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birds

As the weather cools and the rains begin, the garden explodes into glorious color. There’s a lot happening here. Let’s take a tour!

In the foreground just left of center, a Leonotus bush pokes up tall stems bearing bursts of orange flowers. It’s a drought-tolerant bush from South Africa that is well-loved by pollinators.

At the far left, a Pyracantha shrub also pushes up tall stems, bent down by huge bunches of bright red berries. Before I took over this garden it was a huge, dense, unhappy, unhealthy, never-blooming, spherical monstrosity, frequently shaped by evil gardeners with their noisy gas-powered trimmers. I violently chopped it right down to stumps (what fun that was!) and it grew back. Now it is a noble creature of beautiful form, whose berries are just getting to the point where the birds will feast. Much better, don’t you think?

Against the wall in back is a large and happy princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) which drops its crazy purple petals all over the walkway. It’s related to geraniums.

In the middle ground behind the Leonotus is a huge, dense bush of Salvia, possibly S. nemorosa. Its abundant purple flower stalks are serious food sources for black carpenter bees, honey bees, various flies, wasps, and of course our local hummingbirds. What a contributor!

To the extreme right, a few bright orange flowers shine from among the dark green leaves of a cape honeysuckle bush (Tecoma capensis). Another African native, this plant used to be a huge, scraggly beast struggling in the deep shade of a magnolia tree that is no longer there. I chopped it right back down to the ground, and now the new growth is being severely pruned as needed so that it is no more than a few feet high. Nonetheless, it is happy and showing lots of buds and flowers, which the hummingbirds are enjoying.

UPDATE: A closer look at this tamed giant.

Although it shows no brilliant color other than green, I must also mention the avocado sapling poking up at right of center, between the  cape honeysuckle and the Leonotus. Just a few months ago it was a small sprout with only a few glossy green leaves. Soon, it will be the tallest plant in the garden. My plan is to let it grow tall, but to prune off the lower branches. That way its remaining lowest branches will eventually shade the currently summer-sun-blasted bank below the fence (off the picture at the left) while its lack of lower growth will allow the sun to still bless the rest of the garden. Maybe in some years it will even start dropping edible fruit.

What a joy it is to watch the seasons change in the deep nature garden!

This loudly vocal, perky blue jay has been regularly visiting the eco-compost pile, eating hearty on the black soldier flies, worms, sowbugs, earwigs, centipedes, and lots of other critters thriving there. Like blue jays in general, this one is just about completely unafraid of me. I can walk around freely, even talk to it or imitate its own calls, and it just looks at me. I thought about offering it a peanut, but it already has enough to eat.

The only time I ever saw a bird dismantle a paper wasp nest and eat all of the wasps and their young, it was a blue jay.

Our feathered friend on the compost is just about one year old, one of two offspring hatched by an older pair of blue jays that visited frequently last summer. Looks like the whole family has been enjoying the harvest!

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

This happy little holly sapling has appeared before in this blog. Today we feature its very classy buds and young leaves, already showing their sharp little poky-bits. It’s in its third year now, almost ready to be transplanted into its own container. Still no signs of blooms, but lots of new growth.

European holly (here is the Wikipedia page; sadly it needs some editing!) is an ancient, hardy tree or shrub that used to grow in large forests in Europe. It is interesting to imagine huge, old growth holly trees up to ten meters tall. Such trees are exceptionally rare today.

A mature tree bears many white flowers pollinated by bees, followed in the fall (on female trees only) by the well-known, bright red holly berries. The berries are poisonous to humans, but birds like them, especially after the frosts have mellowed them chemically.

The big question for this little tree is which gender is it, and where can I find a plant of the opposite gender so we can make some berries?

Also looking very classy and happy in the sunlight are these brand new curly willow leaves. This tree is growing in a smallish container, but its long water roots have spread out in a fan underneath. One upcoming task is to repot it, which will be complicated by the fact that much of the tree is deeply entangled in vines and netting.

do you know what this is?

Our last feature today is this mystery herb. Several of these have appeared this spring in the containers upstairs. The curly leaves and distinctive flower stalk should make it easy to identify, but so far it has eluded me.

In our Bay Area climate it’s an annual that starts in mid-winter with a basal rosette of arugula-like leaves, then shoots up a stalk with increasingly curly, dark green leaves. The flowers are tiny and yellow, with four petals, maturing first at the base of the stalk. The unfolding flower buds at the top almost have a spiral structure. Very interesting.

Can anyone offer up a possible identification? Is this beautiful little herb edible by any chance?

If you know what it is, please do leave a comment! (button is at top left of post)

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?

mockingbirds live here

A mockingbird couple has taken up residence in this tree (see arrow), which is something like 80-100 meters from my deck. That’s the perfect distance, because I can clearly hear the amazing natural musical performance, but it isn’t loud enough to keep me awake during the bird’s most prolific late night hours.

They really are amazing. Have you listened deeply to a mockingbird? The sheer variety and creativity are astounding, and the singer’s performance is not limited to just the song.

credit: Flikr user pheanix (thanks!)The male flies to the top of a nearby tall thing like a tree or a TV antenna (they seem to like those) and perches. He begins singing quite loudly, and while he sings he periodically leaps into the air, hovers for a fraction of a second, and then lights again. His leaps are several meters high. He might leap every five to ten seconds, the whole time he is singing.

