odds and end(s) of year

Just a few quick pictures & thoughts as we head into the Longest Night, and tie up the end of 2021. Can you believe it?!

I did some final supplemental seeding on a 5 acre field of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) that we will be grazing next summer for the first time. Big bluestem is a native, warm-season grass. 95% of the pastures in our region are cool-season, which produce most heavily in spring and fall. Warm-season grasses (surprise!) provide most of their growth and nutrition during the summer heat. It is commonly grazed out west, but almost no one in the area does it. For more reading, see Iowa State U. on incorporating prairies in multifunctional landscapes.

all the good stuff packed in one photo!

I recently read that Illinois Bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), a native legume, is also used in pastures, so I put down several pounds of this as well. It’s a favorite of our Maria Center resident Elsa, who faithfully scouts our existing plants and collects seeds for me. I supplemented her harvest with some from commercial growers, who really help us scale up.

Legumes pull nitrogen out of the air and put it in the soil, helping other plants grow. The seeds are also great for game birds.

I started another little experiment over at Moontree, related to the timing of prairie sowing & the use of fire. More details next year.

It required mixing up a small, custom mix of species. The next photo looks a little suspicious, but I assure you what I’m doing is perfectly legal! 😉

The seeds are quite beautiful…

I recently took a little spiritual retreat at GilChrist and stayed in the Hawk’s Nest cabin. I certainly love to see all the prairie incorporated thoughtfully in the landscape. However… it’s kind of like I didn’t leave work, so it was a challenge for my headspace to not be distracted. “Hmmm… I wonder how they manage prescribed fire. Oh, there’s an invasive species someone should take care of…”

A drone photo would be much better, but here’s an oblique look at their prairie labyrinth, which is quite large.

I easily made it there at highways speeds & cold temps in the electric LEAF, and I knew I’d get a full charge upon arrival thanks to their solar-canopy charger:

Speaking of which, a car dealership by Wal-Mart recently installed this DCFC (direct current fast charging) station. Fortunately it looks like it’s operated by Blink, one of the major networks .This will improve the odds that it will be properly maintained over time. Reliability can be a challenge with DCFCs when the commitment is lacking.

The funny thing is that I doubt I will ever use this station. Almost all EV charging is done overnight where cars are parked, so DCFCs are most needed on highways a good distance from your origin point. My trip to GilChrist was in another state and I didn’t even need a DCFC. Nonetheless, this was a very needed unit near the intersection of US 30/31 and I suspect will be occupied frequently. Plymouth actually has another station coming in 2022/2023, location TBD.

Let’s just keep going with the odds and ends, shall we?

This was fairly unique… a large branch that fell and was caught by the much smaller branches of another tree. The branch was a dead pine and so less dense than one would normally suspect.

And lastly, since we are finishing up our sophomore year of COVID-19, with such angst and pain and suffering, I’ll offer the slightest bit of humor, since I think we could all use it right now.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas, for clarity in the circumstances that are before you, the courage to do what needs to be done, and the assurance that it will be all right in the end.

news round up, Christmas edition

IMPA Obtains Building Permit for Bremen Solar Park (Max 98.3) IMPA officials have obtained a building permit for the 35-acre solar park to be located on 1st Road in Bremen.

Marshall County Commissioners Receive Update on Proposed Regional Sewer District (Max 98.3) Jones said in a previous meeting JPR was initially hired by the Marshall County Health Department to conduct a study of underserved areas of the county in terms of wastewater treatment.

Cars killed less amphibians during COVID-19 shutdown (The Wildlife Society)

Prairies Are Making Headlines. But What Exactly Are They? Here’s an Explainer (WTTW)

Techno-optimism for 2022 (Noah Smith) What you should be excited about: advances in medicine, space exploration, and clean energy

Why it’s time to reconsider the ecological contribution of introduced species – even in New Zealand (The Conversation)

The Battle of High Hill (The Atlantic) When two megafires converged on a small town in Oregon, the community faced a choice. People could flee, leaving the town to its fate. Or they could stay and fight.

