Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Gift for Gardening With Intent

This morning I received the perfect gift for my efforts to create a refuge for wildlife in my backyard - fledglings.

Yesterday afternoon I took a quick photo of the Bewick’s wren chicks in their “chicken pot” nest. You have to look closely to see one of the chicks. One light streak in the dark opening is the yellow on the lower edge of a beak and the other is a white eyebrow just over the tiny eye. The other two chicks are further back in the pot.

Mom was working very hard yesterday. No sooner did she return to the nest with a grub or worm and feed one of the chicks, then she would start off to look for more and one of the chicks would call her back for KP duty.

Bewick’s wrens are cavity nesters. I have a perfectly nice bird house in the yard that this pair used a few years ago. They built a nest in the house this year, but decided the pot was a better location. Anyway, because the chicks are down in a confined space, the parents take the little packets of fecal matter out of the nest to keep it clean.

Yesterday, the three chicks had mom hopping. Their chirps were insistent, “Feed me, feed me.” “Mom, there’s poop.” The father wren has been helping with the feeding and housekeeping, but yesterday, when things were at their most hectic. I caught a glimpse of him sitting high on the telephone wire, nearly asleep. The chicks were calling, but he seemed to be letting his mate handle the offspring.

This morning the nest was empty.

And here is where the gift comes in: The parent wrens were leading their three fledglings through the holly cherry and the fern. Dad was leading the little ones in a hunt for crane’s fly grubs in the leaf litter and grass. The young birds were trying their wings for the first time, flying a couple feet off the ground and perching on a seedling oak.

I have worked to create a Garden with Intent, food for myself and a hillside with native plants that feed and house native insects. These insects are in turn food for the Allen’s hummingbirds when they nest, the western fence lizards and slender salamanders, and now for the family of Bewick’s wrens. The habitat is rich in resources and safe from introduced predators. There is no cat to fear, no pesticides to weaken tiny youngsters.

The pair of wrens were leading their three chicks on a morning of discovery and I got to watch.

Oh, and Dad had a reason to be resting up yesterday, he was leading the way.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A New Day for Snakes

I love happy endings.

Last year a friend had a neighbor who killed a snake in their yard and then asked what kind it was. Snake - Victim of Ignorance

The poor gopher snake was just trying to eat the abundant rodents around the people's orchard property. My friend and I tried a little education about local snakes and hoped for the best.

This year another gopher snake has made an appearance on the neighbor's property, but this time they took a photo FIRST. Yes, it is another gopher snake. It is a little plump which supports the evidence that an abundance of rodents are available on their property.

This gopher snake is not a threat to the people or their medium-sized dog. In fact the dog is a threat to the snake. The gopher snake is a valuable ally. It will do its best to eat the rats and gophers around their rural orchard and its efficient hunting will help to keep rattlesnakes away.

We hope that they will decide to let the snake do its work on their property. But even if they do decide to relocate it, this gopher snake survived. A little education can make a world of difference for wild creatures. Once you know an animal is not a threat, you can stop and think rationally about what to do about its presence. Most snakes are completely beneficial, don't condemn them because of human ignorance and cultural myth.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Don't Pull That Dandelion

Gardening with Intent means leaving in plants that you might regard as weeds if they provide food for other species. It also means nurturing plants that may not be traditionally beautiful but are important providers of native habitat and food.

How many dandelions have you pulled out in disgust?

Dandelions are native to North America and they are nutritious for animals and people.

Our yard has limited sun; few dandelions can make a go of it. When one sprouted up at the base of the block wall in the front, I was happy. The desert tortoise has just really started to eat after its winter torpor. Dandelion greens are filled with vitamins and they help stimulate the digestive system.

Nikki regards dandelion as a spring tonic.

Native heuchera or coral bells send up stalks of small flowers in spring.

The flowers are stunning on a minute level, but their tiny size makes them less desirable to many people. Hummingbirds, however, favor these tasty native blooms. This month I’ve added to my patch of heuchera and I plan to add more in the fall. I’d like to plant them in the backyard as well, but the tortoises love them too much.

The Catalina cherry and holly cherry are in bloom. They can’t compare to azaleas or camellias for beauty, but little white flowers attract small insect pollinators: flower flies and hover flies. These small insects, as well as gnats, are import items on the menu for western fence lizards and nesting female hummingbirds.

People always ask me why there are so many hummingbirds nesting in my yard. I honestly think the reason is that the hungry mothers need ready access to protein–small flying insects. The holly cherry trees attract native insects and provide the perfect location for building a nest. Two of the three successful hummingbird nests this spring have been in holly cherry shrubs.

In late summer the holly cherry will produce a small acidic fruit eaten by a variety of birds.

