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critters

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?

The skippers love them!

They sprang up by surprise along the edge of the garden. Four different daisies, all in a row. They came up from seeds, but where did the seeds come from? Each one is unique – three have purple flowers and one is white. One purple one (above) has those fun curled-in flower-petal tips.

Like dandelions, daisies are composite flowers. Each of the outer petals belongs to its own individual flower, and the purple and yellow center is also made of multiple flowers.

The brown and yellow skipper may look like a butterfly, but it is not technically a “true” butterfly. Skippers are about as different from butterflies as moths are. They are in the family Hesperiidae, (pronounced hes-per-EEH-ih-dae).

The big black and white skippers are in the subfamily Pyrginae, but this little critter is in the Hesperiinae (can you figure out how to say it?) along with about 50 other California species. These little yellow and brown lovelies are notoriously hard to ID, so I won’t even try. Most skippers in the Hesperiinae eat grasses as larvae.

Although they are smack up against the edge of the garden, the daisies look pretty here. They have been pruned back so that their branches will grow out into the garden, instead of across the gravel path.

I love the daisies at least as much as the skippers do!

There’s a nice big version of the skipper picture over at clear display blog, and you can get an even bigger tiff file by email. Just ask!