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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!

Knowing that I am friendly to diverse life forms, local friends and neighbors frequently drop off plants in pots, unwanted or extra seed packets, cuttings, and even bugs in jars (hopefully with holes in the lid!)

The newborn semi-dry desert container shown above contains a cactus and succulent dropped off by an anonymous friend, plus a bit of sedum from another container. All three will enjoy the expansion room in this new home, basking in the sun in a sheltered place on the upstairs deck.

This strawberry is also a new resident. It is enjoying the rich, seeded compost that has been added to its pot. Already, various green shoots are sprouting up. Most of the new seedlings will be removed, so that the strawberry plant can thrive with little competition. Some, like the edible chickweed that will cascade down the outside of the pot, will be left in.

Like these two new container ecosystem art gardens, my own life is also experiencing a fresh restart. Working with an excellent new guide, I am creatively evolving a brand new approach to the whole ecosystem gardening multi-project, and there’s a big, new, related goal in the more distant future that promises to be a lot of fun.

In the near future, watch these pages for updates on the new ecosystem art-garden offerings. With the help of the new guide, for the first time in years I can see a clear and (hopefully!) realistic path toward the goal of earning my entire income from ecosystem gardens and related projects.

It lurks among the flowers of the Swiss chard. This assassin bug waits quietly, alert and ready to pounce. It sees me, which makes it hard to photograph because it keeps moving around to the far side of the stalk. Like most predators, it has an intelligent, deliberate way of behaving.

This one is in the family Reduviidae (reh-doo-VEE-ih-day, Wikipedia), possibly related to the European species Coranus griseus (photo at Flikr by Joao Coelho), but most likely not the same species. Note the characteristic “hunchback” appearance and the spotted edge of the abdomen.

Assassin bugs are related to the non-predatory shield bugs (here’s a previous post about a shield bug).

Some can administer a painful, venomous bite with their piercing mouthparts. They violently attack their prey, which can be much larger than themselves, and subdue it with a poison bite. Then they suck out the prey’s inner fluids, leaving behind an empty shell.

These are vicious little hunters. Some assassin bugs even specialize on mammalian blood, including the notorious kissing bug of Mexico and the southwestern US, also in the Reduviidae (basic kissing bug facts from University of Arizona).

Several days after the first pictures were taken, this pair were discovered in a state of mutual … well, they were having a good time, no doubt. They were on this chard flower stalk all morning and all afternoon, and they were still together at dusk.

The next morning they had gone away.

Looking at insects like these, one might wonder at their form. From an evolutionary perspective, what is the advantage of the sharp-edged shoulder humps? Why are there prominent spots along the edges of the abdomen? Are these sexually selected traits like guppy colors or deer antlers? Do they serve some other function?

Assassin bugs like to hang out in flowers, waiting for… well, this little critter, for example, a flower fly in the Syrphidae who is happily eating pollen among the same chard flowers. I think this lucky one got away.

Look to this previous post for another flower fly.

Summer is here and my small patch of managed wilderness is bursting with life. Nestled between two apartment buildings, this little chunk of land has evolved a lot in recent months.

The biggest recent changes were the removals of two large sources of shade, exposing the garden to full sun during most of the day.

First, an old magnolia tree came out because the property owner did not like how its roots were rucking up the driveway. He had a good point, actually. Even though the tree was a noble and beautiful being, its sudden removal has changed the garden for the better, allowing many new plants to thrive in the greater light.

Above: The second removal was the large old cape honeysuckle that used to fully own a large section of the space. In this view from the balcony above the garden you can see the empty space it left behind, covered with a mixture of old magnolia leaves and seeded eco-compost. It was cut down to a stump because it was having a lot of trouble adapting to the new, sunny conditions. By cutting it down I pressed reset, and now the new growth will be properly shaped and adapted for the current conditions.

Above: In the center of the empty space, the stump of the cape honeysuckle sends up a mound of new green shoots. I’ll let it grow into a decent size bush, but it will not be allowed to take over the space the way it did before I chopped it down. I want to keep it, even though it is considered an invasive alien, because of how much the local hummingbirds love its orange-red flowers. Once it gets bigger, it will bloom again.

Meanwhile, the layer of magnolia leaves and seeded compost has begun to evolve into a new ecosystem. The leaves were there because of the old magnolia tree that was removed. Rather than scrape down to bare dirt, I decided to keep the leaves, letting them decompose naturally, mixed with the compost. Some people have told me “Magnolia leaves never decompose!” Watch and see, it’s already happening.

Although the summer sun on the thin layer of compost has prevented many sprouts from coming up, beneath the leaves are countless sheltered nooks and crannies where critters like sowbugs, snails, crickets, centipedes, and earwigs have taken up residence.

As the leaves decay, this open space will gradually fill in. Below: at the edges, various plants encroach by sending up shoots from underground runners.

