Learning to Appreciate Seasonal Variations in the Landscape

First photo shows my yard in full-blown spring/summer mode, when the wildflowers I’ve encouraged to grow create a puffy riot of color. Second photo shows the same part of the yard in “Autumn stubble” mode.

Here in my part of Florida, we don’t really have seasons, at least not as most people know them. And yet, I am getting the same cozy, restful, waning-year feeling from sitting in my Florida garden right now, as I would get from visiting a stubbled northern field or meadow in fall.

After allowing the browned grasses and withered flower stems to remain in place for a couple of weeks, I cut them down and cut them into smaller pieces — my favorite yard tool is a big pair of antique steel scissors — and left them in place as mulch. (In permaculture we call this technique “chop and drop.” It provides an endless supply of protective and nourishing mulch for the soil, as well as preserving wildflower seed heads.) After the yard’s winter rest, next spring’s flowery burst will come as a fresh treat.

A few years back, some civically active folks in my area got permission to start a wildflower garden at a local library. But (according to the story as I heard it — I did not yet live here at the time) when the flowers entered their withery seedy phase, people complained. The garden was ripped out and replaced with turf grass.

What I might have done instead in this situation is “chop and drop” the browned vegetation, and make sure there were enough shrubs and other larger plants to maintain visual interest while the wildflowers had their seasonal rest. I also would have created some nice illustrated signs explaining the seasonal variation, and letting people know what wildflowers and other beauties to look for at different times of year. What a great opportunity to show people the beauty and surprise of seasonal variation.

The Florida Wildflower Foundation offers people the opportunity to take a “Pledge for Wildflowers.” Besides things like refraining from the use of chemicals and irrigation systems, the pledge includes being “conscious of wildflower and native plant life cycles and recognize that my plants might not look their best all the time.” Maybe the wildflower advocacy organization in your region has a similar pledge.

Another idea for perking up a resting landscape is to have whimsical yard sculptures. The brightly painted snake, lizard, and butterflies I’ve scattered all over my yard make an attractive focal point, and stand out more at times of year when the plants are resting from their lush phases.

There is a real beauty, and comfort, in allowing ourselves to experience the natural rhythms of the landscape. But in today’s chemically evergreen modern world (especially here in Florida, it seems), where plants get ripped out and replaced with new plants as soon as they stop looking “perfect,” people (especially people living in U.S. cities and suburbs) don’t naturally come by a love for that experience, and it is an acquired taste.

I have the benefit of having grown up in a family where we got out to the national and state parks on a regular basis, as well as being avid explorers of urban nature pockets. So I am fairly well educated about nature. Even so, I am always learning new ways to see nature. Although this is my tenth October in Florida, I have never before experienced October in Florida as a version of the deliciously cozy, earthy brown-stubbled time I loved as a child growing up in more northern climates (and as an adult, living in Japan, where autumn is magnificent). What a treat to get this new experience of “Florida fall”!

(Speaking of new takes on Florida fall, I once saw a neighbor’s hurricane sandbags that had been painted up to look like jack o’ lanterns!)

How about you? Any autumn harvest news to share? Drop me a line! And thanks always, beloved reader, for gracing my page with your presence.

Why I Hate Cars

“Hate” is a very strong word, which I try to avoid. But let’s just say I’m feeling pretty hatey at the moment — if not about cars themselves, then definitely about what they do to people.

