Good Oak News

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Book Review: Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy

This review can be summarized in one sentence: this is the most inspirational book I have read since A Sand County Almanac.

Dr. Tallamy does an excellent job explaining how important landscaping with native plants is to preserving our wildlife. Beginning with a heart-wrenching story about how as a child his favorite little pond full of toads and other wildlife was literally bulldozed in front of him, he describes how development and agriculture have wiped-out and critically fragmented our natural areas, leaving populations of our wild plants and animals on the brink of collapse. Furthermore, invasive plants and insects, most of whom were brought to North America intentionally or unintentionally through the horticultural trade are permanently altering our remaining natural areas and driving our native species to extinction.

As an entomologist, Dr. Tallamy focuses this book on the relationship between our native plants and the critical role wild insects play in the ecosystem. When most people think about insects, they only think of pests like roaches and yellow-jackets, but Dr. Tallamy explains that only 1% of insect species are pests to humans. He describes the fascinating diversity of native insects found in our native landscapes and how these insects regulate plant populations and are a critical food source for the amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that we might hope to invite into our backyards.

Chapter 12 describes in detail exactly how various native plant species support wildlife. He continues in Chapter 13 with a catalog of the various families of insects, from beetles to butterflies, with fascinating stories about their lifestyles and striking photos of these truly beautiful though often overlooked creatures.

Finally, Dr. Tallamy offers recommendations as to how people can go about using native plants in their home landscape. This portion of the book is the only one in which I can find fault. First, he doesn't offer enough detail to be useful to most home owners. This is understandable since the book is a powerful treatise on "why" to landscape with native plants, it should be left to other authors to describe the "how" of native landscaping.

More critically, I, and others such as the Wild Ones organization, need to disagree with Dr. Tallamy regarding the use of cultivars of native species. He suggest cultivars as a harmless alternative to truly native plants since they can also feed wild insects. This could not be further from the truth. Many cultivars have been modified in ways that make them less useful to wildlife. For example, columbine is a critical food source for hummingbirds and hawkmoths, yet many cultivated columbines do not produce enough nectar to support these species. Some cultivars that, for example put a lot of energy into developing extra flowers, are less hardy than their wild counterparts and thus are less able to compete with weeds. These cultivars will be from other regions, and thus the plants will not be ideally adapted to local conditions, unlike local-ecotype plants. These factors make cultivated natives a bad choice for landscape use. Furthermore cultivars have the potential to interbreed with the small populations of our truly native plants. This risks "genetic pollution", weakening our native stock, and potentially accelerating their extinction in the wild, rather than aiding and supporting these populations as local-ecotype plantings will.

This minor point aside, this is one of the finest books ever written on the relationship between people and nature and should be on everyone's "must-read" list. Hopefully, future edition will exclude the suggestion that cultivars of native species are appropriate for use in landscaping.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Buckthorn clearing season is here!

Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is perhaps the most damaging exotic species in the Midwest. It can invade and destroy remnant prairies and high-quality woodlands and is quite common in fencelines and woodlots. Buckthorn grow rapidly, and a stand of them often goes unnoticed until they are large, producing dense shade and poisonous chemicals which kill all other plant life in the area. Buckthorn produce berries prolifically, which are spread by birds and other wildlife. The berries are of little nutritional value because they have a severe laxative effect, depriving the creature that eats them of nutrition and water. Additionally, buckthorn is the sole overwintering host of the soybean aphid and is also an alternative host of crown rust of oats.

If you have buckthorn on your property, and you probably do, it is imperative that you eliminate it for the sake of all of our wild plants and animals. Now is a good time of year to kill buckthorn for several reasons. First, they are easy to spot, because instead of putting on nice fall colors, the leaves stay a dull green and hang on these shrubs through November and into early December. Second, most of the native plants are now dormant so you can go in and tackle the buckthorn without hurting any of the good-guys. Third, a herbicide application can be very effective on buckthorn stumps (else they resprout in spring!) as the plants draw nutrients back into the roots for storage for the winter, thus killing the plant permanently.

To help you in this effort, I have a Weed Identification and Control Sheet for buckthorn (PDF format) for you to download and learn from. If you have any questions feel free to contact us, we want to help get rid of buckthorn anyway we can! And if you have a job that's too big for you to tackle on your own, we're offering 25% off our our usual rates for any jobs clearing buckthorn and other invasive brush job this winter. So give us a call!


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Book Review: Birdscaping in the Midwest by Mariette Nowak

From time to time I hope to keep readers up on some of the great books available about ecological restoration and landscaping with native plants. Today I will tell you a bit about Birdscaping in the Midwest by Mariette Nowak.

Ms. Nowak begins this book by explaining why plants, specifically native plants are critical to the survival of our wild bird species. Basically, she makes the case that there are critical habitat issues which threaten the survival of many bird species in North America and that by landscaping with native plants we can start giving that habitat back. This section is followed by several inspirational stories of people across the Midwest who have done just that.

