The Landscaping Ideas of Jays – Book Review

Meet Mother Nature’s gardening experts.

If you do not usually seek gardening advice from the native flora and fauna in your community, you will after reading The Landscaping Ideas of Jays.

Yes, you read that correctly. I do mean the plants, insects, trees, birds, bees, animals, and grasses that are native to where you live. “How so?” you ask.  Read the book and you will understand.

There were two reasons that I felt certain I would enjoy reading Judith Larner Lowry’s book The Landscaping Ideas of Jays: a Natural History of the Backyard Restoration Garden.

The first is that I too am a backyard restorationist, although unlike Lowry, I am an amateur.

The second reason is that I had previously read and loved her book Gardening with a Wild Heart. As she waxed poetic about coyote bush (the first native plant I learned to identify) and talked about coveting her neighbor’s wood chip pile, I felt we were kindred spirits.

The copy of The Landscaping Ideas of Jays I just read was loaned to me by a native plant enthusiast named Linda whom I met through the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

I must have mentioned to Linda that Gardening with a Wild Heart is one of my favorite books during a stint working with her behind the book table at a chapter meeting because she told me she owned another book by Judith Larner Lowry and offered to loan it to me.

I accepted and she brought the book to the next meeting.

Book Review

Before you begin reading The Landscaping Ideas of Jays, I suggest that you lather on the sunscreen, fill up your reusable water bottle, and grab some seed collecting envelopes because you will be wandering about with Judith Larner Lowry in her garden and the wild. You might want to bring along some snacks, too, as there will be many side trips and times to dawdle and reflect.

The chapters in the book are loosely grouped into seasons beginning with fall and ending with what Lowry calls the fifth season.

The Landscaping Ideas of Jays Book Cover

The setting for the book is California and the characters are mostly native California plants and animals with cameo appearances by California indigenous people both past and present. However, the book’s ideas and messages are universal.

Fall

Perhaps you are familiar with the term keynote speaker, meaning the speaker who sets the tone or theme for an event. In this part of the book, you will learn about designing a garden around keynote birds and plants and how California quail and coyote bush fill the keynote roles in Lowry’s restoration garden. The following excerpt is about quail.

“In exchange for room in our gardens, they give the graceful gift of thriving among us. As they skim fences, ignoring property rights and heading for what they need regardless of who owns it, they stitch neighborhoods together, providing a local totem and a topic of much conversation.”

Wherever you live, there is sure to be a keynote bird and/or plant that would love to visit or find a home in your yard or garden.

Winter

This segment begins with a chapter intriguingly called “Eating the Rain” and quickly moves to wintertime storytelling as Lowery acquaints you with the histories of three botanical women and their contributions to California native plant knowledge.

“In the winter I read long hours, dipping into the California native plant literary canon. It seems that the three women whose lives and contributions I describe in this part, Lester Rowntree, Edith Van Allen Murphey, and Gerda Isenberg, have been with me for a long time, inspiring and supporting my endeavors, and those of many of my fellow native plant lovers, though of the three I knew only Gerda.”

Reading the winter section you will also receive lessons from the forest and learn how salmon nourish the woods.

Spring

You will be introduced to spring through flowers and the expansive fields of California wildflowers that draw people from all over the world, most holding a camera or smartphone.

“Visitors from other galaxies might understandably conclude that placing small rectangular objects between our eyes and the world is the way we humans worship natural phenomenon.”

Other tales include the “you’ll be sorry” plant, weed-free neighbor zones, and what a rock knows.

Summer and the Fifth Season

The summer and fifth season sections contain advice about designing and caring for restoration gardens. This includes discourse about plants, trees, ponds, pollinators, paths, animals, and praise for bare dirt (in moderation).

The fifth season will remain a mystery until you read the book however; many Californians may be able to guess what it is.

Near the end of the book, Lowry will caution you about embarking on gardening endeavors that exceed your financial, physical, or time-related limitations and suggests taking on significantly less than you think you can handle.

The above advice is followed by Lowry’s First Law of Gardening.

“The law is this: The land requires our attention. Either you pay attention, or you hire somebody to pay attention, but attention, one way or another, must be paid.”

The Bottom Line

Judith Larner Lowry is the longtime owner of Larner Seeds in Bolinas, CA, which carries over 200 species of California native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. In addition to caring for her own garden, she designs gardens using California native plants, conducts workshops, gives talks, writes articles, and is the author of several books.

