Monthly Archives: May 2012

At the beach at San Gregorio, on the northern California coast, the driftwood zone extended far into the sandy upper beach. Here there was a huge old log, partly buried in the sand. At the big end there was a hole, and in the hole, there were spider webs.

No one will ever know the type of spider, the number of them, or their prey.

This sheltered little nook, surrounded by rocks, is in full shade most of the time. During one of the rare times when the sun reaches this corner, the camera caught these sweet little liverworts in the process of covering the damp ground.

Liverworts are among the most primitive land plants on the planet. They first grew on land some 472 million years ago, during the mid-Ordovician, before the first animals crawled out of the water. The Wikipedia article has lots of fascinating details.

Little more than flat sheets of cells, these ground-hugging, bright green shapes are not actually leaves, although they may look like them. Each “leaf” is called a thallus, a word for a more or less undifferentiated plant body. Together, they are called thalli.

In the above close-up, you might be able to make out the fine, stippled texture of the surface of the thalli. The tiny raised dots are the reproductive structures. When there is liquid water, the plants release motile male cells, which swim through the water to the waiting female ova. The liverworts also reproduce prolifically by vegetative division and growth, rapidly covering the ground in good conditions.

A nearby rock has some patches of nice green moss and some light gray lichen thalli. Both are also quite primitive. The moss is more advanced than the liverwort, bearing leaflike bracts on tiny stems, while the lichen is a symbiotic combination of algae and fungus.

Look around in sheltered, moist undisturbed parts of your garden. Are there any liverworts? They are a sign of a healthy micro-ecosystem.

One of the interesting features of the ecogarden under construction at Elizabeth’s place is the presence of chickens.

Aside from being a steady source of manure, they also roam the yard frequently, scratching around for worms and beetles and such. You can bet this activity will have a huge impact on the garden’s ecosystem!

Frankly, this is a challenge. As an ecogardener, I take great delight in undisturbed micro-landscapes. Sweet carpets of leaves or moss are just plain impossible in a chicken zone.

I can’t exclude the chickens, but I can introduce design elements that restrict their influence.

It’s pretty hard to scratch around in the ground when there are lots of angular rocks. With hills and valleys including rough stone walls and piles of rocks, they can be restricted to a smaller part of the garden. The crevices in the rocks will turn into unique, dynamic little microgardens.

Some of the flatter areas can be liberally sprinkled with rocks of many sizes, once the basic shape of the landscape has been created. I see irregularly shaped areas of densely scattered rocks, conforming in some way to the shape of the landscape. Will the chickens prefer not to scratch among so many rocks? Delicate, interesting plants might survive there.

Isn’t she a pretty girl?

Another design element is the choice of planting. We can experiment with different kinds of tough-seeming plants, expecting the birds to tear up some or all of them. What survives, builds the new ecosystem.

The end product would be a kind of shrubby, rocky meadow with hills and valleys marked off by low stone walls. The undisturbed crevices in the walls feature lots of interesting plants. There can be an open pile of rough rocks, where many kinds of creatures can take shelter, plus a log pile where a different collection of animals can live. The chicken’s scratched-in dirt depressions would be visible under the bushes in the flatter areas, contributing to an overall rough, lived-in feel.

Template for a chicken-resistant zone?

It is essential that the chicken’s freshly dug dirt holes must fit seamlessly into the overall artistic effect. It cannot be contrived – the chickens must be allowed to create the art, while we plant, design, and build around them. Eventually there will be areas where they do not go. Where they do scratch around, the local flora will be adapted and healthy by natural selection.

What kinds of California native plants do you suggest for this part-shade shrubby meadow with rocky hills and valleys, where the chickens roam free? Please add your ideas in the comments!

Next: after a summer break, we return to Elizabeth’s garden

This post is part of a series documenting the design and installation of an ecogarden at Elizabeth’s place. Here some previous posts in the series:

Elizabeth’s new ecogarden

taming the giant lavender

putting in a redwood walkway

You may recall a previous post about stinging nettles. They are now blooming, but as we shall see they are probably also doomed. First, let’s examine the delicate flowers.

Like almost all wind-pollinated flowers, those of stinging nettles are quite small and not at all showy. In fact, there are no visible petals. The tiny flowers shown here are little more than capsules the size of sand grains.

Nettles are dioecious, meaning that each entire plant is either male or female. The plant featured here is the only stinging nettle in my garden, and it is male. I am watching throughout the whole garden for nettle seedlings, which I will carefully nurture (and maybe transplant if they are not in a good place). I’d like a female plant so I can harvest some seeds.