In the following chapters the author goes into some specific types of gardens for various types of birds. These include particular species such as hummingbirds and Eastern Blubirds but most of the garden types she introduces us to are more general, intended to replicate habitat such as prairies or woodlands for the species that inhabit these natural communities. Each of these chapters is intended to be a manual for constructing backyard habitat for birds that live in these communities.

While the information in these chapters is sound, I found that there was a lot of potential overlap, for example, should your yard be a woodland bird garden, a shrubland bird garden or a bluebird savanna bird garden? The answer may be "all of the above" or just one of these habitat types, depending on your yard. By delineating these habitats into particular habitat types she provides organization for the book but also ends up with a lot of duplicate and discontinuous information. The end result was that I found myself flipping back and forth between various chapters quite a bit. Very few people are going to find that their yard fits neatly into one potential habitat type or another, so any user of this book will likely make use of several chapters to develop their bird habitat plan. On the other hand this might force you to look at your property in new and interesting ways. In the end I suppose this is both a strength and a weakness.

Birdscaping in the Midwest includes a whole host of information such as lists of plant species with high value to birds to plant, recommendations for bird houses and feeders. In fact, there is so much information this could really be split up into several books, and I hope the author can go more in depth on some of these subjects in this book in future works. I found the book very informative and with my extensive knowledge of native plants I was able to visualize some of the habitat gardens she described and extrapolate new ideas for species and designs that would help meet the needs of birds. For those not familiar with plants or landscaping installation, there is still a lot to learn which is why she includes "Gardeners' Resources" in the back of the book. I just wish she had more field guides and native landscaping books in her list of resources because I feel most people are not going to have a very good grasp of the many plant species she recommends in this book

Overall, I highly recommend this book for any bird lover or anyone interested in native landscaping. I pull it off the shelf and use it as a reference quite regularly. It really helps you understand the connections between different wild organism (plants, insects, birds and more), teaching us that the plants are really just the foundation of native landscaping much of the magic is the animals that utilize these plants. Mariette Nowak provides a resource for native landscapers whether they want to specifically focus their property on their favorite bird species, or just want to make a more well-rounded backyard habitat.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Report on the Last Flowers of Fall

It may be a week overdue (we've been very busy with fall plantings around here!) But I thought I'd send a quick report regarding our fall wildflower walk on the weekend of Oct. 9th.

We began our trip by looking at some of the fall blooming asters in the "dry prairie" portion of the UW Arboretums native plant gardens, this area is right at the front of the building. There we saw silky aster, flax leaved aster and sky blue aster all showing off a bit. Most of the goldenrods were starting to go to seed, but a few showy asters still had some bright yellow color for us. Last but not least we looked at several species of grass which are good for ornamental purposes such as dropseed, side-oats gramma, bottlebrush grass and little bluestem as the latter species began to take on the characteristic bronze coloration which it will maintain all winter.

Because some of the young plants that were planted this year are blooming out of sequence, the UW Arboretum's native wildflower garden is an interesting place to visit where we can see a number of species blooming that should have gone to seed months ago. Species like butterfly weed and early sunflower were doing their best to attract pollinators a good two months after their wild counterparts have finished blooming. I'm sure they'll get the timing right net year.

As we moved around the back of the visitors center we were delighted to find a flock of cedar wax wings dining on the berries of a grouping of elderberry bushes.

Storms were threatening to move in, so we called it a day after about an hour and a half at the gardens. It was an enjoyable morning there, but really, any time you get out in a natural setting is a good time.

Stay tuned here, for next year we will be planning bi-monthly field trips in the Madison area and around southern Wisconsin. If you would like to be put on the email list for these trips please contact Frank.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Last Flowers of Fall wildflower walk this Sunday, 9 am.

This Sunday at 9am Frank will be leading a Last Flowers of Fall wildflower walk at the UW Arboretum. We'll start the walk taking a look at the native landscaping garden at the Arboretum visitor center. Then after an hour (or a little more) we'll head over to the Grady Tract, the portion of the Arboretum south of the Beltline to enjoy the natural areas there. Through-out the walk we'll take a look at flowering asters, late-blooming goldenrods, gentians, and if we are really lucky maybe an orchid or two. We'll also enjoy the bronzing prairie grasses and some of the early fall colors from the likes of sumac and aspen. We'll undoubtedly have some encounters with wildlife as well.

This walk is open to the public so contact Frank if you are interested. This single walk for 2008 will be forerunner of a series of twice-monthly walks starting in late April next year, so it should be a lot of fun!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

See Us at the Willy Street Fair

Good Oak will have a booth at a local community event here in Madison this Sunday September 21st. Frank will be staffing a booth at the Willy Street Fair from 11am to 7pm. Our booth will be between Paterson and Livingston streets, near the street address of 824 Williamson St. Stop by and say hello to talk about native plants!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Fall Planting Season is Here!

