Back yard progress report #3

It’s mid-October and the back yard is beginning to shape up. For purposes of comparison, here are a few pictures from July.



The picture below shows the back slope mostly cleared of buckthorn. As I mentioned before, we put up the fence years ago and paid no attention to what was going on back there — like weedy trees growing a mile a minute. The crab apple and apple trees are worth saving, but they’ll need some TLC in the upcoming years, which ideally will include cutting down the Siberian elm and white mulberry.


I’ll be planting a few bare root shrubs back there and sowing lots of native wildflower, grass, sedge, and shrub seeds.

The next picture shows the new view over the fence. From our living room window, we now have an unobstructed view of our back-yard neighbor’s house. Oh, well. Eventually we’ll have new, eco-friendly screening vegetation, including nannyberry viburnum, pagoda dogwood, and choke cherry.


The pictures above and below show the area outside the lawn oval now cleared of the patchy grass that used to grow there. Paths have been laid out and planting holes have been pre-dug and rabbit barriers made in preparation for the arrival of bare root shrubs.


We’ve come a long way in five months. Now we just have to get things in the ground and wait for them to grow!













Late Summer/Early Fall 2017

Here are a few pictures of what’s been happening recently in the yard.


A fuzzy gray spider on a tall bellflower by the deck.


A close-up of the spider. I was unable to figure out what kind it is, but it looks like there’s also a candy-striped leafhopper hiding on the right side of the picture.


A fuzzy picture of a pileated woodpecker on the Amur maple snag (prior to buckthorn removal).


A few pollinators on the New England aster. In August and early September the garden buzzes with several kinds of bees and flies on the asters, coneflowers, goldenrod, and bergamot.


This is Lars the Gray Treefrog. For some reason, he really likes our hose reel. This is the second summer in a row that he’s lived on it (the reason he was deemed worthy of a name). I have to be careful when I roll and unroll the hose!


He spent a lot of time calling in the late afternoons and early evenings. I don’t know if he found a mate or not, but we usually see quite a few small green treefrogs every summer, which are likely juvenile grays. It’s October now and Lars is probably hibernating. Hopefully he’ll be back next year!










Books: The Orchid Thief

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (1998) by Susan Orlean


The book stars with John Laroche and three Seminole accomplices on trial for stealing orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in Florida. While the Seminole tribe had hired Laroche to run a nursery as a standard money-making venture, Laroche was more interested in making millions by cloning ghost orchids in the nursery’s lab. (You can probably guess how that turned out.)

The story is just as much about the state of Florida and the world of orchid lovers as it is about Laroche. In the course of telling Laroche’s story, Orlean touches on Florida land-development schemes, theft of pre-Columbian art, orchid explorers early and modern, feuds within the orchid world, botany, conservation, and law. She even wades into the Fakahatchee in hopes of seeing a ghost orchid in bloom.

The book is almost 20 years old, but it didn’t feel dated. Orlean is a talented writer, and although some readers may feel the book is too much of a smorgasbord, I found most of her tangents fascinating.


According to Native Orchids of Minnesota (2012) by Welby R. Smith, Minnesota has 49 native orchid species. So far, I haven’t been bit by the orchid bug, but here’s an article about a Minnesota botanist working to save the state’s rare orchids.

Buckthorn oblivion

We put up the fence in our backyard 17 or 18 years ago, when our two oldest kids were little and the other two hadn’t come along yet. Our property extends to the bottom of the slope behind the fence, but since the fence went up I’ve mostly ignored the horticultural goings-on back there.

So, there’s this plant called buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, an ecological threat in Minnesota and much of the rest of the midwest. You may have heard of it. I’d certainly heard of buckthorn, too, but most of what I heard mentioned its invasiveness in natural areas. I don’t usually think of my suburban yard as a natural area, so I didn’t pay much attention.

Fast-forward through several clueless, happy years to 2016, when I realized that all of those little seedlings I was weeding out of my flower beds were buckthorn. Where were they coming from? Probably from the 15-foot-high buckthorn thicket that was steadily growing behind the fence.


