Down to earth — everybody’s gotta eat

Originally published October 7, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast life newspapers. 

When I was first bitten by the gardening bug, I hated them. Insects and creepy crawlies of all stripes gave me the heebies. (Butterflies excepted.) Gardening for me was about being outside under a warm sun surrounded by the fragrances and prettiness of flowers, and the shapes and textures of foliage, full stop. Almost completely disconnected from the ecosystem. Although for the sake of my own health (and wallet) I never purchased an arsenal of toxic chemistry, I became a soapy water sharpshooter, doing my best to destroy the spittle bugs that bent the stems of my lavender, and left beer traps for slugs. I had it out for the aphids on rosebuds, and saw every hole in every leaf as a mortal wound and tragedy.

No more. Now I see those holes as little victories of nature over nurture.

My change of heart came slowly as I learned to appreciate certain insects, like bees, spiders, and praying mantids, for being “beneficial” helpers, and was followed, years later, by a great now-I-get-it epiphany that changed the way—and the why—I garden. The credit for that goes to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, who argues for the use of native plant species. According to professor Tallamy, we need insects. Their job is to convert sunlight, by way of particular plants, into high protein food for those next up the food chain. In a nutshell, no insects, no birds. Everybody has to eat and our gardens should offer buffets.

I’m not alone in seeing the light through hole-y leaves. Back in September I attended a daylong program called “Your Backyard Matters”, offered by the Sogkonate Garden Club in Little Compton. During the morning session several members presented their experience and successes in gardening for particular wildlife. Some cultivate meadows that welcome nesting Bobolink. One couple propagates, sells, and donates dozens of species of trees, shrubs, and perennials that host native insects. Others have planted beds that attract pollinators and Monarch butterflies. And that afternoon, they each opened their gardens for inspection and inspiration.

The take-home message was to recognize your own garden’s wildlife potential and run with it. I don’t have the requisite space for a meadow full of Bobolink hatchlings but my .17 acre plot is big enough to invite other types of songbirds, plenty of insects to feed them and their young, butterflies, and more species of pollinators than I can count on both hands.

It’s easy to garden for pollinators: plant more flowers. Butterflies need host plants for their caterpillars as well—Monarch caterpillars can only digest milkweed species plants. By planting native trees and shrubs for insects, along with seed and berry-bearing plants, such as coneflower and winterberry, I can help keep my favorite local songbirds fed year round. And by leaving the garden standing instead of putting everything “to bed” now, I can give them and the next generation of insects, including a lot of pollinators, a safe place to overwinter too.

I probably say this every fall, but unless your garden is infested with voles (who may only ever be discouraged by bare ground that makes them visible to predators—everybody has to eat) there’s no reason not to be a procrastinator now. You might argue that a fading garden looks messy; I’ll say quit worrying about what your neighbors might think. Besides, there’s tremendous beauty in senescence. The trick is to make fall’s “mess” look intentional and tidy. I remove broken and fallen stems. I trim unruly foliage (Siberian iris) and prune anything to the ground that might harbor a fungal disease (peonies). Most of the rest I enjoy through the winter and put off cutting back until spring when I’m desperate to be outside under a warm sun doing something vigorous.

Meanwhile though, until a hard frost signals winter, and barring any damage from forecast storms, my garden is still alive and blooming. On warm days pollinators and other insects are as active as ever. I have high hopes migrating hummingbirds will stop on their way south to tank up, and songbirds have started shopping the seed stores. Nature is at home here. And so am I.

Does your garden provide a feast for critters? Intentionally or unintentionally?

Down to earth – finding a method in spring’s madness

(Originally published on April 2, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.) 

Spring is finally working its way in (never mind last week’s snow). It has to be. The calendar says so. The redwing blackbirds have been back for weeks. The pussy willows are out and the maples have begun to look lightly dusted in fall colors. (It’s almost as if they’re reminding us not to get too attached.) Crocus and Iris reticulata have bloomed. Daffodils are…well, they’re up and budded and we can be fairly certain they’ll start blaring trumpets one of these days. Whenever the wind isn’t blowing a gale the sun feels as warm and comforting as a bath. I’m itching to be outside. I can’t wait to roughen my winter-soft hands, stretch my back muscles, and get the garden started.