Often when I am reading a book, I think how interesting it would be to meet and talk with its author. Lowry strikes me as not only a person I would enjoy meeting and discussing native plants with but also someone who would be a wonderful neighbor.

Although not a step-by-step guide for designing a restoration garden or growing native plants, The Landscaping Ideas of Jays contains a lot of useful information and practical advice. It is a beautifully written book filled with inspiration, stories, humor, ideas, and Lowry’s musings about how our yards or gardens can connect us to the places where we live.

I recommend The Landscaping Ideas of Jays to anyone who wants to pay attention to their yard or garden and to make it place where native plants, flowers, trees, grasses, bees, birds, and animals can thrive.

Featured Image at Top: This is a California scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica) grasping an acorn in its beak – photo credit iStock/pchoui.

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Arbor Day 2019 – Let’s Plant Trees

For the love of trees.

This Arbor Day, or any day, plant a tree in honor of a tree you have loved or love now. If you, I, and everyone else did this, we could reforest Earth.

There are infinite reasons that people love trees. Here are a few of my own.

When I visit a park on a hot sunny day, the tree with the biggest canopy providing the most shade draws me towards it. I stand in awe when I spot a majestic hawk perched on a branch in a Monterey pine tree outside my dining room window. The memory of biting into fresh juicy peaches that I picked from the trees in our back yard when I was a kid is still fresh in my mind. Watching the birds flit from tree to tree in our yard in a dizzying pattern is always entertaining. When I look up at the giant trees in a redwood forest, I feel a sense of wonder and peace.

Redwood Trees in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park - August, 2013
I took this photo of the majestic redwood trees in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park during a trip with my family to California’s redwood coast in August 2013.

Pause here for a few minutes to envision the trees in your own life.

Before we talk more about trees, perhaps an Arbor Day history refresher would be helpful.

Arbor Day and Its Founder

This year, Arbor Day is even more fun for me because last September I visited Nebraska City, Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day, with two wonderful long-time friends. I also recently finished reading a biography written by James C. Olson about its founder J. Sterling Morton.

J. Sterling Morton

Julius Sterling Morton, called J. Sterling Morton so as not be confused with his father Julius Dewey Morton, was born on April 22, 1832, and lived to be 70. He grew up in Monroe, Michigan. At 22, he and his new wife Caroline Joy French headed to the wide-open plains of Nebraska where Morton hoped to become famous and wealthy.

During his life, Morton was a farmer, newspaper editor, political candidate, railroad lobbyist, and did a brief stint as the acting Governor for the Territory of Nebraska. He was a staunch believer that Nebraska could and should be an agricultural powerhouse. Planting both fruit and forest trees were essential to his mission.

Morton and his tree-planting advocacy led to the first Arbor Day on Wednesday, April 10, 1872, in Nebraska. Now, almost 150 years later, tree enthusiasts all over the world plant trees for Arbor Day.

J Sterling Morton Sitting in a Chair in Washington, DC - April 25, 1895

This photo shows J. Sterling Morton sitting in a chair in his office in Washington, D.C. on April 25, 1895, during his tenure as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during President Grover Cleveland’s administration.

Photo courtesy of The Morton Arboretum.

During his four years as Secretary, Morton endeavored to bring fiscal responsibility to the Department of Agriculture and he did. He was also responsible for expanding the number of jobs classified as civil service to ensure operational continuity when a new president came into office and appointed new leadership.

In 1898, Morton founded a weekly newspaper called The Conservative, which kept him active and writing until the end of his life in 1902.

My impression of J. Sterling Morton is that he was opinionated, ambitious, stubborn, loyal, and honest. He was a Democrat and a racist that dearly loved his wife and family.

Arbor Day Farm and Arbor Lodge

Nowadays, Arbor Day Farm is a tourist attraction with orchards, outdoor trails, and year-round events. The grounds contain a greenhouse, tree shipping operation, movie theater, gift shop, and a cafe. The day we visited, it was sunny and hot. An apple cider float from the cafe tasted delicious and was delightfully cool.

Nearby, we toured Arbor Lodge where J. Sterling Morton and his wife Caroline raised four sons and farmed on 160 acres of land.

Reading the biography was interesting because it gave me a glimpse of life on the Nebraska frontier in the mid to late 19th century as seen through the eyes of Morton. It was entertaining, too, mostly because I have actually visited some of the places referred to in the book.

