Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Flowers to Fight Crime

For a long time now I've told people one of the best ways to prevent crime is to pick up litter and plant a garden. Research not too long ago showed that litter and debris can make a neighborhood look attractive to would-be criminals -- it seems that bad guys think a run-down looking place will make easy pickings. And by gardening, you put more eyes on the street. That is to say, while you garden, you are a passive observer to all that goes on in the neighborhood. A potential criminal is likely to go elsewhere and do their crime when no one is looking. If everyone on your street is out gardening, then your whole neighborhood forms a vast visual and social network of crime prevention.

Now some urban residents of Japan have put this all to work as a part of their own crime fighting scheme, according to a report this week from Reuters. Check it out:

Residents Fight Burglars with Flower Power

What's Blooming: Butterfly Weed

The Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is putting on quite a show in our yard this year.

This plant is easy to grow in all kinds of soil, and thrives on neglect. In fact, you need to neglect it in order for it to thrive. That's because this plant emerges from the soil very late in the season. Many years we don't even see it peak out until about Memorial Day. The tricky part of growing this plant, then, is remembering where you planted it the year before. If you happen to disturb the roots or the little shoots before they come out of the soil the whole plant suffers and whithers away. The last few years I've been marking mine with the cut off tops of old nursery pots. Right after Halloween, I mark out the plants with these rings, and then don't move the rings until very late in May.

The pay off for this elaborately planned neglect comes in the form of butterflies and bees. Although monarchs seem to prefer many other types of milkweed as caterpillars, they will gladly land on this plant for nectar in the butterfly stage.

All the bees love these blooms, and the native solitary bees (which are often docile and friendly) love to stay all afternoon drinking hungrily at this plant.

Needs loads of sun.

Besides the the blooms, you get lovely seed pods which follow. Let them turn brown and then have the joy of making endless wishes on the seeds when they crack open. The pods themselves look like fairy wings, and make great craft material.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rainbarrels a go-go, or When did DC become the new Seattle?

Last week I got the good news from the county: we had been approved for our rain barrel rebate. Wahoo! I headed straight for the hardware store, bought my lovely 75 gallon barrel. As the helpful guy from the store helped lift it into the back of my minivan I did a happy dance in the parking lot, right there between the mulch bags and the abandoned grocery carts. The hardware guy laughed.

Then the rain started. I mean really, just continued. We’ve had inches and inches and the ground is saturated. All day I drove around, getting the kids from school, going shopping for stuff with them… watching as the water poured down and down all around. Each tricky turn on those rainy slick streets was marked by the thunk of the barrel, rolling around back there behind us, mocking us with its empty uselessness.

This is our second barrel. I made the first one at a Montgomery County Rainscapes workshop two years ago, using the recycled industrial barrel from a cola company, and basic hardware supplies.

You get addicted to these things, for sure. Once you see all that lovely FREE water in the barrel, once you use it to water your shrubs and trees, you want more, you see every gutter as a missed opportunity. It gets to you. You begin to calculate overflow capacity, and find yourself discussing cisterns with serious consideration. You find regular hose water annoying and wasteful. Everytime you turn on the outdoor spigot you grimace at the loss.

Watching all that rain fall last week, knowing I could be collecting it if only I could put the new barrel up.... it was driving me mad.

Then finally the rain stopped. I rolled the big empty barrel out of the van, up the hill, and into the garden. I cut the gutter’s downspout, repositioned the outlet, and hooked her up. Within less than an hour, the rain had started again. I stood outside and watched the water gush out, like Jeb from the beginning of the old Beverly Hillbillies tv show, watching that oil rise out of the ground. Black gold, that is... Texas Tea...

Except for me it is rainwater. And instead of shooting it with a shotgun while hunting in the hills like he did, I used a hack saw.

Still, the dollar signs of saving danced in front of my eyes. And the idea that I'm helping Sligo Creek, the Anacostia and the Chesapeake Bay made me really happy.

This morning, after yet another storm, we awoke to find our garden gauge held an inch and half of water. Running to the barrels in our PJs, my kids and I found them both full. Yikes! Thank goodness for those overflow pipes.

Now, what do I do with all the water since the ground is already soaked, I wonder. Do I risk it, wait and see if we get more rain today, or let the water out around the trees and watch as they grow several feet in front of my eyes?????

And when will this torrential rain stop? When did DC become the new Seattle?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Barn Swallows Under the Beltway

Just beside Holy Cross Hospital on Forest Glen Road, the Capitol beltway crosses over the Sligo Creek trail. This forms a funny place to enjoy nature. You go under the bridge into a huge echo chamber. If I’m riding bikes with my kids we bellow in low long notes and cause funny sound waves to cascade over us as we speed through. The clicks of our gears become huge and rhythmic, and we can’t help but laugh as we come out again into the sunshine.

But if I’m walking, I slow down and listen to the thumpa thumpa thumpa of cars hitting the bridge joints on the road over head. Its like hearing the heart beat of the beltway. It is not beautiful, but at the same time it makes you kind of relax your pace and slow down. I believe that this is some kind of primordial response, like hearing your mother’s heartbeat before you are born.

Anyway, last week I was walking under this bridge, listening to the usual thumpa thumpa thumpa when I realized a new noise was in the mix. It was the squeak and twitter of barn swallows. I found at least a dozen nests over head, tucked into the corners of the concrete girders. Watching, I found myself spellbound by their spirals of flight. A couple of the swallows sat on what looked to be a transformer box on the other side of the bridge, eyeing me with suspicion. Then they, too, were off to make acrobatic circles, pausing every now and then to feed their babies.

Swallows were once some of the most common birds of fields and the new suburbs of the early twentieth century. In those days, old fashioned barns, garages and car ports were often left open during summer months, affording the birds easy access to beams and rafters. The 1950s gave way to buildings which were sealed tight against the elements and garages were increasingly built into the main structure of the house, denying swallows some their best habitat. Although these birds remain common and abundant in farm fields, we rarely see them in urban Silver Spring now.

When we do see them, barn swallows are easily recognized in flight because of their forked tails, and they like to make nests of mud, straw and horsehairs. They are careful masons, building the mud up pat by pat with their beaks. Some bird-watching guides say that these nests, which are built by both the male and female working together, can involve as many as 1000 trips to a muddy area. For this reason they often choose to nest near ponds and wetlands.

Near the Forest Glen bridge, just past the area where the soccer fields are always in use and below the much debated Sligo Creek golf course, there’s a funny stormwater pond where I think these birds get the mud the need for building under the beltway. This spot also hosts a pair of Kingfishers each summer, stays rectangular and unnatural looking all year. Although this is by no means a lovely place, it is full of wildlife the same way a farm pond might be.

The Maryland Cooperative Extension service calls barn swallows a “friend of the farm.” In Fact Sheet 798 the office states that 98% of this bird’s diet is made up of insects, including all kinds of flies. They will also eat crickets, wasps, leafhoppers, ants, and moths. “For this reason,” the sheet goes onto say, “attracting barn swallows to your property may be one more positive step towards an integrated pest management approach to managing agricultural and garden pests.” It seems to me this would make them a friend off the farm, as well

The biggest pest in our local suburban life, hands down, seems to be the Asian Tiger mosquito. I have often wondered if working to attract these swallows to my yard would help to keep these annoying daytime visitors to a minimum. Still, without a barn or highway overpass on my property, I haven’t had much opportunity to find out. My little shed is too small, always closed for security, and does not have the rafters that swallows desire.

This makes me all the more glad to see the swallows there under the beltway bridge, and reminds me of the city of Austin, Texas, where residents were at first disturbed by bats that took up residence in their new highway overpasses. Later, after some intense public education efforts, the city embraced their flying bug eaters for the helpful neighbors they had become, and celebrated their presence on postcards and t-shirts.

