By Donna Iverson
Photo by Mary Aten
If you're from Michigan, chances are you are familiar with dune grass planted along the Great Lake to stabilize the shifting sand dunes.
But what you may not be so familiar with is dune grass as a landscaping plant. Due to Michigan's sandy soil and increasingly warm temperatures, more and more ornamental grasses are finding their way into yards, around commercial buildings and in city parks. And some of it is our own dune grass, Ammophila breviligulata. This beach grass is native to North America and grows around the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic Coast.
Dune grass is a tall erect perennial with elongated flower spikes and long subsurface rhizomes, that can reach 20 feet deep into the sandy, shifting dune mounds. It also grows verticals rhizomes, thus stitching the dune in place.
In our area, dune grass is sold by the Muskegon Conservation District located in Twin Lake. It is sold in bundles of 100 plugs in the spring and fall, which are the best planting times, according to Chad Hipshier, assistant executive director of the organization. Right now is the time to order for fall planting. A bundle of 100 plugs cost $15 and pickup date is September 10. They are located at 4735 Holton Road and their telephone number is 231.828.5097.
While some people may consider dune grass as an accent plant, photographer Mary Aten on Muskegon is considering replacing her entire lawn with it. But you must have the right conditions to grow dune grass successfully, warns Hipshier. Dune grass needs lots of sunshine and sandy dry soil.
“And if you think you could just go dig some up on Lake Michigan to give it a try, that is illegal,” said Hipshier.
Also your neighbors might not appreciate it. A community gardener in Muskegon tried growing it in the terrace way between the road and the sidewalk. An unhappy neighbor called the city's building inspectors calling it a "weed" and she was forced to remove it.
While only a few Michiganders are growing dune grass as a landscape plant, increasing numbers of people are planting ornamental grasses, that look like beach grass. Ornamental grasses that remind you of dune grass are admired for their stark beauty and easy care. They are drought resistant needing little water and free of most pests and plant diseases. Maintenance is extremely low.
Ornamental grasses are being planted in parks, in the back of townhouses, around garbage bins, next to commercial establishments, and even around telephone poles. Trying to figure out what varieties of ornamental grasses these were, I contacted Barry's Nursery on Whitehall Road. I took some photos of these ornamental grasses and emailed them to Barry's asking for plant identification information. Dawn Barry replied the same day and said the most popular ornamental grass sold in the area is Cslamagrostis Karl Foerster. A dune-grass look alike, Karl Foerster is better suited to most people's soil unless you live near the beach, she said.
So if you want to give dune grass a place in your yard, now is planting time. Winter is a coming.
Note: Mary Aten's photographic prints of Lake Michigan dune grass are available for purchase on her website (atenphoto.com) and at the Muskegon Farmers Market.
Story and photo by Donna Iverson
Mother Nature is a guerrilla gardener. She doesn't leave any waste place, abandoned lot, alleyway or backwoods path without a perfusion of flowering weeds. Or sometimes, escaped cultivated flowers.
Many of them are aliens and invasive, but also beautiful. Among my favorites are Queen Anne's Lace, Creeping Bellflower, Canada Thistle. Common Milkweed, Chicory, Mullein, Spotted Knapweed, Motherwort, Deadly Nightshade, Yarrow, Mallow, and the vetches, like Crown, Hairy and Cow Vetch.
More and more I am seeing homeowners and even business owners landscaping with "weeds" like Queen Anne's Lace, Common Milkweed and even Lake Michigan dune grass.
Our love-hate relationship with these flowering weeds is perhaps best exemplified by the vetches. Vetches grow prolifically and can quickly take over a yard or garden. They are difficult to eradicate unless you catch them early, by mowing them down in early spring before their roots and tendrils spread. To the casual observer, it is a lovely plant that beautifies many a waste place and personally, I am always delighted to see their colorful pink flowers which attract endangered pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Historically, vetch was more than just a pretty weed. In earlier days, farmers used vetch as fodder for their livestock and municipal crews planted it along roadsides in the 1950s to prevent erosion. That is likely why there is so much of it in lower Michigan.
Still vetch is controversial. My cousin and I argue whether vetch is a friend or a foe . She says foe as it has taken over much of her suburban yard and is impossible to eradicate now that it has spread so invasively. I on the other hand, think vetch is beautiful and am thrilled to find it along abandoned lots and in city alley ways, growing profusely on wire and wooden fences.
Depending on which side of the fence you are on, some gardeners are deliberately welcome these invasive flowering weeds into the yard. A neighbor of mine has let Queen Anne's Lace grow along the side of her lot, looking for all intent and purposes like a wild flower garden. And a downtown retail store, grows it in the terrace way along a busy street.
Of course admiration for flowering weeds flies in the face of the recent focus on growing native plants, adapted to the environment they evolved in. Invasive aliens tend to crowd out the native plants, which provide the best source of food and habitat for pollinators, birds and other wildlife.
For example, Queen Anne's Lace is an alien flower native to the temperate regions of Europe. It is highly invasive and crowds out native plants like Common Milkweed. Still I love Queen Anne's Lace and its look-alike cousin Yarrow, which is native to North America.
Bottom line for me is: enjoy these flowering aliens in the waste places where they crop up. But to save our pollinators, it's time to seek out native plants and begin to incorporate them into our yards and gardens, to help sustain local wildlife, especially milkweed which Monarch Butterflies depend on for their survival.
By Terry Grabill
N3 Note: A "life bird" is a species that a birder has seen and identified in the wild for the very first time in their life.
