rhubarb yesterday to make a pie (shown here just before we applied the crumb topping). Rhubarb does need quite a bit of sun, but other than that, it’s easy. Just don’t get overzealous and pick more than half the stems of any one plant at one time.

Chiots Run Carrot MethodOver in the vegetable garden, which I also planted this weekend, I’m trying something new: the Chiot’s Run carrot method. Adam made me two different square foot templates; one with 9 holes and one with 16 holes. I used the 9-hole one to perfectly space out my parsnips and beets, and the 16-hole one for carrots. Read more about her method here; I followed it pretty much exactly. She doesn’t mention parsnips or beets, but I see no reason why the method wouldn’t work fine for them as well–they are planted slightly deeper than carrots, so I sprinkled fine soil over them first.

The only area I differed from Suzy’s plan is that I used brown rice hulls instead of vermiculite. My garden store doesn’t sell vermiculite and it seemed like the brown rice would probably accomplish the same thing. So stay tuned on that.

Carrots, doneI laid burlap over the carrots and parsnips until they start sprouting. This greatly reduces the number of times you have to water. Also, the burlap (along with the brown rice hulls) holds the seeds in place better, in the event of a hard rain.

Haricot VertsI’m also planting these Haricot Verts again this year. I planted them two or three years ago with great success–they were the most prolific and best-tasting bush bean I ever grew. And no, I have no idea what the correct pronunciation of their name is, having never taken French.

Vegetables: plantedA panorama of the complete vegetable garden after planting. The big shadow cast by my neighbor’s house is really one of my biggest gardening challenges in this northern latitude. My garden is full-sun, yes, but only from approximately May 15-July 30. So I try to be mindful of the “days to maturity” part of seed packets.

White trilliumLast but definitely not least, I am going to implore you, if you live anywhere near the Twin Cities, to visit the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park. If you have any interest in learning how to garden with native plants, this is a great place to take a walk. Many of the plants are labelled, so you can learn their names. Yesterday the trilliums were in their full glory in the woodland.

Also: observe how beautiful and natural that dead, rotting log and all those leaves on the ground look. Leaving some wood and leaves to rot on the ground provides all the fertilizer native plants need while saving you time on maintaining your landscape.

Thanks for sticking with me this long! Hope your spring gardening is bringing you as much happiness as it brings me.


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New windows

This was supposed to be a triumphant post about how we saved money for three years to install new windows in our house…but… we didn’t quite save enough and we now have a small loan as a result. But oh well, a small loan is better than a huge one! Here’s how we did it.

When our twin kids started all-day Kindergarten (free at our school, thank goodness) in the fall of 2012, we immediately started putting every cent that we used to spend on daycare into savings. We were accustomed to living frugally, so it didn’t really feel like much of a sacrifice. Every time our savings account reached $2,000, we paid $1,000 of it towards one of our various debts. In this way, we paid off all our debt in one year. Yes, we were lucky to not have an *extreme* amount of debt.

Next, we saved for a little over a year, trying to get at least $15,000 saved up for new windows, which we’ve needed since we bought this house in 2007. Check out how awesome Rowan’s old window looked every winter, all winter:

Old double hung window covered with frostIn addition to being completely covered with frost all winter, our windows were also extremely drafty. During the coldest parts of the winter, it sometimes felt like there was a slight breeze inside the house. Most of the storm windows were barely functional, and were difficult to open more than 4-5 inches in the summer, making it hard for us to get good ventilation when we wanted it.

So, while we waited to have enough money to actually do this, we started doing some research. We read about energy ratings, learned what fenestration is, and made some decisions about materials.  Our goal was to get the most energy-efficient and durable window possible for the price. This three-part series in the Star Tribune was particularly helpful for getting started (part 1, part 2, part 3). I also spent some time on the Green Building Advisor website, which is where I first heard about triple-glazing, and about the brand we ended up going with, Fibertec windows.

I had fiberglass in mind from the very beginning, but we thought we should still get a few different types of bids. Our first bid was from a local builder/remodeler who installed Marvin Infinity windows (double-glazed fiberglass). The sticker shock was a little intense on this bid, which helped us realize that we couldn’t afford to redesign our picture window opening, as we had originally hoped. They seemed like nice windows, though.