I don’t think anyone will be putting pictures of the Beltway’s barns swallows on postcards or t-shirts anytime soon. But I am glad to see those birds and I enjoy pointing them out to fellow walkers on the trail when we pass. Here’s hoping the swallows stick around all summer and find lots to eat.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of the Voice newspapers in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, MD. )

Monday, June 8, 2009

What's Blooming: Spiderwort

Sounds like something straight out of a Harry Potter book, I know. But Spiderwort, which is also commonly called by its Latin name of Tradescantia virginiana, is anything but scary or dark. In fact, it is one of the most cheerful flowers in the garden in June.

This one will bloom in sun or shade, and its love of roadsides and abandoned spots along driveways belies a tough little garden plant. I was lucky enough to have some volunteer in my herb garden last year. I let it stay, and I have learned that this lovely little grass-like plant is a fantastic magnet for bees. They dance drunkenly all morning long at its blossoms, and the contrast of the yellow bees against the purple flowers is really a treat for the eye on a humid day.

These plants can take over, so be careful about placement. That said, they are awesome near compost bins, sheds, and driveways, because they rapidly fill in an empty space and block out other less desirable volunteer plants and weeds.

Give Carpenter Bees a Break? Not Bloody Likely

I was working with a good friend and garden client, Ann, yesterday. We were digging out a big space in her backyard to make way for a new little pond she wants to put in. During our digging and chatting she said carpenter bees had moved into her trellis system. She's waiting for the painter to come and help her paint, which will help keep them from feasting on the wood. But in the meantime, she said she feels odd about killing the loud bees. They do pollinate, and she is very worried about killing any pollinators. What do you think, she asked me.

This is the kind of question I love, partly because I think it is great people are pausing now and not just automatically reaching for insect killing sprays at the first sign of any insect. We are slowly learning to respect and understand the species around us, even those that might sting.

I don't know much about carpenter bees. My dad says he used to catch them when he was a kid and tie dental floss to their legs and fly them like a kite. This is odd, but also evidence that these bees rarely sting. In fact, I think the males are physically unable to sting. (This is also a bit of insight into how the mind of a future biologist works: he learned which bees stung at a young age in order to impress the other kids in his class, apparently.)

Still, all that said I would opt to kill them if they moved into my outdoor woodwork. They will eat at quite a voracious rate. Searching around on google you find stories of people who had to replace entire decks which were tunneled to smithereens by these bees. I don't think the pollination services which they can provide do not outweigh the damage they can do.

When I see these bees at the park or playground, I love listening to my kids tell other kids: don't worry, they don't want to hurt you. They just want to eat the jungle gym. I just hope no one has any dental floss on hand at those moments.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What's Blooming: Sweet Betsy, also known as Carolina Allspice

We've been getting tons of rain, and before each big storm, the humidity has been just awful.
There is one reward in the swampy weather: the smell from these bushes is really fantastic.
Some people call this plant Carolina Allspice. My dad and, ironically, all of my Carolina cousins, call it Sweet Betsy. Either way I think that the Latin name, Calycanthus floridus, sounds particularly nice when said by someone with a southern accent.
The smell given off by these flowers is really unusual, kind of a cross between blueberries, bubble gum and cantelope. The blooms actually look like tiny pieces of sculpture, carved out of wood. The odor is powerful; sometimes my neighbors want to know what it is and come from next door to find out. But it is not overpowering. Some days, if the humidity is low, I can't smell it at all. It seems to come in waves, but not permeate the air.
I've been told by pollination researchers that the red color combined with the strong odor probably attract flies to pollinate this one. This inspired me to plant it next to the trash cans and the recycling bins in our yard. Other than flies, the wildlife seems to ignore it in my yard, but I've seen warblers nest in big ones growing down south, especially in more rural areas.
Even without the wildlife value, this is a great urban plant for warm weather areas of the south like DC. Sends out suckers, which you can dig and give to friends or trim and mow to keep the bush's size in check. In my yard it gets about five to six feet, although I've seen it reach seven or eight feet in more southerly places where the soil was full of red clay. Will make a hedgerow if allowed to do grow unchecked. The thick lush leaves, which disappear in the winter, shade out all the weeds below, so this is a good one for the non-gardener as well.
See some more fantastic close up photos here.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Urban Bees Find a Champion

Another good article in the Post today focused on the efforts of Toni Burnham, who wants urban bee keepers to come out of the closet, or off the rooftops as the case may be.

