Showing posts with label grass. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grass. Show all posts

October 01, 2021

The Wisdom of the Hackberry: Reflections on a Weird Gardening Year

One day this past week our little hackberry tree turned golden. It was alone in that—true, the aspens are turning at higher elevations, but here the lanceleaf cottonwoods, the Gambel oaks, the various berry bushes, are  all still green. 

We got it a few years ago at some nursery in Taos, possibly the now-closed Blossoms in Ranchos de Taos, or possibly Petree, but I think it was Blossoms.

I nearly lost it one year to drought, but it has come back up to where — although the picture does not suggest great height — it is a couple of feet taller than I am. Hackberry is supposed to be fast-growing. That is true in the good years.

"Hackberry," says the University of Nebraska Extension Service, "Celtis occidentalis, is a native tree to the region. It grows up to 60 feet tall and has a spread of 50 feet. It is in the same family as the elm tree, Ulmaceae."

Another site notes that hackberry "can withstand high salt, acid, sand, clay and alkali levels in soils, as well as survive extended flooding and drought." 

"Flooding and drought" summarizes the 2021 growing season. Spring and early summer were soaking. In an article celebrating this year's hay harvest, one of the county weeklies said the core growing area received more than 19 inches (4.75 hands for the horsey set, about one cubit for you Mesopotamians) of rain in the spring in summer. At my place, I saw water running downhill in places where I had never seen water before, not even when big spring snow dumps melted.

"Ah," I thought, "this will recharge the soil moisture, and we will have wildflowers and vegetables and mushrooms and all of it."

Not so fast, hopeful foothills gardener!  

Our "Holderness" (that's its name) clay soil holds water if you apply it slowly, which nature often does not. As my old Soil Conservation Service book on local soils says, 

Holderness "loess and residium that derive from sandstone . . . . the native vegetation is mostly foothills grasses. . . . . Permeability is slow, and the available water capacity is high. . . . runoff is moderate or rapid, and the hazard of erosion is high. Gully erosion is common. This soil is suited to pasture and grazing. (Description updated here.)

M. was at the grocery store two days ago, and someone else was describing her vegetable garden this year as "crappy." I think that happens when you plant late because it's cold and wet — and then the weather goes dry and hotter than average in late summer, making it almost impossible to keep up with watering plants.

As for the local wildflowers, they were not all that spectacular. Maybe they need more recovery time. Up a little higher, about 8,500 feet, I saw amazing flowers in an area that burned in 2016, however, with aspen saplings coming up everywhere.

Mushrooms down here were not. The usual Agaricus campestris never popped (well, there was one I left alone) and the normal Suellus "slippery jacks" never appeared. 

But up in our usual mushroom grounds, the harvest was spectacular, so no complaints.

Instead, this was the Year of Tall Grass. To come up our driveway is to experience driving between banks of grass like grain waiting for the scythe — I say scythe because I mean tall stuff, not like dwarf wheat bred for combine-harvesting.

I let much of the cabin lawn go unmowed (the deer bed down in that high stuff, feeling hidden). It was a tough choice—tall grass is more of a fire hazard, but I wanted all those seeds! It sure beats buying seed, and now the mower can spread them. 

Everywhere, grass thicker than I have ever seen. What Holderness wants, it gets.  It wanted the early summer lambsquarter and amaranth; it did not want beets, and it was sort of indifferent to tomatoes, which are bearing but not heavily.

Meanwhile, the hackberry, in its weather wisdom, is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring, and now it is the first one to cash in its chips when autumn comes. It knows that abrupt changes from cold to hot and back again are commonplace and always have been, as long as there have been hackberries. As the saying goes, "normal is just a number."

August 05, 2019

Brome Grass and Bear Shit — Thinking about this Summer

I
Liatris punctata

The Liatris are starting to bloom, which marks beginning of Late Summer here in the foothills. Funny thing, with last spring having been so wet, I expected a wildflower explosion. And the summer has been fairly rainy, although with a hot and dry period in July.

Nope. Where are the wild geraniums? Golden banner? Where are [fill in the blank]? Some asters, vetches, locoweed, yarrow . . .  they showed up.

At higher altitudes, there is much more profusion. We must have been in some kind of  meteorlogical "doughnut hole" again.

The Magyar Menace
Instead, early summer turned into March of the Brome Grass.  There have been patches of it here and there, but something — presumably the extra moisture — really threw its switch this year.

Fun fact: Smooth brome was imported from Hungary in 1884. Some consider it invasive, but the ranchers seem to like it. Not like cheatgrass, in other words, which is a brome too but which is evil.

