Creating Solutions Through Sustainable Landscapes

Rex waterfallAccording to a recent symposium of Landscape Designers and Architects (link below), water is the critical issue facing humanity. Water resources are becoming increasingly burdened, with high population growth, water shortages and changing climate. I would also add that soil is paramount as well. We have lost much of our topsoil already, and water and wind erosion contribute greatly to our loss; however, soil loss and water run-off is really about our (human) practices. This, we can change.

Each of us must learn about water resources and make some changes: in how we use water and, in what water-intensive resources we use. We must also teach our children – well. Begin to implement small changes at home – by collecting rainwater for watering gardens and by using permaculture techniques, which protect water and soil. Educate ourselves about the manufactured products we use, the amount of water and chemicals inherent in their production.  Opt for recycling and upcycling wherever possible.  Choose wisely.

If you live on some wooded acreage, allow leaf mulch to collect and leave some standing dead wood and some fallen wood on the ground.  This is good for the decomposers, birds and mammals, and erosion control.  If you graze animals, please use good stewardship practices, such as grass finishing and pasture-rotation.  Try to grow native too!

Wildflower creek walk 2013Keep in mind entire systems – how everything works together.  I like to think – how would Nature do it?  Truthfully, if we do nothing, nature will take care of itself. However, we like our veggie gardens, shrubs and flower beds, as well as pathways that are not only aesthetically pleasing but that serve a purpose – allowing us to walk unimpeded by ticks, chiggers and snakes (at least, here in the country!).

2832917We now also need to remove invasive species of plants in order to help our natives survive and thrive , which includes some selective harvesting of trees.  My treehugging soul has fought admitting this for many years, and I still prefer to err on the side of keeping the trees and weeds as much as possible! Thankfully, Rex is patient with my process, always balancing our ethic of helping the earth with our ethic of “do no harm”. 🙂   Go here to see our Rogue’s Gallery of invasive plants.

rudbeckia and echinacea (640x480) (2)I would also suggest that big yards should be a thing of the past, opting for encouraging our vital pollinators with native – and sometimes ornamental – flowers and grasses, and importantly, for growing some of our own food plus a little extra. After all, more than six billion people rely on food grown on about 11% of the global land surface!  (from National Geographic “Our Good Earth”, September 2008).  Why not be a little independent of the box stores by growing our own greens?  Of course, try to buy at your local farmer’s market or small local stores when necessary.

U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The history of every nation is eventually written in the way in which it cares for its soil”.  And Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1746, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water”.

Let us all determine ourselves to be part of the solution – for the water, for the soil, for ourselves and for each other.

~ Lorian

For more information on the water resource symposium, read up on it in The Dirt. http://dirt.asla.org/2013/04/24/what-is-the-most-critical-issue-designers-dont-even-know-exists/#like-13588.

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February Landscape Tasks for Nature Lovers

February is an excellent time to work outside – cool temps, no bugs, no hurry.  Here in Missouri Zone 6, in the time of Imbolc (an ancient Gaelic celebration of Spring), just after The Day of Marmota Monax (according to him, Spring will be early this year)

Imageand well into the Mayan New Year,Image the sun is shining, the temperature is in the upper 40’s, and it is quite pleasant. Which brings us to how now is a good time of year to do a few things for your landscape, and your trees and shrubs will thank you.

Prune for Structure

If you haven’t already done so, corrective pruning works well now because the plant’s energy is still in the roots.  It is much less stressful for the plant or tree if you do a more vigorous pruning when the plant is dormant.  You can easily see the branching structure of your trees and shrubs, and at this time of year, you won’t have to dispose of all the leaves.  Be careful that you do not cut off your spring flowers, because many of the spring flowering plants are budded and just waiting for enough warmth to open up.  These particular plants (viburnum, lilac, azalea, etc.) should be pruned after flowering.  So, you don’t want to tip-cut the early blooming plants like this, but it is okay to remove old canes that are less vigorous. Cut those canes back as close to the ground as you can.   Keep in mind that maple pruning at this time will cause a lot of sap loss, unless you want to collect it in a bucket and cook it down for maple syrup!  It’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for dead wood and remove it when you see it. Dead limbs provide an entry into the live wood for insects and rot.