Check out her blog. Its is way cool. I am totally in awe.

Bag the Bags, the Struggle Continues

Alert: the battle against the bags continues in Washington, with things looking very good indeed for those who wish to Ban the Bags.

A couple of months ago I blogged about this... now it may become a reality.

Check out the Wash Post story from today's Metro section for more details.

For those of you without a subscription or online access to the paper the details are as follows.

The DC Council voted unanimously.... can I write that again.... UNANIMOUSLY... to place a five cent tax on paper and plastic bags. The goal is to discourage their use and encourage the use of canvas or cloth reusable bags, while at the same time reduce a huge trash problem in our city. And, even better, a significant chunk of the money raised by this new tax will go towards helping the floundering Anacostia River here in the capitol.

According to the Anacostia Watershed Society, "plastic bags make up 50% of the approximately 17,000* tons of plastic products entering the river system each year."

A similar bill was introduced in MD earlier this year. I am not sure what happened to the MD bill, but if I find out I'll post details.

Yellow Crowned Night Heron Babies

Just got back from one of the best bike rides of my life. Not that the cycling itself was that great (those hills still kill me) but the nature lovers were out in full force and I felt as if I had stepped onto the set of some David Attenborough documentary and any moment he'd jump out from behind a bush and say, "Let's take a look."

The most exciting view of the day was brought to my attention by CS, a woman who has been photographing a very active nest of Yellow Crowned Night Herons alongside the creek all month. The babies have hatched and are growing into robust little birds. You can actually stand at the creek side, very close to one of its more travelled spots near the road, and watch the babies being fed by mom and dad. She told me one of the coolest things was that these little big birds were already flexing their crowns, even though they were only about three weeks old. I could have easily stood there all day watching with CS, but had to fly back to get some work done.

Very cool. I urged CS to post her photos to the Friends of Sligo Creek website. If she does I'll make a link. I snapped her photo.... my crappy little camera doesn't do the nest justice but at least you can get the idea of how close this nest was to the trail. Amazingly, five babies seem to be in there.

Also, came upon a nice dad and son who had discovered the wonderful barn swallows out under the Beltway bridge near Forest Glen. I have a story about those same birds coming out in a couple of days in the Voice; when that's published I'll make the link to that one, too.

In the meantime, enjoy the day. Hope you get out there to see the sights, too.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rare Whales' Song Heard Outside NY

Okay, okay, I try hard to write about our own little watershed here outside DC in this blog.

But great googly moogly I get tired of bad environmental news and reading about all of our ecosystem's troubles is a bit depressing. So when this happy story ran across my screen this morning I just had to share the link to this release from the Cornell bioacoustics research team.

Check out the quotes of the researcher, Chris Clark who comments on the wonder of these whales singing less than 10 miles off Broadway... enjoy a smile and watch the video, too.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What's Blooming: Virginia Sweetspire and Clematis

This week the air in the garden smells really sweet. The Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) is in full bloom. The thing is a magnet for butterflies and native bees.

This is a great plant for urban gardeners in the mid Atlantic region where I live. Especially if, like me, the bottom of your garden is the bottom of a hill or slope. The water runs down during big storms, keeping this shrub very happy indeed.

Over the weekend we had painted lady butterflies visit it for some nectar, which was wonderful.

The clematis, in the background, is not native but also a great choice for urban gardeners. Here I use it to soften a hard fence line. Also, it grows well under or next to the sweetspire... it likes a hot head but cool feet. The shrub keeps it cool below, and fence allows it to grab the sunlight it needs up top. I have the classic Jackmanii clematis, which is really easy to maintain and has plentiful blooms.