Grassy Goodness

We talk a lot about the beauty of native plants we’re cultivating in our yard, but recently I have read evidence that our yard may be positively affecting the lack of discomfort we’re enjoying during some of the more sweltering summer days. We have enjoyed a seventh summer without the expense of air conditioning, all thanks to the shade of multiple trees and our cultivation of what I have recently heard can be called a “Freedom Lawn” (not to be confused with “freedom fries”). In Adam Rome’s “The Bulldozer and the Countryside” Rome explains how homebuilders a century ago designed human dwellings with the climate in mind; where the wind might blow (or not) and where the sun might hit – these aspects were used to their fullest advantage to design homes that were going to be cooler in summer, warmer in winter. The 50s and 60s changed all that, the trend became to build homes with the idea that they will be heated or air conditioned. Our home was built in the late 70s – the builders had great style but were not environmentalists. For example roof solar panels are not an option due to the direction it faces. Other factors about the way the home was built, however unintended, give us the pleasure of shade in summer and a breeze that goes throughout the home. The homes’ “ahead of its time” open floor plan allows the home to breathe – unlike the claustrophobic style of closed off rooms so popular from the 50s to the 80s.

The “Freedom Lawn” I mention comes from a very entertaining book by Hannah Holmes called “Suburban Safari”. Holmes mentions how, beyond the obvious environmental and health wins one gets with a chemical free lawn, a lawn that is allowed to grow “naturally” can give your yard as much as a 30 degree difference on a very hot day. Holmes describes the feeling of stepping onto a lawn, and the cooling effect it has – I had never thought of that but have definitely experienced it. And I had no idea that a lawn can do this, for example: “there’s a whiff of evidence that planting the right kind of lawn can remove even more carbon from the air, acre for acre”. What is the “right” kind of lawn you ask? Read Yale’s school of Forestry and Environmental Studies’ book called “Redesigning the American Lawn” – or Google Freedom Lawn or the New American Lawn to learn how proponents say that what we do now can affect cancer rates, pollution and water shortages. Americans spend $75 billion dollars a year on maintaining lawns; this doesn’t include other costs, such as costs to our health.

We actually don’t have a strict “Freedom Lawn” over much of the yard  – meaning we don’t just let things grow unattended; our yard would be a muddy mess without some help. We plant grass seed and clover, and we pluck other things that grow in the grass like oak trees and native flowers, which we often replant in other parts of the yard. We do that by plucking by hand or trimming with a mower, not with poison. Its not a perfect looking lawn, but it works for us.

Trapeze artist


Rue anemone does it again

Thalictrum thalictroides won the race again… They are my first flowering native in the woodland garden. I am a bit surprised that there was not more of a delay. We just endured the worst winter in eons, but apparently the last few mild days were enough to awaken the plants. Many other species are pushing out stems and young leaves – it is nice to see American globeflower come back this year. In years past they’ve been iffy at best but they are emerging strong this year…

rue anemone April 26

American globeflower was a close runner up this year.  I had cleared some overhead branches and the extra sunlight helped to make the plant a contender this time around

American globeflower was a close runner up this year. I had cleared some overhead branches and the extra sunlight helped to make the plant a contender this time around

While the flowers are small, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the intricate detail of the flower

While the flowers are small, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the intricate detail of the flower

While the plant world seems to be right on target, animals are a bit of track. The usual ospreys (or new interlopers – I am not that great a birder that I can recognize individual animals) did not get here until April first. They did not waste any time and went right to building and rebuilding nests. The peepers have been vocal and boisterous this week, and they also started singing around the first of the month… I sense more energy than in past years – they are singing in the midst of sunny days, seemingly having lost the patience to wait for dusk.

the next few weeks will be spent readying the garden, with cleanup, pathway and bordering projects way behind schedule. There is some considerable tree damage due to the relentless winter storms, but firewood is now guaranteed for the next winter onslaught – starting preparations early is not a bad thing. With some help from my friends from Forest Keepers I will end up with more room for light and new saplings. Aside from those potential new areas, I doubt that I will find much room for new plants this year, but you just never know – I may be enticed to shrink the lawn area even more in 2015. Even though this is somewhat late for new year resolutions, I hope to be better at making time to both enjoy and document the woodland garden. Pictures and stories have been sparse at best, but I expect to have more time available this time around. I hope you enjoy it just as much.

