A Rainy Season Journal
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---The Milkweed Lands
The milkweeds of my childhood were ditch weeds.
In the 1970s and 80s they were plants associated with neglected and litter-strewn roadsides. They grew amid rubble heaps and in vacant lots.
I frequently encountered milkweeds as a kid, while playing in jumbled slabs of concrete that the county road crew had dumped in the woods, behind the rundown basement apartment that I occupied with my single mom.
At the same age as my own kids now – the single digits – I would construct makeshift after-school "bomb shelters" within those slabs, provisioning the shelters with a few canned goods and the odd artifacts of latchkey kid life: broken pocket knives and birthday candles, grimy polyester Winnie the Pooh blankets and cheap plastic flashlights. For a time in my young life, preparing for the missiles kept me occupied. Between my comings and goings within the slabs I would often stop to touch the milkweeds – sometimes squeezing the green pods to watch sap leak out from dozens of bumpy points.
Through some strange providence, milkweeds have consistently reemerged in my life at intervals.
In my late 20s, against the backdrop of a quiet personal crisis—the kind that you sometimes have during that period of life – I found myself with a career of sorts, tending whole industrial fields of milkweeds, as a crop manager in the Midwest, working for a ‘prairie cartel’ that grew thousands of acres of native prairie plants for all kinds of uses. The glorious weird beetles and aphids of those gigantic fields, untold numbers of them sentenced to death in the name of progress, became my closest friends. I stayed in that career path until the pesticides and spreadsheets had almost completely devoured my soul.
And then again, in considerably better circumstances at the Xerces Society, milkweeds reappeared, when a colleague and I launched a multi-year research and development project to increase milkweed seed availability across the southern tier of the U.S., an attempt to stabilized plant availability for monarch butterfly conservation projects.
Throughout these encounters with milkweeds, I have seen them in all of their phases of human interpretation: as neglected and maligned ditch weeds, as industrial commodities, and as conservation inputs.
Within all of this there is something quite sweeping:
Rare among native prairie and grassland plants for still persisting in the odd edges of our human-altered world, milkweeds remain a beacon for butterflies and sky-falling aphids. They nourish and produce entire literal ecosystems of small below-ground creatures that emerge forth into the world. Their seed fluff provides refuge and nest building material for small animals, while the odd pollinia (packets of pollen) clamp themselves to bee legs like clothes pins destined for air mail delivery. Milkweeds possess a floral complexity on par with rare orchids, they feed jewel-like cobalt beetles. They scent the air with a kind of otherworldly perfume.
Within indigenous traditions milkweeds held a place of significance for the various ailments they could cure or treat. The first Europeans who encountered North American milkweeds attempted to further discern and document the medical potentials of milkweeds, even going so far as to name the entire genus after the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius. Impressed by the nutritional potential, George Washington Carver, even wrote recipes for cooking common milkweed.
The story of milkweeds is the story of countless wild plants. And, it is a story that tells us a lot about ourselves.
I’m grateful these plants have not only persisted, but have allowed me a kind of access to their secret life ways. To me they are prairie and grassland nobility. To me they make the ordinary world more Technicolor and alive.
If you find these plants even a bit fascinating yourself, you might check out my new book, The Milkweed Lands, available here.
While the book isn’t exactly what I had hoped for (it was heavily censored by the publisher!), it is something of a love letter from the milkweed lands – a natural history dispatch from those neglected and litter-strewn roadsides – a long lost bit of graffiti from the concrete slab bomb shelters of my childhood. More than that, it is a travel guide to the ecology of milkweeds and the things that live in and around them, and is lushly illustrated by my incredibly talented artist-friend, Beverly Duncan.
Additionally, there’s was a small, well-crafted article about milkweeds, and The Milkweed Lands recently in New York Times by the great garden writer Margaret Roach that you might also check out, and an episode about milkweeds on her podcast.
Finally, we’ve endeavored to make available a small collection of some of our favorite milkweeds, for all kinds of places. While they are not always “easy to grow” plants, with some attention to detail and a bit of trial and error, many people can succeed in growing them, probably including you.
Best wishes, and may the road rise with you.
- - -Managing Your Meadow Right Now
Even as winter approaches, there are a few meadow-making things you can do right now:
First, if you haven’t done so, consider cutting most of the meadow down to the ground. A patchy effort at this, such as with a scythe or string trimmer is perfectly fine – and in fact patchy wabi-sabi cutting is preferable since it leaves odd little refugia for small creatures. Once you have cut your meadow, endeavor to rake up the cut stems if you can – making small hay stacks is a great way to deal with the cuttings as it creates nesting structure for wildlife and allows the various little insect eggs and larva in the cut vegetation to complete their life cycles.
Fall cutting and raking of your meadow accomplishes a few import things:
+ Cutting prevents woody weeds such as blackberry, Scotch broom (and even native shrubs such as rose and snowberry) from becoming large and difficult to manage.
+ Removing the dead biomass allows sunlight and warmth to reach the soil surface, and encourages reseeding by wildflowers.