About 80% of the lovely greenery visible behind the fence is buckthorn. Here’s what it looks like up close:


If there was ever any sort of vegetative ground layer, it’s gone for now. I’ve spent some time over the past few days beginning to cut back this thicket. I’m using this method (scroll down to the subsection entitled “Light weapons and a long timeline”). I already had Trimec in the shed. I ordered the blue dye and sponge applicator bottle from Amazon. [Update 6/15/18: The smaller stumps treated with Trimec are dead, but many of the larger-diameter stumps have re-sprouted. Glyphosate (Round-up) might have done a  better job killing the larger plants. I ordered some Buckthorn Baggies to try on the vigorous sprouters. I’ll let you know how that goes once I get around to putting them in place.]


Treated buckthorn stumps (the dye faded quite a bit in last night’s rain):


Here’s my brush pile so far (plus more waiting to be retrieved from behind the fence):


It’s a big chore, but I’m looking forward to seeing what shows up (besides lots more buckthorn seedlings) once some dappled sunlight can reach the ground again. [Edit 10/19/17: Did I say “dappled shade”? Now that the buckthorn is gone, it’s a sunny south-facing slope!] I’ll probably also toss some native savanna/woodland seeds back there to help things along. I’ll post an update or two down the road.


Back yard progress report #2

It’s late July. We’ve installed the edging around our lawn oval, taken up about half of the sod outside the oval, and cut down the Amur maple in front of the fence.


Looks kind of awful right now, but there is a plan, really!

1. The yard waste bin is a permanent feature for now. Oh, well.

2a. The freshly cut Amur maple snag sticks out like a sore thumb, but it will blend in once it weathers a little and is surrounded by plantings.

2b. The dead Amur maple branches will go away soon.


3. The pile of buckthorn should be going away soon, although there’s lots more to cut behind the fence.

4. Need to do some lawn re-seeding this fall. (It was patchy before we started trampling all over it to cut down trees and lay edgers.)

5a, 5b, and 5c. The main issue right now is that cutting down the Amur maple in front of the fence revealed just how bare our evergreen trunks are (two white spruces and a white pine). There’s also another Amur behind the fence (5d) that should go. I’ve asked a couple of tree services to come out and give us their advice.

Seems we’ve also got weedy white mulberry, Siberian elm, and an ash. We’ll have the ash taken down this fall while it’s still healthy. (Apparently it costs a lot more to have one taken down once it’s been hit by emerald ash borer, which is, apparently, inevitable.) We might take down the elm, which is leaning quite a bit, and the second Amur maple. One of the arborists thought there was a good chance the pine trees would fill in, at least a little, now that some sun can reach the trunks. Here’s hoping!

[Edit 10/19/17. I’ve learned that ash trees can be treated if they aren’t already infected, or only slightly affected, by emerald ash borer, so we may do that instead of taking it down. I would love to get rid of the Siberian elm and white mulberry. It’ll be hard to get equipment back there (plus, expensive!), but they’re shading out the crab apple and apple tree on the slope. In the years of ignoring the hill behind the fence, I forgot those were even back there because the buckthorn was hiding them. This fall, now that the buckthorn is gone, we can see flocks of robins and cedar waxwings feasting on the tiny crab apples.]


How to Be a Good Host (to caterpillars and other creepy-crawlies)

I mentioned in a previous post that I only recently learned that my practice of carting away leaves and old plant stems in the fall is likely contributing to the decline of the local butterfly population (see “Life in the Leaf Litter,” “Six reasons to NOT clean up the garden this fall,” and the related “4 Reasons Not to Rush the Spring Garden Cleanup”). This post is intended to provide links to more information on the topic of host plants for local fauna.


First, some terminology.

“A [North American] native plant species is one that occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, and/or habitat and was present prior to European settlement” (definition from Wild Ones).

A native plant grown from seeds or divisions is a straight species native plant.

A nativar is a cultivar of a native plant. (A cultivar is a plant type produced by selective breeding.) Plants are selected for reproduction on the basis of certain characteristics “to the exclusion of the inherent variation found in nature” (Wild Ones).

An obligate larval host plant is a plant that is required by an insect species. The adults might take nectar from a variety of plants, but they will lay their eggs on, and the larvae will feed on, only one or a few species (e.g., monarchs and milkweeds).

According to a recent article in the Star Tribune, planting “for the express purpose of feeding insects” is “a seismic shift in gardening.” The article provides a short list of Minnesota butterflies and their preferred host plants.

