Thursday, November 13, 2014

Project Report: Phase I of My Raised Garden Beds and Lumber Preservation Experiment

Being a new yard owner, I am undertaking the long, yet rewarding journey converting the existing contemporary landscape of lawn and non-native ornamental plants into a place more ecologically useful.  One of my first tasks was to increase the yard's production of human food (most decidedly not critter food, although some critters have already capitalized on the opportunity).  Of all the open lawn real estate in my yard, the west side yard, below, seemed most ideal for a garden with exposure to the afternoon, evening sun.

As this area has a fair slope, I decided raised garden beds would help mitigate runoff erosion.  The west side yard doubles as a front yard facing the street thanks to a curve.  So, aesthetics are, of course, key.

A variety of material options and construction methods are available for constructing a raised garden.  Rocks or bricks/blocks hold an advantage over lumber by simply not decaying.  I, personally, am more comfortable constructing with lumber.

Another material category, treated lumber, is used often in raised gardens.  The lumber industry claims that the chemical preservatives used to treat the lumber will only negligibly leak into surrounding soil and that treated lumber is safe for use in raised gardens.  I chose not to trust those claims.  I want the vegetables coming out of my garden to be healthy!

My initial instinct was to use untreated cedar lumber, with its inherent abilities to withstand biological decay and the corresponding longevity.  However, cedar costs about three times as much as untreated pine lumber.  Thus, if I wanted, I could rebuild the raised garden bed three times with pine at the same lumber costs as once with cedar.

So, I started looking into organic wood preservatives that might lengthen the life of untreated lumber.  Local hardware stores carried a few options, but those products seemed to only came in small pricey quantities.  I came across a few mentions online of using linseed oil as a wood preservative.  Linseed oil actually comes from flax seeds, which I occasionally eat!

Distinguishing between raw linseed oil and boiled linseed oil, which is on the shelf at most local hardware stores, is critical.  "Boiled" actually indicates additives, including petroleum spirits and metallic dryers, which are not organic.  I was unable to find raw linseed oil locally, so I purchased from an online source.

I also came across recipes that apparently improve drying and penetration into the lumber.  However, these recipes included ingredients that I do not care to eat!  So, I decided to use plain old raw linseed oil as my preservative.

Perhaps most importantly to note, oxidation of linseed oil is an exothermic chemical reaction.  Rags soaked in linseed oil can spontaneously combust.  To avoid this fire hazard, rags and gloves should be stored in closed container and left away from other flammable material.

I purchased 2" by 6" White Pine lumber for the face boards and 3" by 3" Cedar for corner framing; for fastening; a box of stainless steel screws.  I purchased the lumber and screws from my local Home Depot. 

For Phase I of my raised garden bed project, I constructed two 4' by 8' lumber boxes.  The closer box has one coat of oil.  After allowing a few days for drying, I applied a second coat.  I did not apply any linseed oil to the other box.  And thus, this is my own personal lumber preservation experiment to see whether the raw linseed oil actually makes a difference in aesthetics and durability.  In regards to aesthetics, the above picture shows that applying the oil darkened (or yellowed) the wood and seemed to bring out the grain of the wood.

The slope of the side yard is downhill both from left to right and from the shrubs to the sidewalk.  I removed the sod and dug trenches such that the box would sit mostly level in the ground.  I used a 4' level tool to double check their level, because looking at the ground and other points of reference was little help.  The boards pull a double duty of retaining the garden soil and, being partially buried, act as border edging, blocking lawn grass roots from growing into the garden (potentially reducing weeding maintenance).

And finally, I filled the boxes with a cubic yard of compost from the City of Ann Arbor Drop Off Station.  Phase I installation, photographed above and below, was completed in late July 2014.  The left far box is treated; the right close box, untreated.

EDIT:  Phases II and III of the raised garden bed project are detailed here.  A follow up post for the lumber preservation experiment remains in the works.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

May 2014 Trip to the Nan Weston Nature Preserve at Sharon Hollow

So many little battery life on my camera and phone (also a camera).  Maria and I exhausted the batteries on both cameras taking over two hundred photos during a brief hike through the Nan Weston Nature Preserve at Sharon Hollow on a mid May Sunday afternoon.  The Nature Conservancy established and helps to protect the Preserve, and what a place it is!  A short hike through the preserve is like taking a walk back to what the Michigan landscape used to be.  Following are a handful of my favorite photos and species of the day.

This photo is of potential.  Showing one of numerous Wild Gooseberry shrubs in the woods of Nan Weston Preserve.  I would certainly like to visit when the uncountable gooseberries ripen and carefully steal a few sweet tastes from the prickly treasures.  According to Gleason's Plants of Michigan, there are eight species in the Ribes genus in Michigan.  Keying this particular shrub, my best guess is this is Ribes cynosbati in the Grossulariaceae family due mostly to the location in deciduous woods.

My favorite groundcover, Asarum canadense, in the Aristolochiaceae family, was found over much of the Preserve.  This photo shows all of both leaves and the flower below.  If you do not specifically look for the flowers in May, they are easily missed.

