How to Identify and Precision-Plant Microclimates of Your Land

How to identify and precision-plant microclimates in your garden, including information on native planting, testing soil, light levels in the garden, crop rotation and growing vegetables in hanging baskets.

| April/May 1997

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    Niche? (neech) n. A suitable place; the position of a species in the ecology; a recess in a stone wall.
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    Garden light meter tool.
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    Sun angles and shade in garden.
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    Soil pH scale.
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    Watercress seeds sown between wet burlap.

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Growing native plants in their natural habitat in small home patches. How to identify and precision-plant microclimates of your land. 

I was driving through some of upper Michigan's bleak sand-dune and peat-bog country a few years back, and marveled that even scrub pine and horsetails could grow in such sour and leached-out soil. On a rounding curve, I was astounded to see a 25- or 30-foot-high festoon of lush green and heavenly blue reaching for the sky. The angled guywire of a telephone pole at the entrance to a long farm drive hosted the most luxuriant growth of Heavenly Blue Morning Glories (Ipomea C. ) I'd ever seen.

I pulled over to examine the base of the flowering vines. A roadside ditch flowing with dear, tan peat-stained bog water maintained high local humidity and watered a waist-high growth of weeds that crowded all around the pole-except where the morning glories were growing. Three different-aged plantings of a half dozen vines apiece emerged from a foot-deep mulch that had been laid over a trio of well-used wood-slat, bushel-sized produce baskets half-buried in the sandy peat soil. The basket rim was solid enough to keep sod and creeping ground vines from crowding out the Ipomea roots, and each formed a good 6-inch-high, disc-shaped raised bed.

Time was too short to arrange a polite visit to see if the farmer's method was as innovative as the roadside flower-growing. But, once home I read up on Ipomea, and learned that it is a woody-stemmed perennial vine that will grow forever as it climbs lianas and thin tree branches in its hot, wet tropical homeland. It is also extremely frost tender, so it is cultivated as a half-hardy annual in temperate climates. It wants moderate but even moisture and a soil rich in potassium, phosphorus and trace elements, but low in nitrogen in the early vegetative growth stage lest the vine grow too lush at the expense of flowers. Periodic, later doses of nitrogen are desirable.

I theorized that the Michigan farm folks had gone a long way toward figuring out the plant's ideal (native) growing conditions. Most important, I guessed, was an unusually high support so the vine was free to rise more than 30 feet around the kind of small diameter vertical support its tight-spiraling stems prefer.

These folks also discovered that the vines do best in open, moving air (to avoid leaf mildew), amid a naturally selected growth of wild native plants-a natural mix of what we call weeds that makes it harder for insect pests to locate their prey species among the conflicting sights, sounds and smells.

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