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The headlines proclaim, “The Worst California Drought In Recent History!” At the same time, thousands of gardens across the Bay Area still feature green lawns watered every day by pop-up, high pressure sprinklers, releasing a flood of water to keep them green, along with copious mist that evaporates into the air. What’s wrong with this picture?

In our semi-arid climate with frequent, prolonged droughts, any kind of lawn that needs regular water is wasteful of one of our most precious resources. More people are choosing to reduce or eliminate their lawn irrigation. You might have a golden-brown lawn or an inert, sun-baked gravel- or dirt-scape. There are even dead, dry lawns that have been spray-painted green.

Some people might choose to replace their lawn with a succulent garden, or with a heavily mulched space with super-drought tolerant plants (often California natives) watered by tiny little drip heads.

There is certainly nothing wrong with these water-wise lawn replacements. Every one of them reduces water usage and helps us better manage our resources. Congratulations to all gardeners who choose these and other xeriscaping options.

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At deep nature gardens we have developed another water-wise alternative for ecologically conscious gardeners.

If you value beauty, diversity, and abundance but you don’t like drip-watered mulch-scapes, slow-growing succulent gardens or spray-painted lawns, consider creating an ultra-drought-tolerant deep nature garden.

Here in the Bay Area we are surrounded by hills covered with some of the lushest, most diverse and abundant ecosystems in any dry climate on the planet. Our beautiful chapparal hillsides are supremely drought tolerant and yet they are densely clothed with rich, diverse vegetation. How do they do it?

We have studied the evolution of drought-tolerance in garden spaces, especially the kind of “managed nature” that is present in a deep nature garden.

You can have a garden of exceptional beauty, diversity, and abundance that is able to survive even times of extended dryness. Even when it is dry, such a garden can feature green leaves and an assortment of open flowers that attract bees, butterflies, and many other critters.

Any time is a great time to get started. We’ll remove that thirsty grass. We’ll move some soil around, making high and low places, and add some beautiful natural looking rocks with moss and lichen. We’ll plant a few starters and scatter a layer of eco-mix seeding blend. There will be a carefully managed watering scheme that will encourage just the right blend of plants. As everything grows in we’ll remove anything that does not fit.

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Within a few months you’ll see the beginnings of something extraordinary: a natural looking garden that is equally healthy whether it is in the middle of a wet rainy season or an extended California drought. Not only is it resilient to wet and dry, it is also beautiful. Deep nature gardens are living works of art.

If this sounds interesting please get in touch. Let’s have a free visit to your garden and talk about what is possible.

We look forward to hearing from you.

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One of the most common comments from deep nature garden clients is about how much activity there is. “It’s totally buzzing with butterflies, bees, and birds!” said one client recently. But you don’t need to create a full deep nature garden to bring much more critter action into your outdoor spaces. Let us show you how!

Your garden is part of Gaia, the great global ecosystem. By making it more welcoming for many kinds of creatures, you directly help to heal the planet and contribute to the beauty, diversity, and abundance of the whole world. This is your invitation to take a more active role in that healing.

 

130713-1223easy upgrades
Any garden can be made into a more critter-friendly place with some well-chosen additions. Got a wood pile? A rock pile? A bird bath? A bat box? What is the best critter shelter for that shady place under the camellia? What kind of critters can be attracted to that sunny bank?

You don’t have to give up the lawn or the trimmed hedge (unless you want to!) and you can decide which features to actually add. Your garden animation project can happen in easy steps, one new critter-happy feature at a time.

Deep nature gardeners are passionate about bringing nature back to suburbia. We want a garden full of movement, with lots of flying insects, birds, and even lizards, newts, frogs, and toads. It’s not an ecosystem without the critters!

More and more people are doing garden upgrades to attract and nurture many kinds of wonderful creatures. Will you be part of this movement?

 

Here are some of the excellent critter-friendly garden upgrades you can do:

* bird houses and bat boxes. There are many kinds of birds, and many kinds of bird houses. Just one is not enough! Your garden can be much more bird friendly if they have a place to nest. You can also create bird-friendly nesting zones in other places, such as a thicket.

