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Monthly Archives: November 2012

If butterflies were cars, skippers might be tiny little sports cars. They are very distinctive, with their unique resting pose and hook-tipped antennae.

Skippers are common, flicking around among the flowers almost too quickly to follow. There are many kinds of them, and they can be hard to identify down to species. This one poses on a Swiss chard leaf.

As larvae, many skippers eat grasses, perhaps explaining why they are so common – their food is everywhere! But because their larvae are usually nocturnal, hiding in the grass root zone during the day, they are seldom noticed.

This first one is an unusual variety, not often seen in this garden. I like its dark brown background with yellow dots in a row on each forewing. Like most skippers it perches with its wings open. Does it do this to catch the sun?

Doesn’t it just look fast and active, like it is crouching to flit away?

The second skipper is a much more common variety, very likely the same kind as this one previously featured. It poses for us on a clump of white flowers, probably Bouvardia.

At left, the dark edges of the hindwings show up clearly. Look how streamlined this critter is!

Maybe they aren’t really sports cars.

Maybe they are actually little jets.

By September 1 the project at little yellow house was well under way. Did you miss the previous episode? You can also jump back to the first post in the series.

Let’s focus on the front yard, starting right out at the street.

street strips: lantanas, violets, sedum, alyssum, agapanthus

There are two strips of garden between the sidewalk and the street. Like many such street strips, they receive lots of sun and tend to be dry and hard-packed. In the foreground above is the longer strip containing a lot of trailing purple lantana. At this stage it is still dry and hard, but even so the lantana is blooming and there are violets (in the sun!) with green leaves.

In the background is the second, shorter strip with green sedum, white alyssum, and behind them some large agapanthus with their strappy leaves. We’ll deal with all of those another day!

Above: Along the streetside edge of the lantana strip is a zone of deeply embedded gravel. Until just before this picture was taken there was an evil bender board, secured into place by nasty lengths of rebar pounded down straight into the ground. Maybe you can see the darker area just under the front edge of the lantana, where the bender board’s removal has left a little “cliff” of freshly exposed soil. This bender board marked an artificial and definitely non-naturalistic division between the gravel and the lantanas. Out with it!

One more note about bender boards and rebar: As a barefoot gardener, I can tell you it is not fun at all to step down directly onto the top of one of those lengths of rebar.

As for the gravel, it is slated to be removed by shoveling the mixed soil and gravel into a large-mesh sieve, allowing the soil to fall through. The soil will be returned to the street strip. Later still, irregular slate stones will be placed here directly on the naked ground, adjusted with dirt underneath and between so that they will make a nice stepping zone for people getting out of cars. Because the stones will be directly on the ground, small plants will be able to grow between them, forming their own special micro-ecosystem.

You might have already gathered that I am strongly opposed to artificial dividing technologies like bender boards, underground weed barriers, and the like. A genuine deep nature garden does not require any kinds of technology to keep plants where they “belong.”

Above: The small walkway between lantanas on the left and the sedum on the right has been widened by using undercut pruning on both sides. The old limits on both sides are visible by the darker shade where the “beards” of both kinds of plants used to extend across the cement.

Undercut pruning is a special technique. If properly applied, it can tame wild mats and tangles of plants without leaving them looking “pruned.” How it is used varies depending on the type of plant. The lantana, with its tangles of brown, nearly naked stems, required a different approach than the thick-stemmed, heavy sedum. Only experience can convey the specific style of cutting needed for each kind of plant.

south corner: mugo pine, fake stream, daisy bushes

Above: The mugo pine has been pruned back, exposing the beautiful multiple trunks. Grasses have been removed in that area. As the garden evolves, various small herbs and flowers will be allowed to grow underneath the pine, filling in that space and making it look pretty.

To the right of the pine and extending back behind the daisies at the far right is a grass-overgrown fake stream created with gravel, bender boards, rebar, and a little wall made out of stacked flat slate stones. You can probably already guess how I feel about fake streams. All of these artificial barriers and divisions will be removed.

