Book Review: A New Way of Landscaping that Creates Habitat for Our Wildlife

Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Portland, Oregon, Timber Press, 2015, 271pp.

Douglas W. Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Portland, Oregon, 2007, Timber Press, 358pp.

Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of and Obsession, New York, Knopf, 2008, 359pp.

Rainer and West in Planting in a Post-Wild World write:

…[A] new way of thinking is emerging. It does not seek nature in the remote mountain tops but finds it instead in the midst of our cities and suburbs. It looks at our degraded built landscapes with unjaded eyes, seeing the archipelago of leftover land—suburban yards, utility easements, parking lots, road right-of-ways, and municipal drainage channels—not as useless remnants but as territories of vast potential. We pass them every day; their ordinariness is what makes them special. As such, they are embedded in the fabric of our lives, shaping our most recurring image of nature.

The traditional landscaping that we inherited from the early gentlemen and merchants and their gardens evolved into landscape culture of “naturalness” as the picturesque preference for long views, open landscapes, clean edges, and touches of mystery. As a result, the general public has little tolerance for wild, illegible landscapes and plantings, especially in cities and towns. When people encounter highly mixed plantings, they are often reminded of abandoned fields or derelict industrial sites, places often associated with urban decay or neglect.

Rainer and West give us an alternative vision that can begin with our yards and be adapted to our communities.

So what exactly is the planting of the future? Look no further than just outside your front door. Go find a patch of weeds in your neighborhood. Notice the variety of species and how they interweave to form a dense carpet. Or better yet, take a hike in a nearby natural area. Look closely at how plants grow in a meadow or a forest’s edge. Observe the lack of bare soil and the variety of ways plants adapt to their site. Then when you get back to your neighborhood, compare those wild communities to the plantings in landscape or garden beds. There is a difference between the way they grow in the wild and the way they grow in our gardens. Understanding this difference is the key to transforming your planting.

…the solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of species that cover the ground in interlocking layers.

Notice that the question for gardeners shifts from what to plant to how to plant.

By focusing on naturally occurring plant communities, as opposed to those that are purely native, the focus is shifted from a plant’s country of origin to its performance and adaptibility.

All it takes to become a plant community is:

1. All plants should survive in similar environmental conditions.

2. Plants must be compatible in terms of their competitive strategies, the key to having plants that last.

The practice is to cover the ground densely by vertically layering plants. As the light levels drop under a tree, grasses transition to a mass of ferns, maintaining a continuous sea of plants. The bases of trees where traditional planting often piles mounds of mulch can be filled with plants (green mulch) instead. Any space around the base of a plant is a space waiting to be filled. Even low plants benefit from being under-planted with creeping plants.

Rainer and West talk about ” naturally occurring plant communities, as opposed to those that are purely native.” Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home is an entomologist concerned about the insects that consume native plants and support native insectivores, like birds and amphibians. Tallamy goes to the ability of the native insects to survive on the plant, regardless of its origin but notes that even alien plants with similar origins accommodate fewer insect species than native plants. The ability of insects to survive to eat and pollinate the next year’s crops of native plants is critical to the survival of those native plants. As habitat is destroyed in development, as pesticides and herbicides are broadly applied without planning, the links between native plants, native insects, and native birds are broken and we start to notice population declines of birds and popular insects, like butterflies and showier moths. Tallamy describes these relationships in his chapter, “What does bird food look like?”

Whatever else it is, local habitat extinction is a local ecological and horticultural crisis. Having the native plants for native insects is the security for the habitat of the rest of the food web. And whatever impact native insects have on alien plants, alien insects frequently have had devastating impacts on native plants. And alien insects are frequently transported on alien plants.

How did we get so enamored of ornamental exotic species in the first place? Andrea Wulf tells the tale of how, on the British side of the Atlantic, wealthy gentlemen and merchants with networks of correspondents around the world traded plants from one continent to another. Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners describes how that correspondence and shipment of boxes of plants produced the explorer-botanists who would search out and ship the boxes of these new exotics as they were laying the foundations of the science of botany in the midst of Britain’s expansion of its empire. She then traces that history to the English obsession with gardening that was exported to America.