Redwings on notice

The winter that started with a vengeance in early February is only now showing signs of letting go. There is still plenty of snow and ice on the ground, and the grass that manages to peek through near pre-heated rocks and roadsides is presenting itself as tired and half dead. Spring is officially here in another week, but much needs to happen before I will start believing. By now ospreys and grackles should have arrived, but they are wise to remain south a bit longer. Not so with the redwing blackbirds – they have had enough and are pushing north on their migration. Some 80 or 90 birds descended on the feeder and the ground below to feed on sunflower seeds. I have been putting these out regularly over the last month or so, only to see the little seeds disappear under fresh snow almost immediately. Now that melting is in earnest the piles of black gold (in nutrition terms) are again available to birds. The redwings are not alone, although they outnumber and crowd out the other species. It is good to hear the frantic crescendo again. But while my perspective from the inside looking out brings thoughts of warmer days, there is no such luxury for the birds. They think only of feeding and moving on to their breeding grounds, probably further north of here. If they can, that is – Not all will make it past today, as a red-tailed hawk is patrolling the neighborhood and forcing the birds into a few seconds of silence as it swoops down and grabs one of the flock. If the survivors are upset by all of this, they don’t show it and pick up song and lunch where they left off. There is both strength and ignorance in numbers.

Trail entrance: Well hidden despite the signage

Trail entrance: Well hidden despite the signage

On the day after Christmas we decided to explore a new trail, this time in Chatham. Our plan was to drive to the trail, hike it for an hour or so, and then grab lunch at one of our favorite restaurants in town. I had Googled “hiking trails in Chatham” and picked the “Frost Fish Creek Trail” as it seemed like one of the easiest to find for someone who doesn’t know their way around Chatham… it wasn’t. Even with a combination of sites used – which included the Chatham chamber of commerce site, the Cape Cod Magazine site and “hiking cape cod.com” – the directions I found online couldn’t get us there. The Chatham High School, which was a landmark in the directions, did not seem to actually exist – and the only thing we saw with a “Frost Fish Creek Trail” sign was an unfortunate cluster of empty new McMansions. The closed “Acme Laundry” was also a landmark, but we never quite found that building either. Our guess was that this trail was no more…a victim of development. I was not surprised, the web is not really a great resource when it comes to Cape Cod. But I was disappointed that even the Chamber of Commerce site had this Trail listed as one of its “scenic landmarks”.

After about 45 minutes of aimless driving around, we decided to give up and get lunch. Luckily for us, the bartender was a Chatham local who had spent time with her high school chemistry class doing water testing at the Frost Fish Creek Trail. She explained that we were exactly where we needed to be, that the Chatham high School was no longer in existence, so the Middle School we saw was the correct landmark. She also said that the path leading to the trail was on the road we had driven down.

Armed with the knowledge that the trail did indeed exist, we retraced our way back to the area and parked our car at the Monomoy Regional Middle School, crossed the street and walked down the closest road – the name of which escapes me now. These directions would have been helpful at one of these websites! As would have the update that there is no Chatham High School! Anyway we walked down the road and literally walked into someone’s yard, as it seemed to be the closest thing to a path. Somewhat afraid that a large dog would come charging at us any minute, we commented that noone seemed to be around and at that moment heard movement in one of the backyards – so we moved a bit faster! Suddenly we came across a sign “Frost Fish Creek Trail” along with NO HUNTING. This gave us some relief as we were concerned about being mistaken for deer – it’s been quite a common occurence lately on Cape Cod.

We walked the trail, along Frost Fish Creek. It was quite short, and small in acreage – the Frost Fish Creek Trail development we happened upon earlier took up much of it unfortunately. It was peaceful and quiet, but the meditation I mostly had on this hike was about land use – and how sad in a gorgeous and affluent place such as Chatham the amount of undeveloped land was laughable. If this was a landmark, a place written up as a nature trail, broken up by a huge development – I can’t see how any wildlife would be able to maintain a home in Chatham. The coastline on Cape Cod has been overdeveloped for years (try finding a space on a public beach in on Cape Cod in the summer), and now anywhere seen as a “water view” is prime real estate, so it makes sense that no stone would remain unturned – literally – in an area so lusted after for summer and vacation homes.