When each male flower capsule becomes ripe, it bursts in the warm sun, releasing a little puff of airborne pollen. Watching for a few minutes, I noticed one of these puffs every thirty seconds or so from each flower-bearing stem. Sadly, I was unable to photograph a pollen-burst – they happen very fast, and in less than a second all the pollen vanishes like smoke into the air.

Here’s an even closer look at those flowers. They may look soft and fuzzy, but the flowers are just as nastily stinging as the leaves and stems!

As I mentioned, this nettle plant may be doomed. Why? Because it shares a container with some extremely vigorous sunchokes (AKA Jerusalem artichokes), which are basically strangling anything else growing there. I would have harvested all the sunchoke tubers from this container last fall, but the stinging nettle plant had many stems at that time and I just didn’t want to dive in there and dig in the soil, even with gloves on. Nettle stings really do hurt!

As a result of the non-intervention last fall, the sunchoke tubers multiplied at the expense of the nettles, and completely took over the container. In the picture below, the dense, broad yellow-green leaves belong to the sunchokes, while the last remaining nettle stems are the spindly-looking ones sticking up above the sunchokes. It seems unlikely the nettle will survive until sunchoke harvest time later this year.

In this picture you can also see a small Santa Barbara daisy, also struggling to survive, down in the semi-shade on the right side:

This lemon balm clump has just plain exploded, with warm weather and plenty of water helping it along.

During the winter it was pruned down nearly to the ground – an action I took only because the owner of the property might object to lots of dead, standing stems. Dead stems are sometimes problematic – some eco-gardeners (including me!) would like to leave them in place to decay naturally and provide lots of interesting micro-habitats. But when you don’t actually own the land, you sometimes have to compromise.

Among the leaves was this visitor, a greyish shield bug in the family Acanthosomatidae of the order Hemiptera (true bugs). My best guess is that it’s in the genus Elasmucha, but there are several other related genera to which it might belong. UPDATE: It is almost certainly Euschistus conspersus, the conspersus stink bug, closely related to Elasmucha.

Like all true bugs, shield bugs have sucking mouth parts that resemble a syringe. Some true bugs use their mouth parts to attack other insects and drain them of their internal juicy goodness, leaving behind an empty shell that might be mistaken for a cast-off exoskeleton. Others, like this shield bug, use them to suck the juices out of plants.

Their forewings are divided into a hard, leathery front part and a filmy, veined rear part, placing them in the suborder Heteroptera. The other suborder, Homoptera, contains creatures like aphids, cicadas, and planthoppers.

You can read more about the Acanthosomatidae in the Wikipedia article.

Part of the morning on May 15 was spent digging in the good dark earth, installing some nice redwood rounds to build a walkway over at Elizabeth’s place. In the picture, the ones in the foreground are fully installed, while the ones farther away are just sitting on the ground, still waiting to be sunk in.

All the vegetation is cleared from the area around the path, which will receive extra water this summer. As plants sprout up, the ones that get too big, too close to the path will be clipped out (or transplanted, if they are interesting). Eventually, all the vegetation near the path will be long-term, low-growing, and drought tolerant. That evolution will take a bit more than a year.

One of the basic principles of ecosystem gardening is Never Tread On The Ground! So walkways and stepping stones are quite important.

In this case, these big fat redwood rounds were available for next to nothing, and will last for surprisingly many years before they’ll need to be replaced. While they slowly decay they will shelter many kinds of wonderful critters underneath, and add their woody nutrients to the soil.

We’ll use additional redwood slabs for “access pads” scattered around the rest of the garden. The idea is to be able to reach almost every part of the landscape without ever standing on the soil. Big, round rocks are also good for access pads.

Meanwhile, the bright morning sun set ablaze this happy sunflower:

This post is part of the new ecogarden project at Elizabeth’s place

also part of this project:

taming the giant lavender

in the company of chickens

Your comments are welcome!

These intricate altocumulus clouds appeared around dawn on May 3 over Menlo Park.

Looking into the east, lower clouds reflected a blaze of orange while barely visible dark virga descended from the altocumulus deck:

Meanwhile in the southwest, early yellow sunlight illuminated soft, lenticular stratus, pouring over the coastal mountains:

Even though it looked like rain was imminent, the moisture just wasn’t enough to get to the ground.

Still, not long after the first pictures were taken, these dark, low scud clouds crossed the sky. On the whole, it was a satisfyingly dramatic morning: