April update: machine learning and nature

March was just sort of a not-great month. My grandmother passed away and plans just sort of slid to the side — nothing really derailed, it just slid. Oh well.

April has been more productive overall but is going really fast. The academic year always seems to force an increased energy in April as May will bring final exams, final senior projects, a big talk for me, and several holiday-like events! We’re also gearing up at MCFAM for the summer machine learning camp for high school students. This involves advertising the camp, soliciting more funding, and starting to recruit speakers from local companies and colleges. If you’re interested in speaking or giving us $$$, email me! $1000 funds an instructor for a week; $500 funds an undergraduate TA for a week; and the students and instructors who teach this camp will be able take pretty specialized knowledge to other educational settings to share with more students, so it’s really a good investment.

Back to the personal: this winter I spent a lot of time thinking about nature. Our backyard is not looking great anymore — trees have grown and turned sunny areas into shady areas, and the addition of a small person to our family means that we need to change how we do outdoor work and play. So I started to plan a garden. Time to jump ship now ’cause this is going to get really really long.

As I took an inventory of what we actually have, I realized that almost nothing in our landscaping was actually that pollinator-friendly! I had never realized that. Flowers mean bees are happy, right? Wrong. A lot of the plants we had are not that useful to our bees. They’re not native, they’re not helpful non-natives. Since in the wintertime you can do nothing for the garden but contemplate, I contemplated and read my way through several local library systems.

Gardeners are apparently really fanatical. I had no idea. Did you know there’s a New Perennial Movement? Did you know that there are heated discussions (and a little bit of research) about cultivars of native plants? Cultivars are the prettier versions, the Instagram+Photoshop versions, of regular plant species. They’re selected for attractiveness and growth habit. They often also end up being sterile or having a weird shape that bees can’t get into, for instance.

My spouse picked up “The Know-Maintenance Perennial Garden” and “The No-Work Garden” from the library because that’s what we want, a lazy garden. First I read the No Work Garden book because the author’s name was Bob Flowerdew and how can one get more qualified. He had many smart and snarky British remarks that exposed my gardening bad habits and ignorance. It was funny. He pointed out that growing vegetables with small children is for the delusional if you’re picking up a book called the No Work Garden — you should just plant fruit trees and berry bushes and call it good. That man is right.

I ignored the Know-Maintenance Garden at first because it seemed a little weird with all these grid layouts in the back and all this stuff about grasses. But it ended up being hands down the most provocative book I got, even without snarky Britishisms. Roy Diblik talked about how plants live together: if you’ve got a plant with deep roots and a plant with rhizomes next to each other, they aren’t competing for the same water source; depending on the growth habits of neighbor plants you might get a sprawling mess or you might get a nice thick set of mutually supporting stems. He talked about the ecology of seasonal succession, too. I never thought about plants’ roots and growth habit and neighborliness before, or how you if you know these things you can plan a garden that basically won’t need maintenance for three to five years. Wow!

Then I followed some names from the Know-Maintenance guy’s recommendations and ended up learning about Piet Oudolf, who has some kick-ass gardens that blew my mind. I did not know that gardens could be that way.

Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblik use a lot of prairie plants in their gardens, and as I mentioned Diblik had started me thinking about the ecology of plant communities — not just thinking about gardens as a few flowers, but as complex ecosystems. This is Minnesota, so I checked out local companies like Prairie Moon Nursery and Prairie Restorations. There is a lot of advice for prairie restoration projects. However, (1) we’ve got a minuscule back yard, (2) everyone says it’ll take three years to prep the ground to get a prairie (first you need to kill everything in the soil), (3) unfortunately part of the point is to render the yard acceptable to the urban eye and not have the city called on us, and (4) the rest of the point is to not work so hard! Ugh. So. No prairie restoration. The prairie-inspired edits of Diblik and Oudolf still appealed to me, but again, tiny tiny backyard. There is nothing evoking the wide-open prairie in my 11-foot-deep backyard and there are tons of shrubs and trees. Wait…… trees and shrubs occur in nature. Why isn’t there a shrubland edit?

At that point I stumbled on “Planting in a Post-Wild World” which — hooray! — covered prairies, shrubland/woodland communities, and forest. Yes, these folks thought about getting inspiration from the forest edge, meadows, shrubby savannahs, etc. That’s what I need. But I don’t see any amazing Instagramming award-winning multi-million-dollar-garden-establishing shrubland garden designers. Ideas?

(I told you to bail a while ago. Don’t know why you’re still reading.)

To bring this extended monologue to the current day, I’ll wrap up by saying that throughout this, I’ve stayed interested in how we use plants for food, medicine, and fragrance. Maybe it’s for another day to list out Original Local, Buffalo Bird Woman’s book, A Taste of Heritage which I picked up while visiting the Crow nation, The Sioux Chef, and all the other amazing books and resources that have been helping me understand the Native American perspective on our local ecology, as well as some eclectic reading on European-American approaches to herbalism. There’s a ton to learn at this intersection of science, complex systems, dinnertime, nutrition and health, backyard play, fragrance, and spirituality. I’ll just point out that I’m going to rip up my hostas and sautee them for dinner, I’ll work on extirpating my garlic mustard by making it into pesto, and whenever the Virginia waterleaf starts to annoy me I’m gonna eat that too. And I’ll be able to do any of that before my attempted shrubland masterpiece even gets established. See you in the backyard.

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