July Challenge: Watching our water usage

Water is the driver of nature. – Leonardo DaVinci

A sponge under a leaky faucet takes care of the annoying drippy noise. I do that. I have also plugged the sink and let it fill up with the drips, you know, to save water.   I will use that water for the house plants or to wash dishes. But really, this is just plain laziness and fixing the faucet would be a much better option and waste no water.

During our hot and sometimes dry month of July, let’s make water conservation the focus of our monthly sustainability challenge.

I was asked once, “Do you have water at your farm?”

“Two springs,” I answered.  “Then you are wealthy,” was the response.

This is really how we need to think of water, as a source of wealth.  In Ohio, we are lucky to have an abundance of fresh water. That does not give us permission to squander it, it gives us the responsibility to conserve it and keep it clean as it flows downstream all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.  Restoring the ecological health of rivers, watersheds, wetlands, floodplains, and aquifer is key to preserving our wealth and health.

Globally, about 70 percent of available fresh water is withdrawn for irrigation and other agricultural purposes. In places where water scarcity is a problem—about a third of the watersheds of the world—that percentage can grow to more than 90 percent. But there are ways to cut back water use without harming agricultural productivity, even in arid places. In the USA, most of the water is used not for irrigation (29%), but in the thermoelectric-power industry to cool electricity-generating equipment (40 to 50%).

In addition to fixing any leaky faucets, here are 10 more simple suggestions for how to conserve water in your home and garden:

  1. Use a rain barrel to collect water that can be used for your garden and plants.
  2. Turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth and washing your hands
  3. Keep a plastic dishpan in the sink, so rinse water doesn’t automatically go down the drain.
  4. Take shorter showers or decrease the number of showers you take. For most people, daily showers are not a health or hygiene-related necessity.
  5. Water your outdoor plants in the early morning. You can use less water before temperatures start to rise during the day causing evaporation.
  6. Use native plants and/or low water plants and succulents. Consider the amount of water and care that plants will need while planning your garden.
  7. Add mulch. A 2-3 inch layer of mulch helps your garden soil retain moisture.
  8. Reduce your lawn size. Adding patios (we love natural building techniques) and other non-grass spaces reduces the amount of water you need to maintain your yard.
  9. Recycle household water. If you use a dehumidifier, keep a 5 gallon becket nearby to dump the water in. You can reuse this water for plants, etc.
  10. Make your own compost. Not only does your leftover food waste help nourish your soil, it can also help retain water in sandy soil or improve drainage in clay soil.

What are your most creative ways to conserve water at home and in the garden?

Pollination: What’s all the buzz about?

It is National Pollinator Week!

We at Crown Point Ecology Center are committed to become a model of habitat management practices that help pollinator species thrive. With the help of students from Our Lady of the Elms, we have expanded our pollinator-friendly flower gardens and crops. Support from the USDA NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Programs) is helping us increase habitat for the Monarch butterfly with milkweed plantings and other pollinators with mixed cover crops and pollinator gardens.

Thank you to everyone who donated to our pollinator initiative during our plant sale. With your financial support we have purchased two bee-hives and equipment for our interns to learn bee-keeping. And did you visit the Mustard Seed Market and Café Project Pollinator event last weekend to pick up some milkweed seedlings like those pictured here?  We truly appreciate all the partnerships in our community that help support birds and bees. According to second-generation Mustard Seed owner, Gabe Nabors: “Experts say 1 in every 3 bites of food depends on bees. Let’s save them!”

The relationship between plants and pollinators is quite simple, animals get food and plants get pollinated.  The tiny hummingbird is small enough to hover while feeding and the rich sugar nectar it feeds on supports the high metabolism needed for the hovering.  Bird friendly plants have marketed themselves as pro-bird and anti-bee with brightly colored but unscented flowers. Bees on the other hand, go for the perfume but don’t see the colors that well.