Peter Collinson had a correspondent in Pennsylvania named John Bartram, who regularly shipped him boxes of native plants from the eastern coast of America. Another correspondent, a Father d’Incarville sent seeds of Ailanthus altissima from China to Collinson in England in 1751; within a few decades, the tree of heaven had arrived in America. Because it is resistant to pollution, it was widely planted. Today it is considered an invasive species. In 1739 the Camellia japonica camellia had arrived in England and was on its way to America. It is one of the mainstays of ornamental exotics and quite well behaved; its popularity increased the replacement of native plants (such as rosemallow) with ever more camellias. In fact, the default landscaping for local gardens tends to be these exotics that are the result of 300 years of globalization.

Wulf’s book introduces some of the early scientific botanists, such as Mark Catesby, whose Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, (London, 1731-48) contains some of the earliest paintings of native plants and animals in the Carolinas. She follows the obsession with gardens that spread from France to England to America; a subsequent work of Wulf’s describes the gardening obsessions of the four first US Presidents, to whom much of our current styles of landscaping owe inspiration.

Save the Date: Durham Creek Week, March 17-25, 2017

picture of the 2006 clean-up crew at Grandale Drive bridge
Clean-up – Grandale Drive Bridge – 2006

It is time to save the dates again for Durham Creek Week. During Creek Week, Northeast Creek Streamwatch is encouraging volunteers to come out in neighborhood groups just to discover their local stream, explore it, clean it of litter or bulkier items. Northeast Creek also encourages volunteers to explore the wetlands that form the boundaries between many of our neighborhoods.

To participate in official Northeast Creek Streamwatch events, contact Colleen Haithcock (colleen@northeastcreek.org) to register. Also visit us at the South Durham Farmers Market during March.

To see announcements of events as they are scheduled, “like” Northeast Creek Streamwatch on Facebook.

Northeast Creek Streamwatch has been cleaning up locations on the creek since 2006; we have been participating in the Durham Creek Week clean-ups since 2009. Creek Week is a time to discover and clean up our local streams. It has been celebrated in Durham since 2009, with 1,937 volunteers collecting 117,270 pounds of litter to date.

Durham Creek Week 2017 will have events from March 17 through March 25. Save the dates now for the events that interest you and your family from the list of Durham-wide events..

map of northeast creek stream system
Northeast Creek System

The Northeast Creek watershed drains the southeastern part of Durham County, the northeastern part of Chatham County and the western part of Wake County. Water from Northeast Creek flows into Lake Jordan at the NC 751 bridge and from there down the Haw River to the Cape Fear River and out to the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Fear, south of Wilmington. If you live south of Glover Road or Riddle Road in Durham and between Fayetteville Road and Miami Boulevard in Durham County, or east of NC 751 and north of New Hope Church Road in Chatham County, or north of Green Hope Road and west of NC 55 in Wake County, you likely live in the Northeast Creek basin.

So find your location in your watershed, gather up some friend, family, neighbors, and co-workers, and schedule a creek clean-up for Durham Creek Week. It’s a great way to welcome spring!

Save the Rain Workshop – Saturday, October 22, 9 am – 11 am

sandwich sign that says Northeast Creek Streamwatch Save the Rain Workshop
Upstream Neghbors/Downstream Neighbors Project hosts a Save the Rain Workshop

As homeowners, we can extend the principle of catching and holding rainwater to restrain how much water and how fast its flows downstream during a rainstorm. These actions can affect the amount of erosion of stream banks in downstream neighbors’ yards and reduce flooding of downstream neighbors’ property. We can also save back some of that water for dry spells, hold it long enough to recharge the water table here instead running rapidly the length of the Cape Fear River, and create more habitat for pollinators.

A reasonable goal is to capture the first inch of rainfall from the square feet that your property has as impervious surfaces and hold it for up to three days. There are a variety of ways to do this; the county Soil and Water Conservation District (in Chatham, Durham, and Wake counties for Northeast Creek) can provide technical assistance and tips for beginning your plan of rain saving. And you need not hit the goal of “one-inch saving for at least three days” all at once; you can try different combinations of techniques on your property to see what works best.

