Green Gardening at the Vonnegut House
For those of you who have visited the house lately, you might have noticed something about our garden: It was looking a bit, how do we say it politely, a bit thin..
There are a lot of excuses we could make, but being next to a Military School, there are no excuses... we hoped you will be dazzled by the new shingles and restored siding from two winters ago and not notice the inconvenient absence of anything approaching an appropriate garden given the beauty of the house. We hope you didn't mention it because you were too distracted by the view and not because you were too polite.. well, change comes even to sleepy Culver, and it finally came to our flower bed's this spring.
We've been working to green in two ways.. green the property in terms of cleaning up the lawns and making things more lush, and also in terms of doing it in a way that doesn't harm the environment, and we feel like we are finally having success on both levels this summer. Since Indiana is at it's core a state of Agriculture, a place of deep rich soils and the patience to wait for the crops to grow, we are trying to be patient as well with our gardens, letting them mature as they should, and there has been some progress.
Two Photos and then some explanation:
The greening approach we took so far has 6 unique strategies and procedures:
- we are planting only native species
- we treated our trees for the emerald ash borer
- we are ridding the property of invasive exotic plants
- we removed the cement around our walkway, and plan to do this with other walkways as time allows.
- we are removing railroad ties as we can, the old staple of our landscaping
- we are using mechanical instead of gas powered mowers, while keeping an eye on what happens with the electric tool market which has come alive with the spread of the Lithium battery and it's weight to density increases
So this spring we finally made an order to JF New, a Walkerton Indiana company that is a subsidiary of a large engineering and construction firm called Cardno, a multi national construction company along the lines of Bectel or Keiwitt from Australia with a large US presence, but with a little green seed inside of it. You see, over the years there has been a sophistication of state construction projects, where the median of the highway, instead of just being planted in some prolific and tough grass that doesn't mind the ever present whine of the highway and is easy to handle, is now planted in native crops. As far as I know, it's required by almost every state in their bidding process for highway work.
Along came a company called JF New in Walkerton to supply seeds and plugs for this market, large construction projects that endeavored to plant not hearty exotics that might become invasives, but plants that might have been part of the prairie habitats of the area before farming appropriated it for other uses. While I like a good ear of corn, and respect a farmer's right to make a living no doubt, it's important to understand that before European settlement of Indiana in the 1800's, from about 1830-1880, spreading from the Ohio River north, there were mostly hardwood forests, but there were not only huge swamps like the Grand Kankakee, but elk parks (yes, Indiana had elk, and grizzlies and wolves for that matter, and yup, more mountain lions than the one or two we might have crawling around now) and those elk parks, open areas where elk's grazed, that might have been old beaver ponds that silted up or forests that burned down, had dozens of prairie species in them. The real american prairie started a bit further west in Illinois where the eastern forest ceded some of it's dominance, but Indiana sure had bits of it too.
JF New put up some greenhouses and created a major operation supplying large construction jobs, environmental cleanups, and the demand for the sides of highways and medians. Two years ago we bought a collection of plugs and seeds from what was then known as JF New, and now is known just as Cardno Native Plant Nursery, only a half hour drive away in the now politically famous Walkerton (sadly, the Pizza place was closed last time we were in town), but due to what we will call labor inconsistencies, some very hot weather right after planting, and then a long construction project overhead, while some of the seeds might have fared well down on the slope leading to the lake, but the plugs did not, in fact, I don't think any of them survived the last two years, so we mulched over and started a'new..
We ordered plugs from a wide variety of options from Cardno with only one requirement.. one of our staff is tired of everyone having black eyed susans, so they were out.. otherwise we ordered from a long list on a database they have, eliminating for a lack of deer heartyness and for the clay soils and heavy sun exposure they will get, and the type of Indiana Ecological community we were in. The web page spat out a list, we crossed out the susans and were told to come grab our order in May.. they don't release them before then in case we get a late cold snap.
It just so happens that our new Gardner, a hard working guy named Rick who is no stranger to work or farming, and was noticed twenty years ago by one of the Vonnegut House employees for his prowess at wrestling which he added football on top of in college, lives in Walkerton so grabbing the flats and planting them when he got to work was no problem.. They have been in now about two months and are slowly growing over the large swaths of what I'll jokingly call Mulch Barrens and making the house prettier by the day. Two of them even shot flowers multiple feet int he air after just a few weeks of spreading their roots.. while they have a ways to go, it's looking better and we are all noticing that after a looong absence of anything pretty to compete with all the great woodwork on the house.
Rooting out the invasive plants is another dilemma at the house we are tackling. If you drive around Indiana, and know what you are looking for, you will be stunned at the proliferation of nonnative plants that are taking over our forests. I had a multi day lesson on this problem from a forester this spring who we were lucky to have visit the house, and when I drove down to Indy a few days later in that prime period in April when one particular invasive called Bush Honeysuckle is about the only thing you see leafing, with little green buds everywhere, I started to realize what an epidemic the problem is. We discovered that one of the old decoratives on the property was the very same creature, and it got a quick memorial service before it was torn out at the roots from near the driveway. I started to have guilty thoughts that maybe the Vonneguts brought it innocently as a decorative for their back lawn so many years ago, and might be responsible for it's now epidemic proportions around the state, but I tried not to think about it.. suffices to say the damage is done.