  • I hate how most people who own cars become utterly helpless without them. The car breaks down, and suddenly a person’s whole life is derailed; they can’t go anywhere.
    I hate how even people who are on the low low end of the economy, barely scraping by, always manage to find money to pump into gasoline, car repairs, car insurance. No money to start a business or invest in something they’ve been really wanting (be it fruit trees, guitar lessons, or whatever), but always money to feed that endless money-hole that is automobile ownership.
    I hate how car ownership reduces people’s willingness to be flexible; to rideshare or take the bus. Everyone wants to leave exactly when they want to leave, so every single person living in a house has to have their own damn car.
    I hate how cars clutter yards and streets. I’ve been at people’s houses where you couldn’t even enjoy the view because the whole front yard and street were blocked by a wall of cars. Ditto for living next to such people. I don’t like to be that busybody neighbor who hates how someone elses’s yard looks; I would rather just be happy with expressing my decorating tastes in my own yard. But a yard jammed with cars is just invasively butt-ugly to me.
    I hate how cars and parking dominate civic meetings about urban redevelopment; how an entire much-needed and wanted project can get derailed by some bureaucratically determined idea of “not enough parking.” How a discussion about an exciting project goes on for an hour, and 50 minutes of that hour is taken up by concerns about inadequate parking, or people feeling entitled to free parking. (There are bright spots; some cities are experimenting with reducing or eliminating parking minimums, with success.)
    I hate how cars have given us the ability to travel twice or three times or ten times as far every day (for work, shopping, etc.) without really accomplishing any more, and arguably in fact becoming more worn-out, less healthy, more isolated, more socially impoverished — with radical reduction in time spent enjoying our homes, getting to know our neighbors, having time for hobbies, savoring the simple beauties of local life.
    I hate that a property owner on our Main Street chose to tear down a nice old commercial building rather than leave it intact, because a parking lot was more lucrative than any use he/she could possibly have imagined for the building. I hate that it wasn’t the first time that happened.
    I hate that any tree, anywhere, ever, has been killed to make room for a parking lot.
    I hate that cars take up space in perfectly good driveways and garages that might better be used for higher purposes. (My new favorite “outdoor living room” is in my driveway! I’ve set up outdoor furniture in an inviting L arrangement. The furniture is positioned far enough back that the driveway can still serve that time-honored public function of driveways: giving motorists a way to turn around — yet it takes up enough of the driveway that no one can park there unless I choose to move the furniture.)
    I hate that cars, even the small ones, are so big and clunky, taking up so much space in relation to the utility they provide. Why can’t the darn things just fold up tiny so they could fit in a back pocket, or at least a briefcase, once they’ve carried you to your destination? (On that subject, another article from Strong Towns: Can parking spaces stand to shrink?)

The good news is, many people and communities are finding ways to wean themselves off of car dependence, without losing the benefits of automotive transport or even necessarily having to forgo the joy of owning and driving a car (which is a real thing; I don’t own a motor vehicle now but I have in the past, and I understand the attraction).

Oh, one more thing: Family cross-country trips by car were a major, and to me very rich and beautiful, part of my childhood. Ditto for some long-distance solo roadtrips I was privileged to take as an adult. It is possible to hold those lovely memories of travel by automobile (and even to love truckstops and adore vintage gas-station signs, which I do), and still not like what cars have done to people and society.

“De-Natured” Childhood

“We tell our kids that traditional forms of outdoor play are against the rules…Then we get on their backs when they sit in front of the TV–and then we tell them to go outside and play. But where? How? Join another organized sport? Some kids don’t want to be organized all the time. They want to let their imaginations run; they want to see where a stream of water takes them.” — John Rick, a parent and middle-school teacher quoted in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv.

And from Louv himself, in the same book: “Rick’s story reminded me of my early career as neighborhood treehouse architect, at nine or ten years old. … We picked the largest oak in the state, we figured: a tree that must have been two hundred years old. We erected a four-story house with a sealed bottom floor that we entered through a trap door on the floor of the second story. Each ascending level became more elaborate and larger as the branches of the tree opened out. The top floor was a crow’s nest that could only be reached by leaving the third story and crouch-walking out ten feet on a thick branch, transferring to a higher branch that dipped down close to the first one, and then traversing that branch to the crow’s nest — forty feet above the ground. The tree house was serviced by ropes and pulleys and two baskets. … To think of that tree house today, within the context of our litigious society, makes me shudder. I returned years later and the old tree was doing just fine.”

This book has been on my reading list for a long time, and even though I’m only on page 30 of 319, I already highly recommend it to anyone (whether or not you have kids of your own) who’s concerned about the wellbeing of humans and society. The patterns mentioned in this book (distancing ourselves from nature; de-legitimizing unstructured time outdoors) affect us all.

Update October 17: I finished the book yesterday, and I now definitely recommend it. Beyond the crucial topic of how nature deficit is affecting all of us, Louv also goes into solutions that are actually being implemented, from experiential education programs to whole town development plans that call for nature to be totally interwoven with street plans. Very inspiring stuff, which you can adapt to your own place. (And he goes into the importance of really being committed to a place — “becoming native to your place,” in the words of Wendell Berry and other similarly minded thinkers/activists who he quotes.)