I included this photo to give you a sense of the uncountable wildflowers covering the forest floor.  Keep in mind that this photo is only in one direction.  A panoramic view of all the wildflowers might be too much for your computer!

This photo shows two buddies for the season. On the left, Trillium grandiflorum, in the Lilliaceae family.  On the right is Hydrastis canadensis in the Ranunculaceae family.  The Common Trillium carpeted the landscape, while the Goldenseal is more subtle beauty (and also rarer).

Another combination photo showing Maianthemum racemosum or False Solomon's Seal in the Asparagaceae family (on the left), Phlox divaricata or Wild Blue Phlox in the Polemoniaceae family (middle low), and Common Trillium (top right).   Let's just say there were many opportunities for combination photos.

A photo, of hope and newness, the small, young leaf of Podophyllum peltatum in the Berbidericeae family.  Of the many photos we took of this relatively common species, this is the one I decided to share.

Though violets are considered to be a weed by some, the blue, the white and this Yellow Violet, Viola pubescens in the Violaceae family, seemed to fit right into the amazing landscape.

The beautiful flower of Panax quinquefolius of the Araliaceae family, also otherwise known as Ginseng.  This panicle flower should turn into a panicle of red drupes some day. 

Here was the super small, subtle flowers of Bishop's Cap, Mitella diphylla in the Saxifragaceae family. 

I wanted to include a couple photos of newly emerging leaves of Fagus grandifolius in the Fagaceae family.  There is something about the flow of lines as these leaves emerge that makes more perfect sense then just about any human design ever.  This perfect design was commonplace, on the end of every branch of every American Beech in the woods.  So, if you are looking for design inspiration...

Lastly, know that these brief words and pictures fall very short of fully describing the beauty and peacefulness of the Preserve.  I discluded several startling photos simply because I lacked confident identifications!  Please visit the place yourself and feel free to share the experience with me.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Purple Dame’s Rocket versus Wild Phlox

Soooo, a common sight around Ann Arbor in May, June and July is the unfortunately beautiful Purple Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis, in the Brassicaceae, Mustard, family).  Hesperis matronalis originates from Eurasia, and, as is common with many aesthetically appealing plants, was brought here and cultivated in gardens.

Photo taken May 20, 2014 in Cedar Bend Natural Area in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  I believe I have seen the flowers of Hesperis matronalis range from white to light purple and sometime mottled white and light purple.

Unfortunately, the plant is super aggressive and invasive.  Hesperis matronalis lacks natural predators and diseases in North America and produces upwards of 20,000 seeds per plant. It is illegal to sell in multiple states, but despite that, it is still occasionally found in flower seed mixes.

And, paradoxically, despite being a well-known invasive, googling this plant results in both invasive species fact sheets, and cultivation tips and sources to purchase websites. If you prefer to support your local ecology, you should weed this plant out of your garden and yard (presuming you are in North America). Not only does this plant have few ecological links here, but its abundance displaces native species.

I have corrected at least a few people around Ann Arbor, who mistook this plant to be a native Phlox, which have a similar display of flowers. There is a simple way to correctly identify Hesperis matronalis and, well, any Phlox. Flowers of Hesperis matronalis have four petals, while Phlox’s flowers have five.

Photo taken May 11, 2014 at the incredible Nan Weston Nature Preserve.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Adventures in Prescribed Burning

Yesterday, I spent the late morning, afternoon, and evening with Dave Borneman of Restoring Nature with Fire performing a prescribed burn.  Our burn unit was 71 acres in the headwaters of the Shiawassee River near Davisburg, Michigan.

Here is some background on prescribed burning.  Prior to European settlement, the southwest Michigan landscape burned possibly as frequently as every three to five years due to fires started by lightning strikes and anthropological sources.  Native Americans started landscape fires for a variety of reasons.

Generally-speaking, many of our native plants have evolved to handle fire and fire is actually beneficial for their growth cycle.  Many non-native plants are not adapted to fire.  So, prescribed burning promotes our natives and sets back non-natives.

There are different types of natural fires.  The huge all consuming fires with 100 feet tall flames are called crown fires or catastrophic fires.  The prescribed burns that are performed in Michigan are more typically crawling or surface fires, where the vegetation and/or leaf litter burns at the ground level.  Careful understanding of the amount of fuel present and the behavior of fire given the temperature, wind, and relative humidity conditions helps burn bosses (technical term for person with lots of burning experience) keep the fire under control.

That said, sometimes unexpected things do occasionally catch fire, when you are burning acres upon acres.  Yesterday, a half decayed, half still living White Birch tree caught on fire.  I noticed the tree from about 250 feet away and, after walking over, took this video.

Birch Bark is oily (and, incidentally, an effective material to start a campfire), so having burned around numerous Birch trees, I am surprised that this does not happen more often.

The burn crew typically is in constant communication with radios.  At the tail end of the video, some one radios instructions for Scott, a co-worker.

