Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Climate Change and You

Would you put a solar water heater in your home if you knew it would pay for itself in ten years? What about five years? Three? It is my guess that the tipping point for most is three years. More and more, I suspect that a key to quick progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is making it possible and desirable for masses of people to retrofit their lives. Products that curb carbon emissions are available for those that want them and can afford the up-front costs. The challenge to getting them into popular use is two-fold: creating the impetus, and making conversion pay. 

The brilliant idea of exploiting the three-year payback period came to me as I was driving the 63-mile route between Allentown and Princeton in my 2008 Honda Fit. I did some mental math. At 14,000 miles a year and 35 m.p.g., with gas costing $3 a gallon, I spend $100 a month, or $1200 a year (more or less) on gas. So a car that got about 100 m.p.g. would save me two-thirds of that, or $800. My three-year savings would be $2400. Add the trade-in value of my Fit, and I have about $17,000 to spend on a 100 m.p.g. car that would start saving me money after three years. 

One problem: there is no 100 m.p.g. car. A 50 m.p.g. Prius would bring my three-year savings down to about $1000 and my budget to about $15,600. Sadly, the cost of a 2008 Prius is $2000 more than my allowance. Not only does buying the Prius stretch the payback time to nine years, the small amount of pocket money after payback makes it not worth my trouble. For the calculation to work, the trade-in vehicle needs to guzzle more gas than my Fit, or someone needs to get to work mass-producing a 100 m.p.g. car. 

So how do we address the price gap between higher-cost low-emission and lower-cost high-emission products. One way is with the government’s oft-tried tax rebate, which only works with those who have the financial acuity to follow through, and the resources to wait six months or more for their reward. Another tactic is to simply raise the price of gas, oil, and electricity with taxation, making improved efficiency increasingly rewarding. A third possibility involves government subsidies that support technological innovation and production, which could bring the cost of clean-air vehicles down to within the three-year-savings magic number. None of these options is high on the government’s to-do list at the moment. 

This is where the fantasy non-profit, Three Year Solution, comes in. Funded by well-intentioned (and well-endowed) foundations, its mission is to close the gap on energy-efficient purchases by providing buyer subsidies. Let’s look at that solar water heater, which costs about $4000 more than an electric water heater to install, and saves about $275 a year. Until the electric/solar cost gap is reduced, solar water heaters will continue to be found only in the homes of the extremely far-sighted or the exceedingly ethical—or capable do-it-yourselfers. A subsidy of $3200 would make a solar water heater pay for itself in three years, and would encourage all those with a concern for the environment (or with a broken electric water heater) to at least look at the solar option. 

As with any brilliant idea, there are complications. Maintenance of newer technologies requires specialized technicians, which may raise the cost of keeping the new stuff up and running, stretching the three-year payback to a disappointing five or more. Getting rid of that serviceable but inefficient electric water heater will mean more waste. A glut of used products may make them very cheap to buy, increasing the price gap. The biggest dilemma of all, and the most difficult, is the problem that points directly to its need: People, even environmentally conscientious people, are suspicious of change. It makes us feel that we are losing control of our lives. This is precisely why we all need a push that will help us to be the change, and an incentive that will remove the barriers to change, both perceived and real. If people literally “buy in” to a climate change solution, it will be difficult for them to dismiss the problem … one would think. All I need to get up and running are:
·      A financial expert
·      A plan for getting subsidies to sellers, rather than buyers (so the sticker price reflects the three-year payback)
·      A list of energy-efficient products, along with a list of corresponding standard products, with prices and energy costs
·      A very smart publicity campaign
·      A few billion dollars

At the end of three years will ideas about personal responsibility for the carbon in the air have changed? Will electric water heaters and gas-guzzling automobiles be on their way to obsolescence? Will our political representatives have seen the light? Because this is a fantasy, I will tell you that all of this will have happened, and that the U.S., as a result, will have become a more hopeful place. 

But … back in the real world where Congress bickers about taxes while the world warms and the U.S. government shuffles a glut of subsidized corn to ethanol factories while doling out a pittance for soar and wind technologies, 191 governments met in Cancun and agreed that something should be done about global warming. Actual details about what and how are sketchy. There is an information gap and a perception gap between climate science and the way we live, along with the very real price gap that delays the retrofitting of our kitchens and commutes. Only in a fantasy world can we fix the problems caused by our emissions in three years, but those in charge need to know that we’re willing. “A word after a word after a word is power,” wrote Margaret Atwood. We must start letting policy-makers know by our words and actions that they should take off the blinders. We need to tell them that we are not as stupid or as shortsighted as they think we are. 

