Friday, February 10, 2012

winter's subtle beauty

hoarfrost on leonard messel magnolia
touching the frost on the garden bench

This is the hardest time of year.  Winter is dragging on.  Everywhere it's either gray, crusty snow, or re-frozen glare ice, or, if you're lucky, slush.

I remember reading that the ancient Romans took days off of the month of February to add days to July and August, so that Julius and Augustus Caesar could have longer namesake months.  I think that maybe they also just wanted February to be over more quickly. 

There are beautiful days in the middle of the cold and the slush though.  The fog that hung over the city last week,  
not a thorn bush- lilacs
trapping particulates, making smog and also making me and everyone around me grumpy, finally left Saturday morning, leaving behind delicate and beautiful crystals on all of the trees, shrubs, even garden furniture.  It fell in little spears from the trees all morning, like sharp little snowflakes.

The view down the street was entirely covered in white.  Very little snow on the ground, but hoarfrost coating every surface and giving a sort of ghostly glow to everyday things that I wouldn't have paid attention to.  The lilac bush by the front door looked thorny as a barberry, but the 'thorns' 
the view down our street the morning the fog went out
melted on my tongue.

I like this about winter.  It's surprising.  It usually wears out its welcome by this time every year, but this year is an exception.  It's not what most people would call a real Minnesota winter- but that is changing.

What is a real Minnesota winter is changing, that is.  We are now officially in zone 4B according to the USDA, and only a few miles from a little blob of zone 5A, in south Minneapolis and Richfield.

The map released by the Arbor Day Foundation in 2006 was even bolder, putting most of the Twin City metro solidly in 5A.

Reportedly, the USDA had prepared a similar map in 2005 and had circulated it for comments.  I was working at a nursery at the time as a landscape designer and talked to the manager about it.   He confided that he thought it was a terrible idea- that it would give customers the idea that they could grow zone 5 plants here, and that they'd bring them back for refunds when the plants were winterkilled.  He went on to tell me that there were a lot of growers and nurseries sending letters to try to stop the release of the new zone map.

It must have worked, because the map went nowhere.  I also wouldn't be surprised if some of the powers that be, or that were, saw that the map was changing most of the country to a half or full zone warmer, and got a tiny bit worried that this could, maybe, just possibly be seen as proof of global warming.

So, seven years later we have a new, but watered-down version of the map with the USDA's stamp of approval.

From the USDA National Arboretum website.  Click the image to go to the interactive map.
Apparently they drew from a longer span of time in order to dilute the effects of the warm winters of the last decade. This mild winter obviously won't make it in, as the cutoff, interestingly, was 2006.

Still, it's surprising to see the difference.  On the old map, zone 3B started somewhere just north of Anoka, in the far northern suburbs.  Now a patch of real estate around the MSP airport is shown as 5A.  That's major. I might be able to overwinter the banana plants outside from now on.

I do have several plants that are supposed to only be hardy to zone 5 in the yard, and none have shown any dieback over the last 3 or 4 winters.  Stella Cherry and Leonard Messel magnolia are listed as zone 5 or as 4/5 in most catalogs, but have done well with little protection in the front yard. I've seen a number of Japanese Maples in the neighborhood, that shouldn't be able to survive in 4A, but they appear to be thriving.

If we don't have any new subzero temperatures this winter (and it gets less and less likely now that we're over a month and a half past the winter solstice) we will have had a lowest temperature of the season of -11F.  That's a 5B winter-- more like northern Missouri (even according to the new map) than what we're supposed to have in Minnesota.

A new concept?

This is unrelated to weather or zone maps, but I thought it was entertaining.  Since I work at an architectural/engineering firm, I sometimes get spam related to new trends in building, or what the spammers hope to be new trends.
copyright Hanley-Wood LLC.  see the whole thing at

I think this falls more under the heading of 'desperately hoping for a new trend'.  This bit of spam is pushing new homes in communities that purport to have designed homes appropriate to three different generations- baby boomers, x'ers and y's.