Other things I saw out in the woods were gigantic ant hills, easily measuring 10 feet plus diameter at the base and numerous crayfish burrows along the river and swampy areas.  Word is that Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes overwinter in the crayfish burrows.  The burn yesterday was patchy but good.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Waking up Wildlife in the Garden

One of my client's home and gardens is fortunate enough to be located in the middle of 12 acres of beatiful oak-hickory forest.  The forest floor, yesterday, was covered in the mottled leave of Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium american in the Liliaceae family) and Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata in the Brassicaceae family) sticking up through the oak leaf litter.  Of the hundreds of single leafs poking up, we only saw one early flower.  In the coming few days, there will likely be thousands of blooms.

So, one of our tasks was to rebuilt an eroded retaining wall.  As it was so early in the season, we discovered the winter resting pace for some forest floor critters.  The first, gave my co-worker quite a shock when she picked up the rock.

A beautiful Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) rested here underneath this rock probably the entire winter, until we woke it up.  Eastern Milk Snakes normally behave nervous and are quick to flee.  But as the temperature was maybe 40 degrees, it was "slow".

Underneath another rock, we discovered some Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus).

Neither the snake nor the salamanders were as pleased to have been discovered, as we surely were pleased to discover them.  Seeing such wildlife in a garden was a wonderful experience.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sign of Spring

Yesterday during the brief warm spell I took a walk through Cedar Bend Nature Area, and also adjacent land owned by the University of Michigan.  Cedar Bend Nature Area is the oldest park in Ann Arbor.  Snow had retreated faster on the south facing hillside overlooking the Huron River and I saw this sign of Spring.

In the dark lower wetter spots, Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus in the Araceae family) was peeking out.

Also, I came across this leaf, Round-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana in the Ranunculaceae family), which survived intact from last year.  I wonder if it is still collecting solar energy for its roots.

Cedar Bend Nature Area today.  Old man winter is having a last laugh, but that sign of Spring, now buried under the snow, was unmistakeable. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wildflower of Michigan 2014 conference

I attended the Wildflower Association of Michigan, also known as WAM, conference yesterday and had a wonderful time.  Seemed to be a whirlwind of networking opportunities from the moment I stepped in the door.  I re-connected with several colleagues and met many potential new clients, whom already had a strong interest in being ecologically sensitive in their projects.

I would encourage any one with merely a slight interest (or less) in wildflowers to strongly consider getting involved with WAM and attending the conference next year.  Doing so will open your eyes to a plethora of wildflower possibilities and of people working to not only beautify our surroundings but do so in a manner that is healthy and natural.

OOOkay...I will include a picture in this post just because.

Photograph of Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica Americana in the Ranunculaceae family) in September 2012 in the Porcupine Mountains.  I am hoping to see the flowers again very very soon.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Need a Rain Garden?

I am taking the Washtenaw County Master Rain Gardener class, to continue my education. I will eventually be certified as a Master Rain Gardener, which requires I install a rain garden. As I am currently a condo dweller, this magical rain garden will be installed in some one else's yard. Possibly yours?

This guy also wants you to let me plant your new magical rain garden.

This caterpillar turns into a Black Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio polyxenes).  Photo was taken in August 2012 in the Headlands.  Please get in touch with me if you are interested in a rain garden!

Monday, February 10, 2014

September 2013 Trip to Haven Hill

With the extreme temps and piles of the snow, reminiscing about a sunny adventure seems like a nice thing to do. Last September, Maria and I visited Haven Hill Natural Area, also known as Highland Recreation Area. The natural area has been relatively untouched for the past 75 years and is known to have a number of different ecosystems with some interesting fauna and flora.

We went for a sixish mile hike and saw many, many amazing plants. Luckily for this blog, we periodically stopped to photograph a few.

Please keep in mind in this post (and all future posts) that I am at best an amateur botanist. By botanist, I mean that I like identifying plant species that I see. If you notice a plant is incorrectly identified, please please definitely let me know. Although I am mostly confident my identifications are correct, I would be happy to be corrected as that would continue my learning process.

We happened about this Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica in the Campanulaceae family).

I initially thought this was a Heliopsis or a Helianthus.  But after looking at identification pictures at Michigan Flora for awhile, I simply did not find a conclusive id.  What do you think this is?  [EDIT:  Bidens aristosa in the Asteraceae family, big thank you to Nick Lauridsen for the positive ID].

I was happy to see this Turtlehead (Chelone glabra).

Down in the lowlands, we saw a bit of Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix in the Anacardiaceae family).  This sumac can be distinguished from others by its form, its leaflets are all perky and pointed upward, and by its location, it only found in wetlands.  I am grateful that this plant is only found in wetlands, as just like Poison Ivy, it produces urushoil, to which I am highly allergic.

I think this is Marsh Fern (Thelypteris palustris in the Thelypteridaceae family). The website, Ontario Ferns, is an excellent resource for ferns identification.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin in the Lauraceae family) is definitely up there on my favorite plants. Shown here with its berries. Scratching any part of a plant will release a fresh lemony scent.

Looking forward to hikes and warmer adventures this coming summer for sure.