What are some alternatives? The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suggested these natives:
I tried my own line-up this year with plants bought from Hartungs' Desert Canyon Farm in Cañon City, one plant each of Indian ricegrass, Achnatherum hymenoides; big (giant) sacaton, Sporobolus wrightii; and silver spike grass, Achnatherum calamagrostis

These are my three test plants. They are hard to see, but all are doing well. Now it's a matter of harvesting seed.

And the bears!

A black bear left this little calling card near the house on July 24th. Fisher the dog had been on alert that night — rushing out onto the veranda barking, then into the back dog run barking — he knew Somebody was out there.

It looked like the bear had eaten some immature currants, but I don't know how much nutritional value it extracted. One bush not far from the site was pretty well stripped. I ate on currant for form's sake the next morning, out of a sense of brotherhood with the bears, who taught the peoples what to eat.

That was Early Summer. Now it is Late Summer, mushroom season. More to come about all that.

May 04, 2018

When is a Lawn not a Lawn?

The unmown lawn.
When I was a kid, I made money mowing lawns, after we moved into Suburbia. (I guess Dad used to cut the grass at the ranger station — I was too young to do it.) I learned to tune up the Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine (5 percent of the nation's air pollution?) and to face the big decision: Do I got around the edge of the lawn and then spiral inwards, or make back-and-forth stripes, boustrophedon-style?

At some point, my outlook changed. Maybe it was living the summer after high-school graduation in this sort-of communal house (four guys trying to be "spiritual") where the oldest, the organizer, saw no need to cut the grass around our little rented house near downtown Loveland, Colo.

Then the city came after him, so we cut the grass and front and let the back go wild, under the apple trees. That was something new for me, raised on the ritual of weekly mowing. Liberating, even.

Fast forward: M's and my Manitou Springs house had only a tiny area of flat ground, which we planted to vegetables. The rental house in Boulder's lawn area had been covered with plastic and gravel in the front, and there was basically nothing but a tiny bit of dirt (enough for lettuce and onions) in the back. In Cañon City we had irrigation water, so again a big garden took up most of the back yard, ornamental plants much of the front, and I mowed the leftover bits to comply with city regs. No fertilizing.
Why do we spend so much money and work so hard for what amounts to a biological wasteland around our house? Why do we spend hours of time and gallons of gasoline? Why do we water it when it withers in the summer sun only to spend more time and money to cut it down again? Lawn grasses don’t feed my family or invite pollinators onto my property. I’m not baling hay to feed cattle through winter. The best reason I could come up with for our culture’s obsession with a neat lawn is the man versus nature, bending it to our will motif — creating order, our version of it, out of disorder. And with this illusion of control we advertise to everyone else that we have the money and time to waste resources.
That is from "Green Menace: The Futility and Stupidity of the American Lawn." Read the whole thing — it is where I got that air-pollution figure.

When we moved into the woods, the idea of lawns seemed laughable. But now the minimalist lawn is re-purposed as a firebreak. Reduce fuels! No fertilizing. No weedkillers. No watering, beyond what Tlaloc sends us.

I mow three or four times per summer, but I call it "fire mitigation," thus satisfying both me-now and the kid who used to mow for pocket money.

For more: "Why Prairies Matter and Lawns Don't."
How much lawn is too much?  41 million acres.  That figure makes lawn the most widespread plant under irrigation in the contiguous US.  Three times more acreage is covered in irrigated lawn than in irrigated corn, and that’s a conservative estimate.  All of that once precious water used on those 41 million acres of ridiculous, non-native turfgrass to keep it unnaturally green – how can people be so blind?

October 22, 2015

Could We Have a Natural Control for Horrible Cheatgrass?

A cheatgrass monoculture (Bureau of Land Management).
If it were possible, I would nominate these scientists for a prize.
Now, some 65 years after famed naturalist Aldo Leopold summed up the general consensus in the battle against cheatgrass as hopeless, there might be hope.

"We're in a better position to fight back than we have ever been," said Susan Meyer, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist working with fungus at the Shrub Sciences Laboratory in Provo, Utah.
 Why is cheatgrass a Bad Thing?

• It comes up early in the spring. At that point it is soft and green. It looks good to eat, hence the "cheat" part.