Our second bid was from a friend of a co-worker, who installs very basic double hung vinyl windows, and the price was half of the bid on the Infinity windows. HALF!  But the windows didn’t seem nearly as nice. We decided to get a third and final quote from Above and Beyond Construction, who install Fibertec windows.

The bid came in between the first and the second, we both agreed that we liked these windows the best of the three, AND the company had hundreds of positive reviews on Angie’s List. They were also the only company that offered a lifetime warranty on the windows, which says a lot about their durability. Here’s how the windows’ ratings stand up:

Fibertec energy ratingsFor what it’s worth, that’s the lowest U-Factor you can get. Now, these are not spectacular as far as solar heat gain goes, and if our house was better-positioned we could factor in solar heat gain. If I was building a new house I would DEFINITELY think about solar heat gain and how we could maximize it both with positioning and glazing of windows. But our house is not positioned to gain any benefit from the sun, here in the inner city, butted up right next to our southerly neighbors’ house. The visible transmittance is also just above the minimum that Green Builders recommended of .40.

So anyway, we did it, and guess what? We love our windows. Some before and after photos:

Living room, beforeThe living room, at night, December 31, 2014. The old double-hung windows letting in their final drafts. Above & Beyond started on New Year’s Day because they needed to time their work with the temperature being above 32 degrees (F).

Kitchen, duringThe kitchen, during installation. To shave a little bit of money off the total cost, Adam did all the interior trim work. These are the new windows.

Kitchen, afterAnd the breakfast nook with new windows and trim, complete. Nice!

We had a very cold snap right away after installation was complete, and we noticed the difference right away. When the temp got down around 0 degrees F and colder, our furnace used to run nearly constantly. Now it was shutting off and staying off for many minutes before cycling back on again. Our three doors are still very old and drafty, so if we can save up and replace those, we will really start hitting new highs with efficiency.

Living room, afterAn after view of the living room.

Triple-glazed windows are supposed to be harder to see out of than double-glazed. I’ve not noticed a difference except occasionally at night, when trying to look at the moon at an angle, there is a definite triple reflection. They are also harder to see into, and we have already had several birds fly into them–so far all of them survived the collision though, thank goodness.

Here’s a view of one of the windows when open:

window openWhat, you don’t open your windows when there’s still snow on the ground? As you can see this is a casement-style window, which means you crank it open. We chose these over double-hung (where you lift the sash to open the window) for the simple reason that casements are more energy-efficient–you get a better seal when you don’t have all those moving parts.

These also have a much bigger glass surface area than our old windows, and certainly bigger than the vinyl windows that we got a bid for. We decided to go with the square pattern on top to complement the cape cod style of our house.

exterior of house with new windowsCute, yes? For the middle of winter, anyway. We were a little nervous about tampering with the period style of our house–houses from the 1950s really ought to have double hung windows, but we hoped the square pattern would alleviate that a bit.

So there you have it: the new windows process, which seemed VERY LONG at times (especially during the three years of financial preparation). So far, though, no regrets. We’ll have them paid for by mid-summer as long as everything goes according to plan. A 6-month loan is better than a 3-year loan.

At this point, I would have to say that I recommend both Fibertec and Above and Beyond Construction. Questions? I’ll probably forget everything about this process within a few months, so best ask me now. I had already forgotten the names of the two other companies we got bids from! Thanks for reading, as always.


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Garden Plan 2015

It doesn’t seem like that long since we planned and mostly executed Crazy Garden 2014. I’m afraid I don’t have a name for our 2015 garden; the closest thing I have to a concept is to call it “keeping it simple 2015,” because we have A LOT to plant this year.

Let’s start with the vegetable garden and what’s new or different there:

Garden Layout 2015For starters, is that an herb spiral? Why yes it is. I’ll talk a little more about that later.

For our home vegetable garden, I haven’t marked out specific varieties of vegetables I want to grow; this year I’m going to use up a bunch of leftover seed. I’ve also got a huge network of gardening friends now–I end up getting phone calls in May about finding a home for large flats of onions and the like, which benefits me if I’m not too picky.