Butterflies, unlike bees, can see the color red. The social butterfly problem turns out to be a good thing, their continual flitting from flower to flower more than make up for the quantity of pollen they carry. The pro-insect camp of flowers has developed adaptations to charge the insects for the nectar, small stigmas and stamens located on the interiors of the flowers, so that pollen can stick on the back of pollinators as they brush against the anthers. Many pollinators are very picky for certain flowers (Monarch butterfly)  and some will eat anything and everything .  Certain flowers only invite specific pollinators while others invite everybody.  Simple needs for food and reproduction create a complicated and interesting evolutionary love affair.

Pollination is one of the most important ecological services provided to agriculture.  Increasing the diversity of the habitat for pollinators is critical.  Diversified plant habitats promote diversified bird and insect populations that prevent one species from becoming overly dominant and a pest.  Honey bee populations have declined significantly over the last 5 years and so have native bees and other pollinator species. Management and protection of wild, suburban and urban habitats and their populations of pollen-vectoring animals and nectar-producing plants will benefit not just our wild and native plants but is essential for the production of food from our crops.

So, if you need to eat to stay alive, please become a pollinator advocate.

June Challenge: Be a part of nature

We are not observers of nature, we are participants.

This month’s sustainability challenge is an easy one since you have no choice: Be a part of nature.  The challenge is to reflect and understand what your role is and should be.

Have you ever heard of the secret Thorntown? You can still find the ruins of this lost town in a mysterious farmland in Ohio. Large flat rocks, an old farm gate, old scraps of lumber and small sprouts of multiflora rose can be found at the site.  At one point in time the invasive rose bushes reigned and covered much of the land, drinking from a tiny seasonal creek.

And then came the children.With their pruners and their shovels and their cartloads full of rocks, they created their own world.  Little by little they pruned tunnels out of the plants, and the tunnels led to mini houses pruned out of the bushes.  The children showed superhuman strength hauling 400 pound cartloads of rocks to create floors for their house.  They would disappear magically and quietly into the woods, not to be seen or heard for hours.

Those children were my daughters and their friends, fully engaged and being part of nature.  The children grew up and left and the bushes were taken over by a new community of plants. Thorntown is as full of life as it always was without the thorns or the children.   I have observed the rose bushes die, the poison ivy and mustard garlic come in, the black walnut and maple seedlings growing towards the sun and the elderberry bushes drinking the creek dry.  The tree frogs have joined the chorus and lightning bugs, like stars falling out of the sky, still light this secret little spot. A spot that is so simple and complicated at the same time. A little patch of nature that will forever bring me joy and memories of young girls.

I don’t recommend you prune yourself a little house in our parks, or pick the flowers, or take what belongs to all of us, but do go out into nature. Be observant, listen to the frogs, the birds, enjoy the quiet and the noise, savor the views, soak up the sun and the rain, get scratched up by the branches, and be fully immersed in its beauty.

If you are lucky to have a yard, explore your natural place, garden in it and create spaces and habitats for many creatures. Let (or make) your children go outside and be part of the natural world. They will surprise you with their creativity and strength.  Growing with love and understanding for nature is important because clean air, clean water and clean food depend on our interactions with nature.

This is just the kind of outdoor exploration that we have planned for our Summer Farm & Science campers who will begin visiting Crown Point next week.  Our energetic teachers have been busy preparing a wide range of adventures for children ages 7-11, including plenty of space in the day for independent discovery and imagination.

This will be Crown Point’s 24th season of Summer Farm & Science Camp, and this year we’re also carving out a unique opportunity for teens to explore the world of natural food and farming in northeast Ohio. Taste of Farming for Teens will provide high school age students with a chance to explore careers by visiting sites in our local and sustainable food system: small farms, a natural food grocery store, a local food processing facility, local chefs, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), urban gardens and scientists from the Ohio Agriculture Research & Development Center (OARDC).

Spaces are still available in both programs and you can register here:

Summer Farm & Science Camp

Taste of Farming for Teens

May Challenge: Start Your Garden

“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” — May Sarton

The beautiful orange azaleas that somebody planted a long time ago in front of my office window inspire me and bring me joy. I challenge you to plant a garden for yourself and future generations.  In April I told you to be lazy and hold off on your spring cleaning to let the dormant creatures emerge out of their winter’s nap.  May has arrived and now it is time to plant that garden. Planting food and flowers nourishes the body, soul and grows independence.