We just need a little help.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Art of Field Journaling

Yes I know, I’ve been absent. I have been logging, not blogging. For the past six weeks I have gone nowhere (well, almost nowhere) without my journaling bag of tricks—binoculars, a loupe, a ruler, pens, colored pencils—and I’ve practiced the art of observation. I saw dodder twining counterclockwise around and around the winged stems of Verbesina alternifolia and slowly, over the weeks, sucking the life out of them. I saw a cicada climbing a broomstick, and a trio of ants carrying a dead earthworm down under. I spied on a green heron. One morning I watched as four species of bees gorged themselves on pollen on the face of a sunflower. A week later the bumblebee, or her hivemate, was still methodically combing through the approximately two thousand disc florets so that each and every one would reach seedhood. I defy anyone to closely observe a bumblebee at work and not come away with admiration and even affection for the industrious creature.
The summer just slipped away. A mourning dove laid two small white eggs on a pine needle nest. Midges deformed the stems of goldenrod so that they looked more like flowers than stems. The sunflower lost its pretty petals and developed a bulge in the middle. The bulge grew petals. Then the bulge grew bulges. The older I get the more appreciative I am of such character-building eccentricities that supplant the perfect beauty of youth.

I watched as a swallowtail larva attached itself to a stick, becoming almost invisible behind a leaf of parsley as it began to pupate. I know its secret. My sunflower’s sepals yellowed, and seeds formed on its face. Over three weeks time they were pecked out by finches and cardinals.  
Spicebush berries are now turning red, and already tiny flower buds are tightly tucked in the plants’ leaf axils, ready to cast a chartreuse blush throughout the forests of Pennsylvania next April. A cool wind blew in yesterday.

Even this veteran gardener was astounded at how much there was to gain from a two-hour solo walk on a Saturday morning with binoculars, a 10X loupe, a ruler, pens, and colored pencils. If you think you might be interested in field journaling, let me know. I’m planning a spring workshop.

Monday, July 5, 2010

My No-Dig Garden

Maybe if I had hours to use up, and no books to read, gardens to tend, class work to do (or mindless crime dramas to watch) I would think about double-digging. But time is just too precious for that sort of thing … in my humble opinion. I take the lazy woman’s approach. I define the edges of a bed and lay down cardboard, and on top of that straw. And I wait. The worms take it from there, savoring the rotting lawn and tolerating the cardboard. Or maybe savoring that too—what do I know about the tastes of worms? In a month or three (depending on the season) the bed is diggable.
But I am wondering whether the worms will find my garden in this recently-acquired property.
Why worry, you might ask?
Last week a paving contractor widened my driveway, removing in the process about 8 inches of topsoil. “I can take this away for you,” he offered. “No way!” I replied. So he piled it up and I transported it around a corner and planted viburnums, and coneflowers, and roses. It should have been good topsoil, and it was, sort of. But something was missing. 
There were no worms. There were no clumps (technically, peds) held together by worm poop and fungi (technically, glomalin). There was no visible life at all. It fell apart like sand. Easy to dig, yes … in fact troublingly so. This is what happens when you spread pesticides to kill grubs, pre-emergent herbicides to kill crabgrass seedlings, and broadleaf killers to kill dandelions, as the previous owner did. Ok so the lawn is enviable. But the robins that flocked to the bare soil came up distressingly empty-beaked.
I am inoculating all of my planting holes with compost. If I cared about the fate of my lawn, which will suffer from withdrawal now that its steady supply of drugs is about to run out, I would have someone come aerate it. Then I would replace the little lifeless soil plugs left lying about like crumbling turds with compost filled with springtails and beetles, protozoa and nematodes. And earthworms. But (being predisposed to the lazy woman’s approach) I am instead placing my trust in migration. Earthworms migrate slowly—about 15 to 20 feet a year—so this will take time.
I will just have to make, and inoculate, lots and lots of planting holes. That I have time for!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dracunculus vulgaris, or, Antics of a Dragon

The Dragon, May 25

You smell it before you see it. “Sex and Death” is what my friend April has taken to calling the short-lived Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris). Its cadaverous odor saturates the air within a 50-yard radius of the potent-looking ruffled spathe, which suggests that the flies that find it so exciting don’t have to have a particularly keen sense of smell to find it. Unsheathed and coated with a glistening lubricant the fetid purple spike must compete with roadkill and refuse cans for the attentions of its pollinators. And although they flock to the party, the flies, according to a pair of Australian researchers, are extraneous to the action. It’s the clumsy carrion beetle that gets the job done. Losing its grip on the enticing decoy (rotten meat being a slime of a different nature) and tumbling into the bulbous chamber below, the hapless beetle desperately and futilely climbs up and slips back down. Meanwhile the Dragon, in regal control of the situation, literally heats up. Soon the hostage finds himself, conveniently for the plant’s purposes, covered with pollen. Only then does the spike provide the beetle with the necessary traction to scramble out.