140621-1417* flowers. Flowers are not just there to look pretty! They are very important in our gardens. They are for nectar, for pollen, and for specific kinds of creatures. We can help you select kinds of flowers that will bring many happy, busy flower-loving insects and birds.

* plants for leaf eaters and seed feeders. Plants are the base of the whole food chain. By providing plants that serve as food sources, you can attract even more fabulous creatures. The larval food plants of many kinds of butterflies are easy to grow, as are plants that provide seeds or nesting materials for birds. You can even grow plants that attract herbivorous insects that in turn tend to attract certain specific kinds of predators.

* bee boxes, bee banks, and other special insect features. There are many ways to attract and nurture an abundance of different kinds of insects. Many wonderful insects are becoming increasingly rare in suburban areas. By creating habitat for them you help preserve precious species diversity, which helps to heal the planetary ecosystem.

* a thicket. Every garden should have one! Here is an area, small or large, where humans never go. In this one place, certain plants are allowed to create a dense tangle of stems and leaves, pruned only on the outside. There are some kinds of birds and mammals who only nest and breed in such thickets.

140621-1423* water features. Whether it is a puddle, a bird bath, a pond, or even a pump-driven stream, a water feature is one of the very best ways to attract creatures not seen in any other place. Everyone wants a drink now and then, and lots of creatures use the water in other ways as well. If you don’t have some kind of water feature in your garden you are missing out on a lot of diversity.

* artistically placed decaying logs. Possible shelter for newts, toads, small mammals like wood mice, and a whole host of smaller critters like spiders, crickets, centipedes, and much more. There might also be moss and mushrooms.

* a beautifully arranged rock pile. A great place to find lizards, field mice, and maybe even a snake, plus a wide assortment of smaller critters who appreciate the dry spaces inside.

* a tree stump or dead tree (snag). If you have one, don’t yank it out! A tree stump can be one of the most interesting critter habitats. As it slowly returns to the soil it attracts an ever-changing, ever-deepening collection of happy creatures.

* open composting area. A place where the natural process of compost conversion happens out in the open, where local birds and other creatures can come to find many kinds of abundant food animals like grubs, worms, and other compost-dwellers. We are amazed at the unusual, interesting birds who visit our open compost systems.

These are only a few of the interesting and valuable garden upgrades you can add to bring more critters to your garden. There are many more, including dry composting, moss gardens, dirt / soil / mud banks, special soil areas, and even special “food breeders” designed to enhance the local ecosystem by releasing hundreds of harmless but highly nutritious small insects.

 

140621-1427let us help you make it happen
If all of this sounds as cool and exciting to you as it does to us, please get in touch!

As always, you are welcome to have a free get-acquainted visit. Let’s walk around in your garden spaces and talk about the possibilities.

Even the smallest gardens can be upgraded for better creature support, and we can offer countless creative ideas.

Mount critter shelters on a blank wall or hide them under the bushes. Add a few containers of clover, dill, or other butterfly larval food plants. If you grow veggies like carrots or brassicas, let a few bolt into bloom to attract many kinds of pollinators. Grow common, easy “weeds” like lamb’s quarter and amaranth that provide abundant seeds that small birds like finches simply can’t resist. If there’s a bird bath nearby, so much the better.

Read more about creative, artistic garden upgrades.

Want to get started? Let’s set up a free introductory appointment!

There are critters out there who need good homes! Will you help them?

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You may recall Elizabeth’s new ecogarden with the redwood rounds, the beehives, and the chickens.

These days we are calling them deep nature gardens, but the project in Elizabeth’s back landscape has continued. There was a break during the summer, partly because this nature garden space is non-irrigated, so not much happens during the dry California summer, and partly because I needed some time to figure out some of the details of the deep nature gardening business.