Further Reading:

How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations (Children & Nature Network). “When George Thomas was eight he walked everywhere. It was 1926 and his parents were unable to afford the fare for a tram, let alone the cost of a bike and he regularly walked six miles to his favourite fishing haunt without adult supervision. Fast forward to 2007 and Mr Thomas’s eight-year-old great-grandson Edward enjoys none of that freedom. …”

Free Range Kids website (“How to raise safe, self-reliant children without going nuts with worry”)

Take Five

Take Five! The phrase popped into my head this morning so I hunted up five fivey links for your reading and/or listening pleasure. And speaking of hunting, Happy Full Hunter’s Moon to you, my beloved readers. (Full moon rises tonight 7:13pm EST.)

Five types of soil microorganisms, and what they do for plants (Holganix)

Five reasons to plant cover crops (Permaculture Institute)

Five categories of renewable-energy resources (Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy)

Five ways to promote sustainability in the workplace (Buildings.com) and five ways to promote sustainability in universities (LUT – Finland)

“Take Five” by Dave Brubeck Quartet (recording posted on YouTube). And from NPR, the story of this musically adventurous jazz tune recorded in 1959 that became a surprise bestseller.

Cultivating Real Resilience

The latest “power outage” news to come across my desk is rolling power outages in northern California, expected to affect up to 2 million people. With extreme dry, gusty winds forecast, the blackouts are the utility company’s precaution against wildfires sparked by downed power lines.

For mainstream folks, power outages might “spark” trips to the store for bottled water, generators. For those of us into sustainable living, this news is yet another opportunity to consider how to boost our household resilience.

When the topic of boosting household resilience comes up, many people these days immediately think “off-grid solar panels.” That might be a good choice for some, but solar panels are still a significant expense, and even more so if you add in the batteries required for an off-grid system.

Note that in many places, it’s not legal to disconnect completely from the power company, so “off-grid” really means a battery backup system for when the grid goes down.

My thrifty, low-footprint (and, not incidentally, lazy and minimal-effort!) approach to boosting household resilience is 1) have a solar-capable charger that’ll charge my phone and laptop; and then 2) simply expand my ability to do without electricity with little or no hardship. Some tips for this no-cost (or even negative-cost!), low-footprint approach include:

– Train yourself and your family to do without a fridge for at least a few days or weeks at a time. (In my book and on this blog, I offer various tips on fridgeless living, including links to excellent articles by fellow green bloggers.)

– Ditto for air conditioning. Learn how to do without, so you won’t be one of the ones in a panic if/when the grid goes down. I’ve written and linked lots about this too.

– Simply refuse to own any essential device that doesn’t have manual backup. Your well pump if you have a well; garage-door opener, etc. — if you have electric-operated ones, and do not yet have manual backup for those, be sure and add it! Now!

– If you live in a community enclosed by electric/electronic gates, check with the management to be sure manual backup is installed. Otherwise your community could become a death trap, think about it! (Those high steel fences with the code-activated electronic gates always give me the willies; I wouldn’t feel protected at all, would rather take my chances being un-enclosed.)

– If your work depends on electricity (such as a homebased computer-graphic studio), research conservation tips and practice minimizing your electricity consumption while still getting your work done. There are many ways of working offline. If the grid goes down, and you have researched and practiced, you’ll be more likely able to continue your work.

– On the subject of work, it’s always a good idea to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket. If your entire livelihood, or most of it, is dependent on freely available electricity 24-7, cultivate a sideline microbusiness that is off-grid. Landscaping with hand-tools. Knife-sharpening. Bicycle repair. Herbal consultation. Plant nursery. Honey production … are just a few examples of non-grid-tied occupations that can earn you money (not to mention social capital!) while also making your whole community more resilient.