If you are interested, here is a list of the other three trails on the Chatham Chamber of Commerce website. Perhaps we will go back and give Chatham trails a second try, but it won’t be for a while. I can’t imagine that these are very large, since the Frost Fish Creek Trail was listed as a 45 minute to 1 hour walk, and it took us all of 20 minutes to walk it.

Trail #2: BARCLAY PONDS TRAIL – Old Queen Anne Road and Training Field Road. Entrance to trail is at Yield Sign, 20 feet south of telephone pole #38 in intersection. Park in field (Crowell’s Pit) north of entrance. Quiet, woodsy walk some up and down hill. Approximately 1/2 hour, 12 acres.

Trail #3: HONEYSUCKLE LAND, OFF STAGE HARBOR ROAD – Bottom of hill, left side of road are two short trails leading to the Old Ice Pond. Many water birds are generally seen in this area. Right side of road near telephone pole and along side of narrow stream, a short walk featuring white cedar trees. Also, leading to other trails in and around the Cedar Swamp, which is mostly owned by the Town of Chatham.

Trail #4: GEORGE RYDER ROAD, SOUTH TRAIL – Opposite West Chatham A&P and George Ryder Road, take George Ryder Road South to first right (Harold’s Lane). Take first right off Harold’s Lane (Ralph Street) onto short paved road ending in a dirt road. Entrance to walk is on your left. Ralph Street is the bog owner’s entrance to his working cranberry bog. Please don’t block entrance or neighbor’s driveways. Woods, cranberry bogs, brackish marsh. Approx. 15 minutes, 2.5 acres.

Creek December 26 2014

Pilgrim Heights Truro

On the day after Thanksgiving we treated ourselves to some travel to the Outer Cape. It was an interesting way to see how radically the weather differs from one end of Cape Cod to the other in the space of an hour or two, as Truro had thick snow and icy roads while Yarmouth and Barnstable’s roads were clear. It was on these icy roads that we drove to Truro, to check out for the first time some of the walking paths in that town. That windy, 32 degree morning found us to be the only brave creatures to walk the Pilgrim Heights path, save for some dog prints in the wet sand we had the place to ourselves. I commented that all those people stuck in a busy shopping mall were missing out, as we climbed the quiet dunes. Then again, those who chose the mall did us a favor, giving us our own private viewing of nature.

Although much of Cape Cod does not have the typical New England fall foliage color we think of, with reds and oranges – fall and winter have their own uniquely beautiful views on Cape Cod. On this particular path in Truro the lush green of fat scrub pines is a rich contrast to the subtle palette of yellow dried pine needles and the icy blue-green of lichens and moss.

A peaceful woodland path at Pilgrim Heights leads to a deserted beach, which is quite striking. In my own non-nature-writer way I described the scene as similar to the beach scene at the end of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. There were no homes to be seen, just a gorgeous hilly area of dunes and sea – it felt like we were at the end of the world. To add to the “back to nature” moment I was having, I had my first encounter with seals. There were about 40 seals at the edge of the water, I wish I had brought binoculars. They were checking me out, and from far away their heads popping out of the water looked strangely like shark fins. It was really amazing, this brief interaction with these large bright eyed creatures from mysterious world of the sea.


NOTE: This path is easy to find, right off route 6 in Truro. It is extremely well maintained, however it is quite hilly, so not recommended for those who have difficulty walking down or up a steep hill. There is a large parking lot and a few picnic tables, there was also a bike path alongside the trail.


slugI wanted to write a little about our Cape Cod summer and document yet another season gone by. I did not know in May how cool this summer would be; in many ways I did not mind being spared from oppressively hot days. It was so cool that we barely used fans, forget air conditioning (which we don’t have anyway.)

