Archive

Monthly Archives: June 2012

Summer is here and my small patch of managed wilderness is bursting with life. Nestled between two apartment buildings, this little chunk of land has evolved a lot in recent months.

The biggest recent changes were the removals of two large sources of shade, exposing the garden to full sun during most of the day.

First, an old magnolia tree came out because the property owner did not like how its roots were rucking up the driveway. He had a good point, actually. Even though the tree was a noble and beautiful being, its sudden removal has changed the garden for the better, allowing many new plants to thrive in the greater light.

Above: The second removal was the large old cape honeysuckle that used to fully own a large section of the space. In this view from the balcony above the garden you can see the empty space it left behind, covered with a mixture of old magnolia leaves and seeded eco-compost. It was cut down to a stump because it was having a lot of trouble adapting to the new, sunny conditions. By cutting it down I pressed reset, and now the new growth will be properly shaped and adapted for the current conditions.

Above: In the center of the empty space, the stump of the cape honeysuckle sends up a mound of new green shoots. I’ll let it grow into a decent size bush, but it will not be allowed to take over the space the way it did before I chopped it down. I want to keep it, even though it is considered an invasive alien, because of how much the local hummingbirds love its orange-red flowers. Once it gets bigger, it will bloom again.

Meanwhile, the layer of magnolia leaves and seeded compost has begun to evolve into a new ecosystem. The leaves were there because of the old magnolia tree that was removed. Rather than scrape down to bare dirt, I decided to keep the leaves, letting them decompose naturally, mixed with the compost. Some people have told me “Magnolia leaves never decompose!” Watch and see, it’s already happening.

Although the summer sun on the thin layer of compost has prevented many sprouts from coming up, beneath the leaves are countless sheltered nooks and crannies where critters like sowbugs, snails, crickets, centipedes, and earwigs have taken up residence.

As the leaves decay, this open space will gradually fill in. Below: at the edges, various plants encroach by sending up shoots from underground runners.

Above: The main feature of the larger east section of the garden is this dense thicket, dominated by a purple flowering Salvia. It also contains trailing Nasturtium, several other species of smaller Salvia plants, and a large patch of rosemary (visible peeking out at the right). In the foreground, an avocado seedling pokes up.

At the base of the avocado seedling, a critter shelter has just been added. It’s just a few bricks and a paving stone, but it’s a dry place where snails, spiders, and others can find protection.

Critter shelters can also be made of wood, especially if the wood is old and rotting. In fact, an old rotting log is such a great critter house that one should be a part of every ecogarden. If it gets interesting mushrooms after the rain, so much the better!

Another great critter house can be made from a simple pile of rough, natural rocks.

Let’s look inside. There are a few snails in there and a couple of sowbugs, but not much else today. I have seen earwigs, centipedes, millipedes, and crickets. Last week there were four big female wolf spiders carrying egg sacs, but they ran away before I could photograph them.

If an ecogarden is located in contact with a natural area, the critter shelters could contain much more interesting creatures like frogs, toads, or newts. I doubt there will be any frogs in this one, but a newt might happen by.

Critter shelters are also located in several other places in this garden, some in the sun and some in the shade. They are important! Try to leave them undisturbed as much as possible.

All through the garden are many delightful little scenes, like this wild strawberry, mint and a rock in front of the bearded irises. Those sweet little berries were consumed by me immediately after this picture was taken. Yum!

Above: At the north end of the garden is the vine wall (a fence, actually) where many kinds of climbers compete for space. Right now the morning glory vines are blooming in this section. Because of the lush, dense foliage this vine wall is also a fantastic critter shelter.

Maybe this space is small, and maybe it looks like just another suburban garden that has been allowed to grow a bit wild, but for me this humble mini-landscape is nothing less than a small treasure, attracting butterflies, birds, and countless other wonderful visitors and inhabitants.

Watch these pages as my little ecogarden continues to grow and evolve!

Did you see the previous state of the ecogarden report? It happened after the magnolia was taken out, but while the big honeysuckle bush was still in place.