I’ve reduced the amount of space allocated to each pepper plant this year. It may just be that we’ve had two cool, not-good-for-pepper-growing summers in a row, but they’ve seemed like they had plenty of extra room. I’m also planning on more onions. We’ve come to love having fresh ones around all summer. The only other real change I’m planning this year in this garden is that I’m not going to plant any of my beloved large-size heirloom tomatoes. It’s not worth the heartache when you have a plant that only produces a handful of tomatoes and 3/4 of them are taken by squirrels (who eat one bite). I’m going to grow mostly cherry tomatoes, some tomatillos, and maybe something else very small.

The purple lines on here represent where I *think* I planted garlic last October. I didn’t draw a diagram at the time, and I’ve completely forgotten. So, onion rows may move around a bit depending on where I actually see garlic in the spring.

Parsnips are also making a glorious return to my 2015 garden after being absent a few years. I do love them so. Notice the strategic layout of my “root vegetable area” on the right side of the garden. Carrots are in front, where the will-be-8-year-olds can easily dig them up and eat them. Behind them are the slower-growing beets, and in the very back, hard-to-reach area are the parsnips, which we won’t harvest until everything else is done anyway. Small space gardening requires strategy.

At Sabathani, we’ll be focusing on volume again, probably dedicating most of the garden to potatoes and squash or pumpkins. Rowan got a free packet of broom corn, so that’s being added as well for fun.

Now for our perennial/landscaping plans for 2015, which are extensive:

Location for herb spiralHere’s a panorama of the garden in front of our living room picture window. It’s a little overgrown–can you even see the flagstone path that’s supposed to be going through there? The mail carrier has certainly given up on using it. On the right side of that path, which is currently occupied by an old Autumn Joy Sedum that desperately needs to be divided, I’ll add a currant bush.

On the left side of the stone path (right side of the main sidewalk) is where I want to put my herb spiral. I hope it will give a slightly more formal look to this area while also giving easier access to herbs. We love growing herbs, and when we first got started we used to mix them in with all of our perennial flowers here in the front yard. Well, the thing is, when you plant natives they tend to move around and fill in open spaces. Our little thyme, oregano, cilantro, and parsley patches didn’t really stand much of a chance (dill’s holding its own though).

So, that big group of coneflowers, along with some sedum and a Russian Sage that is not even visible, will be dug up to make room for a more formal herb garden. And happily, I have a nice new big open spot to move them all to:

Cherry Tree gardenOur new Cherry Tree garden, which we sheet mulched last fall. Should be in perfect condition for planting by the time May rolls around. In addition to divided perennials from around the yard, I’d like to add another currant bush (bringing our total to 3), an old-fashioned rose bush (so that I can make rosehip tea) and another non-fruit bearing native shrub closer to the boulevard. With the number of dogs walking by on our sidewalk, I’d rather not eat fruit that grows *right* next to it.

TrellisMoving to the back yard, we put up a beautiful new arbor over our deck last August. This spring I’d like to plant two grapevines to climb up over it, and I’m also going to add some hops on a wire system on the north side. I’m hoping this gives us a little bit of privacy on the deck. These echinacea and milkweed can probably stay as well.

Serviceberry gardenFinally, the barest-looking spot in the garden: the area formerly occupied by our very large, fire blight-infested apple tree that we had to cut down in the fall (stump still visible). We quickly planted a Serviceberry bush. They’re supposed to get quite large, but we will want to fill in a little bit around it too. I’m thinking 2 more gooseberry bushes (bringing our total to 3) and something on the corner by the gate… I have not decided what, yet. Part of me would really like to add an evergreen somewhere on the yard–perhaps a juniper?  That decision is yet unmade.

Two small columnar Chokeberry bushes are on the other side of the fence by the car.  I’d rather not add any more shrubs over there because the area gets really piled up with snow during normal winters, and shrubs do not take kindly to having large amounts of shoveled snow thrown on them.

So there you have it: 2015 garden plans, ambitious as usual. But it’s so nice to have a stock of native volunteers in other areas of the yard to help fill these spaces in. What are your big plans/changes for 2015?


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Farewell to 2014

Wow, I haven’t posted since early November. Hello again, friends. Our holiday season was full of the usual ups and downs. Here is a brief overview:

Knitting a scarfWe spent the better part of November evenings and weekends listening to Harry Potter on audio and knitting; here Anneke and I are finishing a wool scarf for her.

