All posts by Randal

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 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

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.

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

Durham Creek Week 2014 – Clean Up Parkwood Creek

Ten volunteers (eight shown here) cleaned up the creek that runs to Parkwood Lake
Parkwood Creek Clean-Up – Creek Week 2014

Ten volunteers (eight seen here) in three hours cleaned out six bags of trash on Parkwood Creek between Seaton Road and the Lotus Pond on Clermont. Objects recovered from the creek were a couple of small tires, a well-weathered kickball and small football, a length of twisted guywire, and a bent metal table leg.

Homeowners Guide to Stormwater Management

New Hampshire Guide to Stormwater ManagementNew Hampshire Homewoners Do It Yourself Stormwater Management
(PDF 56 pp, 10.4MB
The State of New Hampshire has prepared a New Hampshire Guide to Stormwater Management (PDF 56 pp, 10.4MB). The techniques for managing drainage on your property are applicable here.

The guide to native plants, however, is for New Hampshire. Look at the list of native plants under the Explore Your Neighborhood menu on this site for ideas about suitable plants for Chatham, Wake, or Durham counties. Or contact your Agriculture Extension Agent.

Stream clean-up and self-organization

Self-organization is an idea that has become current in the Facebook/Twitter age, but it does not depend on technology.

Self-organization is the process where a structure or pattern appears in a system without a central authority or external element imposing it through planning. This globally coherent pattern appears from the local interaction of the elements that make up the system, thus the organization is achieved in a way that is parallel (all the elements act at the same time) and distributed (no element is a coordinator).

Language and culture are self-organizing. Markets begin as self-organizing. Many of the things that were earlier labeled as the “social contract” are self-organizing. Civil society, those organizations other than corporations or government, are self-organizing.

Stream preservation involves elimination or reduction of:

  • sediment in runoff from property,
  • pollution from human-controlled sources,
  • pollutants in the air that fall out or wash out in rain as pollutants.

Watersheds consist of a tree of catchments. Catchment is another word for a drainage basin that comprises a single segment of a stream (a twig of a limb of the tree pattern of a stream) and the surrounding land from which the water runs off. The people who live in a catchment form the group primarily responsible for the water quality of that catchment. They can most effectively organize themselves to protect that water quality.

The Northeast Creek Streamwatch web site exists to support folks in the Northeast Creek watershed who are already working to improve water quality in their neighborhoods. The front page is for notices of events that clean up a section of the creek, provide environmental education to adults and children, advocate for better water quality, inspect and monitor the creek for deterioration and pollutants, and conserve the buffers on the creek and creek bottomlands.

The front page is for sharing stories about the history of folks who have lived in the Northeast Creek watershed and cultural events that have happened in the area.

The front page is for opinions about the best way to preserve Northeast Creek and its cultural heritage.

It is for teachers to share lesson plans about using the creek for instruction as:

  • a demonstration of scientific facts or principles
  • a laboratory for projects or field work
  • an example for making mathematical problems real and motivating students
  • a subject for art, photography or writing
  • a theme for performance, music, dance
  • a setting for drama
  • a subject for developing research skills in natural history, history, genealogy, measurement, laboratory techniques

It is for calls to advocacy on issues affecting the preservation of the Northeast Creek watershed, its natural heritage, and its cultural history.

If you live or work in the Northeast Creek watershed, the front page is for you.

It is for facilitating the self-organization that can help preserve the creek and its heritage.

To post, you will need a login. Request one from webmaster@northeastcreek.org. You must provide an address and an email address in order to receive a user ID; this is to ensure that folks who post are in the Northeast Creek watershed and to prevent spamming of posts and comments.