+ By preventing thatch from building up in your meadow, you begin to draw down excessive soil nutrients and deplete the soil of too much fertility – while this may sound counter-intuitive, high fertility soils encourage lush grass growth which crowds out wildflowers. In contrast lower fertility soils result in shorter, less vigorous grasses and more wildflower diversity.
+ By “opening up the sward” (cutting and removing meadow hay) you can also perform winter overseeding with additional wildflowers.
This latter point: winter overseeding, can be a useful but often overlooked step in meadow-management.
Over a long time-span, showy annual wildflowers tend to disappear from meadows. As do shorter lived perennial wildflowers such as some lupines. Moreover, if you steward and tend to a recently created meadow (not a 100-year-old relic camas field), then you have a limited seed bank in the soil of desirable dormant seeds that are capable of germinating.
Winter overseeding with additional wildflowers is like making a deposit in an investment account. Over time you usually accrue some interest. Over time, more wildflowers tend to appear – both more sheer numbers – and more diversity of them. The results are almost never immediate, nor immediately dramatic. But with dedication and patience, meadows with 10 wildflower species every summer can become meadows with 20, or 30 wildflower species every summer. Through winter overseeding, you can make a newer meadow more like a century-old meadow.
We have a seed mix that we developed specifically for this kind of winter overseeding. That said, some of the species that can slowly but successfully establish this way are: golden-eyed grass and blue eyed-grass, camas, self heal, lupines, western buttercup, yarrow, farewell-to-spring, showy tarweed, Oregon sunshine, spike primrose (this one surprised us, but does quite well!), western columbine, and of course, yellow rattle.
- - -
Growing Rainy Season Transplants
We start a lot of transplants from seed in the rainy season.
Most native grasses, wildflowers, and Garry oak acorns grow excellently when planted outside, uncovered in deep containers during the rainy season. Generally speaking, the deeper the container, the better for perennial wildflowers and grasses. Long-lived perennials like Oregon sunshine for example, seem to send roots down as far as possible.
The basic (and we think the best) approach is to surface-sow the seeds in containers, then lightly cover the seed with 1/4-inch of sand or poultry grit. Our basic seed starting mix is 4-parts simple commercially available potting mix, with 1-part sand. When we are ambitious, we sometimes add some coffee grounds and foraged seaweed for extended fertility – especially when plants are likely to stay in containers for a full year.
Transplant containers should be maintained at or near ground level, and it can help to put a screen over the containers to keep out digging rodents. A dash of slug bait is also useful. We want our seeded containers to get rain, snow, freezing, occasional sun, everything.
Some seeds tend to germinate and start growing immediately with this treatment, others take their time.
Geophytes –plants that form underground structures (bulbs, corms, etc) tend to wait until the weather warms in the spring before they germinate. These plants, such as camas, lilies, ookow, and wild onions tend not germinate without this rainy season exposure. And when they do germinate in the warmer spring weather, they only send up a tiny single shoot that lasts a mere week or two before they disappear back below ground to start creating a tiny bulb. Generally speaking, these plants will not be big enough to transplant into competitive areas for a few years.
Any plants not getting transplanted into the ground when spring arrives should be moved to a shaded area and watered periodically during the summer.
- - -Stock Updates
There is always much to do. Our shop is overflowing with seed and projects. The farm has been in a disarray this year after a hard summer drought, and drought-stressed deer and rabbits; a death in our immediate family further pulled us in other directions.
Still, we’ve managed to assemble a new and revived inventory of interesting things:
Garry Oak Acorns (Quercus garryana) – This tree requires little introduction, the iconic prairie and meadow overstory species of the Pacific Northwest – now mostly absent across much of the land – replaced by development and faster growing fir trees. These acorns must go quickly – with a lot of them already sprouting and excited to be alive. If you acquire these from us and they are sprouting when they arrive, please plant them immediately – they will live! And live for centuries.
Perennial Forest Rye (Secale multicaule) -- This is not a North American native, but is still a kind of semi-wild plant of sorts. Known as Waldstaudenroggen in German, this plant is a cereal rye (producing edible grain) but it represents something of a wild intermediate form between wild rye grasses and domesticated grain rye. It’s maybe the most extraordinary small grain we’ve ever grown – not a true long-lived perennial as the common name suggests, but a grain that can live for several seasons, especially if it is cut or grazed before it produces seed. Even with a very dry summer, and salty marine-deposited clay soil, this plant grew to over 5-feet high on our farm this summer, crowding out weeds in a bed we were preparing for future crops, and producing delicious dark seed grain. This is one of the most ancient European grains still in occasional production, and should be a grain for the future. And while it is not native, there is nothing aggressive or invasive about its growth. It is an excellent nurse crop for wildflowers and has tremendous wildlife value.