A post from the University of Minnesota Extension talks specifically about little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and the butterfly larvae known to feed on this native grass, including Dakota skippers and several other species of skippers. Interestingly, the only photo in the post shows a cultivar of little bluestem rather than the straight species.

Are cultivars/nativars as useful to wildlife as straight species? For some opinions on this topic see this article from the Rochester Post Bulletin and this from the University of Missouri Extension, both positive. On the more negative end of the spectrum, see this position statement from the Wild Ones, this article from the National Wildlife Federation, and this from EcoBeneficial.

To learn more about host plants other than milkweeds, start with the Native Plant Finder from the National Wildlife Federation, this article from Minnesota Gardener Magazine, and this list from the U of MN Extension. It’s a short list, but additional links and sources are noted.

If you’re more interested in birds than butterflies, note that “96 percent of all birds need insects as part of their diets at some point in their lives – even hummingbirds. … [H]ummingbirds feed their young a certain kind of native bee, and that bee feeds on a native plant: New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus). It’s a 3-foot tall shrub with white flowers that bloom from June through August” (quote from the Minnesota Gardener article in the previous paragraph).

Many of the plants mentioned in the sources listed above are readily available from native plant nurseries. Others are harder to come by. I read in Native Plants of the Midwest by Alan Branhagen that Canada plums “host so many creatures that their foliage can look tattered by midsummer.” Branhagen adds: “The gorgeous flowering cultivar ‘Princess Kay’ has been selected from wild Minnesota stock for superb double flowers equally as exquisite as any oriental flowering cherry but providing no nectar for pollinators” (p. 172).

I thought it would be nice to tuck one of these plants into a corner of my yard, but finding straight species Prunus nigra isn’t easy. ‘Princess Kay’ is available from several nurseries, but the only source of non-cultivar Canada plums seems to be seeds from Gardens North. Do I want to grow a plum tree from seed? As the old saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. When their seed sales re-open in September, I may just send away for a packet.


Back yard progress report #1

When we moved into our house in 1998, there was an old metal swing set in the back yard that was too rickety and dangerous to keep. The sandbox, however, got lots of use.


By the time this picture was taken (around 2008), we had put up the fence and installed planting beds all along the east side of the property.

Now that the kids are older, we took out the sandbox and expanded the planting bed along the back property line. Unfortunately, this is what it looks like right now.


It’s nicely filled in over to the left, although the whole yard is in need of more shrubs and structure in general. I scattered some wildflower seeds last fall in the section from the middle to the right, but not much has come up (yet). The tree on the right side of the picture is an Amur maple, an ecological threat according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR – Amur maple). Ours had been dying out in the middle for a while, so cutting it down is an easy choice. We plan to leave about 10 feet as a snag.

We cut off only a few branches with the pole saw, then made more progress with a reciprocating saw with a 12″ pruning blade. We’ll be borrowing a chain saw for the rest. It’s a bigger tree than I thought when we started! (There’s another one behind the fence, too. Yippee.)


We had installed part of a planned mowing strip by the raised beds on the east side of the yard last summer. This summer we’re planning to finish an oval to contain what will remain of the lawn in the back yard.


Trenching and lopping …


Eventually the west side of the back yard will contain paths and plantings instead of turfgrass and bare dirt. (There used to be a swing hanging from the locust.)


I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen back here, but I’m thinking of native shrubs (nannyberry, chokeberry, pagoda dogwood, etc.) and lots of woodland/savanna plants. I’ll let you know how things are coming along in a future post!



Shrink the lawn?

The picture below shows the view from our front porch. The whole neighborhood is pretty much the same. The predominant vegetation is lawn. It’s very park-like and certainly not unattractive.


As a family with four kids, our front and back lawns have gotten a lot of use:

There’s football.


Handstands are popular.


And then there’s the rare but always exciting worm contest …

So why get rid of any of the grass?

1. All that lawn is a hassle to mow.


2. A big chunk of the lawn never gets used.

3. Turfgrass doesn’t attract butterflies or birds (beyond robins hunting for worms and flocks of grackles in the fall).

Reducing water consumption and use of chemicals are additional reasons often given for shrinking a lawn. These reasons aren’t as relevant for us. We aren’t very vigilant about watering the lawn, we’ve applied weed-n-feed perhaps 6 or 8 times in the 19 years we’ve lived here, and I’ve managed to get a handle on the dandelions by using the Weed Hound consistently for the past 3 or 4 years.