Federal Infrastructure Money Could Help Indiana Highways Withstand Expensive Climate-related Damages (Indiana Env Reporter) Indiana’s cut from the bipartisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be about $6.6 billion in federal funding for state and local projects and $401 million for bridge replacement and repairs. That is in addition to other funding for the state, including $751 million for improving water infrastructure, $673 million the bill allocates for improving public transportation, $170 million for airport infrastructure development, $100 million to expand the state’s electric vehicle charging network and at least $100 million to provide broadband internet across the state.

Poison in the Air (ProPublica) The EPA allows polluters to turn neighborhoods into “sacrifice zones” where residents breathe carcinogens. ProPublica reveals where these places are in a first-of-its-kind map and data analysis.

Wisconsin’s deer population is at a critical high (Wisconsin Public Radio) Advocates say hunters, scientists and legislators all have a role to play in managing the state’s population of white-tailed deer

Wolves make roadways safer, generating large economic returns to predator conservation (PNAS) We show that, for the average county, wolf entry reduced Deer-Vehicle Collisions by 24%, yielding an economic benefit that is 63 times greater than the costs of verified wolf predation on livestock

Groups celebrate win in Kankakee wetlands protection case (Indiana Environmental Reporter) Judge condemns Corps of Engineers’ approval of feeding operation that could damage protected ecosystem.

This company is earning money with second-life Nissan LEAF batteries (Charged EVs) B2U’s solar/storage facility is located in Lancaster, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. It consists of a 1 MW solar farm and several small structures, each containing around 20 LEAF batteries, all in their original cases.

Planting Prairies at Airports Could Make Flying Safer (PBS) By turning hundreds of acres back to prairie, Dayton International Airport is reducing its environmental impact––while cutting back on maintenance costs.

How SARS-CoV-2 in American deer could alter the course of the global pandemic (NPR) A recent survey of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and Midwest found that 40% of them had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

Rethinking Midwestern Agriculture (Indiana Environmental Reporter) $10 million USDA grant will allow Purdue researchers to look at how diversifying crops and modernizing current support systems will help Hoosier farmers survive climate change effects.

even more solar cometh

A couple weeks ago I went before the Plymouth City Council to give up an update on the Complete Streets Committee’s tactical urbanism project, which aimed to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety at a critical juncture in the city’s greenways trail.

While I was there, I was happy to watch the City approve a $1.6M, 1.0 MW solar energy system with Telemon Energy that will power the city’s water reclamation facility (aka wastewater plant). Construction is expected to start in the spring of next year.

This would have been the largest solar energy system in the county… had Bremen’s new 35 acre, 6.75 MW project not already started construction!

Once this system is installed, Plymouth’s per capita solar energy capacity will be nearly on par with Denver, CO, which is 10th in the nation among major U.S. cities!

With these new systems coming online, that will push our solar installations back to merely 4th largest in the county. Which, of course, is what I want! A friendly solar competition is the best kind of competition.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

If that were not enough, Wednesday night the Plymouth Community School Corporation approved a deal for solar systems at two schools, also with Telemon Energy. The news stories I saw didn’t mention exact size, but judging by the aerial it looks to be in the ballpark of 700 kW (0.7 MW).

drawing of proposed array at Riverside Intermediate School

By 2022, Marshall County will have solar energy installations at a school corporation, a City, an electric cooperative, a private industry, a County facility, a non-profit, a college, and multiple residences. Coming soon we will also see pretty enormous utility-scale projects as well. It is indeed an interesting time to be alive.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the county is about to have it’s first fast charger for electric cars come online (DCFC, or Direct Current Fast Charger):

If you’ve been feeling a little dreary about the headlines, read this piece for some optimism about what technology has the potential to bring us, with a major component of that being the energy transition that is unfolding right now.

quick solar co-op update

Things are moving ahead with Solar United Neighbor’s Northern Indiana solar co-op. SUN has enrolled 149 members, who have at least expressed serious interest in going solar at home. 27 of those have already signed contracts and installations have begun!