The center area in front is heavily overgrown with grass. Beneath and among the grass stems are Santa Barbara daisies, ornamental strawberries, and violets. Also there is a spiky-leaved plant (possibly an iris) with its leaves sticking up. About half of the grass (the easy half!) has already been removed. Clearing out the rest of this grass will entail several hours of careful work. The strawberries and violets, plus anything else interesting, will be preserved as much as possible.

Above: looking back toward the street from the walkway leading up to the house. In the shady foreground are some lavender bushes. Beyond them is the other end of the fake stream, and beyond that the daisy bushes. Beneath them, mixed grass, violets, and strawberries.

Next: We are just about to do a massive transformation of the back yard. Stay tuned!

Did you miss the previous episodes? Here they are:

little yellow house #1

little yellow house #2

This beautiful little wasp poses on an avocado leaf with a fuzzy salvia flower for added color. Yellow and purple and green are so nice together!

This could be a paper wasp in the genus Polistes, possibly the common European paper wasp (P. dominula) but I’m not certain. Her abdomen is a little too yellow, with black stripes too narrow. But there are variants in the species and there are also other kinds of paper wasps.

Paper wasps are some of the most streamlined, beautiful wasps. They are fairly docile unless you mess with them or with their nests. They often appear in this garden among dried stems, using their mandibles to chew off cellulose-rich material for their hanging, cooperative, hex-celled, papery brood homes.

Here’s another post about a beautiful wasp.

This blue Salvia is the only one of its kind in the garden. While it is not the most prolific bloomer among the various Salvias, it is a favorite of the black carpenter bees (Xylocopa species).

Salvia is a huge, diverse genus of plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae). They all have interesting, bilaterally symmetric flowers and square stems. Taxonomists disagree about whether Salvia should be split into several smaller genera. Because of certain details in their unique lever-and-trigger pollen delivery mechanisms, they might not have all come from one common ancestor.

What species of Salvia is this? Beats me. There are tons of them! If you feel like identifying it, let me know!

As for the bees, these black beauties are some of the largest I’ve seen. They are shiny and gorgeous! Carpenter bees like to dig deep burrows into the undersides of dry, dead branches – one great reason to leave a few dead woody plants in your garden if possible. They have very interesting mating and breeding habits, collecting pollen and nectar and fashioning it into lumpy masses stuffed into their burrows. Then they lay an egg on the mass.

Carpenter bees are not bumblebees. Bumblebees have densely furry bodies, while carpenter bees usually have smooth, shiny abdomens.

In the shade under the awning upstairs, there is a small pile of dead, dry branches. Several carpenter bees have constructed burrows on the undersides of the branches. On the deck surface below, there are scattered, windblown deposits of extremely fine sawdust.

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Sedges have edges and rushes are round.

I think I learned that line in high school. Sedges, like grasses, have flat, long leaves. But unlike grasses, they have three-sided stems with edges. Rushes, which also resemble grasses, have long, thin, round needle-like leaves that usually stick more or less straight up in bunches.

This sedge is probably tall flatsedge, Cyperus monandrus. Most gardeners pull these out right away, knowing they can incredibly invasive. But in this deep nature garden, many otherwise invasive plants are allowed to get a small space of their own. This tall flatsedge has a nice semi-shady place. It has built itself into a lovely little clump that attracts various interesting critters.

If you decide you’d like a small (or large) clump of sedge in your nature garden, here’s a bit of advice. If you don’t want to be pulling out thousands of sedge sprouts, cut off the seed heads as soon as they are ripe.

Here’s an idea: display them in a place that their seeds will not spread all around the garden. How about mounting them near a bird feeder, maybe over a cement deck? Little birdies like to eat sedge seeds.

Or you could be a fanatical deep nature art gardener like me and enjoy the beautiful seed heads as they naturally age in place — and I guarantee you’ll be pulling out sedgelets forever, just like me.

You may recall this cape honeysuckle bush (Tecoma capensis) from a previous post. It used to be a 4-meter / 12-foot giant with scraggly, tangled stems shooting up and out every which way. Its messy, wiry state was largely due to years of neglect combined with low light levels because of a dense magnolia tree to the sunward side. You can see it in its original state in the first picture of this post from July, 2011 (look for a few magnolia leaves pushing into the very top of the frame).