For the second year, Cory Quammen, a resident of Grandale Forest on the headwaters of “Tributary D” of Northeast Creek, is holding a gathering of his upstream and downstream neighbors, Saturday, October 22, 9am – 11am to show some examples of problems caused by excessive runoff as well as some rain-saving measures that have been installed on his property.. Invitations will go to the neighbors within his local creek basin in advance of the meeting. Contact cquammen@gmail.com for further information.

Upstream Neighbors/ Downstream Neighbors project hosts Mike Dupree; Mike speaks February 24 at ERUUF

People listening to Mike Dupree of Durham Soil and Water talk about retaning rainwater on your property
Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors Project holds Save the Rain workshop at South Regional Library on February 4, 2016

The Upstream Neighbors/ Downstream Neighbors project hosted Mike Dupree of the Durham County Soil and Water Conservation District at the South Regional Library on February 4. Mike informed us about the services that his department of county government provides to property owners and why these services benefit both the property owners and the quality of water—specifically in Northeast Creek and in Jordan Lake.

In introducing Mike, Cory Quammen shared how the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District is helping owners of property that backs up on a creek in his neighborhood with flooding and stormwater issues.

Mike will be speaking at the Eno River Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship (ERUUF) on Wednesday, February 24 at 7:00 pm. His topic will be managing water, nutrients, and pests.

Thanks to everyone who came to the South Regional Library. We would love to hear feedback from those of you (5) who set appointments for Mike to consult with you about the issues with your property. Send your comments to colleen_haithcock@yahoo.com.

For those who wish contact Mike Dupree, it is mdupree@dconc.gov or 919-560-0558.

Here is a link to a video about the Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program that Mike Dupree described February 4.

Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Progam

Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors

Hurricane Joaquin highlighted the effect that upstream water retention has on downstream currents and flooding. It makes us more aware of being upstream neighbors of coastal areas like the Cape Fear region and also our immediate neighbors downstream.

The water that Joaquin dumped on our roofs and flowed down our gutters and downspouts and across our yards into tributaries of Northeast Creek will eventually join water that fell on roofs in Guilford County and flowed down the Haw River. Then it will collect the water that has fallen more recently on roofs in Sanford and Fayetteville before it reaches that bridge. The large area of the Cape Fear River drainage basin includes a lot of neighborhoods, with water flowing from upstream neighbors to downstream neighbors, affecting the use of water and the condition of the stream boundaries along the way.

Closer in, the water from Northeast Creek flows into Jordan Lake, which is the water supply for a number of neighborhoods as well as the towns of Cary and Morrisville. The Town of Cary in turn will supply additional water to the City of Durham during drought conditions.

More local, the water that runs off all at once from roofs, sidewalks, driveways, and streets (surfaces designed not to allow the water to soak in, called “impervious surfaces”) can erode downstream neighbors’ yards. The collecting of rapid runoff at creek junctions can back up into yards and threaten to flood under houses.

As homeowners, we can extend the principle of catching and holding rainwater to restrain how much water and how fast its flows downstream during a rainstorm. These actions can affect the amount of erosion of stream banks in downstream neighbors’ yards and reduce flooding of downstream neighbors’ property. We can also save back some of that water for dry spells, hold it long enough to recharge the water table here instead running rapidly the length of the Cape Fear River, and create more habitat for pollinators.

A reasonable goal is to capture the first inch of rainfall from the square feet that your property has as impervious surfaces and hold it for up to three days. There are a variety of ways to do this; the county Soil and Water Conservation District (in Chatham, Durham, and Wake counties for Northeast Creek) can provide technical assistance and tips for beginning your plan of rain saving. And you need not hit the goal of “one-inch saving for at least three days” all at once; you can try different combinations of techniques on your property to see what works best.