For instance, my friends and I stayed in Bellevue, where Morton and his wife lived for several months when they first arrived from Michigan. We also visited Omaha the site of much of the political intrigue in the book

The first house built by the Morton’s was more or less a log cabin. They serially remodeled the house into a stately mansion they called Arbor Lodge. My friends and I took a guided tour through Arbor Lodge, which is now a museum and historical state park. We walked around the study where Morton wrote his letters, speeches, and newspaper articles. Many of these provided reference material for the James C. Olson book I spotted in the tiny gift shop area and bought.

Besides spending time with my friends and meeting a bison face-to-face, the highlight of the trip for me was visiting Arbor Day Farm and Arbor Lodge.

I hope you feel more informed about Arbor Day and its founder J. Sterling Morton. Now, let’s talk trees.

Monterey Pine Seedling Project

My Arbor Day 2019 celebration began in February when I planted twenty Monterey pine tree seedlings in my yard, which is in the midst of a beautiful yet struggling Monterey pine forest. I recounted the planting experience in the post, entitled Mother Nature Needs Our Help – Let’s Plant Trees. In this post, we will look at how the seedlings are doing two months later and how I dealt with unanticipated challenges that I probably should have anticipated.

I knew I would need to regularly check on the seedlings and water them during their first year or so of living in their new locations. We have no irrigation system so that means me making numerous trips around the yard carrying a 2-gallon watering can full of water.

While I was planting the seedlings, I realized that I would need some kind of a marker to put near the seedlings or I might never be able to find them again once the wild grasses grew over a foot tall. Here the grass will get to be four to six feet tall so you can probably imagine the problem of trying to spot a tiny, also green, tree seedling amidst a sea of grass.

My spouse offered to make some markers but we could not find any suitable material on hand. We purchased four-foot long slender bamboo poles at our local nursery. My spouse attached little pieces of cloth from a worn out t-shirt on the top of each pole to act like a flag.

In early March, we walked around the yard to the areas that we knew we had planted the seedlings in groups and tapped a marker into the soil beside each one. Unfortunately, we were not able to locate one of the seedlings so we were down to nineteen.

Next, it occurred to me that the seedlings might appreciate some breathing room from the competing grasses so I decided to weed a small circle around each one and then spread wood chips to help keep moisture in the soil. My spouse and I hand weeded and used the smaller of our two weed whackers to clear space around the seedlings.

One of the seedlings had an accident so now we were down to eighteen.

Fortunately, I spotted this tiny seedling volunteering to grow in our yard near some of the other seedlings we had planted so we adopted it into the fold. Now we are back to nineteen seedlings.

Whew, we could sit back and relax.

Not long after, one day as I was admiring the grasses waving in the wind, I realized that even if I could spot the flags, I would have to bushwhack my way through the grasses carrying 16 pounds of water every time I gave the tree seedlings a drink.

This time we cracked out the big electric weed whacker to clear paths through the now 4-foot tall grasses. The tree seedlings seem happy.

Okay, now we can sit back and relax until it is time to make the rounds again with the watering can.

Earth Day and Arbor Day Combined

Just yesterday, at an Earth Day event in our town I met up with Rick Hawley from Greenspace, again. He is the guy I met at the January Cambria Forest Committee meeting that led to our Monterey pine tree seedling project. At the meeting, he was displaying a rack of 98 itsy bitsy seedlings he had grown from seeds. I coveted them.

Now, I have my own rack of 98 Monterey pine seeds I just planted. I hope they will all germinate and grow into seedlings for planting in a nearby forest area that needs trees.

Rack of Monterey Pine Seeds Planted at Earth Day Event - April 21, 2019
These 98 tubes filled with soil and one Monterey pine tree seed each are now in my care until November when the other seedling growers and I will gather to plant them.

The native plants that I am growing from seeds welcomed their new friends onto the deck outside our dining room.

Of course, you can choose to celebrate Arbor Day however, you wish. I hope you will join millions of tree huggers and me who are demonstrating our love of trees and people by planting tree seeds, seedlings, and trees in our yards, parks, and forests.

Featured Image at Top: The Morton Oak, the lone survivor of what was once an oak savanna. This photo and the photos of Arbor Lodge and Arbor Day Farm are courtesy of Arbor Day Farm.

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