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.
Photo and story by Donna Iverson
Check around any neighborhood and you will likely find many a deck, porch, or front step with a potted tomato plant. People who no longer garden, for one reason or another, will buy a tomato plant, pot it up and place it in a sunny spot near their doorstep.
The potted tomato plant seems to satisfy the need to get your hands in the dirt and watch a small seedling turn into a plant with edible delicious red fruit that tastes better than anything you can buy.
This spring, I rescued two tomato plant seedlings from the farmers market and potted them up and gave them a new home on my second-floor apartment deck.
Unfortunately, within a few weeks, I learned that when it comes to potted tomato plants, I had a lot to learn and had done pretty much everything wrong.
While the tomato is the most popular potted plant, it is also one of the more difficult to grow. But I didn't know that until mid-summer, when my spindly tomato plant was taller than me and looked like a plant from outer space
My first mistake, apparently, was planting the seedlings in a too-small container. Tomato plants like to grow in a big pot, the bigger the better. And they don't like to share that container with another tomato plant or any other growing thing. My two seedlings were sharing a too-small container and their roots were competing for nutrients.
Tomato also like to be planted deep and have their lower leaves removed. I hadn't done that either. To compensate, I purchased a small bag of potting soil and poured the dirt to top of the container. I was trying to trick my tomatoes into thinking that their stems had been planted in deep soil. Am not sure that worked.
Another mistake was that my deck does not provide enough sun, only about four hours worth. Tomatoes require six hours of direct sun and prefer eight hours. I crossed my fingers that the extra hot summer we were having would make up the difference. Not sure that's working either.
According to the Farmer's Almanac, tomatoes are incredibly fussy. To quote: "in layman's terms, plants stress when it is too hot or too cold, too much nitrogen and/or too little potassium and calcium, too much or too little water."
Despite all these pitfalls, I am doing some things right like watering every day but not over watering, I also apply a steady dose of tomato-specific fertilizer. Potted tomato plants like to be watered in the morning, so I have adjusted my watering schedule accordingly.
"Garden like you're broke"
By Donna Iverson
Living along the shores of Muskegon Lake, I heard tell of a Depression Garden being grown at the historic Solnik House in Muskegon. It sounded intriguing so I went for a look.
These mostly urban backyard gardens were popular in the 1930s when the depression forced many people to grow their own food to survive. My Dutch maternal grandfather was one of them. During WWII, the depression garden morphed into the more well-known Victory Garden.
While we are not in a depression, there is a lot to learn from these back-to-basics gardens that focused on growing staples to feed people. Foods like potatoes, beans, tomatoes, peas, carrots and cabbage.
The Depression Garden at the Solnik House is on the south side of the building. Veggies grow in ground-level wooden boxes that likely date back to the 1930s. It is a no-frills garden with the look of simplicity and austerity.
I thought about my own community garden bed with its mixture of veggies, herbs and flowers...as well as an ornamental scarlet runner bean. This plant I grow mostly for how it looks with its scarlet flowers that attract hummingbirds. I smiled to think that Jack in the Beanstalk would have loved it. But a depression garden it isn't.
Still I was attracted to the depression garden and the lessons it might offer. Such as:
1. Growing your own food as a way to save money and supplement the family income.
2. Insuring that your vegetables are not contaminated by herbicides or pesticides
3. Planting for fresh seasonal produce, lettuce and peas in the spring, tomatoes in the summer, pumpkins in the fall and maybe even a winter crop of collard greens.
But there's more than that. We could all use a dose of depression era mentality, according to Kim Slotterback-Hoyun, a northern Michigan gardener. She advises residents to: "garden like you're broke." Plant from seeds if possible. Use what you have to create beds, trellises, and bee houses. Dig out that old shovel and hoe and put some elbow grease into your efforts, forgoing the fancy gardening equipment.
And help out your neighbors. Back in the 1930s, vacant lots were turned into relief lots. Food was grown for those who needed it. Much like today's community gardens. Although today, more and more community gardens are putting fences around their beds and warning neighbors, "if you didn't grow it, don't take it." In the community garden that I am a member of, we open the gardens to the public after August when veggies would rot on the vine if not harvested.
In summary, depression-era gardens pull us back to basics, growing our own food, using what we have, and helping out our neighbors when possible.
Story and photo By Donna Iverson
Ever thought about adding some native plants to your garden as a way to help restore the natural habit of your area which has been largely lost in the past century? If so, a good place to start is by planting a native flower and a good first choice would be purple coneflower.
A member of the sunflower family, purple coneflower is native to the eastern United States. Purple coneflower can be found east to New England, west to Iowa, south to the Mississippi valley and north to Ontario, Canada. In addition to being grown in gardens, it has escaped to the wild, and can be found in waste places and woods throughout Michigan. It is at home in formal gardens and wildflower meadows, and tucked along the edge of your vegetable garden.