Look at the plants in your living space with a new eye. Which plants attract the most native insects? Which plants have the most spider webs? These are the plants that are participating in the local food web. Rethink pulling up all those dandelions. Try letting an area of your space be a “weed” patch. Dandelion and thistle seed are important food for small birds like goldfinches.

The word “paradise” comes from the idea of an enclosed garden. But a true paradise isn’t brightly colored flowers and grass in a sterile environment, living plants and animals interacting with each other, a reflection of the natural world, that is a true paradise.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day

Gray skies are still promising rain. They haven’t delivered more than an 1/8th of an inch in the last three days, but still the native plants are thriving.

This Earth Day, the Douglas iris, columbine and coral bells along the front walkway are lush green with beautiful flowers.

All of these native species are drought tolerant and loving the cool spring weather we’ve been having.

Except for watering the newly planted columbine, we have been able to keep our sprinklers off completely. Native plants not only attract more
animal biodiversity, they also are cost effective because they use less water.

Whether through natural seed dispersal (wild cucumber) or planned removal of non-native species (
African daisies), we are actively transforming at least half of our yardscape to native species. The intention is to create habitat for native California species and move toward sustainable water use.

This Earth Day take a look at your living space. Is your garden providing homes and food for wildlife or food for you? Our human footprint on the Earth is immense. If we can make the areas that we live in more connected to local ecosystems, we can give back to our wild neighbors. I’ve been trying to focus on Gardening with Intent this month and it has given me new resolve–more areas will be
replanted with natives, food crops can be grown in pots and the invasive Mexican ash saplings must be removed.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Giant Mosquitoes ?

There’s been concern among some of my neighbors that we are being invaded by giant mosquitoes.

Actually, the spring rains have encouraged the pupation of large numbers of common crane flies (Tipula planicornis). At first glance, these long-legged flies do look like mosquitoes, but they actually have very little in common.

The crane fly larva feeds on roots and plant matter under leaf litter. It kind of looks like a large (half inch long) thick-skinned maggot. It isn’t an attractive childhood, but it is nothing like the aquatic mosquito. Once the crane fly develops into an adult with wings it has a fairly short lifespan and typically does not eat. You can tell it is a fly and not a mosquito because it only has two wings (one pair). Mosquitoes and all other kinds of flying insects typically have four wings (two pairs).

Some people call crane flies “mosquito hawks” with the assumption that they eat mosquitoes. Unfortunately, that is a myth. Personally, I think they look like fairies when they fly up from the grass.

The past year’s warm dry weather followed by a moderate winter with normal rainfall has enhanced grass growth. Crane fly larva prosper in grass and we seem to be having an unusually large population of adults this spring. The females are considerably thicker in body. One source said that females are unable to fly. There appear to be far more males than females, and I saw a group of males mobbing a single female all trying to mate with her.

Is anything eating these crane flies? So far I haven’t seen any birds or other animals munching on the flying adults. If you look at them closely, they are mostly long brittle legs and glassy wings. There isn’t much to eat. However, I’m sure that as larva they are consumed by a number of our yard birds, Bewick’s wren, California and spotted towhee. Perhaps their availability added to the Bewick's decision to nest in our yard. Bewick's wren nest.

So don’t be alarmed by a large long-legged crane fly headed your direction. It isn’t a mosquito and it isn’t going to hurt you. Part of being a good gardener is getting to know the species in your yard. The common crane fly isn’t going to harm you or your garden. In fact I noticed a young alligator lizard sunning itself about a foot from the breeding crane fly group. Maybe it was waiting for the soon to be laid, crane fly eggs.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Letting Go of the Word “Weed”

The dictionary defines a weed as “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.”

I’m letting go of this notion that wild free-growing plants are unwanted. And in doing so, amazing things are growing in my yard.

This wild cucumber or manroot (Mara macrocarpus) creates a beautiful delicate vine with white flowers in early spring. Now the fruit, these amazing prickly orbs the size of baseballs, are maturing and creating an exotic look. Because this vine is a native, it won’t grow out of control. It will die back to just its root during the summer.

But I didn’t plant this beautiful vine; it appeared.

The easiest way to increase native plants in your yard is to embrace the wild plants that show up on their own.

In an attempt to “control” nature, we label things as “weeds” and yank out the hearty native foliage that sprouts in our yards. Yet these plants typically are best suited for our soil, climate and water availability. These plants often are transported by native animals that depend on this vegetation for food and thereby spread the plant’s seeds.

Some plants that appear can be very invasive, but usually these are not native species. In my own yard I have a terrible problem with Oxalis pes-caprae, a South African species. Nothing eats it, it spreads uncontrollably and it pushes out other plants.