Sex and Death might have led to life, but for the lack of a second Dragon in the gardens at Morven. The pollen must move from one flower to another in order for fruit, and its ant-dispersed seeds, to form. The beetle willingly (we presume) moves on to visit another captivating spathe…suggesting that carrion beetles do not have a particularly keen sense of memory. Or maybe we just don’t understand the bliss that comes from rolling around in a putrid well. Regardless it is quite clear who is orchestrating the action. Like a gambling addict, the beetle proffers his services for the benefit of a body larger than he. Like a casino, the Dragon uses and then ejects the unsatisfied and (we presume) depleted beetle.
The Dragon, Spent, June 1

 But cheers to the beetle that continues to embrace the perfume of the dead, for naïveté serves body and mind better than suspicion. More often than not. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

On knowing nature by name

“Is that a lilac?” the thirty-something man asked.
“No, but it’s lilac colored, so you’re halfway right,” I replied. Kindly, I think. Masking my incredulity, I hoped.
“It’s an iris.”
How can you reach adulthood not knowing an iris from a lilac? It’s like not knowing an apple from a peach, a dragonfly from a cockroach, asphalt from concrete. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t recognize the scent of a lilac, or the shape of an oak leaf. Did the thirty-something go home to mow his “turf,” trim his “foundation plantings,” and barbeque steaks in the protective shelter of his “shade trees?” Is it all about expediency, rather than the intricate web of life and the function of every living thing?
Some of us grow up knowing the names of nature. We either absorb them (cardinal, ant, iris) or seek them out when they amaze or annoy us (egret, box elder bug). We gain an intimacy with them and by extension with all living things. The damage done to the oysters and pelicans that live on the Gulf Coast by corporate misdeeds … just for an example … becomes personal. I hope that the lilac iris was beautiful enough to shake that man into my world, our world, where nature is not just a set for one’s activities. Rather, it’s the foundation of his being, our being alive. Maybe he went home and said to his wife, “We should plant some iris flowers. They’re lilac colored, and very beautiful.” Or maybe the name of the flower, in this case (how lucky for him) both the botanical and common name, traveled through his accountant’s brain without leaving a trace, either of recognition or of memory.
“Is that a geranium?” he later asked. No, it’s a rhododendron.
A beautiful native shrub, I might have added, with cousins in the Himalayas and the mountains of Taiwan. A genus of a thousand species, including the beautiful flame azaleas, and a few species with pale-colored sweetly scented flowers pollinated by moths that inhabit the night.
It is disturbing, and rather ominous, to think that this man and others like him wander through life oblivious to the beauty and impacts of the non-human components. But perhaps I should be more magnanimous. Maybe he has recently awoken from a twenty-year coma. Or maybe he just moved to Pennsylvania. From Mars.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Overwintered spinach!

I’ve been waiting all winter for this. Finally, a garden salad!
Young spinach leaves and sweet onion, a clementine and a quarter chicken breast, braised, sprinkled with fresh lemon, tossed with Annie’s Goddess dressing, and topped with ground pepper. What could be better?