Changes since our last update include the removal of the walkway made of redwood rounds. Elizabeth sometimes visits the chickens at night, and does not want to risk tripping on the wooden rounds in the dark. Sounds reasonable to me!

Instead, for now we will create a leafy pathway using some of the large fig and persimmon leaves that cover parts of the back yard in autumn. Later we might create a path using crushed shells or small gravel.

Some of the redwood rounds will be used to make pathways into the deeper recesses of the garden.

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Above: During the summer we dug a little rain garden, marked out by the sticks in the photo. A test with a hose spray showed that sure enough, it works! Look at that sweet puddle. To the right of the rain garden is the path to the chicken run, now free of redwood rounds. At the left, under the edge of the fig tree, we have created a low mound using the soil removed from the rain garden. In the foreground is a plum sapling that we want to keep.

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Above: Months have passed, and the rains have come. The rain garden and the low mound have both become covered in a mixed carpet of buttercup oxalis (Oxalis pes-caprae), cutleaf geranium (Geranium dissectum), common chickweed (Stellaria media), and many more kinds of sprouts.

Trees have lost most of their leaves, covering the ground with wonderful-nutrient rich food. In the background, between the rain garden and the persimmon tree, the path to the chicken run is now covered with leaves.

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The lush, green carpet is certainly beautiful, but the highly invasive oxalis is overtopping almost everything else, and if nothing is done it will hamper many interesting kinds of plants that struggle to compete for nutrients and light. So it is now time to do some serious thinning.

The oxalis has deep bulbs, very hard to extract. For this first round of thinning I did not even try to dig down to the bulbs. I simply pulled up everything from the bulb up, by grasping each plant firmly just below the crown with two fingers. If this is done correctly, you end up holding the green plant and a long, tapering, white underground stem. The stem can be as long as a carrot, though it is much thinner. Like all the non-bulb parts of buttercup oxalis, it is edible. Sweet and tangy!

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I worked in a patchwork pattern, focusing especially on the low bank, where some pretty rocks were added during a non-photo visit while it was still summer. I’ve also cleared out part of the basin of the rain garden, leaving behind a few patches for artistic balance.

Because the bulbs are still underground, many of these buttercup oxalis plants will grow back. The new growth will be flatter to the ground, smaller, and easier to pull out. There may be two or even three of these re-sprouts from each bulb, but eventually the bulbs will become exhausted and die.

What about the rest of the oxalis-dominated area? The plan is to continue working in patchwork patterns, clearing one area and then another, always leaving behind any interesting plants that managed to sprout between the oxalis. Discovered in the above clearing operation: miner’s lettuce, groundsel, scarlet pimpernel, and many small sprouts I did not recognize.

Am I worried that the sorrel and other fast-growing plants will get ahead of me? Nope, as long as I keep coming back I can move faster than they can. Look how much I was able to clear in just two hours or so, then consider that it took nature more than three months to grow that carpet of green.

The fig tree in the background above has been pruned so that it is possible to walk underneath — but please, let’s stay on the redwood rounds!

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Above: A closer view of the rain garden and the bank, with a row of rocks holding it up. At the right, redwood rounds lead behind the bank. At the far right, the edge of the leaf-litter zone under the fig tree.

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Last, this view of the far east corner, under the newly pruned fig tree. Big, floppy fig leaves cover the ground, partly smothering the oxalis and other plants trying to grow there. Lots more wait to fall. This is good, we want to create a nice deep layer back there. Any leaves that land on the rain garden or bank will be tossed into the east corner to make it even deeper.

Also in this zone are some irises that need pruning, some old, tangled roses that need shaping, and a very out-of-place palm sapling. That one might have to go. Eventually, it would be nice to add some native shade-loving shrubbery.

It was nice to get back to work in this happy little garden space. Stay tuned for more updates!