Native species usually have some creature or climate adaptation that controls their growth or spread. Before you pull out a new plant in your yard, identify it. Know What You Grow.

Earlier this year I discovered a black nightshade that had been introduced to the yard. At first I didn’t know what it was. But a friend saw my photos and identified the plant. A little research revealed that the black nightshade is an important native food source for some animals. I left it in. It is growing beautifully with purplish fruit, but the two plants have stayed small and have not spread.

I also have stopped trying to control my natives. I let a young mallow take hold about a yard from its original planted parent. Wild plants grow in the spots that are best suited for them. Yes, if a plant sprouts in a pathway I will remove it, but these self-starters are more likely to thrive in the locations they have chosen.

The valley scrub oak (Quercus agrifolia), that we lovingly planted 12 years ago, died in last year’s drought. But the four valley scrub oaks that were naturally planted by scrub jays are all healthy and growing. Toyon, Catalina cherry and holly cherry, are all natives reproducing naturally and becoming vital to erosion control on our hillside.

It’s my intention to create habitat in my yard, so I am letting go of the word “weed.” I’m embracing the wild plants that find their way to grow in our corner of the city and increase our backyard biodiversity.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

You Can Compost

I admit that I am challenged by composting.

Part of my problem is that most of my yard is shady and most of my plant waste is green, not dry. Keeping the composter cooking is tricky.

But as part of my effort to Garden with Intent, I am trying to increase my composting efforts.

If you really gather up all of the veggie food remains, flowers from the house, yard trimmings, and unbleached paper, there really is a lot that can be kept out of landfills and other trash systems.

I use my compost mulch around my yard and I never have enough.

You don't need a special composter to make a difference. Even just an area in the yard where you can pile plant waste can be an effective composting system. Turning the decaying greenery helps increase air flow and helps encourage efficient composting. My hanging composter is on a pivot so that it can be tumbled or turned.

Composting completes the circle of life in your yard and creates a more sustainable system. Nutrients are returned to the soil and your plants grow better. Composting is a Green Action for your garden that is easy and important.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bewick's Wren

An added benefit of creating a more natural garden...increased animal biodiversity.

A pair of Bewick's wrens patrol the yard and eat unwanted insects. I trust them to help keep balance in the yard and they have honored us with their trust. They have made their nest on our patio.

Right next to the back door there is a chicken-shaped pot. I was planning to grow some herbs in it this spring but the wrens had their own plan.

Apparently the position of the small pot created just the right protection for the pair to build a nest in the tail section of the chicken pot.

If you look closely you can just make out the curve of the female's beak as she sits on the three eggs in the nest.

Soon we will have our own insect patrol squad, a family of Bewick's wrens.

When you garden with the intent of providing habitat, wild creatures will participate in your efforts and further enhance the beauty and sustainability of your garden. Gardening with Intent.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Yard That Produces Food

Now that I am getting ahead of the brown snails, another Green Action for my garden is to increase the sustainable nature of my yard by harvesting more of my own food. My growing area is small but I still have hopes for a productive garden.

I have trouble with fox squirrels. (baby squirrel) They are an introduced
species in the Los Angeles area and their territory is dramatically increasing. But I have found a way to protect my tomato plants.

I'm growing them in my old chicken house. Not only are the tomatoes protected from squirrels (and other rodents), the mesh keeps out most sphinx moths which are the parents of tomato worms. An added benefit is the soil in the chicken house is rich with natural fertilizers. The chickens have been gone for 5 years but they are still benefiting the vegetables.

I've planted squashes and I'm trying cucumbers for the first time.

I pruned back my herbs during the winter and they all seemed to have appreciated the trimming. The mint, oregano, rosemary and scented geraniums are all flourishing.

Growing my own vegetables means producing food that I know was grown without pesticides. If we all could grow some of our own food on the land that we have already developed, we could reduce the need to destroy natural habitats for agriculture. Maybe we could even let more land that has already been developed be returned to a natural state.

We are still harvesting lemons. Hopefully, we will also have grapes, herbs, tomatoes, squash, cucumber, limes, and edible flowers.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Snail-Free Zone

Brown snails are an invasive non-native species in California. Everyone complains about them in their gardens. They poison them, step on them, even salt them. They were imported here as a food species, but they escaped and have been a problem in local gardens ever since.

They are a problem because most people water too much and grow non-native plants that snails have a taste for. When you try to grow an English garden in a
Mediterranean climate you are creating a smorgasbord for brown snails.

When we first moved into our house the entire front yard was African daisies. In the spring and summer the slope was a beautiful array of purple and white. But, the African daisies were filled with snails and sow bugs. At night the snails would venture out from the daisies and devour everything else in the yard. The first couple of times I tried to grow vegetables, everything was eaten by snails.