As long as the sun still shines and the clouds still rain on us, we can find ways to provide for ourselves.  Just imagine yourself wearing your grungy pants, releasing the sweet smell of soil and the wiggly red earthworms as your shovel cuts the ground.  And then there it is, your canvas, a piece of soil that can become your living painting, a painting you can eat, a painting that will bring life to the soil, food for the pollinating insects, and joy to you.

When you need a pick-me-up, I suggest a healthy dose of weeding. Yes, that is right, weeding. There is nothing more satisfying than grabbing quackgrass by the base, following the root a couple of feet underground and then ending with a pile of “spaghetti” grass or getting into a tug of war with that redroot pigweed taproot and winning. Then comes the excitement of seeing your seeds germinating or your transplants taking hold and getting big.

Your garden will thrive because of your care and effort, not just to satisfy your imagined harvests or to fulfill your good intentions. If you are in the market for seedlings, stop by the farm this week during our Certified Organic Plant Sale & Farm Festival. There will be over a 100 plant varieties  to choose from and lots of experts on hand to offer advice.

Our landscape can be a source of positive environmental change. Plants can remediate toxic soil, attract beneficial birds, insects, bats and bees, prevent erosion, create habitat, reduce heat in the city, reduce utility bills and return nutrients to the soil. To attract beneficial insects to the garden arrange flowering plants near the veggies. Predatory insects will find nectar and shelter and then snack on the aphids that are eating your lettuce, beans and tomatoes. To attract birds, bees and butterflies to your garden plant pussy willows, milkweed, bee balm, peonies, asters and coneflowers. Plant with your neighbors and sow property borders with perennials and fruit trees to create a green corridor for wildlife and migrating birds.  A colorful diverse garden is a healthy garden.

Hope to see you at the farm this week, Monica

Visit our events calendar page for a full list of upcoming workshops, including:

Container Garden Workshop with former Crown Point Education Coordinator Lynn Gregor. This event is free to members during our Early Bird Plant Sale (and it’s not to late to become a member).

Ask the “Tomato Doctor” – Dr. David Francis, PhD from the Ohio State University will be on hand from 11-3 on Saturday, May 13th to answer questions about one of the most loved summer vegetables!

At Home in the Wild – Join us for this enlightening presentation bridging ecology and gardening! You will learn why native plants are crucial for the continued survival of wildlife, why non-native plants threaten diversity, and what you can do to attract a greater variety of birds, pollinators, and other wildlife to your gardens.

April Challenge: Spring Procrastination

Don’t clean that yard just yet. 

April is a season of spectacular changes. Today is partly sunny and warm, and we walk outside without a coat to soak up the 60-degree weather. Last week, the blue Siberian Squill flowers at our entrance rose defiant against the wet snow. When the snow melts, we uncover bits of plastic that are buried and blown about by the winter winds. Go ahead, pick up that plastic – but don’t go on a cleaning raid. Leave alone the leaf litter and sticks that are stacked against the side of the house.

You don’t need to mow quite yet either, so leave the sticks on the mushy ground. Bumble bees like to make their nest in the soil in cavities or burrows.  You can spot the nests when you see worker bees flying in and out of the entrance, or perhaps you drive your mower over it and the very irritated bees will chase you and sting you, repeatedly.  Really, that mower is just not going to start and it is only going to make you mad, so leave the bumble bees alone and go back inside and finish your stupid taxes.

Leafcutter bee brood chamber in a rose cane (photo credit: OSU)

Pollinators in the garden aren’t fooled by the warm days. Their chrysalides are still clinging to last years dried sticks and leaves.  I know, you saw some bees flying around. There are some pollinators that come out early, but they still need cover on those chilly nights.  Last year’s leaf litter provides protection for both plants and invertebrates against late-season frosts.  The cherry trees bloom first in Ohio and the pollinator party starts, but wait until the apple trees are done blooming before you go at it with your itchy green thumb.   That way you will ensure all the late-to-emerge pollinating species also have a chance.

Some excellent resources on pollinator biology habitat can be found here:

Natural Resources and Conservation Services

OSU extension services

Header photo copyright: lianem / 123RF Stock Photo