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critters

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After our recent rainy spell I had the opportunity to walk home from a client’s house through a wonderful section of Menlo Park with no sidewalks and lots of old-ish, interesting small ecosystems to explore.

Above is a great example, a front yard with various zones of shrubs and wild-looking areas. Beautiful, no? This comes very close to being a true deep nature garden.

There were many wonderful photos that offered themselves in that diffuse, after-the-storm lighting. They will fuel great future blog posts.

This particular sequence is about the amazing fungi (and two slime molds) that manifested along the way.

This will require several posts, or maybe a few more…

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Above: This was the first one that popped out at me. Mushrooms that get their nutrients from wood are called “lignicolous” and this one certainly is. It’s coming right out of the bark of an old oak tree.

Mushrooms are notoriously hard to identify, which is one reason why it’s such a bad idea to try to collect them yourself for food. There are a few obvious ones like the shaggy mane and the meadow mushroom, but people get in trouble all the time.

Some of these shrooms I can identify right away, some I can pinpoint with some research, and some will forever remain unnamed. Such is the lore of fungi.

What kind is this oak-eating mini-jewel? It’s what we call an “LBM” or “little brown mushroom.” Might be an Armillaria, but its surface looks too rough.

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Scouting eyes soon picked out the next catch, a waxy, wet looking yellow beauty in the deep shade under some old live oaks. See the acorns in the back?

Right there on top, another special find! A fungus fly, magically materialized out of nowhere just to sit serenely atop this amazing shroom.

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Deep in the dark recesses under a huge mass of mixed oak, laurel, and ailanthus: A noble temple of the fungi, fully expanded, shedding millions of spores into the moist air.

The upper right dark spot on the cap is — you guessed it, a fungus fly.

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Beneath a laurel tree was this trio of white parasols. One of them has tilted, probably from its own weight in the soft leaf litter.

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This beautiful domed shroom emerged under a live oak among struggling Vinca and wild strawberry. The striations around the rim reflect the gills underneath. The stem is surrounded by a veil of thin tissue.

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We end this segment with a distinctive purple jewel. If I am right, it’s a blewitt, which is frequently seen around here, especially in the coastal hills.

What a beautiful purple being!

Next: Boletus

You may know that we just had a rather large and exciting storm here in the Bay Area. We usually get one or two like this between Thanksgiving and New Year. This one included a vast amount of rain, some of it applied in huge downpours. Fun!

The deep nature gardens took it all in stride, mostly. There were a few small injuries and other changes.

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Above: This red clover in the upstairs container garden looks a bit beaten down, but it will recover quickly. This container is one of the “old style” boxes that dries out rather fast because it lacks a proper moisture barrier. The clover will do great over the winter now that its deep roots are finally getting enough water from the rains.

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Above: The main garden downstairs is looking very crisp and green. The bright orange flowers of the leonotis bush (at right center) have finally finished, and now they droop all brown and wilted from its branches. Still, they remain noble and beautiful. One of the leaves of a Swiss chard plant (front center) has been knocked down by the heavy rain. You can’t see it in the picture, but recent frosts have killed off the above-ground growth of a lush patch of purslane that was growing near the sidewalk at lower right.

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Above: A favorite wild strawberry plant soaks up some late afternoon sun after nearly a week of dark skies. It opens a cheerful white flower or two and offers its bright fruit. Sweet and delicious!

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Above: This bluish-white lichen on a rock has expanded and soaked up the rain. Right now it is soft and flexible, clearly alive. It grows in these times, when its tissues are moist and vibrant.

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Above: the most obvious damage in the garden is this cherished avocado sapling, which tilts at a windblown angle. Stepping into the center of the garden, keeping my feet on the stepping rocks, I was able to set it back mostly upright with a careful foot down onto its roots. I think it will be fine.

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Above: Another bit of wind damage is this fallen branch. It belonged to a medium size bush, which might be some kind of heath or heather (Calluna or Erica). The fallen branch will hardly be noticed by the vigorous bush from which it fell.

Maybe you can help me identify the shrub. Below, a close look at some of its flowers, along with a little visitor, a hover fly in the family Syrphidae:

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I wonder where the little fly took shelter during the storm?

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.

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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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.

Now that our new name is chosen and the new business is officially started it seems appropriate to have a flashback to one of my earliest manifestations of deep nature gardening.

Above is a container ecosystem garden, created way back in 2007 just a few weeks before this picture was taken. It features a strong young nettle plant reaching for the sky. There are also two kinds of sorrel: white sorrel that grows from bulbs (see the flowers?) and yellow sorrel that grows by runners. There’s a tiny patch of scarlet pimpernel down in front. Just visible at lower right, partly hidden by the rim of a pot, is a foxglove seedling that grew quite large and produced a whole series of beautiful flowers. Also present just in front of the nettle: a small Egyptian walking onion that sprouted from a bulblet that was deliberately planted. This is the only plant that was deliberately placed in this container. Everything else sprouted from the seeded eco-compost.

You might notice that large areas of the earth in this container are bare. In those early days, I was quite zealous about keeping some spaces clear so that interesting, unknown sprouts could emerge. I still do this, but not to such a great degree.

This particular mini-garden has the unique distinction of being the oldest container ecosystem in the collection that is still evolving and growing. To this day, it remains in almost the same spot at the south corner of the deck, still hosting a never-ending variety of volunteer plants and attracting its own cool kinds of bugs and other critters. It gets more sun now that the magnolia tree has been removed.

How does it look today? Remember the happy springtime raspberry bush and later its tiny little berries? It sprouted several years ago in this very container, and has now crowded out almost everything else, except for some sorrel and clover. The pink and white rocks are still there, hiding under the leaves. It looks like the raspberry bush is on its last legs now, though, so it might be time to clear out some of the sorrel and scatter a bit more eco-compost. What will grow among the dying canes?

This container has been through a whole series of evolutions, and there’s still much more to come!

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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?

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.

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?