Cory Quammen, a resident of Grandale Forest on the headwaters of “Tributary D” of Northeast Creek, is holding a gathering of his upstream and downstream neighbors, Saturday, October 24, 9am – 11am to show some examples of problems caused by excessive runoff as well as some rain-saving measures that have been installed on his property.. Invitations will go to the neighbors within his local creek basin in advance of the meeting. Contact cquammen@gmail.com for further information.

Monarchs Fly at Sandy Creek Park

Teacher photographing students by a monarch caterpillar art project
Northeast Creek Streamwatch member Nancy Lambert, art teacher at Fayetteville Street Elementary School (on Third Fork Creek) photographing students by the caterpillar the Fayetteville Street art students made for the Monarch Festival at Sandy Creek Park, Durham

The Northeast Creek Streamwatch Puppet and Parade unit participated in the organization of the Durham Monarch Festival 2015 along with conservation organizations from throughout Durham County. As part of the festival, schools were encouraged to participate, and Northeast Creek Streamwatch member Nancy Lambert turned her art class at Fayetteville Street Elementary School into creating art representing the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. The big burlap sculpture that the class made of a monarch caterpillar was a big hit.

Northeast Creek Streamwatch member Colleen Haithcock painted the large monarch butterfly banners and some of the signs used for festival operations. The grand parade for releasing the monarchs was led by a stylized milkweed floral spray that Colleen made.

Monarchs migrate from Canada and the United States to the Michoacan area of Mexico every fall and return north every spring. Each journey represents about three generations of monarchs, which lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Because milkweed plants are toxic to livestock, the habitat for monarchs has been decreased from increased pasture land use and from urban development. Conservationists are encouraging the planting of milkweed as butterfly gardens to increase the monarch population. The familiar yellow, black, and white striped caterpillar is the larva of the monarch; get used to tolerating seeing these on the milkweed that you plant for them.

Tenth Anniversary – Statement of Appreciation for Founder Michael Pollock

Michael Pollock holding up a hub cap during an Earth Day clean up in 2006
Michael Pollock holds up a hub cap cleaned from Northeast Creek at the Grandale bridge on Earth Day, April 22, 2006

At the Parkwood Flea Market in early October 2006, Michael Pollock stood at a table recruiting members for Northeast Creek Streamwatch, an organization to conduct volunteer stream monitoring of Northeast Creek, a tributary of New Hope Creek (Jordan Lake). Michael had responded to publicity from the City of Durham Stormwater Services environmental education office for volunteer stream monitors. It is hard to believe that after ten years Northeast Creek Streamwatch is still here, thanks in part to Michael’s persistence.

Michael Pollock grew up wandering the tributaries of Northeast Creek as a youngster, exploring the nature of the banks and wetlands near his home in the Parkwood subdivision of Durham. As he grew older, he wandered farther, read more, learned more and followed the path of nature writing. Today, Michael still contributes articles to the Parkwood Inside/Out, but he has added the Chatham County Line, and also this site, the blog portion of the Northeast Creek Streamwatch website.

Michael attended the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, where he studied biology and anthropology. He is knowledgeable about the local plants and amphibians of the area, with a special interest in the local salamanders.

When Northeast Creek Streamwatch has an information table at community events, you can generally find Michael showing frogs, a salamander, or whatever he was able to find in the creek that morning or a collection of local rocks that he has picked up over the years.

If you want to explore the main stream of Northeast Creek, you can go on one of Michael’s quarterly stream monitoring visits to the creek or one of his nature hikes. A favorite time is when the spring ephemerals are out in the Corps of Engineers game land along Northeast Creek at Grandale Drive.

The people of Northeast Creek Streamwatch appreciate the fact that Michael Pollock got us going; yes, he’s the founder. We appreciate his sharing his knowledge with us. And we celebrate the ten years that we’ve kept Michael’s project going even as its activities have evolved. Thank you, Michael.

American Tobacco Trail – Big Sweep – October 3 – Volunteer

Because of the potential for flooding and falling trees from the soggy soil, Northeast Creek Streamwatch has postponed this week’s clean-up of the American Tobacco Trail. We will have a rescheduled date sometime next week.