Dogbane Hemp (Apocynum cannabium) – Notable as a historically essential fiber plant, producing very strong cordage, and a close relative to milkweeds. The flowers of this plant attract every kind of butterfly and bee, gentle solitary wasps and interesting and odd flies. We did something different with this plant: we packaged the beautiful individual seed pods which were too gloriously interesting to break open ourselves.
Pacific Snakeroot (Sanicula crassicaulis) – Often ignored or left out of new meadow plantings, this plant is an artifact that you nearly always find in remnant Pacific Northwest native plant communities. With dense little yellow flower clusters, it is probably of some importance to our smallest and earliest spring pollinators. We typically see some of the smallest and hardest to discern spring Andrena bees visiting the blossoms – diminutive little blue/black bees with their daft little grey “under arm” tufts of hair – or slender red Nomada cuckoo bees drawing a quick drink of nectar from these flowers. Local meadows without this plant somehow feel amiss.
Red Viking Meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba var. “red viking”) – This is a selected and isolated population of white meadowfoam with distinctly red stems. It’s kind of remarkable to behold: bulging snow-white blossoms, limey-green leaves, and red stems. It’s also an exceptional honey plant for beekeepers, producing characteristic marshmallow-flavored honey. And although nobody ever bothers to do so, all meadowfoams make very nice spring container plants. Alternatively, it can be over-seeded into closely cropped lawn over the winter – as we did last year for a showy front yard display in the spring.
Finally, almost everything we currently have is now packed into newly re-designed envelopes and canvas seed bags. The envelopes are still made of 100% recycled paper, milled in the U.S.A., and die cut on a 100-year-old modified Heidelberg press in a hulking old shop in a working class neighborhood of Seattle. And we are still sewing up the raw canvas bags in-house on heavy industrial sewing machines. We try to put art into everything we do. Let us know what you think!
- - -Hand-Made Goods
A consistent theme in some of these occasional blog posts is the challenge of managing and growing this kind of small business.
We grow, pack, and ship bespoke items. We are not Amazon Prime. Our process begins with hope that the checker lilies or gumweed made enough seed this year to get a harvest, that the deer didn’t eat everything, or the plants didn’t whither in drought. It progresses with endeavoring to thresh, and clean and pack seed in the best available materials we can design and construct.
We spend much time obsessing over boxes, avoiding plastic, bundling together shipments so the seed packets are arranged in the most visually appealing color-arrangement, tucked neatly between kraft paper padding and sealed with paper tape. All of our packaging can go in a compost bin after the seed has been planted.
With the occasional free time left over, we like to send out infrequent updates like this one. All of this happens in a small 150-year-old shop of four people with a handful of kids sometimes helping.
There are better formulas for what we do: plastic packaging, pricing algorithms, third-party logistics, customer service chatbots, thermal printer shipping labels, affiliate marketing, or just selling cheap and easy to grow garden flowers like bachelor buttons.
A few years ago we wrote this in a newsletter:
“…we’ve all become conditioned to the immediate gratification of giant ecommerce supply chains that offer instant product fulfillment and shipping. We’re all becoming a kind of post-modern cargo cult that prays to the internet for the near magical delivery of material goods…because of this we now routinely get emails from customers who are concerned that it is taking 3 to 4 days for their order to arrive.”
In the years since, this situation has only gotten more challenging for us. Both the volume of customer emails asking about order processing time has increased enormously, and our actual processing times are, in fact, getting longer. Case in point: when we tried to take a short vacation earlier this year, and when a family member died this fall, we fell well behind on orders – sometimes taking upwards of two weeks to get them processed and out the door.
And yet, we still don’t have any better answers for how to do what we do.
Our collective expectations for immediate consumption and product acquisition are understandable – we’ve all become conditioned for this.
While we muddle through orders as quickly as we possible, we can’t help but feel for all the other people caught up in this same over-accelerated economy – for the folks putting in their own grueling hours at the giant ecommerce fulfillment centers, and logistics hubs, and the thoughtful and exhausted people delivering all of these magic packages to all of our houses.
Here's to hoping that we can all give each other some breathing room, and be a little more patient with each other.
- - -
Upcoming Items of Note
We have an avalanche of things in the pipeline that we are working to unveil as quickly as we can in the new year: new meadow management tools and some interesting pollinator things that harken back to Eric’s grad school work and Mari's product design background. Some new publishing projects (still on real paper). Many (!!!) new seeds of things are waiting to be cleaned and packaged and be given human-authored product descriptions. We’re even experimenting with a ready-to-plant “forest in a box.” And there’s more. All of this is going to require epic work and very major adjustments to our work life balance so that we can devote more energy and care to this venture: we officially need a larger shop and larger staff. But, with some luck, 2024 will be a transformative year for this odd little project.
Finally, a friend of ours recently observed how our culture is increasingly replacing the concept of “art” with the concept of “content.”
Unfortunately, this feels true. But it is also something that none of us needs to tolerate.
At our core, Northwest Meadowscapes has always been an art project. If you’ve planted our seeds, you are part of this project with us. And we're grateful to you.
-Mari and Eric Lee-Mäder