We tried trapping them in beer, poisoning them with bait, even copper-covered stripping around plants we wanted to protect. The bait was probably the worst part because it was bad for other species as well. Of course the poison bait never worked completely and the subsequent generations seemed to tolerate it more and more, until it was useless.

Finally, I got disgusted. The hillside was eroding under the tangled vines. An area of African daisies died back, because of the snails, and I tore them out. In that small area we planted some native plants. We mulched these plants with bark and an amazing thing happened–the snails left that area and the biodiversity began to increase.

We stopped using poisonous bait and an alligator lizard moved in and started eating the snails.

Now our native Douglas iris are beautiful, drought tolerant, homes for a variety of native insects, they hold the soil, and there are no snails.

My Gardening with Intent action this week is to decide which section of African daisy I am removing next and what native species I will use to replant.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

In Tune Pruning

My wisteria has never bloomed. Last year my grapes didn't produce any fruit and my lemon crop was sparse.

But with the help of a new book,
The American Horticultural Society Pruning & Training, I've learned that not only is there a correct way to prune, there is a correct time or season to prune each plant or plant family.

I have put together a calendar for the plants in my yard. Each month I have a specific prune list.

I held off on pruning my lemon tree and had a record crop. I've baked with them, given them as gifts, and even used lemons for holiday decorations.

Previously, I pruned my grapes in February or early March. This year I pruned in January and paid close attention to the specifics of how to prune. The plants are more robust and they are beginning to flower.

With grapes positioned around our patio, we've increase our area to grow fruit.

Understanding the cycle of dormancy and when flower buds form on different plants can make the difference between a bountiful harvest and wasted resources. Invest in a good manual on when and how to prune your plants. You will be improving your own understanding of the cycles of life and improving your efforts to live sustainably.

PS. Oh, the wisteria. It seems in the past I have been pruning off the plump dormant buds on my wisteria that were the germ of blossoms. A little new knowledge and this spring the WISTERIA BLOOMED!

Monday, April 05, 2010

What's In a Pot?

One of my first intentions in my garden is to make more use of the area I have for growing my own organic produce. Green Action #4

Committing to growing my own vegetables means getting plants in the ground.

I've had some help with that because I asked for a tomato plant as a spring-time gift.

My sister found a cherry tomato in this biodegradable pot. This pot made of recycled paper fibers helps support a healthy transplant of the seedling an
d reduces the need for pots made of plastic.

You can also look for pots that are made of recyclable plastic. One of our local nurseries will take these pots back and pay you a few cents for them.

Growing my own vegetables is only as sustainable as I can make the whole process.

Garden Guardians - Preying Mantis

Part of having a sustainable garden is trust. Trust that if you offer nature the opportunity to create balance that the predators will help control the species that can be pests.

Realistically, balance has to be nurtured.

For example, this egg cluster was laid by a preying mantis last fall. She produced two foamy masses with eggs (that I know of). One on a grape vine and one on the wisteria. When I pruned both of these vines during the winter, I made the conscious choice not to prune the section of vine with the egg cluster.

If I hadn't been paying attention, I would have clipped off these twigs and tossed them in the green bin. I would have lost 50-100 potential garden guardians. The preying mantis is an important beneficial insect, eating a wide range of garden insects. Besides, the female who laid these eggs visited a class that I taught on insects. When I released her back into the garden she laid this egg mass and I promised her I would watch after them.

The more you know about the beneficial creatures and plants in your garden, the more likely you are to identify their needs and offspring. Give them a helping hand by proving native plants and you will helping to restore a natural balance in your home ecosystem.

I don't spray any insecticides in my yard. Instead I provide a safe place for natural predators–mantises, beetles, salamanders, lizards, spiders, bats, birds and more.

Is my trust in nature's balance founded? The proof will be revealed in how successful my veggie garden is this year. Any bets?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Green Action #4 - Gardening with Intent

I've come to realize that my garden, the planted area around my home, is more than just a place for grass and flowers. This month I'm focusing on the natural cycles going on in the different areas of my yard – I'm gardening with specific intent.

So my Green Actions will focus on a couple of themes:
  • Creating natural habitat
  • Producing food
  • Sequestering carbon
  • Supporting natural cycles
It is easy to lose track of our connection with the natural world. By focusing on the natural cycles going on around me, I hope to find better ways to support these important elements of a sustainable life.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

How Do You Like My New PARROTS?

Happy April 1st!

These are parrot tulips. One of the things I like about these flowers is that, like their name, they are not what they seem. The amazing stripping on these flowers is created by a virus in the bulb. Tulips are a visual representation of gardening with a specific intention. People have been molding the appearance of tulips for hundreds of years.


Green Action #4