A cleanup of the trail that crosses Northeast Creek and its tributary Panther Creek in the 6 miles between Fayetteville Road in Durham County and New Hope Church Road in Chatham County. This section covers the part of the trail that crosses the Northeast Creek and Crooked Creek watersheds.

RSVP at Northeast Creek Streamwatch Facebook site

Meet at the trail heads at Fayetteville Road bridge (south of Massey Chapel Road), Scott King Road, O’Kelly Church Road, and New Hope Church Road.

Saturday, October 3, 9am – Noon

Cleaning sections moving both ways from the trail head.

Pack, bike, or wagon out trash bags

Statement of Appreciation – Mr. Barry Archer

barry archer with fox mask on top of head waiting for beginning of the 2014 Parkwood Christmas Parade
Barry Archer as Creek Critters fox in the 2014 Parkwood Christmas Parade
In March 2014 Northeast Creek Streamwatch participated in the Durham Creek Week stream clean-up by cleaning the banks of the creek that flows into the Parkwood lotus pond and lake. In preparation we had advertised in several local businesses. We set up a table with a banner announcing a creek clean-up, and people came out to participate. Among the folks who helped were several youth, one of whom rode by on his skateboard and went home to change and came back to work. Several of the youth belonged to a local youth group and asked if their youth group could do a another clean-up as they were looking for service projects..These youth were participants in a community leadership training program facilitated by Barry Archer of Barak Source for Learning; they came to the next monthly meeting of Northeast Creek Streamwatch and invited our group to meet with them.

As a result of that meeting, Northeast Creek Streamwatch collaborated with Spring Break enrichment program by locating a speaker from the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, who spoke about urban creek runoff and the problems of erosion and non-point-source pollution. The group then conducted two days of clean-ups and learned about the hydrology, plants, and animals of a section of Northeast Creek that included blooming paw-paws and spring ephemerals. This section includes meanders and oxbow ponds, which are normal flood plain features in the geography of the Durham Triassic Basin.

In December 2014, this youth group marched as part of the Northeast Creek Streamwatch unit in the Parkwood Christmas Parade, wearing costumes of a great blue heron, deer, and other creek critters.

In January 2015, this youth group helped make costumes of other creek critters in preparation for the Durham Creek Week kickoff parade. In March 2015, they marched as herons, frogs, and other creek critters in the parade. Adult facilitators and parents of the youth marched as a fox, a leaf and ladybug, an opposum, and a beaver.

The leader of this group Mr. Barry Archer trains the youth in leadership skills, and we have been very impressed with the ability of the youth to volunteer and seek out opportunities for service on their own.

Northeast Creek Streamwatch takes this occasion at the end of a summer program put together by Mr. Archer and Mr. John Apel to thank them for their continuing collaboration with the efforts of Northeast Creek Streamwatch and to the greater Parkwood community. We also thank the youth who have been involved in these several programs for their hard work in cleaning up Northeast Creek and their willingness to learn the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills involved in the creek and its care.

Beautiful hibiscus

This is based on an article I wrote for the July issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out. There were some website issues, so I haven’t posted in a few months. Hibiscus are probably still blooming; they were still in bloom in the Coker Arboretum last week, but it is getting late in the season for them, so now is the time to go to your local pond.

Parkwood Lake Hibiscus

Hibiscus or mallows are the showiest natives growing along the margins of Parkwood Lake and local beaver ponds in midsummer. The most common species is a small bush with soft, dark green leaves and huge white 5-petalled flowers with dark red or purplish centers, each flower lasting one day. I think this is Hibiscus moscheutos, or H. palustris, but they seem to be considered the same species now. The other Hibiscus is a rare species with bright red flowers, probably H. coccineus, native to Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, but apparently introduced in North Carolina relatively recently, since it doesn’t appear in the comprehensive Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas written in the 60’s. There were some small Hibiscus at the Clermont end of the Lake before it was deepened last year, and I thought they were killed, despite the ribbons I tied on them, but there are still a few small Hibiscus there. They aren’t flowering, possibly because they get too much shade, or they were cut back, or maybe they sprouted recently. Elsewhere in Parkwood there are rose-of-Sharon (H. syriacus), a tree-sized Old World Hibiscus. Hibiscus are in the mallow family (Malvaceae) with marsh mallows (Althea officinalis, a European plant found in North Carolina whose roots were used to make the first marshmallows), okra, hollyhocks, and cotton.