In my last post back in May I talked about the groundhog that “seemed to move elsewhere” in fact that groundhog, and two of his friends came back. We were able to move them down the street to a less populated area, and we spared our native plants. The wasps who seasonally live in our kitchen window mysteriously disappeared after starting a small nest. I can only guess why they did this – perhaps because in my curiousity I touched the small nest before they moved in? My summer guests were happy not to dodge the wasps entering and leaving our back porch, but I missed them. We had no dearth of wasps this season, quite a few buzzed around our front lawn in August. I have slowly become accustomed to them; my heart still races when one of them lands on me – but I am able to calmly let them fly away instead of freaking out. I still don’t recommend them as pets though.

I bought a new smartphone with which I have been having a blast taking detailed up close photos of the flora and fauna in our yard. My biggest impression of summer 2014 has been the mass of life that lives in our yard, really giving an excellent example of the saying “nature abhors a vacuum”. With the abundance of native plants the soil has become enriched, the yard is noticeably moister. You can’t put anything down, like this empty can of coconut water pictured, without it attracting several bugs in a matter of moments. Here you see a slug, and moments later a paper wasp dived right into the can, which I bravely liberated by shaking him out. He (or she) emerged, dazed, wet and with an interesting story to tell his companions.

Seeing culver’s root bloom in the garden brought out the shopping instinct in me – I just returned from the garden shop at Garden in the Woods and got a few more. The store bought plants have already bloomed and have been cut back, but next year they will be on a Cape Cod schedule. The plants I added a year or two ago are still blooming strong, and the plants are 4 to 5 feet tall. They are thriving with no visible predation from insects nor can I detect any blemishes or disease – ideal in my book as I don’t use pesticides in the garden. The established plants are in a fairly sunny spot, and I may be pushing the limits by putting the new plants in partial shade. They should tolerate this, but time will tell. The light green leaves and the stately upright nature of Veronicastrum virginicum make it ideal as a centerpiece, and that could be even better if you have a few grouped together. Hindsight is 20-20, of course, and I did not follow my own advice in my garden: The plants are mixed in with joe pye weed and marsh milkweed. Joe pye weed is winning the height battle and among the milkweed culver’s root seemed to provide the lighter accents. However, now that the milkweed has turned to seed, mostly, the towering blooms of culver’s root are finally demanding the focus they deserve. I am yet to find out if the plants will naturalize – I have them in a spot where I am not too concerned with formal borders and restraints, so they can go at it and mix it up with the other natives. This may not be a bad idea as the plant is threatened in Massachusetts and New York, and endangered in Vermont. Bees absolutely love this plant but I have not seen many other critters partake.

Veronicastrum virginicum July 27

I want to add that for the first time I have seen culver’s root in some mainstream garden shops, although they seem to concentrate on the varieties with blue and purple hues. Nothing wrong with that as those colors appear in the wild within the species as well.

Refueling station

Hummingbird July 27A female rubythroated hummingbird is enjoying the nectar from a pink variety Monarda didyma (scarlet beebalm). Several hummingbirds, mostly females, have been visiting the beebalm colony. They are very territorial and don’t like to share their food source. I’ve seen several skirmishes and chases this summer – they seem to occur almost daily. I have added several different areas with red, blue and pink flowering plants (beebalm, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, etc.) in the hopes of diffusing these territorial disputes. There’s enough for everyone!

I forgot all about this plant, since it has long ceased blooming and obedient plant, butterflyweed and blue lobelia have crowded the border and are demanding attention from the eye and the brain. The picture is from early July. The plant is about a foot high. The flowers, of which there are a few, sit atop a single stem. The kicker is that the flower is a rather insignificant greenish-yellow thing. The red color is from leaves (also called bracts) just below the actual flowers. Yes, I was fooled by that too. Another noteworthy fact about indian paintbrush is that the plant is known to be parasitic – the roots attach themselves to roots of other plants to obtain nutrients. I am not sure whether it prefers certain species of plants or if its parasitic tendencies are less discrete – since I planted them they did not have much of a choice in host selection. The plant is a biennial that produces a large amount of little seeds. Let’s see where (if) it pops up next year.

Castilleja coccinea July 7

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