Archive

Monthly Archives: November 2012

Every day this talented spider catches a tasty collection of flying insects. The web gets rebuilt, morning after morning. What a fantastically effective way to trap flies and other nutritious prey!

This is an orb-weaver spider, probably Araneus diadematus, yet another import from Europe. It is a female – the males of orb-weavers are quite small and difficult to find.

Here’s a great photo essay on A. diadematus, from Nick’s spiders of Europe. (Not one of my blogs, he’s another Nick.)

Males of this species make much smaller webs. If they find a female, they make their web at the outside edge of hers. Like most spiders, their mating is tricky. Males risk their lives as they make forays into the female’s web, looking for some arachnid nooky.

Later this year, she will retire from active trapping. If she’s lucky enough to have mated, replete with eggs she will find a sheltered place and lay her eggs, surrounding them with a sac of silk.

The tiny spiderlings will hatch out in the spring. For a while they will cluster near their birthplace, then spread far and wide. Each one lives two years, overwintering as a young, midsize spider.

A. diadematus is also known as the cross spider. In the picture above, can you see the white cross on her back?

I could not find any male web near this one. Did she find a partner?

Usually, grass plants are removed from the garden with unhesitating passion. Among invasives, grasses are without doubt the most troublesome. They are so insistent, so hard to control, that they are almost completely prohibited within the deep nature garden. But sometimes I make an exception.

Above is a panicle (flowering stem) of a delicate little grass growing with minty-looking lemon balm in the shade under some bushes.

Grasses are notoriously hard to identify. The one pictured above could be bentgrass (Agrostis or Polypogon) or it might be orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata) or maybe velvetgrass (Holcus lanatus) or even some type of bluegrass (Poa sp.). A detail identification could require close inspection with a hand lens. Whatever it is, it’s pretty and as long as it behaves itself it’s welcome here.

Here is another pretty little grass in the same shady patch, arcing out above a tiny live-oak seedling. This one could be a brome, possibly Japanese brome (Bromus japonicus).

Graceful shapes and subtle hues of green and yellow amply reward close inspection of the nodding flowers.

When this garden was first handed off to me by the previous gardener, it was chock full of crabgrass, fescue, and bluegrass, all left over from the time when the garden was mostly lawn, some years back.

Many hours of pulling were required to remove all the grasses, but there came a time when it was clear that not only had the crabgrass been successfully extirpated, but also almost all other kinds of grass.

To this day, the only grasses that are allowed to grow to reproduction age are small, non-threatening, interesting kinds like these two – and they are watched closely! If they get too big they are drastically limited.

You say you like lawns? Don’t get me started.

Remember the many-flowered feverfew in its massive, blooming glory?

In most traditional gardens such a plant would be cut back or completely removed once its main flowering burst is done. But in this deep nature garden, many plants are allowed to have a full, natural life.

In this case, the fading flowers on top have gone to seed, and the seed heads have now begun attracting new kinds of bugs and even some small birds who seem to be eating the seeds.

Meanwhile, new stems have sprouted from the base among the earlier ones, bearing even more of those happy little flowers.

Now this healthy feverfew not only hosts pollinating insects, it also shelters a whole new community of critters on its old seed heads.

Will the new shoots keep coming in, or will this honored plant eventually die a normal death, after its long blooming and fruiting season? Either way, tiny new feverfew plants are now sprouting all across the garden.

The pyracantha shrub at the extreme east corner of the garden is bursting with abundant berries. Actually, they are technically not berries but pomes, similar in structure to apples and pears. Each fruit contains a tiny clump of seeds surrounded by flesh that is bitter but edible – to both birds and humans. Here are two recipes for pyracantha jelly. I haven’t tried either one yet.

Also known as firethorn, pyracantha is native to Europe and Asia. There are several species with berries that are white, red, or yellow. They also have exceptionally nasty thorns, making them good shrubs for human-impenetrable security hedges.

This particular firethorn used to be a giant ovoid of dense leaves enclosing a thick mass of spiny branches. It was frequently sheared back by gardeners with their awful hedge trimmers. Sadly, there are no photos of its original rather ugly shape. When I took over the garden I chopped it back all the way to stumps, but those were allowed to remain and try again.

It sent up dozens of new stems, many of which I simply pulled right off. New wood emerging from old was very easy to break! In the picture at right (taken in November, 2011) the entire space framed was originally filled with a tall, globular mass of spiny brown branches, covered by a thin shell of tiny leaves.

Within weeks a new, beautiful form grew in, with a radically different shape.

It kept on growing and growing and the remaining shoots became thicker, denser, and more vigorous. Each stem became covered with even more amazingly nasty thorns than the ones the plant used to bear. Each thorn is as long as my little finger, with a super sharp needle point at the tip. Pruning such a vastly spiny creature can be challenging, but the reward is a plant of rare beauty.