The old, classic post “what is an ecogarden?“has pictures of the garden before the magnolia tree was removed. At that time, there were still some large bushes owning much of the north half of the garden.

There’s also an upstairs container garden, whose state will be reported in a future blog post.

.

One reason I don’t turn the compost very often is that so many interesting things grow there. This healthy looking potato plant, for example. This morning it has opened its first flower, and what a beauty it is! Just as it opens, the camera finds it:

Not too much later, the flower has fully expanded, with bent back, pastel petals exposing the glistening, yellow anthers and light green pistil:

Potato plants (when they are healthy) seem like they are molded out of fine plastic. The shapes are so clean and precise.

This one is very likely making a whole bunch of little potatoes inside the compost. Later this year I’ll dig them out. If they are big enough maybe some will be eaten, and others will definitely get planted around the neighborhood. Such a strong plant deserves to reproduce!

It seems like there have been a lot of posts about flies lately, no?

When the post on turning the compost came together it was slightly frustrating not to have a good picture of a black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) (Wikipedia). Now a big beautiful female has posed for us on a runner bean leaf, so here is her portrait.

With their jet black wings, antennae, and body and brightly contrasting white leg segments, these rather large flies (as big as a large bean) are among the most distinguished looking insects in the garden. As adults, they do not eat – in fact, they have no functioning mouth parts. They are also surprisingly tame – they can often be picked up easily in the hand, where they might just walk around instead of flying away.

This female’s bulging abdomen is loaded with eggs. Now that she has mated and become gravid, her only goal in life is to find some nice organic matter where her babies can grow. Quite possibly her target will be our box of fresh kitchen scraps:

more fly posts:

two gorgeous flies

just an ordinary fly?

It happens almost every year somewhere in the ecogarden. A large, robust grassy plant sprouts up, growing rapidly. Although I usually pull out almost all grass plants because they tend to be incredibly invasive, there are several kinds of grass that might be left alone. One of them is wheat.

This one sprouted in a container alongside verbena and sorrel. All winter it grew, and in early spring it went to seed. Now its huge spikes are nodding, laden with heavy grain. I don’t know where the original seed came from, but this variety of wheat now seems to be a permanent part of the biota in the ecogarden.

There are several species of wheat, with complex genetics. Some have two, four, or even six complete sets of chromosomes. It has been cultivated for at least 11,000 years after originating in the middle east. Like many old food crops, it has been selectively bred by humans until it is distinctly different from its wild ancestors.

This Wikipedia article has lots of great information about wheat and its history.

This healthy feverfew plant (Tanacetum parthenium) (Wikipedia) sprang up last winter from a random seed right at the end of the stone walkway. For months I didn’t know what it was – beautiful, finely divided leaves on a plant with a lush, balanced shape. It got bigger and bigger, as did my curiosity about it.

Now that it’s blooming, it has attracted a variety of tiny insects including thread-thin “looper” caterpillars that inhabit the flowers, eating only their petals. Also present, very small golden-brown metallic looking beetles – can you see the beetle on the upper right flower in the picture below?

Feverfew flowers also seem to be quite attractive to syrphid flies (flower flies). There are almost always two or three of them hovering in the air near the plant, or resting on the flowers.

Here’s a post with a picture of a syrphid fly.

There it is, resting on a leaf. Looks like an ordinary housefly, (Musca domestica), but it might not be. The family Muscidae (Wikipedia) includes about 450 species in California alone, and more than 4000 worldwide. Many of them share the familiar “housefly” appearance, with gray color scheme and dark longitudinal streaks on the top of the thorax.

There are also flies in the Calliphoridae (blow flies), Sarcophagidae (flesh flies) and Tachinidae (mostly parasitic flies) that have a similar appearance. It seems like the “house fly plan” is a fairly successful shape, size, and look for such insects.

Because there are so many species and they look so similar, identifying small, nondescript flies is one of the hardest things an entomologist might have to do. It might involve counting hairs, studying wing vein patterns, or examining their genitalia under a microscope.

No matter what kind of fly this is, it is welcome in my ecogarden.

Here’s another post about beautiful flies.