Fighting Against Fitting In

The moss is taking over the patio. And I love it.

I like to lie on a chaise and stroke the moss with the tips of my fingers, like how you’d pet a tiny sleeping kitten.

Thick lovely moss

I like to watch the way the spores spread and bloom and thicken throughout the summer. I like visit places where something – probably a skunk or opossum – has dug up the moss in the night, in search of fat moist invertebrates to eat. During the day, in spring, birds strip off pieces, springy and green, to line their nests and cushion their eggs.

Spores spreading – and a bird visited recently.

But moss is one of those things that don’t fit in. One of those things we’re supposed to strip away from the bricks, so carefully and expensively laid in the garden. So we have to find ways to argue against the desire to make every bit of nature conform to our expectations.

Why can’t we resist the urge to remove whatever doesn’t fit in? How badly do we want to have things our way?

Things start easily enough. Let’s have a nice garden, we say. Let’s have a lawn, some flower beds, a vegetable plot, a patio. So we hire someone to do the bits we can’t or don’t want to do, and we take on the rest of the work. We plan, shop, dig, plant, water, fertilize – and then we expect to enjoy.

Nature laughs at our plans.

Our property is overrun with the native weed purslane this summer. It’s been very hot and dry hardly any rain all summer – and the purslane took full advantage of its opportunity.

Purslane takes over

Mile-a-minute weed also spread. And crabgrass. And then we had lots of bare patches of dirt where everything died and nothing replaced it.

So now we have planted grass seeds. Which means we have to water. The lawn is crisscrossed with hoses to golf course sprinklers that need to run daily for an hour. Stop watering, we have wasted time and money. And then will come the pressure – or the expectation – to apply the crabgrass killer, the grub killer, the other chemicals to remove whatever doesn’t fit in with our concept of “lawn.”

A pretty garden, if not for a mile of black hoses everywhere…

I needed to arm myself with a lot of information to fight the urge to slide down this slippery slope. Lawns are a waste of water. In the future there will be water shortages anyway, so the effort will be wasted. We will have to mow all the time. These chemicals are irresponsible to use, bad for the environment. Harmful to birds. The annual maintenance of a perfect lawn will cost thousands of dollars.

Lawns are stupid.

So we agreed to seed and water, and water more next summer, if needed – if the hot dry conditions continue. And why won’t they? The Pacific Northwest, California, the Amazon, Australia – all in flames. Surely we will be next.

Once we accept a less-than-perfect lawn, how freeing! Let the moss stay! Leave the spent perennials as they are – the goldfinches and siskins will pick them clean in no time.

Goldfinches have been filling up on seeds from these coneflowers.

Citizen Science for the Love of Trees

I love ginkgo trees so much that for my birthday one year, I asked my husband for a tree. It’s been growing steadily for four years, and now it’s going to contribute to climate science!

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My little ginkgo – ready for action!

I joined up on the National Science Foundation’s “Fossil Atmospheres” project, which combines contributions from citizens and scientists from the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to conduct climate change research. The project needs citizens around the US to send leaves and photos of ginkgo and to enter data about the tree into a database. (See Fossil Atmospheres for more info.)

Ginkgo are native to China and are the among most ancient trees on earth, little changed from the days when dinosaurs munched on their leaves. Because they are so ancient, they provide a great fossil record for comparison with modern trees.

You’d know a ginkgo if you ever saw one – they are the only tree on earth with a leaf that remotely looks like this (and yes, I have read a whole book about ginkgo).

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It’s hard for even the most callow citizen scientist to misidentify one. If you do, some ginkgo in public gardens and parks will have labels, like this one, on another ginkgo in a park near my house:

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I wanted to send in at least two samples, so I sampled my little tree and also a very large, older tree that sits on the grounds of the public library near my house.

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Grandma ginkgo

I love looking at this tree – which I call “Grandma Ginkgo” and imagining what my little tree might look like in 100 years.

The project requires you to take a few samples, photos and observations. You need to take one cluster of at least six leaves off each tree to be sampled. You must cushion the leaves inside a few sheets of newspaper and then reinforce the bundle with cardboard, so the samples don’t get damaged in the mail.

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Leaf samples ready for mailing

You also need to note the sex of the tree. Yes – ginkgo are male or female. Most trees you see around are male, because people usually don’t want to deal with female trees’ stinky fruit. The fruit covers a nut that some people find delicious. I have never tried it but I promise to this year (it involves a lot of prep work and can be toxic in large doses, so there are other issues besides the smell). Here’s what a developing fruit looks like (courtesy of Grandma Ginkgo). It turns golden yellow when ripe:

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You also need to note what side of the tree the sample came from (north, south, east or west) so the scientists can adjust for sun exposure. And you note the approximate height of the tree – 10-30 feet or 30+ feet.

Here are some other fun facts about ginkgo:

  • The oldest specimens are over 2,500 years old, making them among the oldest living things on earth
  • In the fall, the leaves turn a lemony yellow color. All the leaves drop in one day.
  • The first European visitors to China took home ginkgo seeds to plant in the UK, the Netherlands, France, and Germany
  • They’re among the most popular street trees in Manhattan – accounting for about 10% of all trees there
  • The leaves and nuts have many medicinal properties

And here are some gratuitous photos of some of the ginkgo motif items in my own home. What can I say? I am a nut for ginkgo!

If you want to participate in this project, follow the directions at Fossil Atmospheres and get your samples in by September 1!