With cooler and wetter weather, and several months to go until the ground freezes, it is again a great time of year to plant. Fall planted perennials will have a big head start on plants put in the ground next spring, meaning more vigorous growth and more flowers. If you contact us soon we can help you get some new native perennials and ornamental grasses on your property. Shrubs and trees on the other hand need to wait a bit longer until they go dormant for the year. But come mid-October we can install some of them for you too. There are a lot of great options for hardy native plants that will beautify your property and provide benefits to wildlife too, so give us a call or send us an email so we can get you started.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Native by Design: a "How-to" Conference for Gardeners"

On September 14th the UW Arboretum will be hosting a native landscaping conference called "Native by Design" This all-day seminar will have several workshops and a guided tour of the native gardens at the arboretum. The cost is $50 for the general public and $43 for Friends of the Arboretum members (lunch included), a small price to pay for the information and inspiration this conference offers. And look for Frank there, he will be volunteering at the check-in table and ushering tour groups around the gardens.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Now Serving Chicagoland!

My good friend Douglas Chein, the man who gave me my start in prairie restoration way back in college, has decided to join the Good Oak team in order to offer native landscaping and ecological consulting services in the Chicago area.

Chicagoland was founded in a landscape with an exceptional diversity of plant and animal life and rich with a variety natural communities. So contact Doug if you're in the Chicago region and want to bring back the natural beauty of Chicago to your property.

...And, as always, contact me for projects here in Wisconsin.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Better Lawns and Gutters Tour this weekend!

The 7th Annual Better Lawns & Gutters Tour highlights what local residence are doing on their property to improve local water quality. The tour highlights rain gardens and landscaping with native plants. So come on down to the Bruce Company at 2830 Parmenter Street in Middleton this Saturday between 9am and 1pm to start off your tour. Frank will be there helping out at the Wild Ones booth, or off taking the tour himself! Click on the link above for more information.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Greener Golf

Despite being composed of acres of green grass, golf courses are not typically very "green" in the environmental sense of the word. However, including native plants in golf course landscapes can help keep water clean, provide wildlife habitat and reduce maintenance costs. Win, win, win! Are you a golfer? Talk to your club or course manager about the benefits of going native. Take a look at these articles on Science Daily to find out more:
  • Golfers And Golf Courses Benefit From Native Grasses In Roughs
  • Plants Can Make Golf Courses Greener By Filtering Pesticides
  • Could Golf Courses Double As Wildlife Sanctuaries?

  • Thursday, June 19, 2008

    In The News...

    Check out this recent article about us in the Sustainable Times. The Sustainable Times is a great (free!), local, monthly environmental publication that can be found in many locations across southern Wisconsin.

    Saturday, May 24, 2008

    Last call for spring wildflowers

    As our trees fill out their branches with leaves, the season for ephemeral wildflowers in our woodlands is coming to a close. But what a grand finale it is! In a fine woodland you can now see many species blooming such as Great White Trillium, Wild Geranium, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Large-Flowered Bellwort, Blue Violets, Virginia Waterleaf, Wild Columbine, Solomon's Seal, False Solomon's Seal, Jacob's Ladder, Shooting Star and even Yellow Lady's Slipper Orchid.

    So take some time before spring is gone to head into the woods and enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds you. Contact us for a list of recommended sites for a wildflower walk.

    Friday, May 9, 2008

    Its garlic mustard pulling season!

    Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is one of the most troublesome noxious weed in our region. This plant can be found in many shade to semi-shade areas, sometimes forming extensive dense patches which exclude all other plants. This invasive species is originally from Europe, and because it doesn't have any pests or herbivores who will eat it here in the U.S., it goes entirely unchecked.

    So this is a call to action! Get out and patrol your property for this species. See this UW Herbarium web page and this National Park Service page for help identifying this pest. Then get to work getting rid of it! For small patches it is fairly easy to pull it all up, make sure you get the root and all, and then bag it for disposal. These plants can produce thousands of seeds per plant and the seeds can ripen even on a "dead" plant laying on the ground. So don't just leave it laying around! Also, be sure to notify your neighbors about this pest and maybe take a few extra minutes to pull a few of the plants that are infesting your neighborhood park. Every little bit helps!

    For larger patches of garlic mustard there are several other methods that will be more time-efficient at knocking that garlic mustard back. Please contact us and we can tell you how to tackle it yourself or you can hire us to do the dirty work for you.

    Good Hunting!

    Monday, April 28, 2008

    Spring wildflowers are here!

    Things are starting to green up quickly outside, and many of our spring wildflowers are in full bloom. Bloodroot, toothwort, Virginia bluebells, bellwort, hepatica, trout lily, rue anemone, spring beauty, violets, prairie smoke.... and more are blooming right now. You can find them at the UW Arboretum and other area woodlands and prairies. Contact us if you'd like to have them blooming on your property by next spring.

    Sunday, April 20, 2008

    Come See Us at Green Day

    Good Oak is going to have a booth at the Isthmus's Green Day event, this coming Saturday, April 26th, at the Monona Terrace from 9am to 6pm. We'll have information about landscaping with native plants and be available to answer any questions you might have. See you there!

    Friday, April 18, 2008

    Earth Day Celebration

    Come find our table at the Habitat Re-Store Earth Day Celebration!

    After visiting our booth, check out the Recycle/Reuse art auction or fun children's activities.