Cut Back Grasses

Now is a good time to cut your grass!  Ornamental grasses (such as liriope/monkey grass, maiden grass, fountain grass, etc.) should be cut back to about 6″ from the ground for larger grasses and about 2″ from the ground for smaller monkey grass.  When the dead or old grass blades are gone, the soil will warm up faster; the plant will begin to grow sooner Liriope Muscariand will look lovelier.

Transplant Plants

The spring digging season is about to begin.  Now is a good time for transplanting deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, and to make arrangements to plant larger trees and shrubs that will be field dug at the nursery.  This timing will help you get better choices, as quality plants can get picked over by spring.  Also, early planting eliminates transplant shock when no foliage is exposed.  You will also be able to take advantage of the spring rains and have less watering and maintenance work.  If you have very little experience, I recommend you consult a Horticulturist for advice on transplant information regarding your specific plant or tree choice and your location and/or help in accomplishing your goals.

For the DIYer, some things to bear in mind, which is not total but will give you a good start when planting a new nursery tree or shrub:

1)  “Call Before You Dig”, that is, dial “811”;

2) Be certain that the plants you have chosen will work well in your landscape – Does it need well-drained or moist soil? Will the plant like the intense heat/sun on the western side of your house or does it prefer the sunny south or cooler north side, or what?

3) The width of the new hole you dig should be twice the size of the root ball, and the depth should be a little bit shallower.  If the root ball is planted in too much depth, the tree could drown; too high, it could dry out.  Create a little ring of dirt around the root ball that will bring some water to the roots and not dry out too fast.  Mulch and water it in.

4)  When digging out a shrub, keep as much of the soil and root base intact as possible.  Move root ball and place it in a newly dug hole that is well-aerated and larger than the root ball.  Then, you can fill it in with amended soil, if the original soil is not adequate.  Keep the base of the plant slightly higher than the surrounding dirt.  Mulch and water it in.

A Word About Natives

We really want to encourage  native plants and edibles instead of large areas of mono-culture non-native lawns.  In fact, check out this blog about starting a veggie garden (with great resources too!).  Also, read this article if you would like to know “How to Start an Organic Garden in 9 Easy Steps”.  Try to buy or grow as many native plants, shrubs and trees as you can; rudbeckia and echinacea (640x480) (2)they will attract all manner of birds, butterflies, bees, and dragonflies, will resist drought and require less water once established, and they do not require chemical inputs to survive.  Many natives are perennials or will reseed, giving you years of enjoyment from the original plant or seed.

Take Time for the Small Pleasures

Implementing these suggestions now will help you stay caught-up in your landscape gardening.  Instead of hurrying through spring with the usual business of over-burdened schedules and appointments and last-minute gardening, you can approach the excitement of spring in an unhurried manner, able to pay full attention and smile. 🙂

Sunny Skies and Off-Grid Living

It’s not for the faint of heart, but living off grid can be very satisfying.  All you need is the Sun (and the equipment, of course!).  Even with the diffused lighting of a cloudy day, solar panels will produce some energy.

solar panels web small

Having your energy produced by solar panels is environmentally friendly, renewable, sustainable, and by being off-grid, you don’t have the additional monthly “service availability charge” coming in from the electric company.  Besides, you’ll need that $25 per month when you have to replace your battery pack!  Battery replacement varies, but the average batteries will last 3 to 6 years in an off-grid situation.  To be off-grid, you have no electric lines running from your house to your utility company.  We will also touch on grid intertie and grid-interactive systems, but since we live off-grid, that’s the perspective we’ll share for this article.  Now, contrary to what you may have heard, solar is a very cost-effective way to reduce your energy costs and your carbon footprint.  Check out this blog at Earthtimes.org to learn the top 5 myths discouraging homeowners from getting solar panels.

To See the Forest for the Trees

We always knew we wanted to be powered by the sun, even after having enjoyed the pleasure of lanterns for a couple of years, but when we realized that we needed to allow 30,000 square feet of forest clearing (1000’ x 30’) to allow for the power lines (never mind that coal is the main driver for electricity in this state), that did it for us.  We didn’t want to use coal, and we didn’t want a view from our house of a cut-out swath of forest and electric poles and wires.  Destroying all those trees for our electric consumption seemed sad, considering that we moved to the forest because of the trees.  You do, however, have to have a clearing for your panels to receive sunlight, and we deal with this continually, living in the forest.

forest for the treesOur panels have a “window” of about 6 hours of sun per day, which is about as small a window as you would want.  It’s too hard to part with the trees!