One might be tempted to conclude that he is leaping for joy.

While he leaps and lights, he sings little snips of music called songlets. Each one lasts from under a second to maybe two seconds. One night, listening as carefully as I could, I was able to identify around 45 distinct songlets before I gave up. There might be hundreds in any single bird’s reportoire.

Some songlets are very simple. The simplest one of all is a single peep, repeated twice or three times.

Others are more complicated, like a warbly rising trill followed by three separate notes in a descending minor third. Got that?

A couple of years ago a big, bold mockingbird built a nest in a tree less than ten meters from my deck. At first it was fascinating and amazing to be able to hear his incredible song so loudly and in such great detail. What a fantastic ringside seat for such a natural wonder!

I soon realized that my new neighbor was one of those troublesome ones who play loud music all through the night. What could I do? Birds do not have landlords. I suppose I could complain to God.

It might be easier to sleep through such a performance if it weren’t so darn creative. It seems like the brain’s automatic mechanism for ignoring repetitive stimuli (think of the alarm clock’s tick tock) is not easily triggered by such a varied input.

So there I lay, through spring and early summer, unable to ignore the constant trills, peeps, warbles, chirps, caws, chip-chip-chips, burbles, bleedle-bleeps, woo-woo-woos, ……

I was thinking how nice it is that this new one lives a bit farther away.

Until this morning, that is, around 4:30, when my new friend perched somewhere much closer and began his serenade.

Uh oh…

garden path It has been a very dry winter here in SF Bay Area, but thanks to the miracle of hoses and running water, the gardens are green. I’ve just done a late-winter thinning and pruning through the upstairs containers and the downstairs in-ground garden.

As spring approaches, stuff is starting to burst up everywhere. Here’s a container featuring purple potato shoots and fumitory, a pretty herb in the poppy family recently imported from a friend’s back yard. Also present are runner bean tubers, just starting to bud out. You can see last year’s dried bean vines, still climbing the deck support on the left.

Also upstairs, this self-contained rotting log (every garden should have one!) bursts with life. It’s just received a light sprinkling of seeded compost, adding nutrients and a bit of new soil. The tall sapling is a privet sprout, seedling of a long-removed giant privet tree that once shaded the upstairs deck. Also present on the rotting log: grasses, sedge, foxglove (the sprout at the bottom of the thin cleft, just to the right of the base of the privet sapling), fringed willow-herb, wild strawberry, two kinds of sorrel, lamb’s quarter, chickweed, a small unidentified Salvia, and much more.

This container has just been cleared of a huge mass of chickweed, which provided lots of delicately flavored salad greens while it was still young and tender. Now it’s been removed to give the strawberries room for the coming growing season, and more rich, seeded compost has been spread for nutrients and new sprouts. That’s an English holly sapling on the right; it will get its own container when it gets bigger.

Winter in Bay Area is a good time to grow peas, and here are some climbing up onto the deck support. I plant all kinds of seeds all year, but the peas seem to do best in cooler weather. The tender shoots are good in salads.

The big change downstairs was the removal of a dense magnolia tree that was shading most of the garden. For this picture, I stood right where the tree’s trunk was. Now that it’s gone, some plants are struggling to adapt. The tall bush with red flowers is a cape honeysuckle that is showing lots of new leaves. The new leaves are different, darker and denser in the suddenly bright sunlight. The section in front on the right, below the honeysuckle bush, is scheduled for major replanting with sun-lovers instead of the invasive, shade-loving, and unwanted periwinkle currently suffering there in the bright sun.

In a deeply shady part of the garden, Coprinus mushrooms poke up. Also seen this winter: shaggy mane mushrooms (another kind of Coprinus) and honey Armillaria (from the base of a dying, now removed hedge bush).

A stand of bearded iris mingles with little winter cress. The bearded iris hopefully will bloom this year, now that the magnolia tree is gone. The iris bloomed profusely when it was in a pot in the sun, but here in the ground it’s been bloom-free for three years.

( Update: Oh yes, it bloomed! )

Here’s evidence of spring: blueberry buds expanding. Last year this little blueberry bush offered nine berries on five stems. The year before, it bore four berries on two thin stems. This year we’re shooting for twenty berries, and it looks like there will be at least fifteen branches. Coffee grounds scattered under the blueberry bush give it the acid conditions it likes.

UPDATE: Blueberry buds bloomed out nicely, then became plump berries!

A red Swiss chard just getting started in the warm sun, sharing the soil and sunlight with some scarlet pimpernel and little winter cress.

The chard plants have to be started upstairs in the shelter of some bird netting, because there are tiny brown and black juncoes that come around and eat up the swiss chard seedlings, and also the pea seedlings. Once the seedlings get big enough, the birdies leave them alone.

The garden here at the apartment is just a couple of dozen containers and a tiny postage stamp of earth, but it is a wonderful slice of ecosystem. One does not need a lot of space to help preserve the planet’s species diversity.