• But very soon it sets its seeds in horrible, prickly awns that hurt grazing animals' mouths, puncture people's shoes and socks, catch in other animals' coats, and spread wherever they are  carried. 
In addition to being a wildfire threat and an ecological problem, cheatgrass can harm animals. Its stiff, spiny seedheads, called awns, can work their way into the ears, eyes or mouths of everything from cats to cattle.
• Because it dries out early in the summer, it carries fire easily.
The keys to cheatgrass spread are its short life cycle and prolific seed production. Because cheatgrass stands dry out by mid-June, fires are more likely to occur earlier in the season. These mid-summer fires are tough on native forbs and grasses.
Cheatgrass seeds drop prior to fires and will germinate with fall precipitation. This gives rise to dense, continuous stands that make additional fire ignition and spread more likely. Fire return intervals have gone from between 60–110 years in sagebrush-dominated systems to less than 5 years under cheatgrass dominance. With every reoccurring fire, cheatgrass becomes more dominant and expands its range further. 
• It has damged the West by reducing feed for both wildlife (elk, deer, pronghorn antelope) and domestic animals:  
“Cheatgrass has probably created the greatest ecological change in the western United States of anything we’ve ever done,” said Steve Monsen, a retired Forest Service botanist in Utah who conducts research for the agency.
It can be grazed when young and green, but unlike native perennial grasses, it does not "cure" on the stem for winter consumption.

On my own little patch of Colorado, I watched cheatgrass move from roadsides, seemingly leap over healthier pastures, and appear in groves of pines trees.

So what Is the new development?

There are pesticides that work against cheatgrass, but the invasion is too big to spray it all. Susan Mayer and others are looking at bacteria instead:
Meyer and Ann Kennedy, a scientist in Washington state working with bacteria, are drawing attention from top land managers and policy makers — and research money — after showing that the seemingly invincible cheatgrass might have an Achilles' heel. 
"We've found several organisms that are really good at colonizing the root of the seed, and reducing the elongation of that root," said Kennedy, who works at Washington State University. "Then that cheatgrass is less competitive the next spring."
This will all cost a whole lot of money. But isn't the West worth it?

February 10, 2014

In the Dust Bowl of 2014

There is nothing to see in eastern Colorado. It's all flat and treeless.
 Almost a month ago — January 18th — I took County Road 11 south from Manzanola, Colo., toward part of the Comanche National Grassland. I had driven nine or ten miles when something struck me — I had seen only one small herd of cattle, maybe six head, no more. The rest had all gone to the sale barn, apparently.

I was right about where the red arrow is pointing in the graphic from the United States Drought Monitor, and what was in theory a quail-hunting trip was, admit it or not, turning more into disaster tourism.

Outdoor writer Chad Love blogs from a location downwind of that location, and he has posted some photos that, once converted from color into black-and-white, evoke the Dirty Thirties.

I didn't photograph those six cows, nor the herd I saw somewhere on Colorado  Hwy. 10 grazing in the slanting sunset light in a pasture that was about half dirt, even though it would have been nice and National Geographic-y. Like something from East Africa.

Windmill on the national grasslands. Not pumping.
Fisher the dog and I took a walk around this windmill. There was no water in the tank, no bird tracks of any sort in the dust.

We drove on to another spot closer to the Purgatory River where there was a little water, but all we saw was a single mule deer slipping away. Very quiet. Very dry. Just a general sense of absence.

Chasing scaled quail involves a lot of a windshield time—and to be honest, I have done better in more agricultural areas, but this trip was degenerating into disaster tourism.

So I admitted that I was doing that, ate a late lunch of crackers and coffee, and drove around.

We drove past the Huerfano River Wind Farm outside Walsenburg—as usual for wind farms, not all the blades were turning—and Fisher got a piss break at Huerfano Butte.

And there is the mystery of those deserted commercial buildings on the gravel road in totally misnamed Apache City.

It was good to be back into the mountains and seeing snow.

July 31, 2012

Fighting Cheatgrass with Fungus

Whoever can stop cheatgrass deserves a Nobel prize and the thanks of a grateful continent.  A fungus holds some promise.
“Cheatgrass is a very insidious kind of biotic virus,” said Stephen Pyne, a Western fire historian at Arizona State University. “It takes over and rewrites the operating system. Because it grows earlier, it can burn earlier,” then in its regrowth “drive off all the other competitors. That makes for a complete overthrow of the system.” 

Mike Styler, head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said simply: “It’s changed the entire ecology of the West.” 

But the black fingers of death — Pyrenophora semeniperda — may help restoration ecologists like Dr. Meyer reclaim some beachheads in the vast swath of land already conquered by cheatgrass.
I have been seeing it a lot more around here lately, thanks to two drought years in a row, which just makes me sick to contemplate.