2018 was a disappointing birding year. My health hit a significant speed bump and kept me grounded to my front window. Nearly everything was put on hold while this old body tried to mend. I submitted exactly zero checklists to eBird and added zero birds to my life list. 2019 promised better opportunities as the body grew stronger. Sure, there were some lingering things…and I had this neat handicapped tag that hung from my rear-view mirror, but the atrophied cardiovascular system was ready to rebuild.
Early May found Andrea and me in North-west Ohio: our migration happy place. More detail on this location once I finish Kenn Kaufman’s new book discussing what he calls “The warbler capital of the world”. We were unable to do our usual volunteer work and birding at The Biggest Week in American Birding last year (the first year we’ve missed). This year we birded for three days on Lake Erie’s coast and volunteered at the registration desk. We met some great people and I even got my life black-necked stilts!
The following weekend brought the Tawas Point Birding Festival on Lake Huron. Andrea had never been able to be there with me, so I’d taken a boy from school that was interested in birds. Three years ago, Brennen and I went for the day and had a great time. This year, Ann was able to go and so was Brennen, who was then in the ninth grade. A special day was made more special because our oldest daughter, Caitie, was with us on her birthday! It was the first time she’d been birding with us. I picked up my life Kentucky warbler too!
As I looked forward at the weekend that followed, I realized that we would be on Lake Michigan. Three weekends on three different Great Lakes. A plan started to form.
“Warblers on the Water” is an event on Beaver Island in Northern Lake Michigan (lots more about Beaver in a later message!). Andrea and I have been field guides for this event for the past four years. It’s a really special privilege for us to lead here. The island has a special place in our hearts and the opportunity to give back is huge. We’ve been relegated to leading the “windshield birding adventure” trips. These field trips are perfect for our “folksy” personalities. Our groups are often birders not looking for a rigorous hike. The trips offer a great way to see a lot of the island in a morning of birding. I’m also offered the opportunity to speak about birding. This year’s topic was “Sharpening Your Birding Skills”. I’m very happy that it was well-received. And, I got my life black scoter!
Well, I’d birded on three of Michigan’s Great Lakes in three weeks. So, on week four, to complete a mission, off to Michigan’s UP I went! Whitefish Point juts out into Eastern Lake Superior. It’s known for several things, including the site of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. But, I was there for Whitefish Point Bird Observatory. The Michigan rare bird report told of a lazuli bunting there (seriously?!). My oldest son, Trevor, had never birded with me but offered to take the day trip with me. He helped me with my photography and I saw a piping plover, my life lazuli bunting, and my life Eurasian tree sparrow!
Here’s to 2019. Better health, more birds, more travels.
Story and photos by Donna Iverson
As a community gardener, I am all about growing food, community ties, sustainable practices, and getting my hands in the dirt ..err soil.
Quiet and reserved by nature, I nevertheless thrill when one of my plants makes a spectacular appearance in the garden bed.
Last summer, my giant sunflowers towered over the vegetable beds and could be seen from a block away. Swaying in the breeze, their yellow disk flowers caught the eye of anyone who was tending garden beds or even just walking by.
Look at us, they seem to shout silently..aren't we beautiful? And we are useful too..our seeds and petals provide food for butterflies and bees who love us. ...as do birds and people, who harvest the seeds in the fall for a healthy treat.
However, visiting the garden toward the end of the summer, I was shocked to see the sunflowers had disappeared. Something had cut them down mid-stalk. I'm guessing either the little rabbit I spied hopping out from behind a neighbors bushes one day or a woodchuck, who had dug a tunnel under one of the beds.
Figuring that sunflowers were probably doomed and not a reliable showpiece in the face of these predatory hungry mammals, I decided this summer to plant something almost equally showy and eye-catching. I chose Scarlet Runner Bean. By August it had overgrown its bamboo stakes and was flashing showy red pea-like flowers. Other gardeners were commenting and admiring its beauty.
So far, mammals have left it alone and it has attracted pollinators and is a favorite of hummingbirds. A native of Central America, Scarlet Runner Bean was introduced in the 1600s to the colonists by Native Americans. In colonial America it was grown as a food plant, with beans appearing late in the growing season. President Thomas Jefferson was reportedly fond of this heirloom plant and grew it at Monticello.
Scarlet Runner Bean is easy to grow, making it a favorite with children, beginning gardeners as well as home owners wanting to make a floral statement. It can reach 10 feet in height and therefore needs some kind of support. The perennial plant cannot tolerate frost and its flower die when temperatures reach the 90s.
This ancient bean is edible but must be well cooked to kill off toxins. But even if you don't eat the beans, this native-born plant will make a showy display that will impress your neighbors and friends. It is a plant that likes to show off. ...for gardeners with the same urge.
Or in the local pre-contact language Anishinaabemowin: Gash Kozin, Niibawin, Giigidoon
By Marsha Reeves
On the first Wednesday of the month at 7 PM locals and not-so-locals make their way to Flying Bear Books to exercise their courage and satisfy their curiosities. If you are one of the crowd there on any given Poetry Night you might hear poems read by those who wrote them and those who appreciate them. Not all of the poetry is original, but you can bet it’s all good if someone wants to share it enough to get up and read it.
The idea of a poetry night at the bookstore is the brainchild of Gabe Schillman (Studio 37) and John Reeves (Flying bear Books). It started in October of 2018, and since then people from all kinds of surprising directions have revealed themselves to be poets and/or lovers of poetry. All people, writers and listeners alike, are invited to check this event out. Customary attire is Newaygo County Classic (AKA whatever you feel like wearing) and the event is MC’d by Gabe.
We’ve seen the award winning Robert Fanning join us as well as Alan Basting from Bitely. In the near future Alan will be our Featured Poet, but this month, August, the mic will be open to everyone from the get go.
Oh, and Gabe has been known to grace us with some of his original songs.