Goldenrod seedhead in winterHere’s a goldenrod seed head catching the low winter sun. We have not gotten a very heavy snowfall yet this winter, so my front yard still looks either really messy or really beautiful, depending on your point of view. I don’t clean up any of my perennials in the fall; the seed heads feed the birds and the foliage provides shelter for various overwintering insects. Whatever’s left in the spring can go in the compost at that point.

Long Island Cheese PumpkinWe’ve eaten no small amount of pumpkin this fall. I’ve been using this method to bake my Long Island Cheese pumpkins: cut in half, turn upside down, brush the skin with olive oil, bake at 350 until done (usually at least an hour). These have so much moisture in them that I ended up having to skim liquid out of the cookie sheets lest they overflow. The end result is a nice concentrated pumpkin flavor; this was truly a delicious variety. We still have quite a bit of it left in the freezer, so the pumpkin breads/pies/muffins/everything can continue unabated for a while yet.

Mark it 8We had a fun Christmas, which included what might become a yearly bowling tradition. Mark it 8, Anneke.

Minnehaha CreekWe live in such a beautiful area. At the bottom of our favorite nearby sledding hill is beautiful Minnehaha Creek. When it freezes over the kids try to slide all the way to it and land on it. It’s neat that many of my fondest memories from my country childhood are possible for my kids to experience right here in the city. Love ya, Minneapolis!

I hope to be back with the start of some 2015 gardening plans in January, but in the meantime, snuggle up and stay warm. Happy New Year!


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This is it

Say it isn’t snow. Snow, quite a bit of it, forecast for tomorrow. Fortunately we were right on track and only had a few chores left to get done this morning. We decided to go ahead and put the Christmas lights up now, but I promise we won’t turn them on for a few more weeks.

Protecting bushes from rabbits in winter, via The New Home EconomicsOne thing on my list: I put chicken wire cages around each and every shrub in my landscape. They look ugly but it is the *only* surefire solution I have to prevent rabbit munching. Two years ago, they ate a few of my shrubs clear to the ground. This is my brand new Serviceberry; I’m not taking any chances.

Planting garlicWe also planted garlic that same morning, two weekends ago. I was glad that I ended up not having time to plant garlic until late October; it was a warm month. The general rule of thumb in Minnesota is to plant after Columbus Day, but one year I didn’t get it in until late November and snow was falling on my head as I planted it. And it was still fine. After taking a 2013-14 off from garlic, I’m very excited to grow it again.

Tamaracks at peakWe went on a little getaway to the Ely, MN area over MEA break in mid-October. I thought any chance of fall color-gazing would be past, but the tamaracks ended up being at their golden peak. We had beautiful weather, cold but sunny, and took the kids on some trails that we hadn’t seen in more than 10 years. It was wonderful vacation, too short as always.

Brussels sproutsOur first hard freezes of the year didn’t really come until the very end of October this year, around 5-6 weeks later than “average first frost” (really there’s no such thing in MN, but the official first frost date in the Twin Cities is September 21). So I only picked my brussels sprouts last week. They were tiny but tasty.

KaleI ran back over to the community garden today to get a last large picking of kale, collards, and parsley before everything gets covered with snow. Sadly, this was a sight all over the garden: kale, brussels sprouts, and collards, all at their most gorgeous (and delicious) point but unlikely to ever get picked. The vast majority of the garden has been empty of people for more than a month now. It’s worth mentioning: if you plant frost-hardy plants such as these, expect to extend your harvest into November, and give thanks for it.

Back yardAdam cleaned the gutters today and was kind enough to provide me with an updated photo of the back yard. It looks very empty without the apple tree. I hope the Serviceberry (Amalanchier canadensis, also called Juneberry), grows quickly! It’s in a brand new planting area between the path and the compost tumbler; I hope to add a few more shrubs there in the spring. I have big, booze-themed plans for my new trellis, too.

Kale chipsWhat to do with all the kale I picked today? Easy. Kale chips. We ate them all afternoon. Toss dry kale leaves with a bit of olive oil and kosher salt, bake in a single layer on a cookie sheet for 10-15 minutes at 325 degrees F. Watch them closely because they go from perfect to burned VERY quickly. Delicious.

Ready or not, here comes winter.