I’m not completely sure what the white Hibiscus are. Both H. moscheutos and H. palustris have been called swamp rose mallows, and the former has also been called wild cotton (but don’t look for a cotton boll), breast root, and crimson-eyed rose-mallow. Both can have pink flowers, but H. moscheutos is usually white and I only see white flowers around here. The name would make more sense if the rose in rose-mallow just means rose-like. The Greek word for mallow is hibiscus and moscheutos refers to the smell of musk roses, another relative. These plants are perennials, but their tough stalks seem to regrow from the base each year. I usually see hibiscus growing around 2 to 4 feet tall, but they can reach 8 feet. They have oval to three pointed, red maple-like leaves alternating along the stalks. The leaves don’t look particularly fuzzy, but they still have a soft texture. The large flower buds are surrounded by an array of needlelike, but soft green bracts and larger sepals that extend after flowering to protect the developing fruit. The petals have a soft, pleated appearance and the male and female parts are united to form a structure like a radio tower jutting from the center, like other Hibiscuses. The flower gives way to a dry capsule that opens in the fall or winter, releasing many seeds. Hibiscus don’t produce fibers, but the fruit resembles an unopened cotton boll. These mallows like to grow in marshes and beside ponds in full sun, but yards with moist soil and those around Parkwood Lake should be able to grow them.

H. coccineus is called rose, scarlet, or brilliant mallow, and scarlet mallow comes closest to describing the color. Supposedly it is also called Texas star, but it shouldn’t grow there naturally. This species can grow up to 10 feet tall and has palmate, or hand-like, leaves with three to five points. There must be some red Hibiscus in yards around the Lake, and they self-seeded into the marshy ground along Clermont, or someone planted them there, because I’ve never seen them naturalized elsewhere. These plants seem more lofty and airy than the white Hibiscus and very tall examples can be seen waving over the flowerbeds along the central brick path at UNC’s Coker Arboretum.

Hibiscus are supposed to attract butterflies and ruby-throated hummingbirds, but I mainly see bees visit them. I also don’t see many insects eating the leaves, but Japanese beetles and the spiny caterpillars of Io moths, one of the smaller giant silk moths, can eat Hibiscus, and common checkered-skippers, painted ladies, and gray hairstreak butterfly caterpillars, eat plants in the mallow family and this might include Hibiscus. Cooks can use Hibiscus leaves as a thickener like okra and as cooked greens. Hibiscus, especially H. moscheutos, leaves and roots are mucilaginous and were used herbally to soothe and soften tissue and H. moscheutos was used against breast cancer.

If you look for Hibiscus at the Lake, you will probably notice the color of the water. At the start of July the Lake was opaque yellow with silt eroded from the Meadows at Southpoint construction site at the corner of 54 and Barbee Road, the headwaters of the stream feeding the Lake. Durham Stormwater Services investigated and said there weren’t any big problems with the erosion controls and the contractor was very cooperative. This is how the Lake fills with muck, but soil also bleeds from yards with every rain and much of Parkwood drains into the Lake, so when people pile leaves and logs in the streams, this is also usually where they are heading. I’m not sure how much of a problem the recent runoff is for aquatic life, but excessive siltiness is harmful for some organisms. Further downstream a beaver pond bordered by Hibiscus, roses, dogbane, spotted jewelweed, and beds of brilliant green knotweed is still the color of tea, naturally dyed by decaying vegetation. Northeast Creek turned brown with the recent storms, hopefully not only because of the massive grading at sites just north of RTP. The poor water quality tolerant carp are jumping in the Creek, and they are the subject of my article in the latest issue of Chatham County Line (www.chathamcountyline.org).

Volunteers Preserving the Natural and Cultural Heritage of Northeast Creek