Co-ops help streamline the process for both the customers and the providers, and help ensure that co-op members get a reasonable price for a quality system. Northern Indiana is blessed to have multiple quality solar energy companies that are locally owned.

We’ve tried to lend assistance with getting the word out about the co-op, via yard signs, community education sessions, and blog posts. SUN recently announced that they are extending their deadline to Feb. 28, 2021 for this co-op opportunity. So please send the link above to anyone you think who might be interested.

Most people are familiar with the concept of rooftop solar, but each design is unique. Here are some of the installations from co-op members that were recently installed:

early winter bush honeysuckle control

We have a Volunteer Time Off program at work, so I’ve been stealing a few hours here and there in the last few weeks to work on some of the bush honeysuckle that is persisting at the Mill Pond County Park (which I wrote about in February).

The Makutu herbicide stick applicator is a great ally in this fight. It’s assembled by volunteers at The Prairie Enthusiasts, one of my favorite ecological non-profits. Just cut the stem & dab the stump with the wand to eliminate the plant. The mixture is simply glyphosate concentrate mixed 50/50 with water, and will ensure that the plant will not resprout. It avoids the danger & noise of a chainsaw, saves back pain from pulling, and minimizes soil disturbance. Although one should always take precautions around herbicides, it practically eliminates any overspray concerns (damage to non-target species), and so little chemical is used that the cost is basically a rounding error.

It’s a great time to be in the woods. So few native plants have any green leaves that the honeysuckle really stands out. You don’t waste time hunting for (and missing) individual plants.

When this invasive shrub is not controlled, our native hardwoods slowly decay & are eventually lost. A simple, affordable tool that gets the job done. The hardest part is really just lining up enough people to actually do the work at the appropriate time. The majority of Indiana’s woodlands are in private hands; unfortunately, it’s not a common practice to actively manage bush honeysuckle. Hopefully this is something that can change.

May be an image of tree and outdoors
May be an image of outdoors

Before:

May be an image of nature and tree

After:

May be an image of nature, tree and grass

“Lawn of the Future” pilot project

Some years ago, I came across a plant species list from an old colleague. He was trying to develop a planting scheme that satisfied some of the cultural norms and expectations that we have for a “lawn” while increasing the ecological function of the site with native plants.

Tomes have been written about the American lawn, which is our country’s most irrigated crop. See here and here for just a start. See here for an artful audio summary.

This blog is not another tome. Nor is it a screed. The conversation can get a little hyperbolic. The American lawn isn’t evil incarnate (at least not in the Midwest, where irrigation is not necessary & water is abundant), but we’ve clearly overdone it.

It’s not necessarily even the lawn itself… its the sprawling housing patterns adopted after WW2 that led to a massive increase in energy use via car dependency and the disinvestment of our historic urban cores. That’s fodder for many more blog posts. Anyway, by now we’re fairly stuck with much of the housing stock that’s already built.

Actually reversing course is not so simple. I wish it were. I’ve watched many a well-meaning institution try alternatives and the majority run into some operational or organizational problem that subverts it.

The truth is that, in my case, the lawn I inherited with my suburban home isn’t too difficult to manage. I haven’t found any reason to irrigate or fertilize. I only spray occasionally to target certain troublesome weeds. I mow it high (not like a golf course) with a quiet, emissions-free battery-powered mower that I charge with solar energy. Any alternatives won’t really save any time or money in my circumstance.

An American rite of passage. A grape vine on the fence, and prairie plants behind it, but a back yard for reading, lounging, or just horsing around.

I’ve slowly removed some pieces of my lawn for vegetable beds and native plants (here’s a video I made about all the lovely flowers that have a home here). Even though I work full-time as an ecologist, I’m not a horticulturalist or landscape architect, so I face a bit of a learning curve. Like everyone else, I’m busy and can’t devote all my time to it either.

All that to say, this is not another blog about lawns. Or my lawn in particular. Instead, here’s an end-of-the-growing-season project summary of something we tried at work over the past 12+ months. It is less detailed than a final report with figures, all the photos, etc… but I just wanted to get something out there in the interim. Here you go! (And sorry for the repetition/wordiness).