The generationally-targeted housing idea was funny enough- but the thing that really caught my eye was the 'Suburbs of the new economy' tagline, and the assertion that 'the days of one-size-fits-all homes, blah, blah, are over.'  How about admitting that the days of filling up corn fields with McMansions are over?  That nobody of any generation seems to be very interested in buying houses in cornfields these days?  That most people aren't able to afford a new house, and even if they could, why would they when there are so many low-priced slightly used ones? That suburbs, or at least the outer suburbs, are destined for a long period of slow decline.

How about also building houses to last- rather than full of closets and places to plug in our technology- as the Generation X house is said to have- the house that I am supposed to want.  Implied in the idea of generation-specific housing is also the idea that it's necessary to buy, and re-buy a house to fit your stage of life as you age.  It's a bonus for builders and real estate agents, but a money-losing proposition for the homeowner.  Better to stay in the house, and neighborhood and build to suit.  Keep the connections to neighbors and to your garden and make your current house fit you rather than the other way around.

It seems like a long time now since this type of house porn was common and it's kind of shocking to see it again.

I don't fault the builders for trying to revive a collapsed market. That's their bread and butter.  I get that. But to revive the same tired thing and try to sell it as new?  As if the whole market hadn't fallen on its face in the last five years and leave vacant poorly-built houses like these ones everywhere?   Is there really a demand for two-story foyers that are expensive to heat and functionally useless?  For big expanses of toxic Chinese drywall?  Have no lessons been learned?

OK- that's not everyone.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, I had the pleasure of talking with the members of the Northeast Minneapolis Transition Town group on Saturday afternoon. I've heard about the Transition Town movement before but haven't ever been to a meeting or gone out of my way to try to find one.

Someone who read this blog contacted me, however and asked me to come and speak about permaculture (or about home-scale sustainable agriculture, since I'm not an official permaculturer, or whatever the title would be if I went through the official process).  It was more fun than I thought, and I learned about rocket stoves as well!  If I find the time to make one, I'll post about it.

More than that- it  was fun to be in a room of kindred spirits- where most of not all are familiar with John Michael Greer's or James Kunstler's writing, and working to build a more sustainable life in the city.  It's always hard to say how much of what is talked about actually makes it into practice, but if the 'show-and-tell' projects that people brought in are any indicator, then there really is some real reshaping of the urban landscape taking place, in back yards, here and there, one by one.  It's a beautiful thing. 


  1. don't think the outer suburbs are necessarily destined to decline. Who wants a house in the middle of a cornfield? A farmer, of course. I think there is potential to develop human powered mini farms on suburban lots. The buildings do need to be well-built, though, and the price needs to be right.

    I also think building for different generations is a good idea, just not specific generations. Some amount of changing your house to suit your needs is good, but young people starting out, middle aged people with families, and empty nesters all have radically different needs. What really needs to be brought back are things like guest houses, mother-in-law suites, and garage apartments. These help accommodate varied housing needs without having to change properties many times.

  2. Hi John,

    I agree with you. The one redeeming quality of the housing development in the ad was the idea of adding mother-in-law apartments and flexible spaces to the houses.

    The houses in cornfields though- I've done a lot of work around them, and the act of development has debased the land around most of these houses to the point where it is almost unusable. In the newer western suburbs of the Twin Cities, typically the yard is composed of thirsty bluegrass/ryegrass sod over a thin layer of topsoil, on top of a heavily compacted and almost impenetrable layer of clay. The clay was compacted by construction, and stayed that way.

    Instead of deep tilling it, the builder sold a thin layer of topsoil (which often came from the same lot before construction) back to the homeowner, along with an irrigation system which was only necessary because they've ruined the soil and planted high-maintenance grass species which (unnaturally)stay dark green all summer.