It exceeded my expectations!
Lately I’ve been too busy to enjoy food. It’s spring, for one thing. And I’m moving next week, for another. Fuel, I think, I need fuel to keep this machine running. I throw together a pita pizza or a tired salad made from supermarket romaine, or I grab a package of Wegman’s sushi.  As I eat, hastily, my mind is elsewhere. I am envisioning the “living tennis garden” that will span the centuries (and attract big donors) for a historic garden client, or mentally sorting through the rolls of speaker wire and boxes of dried up crayola markers that I’ve dragged through the decades. Nervous energy requires ice cream, and gardening burns calories, so I indulge as I collapse on my easy chair at night to watch a mindless hospital show rerun or predictable crime drama. Ice cream is a “no-fail” satisfier. But it’s been a long time since I’ve had REAL greens, and ice cream after a fresh salad would taste oh so much better.
But my spinach will not be rushed. It puts on another set of leaves. So painstakingly slowly the leaves grow! I’m moving, I growl. Can’t you just speed it up a little I ask (nicely) as I cut a couple of the little leaves to add to my supermarket romaine? It crinkles its veins.
Yesterday morning I assessed, and determined that my little row of overwintered spinach would be sufficient for one salad. And I have to say it was one stupendous salad. The best, and probably the last from this particular plot of ground. I stole four seedlings of Loma lettuce from my buyers garden (already I think of myself as the caretaker for their plants), which had sprung from the seeds I scattered last fall, and potted them. I had no choice really. By the time I pack up my speaker wire and leave my scented Daphne and viridiflora tulips behind, Loma will still be mercilessly unyielding. And that is just not acceptable. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dutchman's breeches, here and gone

Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s breeches), more than any other flower, speaks to me about time. Sometime in early April it appears on the rugged rocky slopes that rim the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania side. It flags me from an elevated ledge, or an almost vertical incline covered with a scant inch or two of mossy soil, and I think of years past. A dozen years ago it was a symbol for the exhilaration of being set free from my job in a tax office. Decades before that it was a curious tooth-like childhood curiosity. The first warm day of spring I begin skimming the hills in anticipation. When will it appear? How long will it stay? A burst of unseasonal hotness might cause it to disappear just a week or two after blooming, beneath fiddleheads and grasses and jewelweed seedlings. Or it might cling to the hills for three whole weeks. The queen bumblebee emerges from her hole in the ground and finds the odd-shaped flowers just right for her long tongue. After she pollinates, the flowers become seeds with tasty appendages that ants find so irresistible that they carry them away to their nests, leaving trails of the fertile seeds strewn on the forest floor.

I’ve thought about transplanting a clump of Dutchman’s breeches into my garden, but fear that it would spoil the fun. Such a delicate thing should grow in great wild expanses where it can present an ephemeral banquet to queen bees, and to those of us who care enough to notice.  Its time to shine, between snow cover and leaf emergence, is fleeting—it flaunts its breeches, than vanishes for another year until April comes again. Another year of driving to New Jersey. Another year of planting zinnias and tomatoes, and watching grandchildren grow taller. Another year of resolving to focus on what’s important in this life that passes so astonishingly quickly.
Another increasingly abbreviated year.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pruning Roses

Although I prune roses every year, and have for decades, I really don’t know what I’m doing. Yes, I know about outward facing buds, crossing branches, and twiggy growth, but when confronted with an actual rose, those directives feel very abstract. And somewhat useless. So before I make the first cut I think about two things. First, there was the year I didn’t get to the shrub roses at the Glasbern Inn soon enough to suit the owner. He took a chain saw and sheared them at a height of about 18 inches, and you guessed it—they bloomed beautifully that year. The second example came in an article I read a year or two ago, written by a British rose grower (who must have been an excellent gardener because he lived in England). In the article were photos of pruned and unpruned roses side by side. There was absolutely no difference between the two!
Armed with the knowledge that pruning roses is not a matter of life or death I put on my rose-colored glasses and make up my own rules. My rule with the vigorous ‘New Dawn’ rose wired to this historic brick wall is, if a lateral branch sticks out too far I cut it back. Horizontals I don’t touch unless they’re sprawling in the wrong direction. As for the dozens of shrub roses at the Glasbern, no one rule applies. Some are in locations that have become shaded over time, so I allow them to reach (through weeping hemlocks or up against stone walls) for the sun. To do otherwise would be cruel. I groom most of my shrub roses (‘Carefree Delight’, a couple of Easy Elegance roses, and a mix of Meidilands) fairly lightly, pruning off last year’s hips and cutting long canes back to two to three feet. I leave the cascading roses that drape down from a height of 15-20 feet toward the Glasbern parking lot below completely alone. For one thing, I would need a crane (and some really tough gloves) to prune them safely, and for another, I want them to eventually coat the entire bank with luxurious pink blooms. At that point I may rethink my non-strategy.
Without fail, all of the roses reward my fumbling attempts at grooming them with an exuberant show. This, by the way, was the perfect week to prune roses.
Or not.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Spring Garden

I only went out to cut some forsythia.
But the sweet little white crocuses that opened up this morning were such a welcome sight that I had to photograph them. And then there I was on my knees worshipping the spinach as it peeped out from under its bed of straw and admiring the strappy foliage of Tulipa clusiana that was curling around under the hydrangea … which called to me as I passed and insisted that I cut off the scruffy remains of last year’s flowers. 