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Harvest time

It’s time for me to come clean. After last week’s native plants manifesto, I realized I’m a giant hypocrite because I plant an entire garden of non-native annuals every single year. Yep, that would be my vegetable gardens. And I’m not giving them up. So, now that my confession is over and you’ve forgiven me (right?), let’s talk about something positive: the harvest.

Long Island Cheese PumpkinsWe have more Long Island Cheese pumpkins than we know what to do with. My decision to grow them this year (at our community garden plot) was 100% fueled by this post and accompanying recipe. We made the soup last night and it was good. Subtle, but good. Once cured, these pumpkins do have a pretty great flavor. I’ll bake them up one at a time (because I can literally only fit one at a time in my oven) and freeze the flesh for pies, breads, pancakes, etc.  I’ve also given a few away to friends and family. So fun to have a big success!

Romanesco Broccolli failNo year is complete without a few fails: my Romanesco Broccolli still has not formed heads and I don’t see how it will now, since the sun has now dipped behind my neighbor’s roofline for most of the day. I also crowded too many plants in this little space. The broccoli and cauliflower really shaded the purple kohlrabi. There are one or two edible kohlrabis in there, but the rest are mostly greens. I’ll still cook them up—all are edible. I think we ran out of the large amounts of sunlight the Romanescos need, just at the time they need them. This particular spot is truly a short-season garden.

HopsSpeaking of fails, here’s another one that only recently came to light.  We started talking to a fellow home-brewer at National Night Out, and realized that we are not growing the right kind of hops (he informed us with his nose in the air). We have Golden Hops; apparently they’re not really recommended for brewing. No wonder the homebrew we made with them last year didn’t taste quite right! We were planning on removing this vine anyway next year. It has gotten too big for this little garden spot, and we might just let it die and replace it with Cascade, or another traditional brewing hops plant. Even Master Gardeners can make big mistakes!

Blueberry preservesEnough of the fails, in a year where we have SO MUCH for which to be thankful. One of those things was the opportunity for me to take a Friday off work in August so that the family could go pick blueberries in eastern Wisconsin. We made quite a few (18?) half-pints of this simply amazing blueberry preserves recipe, and have been enjoying it weekly since.

TomatoesI never grow enough tomatoes for canning, so as usual I purchased 40 lbs of canning tomatoes from Gardens of Eagan—the best value I’ve been able to find at $1/lb. I had grand plans, and my best friend and I thought we could drink wine and can tomatoes at the same time. You can imagine how much we actually got done!  We processed 1/3 of them raw, while another 1/3 of them baked in the oven using Trout Caviar‘s roasted tomato recipe. We intended to can the roasted tomatoes in these half pints (we use them as a pizza sauce base), but ended up freezing them because my patience for the canning process is wearing thin, in general.

Tomato PasteLater that week I still had 1/3 of the tomatoes to use up, so Adam and I tried our hands at tomato paste, using this recipe. It was easy! I’ll definitely do that again. We froze the resulting paste in ice cube trays and I have a feeling it will be gone before the new year.

tomatopaste2Frozen cubes of tomato paste, ready to be used.

La Ratte fingerling potatoesWe dug up three final hills of “La Ratte” fingerling potatoes the first weekend of September, from our community garden plot. They seem to be storing pretty well so far, but we’ll use them up before we really test how long they can last.

Chamomile flowersI didn’t dry quite as much mint as I usually do, but I doubled my usual amount of dried chamomile flowers for tea this winter. Good thing too; we’ve already run through one minor illness in the first month of school.

Little Bluestem grass in the fallOver in the prairie boulevard, Little Bluestem is turning absolutely gorgeous.

Aromatic AsterIn the backyard woodland garden, this wee little aromatic aster (mixed in with some lemon balm) is adding a nice little splash of color.

We have two remaining harvests in our community garden plot, too: our brussels sprouts and Anneke’s strawberry popcorn, which is close to being ready. Part of me wishes we would have a freeze to sweeten up those brussels. We’re living on borrowed time right now here in the Twin Cities; the average first frost date is September 21.

I hope this post has illustrated that every year in the garden, you have some successes and some failures. This blog is part of how I keep track of mine. It’s all part of the process, right?!