– Think really hard before buying gasoline-powered generators. Do you want to store containers of gasoline in your garage or shed? I don’t! (I realize that an automobile is a “container of gasoline” too, but it just seems a lot safer to me than a plastic gas can.) And neither do I exactly relish the idea of being surrounded by neighbors who keep containers of gasoline (some plugged by rags or duct-taped because the proper lid got lost) stored in their sheds and garages. I can’t control their behavior, but I can at least set a robust example of alternatives.

– If you don’t already have a hobby or other entertainment that isn’t dependent on electricity, start cultivating one now. Reading a book; knitting; playing cards or checkers; talking with the actual fellow humans in front of you; telling stories. I don’t want to see any Netflix withdrawal deaths if the grid goes down!

Anything else you would add to this list? May you never have to deal with extended power outages. But since they may be becoming a “new normal,” may you be prepared, right down to your core!

Removing Unwanted Plants Safely

Personally, I try not to use the word “weed.” It’s a catch-all term for wild plants that we don’t know the names of, that are unwanted.

My two cents? Learn the names of your local so-called “weeds,” find out what role they play in the ecosystem (many provide sustenance for pollinators, and even food or medicine for humans, for example), and then decide if you want the plants or not. If you don’t want some plant that has sprung up on your property of its own accord, there are many ways to remove it without introducing more toxins into the environment than we already have.

Recently in one of the gardening groups I belong to (Central Florida Gardening Friends, linked at the end of this post), someone asked how to get rid of weeds without applying poison. It’s a question that comes up a lot. Here are some responses she got:

Q. What do you recommend as a natural weed killer alternative to glyphosate that does not include salt?

A. (From me): “As an alternative to chemically killing unwanted plants, I find it easier to ‘chop and drop’ them — keep them cut to the base while leaving the roots alive, use the cuttings as mulch, and fill the space with plants that you want (which will then crowd out the unwanted plants).”

Q. (The original questioner clarified that this is for a subcontractor who uses it in large areas so that won’t work.)

A. (Another respondent suggested using a Rototiller and then raking up the roots.)

A. (From me): “‘Solarize’ the unwanted vegetation by putting sheets of black plastic over it for a few days. The killed vegetation will serve as a source of nutrients for the (desired) plants you plant next. And unlike with tilling, the beneficial microbes, fungi, and other soil biology will be preserved.”

A. (My favorite response, from a member named Valerie McClain): “Killing weeds is based on a view that certain plants do not belong on your lawn or your garden or in your eyesight. But weeds have a purpose, many have medicinal qualities and are edible. For example, in Florida, Spanish needle (Bidens alba) was once considered for use as a crop. It is a prolific plant that attracts a lot of bees. The flowers can be eaten and the young leaves steamed and eaten. It has antibacterial qualities. Some weeds only grow under certain conditions and can tell you much about the soil. Addressing the problems of weeds is about a person’s perspective. There are tools like a weed wacker or a scythe for large areas or hand pulling for small areas. All labor intensive but these options do not damage the health of humans, animals, and the environment.”

(In appreciation to Valerie for allowing me to quote her excellent advice, I would like to share her blog with you. Valerie is a lactation consultant, employed by WIC to improve breastfeeding rates. Check out her blog Human Milk Patent Pending. Very worthwhile reading, punctuated by relevant quotes from the likes of Vandana Shiva and George Orwell. How appropriate that someone who’s a breastfeeding advocate would also be a proponent of natural, environmentally friendly approaches to gardening. Thanks again Valerie!)

A. (From me): “Valerie McClain, So true! And I love Bidens!* (Also: Since the questioner mentioned that it’s a landscaper taking care of a large area) — “can’t they just maintain by mowing? My friends have a nice thick green yard that is a mix of grass and so-called ‘weeds’ — forms a dense carpet, no bare soil, stays green with no irrigation.”

(Note: They mow it enough to keep it reasonable height but not too short.)

*It is true about the very common (here in Florida) “weed” Bidens being edible and having medicinal qualities. I enjoy it cooked in soups and stews. For more information, you can look it up on EatTheWeeds.com

Further Exploration:

Your homework assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to find a Facebook group, email group, or other online forum(s) where people in your geographic area share information about gardening, particularly ones that are focused on natural methods for cultivating native, adapted, or edible plants. Sign up and enjoy!

Central Florida Gardening Friends and Central Florida Staple Food Gardening are a couple of the ones I belong to. And I just now found & joined Central Florida Permaculture Gardening too.

