Monday, September 16, 2013

A Jewel in the Garden

I first noticed Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis/pallida) out at Churchill Park in Glen Ellyn. We were on a nature walk geared for kids, and our instructor showed us how Jewelweed seeds will pop out when you touch the flower, hence one of it's common names, Touch-Me-Not.

I was tipped off to this plant after posting a picture of it on a previous blog post. I've got it in my yard, and before it flowered, considered ripping it out. After learning more about it's benefits, to both humans and wildlife, I've got to keep it.

Jewelweed is best known for it's ability to heal poison ivy, poison oak and stinging nettle, bee stings, mosquito bites, and other skin irritations. Just break off a stem, and rub the oils on the itchy spot. If you do a lot of hiking or camping, this is a good plant to know. More info on poison ivy relief with Jewelweed.  I've got the yellow variety (pallida), which is said to be less effective than the orange variety (capensis).

Pollinators love this plant, and it is an important nectar source for migrating hummingbirds. The patch in my yard receives lots of visitors, including bees, hummingbirds, and hummingbird moths. While sitting on our front porch an afternoon a few days ago, the kids and I watched hummingbird moths going from flower to flower, feeding on the nectar. Check it out:

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Natural Playground

Future site of natural playground. 

Back in 2011 I designed a natural playground space for a school for kids with special needs in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to build some natural play components for my own kids. And now that we live in a more natural setting, it just makes sense. My kids love traditional playgrounds too, and they are important for a kid’s physical development, but one would look out of place on the forest edge. Besides, they have access to those at school and parks. Pinterest is full of ideas (see my Natural Playgrounds board) for fun, natural things to swing from, climb on, build with, and learn from.

Natural playgrounds provide the same benefits as a traditional playground, but in them, kids are more apt to learn about the natural world around them. Play spaces are created using natural materials, and creative play is encouraged. Natural pathways lead kids through the play area where they can climb over logs and stones, jump from one tree stump to another, balance on a wooden balance beam, climb and swing from ropes, and build with tree branches. They can create nature-based art, act in a play on a wooden stage, or just sit quietly and listen to the sounds of the woodland. That’s the dream, anyway.

So, why are natural playspaces important? Because kids are losing touch with what is natural. Given the opportunity, my kids would choose the ipad over any other toy, and while I think the educational apps are fantastic, for their mental health and mine we all need to be outside. It’s the main reason we moved to a place in the woods – to regain that connection to nature that I feel is so important for our health and development. If our area had one, I’d sign my youngest up for Forest Kindergarten. Since we don’t, we will incorporate some of those teaching theories at home. More on how natural playspaces benefit kids, and this provocative article by David Orr

The location of our natural playground will be in the back portion of our lot, adjacent to the forest preserve. I had been thinking about where to site it since we moved in, and the other morning while pruning some trees, I noticed a large black walnut tree inside a small clearing. The ground is covered with pachysandra there, so we will spend some time in the next few weeks clearing that out and doing a bit more pruning of the trees. Then the fun will start – building the play components. I think we will start with a balance beam and a stage, and go from there. Updates coming soon!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Permaculture: Observing

An introductory permaculture class at The Resiliency Institute has heightened my years-long interest in permaculture. And now that we are in our new house, we are ready to start thinking about a landscape design that incorporates our interests as a family, food producing plants, and my favorite perennials, shrubs, and trees.

The word permaculture comes from a combination of two words – permanent, and agriculture. It’s about designing a space in a way that provides for people, wildlife, and plants. It’s about creating a sustainable landscape, yes, but takes that to a completely different level with ethics and design principles that help move us from mere consumers to responsible producers of food.

So, while it’s more in my nature to rip out plants and ask questions later, I’m taking it slow and applying the first principle of permaculture.

Principle 1 – Observe and Interact
They say gardening is all about “trowel and error” (har, har, har). I’ll be the first to admit that once I get an idea in my head, I’m off to the nursery as fast as I can get there, the plants in the ground before I ever get a chance to sleep on it.

David Holmgren, a student of Bill Mollison, the "father of permaculture", said, "Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration."

Permaculture Principle 1 teaches us to engage with nature so as not to make hasty design decisions that we will regret later, costing us more time, more money, and produce loss. We need to take the time to look closely at our environment and take note of what’s already happening before we decide to change it. What are the sunlight patterns? How does water flow through the site? What wildlife is prevalent in the area? What kind of microclimates exist? Where does traffic flow through the space?

The part of my yard that I’ll be focusing much of my attention on in the spring is the south-west side, where we get the most sun - a necessity for most food production. It includes part of our front yard, all of the side yard, and part of the backyard closest to the house. I’ve been watching the sun patterns since we bought the house in May, and most of those areas receive at least six hours of sun. It’s a relatively flat area, so water does not pool in any one location, but I do want to incorporate a rain garden where my downspouts let out that will filter rainwater back into the soil (I don’t use rain barrels – here’s why) and attract beneficial pollinators. While the main use for the space will be food production, we do need to create a path to get to the backyard, and reduce the lawn. We also need to design the space in a way that will discourage visits from deer, which are numerous in our area (this article is good inspiration for a deer-resistant design).  

So for now, I’m observing and interacting – not acting. And I can’t say I’m all that patient, but I want to be sure I’m making the right choices that will result in max food production and ecological health. Keep following the blog to watch the transformation of this space and others in my yard, as well as more landscape design client before and afters. 

If you'd like to read more about permaculture, some books that I've enjoyed include Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture by Toby Hemensway, Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City by Eric Toensmeier, and Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison. Enjoy!

Front yard herbs and veggies, coming soon.

Not sure what plant this is, but I observed that bees love it.

Need to incorporate a path to the backyard, which will make enclosing
the garden with a fence a challenge.

Oh deer. They come from here. 

A place to grow food, right by the back door. 

While there is shade in the area where I want to grow food, there is mostly sun.
Japanese painted fern.

Gratuitous kid shot