We have treated our multiple ash trees to protect them from the Emerald Ash Borer this spring, an invasive insect from Asia, and although we lost 2 of the about 15 trees we treated, and a few of them definitely still look a bit beat up, they leafed out against our expectations and are holding on, proving the treatment worked to some degree. On others we couldn't save, we ground down the stumps and grew grass over them. The huge pile of firewood we now possess, about two cords, came from cleaning out obvious fatalities of this persistent blight that is active throughout the Midwest. Sadly, the Ash is by far the most numerous of the trees on our property, and throughout the Midwest, and survivablity is expected to be under 1 in 100 until our american Ash variants build up natural defenses against the pest, a process that usually takes centuries or more of natural selection.
We also two years ago took down a Chinese elm that does flower sweetly but was starting to spread all over the garden beds, and even regrow from it's stump. Persistent lil bugger. We might have a few more along our north property line but we are slowly removing them as we regrow native stock. It makes the birds, the squirrels, and us a bit happier... and removes opportunities for things like the honeysuckle to overwhelm the succeeding trees that should be growing to replace our ash and oak hardwoods. while we might have healthy tall trees now, when they become 300 and start keeling over, there might be nothing to grow up in their place except invasive bushes and vines, so now is the time to act.
Another place we focused was on removing the cement that surrounded our walkway until this spring. Cement is tough stuff, it's there for the duration, and it's reliable but it has a few problems environmentally.. it doesn't allow water to seep through it, so it increases the temperature and volume or runoff, which hurts the lake. instead of soaking in, some water runs off of it and gives us erosion issues, and it also heats up while it sits on the cement in the sun, which can lead to unwanted plankton blooms and other issues in a lake that so many including the Maxincuckee Environmental Council worked and work so hard to restore. That cement sitting in the sun also creates a heat island, that releases heat more slowly than just soil, heating up the hosue and the nearby flower bed, and holding more heat so that it releases later in the day. In the summer people come to the lake to be cool, not hot! We tore the cement out, and applied stones and then soil and planted grass above it. much better!
When you talk to people who deal with river and stream health, and lake health for that matter, they say that all their problems start when yous tart to pave more than 10% of the surrounding watershed... it's a fact of life.. but there are ways around it.. leaving roads dirt, settlign ponds, allowing creeks to follow natural meanders, and even new solutions like one our neighbors just up from us on east shore applied by making a kind of grid pattern where cement is needed:
they call it permeable paving..and it works well and I think can even be plowed if done right, but grass and soil are even better where possible.
The Railroad ties are one of the many holdovers of what I might describe as the era of bad environmental taste that coincided with america's great industrial expansion. It appears that when they tore up the railroad lines through Culver, the old Vandalia Line I guess that ran down from Hibbard and past the west side of the lake, they had some railroad ties to get rid of, or maybe it was just track improvement son the big line running east west through Hibbard, but get rid of them they did, right into our landscaping.. in fact, our whole hillside is held up by them.. the problem is, they are soaked in something called Creosote, the preservative of choice for years for railroad ties and telephone poles and the like.. the problem is that creosote, which is the leftovers from burning coal to my knowledge, is some nasty stuff.. it's soaked in heavy metals left over when everything that can burn has burned in the bottom of the coal plant.. it's toxic stuff, like old pressure treating application, times 10!
we've been slowly working to rip them out and either take them to the dump ( we had to get special permits) or give them to someone who knows how to dispose of them properly. The dilemma we have is that if we rip them out too fast, our house and maybe our neighbors might slide into the lake.. also not a desirable outcome, so it's a slow process but we are working on it. It's kind of fun because hauling one up the hill to a truck on your shoulders feels like the log work that soldiers and sailors do.. macho stuff.. we've removed about 4 pickup trucks worth of them and have quite a few to go but we will do it as time and resources allow. The funny thing that one of our guys pointed out is the mixed feeling we got when one of them is light.. you are happy because it's less to carry, but you realize that's a few pounds of heavy metals in your dang soils.. it's a work in progress, but it's progress. Grass seems to be growing much better in the places we removed them along the driveways and tried to even remove the soil they had rotted into with some success.
The last place we are greening our garden is with a little muscle power from Rick, which he has in ample amounts. It's not that we are making something better, we just aren't making it worse. What I am talking about is using a push mower that uses no gas, just human power. this way Ricky get's a workout, get's to eat a bit more Wheaties in the morning, and we don't bother the neighbors with the roar of a lawn mower once a week. We also don't have to fuss with gas or pay for repairs or worry about fouled spark plugs. Since we have such a small lawn, it's been working out quite well. We've always been doing this around the house, but we were using an old reel mower from 30 years ago and this summer it was time to invest in a modern take on an old problem, and this Fisker had a reputation for being the best new reel mower on the market, with gears that whip the blades up to a speed comparable in cutting ability to their gas counterparts.. it seems to be true because the lawns are looking good, and as much as Rick enjoyed the workout, maybe a little less sweat in the summer heat is appreciated by him as the Dog days arrive.. we can always go back to the other one..
Thanks to Matt, Rick, Rob Lamb at Eco Foresters of Asheville NC, (also on facebook )and the other guys who worked hard to make this house and the world a little greener like Farmer Jim, Patrick, Brad, Merle and Landon I think it was.
C'mon by and see the gardens as they grow for yourself..