There are many trees holding up our house that I remember with the same detail.
Where they stood, why we selected them, working on finishing them, watching them come together into the timber frame of Underhill House.
It’s easy to forget how much we rely on these amazing plants. The trees we depend on for so many aspects of our lives are usually ground down and reconstituted to the point where they no longer seems like something that grew and lived. It seems like a commodity that you just order, and it appears. That’s a very short-sighted notion.
I love how Underhill House constantly reminds me of what we owe to these stalwart creatures.
One of the unexpected outcomes of building Underhill House was the bond that formed between our building crew members, and Doug and me. For some of the crew our project was the first time they’d worked together. This amazing team generated lasting friendships.
Getting together this weekend to help Prairie and his partner Lindsey raise a timber frame addition to their farmhouse was like old home week. Everyone from our project plus many more friends and relatives gathered to lend a hand.
Doug and I have just returned from a week of visiting his mom in Seattle.
Dorothy loves flowers, and when she lived in Wisconsin, we used to bring her bouquets from the Dane County Farmers Market throughout the growing season.
I normally do not buy flowers through commercial outlets because the pretty flowers in your grocery produce section or local flower shop can be breathtakingly toxic. They are mostly grown in less developed countries where pesticide regulations are lax. The workers are exposed to a lot of toxins, and their local water supplies are often polluted with runoff. Shipping them here in refrigerated planes and trucks creates a huge carbon footprint. If you want to know more , here is a link to one of the many articles on the topic of imported flowers.
No, I can’t in good conscience ever buy commercial cut flowers, BUT Doug’s mom is very ill and does not have many more days on this earth.
Doug and I were in a local food co-op, and I saw some cheery, yellow blooms that said, “grown in Washington” on their brown paper wrapping. I wanted to brighten Dorothy’s day. Some lovely, local blossoms didn’t seem like too bad a choice.
When we got them home, my sister-in-law dug out her flower ID book to see what they were. We couldn’t find the gorgeous yellow puffs in her book.
We found them online under “invasive plants”.
I had purchased a bouquet of Bighead Knapweed!
I was horrified to learn that this flower, brought here from Turkey and Romania as a garden ornamental, and prized for its showy flowers, is escaping from gardens, spreading to pasture and wild areas – where it does great harm.
According to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, knapweeds are aggressive, invasive noxious weeds of pastures, cultivated fields, travel corridors, and any bare ground sites.
- They increase soil erosion, consume soil nutrients and crowd out native vegetation.
- They release a natural herbicide that kills neighboring plants.
This enables these weeds to quickly and effectively take over an area once introduced.
Knapweed infestations increase production costs for ranchers, impair the quality of wildlife habitat, decrease plant diversity, increase soil erosion rates, and pose fire hazards. Knapweed has little value as forage for cattle and wildlife and some types can cause chewing disease in animals who try to eat it.
Seattle has an amazing climate for growing lush, spectacular flower gardens, and just about every yard in the neighborhood we walked each day was gorgeous.
Sadly, once we had identified the knapweed, my brother-in-law noted that he has seen in it planted of the flower gardens nearby. He snapped a photo on his next walk.
If you find this plant growing on your land, here is a link on how to eradicate it.
I am feeling very chagrined to have supported the dispersal of a nasty invasive that is damaging the native environment in Washington. It was so easy to give in and indulge a wish to cheer up a few of my sweet mother-in-law’s last days with something “local” I got at a co-op.
I’m not going to beat myself up about this, but I am going to redouble my determination not to feed the ugly flower industry.
I realize some people probably think I’m the flower Grinch. What’s your take on cut flowers?
Want to make a significant difference in the world in a beautiful way?
Plant native flowers!
According to the Xercise Society, fruits and seeds derived from insect pollination are a major part of the diet of approximately 25 percent of all birds, and of mammals ranging from red-backed voles to grizzly bears. Unfortunately, in many places, this essential pollination is at risk because the pollinators are suffering from habitat loss, pesticide use, and introduced diseases.
We humans are also dependent on these busy bugs that we are threatening. Pollinators are essential to much of our agricultural efforts. Many crops rely on pollinators being there at the precise moment when their flowers are ready to be fruitful and multiply, for example, almonds and apples.
Who hasn’t heard about the colony collapse disorder that is affecting agribusiness’ attempt to treat a natural insect population like just another piece of farm equipment? It’s horrifying the way agribusiness has been decimating native pollinators too with its monoculture crops and heavy pesticide use.
This year, with our building project still in progress, I have managed to tuck a tiny wild flower garden next to the house, and watching it grow is a daily joy. Today I saw a pair of birds walking around among the butterfly weed and prairie smoke.
They are developing flowers already.
I planted this garden right outside my office window.
Making havens for native pollinators is something anyone with a bit of ground can do, and the win-win part is that a place the appeals to native pollinators also appeals to humans. We share a similar aesthetic sense when it comes to flowers. Isn’t that amazing?
We are both drawn to these amazing, colorful, creative arrangements of petals and pistols and stamens.
But to give native pollinators half a chance, we need to plant native flowers.
This is no sacrifice. They are breathtaking.
No matter where you live in the U.S., you can find native plants. Check out this website for suppliers in your area.
Where would some native flowers fit in your landscape?
One of the biggies on our list of things to finish Underhill House this spring was seeding the roof. We got about 20 tons of screened, topsoil up there and planted see my post Planting Our Roof – A Prairie in the Sky http://digginginthedriftless.com/2013/05/21/planting-our-roof-a-prairie-in-the-sky/ about a month ago in mid-May.
