Spring arrived late this year, and with it came the weekend drone of lawnmowers. Many an otherwise perfect Sunday afternoon nap has been shattered by a neighbor’s noisy grass trimming machine.
And for what? To do it all over again in seven days.
Over the years, I have had neighbors who pay a service to come out and fertilize their lawns and treat them with an herbicide that kills everything save the grass. I’ve also heard people complain about their high water bills during the summer when without constant water, the lawn might turn brown.
One upside of last summer’s drought was that more people let their lawns go dormant, and went weeks at a time without mowing.
The grasses that comprise the typical American lawn – Kentucky bluegrass and various fescues – are referred to as “cool season” grasses for a reason. They prefer cool and moist conditions like one expects in the spring.
Most of the grasses in American lawns were imported from Europe. Early settlers found grasses native to the Colonies were less desirable for grazing by the livestock that were brought along from Europe.
Picture the British and northern European countryside with sheep grazing on lush green meadows. Now, imagine the weather – cool summers, mild winters and plenty of rain.
Then, think about a typical July day in McHenry County: sunny, hot, humid, dry. Hardly ideal conditions for plants that like it moist and cool!
So, the first problem with the typical lawn is that the grass species aren’t right for our climate, and require large amounts of water and fertilizer to stay lush and green during the summer. The next problem arises from over-fertilization of lawns in residential areas.
Applying too much fertilizer too often is not only bad for the health of one’s lawn, but it will also have a negative impact on the water quality of local rivers and streams. Excess fertilizer (that which is not needed by the plants) will run-off with the storm water, which eventually arrives in a local creek.
A third concern related to lawn maintenance is air pollution. A Swedish study conducted in 2001 concluded, “Air pollution from cutting grass for an hour with a gasoline powered lawn mower is about the same as that from a 100-mile automobile ride.” The small engine of a gas-powered lawn mower is very inefficient, and lawn mowing in the US has been estimated to account for up to five percent of air pollution in this country. New mowers are more efficient than older models, but a better alternative is to replace the gas mower with an electric model. Not only do they emit zero air pollution, they are quiet. Quiet enough that they will not spoil a good nap!
There are alternatives to the lawn. Beds of native plants, for example, are not only beautiful, but also easy to maintain. Native species can be found for any growing condition.
Got shade? Try hazelnuts, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells and wild geraniums. Wet area? Nannyberry viburnum, river birch, sedges and Golden Alexanders are some species to consider. And for those hot, dry spots, I like New England aster, Compass plant, black-eyed Susan and Prairie coreopsis.
Before buying any new plants for one’s yard, check to make sure that the species chosen are not invasive in this area. The Chicago Botanic Garden maintains a handy guide to invasive plants that includes suggestions for alternatives.
I felt such joy yesterday at Shrub Club seeing a tray of hackberry trees sprouting!
I had my doubts about whether we would get anything from the hackberry seeds. The main issue was the seeds are small and non-descript, and when we were sorting, there were several moments when I realized that what I thought was a seed was actually just a small ball of dirt.
Growing up, I disliked hackberries. The bark was lumpy, the leaves were irregularly shaped, plus the leaves often seemed to be covered with bumps like they had some disease. It has only been as an adult that I have come to love this tree.
From the USDA, hackberries are great habitat trees for the following species: Wild turkey, ring-necked pheasant, quail, grouse, lesser prairie chicken, cedar waxwing, robins, and other bird species consume common hackberry fruit, which persist throughout the winter. Small mammals also consume the fruit. Deer will browse common hackberry leaves in the absence of preferred browse species. Common hackberry provides good cover for species such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, upland game birds, small non-game birds, and small mammals.
The hackberry is also important habitat for a large number of butterflies like the Hackberry Emperor, Mourning Cloak and Question Mark, in addition to a wide variety of insects that are important food for birds!
And that explains the bumpy leaves. The bumps are insect galls, which are basically tiny insect biospheres. From Wikipedia: Insect galls are the highly distinctive plant structures formed by some herbivorous (plant-eating) insects as their own microhabitats. They are plant tissue which is controlled by the insect. Galls act as both the habitat and food source for the maker of the gall. The interior of a gall can contain edible nutritious starch and other tissues. Some galls act as "physiologic sinks", concentrating resources in the gall from the surrounding plant parts. Galls may also provide the insect with physical protection from predators.
If you'd like to get in on the Shrub Club excitement, join me at Glacial Oaks Nursery Tuesdays from 5-7 and Sundays from 2-5! This is an exciting time now that the weather has finally warmed - everything will start popping now!