Garlic greens were poking through the soil (yes!) and Jackmanii clematis was tangled all through my sweet Carol Mackie, a situation I could not just pass by without correcting. Gray-white Nepeta foliage demanded to be set free of last year’s brittle remains, and that old spiraea stump yielded (finally) to my not-so-gentle pushing and broke off at its rotten base. It takes, you might or might not be interested to know, three years for a decades-old Spiraea x vanhouttei to mostly disappear after it’s cut off at ground level. Viburnum setigerum berries are still hanging juicily aside pregnant leaf buds, fermenting. Maybe the birds that have eschewed them all winter will now begin to find them fascinating.

Piles of snow still rest in shady corners, and the soil is too cold to sprout much besides bittercress, onion grass, and last year’s larkspur seedlings. It is not spring yet.
But the sun is shining and the view, though short in stature, is tall in promise.
The itch tickles. 

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Tree Falls in Peru

Why might you cut a tree down in a landscape where trees are as scarce as trillium in a deer-infested forest? This is what I asked Joachina and Fermina when they took a rare break from whirling around the 25-30 foot tree, which had been chopped from the base of El Misti mountain in southern Peru, and dragged and set into the center of a playing field, only to be ceremoniously axed once again. “It’s tradition,” they replied. Then they returned to the business of swirling their beautiful costumes while skillfully balancing the traditional hats perched precariously atop their heads.
Being a skeptical American I thought, there must be more to it than that. And no doubt there is, but either the origins have been lost in Incan history or they are a deeply held secret. At the end of each Carnivale (of which there are many in Peru) the native people don their fine costumes, each representative of a particular region. The drag a tree to the scene, decorate its branches with small gifts and balloons, and dance from afternoon until the job is done. Each dancer takes an occasional ceremonial whack at the trunk until at some point late in the evening—these things can’t be rushed—the tree falls and releases the gifts from its branches. The winning whacker gets the tree.
The ceremony (well, party—the dance requires tall stacks of cases of beer) I witnessed was on the outskirts of Arequipa, a dirt-brown city of about a million people that sits 7800 feet above sea level on the desert coast of Peru. Joachina and Fermina had moved to Arequipa from a much smaller, much higher (12,500 feet), and much greener city, Puno, which is on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Thus they wore the handsome skirts and hats from that region. Could it be that the tradition made its way from the rainier, more mountainous regions to the dry areas closer to the coast? Although that particular mystery will remain unsolved, I came away with other insights. 

Among them:
Tradition and ceremony offer great rewards.
The carbon value of a single tree was vastly outweighed by the joy it brought to the Carnivale participants.  
In our culture, we just don’t dance enough.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Big Snow

How big? Maybe 17 inches. Big.
Big enough to keep my spinach and garlic very very snug. I expect big things from them in spring, because snow is good for the garden.

A good snow cover keeps the ground at a steady temperature, preventing  freeze/thaw cycles that are damaging to plants.

 A really good snow cover will protect plants from deer browse. Unfortunately it may make them more vulnerable to mouse and vole damage.

Snowfall takes nitrogen from the air and releases it slowly into the soil. Very little of it ends up in the storm drains.

10 inches of snow = 1 inch of rain. 10 inches of snow falling on an acre of ground is equivalent to about 27,150 gallons of water.  That’s 113 tons.

"After a copious fall of snow, an observer may find in the scenery which it forms, matter on which to exercise his powers of reflection." ~Andrew Steinmetz, 1867

"Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the 
fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. 
Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary." 
~Henry David Thoreau

"Getting an inch of snow is like winning 10 cents in the lottery."
~Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes)

"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted." ~Mae West

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Winter Garden

My state of mind in winter follows a similar pattern every year. First relief. Snow covers the ground, nothing is growing, and I don’t have to cut and cart away any more dead plants. Then an extravagance of energy with no place to spend it. Sit down and read? In the afternoon? Then, sometime in January, I relax into the winter schedule—sleep a little later, dive into a class, get physically lazy. But a walk at the Glasbern last week reminded me that it’s all still out there, and as beautiful as ever.

Helleborus foeditus is already in bud.

Ilex verticillata -- soon the birds will find it.

Mugo pine

Opuntia humifusa, conserving water.

Corylus contorta. Tortured. Fascinating.

Moss and lichens

And the blue tree steals the scene.