Drought Tolerant Plants: Fernbush

The first of many plants to be profiled in this series on drought tolerant plants is Chamaebatiaria millefolium, known commonly as fernbush or desert sweet. Fernbush is a shrub that is found in most western U.S. states, generally in locations that are dry and rocky with sandy or gravelly soils.  However, it also occurs in sights with loam or clay loam soils, making it a plant that is not too finicky about soil types. It is found at a wide range of elevations (from 3,000 feet up to 11,000 feet) and in a wide variety of plant communities, including lodgepole pine subalpine forests, juniper-pinyon pine woodlands, mountain mahogany-oak scrublands, and sagebrush steppes. It is occasionally browsed by certain animals, but not enough to be considered an important food source. Instead, its major wildlife value is providing cover for birds, small mammals, and antelope.

Fernbush is by far one of my favorite shrubs. Its the leaves that make it so interesting. As the common name suggests, the leaves look just like little fern fronds, and considering that ferns tend to be associated with shady, moist environments, it seems strange to see a fern-like bush growing in full sun in a dry, rocky site. Alas, fernbush is not a fern, but instead a shrub with very cool leaves.

IMG_0838

IMG_0837

Fernbush grows to about as wide as it does high (between 1-3 meters), and depending on where it is growing it is evergreen or semi-evergreen, dropping the older leaves from the lower portions of its branches during the winter. Its bark is smooth and russet or cinnamon-colored. Flowers appear in clusters at the tips of branches in mid to late summer and are small, white or cream colored, and rose-like with five petals.

SAMSUNG

The fruit of fernbush is called a follicle and contains very small seeds, mere millimeters in size. The spent flower stalks are attractive in their own right and provide great winter interest. They can be pruned off in the spring in preparation for new flower stalks and to keep the plants looking good.

IMG_0834

Fernbush is very drought tolerant. Once its established, it needs very little (if any) supplemental water. It is likely that the leaves of fernbush give it this trait. They are small and finely divided, as well as being hairy and resinous. Physical adaptations such as these reduce water loss through transpiration, which helps the plant use available water more efficiently. Though not very commercially available, fernbush, with its unique appearance and late summer blooms, is a great addition to waterwise gardens and landscapes.

Fun Fact: Chamaebatiaria is a monotypic genus, meaning that it is a genus consisting of only one species. In this regard, Chamaebatiaria millefolium is a true rarity.

Various and Sundry Particulars from Awkward Botany Headquarters

Things are afoot at Awkward Botany Headquarters. Lots of new blog entries are in the works, and if all goes well, I will continue to post something every 7-10 days (or so).  Of course, I would like to post more regularly than that, but you know how it goes – there are only so many hours in a day/too much to do and too little time/etc.

Apart from blog posts that I want to write, I have many more ideas concerning Awkward Botany stirring around inside my addled brain. I hesitate to say too much about them now, but as the weeks and months proceed, I hope to share some of those ideas with you. One idea I will hint at for now is having guest blog posts – inviting other plant enthusiasts aboard to write a post or two for the blog. Something to think about…

The big news for right now though is that Awkward Botany has recently joined the tumblr universe. I am tumble logging, tumblogging, microblogging (or whatever you want to call it) in an Awkward Botany sort of way. Why have a microblog associated with a macroblog, you ask? Because I have lots to share, and some of those things don’t seem to fit well in a proper Awkward Botany post – things like pictures (of my garden and elsewhere), links to articles, recommendations, observations, etc. – things that are just easier to include in a micro-post rather than a macro-post. Plus I, like most bloggers, would like to see more people visiting my blog, so perhaps this will be a way to draw in a few more readers. And perhaps not. Either way, everyone should check it out: awkwardbotany.tumblr.com  If you are on Tumblr, follow my microblog. If you are on Twitter, follow me there as well: @awkwardbotany If you are not a tumblr-er or a tweeter and don’t intend to be, that’s cool; however, if you like this macroblog (and if you visit the microblog and decide you like that, too), please consider sharing Awkward Botany with your friends, family members, and associates. They might also enjoy it, and I would be forever grateful. A win-win!

Now here is a picture of a mushroom:

SAMSUNG

And here is an article about the importance of plant conservation: Why Plant Conservation Matters and How Gardeners Can Help

Thank you for reading!

Square Foot Rooftop Gardening

Square foot gardening is a method of gardening that was described and popularized by Mel Bartholomew. The basic concept is simple: measure out your garden beds into equal squares (4 feet by 4 feet) and then plant individual crops into each square following specific spacing recommendations for each crop. The square foot method is intended to eliminate the inefficiencies of standard row planting, making vegetable crops easier to plant, maintain, and harvest. Bartholomew’s book about square foot gardening was first published in 1981. From that book came a television series on PBS, various other books and updated versions of the original book, a square foot gardening product line, and the Square Foot Gardening Foundation.

As a long time gardener, I had been familiar with Bartholomew’s book and its basic premise for a while but had never read it until recently. I found the book to be basically what I expected: a description of how to garden in squares instead of rows. I can see how this system could be very simple, attractive, and efficient while simultaneously producing decent sized yields; however I felt like Bartholomew’s description of the process made gardening into a very methodical, calculated, and meticulous task bordering on joyless. I’m sure that’s not how he sees it (nor how it really is), but then again, he’s a retired engineer [insert smiley face here].