Sweat bee dusted in Mt. Aso pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides 'Mt. Aso') pollen
Sweat bee dusted in Mt. Aso pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’) pollen

I just don’t want my excitement about spring to shift to panic. I need to remember that there’s plenty of time to get to it all. I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed if only I could be methodical about everything that needs doing now. If only I could stick to one task or one section of the garden at a time without spotting, all the way across my tiny property, something else that desperately needs doing and then trying to tackle that too. Distraction is inevitable — especially in a garden — but I feel certain that I’d be able to keep my wits about me if I didn’t also notice, on my way from here to there, by way of the shed, say for loppers, ten more plants that need the attention of my snips or spade. Requiring another trip back to the shed.

Lists help. Or would if I wrote them down. A game plan with a goal in mind might be even better. So, the goal I’m aiming for this spring — every spring — is to clear the clutter and open up some spaces in the garden for more late season color.

First things first. I’m probably the last gardener in the neighborhood to cut back old stems and seedheads. As soon as that’s done it will be high time to prune the roses and other summer blooming shrubs like butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), Spiraea japonica, bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii) and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) down to the ground or to within 12” or so. Those plants — along with most deciduous shrubs and trees that bloom on new wood — will rebound from dormant buds with multi-stemmed new growth, lush foliage, plenty of flowers, and a more compact shape.

My enormous Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’) and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) could stand a hard pruning too but I’m reluctant to lose all of their summer flowers (they both bloom on last year’s wood) so I’ll stick to my resolution to prune about a third back annually. I have to wait for my beautiful but rangy pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt. Aso’) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) to finish blooming before cutting them all the way to the ground to encourage tidier clusters of stems.

Hellebores and a whacked-back ninebark in the background.
Hellebores and a whacked-back ninebark in the background.

Only after the garden is cut back and pruned will there be room to wield a spade, which is what I’m really itching to do. And with any luck, by the time I’m ready to do all the digging, dividing, editing, redistributing, and planting I have on my (mental) list the weather will be warm enough to set the garden off and running.

From the distance of this page, with the whole season stretching ahead, and knowing there can be a method to the madness, it all seems very doable. Like there’s no need to feel crazy and rushed. If spring can take its time working its magic on the garden, so can we.

Since writing this, I have cut the garden back and pruned the shrubs. Some as hard as I intended to. Others harder — the ninebark for one. You too?

Beeware the Ides of March

March messPart of me doesn’t mind that there isn’t much in bloom in my garden right now. As ready as I am for spring, I have to admire March for hosting winter’s last hurrah. (Don’t I?) March is supposed to give us plenty to complain bitterly about and make us ache more than ever for spring’s colors and warmth. That’s its job. The garden is supposed to look beat. But tucked between winter’s worst (snow, bitter winds, raw and icy rain, what-have-you) are those divinely warm spring-like days that entice the bees out of their hives. And it’s a damn shame that there’s hardly anything in bloom for them to eat. In fact, more colonies starve in March than any other month of the year. Tragic. 

There’s precious little for them in my garden. Right now, only a witch hazel that’s been in bloom since January. Just based on looks I would say that the Salix chaenemeloides ‘Mt. Aso’ is in bloom because it’s in its kitten-fur stage, but it’s not far enough out for the bees. Even my hellebores aren’t quite there yet. Neither is the winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). I have no early crocus. No snowdrops or winter aconite. No skunk cabbage. So to make this long sob story short, I’m making a mental note — you are my witness — to remedy that this coming year. (That is, any or all but the skunk cabbage since I haven’t got a bog.)

Salix chaenemeloides 'Mt. Aso'Helleborus foetidus

Have the bees been out in your garden yet? What on? Will you have more for them next year? (For a March bigger variety of blooms, check out GBBD at May Dreams Gardens.)