    This, and the attitudes of many of the people in those houses, is a huge barrier to developing mini-farms in the outer suburbs. I don't know how many times I suggested a fruit tree or large shade tree to someone in Eden Prairie or Chanhassen, only to have them tell me "fruit is messy!" or "the leaves will get into my gutters!" I hope I'm wrong, but years of working in those areas has left me not feeling very hopeful about it.

  3. I hope this house bubble will help people to think differently and make more energy efficient house and more sustainable community instead of building few houses in the middle of cornfield.

  4. As Kunstler has said - the outer suburbs, "are the largest misalocation of resources in the history of the Earth." When the shit hits the fan, there will be scraps that we can salvage from the outer suburbs, and with time we can start to rebuild the soils, but it is truly a shame what has happened to some of the best farm land in the world.

  5. As a reformed builder, I can say that any new housing construction in the standard form as outlined by modern building codes and the typical suburban model, here in the north, is fundamentally irresponsible, no matter the economic exigence. Which is to say, the standard model is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, in a world where demand for fossil fuels is soon to outstrip supply, making stick-frame construction a fools-game, a kind of theft of future comfort. I predict that in my lifetime, we will be tearing down most of those McMansions, for scrap, and to return the land to farming.

    And if the future of climate is extremes, I would hesitate to count on the long-term viability of zone 5 trees. Maybe. But I really want a peach tree.

  6. Jeff, I agree entirely that the problem is one of attitude. But that is a problem, not a predicament, and it is possible for people's attitudes to change swiftly. Unlikely, but possible.

    As to the condition of suburban lots, I know they're bad. However, have you ever seen Geoff Lawton's "Greening the Desert"?
    It is amazing what can be done in a few years with the right knowledge and effort.

    William, I agree that for homes that are not well-built, deconstruction is their likely fate. A few, however, are, and the fact that they are large just means that a large number of people need to live in them for them be economical and ecological. I'm reminded of a story related to by a lender in southern California: during the boom, they loved to give loans to illegal immigrants. Sure, they were working low-paying jobs, but they'd have dozens of people living in one house, and with them all contributing, they were very good about paying their mortgages.

    As to the fruit trees, I would not try to second guess the changing climate. Plant as wide a variety as you can to ensure something survives.

  7. Andy and William- I agree- I think 'house salvage' will be the next boom industry in the outer ring of suburbia. As it gets more expensive to commute, and as there are fewer jobs anyway, and as building materials get harder to come by, and as more outer ring houses are abandoned (a process that's underway already) salvaging the materials will become an obvious choice. Building is continuing and will continue closer to the city cores. Maybe the community colleges in Anoka and Rosemount will someday offer courses on deconstructing McMansions.

    John- I think you're right that attitudes can change quickly, out of necessity. My experience tells me that most folks living in the areas in question will do everything they can to avoid making those choices. That will mean an long period of difficulty for families and neighborhoods, that I think that will equal decline. After a long enough time, and after the house salvage really gets underway, I think there will be real farmers in outer suburbia again. They'll have their work cut out for them, restoring the soil, but it can be done. There could be good work as a vegetable/dairy/meat producer within a short distance of the city.

  8. Actually, the graphic in that spam you got reminds me of the upscale neighborhood in Minneapolis my brother used to live in (Lake of the Isles, I think). It had a lake surrounded by gigantic houses many of which looked hilariously out of place (Spanish hacienda, anyone?) I'll admit we have some dumb looking houses here in Chicago but no zone 4 haciendas that I know of.

  9. Jason- It's kind of funny- the Lake of the Isles area, and the neighborhood around it was the outer suburbia of the Gilded age. It was on the edge of Minneapolis in the 1880s and 90s, and the hot spot for lumber and flour barons who wanted to build monuments to themselves.

    You couldn't buy good taste back then either. But I'm guessing that the construction of those mansions was more solid than the McMansions that went up in the early 2000's, modeled after the houses on Lake of the Isles. At least most of them are still standing- don't know if we'll be able to say that about the bloated stick-frame monsters of Apple Valley or Eden Prairie in 100 years.