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Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas TallamyBringing Nature Home
How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants
by Douglas Tallamy

The bad news about birds just keeps on coming. Climate change. Habitat loss. You name it. We could lose more than 300 species of birds just to climate change alone. And not just in the U.S.  Sir David Attenborough recently saidevery space in Britain must be used to help wildlife” to avoid catastrophic die-off of key species.

What are we to do?  I refuse to sit around and do nothing or give in to despair, because friends: there *is* something we can all do. Will it stop climate change or restore our pristine environment? No. But we can help bridge the gap between where we are now and where we need to be in the future, with one simple step.

CHOOSE NATIVE PLANTS FOR YOUR LANDSCAPE.

I just finished this excellent little book, and honestly Tallamy was preaching to the choir with me because I was nodding my head emphatically at every paragraph.

Tallamy’s angle on saving birds is that by planting native plants, we support native insects, which in turn support birds. Honestly, I used to think about supporting wild birds mostly in terms of plants that produced berries for them to eat. But a huge percentage of a bird’s diet comes from the insect world (bats and rodents, too), especially when they are raising their young.

But how bad are things, really?  Here in Minnesota, in particular, we value our outside spaces so much that we seem surrounded by “nature” all the time. But the problem is our nature is not exactly all natural: we plant non-native species that offer no value to wildlife, or worse, turf grass that requires constant pollution to maintain and *still* offers no value to wildlife.

A handful of the staggering statistics cited by Tallamy:

– The United States’ songbird population has declined 50% in the last 50 years.

– Only 3-5% (depending on whom you ask) of the land in the lower 48 United States is still undisturbed.

– 50,000 alien species of plants and animals have colonized North America.

There is a simple relationship between species survival and habitat area. If you destroy half of a natural area, half of the species within that area will die. Tallamy extrapolates that we could lose 97% of our native North American species of plants, insects, and animals. Think about that. Pretty sobering.

So why do people buy non-native ornamental plants for their landscapes? At this point, it’s hard to see why you would. After reading this book, I definitely won’t. But unfortunately the nursery industry is going to cater to what its customers are asking for and not enough of them are asking for natives.

Tallamy gives many examples of the woes brought upon our continent by foreign ornamentals; it’s not just that they displace native plants, but they also often bring new foreign pests and diseases along with them, that thrive in an area where no natural predator has developed to keep them in check. Hello, Emerald Ash Borer.

So what native plants should we prioritize in our landscapes? Here’s where this book starts to take a helpful turn for the positive. Tallamy gives detailed descriptions of several native species that support not just one but many species of insects that in turn support the rest of the ecosystem.

Tallamy uses lepidoptera (butterflies) as his test and ranks woody plants by how many different lepidoptera species they support. He chose lepidoptera mainly because large bodies of research exist about them. Using lepidoptera as an indicator of value is not perfect, but it is very interesting. For example, our native North American Oak trees (genus Quercus) support 534 different butterfly species! Wow. Coming in close second are our native Willows (genus Salix), Cherry & plum (genus Prunus), and Birch (Betula). For shrubs, he lists blueberries & cranberries (Vaccinium) & hazelnut (Corylus).

He then describes—in detail—the insect world that depends on several of these key species, showing how the support goes up the food chain. For example, downy woodpeckers like to forage for insects in the soft wood of large willow trees.

One of my favorite chapters was “What does bird food look like?” with detailed descriptions of several bugs, where they live, what plants they need, etc. I never thought of milkweed beetles as bird food, for example.

Aphids on native sunflowersAfter reading this book, I am looking at scenes like this with a different attitude. Multiple levels of the food chain in action right here on this dying compass plant. Aphids, ants, you name it. I’ve also been seeing goldfinches and other birds I had never previously seen around here, all over my yard this year. It’s so rewarding.

So. If you are *at all* concerned by the mounting body of evidence that we are at the doorstep of a massive extinction event, give this book a shot. I *highly* recommend it. Then start deciding what native plants you’d like to add to your landscape—shrubs and small trees can still be planted here in the northland for another two weeks at least, as long as you keep them well-watered until the ground freezes hard. OK? OK.

Maybe the sea change has already begun: the Washington Post just published a piece on this very topic! Positive change that I can be a part of? SIGN ME UP.

 

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