For a long time I’ve had an interest in green roofs. I even went to graduate school to study them. So when I got to the part in Bartholomew’s book where he talks about square foot gardening on rooftops, I was intrigued. Green roofs (along with rooftop vegetable gardening) have become fairly common in urban areas in the past decade or two. And for good reason. Green roofs offer myriad benefits including mitigating storm water runoff (and the numerous sub-benefits involved with that), reducing the urban heat island effect, increasing a building’s energy efficiency, and re-introducing green space and wildlife habitat that was lost when a building was built.

Vegetable gardening on rooftops is a practical solution for residents of urban areas where space for gardens on the ground is limited. Restaurants – like Noble Rot in Portland, Oregon and Café Osage in St. Louis, Missouri – have found that they can grow some of the produce and herbs they need on their rooftops while simultaneously setting themselves apart from other restaurants. There are also a few urban farming operations on rooftops (Brooklyn Grange and Eagle Street Rooftop Farm for example). Michigan State University (an institution with one of the most prominent green roof research labs in the U.S.) has a research program dedicated to improving rooftop vegetable crop production. So with this recent trend of growing food on rooftops, I was curious to read what Bartholomew was saying about the subject more than thirty years ago, back when green roof vegetable gardening was less than mainstream.

The reality is that square foot rooftop gardening gets only a brief mention in Bartholomew’s book (at least in the first edition – perhaps he has more to say about it in more recent editions), but what he does have to say is relevant.

Rooftops are windy:

“Stay away from plants that grow tall, have delicate stems, or that might be blown over when they are mature and filled with ripening fruit…The wind can be unmerciful to a plant; it whips the leaves about and can dry out the plant in short order.”

Rooftops are hot:

“The other big consideration for rooftop growing is heat buildup…These conditions will naturally affect both the frequency and amount of watering the garden will need.”

Rooftops have weight limits:

“The soil in your rooftop garden should be as light and porous (yet still be water retentive) as possible. Mix in lots of vermiculite and peat moss.”

Each of these three considerations (wind, heat, and weight) continue to be considerations for any vegetated roof whether it includes vegetable crops or not. Yet people are figuring out how to overcome these obstacles, constructing and maintaining incredible rooftop gardens that are both productive and beneficial.

Rooftop Garden - Manhattan, New York ( photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Rooftop Garden – Manhattan, New York ( photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In future posts, I intend to elaborate more on this topic, profiling individuals, groups, and organizations that are making this sort of thing happen. Comment below and share something about your favorite rooftop garden and/or recommend a rooftop garden that should be profiled in an upcoming post.

Flood Irrigation and Migrating Waterfowl

It’s American Wetlands Month. Last year around this time, I wrote a brief post describing the importance of wetlands and why they are a conservation concern. This year I thought I would write a little about an issue surrounding wetlands that has recently come to my attention: flood irrigated agricultural land and its benefit to migrating waterfowl.

The term “waterfowl” refers to birds that live on or around freshwater, such as ducks, geese, and swans. Like many other birds, they are migratory, typically flying north in the spring to breed and spend the summer raising their young, and then flying back south in the fall to overwinter. There are four major flyways (or migratory flight paths) in the United States: Pacific, Mississippi, Central, and Atlantic. Along these flyways, migrating birds need places to rest and feed in order to maintain the strength to make it to their seasonal homes. As wetlands have disappeared across the country (and the world), essential areas of respite have become few and far between, threatening the survival of this important group of birds.

Dunlins - Calidris alpina (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Dunlins – Calidris alpina (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Historically, wetlands have largely been diminished and degraded due to human settlement on the floodplains of major rivers. Floodplains are examples of temporary or seasonal wetlands, flooded in the spring when snow in the mountains is melting and during periods of heavy rains but otherwise dry throughout most of the year. These areas appealed to early settlers because they were flat, had great soil for agriculture, and were near a water source. The only downside was the flooding, so levees and dams were built, diversions were made, and eventually these great rivers were tamed, virtually eliminating their status as seasonal wetlands and the important ecological functions that go along with that.

This has spelled disaster for migrating waterfowl who rely on floodplains to be flooded in the spring, providing them with staging habitat on their journey north. Biologists have recognized this issue and have made efforts to protect and restore wetlands in order to provide this essential habitat. But restoring wetlands is a major feat. Rivers that supply both temporary and permanent wetlands aren’t what they used to be. There are myriad diversions and modifications, and with a continually growing human population, too many uses for the water. So that’s where farmers and ranchers come in.

In the spring, many farmers and ranchers flood their fields in order to irrigate crops. Migrating waterfowl take advantage of these flooded fields, stopping to rest and feed. Recognizing the role that flood irrigation has on the survival of these birds, biologists are working with farmers and ranchers along flyways to ensure that their land will remain in agriculture and that land owners will continue to flood irrigate (rather than switching to overhead irrigation). In California for example, rice farmers are being paid by the Nature Conservancy to flood their fields in conjunction with spring and fall migrations in order to ensure that birds will have staging habitat along the way. So, despite humans playing a major role in reducing habitat that migrating waterfowl require for survival, we are finding ways to make up for it. This is just one example of how we can help protect and improve biodiversity in our human-dominated landscapes.

Read more about protecting migrating waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway here.

Geese in a Flooded Rice Field in California (photo credit: NRCS)

Geese in a Flooded Rice Field in California (photo credit: NRCS)

Celebrate American Wetlands Month by learning more about them. Here are some links to get you started:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Association of State Wetland Managers

Defenders of Wildlife