Glacier Oaks Nursery is located west of Harvard at 8216 White Oaks Road. From Harvard, take 173 west through Chemung to White Oaks Road. Go north for 2.2 miles, and turn right (east) in the driveway with the white farm house. Please pull into the second driveway (the north one) because there's better parking from that side.
The month of May is officially Invasive Species Awareness Month in Illinois!
The goal of the month is to help every resident of the state find out what he or she can do to help stop the spread of invasive plants, animals, insects and disease.
So, where to start?
Well, here is some info on a few of the most problematic invasive species one is likely to run across in this area:
1. Garlic mustard. Leaves on first year rosettes are green, heart shaped, and 1-6 inches long. Foliage becomes more triangular and jagged-looking as the plant matures. The plant is low growing, most often found in woodlands, and smells like garlic when crushed. Garlic mustard is a biennial, meaning that it only lives two years: in the first year it only has leaves and builds its roots; in the second year it uses the energy in its roots to grow flowers and produce seeds - lots and lots of seeds. And those seeds germinate the next year and the cycle starts all over again. This plant is a problem because it crowds out native woodland plants like shooting stars and trillium. Garlic mustard has also been implicated in preventing young oaks from sprouting.
2. Buckthorn (Glossy and European). This tree (or shrub) has dark green, oval leaves about 1-2 inches across. European buckthorn branches have thorns at the tips and the inner bark is orange, so it is very obvious when cut. Glossy buckthorn is very similar but grows in areas that are more wet. Both varieties of the tree produce purple to black berries in the fall. The berries are eaten by birds which then disperse the seeds. Buckthorn starts to grow earlier in the spring than native trees and shrubs, and it stays green later into the fall than most other plants. The tree was brought to the US from Europe as an ornamental (decorative) shrub. And in some communities, Buckthorn are pruned into topiary sculptures and revered for the dense, thorny screen that they provide between neighbors. Well, in natural areas, buckthorn wreaks havoc by shading out other shrubs, young oaks and all of the typical woodland herbaceous plants. Soon, the only things growing are buckthorn and maybe some garlic mustard.
3. Honeysuckle (Tartarian and Amur). Tartarian has red flowers and amur has white blooms. Both have ovate (almond-shaped) leaves, but the Tartarian's leaves are blue-green and 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches long and the Amur has leaves that are dark green on the top and light green underneath. The shrubs are native to parts of Asia and were introduced to the US by way of a Russian Arboretum in the late 1890s. Despite warnings by the Morton Arboretum in 1924 that the plants were weedy, the US Department of Agriculture recommended planting them for erosion control and wildlife habitat until 1984. Their leaves are the first to emerge in the Spring, and like buckthorn, they shade out native shrubs, young trees and herbaceous plants.
4. Gypsy moths. The caterpillars emerge in the first part of May (when serviceberry starts to bloom), growing steadily as they feed on tree leaves. They feed at night, then hide in tree bark or the ground during the day to avoid being eaten by birds. Their presence is usually first noticed when one sees that the leaves on a tree look lacy (since the caterpillars don't eat the leaf veins). If the infestation is limited to just a few trees, one can remove the caterpillars as they climb down the trees in the morning. Larger infestations require professional help from an arborist. The moths emerge in mid July. Females are white and do not fly, so are fairly easy to spot. They lay masses of eggs that look like smears of peanut butter on tree branches and other surfaces. One can scrape the egg masses off when spotted, but be sure to scrape them into a container and destroy them. If they are scraped onto the ground, they may still hatch! The gypsy moth was brought over to the US from Europe, and it is a problem because infestations can completely defoliate trees. If defoliation happens several years in a row, the tree can be killed. Oaks - McHenry County's signature native trees - are a favorite of the gypsy moth.
Now that you know more about the impacts of non-native species, how will you celebrate this month?
I have a few suggestions:
1. Pull garlic mustard at a local woodland.
2. Cut buckthorn and honeysuckle at a local natural area.
3. Plant native plants in your yard.
4. Inspect your trees for evidence of gypsy moths.
The important thing is to do what you can - everything helps!
Visit the website: www.invasive.org/illinois to learn more.
It's Squirrel Week at the Washington Post! Kind of like "Shark Week," but featuring furry, bridseed-eating rodents rather than cold-blooded predators. Columnist John Kelly started Squirrel Week to highlight this beloved - and loathed - suburban resident.
Personally, I am fond of squirrels, and I actually feel bad that my squirrel-proof feeder works so well that I only need to add seed every third day now that the squirrels have given up. (I now put seed on the ground for the squirrels.)
A friend spotted a flying squirrel in her backyard over by TLC's Yonder Prairie. He (or she) has been raiding birdfeeders at night for some time now, and my friend eventually was able to catch the culprit on film! The flying squirrel is mainly nocturnal, so it is uncommon for people to see them. The birdfeeder was being emptied overnight, but until she spotted the little flying squirrel, she had no idea who the culprit was.