In May of 2012, when it had already become taller than the six-foot fence behind it, it covered itself with thousands of gorgeous white flowers that attracted bees, flies, beetles, and many more pollinating insects. Standing next to it, one could hear the combined buzzing of all the bugs.

By  this time it was clearly getting out of control. Although it was densely in bloom, its wide-spreading branches were intruding across the path, causing human pedestrians to risk getting punctured by the sharp spines.

Reluctantly, I pruned it back, right in the middle of its blooming phase. Not good for most plants, but this pyracantha, invigorated by its recent complete chopping back, didn’t seem to even notice. Now the garbage collection guys and my neighbors could pass by without damage.

By June 2012 the flowers had dropped their petals. In their place were vast bunches of small green fruit, promising an abundant crop. One of the smallest, lowest branches of the bush was already so heavy with fruit that it broke off at the base. This was to happen to several other small branches during the rest of the summer as the fruit became heavier and riper.

The berries ripened and turned red quite suddenly, taking less than a week from green to punchy, fluorescent crimson. Now this proud pyracantha stands like a thorny sentinal at the east corner of the deep nature garden.

This single Arum leaf grew up from a tuber among sorrel and dandelions in an area that used to be heavily sheltered and shaded by a dense bush. When the bush was removed, whatever leaves the Arum used to have were also destroyed and removed – and I never noticed them, if they were there.

Arums are related to the familiar white calla lilly, Zantedeschia aethiopica which is commonly seen in gardens in California, and frequently used in bouquets for weddings and funerals. Arums are usually smaller and have similar but less showy flowers. Many of them make up for this relative inconspicuousness by bearing gorgeous, bright red or yellow berries once the flowers fade. Sadly, the berries are poisonous, to people at least.

This Arum could be Italian lords and ladies, A. italica or maybe I. maculatum, both European species escaped from cultivation throughout the Americas.

Typically this kind of Arum grows in damp, shady places. With the newly bright sunshine in this spot, it will be interesting to see if this brave little plant is able to thrive. Some good news is that there is a Leonotus bush just sunward that promises to grow and provide some shade.

If it does well, there will eventually be one or more flowers. I’ll be watching!

See Arum maculatum at the Wikipedia page. See Italian lords and ladies (what a great name!) in many cultivated varieties at aroid.org.

A favorite plant is this sweet little blueberry bush, inherited from a neighbor. It was planted in this spot when it had only two tiny branchlets. The first year it bore nine berries, but what sweet, plump juicy treats they were.

This year, after a lush crop of more than 100 white-pink flowers, its six branches were laden heavily with plump, blue, edible gifts. While some of them were shared with the birds and slugs, most of them ended up inside of me. With the berries long gone the bush shows a different color as its leaves turn bright red.

Blueberries are in the family Ericaceae, a huge group that includes cranberries, heaths, manzanitas, madrones, strawberry trees, azaleas and rhododendrons. Most of these prefer low-fertility, acid conditions. My favorite close blueberry relative is Hawaii’s little red ohelo berry, which I have enjoyed while hiking in the lava fields near Kilauea volcano.

It’s hard to determine exactly what variety of blueberry this is. All of them are Vaccinium species, but there are several wild types and many cultivars. My best guess is that it is a hybrid of V. corymbosum (highbush blueberry) and V. angustifolium (lowbush blueberry). That would make it a half-high blueberry, very hardy and typically grown in California.

Follow back through time and read the previous blueberry post. From there you can follow further back to even earlier posts.

Any garden is enhanced by a thicket. This one occupies the east corner of the deep nature garden.

Thickets are good for lots of reasons. A dense stand of foliage that is never disrupted (beyond some pruning and thinning around the outside edges) will inevitably accumulate a thick layer of soft, rich leafy compost in the dark recesses where no human foot or hand ever goes. In that special place, so rarely found in most traditional gardens, all sorts of amazing critters can live. Here in northern California, those critters can include crickets, newts, and tons of spiders of many different kinds including the dreaded (but actually fairly harmless) black widows.

Let’s have a closer look!

This particular thicket features a big rosemary plant, very lush in this comparatively moist place. Look how dark and deep it is behind those fragrant stems. Above the rosemary bush, there is a large, abundantly purple-blooming Salvia.

At the base of the rosemary, hiding among vines and low growth, an old stump guards the entrance to the thicket’s secret inner realms. The stump is the remains of a straggly, messy old Mexican marigold bush that was removed. Stumps and old rotting wood are very nice to have in a deep nature garden because of the variety of critters, mushrooms and other fungi, and even slime molds they can support.

Another view of the base of the thicket. An unknown plant’s green spiky leaves poke up through nasturtiums and Santa Barbara daisy. It might be an iris or some kind of lily. We’ll find out when it blooms, probably next spring.

Is there a thicket in your garden?