Growing 3 to 5 feet tall in any kind of soil, purple cornflower is easy to grow. This showy perennial doesn't care if it is wet soil or dry, sand or clay, poor or fertile soil. Although it will grow taller if the soil is enriched.
Native plants, like the purple coneflower, require less water than cultivated flowers and do not require fertilizer or treatment with herbicides or pesticides. In fact, using herbicides and pesticides would defeat a major reason for planting native plants, which is to feed and provide habitat for pollinators. Adapted to its local environment, it is a magnet to bees, butterflies and birds. Without native plants, bees and butterflies cannot survive.
To grow purple coneflower, it is best to buy seedlings as it takes two to three years for this plant to flower from seed.
As for medicinal properties, purple coneflower is a member of the genus, Echinacea. Found in the vitamin aisle, Echinacea tablets are widely sold in grocery and drug stores for cold relief. But be careful, there can be allergic reactions and interference with prescription medications. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to be sure it is safe for you.
Finally, if the idea of growing native plants really has your attention, check of the National Wildlife Federation website at www.nwf.org. You can enter your zip code, and get a list of the flowers that are native to you exact local. Photos are included and the site is interactive.
But whether you decide to grow purple coneflower or not, notice it's beauty the next time you spot it whether hiking or taking a stroll around your neighborhood. Especially enjoy purple coneflowers majestic appearance when it has escaped to the wild.
While the larger retail outlets have already started pushing us out of summer and into fall with school supplies replacing sunblock on the shelves and shorts and t-shirts moving to the close out rack to give way to flannel, no foreboding of fall has been more flagrant than ths photo snapped by Jim Maike last week about 9:30pm on 8th Avenue South of White Cloud.
By Terry Grabill
I spent some time in northern Ontario last week. It was planned as a fly-in fishing trip for Walleye and Northern Pike but, let’s be honest- I was birding. I was traveling with Tim and Ken, my friends from decades ago, and they like nature but are not particularly excited about birds. The three of us shared a boat on Granite Hill lake for five days and they humored me while I ignored my fishing rod and listened intently to bird songs. I was excited to have the opportunity to hear and see some of my favorite migrants on their “home turf”. As time passed, they too were picking up on sounds and quizzing me on the species making them. And, to my great satisfaction, they started referring to me as “Goober” as much they did Terry.
Every year, Andrea and I look forward to our May excursions to migrant hotspots to get our annual glimpse of Cape May, Bay-breasted, and Blackpoll warblers as well as Swainson’s thrush and White-crowned sparrows. They don’t sing much on their migration path: That’s a job left for the breeding grounds. Some of the species that migrate through, especially shorebirds, are bound for the high-arctic. Many, however, are birds that nest in the boreal forests of northern Ontario. The landscape there is breath-taking from the air, with dense (I mean really dense) conifer forests on rocky hills with pristine lakes in each valley.
Our float plane flight from White River goes straight north over just such habitat. From the road and from the air, there is lots of evidence that we’re not in West Michigan anymore! We encountered two gray wolves on our drive and a black bear on our last trip. We were advised that if nature calls while we’re fishing, it’s better to land at one of the many islands rather than the mainland shore to avoid a chance encounter with a large carnivore.
The birdlife wasn’t as obvious until we were out on the still mornings fishing quietly by Picnic Island. The spruces were alive with birdsong! Northern waterthrush and Connecticut warblers sang constantly. Winter wrens burst out their impossibly long trills. Common ravens made their very un-musical sounds, much the irritation of my partners. I (mostly) ignored their grousing about the “noise” because this BirdGoober was in foreign territory. I was birding by ear to vocalizations I’d heard mostly on CDs, not birds singing to their mates and adversaries just a few yards into the thicket.
Boating around lakes in West Michigan, I see mallards and wood ducks. On Granite Hill Lake I didn’t see a single one of those. Instead, common mergansers (and only females!) abounded. In fact, Tim quickly picked up on IDing those. In the backwater area of a winding river we found common goldeneye. I had read as a boy that these winter visitors to Newaygo nested in the spruce forests of Canada...so why was I surprised to see them?
What is a north woods lake without common loons? We have loons at home and their haunting calls epitomize the northern experience. Many of my local fishing lakes have a resident pair that sometimes fledges a baby. On Granite Hill Lake, however, loons are different. These were not pairs and I didn’t see. any with young. They were in groups of five to ten and were mostly silent as they fed together far from shore. On our visit to Granite Hill two years ago, I counted a string of more than fifty as we motored to the west end of the lake!
I think I won’t look at migrants quite the same way after visiting their breeding grounds. These little fighters stop only briefly on their journey, and I’m glad I got to see their summer destination.
For BirdGoober, I’m Terry Grabill