It’s a Battery Life

The winter has the largest effect when being off-grid, due to increased cloud cover, shorter days, and colder temperatures influencing the battery pack.  So, the batteries react much the same as the batteries in your car; when the temperatures drop, they have less capacity to hold energy.  Battery storage in a warm spot is helpful.  Just remember, they do produce hydrogen gas when charging, which is explosive, so they need to be safely vented.  It has become a real household occupation to check the voltmeter inside the house to see our battery charge.  It lets us manage our battery bank; you really want to keep your batteries above 50% capacity for their health.  And speaking of health, you have to tend them gently every so often with a dose of distilled water in each of their little cells…Now, we know if we can watch that show, if we should turn off the frig for the evening to preserve power, if we need to use the generator, or if we should just chill out and use our DC lights to read a book. It all depends on us.

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battery bank wired in series

An interesting sidebar about solar in winter due to a chemical process involving how the silicon reacts to temperature, the coldest sunny day of the year will give you the highest voltages coming off your panels.  We have to design the system based on this, because you can damage your charge controller if it hasn’t been sized for this higher winter voltage.

Here in Missouri, you can have many days in a row without sunshine.  So, what do you do?  Some people try a hybrid system of solar with wind energy.  Wind energy is site-specific, and there isn’t that much wind on this eastern side of the state.  We mainly get it in the spring.  It can be a help, but it won’t give you everything you may need to fill in the gaps.  A wind system needs to have a tower where the bottom part of the blade is at a minimum of 30’ above the nearest obstruction, such as buildings or trees.  For us, this would mean having a wind turbine blade’s lowest point starting at 110′, since our trees are easily 80′ tall.  Another option is charging your battery pack with a generator, which is loud, polluting and somewhat expensive (depending on your circumstances and how much you have to use it), if it’s a gas generator.  A diesel generator that can run off of WVO (waste vegetable oil) would be the optimum choice.  Batteries will always need an equalization charge approximately every month, which can be done with a charge controller, but a generator is *almost* a necessity for an off-grid system.

E = Efficiency

The key to off-grid living is to use as little power as necessary year round.  Efficiency everywhere – lighting, appliances and usage – is essential.  When we go to bed, no appliances are on, except for the refrigerator, which cycles periodically.  No chargers are plugged in; all phantom loads are off, due to power strips.  Our normal-size Energy Star refrigerator (with small freezer on top) is our biggest load in the house; it uses an average of 1200 watts per day.  Probably everyone’s biggest energy consumer (besides heating and air conditioning or the Jacuzzi)  hmmm, maybe we’ll do another post about the pleasures of a hillbilly hot tub  is the hot water tank.  Starting out with a propane hot water tank seemed like the best option for us back in 1994, but when the tank broke last year, we had options!  In order to not rely on fossil fuels, we now heat our water with a wood-fired hot water system, soon to have a solar aspect to it for summer use, which we will cover in another blog post, along with photos.

Are you a Candidate for Off-Grid Living?  Compare the Options

Being off-grid makes sense for people who are off-the-beaten-path, Imageor if you already like your privacy and your view and don’t want the trees cut down.  Now if you want to go solar, but have access to or already are grid-tied, then a battery back-up system will give you security when the grid goes down. You can include your essential loads such as a refrigerator, well pump, some lights, and computer on a subpanel that will always be fed through the inverter via grid power or solar power.  Know that most standard grid-intertie inverters are required by law to shut down when there is power outage, so if you want to stay powered when the grid goes down, you will need a battery backup system.  If you aren’t concerned about losing the grid, then pure grid-tie is the least expensive route to go, allowing you to make your energy during the days, then use that energy throughout the month, basically off-setting your electric usage with solar.  In Missouri, we hope to go to a yearly net-metering plan, but right now it’s based on one month.  This means that at this time, we cannot use the excess energy from summertime to offset the darker months of winter.

Ultimately, you can power anything you want with solar, if your pockets are deeper than your desire to be more energy efficient.  It is much more cost-effective – and you’ll greatly reduce your carbon footprint – to become energy efficient, and then use solar to power your lifestyle.