Shrinking the lawn also supposedly saves time and energy because less mowing and raking is needed, but the lawn has to be replaced with something. Unless it’s being swapped out for paving, my guess is that at least as much time and energy is required to maintain the new plantings as were needed to maintain the lawn. Establishing the new plantings is a big job, too, calling for planning and hard work, so it isn’t surprising that many people (myself included) just keep on a-mowin’.

Let’s go back to reason #3 above. This is the big one for me. Over time, I plan both to switch out non-native plants for natives and to increase the amount of the yard given over to plantings. This is the current (fairly nebulous) plan for the front yard:


How long will this take? Good question. We’re currently working on projects in the back and side yards, so I see the bed nearer to the house as Phase 2  or 3 and the bed by the street as Phase 3 or 4, which could take … No, I won’t even speculate how many years might pass before the areas marked in orange are replanted. There’s sod to remove, research to do, plants to propagate or buy, current beds to maintain and improve, and long winters to wait through. I’ll keep you posted!

Why “Cannon Avenue Savanna”?

The title of this blog, “Cannon Avenue Savanna,” tells you the name of my street and reflects my personal goal to gradually replace most of the non-native plants in my yard with plants native to the Twin Cities area (east-central Minnesota). The Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs exist on what used to be a mosaic of tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, and maple-basswood forest. We have two maples (one native, one not) and no oaks, but because of the amount of tree cover on our property (plus the shade provided by the house itself), we’ve got more of a savanna landscape than pure prairie or forest.

We have an established wildflower garden on the east side of our yard, but much of the rest of the yard is filled with non-native plants. Some are innocuous, like hostas; others tend to escape cultivation and show up where they’re not wanted (barberry1, buckthorn, orange daylilies2).

An older friend observed the other day that it seems like there aren’t even half as many butterflies as when he was a boy. But when he was a boy, there was a lot less hardscaping and turf grass. More land was covered by woodland, orchards, unkempt meadows, and farm windbreaks. Pesticides and herbicides were used, but not to the extent they are today. There was more tolerance for yards to be a little weedy and disheveled, at least around the edges. With bagging mowers, leaf blowers, and pump-sprayers in every shed, our standards have risen.

Most of us go with the flow, planting whatever catches our eye at the garden center, maintaining our lawns, cleaning up yard waste every fall. But did you know that cleaning up leaves and dried stems in the fall is yet another blow to butterfly populations? I wasn’t aware until recently that many butterflies overwinter in garden duff as eggs, chrysalises, and even caterpillars. In my zeal to get things cleaned up in the fall, I’ve likely been sending baby butterflies to the compost site along with the fallen leaves and dried plant stems.

Goldfinches eat the seeds of my cornflowers, and some bees and maybe even a few hummingbirds visit my hostas. But do these plants host the native insects and the moth and butterfly larvae that provide food for animals higher up the food chain, especially birds? We know that monarchs need milkweeds, but many of us don’t realize that other species also have what are known as “obligate larval host plants”; Karner blues depend on wild lupines, fritillaries need violets, skippers utilize wild grasses, and several species need oaks, ashes, wild cherries, or willows.

See this post for more information on wildlife host plants and whether cultivars and “nativars” are as beneficial as “straight species.”

A little history (with before and after pictures!)

We bought our house in Arden Hills, a suburb just north of St. Paul, in 1998. Here’s what it looked like when we moved in. (We had already cut back the shaggy bushes on top of the retaining wall.)



Within the first few years, we had buried the power lines in the back yard, pulled out the overgrown bushes in front, and had the gray rocks from the retaining wall hauled away by someone who saw our ad on Craigslist. We had new rocks installed to create a rock garden by the driveway, and this is what things looked like somewhere in the early 2000s.



As time went on, we had the warped board-and-batten siding replaced, put up a fence, put in a boardwalk on the west side (where it’s always soggy in spring), made some adjustments to the back deck, and smothered the lawn and put in wildflowers on the east side.

Continued tweaking over the years brings us to the present day.




Getting better, and it only took 19 years! In addition to swapping out some of the non-native plants, I hope also to expand planting beds, add structure with more shrubs and native grasses, and continue to reduce the size of the lawn. I’ll share more about projects past, ongoing, and future in upcoming posts.