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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One of the main themes of this blog is what might be called “applied ecology” – ways of healing the planet by creating, maintaining, and evolving ecological systems that are resilient and healthy for Earth and its inhabitants (including us).

acres of palm oil plantation, where Indonesian rain forest used to grow

all around the world, people are catching the ecology bug

They are finally realizing that spraying poisons on farms and home gardens to suppress bugs and weeds is Just Plain A Bad Idea, as butterflies and bees die out and birds fall out of the sky. They are noticing how we are fishing all the edible creatures out of the oceans, from krill to whales. They are seeing how the Amazon basin, Indonesian forests, and other natural treasures are being steadily turned into endless tracts of cattle pasture and monoculture plantations. These and dozens of other warning signs show clearly that our planet, our beloved Gaia, is desperately ill.

The more people notice these horrible trends, the more they are beginning to take action.

gorgeous green roof over a car park in Victoria, BC

big projects and big ideas

There are talented, courageous people producing documentaries, articles, and other large-scale media exposing the truth everywhere.

There are people with Big Ideas like desert-greening using solar seawater desalination, sustainable closed-cycle eco-aquaculture farms, green roofs and green walls, enclosed greenhouse eco-farms, innovative new farming ecosystems using unconventional species, and tons of other fabulous projects.

There is a huge amount of creative exploration going on, with some people spending lots of money and time on such ideas.

some very lucky chickens live here

smaller local efforts

Other people, a group much greater in numbers and adding members all the time, are acting on a more local level.

Some of these are home gardeners turning their lawns into healthy urban wildflower meadows. They are suburban families installing chicken coops and rabbit runs in their back yards, feeding their family farms with kitchen scraps and home-brewed compost. They are guerrilla gardeners, tossing native-plant seed bombs into vacant lots, spreading biodiversity everywhere. They are volunteers helping schools build eco-friendly organic gardens, farms, and composting systems.

Thousands and thousands of us, across the world, are waking up to the ecological imperative of re-growing the planet’s sustaining bounty in large and small ways, everywhere.

everything you see here is edible

a personal quest

Since I recently left the world of “working for a company” the personal quest has moved more and more deeply into the global applied ecology movement.

Personal goals now center on helping people imagine, design, install, and maintain all sorts of eco-friendly systems. I want to show people how to preserve species diversity by growing ecosystem gardens. I want to help people build and run backyard ecosystem farms, where nothing is wasted and excess production helps support the neighborhood, in exchange for kitchen scraps that feed the farm. I want to become a local resource for anyone who wants to be more ecologically attuned to the living systems of the planet.

This blog is offered as both a source of inspiration and an ongoing presentation of what I do. The aim is not only to do this on a local scale with friends and neighbors, but also to take part in the larger movement, possibly joining one or more bigger projects as seems appropriate.

I offer myself to Gaia, and to my fellow humans, as an agent of the global ecosystem. How can I work with you to preserve existing ecosystems and bring more healthy ecological diversity into the world?

some specific directions

There are many great ideas out there, some in development and some still just ideas. Here are some ideas you might find inspiring and interesting. Use your favorite search engine for more information about any of these rapidly evolving fields of applied ecology. There are lots of projects popping up all over the planet.

green wall in Paris, France

green roofs, green walls, and indoor ecospaces

Most buildings are little more than sterile boxes, with carefully controlled, unhealthy, dry air. What a waste of valuable space! The roofs, walls, and interiors of buildings can be so much more.

Instead of ecologically dead surfaces, we could have living greenery, soaking up pollution and releasing clean fresh oxygen. The greenery in turn can attract and support butterflies, birds, and bugs. It can even be “seeded” with wonderful life forms like earthworms, salamanders, and frogs. Indoor ecospaces are wonderfully healthy for humans who live there, since they provide clean air and living natural beauty.

Sahara desert used to look like this

rewilding

Gigantic parts of our planet have suffered enormous losses as a result of human activities.

There are huge deserts that used to be forests. There are endless tracts of grassy open space that used to feature fantastically varied natural life forms, but now only support bland mixtures of invasive generalist species.

All of this ecological devastation was directly or indirectly caused by the works of humans, often hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

The rewilding movement is about converting large and small tracts of land (and sea) into self-sustaining, diverse “wilderness” ecosystems.