The flying squirrel’s cousin, the well-known grey squirrel, doesn't sneak around - he's right in the open, shamelssly cleaning out birdfeeders in plain sight.
In defense of squirrels, and in support of Squirrel Week, I thought I'd share some facts about squirrels. If you already love them, you'll have some tid-bits to impress your friends. And, if you are not fond of them, maybe some fact on the list will get you to reconsider your dislike - or at least help you to dislike them less...
- The grey squirrel is a member of the family Sciuridae, which includes marmots (hedgehogs), prairie dogs, chipmunks, ground squirrels and flying squirrels.
- The oldest known member of the Sciuridae family dates back nearly 40 million years based on fossil records.
- There are 285 known species of Sciuridae on the planet, and they are native to North and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe.
- Squirrels (and their kin) are found in habitats that range from bitterly cold regions to dry, hot deserts.
- Squirrels become fertile at about age 1, and will produce 1-2 litters a year. The young are born after 3-6 weeks gestation, and are mature enough to leave "home" after 6-10 weeks depending upon the species. Newborn squirrels are said to look like unshelled circus peanuts with little legs.
One of the reasons squirrels inspire so much resentment and anger is that they are not content to just stop by one's birdfeeder for a snack when they are hungry. No, the typical squirrel will stay at a feeder and eat until all the seed is gone.
Further, squirrels are agile and persistent, which means they will stick at the problem of getting to the desired seed no matter what obstacles are placed in their way. Here is a cute video of an obstacle course that someone set up for a squirrel that gives you an idea of what they will do for a dish of nuts.
My final thought in defense of the humble grey squirrel and his kin is this: if more people approached the obstacles and challenges in their lives with the tenacity and creativity of a squirrel, there would be no problem we could not overcome!
I heard them before I saw them, hundreds of Canada geese. A raucous honking as the birds circled a pond, vying for a spot to spend the night. The sun was near the horizon, and as I drove home, I noticed ribbons of the birds flying as far as my eyes could see – some in the classic V-formation, others in long lines. All, presumably, in search of open water where they would spend the night.
Branta canadensis, as it is known to scientists, has proved to be a highly adaptable species that benefitted greatly from the rapid suburbanization of metro areas like Chicago since 1980. In fact, the geese like the suburbs so much, that many have stopped migrating – they are now considered a year-round resident species. Geese like the suburbs for several reasons: habitat, food and safety from predators.
Canada geese like open water, especially when it is free of places where predators can hide. People call these areas stormwater detention ponds, and have a tendency to keep the lawn mowed right up to the edge of the water. To a flock of geese, these neatly manicured detention areas are perfect.
Geese are herbivores, meaning that they eat mostly plants. They like grass and corn (which is a type of grass). And if there is one thing the suburbs have in abundance, it is grass. Plus, as development marched steadily westward into agricultural areas, the suburbs also put detention ponds and farm fields in close proximity. To the geese, we could not have planned it any better.
Finally, the suburbs tend to have fewer predators to bother geese. Many suburban communities have implemented programs to cull coyotes that might otherwise prey on geese. (Cull means to reduce a species’ population deliberately through hunting). Additionally, hunting, for sport or food, is not permitted in most suburban areas, providing geese with a large safe haven in the ‘burbs.
The birds are now found in such high numbers that many consider them pests. There exists a whole industry that offers to keep geese from golf courses, corporate campuses, public parks and airports. Some use border collies that harass the geese enough that they will not stay in an area. Others have machines that make noise to scare the geese and keep them away.
There is a simple way to keep geese away from some areas: plant tall vegetation. Seriously. Geese will not be comfortable in a pond that is ringed with tall grasses or shrubs – there are too many places where predators can hide. Similarly, by maintaining more tall vegetation in a golf course’s “rough,” geese will choose to spend their time elsewhere.
Personally, I like Canada geese – they mate for life and the parents work together to raise their young. And I appreciate their hardiness. About a Century ago, the Canada goose appeared headed for extinction due to hunting and habitat loss. After conservation efforts began in the 1960’s, they rebounded. Then, as more suburban development occurred, their population exploded, thanks in large part to open water detention ponds and mowed lawns.
It seems ironic that humans provide the ideal conditions for the geese to thrive, and then complain that there are too many of them.
The Land Conservancy of McHenry County
Lisa Haderlein has worked and volunteered in the conservation and environmental field for over 25 years. Since 2002, she has been Executive Director of The Land Conservancy of McHenry County, a local, non-profit land conservation organization. Lisa and her husband, Tom Cubr, share a 105 year old house with three cats in Harvard.