With the magnolia tree removed, it found itself suddenly in full sun. It did not like the change! The leaves turned yellow and some dropped off. It was no longer adapted to its environment, so I chopped it right down to a set of stumps no higher than my knees. It has since grown back with much healthier, dark green glossy leaves and now it’s blooming again. I’ve been keeping it trimmed to no higher than … well, me. I won’t let it get any bigger, and if it doesn’t like that, too bad!

Some people say that cape honeysuckles are evil, invasive African aliens that do not belong in California gardens. If they are simply left to their own devices, I agree wholeheartedly. Left alone, one of these monsters can take over vast landscapes. But… these are gorgeous plants, which can be tamed if they receive regular, persistent attention. In this case, top growth is pruned back, as well as the ground-level shoots. Any additional shoots that sprout from subsurface runners are also removed very quickly. The “evil” giant has been tamed.

Please, folks, no outraged comments about how I am harboring evil aliens. I keep lots of native plants too – and all of the invasives in my gardens, if they are allowed at all, are heavily and persistently controlled. If you can’t take the time and effort to do that, DON’T KEEP INVASIVE ALIENS IN YOUR GARDEN!

Let’s have a closer look at its fluorescent orange-red flowers.

The humans do love these flowers, but there’s someone else in the garden who likes them even more, currently perching in the shadowed branches of the princess flower tree…

What, no picture in the sun, showing off his glorious red and green shiny colors? I’ve been trying to catch him in a good portrait for months, but he moves very, very fast! As soon as I have a good picture I’ll post it here.

Did you miss the first episode of this series?

Before we venture to the back yard, let’s have a look around the southwest side.

A large, dense and old jasmine bush (Jasminum species – there are many varieties) has wrapped itself around the south corner of the house. It is way out of control, but it can be vastly improved with some good pruning.

To the left, two giant, doddering rose bushes have been struggling for years. Even so, they bloom.

This narrow strip is a harsh part of the property. The wall behind reflects back a large amount of sun and heat, so that on a hot day this space is seriously blasted.

Long-term, the only kind of ecosystem that is appropriate for this space is a desert one. It will be cleared and relandscaped with excellent rocks and berms. There will be cacti and succulents of many strange and fascinating forms.

Now, let’s go to the northeast side of the house along the driveway, through the gate and to the left. There is a roughly square-shaped back yard. We enter at the east corner, and this is our view across the diagonal of the square:

A beautiful Japanese maple dominates the scene. As shapely as it is, it is sadly doomed. It is way too close to the foundation of the neighbor’s garage.

In the left foreground is a brick patio. It takes up about a third of the garden space. We will be removing it entirely, to be replaced by a free-form patio of beautiful, irregular flat stones.

On the right a large, dense viny bush has grown into a serious monster. I don’t even care what it’s called. This kind of vine is unbelievably invasive. It will go!

Above: Behind the patio looking northwest. At the right in the shadow a big tomato plant climbs a trellis, tangled with morning glory vines. Pretty!

Above: The north corner. At left is a much better view of the pretty tomato vine with morning glories, whose life will end with the first frost.

At right against the southwest wall of the garage an old rose struggles in a (currently shadowed) space that is subject to a powerful afternoon solar blast. Does this sound familiar?

Above: Turning further to the right and looking northeast, an aging and sickly pluot tree is covered with sooty mold. Even the new leaves are yellowing and frail. The branches are brittle and cracking at the base. Its time has come. Yes, it too must go.

But we’re still not done…

Above: We turn to face the back of the house. Looking southeast from the center of the yard, the most horrible monster of all! It is a gigantic, looming potato vine, one of the most dreaded of invasives!

For the above portrait, I cleared away a bunch of dense undergrowth to reveal its graceful, spindly legs. Isn’t it grand?

Yes, it too must go. Except for the camelia bush at the far right, every plant in this back square will be removed!

Next: Streetside lantana strip and south corner.

Did you miss little yellow house #1?