… … …

Background:

Conventional turfgrass lawns in the United States are a cultural expectation for land use around human dwellings and workplaces. These areas are typically highly cultivated, requiring use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, irrigation, and regular inputs of labor for mowing. In the Midwest, these European, cool-season grass are maintained within a narrow band of acceptable heights, so much so that it is commonly a part of municipal code and owners can be fined for violating these social norms. Lawns represent the largest irrigated crop by acreage in the United States.

While these lawns are not ecological dead zones, their ecological function could be greatly improved by reducing inputs (irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides) and increasing overall ecological health (carbon sequestration, biodiversity, native seed production, increasing food supply up the trophic levels).

A variety of conventional lawn alternatives have been tried around the country, but there are almost no examples locally or in the region. We have ample space & resources to conduct a pilot project to see what seed mixes might work with our soils & climate.

Objective:

To conduct a pilot projection demonstrating alternative plant species selections that are compatible with most American cultural expectations for a lawn but have enhanced ecological impact over the status quo. (I.e. something more functional than a lawn, but less “wild” than a short-grass prairie planting).

Design:

The plots will be conducted on 2 sites at TCAD: at Moontree and Grounds.

The Moontree plot will only use cultural (non-chemical) methods for site preparation & maintenance (such as tillage, mowing, hand-pulling, and solarizing). The plot has very sandy soils and is 21’ x 195’ (4,095 sq ft).

The Grounds plot will use cultural and chemical methods. Site a little trapezoidal, but +/- 84’ x 111’ (9,324 ft sq).

Each plot will be split in half and receive two treatments:

Treatment A: Eco Grass, a blend of fine-leaved fescue blends that only need to be mowed a couple/few times a year. The ecological function here is not greatly improved, but one benefits from reduced mowing, irrigation, and inputs. Plus, it’s not an exotic concept to the average person. I sowed at the recommended 5 lbs per 1,000 sq ft (218 lbs/ac!).

the Eco Grass idea

Treatment B: A custom mix of 8 grass-like native species which I developed with a native seed company. My assumption is that by using native plants we are adding some ecological function, albeit much less than a diverse mix of dozens or hundreds of kinds of grasses and wildflowers. This mix could stand a couple mowings if necessary to maintain structure. It would still be green and low-growing like we are used to. I sowed at 11.6 lbs/ac.

Timeline:

For site preparation, the existing vegetation is killed (or at least greatly weakened). Moontree plot is tilled thrice, in July, August, and October 2020.

Grounds site is sprayed in July and August 2020 with glyphosate, achieving a pretty good removal of existing vegetation (seen here in September).

\

Each site was seeded with their respective mix on March 10, 2021. Sites were broadcast spread by hand.

The Grounds plot on seeding day (sorry if the photo is rotated).
Grounds plot at seeding time.

The areas were high-mowed throughout the growing season as needed. Mowing was conducted to reduce competition from fast growing annual weeds, allowing the perennials to establish. Weed pressure was very light.

On July 20, the Grounds plot was sprayed with a broadleaf herbicide to reduce weed competition. This herbicide does not affect grasses or grass-like plants.

Results:

By June 14th, the entire Moontree site is… still sparse. It’s a very sandy, exposed site, so that’s not terribly surprising. It’s not ideal for the cool-season grasses we typically have for our lawns.

By August 9, the Grounds site looked… green!

By August 24, the native mix treatment at the Grounds is… not great. I saw mostly crabgrass (weed) and wood sorrel (a nice plant, but not what I planted). Here’s a representative photo:

The Eco Grass mixture is faring a little better. I see some thick, dark green clumps that indicate it is starting to establish. But if I was a paying customer with high expectations, this wouldn’t cut it.

By Sep. 8, Moontree is still very sparse and weedy. However, I did find several Side Oats Grama that managed to grow and produce seed all in one growing season. A nice feat for a perennial.

Discussion:

The establishment for both seed mixes and soil types didn’t meet my expectations. Why the poor establishment?

1) I don’t recall the rainfall being ideal for germination (though this is a memory and I don’t have records on this).