The newly growing, managed wildland need not be exactly the same as the ancient ecoscape that was there before humans ruined it. In many cases it would be impossible to fully restore the ancient ecosystem, because of the presence of hard-to-remove introduced alien species. But with a little human intervention of the right kind, almost any bio-wasteland can be made much more diverse, much healthier ecologically, and much more productive for the planet as a whole, even if the species mix is not the same as the ancient original wildscape.

prickly lettuce, bearded iris, and a “living rock” with moss and lichens

ecosystem gardens

As a second-floor apartment dweller with an upstairs container garden and a small bit of actual earth downstairs, my own personal space for gardening is limited. But in this blog perhaps you can see what beautiful diversity is possible even in such a small space.

Here in this suburban zone, in this tiny space, there are hundreds of kinds of plants, including many unusual species that are quite hard to find in nearby gardens and lots. Where did all this variety come from?

I collect soil samples from many locations. There is a wonderful semi-wilderness creek near here, and there are many small areas that are allowed to mostly grow wild. A tiny handful of topsoil from such a place, properly nurtured, can yield up dozens of fascinating new seedlings of plants seldom seen in any “normal” garden.

After a while, such a garden of “collected volunteers” not only becomes a veritable botanical garden in its own right, it also begins to attract a fantastic variety of insects, birds, and other critters. You may see unusual butterflies, maybe even laying their eggs on your unusual plants (a good thing for sure!). You might find bees, beetles or plant-sucking bugs that are very, very rare in the local neighborhood – except, of course, in your garden!

It is one of my main goals to help people create ecosystem gardens, both locally in my neighborhood, and out there in the bigger world.

Read more about ecosystem gardens in another blog post.

wonderful compost “food”

ecosystem farms

If a farm produces any kind of “waste product” at all, it is not truly an ecosystem farm.

A typical pig farm produces tons of noxious pig poop, a kind of slop that is notoriously toxic and hard to deal with. Meanwhile, that wheatfield a few miles away gets plowed several times a year, releasing (and wasting) tons of blowing topsoil. Then it gets hyper-kicked by vast amounts of chemical fertilizers, before growing monoculture crops of grain grasses, most of whose biomass is removed from the land. Neither one is any kind of ecofarm.

But combine the pig farm with the wheat field, scale it down a bit, change the land to critter ratio, and add a few more subsystems, and we could design a true ecofarm where nothing is wasted. Its only inputs might be compostable wastes (maybe from customers!), sunshine, and rain and its only outputs might be edible or useful products.

As a partial first step toward the goal of self-sustaining ecofarms, some people are working on local inter-farm ecosystems, where one farm’s wastes become useful input for another farm of a different kind. This kind of inter-farm ecology is exactly right for suburban environments like Menlo Park, where I live.

One way I can participate in such a local farming ecosystem is by receiving your kitchen scraps and returning to you some of the valuable, power-packed compost I make from it. Another way is to give you seeds of some of the wonderful edible plants that grow here in my own garden. These are not only traditional vegs like carrots, chard, and radishes, but also delicious, nutritious plants like goosefoot, purslane, chickweed, and so much more.

rainforest in Australia’s Daintree Park

so much opportunity!

This is a rare time in human history. Not only are we fast approaching a dangerous, world-changing mega-crisis of overpopulation, pollution, and biosystem degradation, but we are also waking up and rapidly developing ways of healing and rebuilding those same vital biosystems. It is a spine-tingling, nail-biting time. Will the human race wake up quickly enough to save most of the existing biodiversity, or will the planet fall prey to a cataclysmic eco-disaster, in which only the hardiest generalist species will survive?

I want to live in a world in which Morpho butterflies still flit like blue metallic ghosts among the rain forests of South America. If you want these things too, please follow this blog, leave a comment (button is at upper left), or get in touch via nick [at] mindheart [dot] org. What can we do together to heal the Gaian biosphere?