That was intense, with the soil being hauled up in giant bucketful’s by crane, and then evened carefully out to be at least 3 inches deep everywhere on the undulating surface of our roof.
We seeded in two kinds of prairie grass that we were assured could make a go of it on a roof by the knowledgeable and helpful Prairie Nursery .
My experience is that prairie plants can be wonderfully tough – once they are established. But getting them to germinate and beat out the weed seeds in any soil they are inserted into can be tricky. Usually you nuke any bit of ground you want to turn back to prairie before planting the prairie seeds using an herbicide like Roundup.
We didn’t have that opportunity on the roof. The seed had to go into the soil and be covered with erosion mat the same day the soil was hoisted up otherwise it could all be blown away in the next big wind followed by a few dry days.
The two grasses planted are Sideoats Gramma Grass and June Grass.
Sideoats Grama Grass, Bouteloua curtipendula, is a good choice because it is one of the shorter prairie grasses and has a fibrous root rather than the downward torpedo root of so many prairie grasses. It’s drought tolerant. If it gets too dry, it will go dormant and perk up again when rain comes. It’s a warm season grass, which means it grows during the warm months of the summer. It’s also quite lovely. We’ve introduced it into our restored prairie. It can be shaded out by taller grasses, but that won’t be an issue on our roof.
Junegrass, Koeleria macrantha, another short fibrous rooted grass makes a good roof partner for Sideoats grama. It produces lustrous silver-green seed heads in early summer and grows actively when soil temps are cooler in spring and fall.
The sideoats gramma grass seeds were quite big, while the June grass seeds were extremely tiny, so I assume that the first grass up was sideoats grama. Over a week later, tiny, delicate spears of grass began coming up among their larger, earlier sisters.
Now both seem to be well established.
As to weeds, we have a few of those too, so about every week, we take a bare-foot stroll about the roof and pull out the broad-leafed interlopers.
It’s starting to look like a living roof, and that is so exciting.
There are some spots were germination has been light. Two big patches are the obvious spots where the soil was compacted by a tarp covered with a load of clay, which was carried to the roof by mistake. But there are some other thin spots too. And of course, nothing will be growing under the stones we placed along the edges to make sure the erosion mat didn’t take to the sky like a giant fibrous kite during some of the big winds we had right after planting.
It’s been a year since we framed up Underhill House. We spent the year before that selecting and preparing those timbers. Watching them come together and sketch the shape of our home against the sky was beyond thrillling.
So here’s a photo replay of some of the most amazing days of my life.
Getting all the bare ground covered with growing things around Underhill House is a bit daunting.
Our first step was to try transplanting a hedge of Red Osier Dogwood from our restored prairie to create more bird habitat.
That is a gratifying success. They are doing so well that the deer are starting to eat them. The deer browse started right after we mowed the tall grass that was crowding them. I guess the deer saw that as putting them on a desert plate. Sigh. Hoping we won’t have to fence them.
The second project was to plant several trees and shrubs that will also be part of the bird habitat. We got them from the University of Wisconsin Arboretum annual native plant sale.
- American Plum Prunus Americana which has pungently sweet blossoms that result in edible plums
- Black Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa which flowers and produces berries that are a bit astringent. Birds don’t like them much – that’s good because when all the tasty berries are left and the winter is feeling harsh, then chokeberries become survival fair.
- Highbush Cranberry Viburnum trilobum, which is noted for making a great hedge over time and attracting wildlife.
- Pagoda Dogwood Cornus alternifolia, which is a very pretty little tree and it’s fruit is an important source of food for birds as they prepare for the fall migration. (This is also the one that the deer like best, but so far they have only eaten a few branches.)
Then I planted the flats of native flowers that I got at the same Arboretum plant sale.
There aren’t too many areas in our yard that are ready for anything more than healing ground cover. Our poor yard has been repeatedly dropkicked by one piece of heavy equipment after another.
But I felt compelled to jump right in and start a little nursery of prairie flowers right outside my office window. It’s a protected spot (as far as the remaining heavy equipment projects are concerned. So I’m taking my chances.
It is not very great soil, but I’m hoping they will make it. They are prairie plants — hopefully their roots are tough.
- Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
- Prairie Smoke Geum triflorum one of my absolute favorites.
- Prairie Blazing star Liatris pycnostachya
- Red Milkweed Asclepias incarnata
- Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta
- Columbine Aquilegia canadensis
- Show Goldenrod Solidago speciosa
- New England Aster Aster novae-angliae
- Bergamot Mondarda fistulosa
- Pale Purple Coneflower Echinacea pallida
So far every single plant is hanging in there. I’m dreaming of collecting their seed and expanding their domain. I spent several of my most formative childhood years in Illiopolis – the geographic center of Illinois – and I imprinted on big sky and prairie flowers. They are also (and more importantly than my own aesthetic) all great for native pollinating insects and humming birds.
To keep the water flowing where it should, our excavator built up a little dike running from the house toward the pond. He built it out of really crap soil, so we added a few inches of top soil, and seeded it in with buckwheat and annual rye. The plan is to cut it down before it goes to seed and work it into the soil before more permanent, native plantings this fall.
This morning we gave another section of the yard the same treatment. Several days ago, our excavator helped us move out some gravel that had been put next to the house to help draining during building and then we added more topsoil and the same buckwheat/rye mix.
It’s supposed to rain tonight.
Time to grow, ground cover. Do your thing. Insinuate your roots deep and start to uncompact this soil and fill it with your decaying matter to turn this hard pan back into a vibrant microbial community where the plants that come after you can thrive
I can hardly wait to see Underhill House ringed with happy plants!
Are you seeding in any areas this growing season? I’d love to hear about your project.