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critters

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We have clouds and cooler temperatures. Looks like the heat wave has broken.

It’s amazing how different the midsummer days feel here in Oregon, at the same latitude as southern Maine. The sun takes a whole different path through the sky, both lower and longer. It rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest. Nights are short and days are long.

Of course in the winter it will be the opposite, with just a modest slice of daylight, by comparison to the Bay Area.

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We are staying in a cozy house with a productive back yard featuring raised beds and two happy hens named Pepper and Blondie. They lay big, beautiful eggs, each one producing almost one every day. We are greatly enjoying their output, and making friends with them too.

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The stalwart traveling kitty, Stella, looks on from the window.

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It is wonderful to see clouds in the sky again.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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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We have not seen much dew in the Bay Area in this year of record drought, so here’s a reminder that sometimes there is actual moisture around here! On December 24, 2012 the sun lit up this tiny spider web among irises and Santa Barbara daisies.

140519-0623The spider that spun this web was no larger than a pin head, yet it contained enough instinctive knowledge to construct this complicated, 3-dimensional structure suspended expertly from  leaves and stems.

A typical organic garden contains thousands of spiders of many kinds. Most of them remain hidden in the vegetation, actively exploring for prey. Only a few spin webs that are large enough to be easily noticed.

The presence of spiders in the garden is ecologically profound, because they eat a significant fraction of the flying and crawling insects. In webs just like this one in the same garden, I have spotted fungus gnats, parasitic wasps, fruit flies, many other small insects, and even a lady beetle.

There are more than 42,000 kinds of spiders. They have been around for 400 million years, evolving from fascinating little critters called trigonotarbids that looked a little like modern ticks and mites.

Back in those early days there were no dew-spangled spider webs because web-weaving spiders had not yet evolved. True spiders with spinnerets appeared around 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous, a time when yard-long dragonflies cruised the skies. It must have been a great time to evolve predators!

There’s more about spider evolution at Wikipedia. There’s also a neat article about trigonotarbids.

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I love starting work in a garden early in the morning. One nice thing about these cool early hours is that many insects are still slow-moving and partly asleep. One such was this lacewing, a voracious predator of aphids and other small critters. I spotted it just as the sun touched the roses.

This one is probably a brown lacewing in the family Hemerobiidae of the order Neuroptera. These are less common than the green ones, and like the green lacewings they are always a welcome sight in the garden.

If the wide, stuffed-looking abdomen is any guide, this one is a female ready to lay eggs. The eggs are fascinating, deposited on the ends of erect, silk hairs attached to the undersides of leaves. Why the hairs? Some theorize that they protect the tiny, active larvae from each other by making it impossible for them to eat the other eggs before they crawl away looking for prey. Amazing little insects!

Here’s more about brown lacewings.

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The lacewing was not the only critter hiding among the roses.

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140404-0629brown and silver, orange and black

In the morning after a rain, in a client’s leafy forest garden… this beautiful gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) posed at the edge of a rock. It was still chilly and wet, and this torpid insect was so sleepy that I could touch it. When I did, it opened up its wings for a few seconds…

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A few minutes later the sun finally emerged, and the butterfly opened its wings again, absorbing warmth. After about 30 seconds it flitted up into the air, soon landing on a nearby viola flower. Wake up, it’s time for breakfast!

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Gulf fritillaries are mostly tropical butterflies, whose larvae feed on passion fruit vines. They are not endangered and are surprisingly common in the Bay Area, especially this year for some reason.

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Want to encourage more gulf fritillaries in your garden? The best way is to plant a passion vine, but you can also attract them with hardy, nectar-laden tropical flowers like lantana.

The second butterfly was a real blessing. At a different client’s garden, it was right there on the blooming pieris bush, just long enough that I was able to snap a picture…

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Is it a monarch or a viceroy? This one is a monarch (Danaus plexippus) as indicated by the lack of a dark bar across the hind wing. Actually, viceroys (Limentis archippus, non-poisonous butterflies who benefit from their resemblance to the poisonous monarchs) seldom are seen in the Bay Area, being more common to the east of the Sierras.

This cute little critter posed for a few short seconds at the tip of a Salvia leaf. It’s one of the most hated crop pests in the US, where it causes huge damage to a wide variety of crops. It’s a tarnished plant bug, Lygus lineolaris.

Although it is thought of as a serious pest (so much so that it’s hard to find web pages that don’t go to great lengths describing its damage) I have only seen a few of them in this garden. Unlike farmers with crops to lose, I welcome them. If they reproduce too fast, I am quite certain somebody will come along to eat them. They seem to be native to North America.

Like all true bugs, these have “half-wings” with tough, leathery parts in front that cover the filmy flying wings folded underneath. They also have sucking mouthparts, in this case to drink the sap of plants.

Why are they such agro pests? Not only do they attack hundreds of valuable crops, they also produce several generations every year. A successful strategy for sure, but one that leads the humans to go to great lengths to try to eliminate them. Sadly, that usually means spreading huge amounts of deadly chemicals into the environment. No wonder the butterflies and bees are disappearing.