2) Eco Grass can be sown in the spring, but they say it establishes better with a fall seeding because of fewer competing weeds (though I don’t think weed competition was a major factor).

3) The Native Mix was sown at a much lower density than the Eco Grass… 18X less. Even so, this was actually higher than what is often prescribed for natural area plantings (with the idea that establishment takes 3-5+ years), but we wanted a quicker-fill in. I could’ve simply cranked up the density, but that adds cost and I wanted the two seed mixes to be reasonably similar in price. So many trade-offs!

Another cultural barrier is that most of the native species are warm-season grasses that don’t immediately green up in the spring like we’re used to. Additionally, there is increased fire risk.

Future Action:

What options remain for us now?

1) I could scrap the plots and try something new. Unfortunately it’s almost too late to prep sites and sow for a fall planting.

2) I could overseed to try to make up for poor germination and low density, but then I won’t have a good feeling if next years growth just took longer or actually benefited from the overseeding. I suppose I could split the plots one extra time and overseed some and not others.

3) I could just give it another year & keep an eye on it.

I was initially inclined to Option 1. Lesson learned, move on. But as I looked at my project initiation notes, I wrote to myself about the Native Mix, “Development might take up to 3 years.” The words of one of my ecological mentors echoes in my ears: “Patience is a prairie word”. Granted, this isn’t a prairie restoration, and most people’s expectations about landscaping don’t involve patience.

So now, as the seasons march on and start to make my decisions for me… I’m leaning towards Option 3, with maybe an Option 2 overseeding of half of the sites.

mega update: endangered prairie, sustainability expo, pedestrian safety crisis, hunting, EV chargers, oh my…

Ok, there’s too much going on to each get their own post, so here it goes!

First, GOOD news! The Bell Bowl prairie in Rockford, IL has been saved… temporarily. (I posted about it here). To me, the lesson here is that yes, legal protections & organization are good and necessary. But also, culture matters. If we can’t build a widespread and consistent ecological ethic, so serious of laws or guidelines will save us, however well-crafted.

Second, Moontree Studios has a new electric vehicle charger! This runs on wind and solar (and when those aren’t enough, grid power). We now have 4 plug at 3 locations on campus

Third, we were blessed to host Turkey Tracks, a non-profit that relies on the help of volunteer guides and the tireless efforts of founders Carol and Doug Corey to carry out their mission of “Helping young adults with mobility challenges to experience the joy of hunting.” We were honored to partner with Turkey Tracks recently by hosting one of their hunts on the property.

For many years, the Poor Handmaids have used deer hunting as a stewardship tool for maintaining the ecological health of the land. Indiana ecologists have found that in the absence of natural predators or hunting, unchecked deer population growth can harm natural ecosystems through excessive browsing of native plants, in addition to impacts like crop damage, car accidents, and transmission of tick-borne illnesses. We are grateful to those with Turkey Tracks who were able to assist us with this sustainable harvest so that the needs of the land community can remain balanced into the future.

Fourth, I had the privilege of sharing about our vehicle electrification efforts at the Sustainable Solutions conference in South Bend this week. Here’s TV coverage from WNDU. Highlights for me was hearing from the City of Goshen on all of their incredible work around climate resiliency and sustainability, including increasing tree canopy, rooftop solar, bike trails, electric vehicles, and now electric bicycles. Also, (of course) someone brought a Tesla. Tesla just received an order of 100,000 cars (not a typo) from Hertz, which will bring a solid electric driving experience to many more rental car drivers.

Goshen gunna Goshen, you love to see it!
Check out the extra storage in the front trunk (“frunk”).

Fifth, the worst news for last. I found out together that we had another pedestrian fatality in Plymouth, the second one this month. (Here I wrote about the other fatal car crash, and the efforts of our Complete Streets committee to improve cyclist and pedestrian infrastructure in the city).

This week I also twice observed red lights being run at Webster Elementary school during school drop off times with a crossing guard present. I also watched a man in a company vehicle text and drive while he was navigating the same intersection (yes, I contacted the company & I ask that you do the same when you see this). There was also someone driving drunk through the school drop off line.