When “Free” Isn’t Free

As I sit on my patio working, the air is filled with deafening noise and unpleasant gas fumes. It’s a “landscaping” crew showing the plants and wildlife who’s boss. Mowing the sidewalk strips with a giant ride-on mower, edging the edges because nature makes messy curves (and we Anglo-European-dominated cultures can’t have that can we), and blowing the clippings pretty much everywhere.

Sometimes this endless treadmill of work is performed by Public Works employees; sometimes by contractors. But today it’s being done by a crew of prison laborers, so it’s free. Right? Sort of.

But someone is always paying. I don’t know the financial intricacies in this case, but some money is flowing somewhere, so this work is not really getting done for free. Nor is any other work getting done for free, anywhere, ever. Someone, somewhere, is always paying, if “only” with their time and attention. (Ironic use of “only” there — as what commodity on earth is more valuable than our time and attention, really?)

So what is my point here? Time and attention are precious. We need to be very discerning of what we spend it on.

What if the “free” work crews (and the paid ones, while we are at it) were instead planting fruit trees or native plants that would become a yield-bearing investment in our community, rather than an endless treadmill of mowing and blowing for no return other than short grass (and the frequent accompaniments thereof: land degradation, air pollution, and water pollution)?

On the topic of “free”… People often send me links to YouTube videos, free webinars, free ebooks, and such. I always appreciate when someone cares enough to send me something they genuinely think I might be interested in. (The catch is, if you do this, I ask you — don’t make me beg! — to include a personal note about what the subject matter of the video or whatever is. No naked links unaccompanied by explanation please!)

But, even though these videos and other resources are being offered for free in financial terms, unless it’s a subject I really need and want to know about, those things are not free because they cost my time and attention. I will not pay an hour of my precious time and attention to listen to some health fanatic tell me I need to buy an expensive supplement made from a rare ingredient from halfway around the world — degrading someone else’s land and water in the process!

Recently I took a webinar on soil. It absolutely blew my mind, and I will be taking every opportunity to widely share what I learned from the webinar. In fact, today at noon I’m giving a talk, Soil 101. If you are in the Daytona Beach area, come check it out! (Details below.)

The interesting thing is, the webinar (“Soil Is the Climate Solution,” with Finian Makepeace) was being offered for free during a limited period. Because I started watching it very late in the free period, I did not finish watching all the videos before the expiration time. So guess what? I happily paid the $50 they were now asking to watch the rest of the videos! And based on what I had seen thus far, I would have been happy to pay four times that amount to see the rest of the videos.

(The regular price is apparently $100. Well worth it, especially if you aspire to become a highly effective eco guardian; or — as the instructor Finian Makepeace of KissTheGround.com puts it — an “advocate for practices that replenish our water, make food more nutritious, and reverse global warming.”)

Sometimes things don’t need to be free. Sometimes things are worth paying for with money, because they allow me to get maximum value from my time and attention. But even when something is free, we always have to remember we are paying for it with the most precious of commodities.

On that subject, thank you, dear reader, for paying some of your precious time and attention by reading this blog. I will endeavor to make your investment worthwhile.

And, here is the info on my “Soil 101” Talk today:

“Soil 101!”

Free Talk this Friday, October 4.

This is part of the “Healthy Living with the Environment” free talk series by Jenny Nazak (local eco educator, author, landscaper; founder/admin of Daytona Beach Permaculture Guild)

First Fridays

12 noon-1:30pm

This Friday, Oct. 4: “Soil 101: Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants, Healthy People, Healthy Planet!” Slideshow & talk, with Q&A.

Soil: We take it for granted and “treat it like dirt”! Yet it is full of beneficial organisms that keep us healthy. Indeed, our lives, and the livability of our place, depend on whether or not we take care of our soil. Come find out what this means for you, your plants, and your community!

At Breakers Oceanfront Park Environmental Learning Center, 13 S. Atlantic Ave (just north of Joe’s Crab Shack pier), Daytona Beach.

The Environmental Learning Center is a kid-friendly environment, equipped with activities and sights especially for the young ones. Got kids? Bring em!

Parking validation available.