The U.S. Dept of Transportation also released numbers showing an 18% increase in fatalities caused by motor vehicles for the first half of 2021, the worst in 15 years.

Locally and nationally, we are facing a crisis.

Sixth, a beautiful mushroom I found recently. Because, well, we need some beauty right now.

news round up, autumn edition

It’s fall, y’all.

Here’s a few things I’ve been reading:

Fulton County solar energy project expected to lower utility costs (WSBT) The Fulton County Rural Electric Membership Corporation is a non-profit that provides energy to nearly 5,000 homes. Any money saved goes directly back to members of the REMC. Fulton County REMC CEO Joe Koch says members can expect to save up to $8 million, not including the project paying itself off… When fully charged, the two Tesla batteries can power 2,200 homes for a month, which can be the difference between life and death during an ice storm.

NIPSCO Continues Path Toward Lower-Cost, Sustainable and Reliable Energy Future (Press Release) Recent analysis points to a balanced and flexible approach to transition the generation portfolio

People are realizing that degrowth is bad (Noah Smith substack) The mad schemes degrowthers advocate are a fantasy that distracts us from real efforts to save the planet

Excess fertilizer use: Which countries cause environmental damage by overapplying fertilizers? (Our World in Data) Fertilizers have transformed the way the world produces food. They have not only brought large benefits for food security, but they also bring environmental benefits through higher yields (and therefore less land use). But, there can be a downside.

Listen to the cry of the Earth’: Pope, top Christians urge world leaders to act on climate change (NBC) Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew released their first joint statement ahead of a U.N. conference. [Here’s a link to the statement].

Editorial: Bishops must commit to saving the Earth now (National Catholic Reporter Editorial Staff) Given that the very habitability of our planet may depend on the results of the [climate] summit, it is a good time for Catholics everywhere to be praying and fasting, in hopes that our leaders will finally (finally!) commit to doing whatever it takes to save the Earth we are destroying.

Anxiety from climate change isn’t going away. Here’s how you can manage it (NPR)

5 Midwestern governors agree to create a network to charge electric vehicles (NPR) The governors of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are joining forces to build a new network for charging electric vehicles. The bipartisan plan aims to improve the region’s economy while also reducing toxic emissions from cars and trucks.

Let’s bust the myth: a car-friendly neighborhood isn’t a child-friendly neighborhood (GGW) What these arguments boil down to is that the convenience of drivers – even in objectively walkable neighborhoods – should take priority over the lives and health of children. Parents should run a mile from such logic. Motor vehicle crashes kill and injure more kids than any other cause in America.

We will not ban cars (Noah Smith) Electric vehicles are crucial for fighting climate change [A very sober and data-filled look at the promise and peril of the future of cars in the U.S.]

Hertz orders 100,000 Teslas, the single-largest EV purchase ever, with Tom Brady campaign (Electrek) Bloomberg reported the news a few minutes ahead of the press release, with sources who asked not to be identified, and said that it represents around $4.2 billion of revenue for Tesla. It will be the single-largest purchase ever for electric vehicles. The cars will be delivered over the next 14 months from an already tight supply of Tesla vehicles.

Birds Thrived Where Humans Feared To Tread During The Pandemic, Scientists Say (NPR) “Anthropause” is a word scientists have coined to describe the scaling back of human activity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s probably safe to say that most people have found it uncomfortably restrictive, a new study published on Wednesday suggests the pandemic has allowed many bird species to finally stretch their wings.

Ancient Footprints Suggest Humans Lived In The Americas Earlier Than Once Thought (NPR) The question of when humans first migrated to North America has long been a matter of hot debate among researchers who have continually uncovered evidence of ever-earlier dates. Now, analysis of ancient fossilized human footprints in New Mexico has pushed the date back once again — to at least 21,000 years ago.

The Myth of Regenerative Ranching (The New Republic) The purveyors of “grass-fed” beef want you to believe that it solves meat’s environmental problem. But this is merely a branding exercise, not a climate solution.