Above: The main feature of the larger east section of the garden is this dense thicket, dominated by a purple flowering Salvia. It also contains trailing Nasturtium, several other species of smaller Salvia plants, and a large patch of rosemary (visible peeking out at the right). In the foreground, an avocado seedling pokes up.

At the base of the avocado seedling, a critter shelter has just been added. It’s just a few bricks and a paving stone, but it’s a dry place where snails, spiders, and others can find protection.

Critter shelters can also be made of wood, especially if the wood is old and rotting. In fact, an old rotting log is such a great critter house that one should be a part of every ecogarden. If it gets interesting mushrooms after the rain, so much the better!

Another great critter house can be made from a simple pile of rough, natural rocks.

Let’s look inside. There are a few snails in there and a couple of sowbugs, but not much else today. I have seen earwigs, centipedes, millipedes, and crickets. Last week there were four big female wolf spiders carrying egg sacs, but they ran away before I could photograph them.

If an ecogarden is located in contact with a natural area, the critter shelters could contain much more interesting creatures like frogs, toads, or newts. I doubt there will be any frogs in this one, but a newt might happen by.

Critter shelters are also located in several other places in this garden, some in the sun and some in the shade. They are important! Try to leave them undisturbed as much as possible.

All through the garden are many delightful little scenes, like this wild strawberry, mint and a rock in front of the bearded irises. Those sweet little berries were consumed by me immediately after this picture was taken. Yum!

Above: At the north end of the garden is the vine wall (a fence, actually) where many kinds of climbers compete for space. Right now the morning glory vines are blooming in this section. Because of the lush, dense foliage this vine wall is also a fantastic critter shelter.

Maybe this space is small, and maybe it looks like just another suburban garden that has been allowed to grow a bit wild, but for me this humble mini-landscape is nothing less than a small treasure, attracting butterflies, birds, and countless other wonderful visitors and inhabitants.

Watch these pages as my little ecogarden continues to grow and evolve!

Did you see the previous state of the ecogarden report? It happened after the magnolia was taken out, but while the big honeysuckle bush was still in place.

The old, classic post “what is an ecogarden?“has pictures of the garden before the magnolia tree was removed. At that time, there were still some large bushes owning much of the north half of the garden.

There’s also an upstairs container garden, whose state will be reported in a future blog post.

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It happens almost every year somewhere in the ecogarden. A large, robust grassy plant sprouts up, growing rapidly. Although I usually pull out almost all grass plants because they tend to be incredibly invasive, there are several kinds of grass that might be left alone. One of them is wheat.

This one sprouted in a container alongside verbena and sorrel. All winter it grew, and in early spring it went to seed. Now its huge spikes are nodding, laden with heavy grain. I don’t know where the original seed came from, but this variety of wheat now seems to be a permanent part of the biota in the ecogarden.

There are several species of wheat, with complex genetics. Some have two, four, or even six complete sets of chromosomes. It has been cultivated for at least 11,000 years after originating in the middle east. Like many old food crops, it has been selectively bred by humans until it is distinctly different from its wild ancestors.

This Wikipedia article has lots of great information about wheat and its history.

This healthy feverfew plant (Tanacetum parthenium) (Wikipedia) sprang up last winter from a random seed right at the end of the stone walkway. For months I didn’t know what it was – beautiful, finely divided leaves on a plant with a lush, balanced shape. It got bigger and bigger, as did my curiosity about it.

Now that it’s blooming, it has attracted a variety of tiny insects including thread-thin “looper” caterpillars that inhabit the flowers, eating only their petals. Also present, very small golden-brown metallic looking beetles – can you see the beetle on the upper right flower in the picture below?

Feverfew flowers also seem to be quite attractive to syrphid flies (flower flies). There are almost always two or three of them hovering in the air near the plant, or resting on the flowers.

Here’s a post with a picture of a syrphid fly.

When the pea pod dries, it unzips itself, revealing the light green peas. The ones shown here will be allowed to drop to the ground naturally, maybe to sprout or maybe to serve as food for some lucky critter.

Just a few inches away, a different kind of seed ripens. This nasturtium seed will dry into a hard, wrinkled sphere, but in this green stage it is moist inside, and quite edible. They taste great pickled, similar to capers (here’s a recipe).

Here’s a previous post featuring a gorgeous nasturtium flower.

Also known as Jersey cudweed, this noble little plant (Helichrysum luteoalbum) (Wikipedia) has some of the most interesting flowers in the garden. Not at all showy, it nevertheless manages to attract its own collection of pollinators, including tiny solitary bees, black beetles, and even tinier flies.

The flowers are borne on a tall stem from a base with several stems. The leaves are slightly fuzzy, a water-saving adaptation often seen in plants that may grow in hot, sunny places. After the flowers finish blooming, the whole central part of the flower drops off (taking the seeds with it) leaving behind the “everlasting” part, that actually looks more like a flower than the flowers themselves.

In my garden the everlasting cudweed usually only shows up in the container gardens, where the soil may sometimes dry out. That’s what they like!

There are estimated to be more than 200,000 different species of flies, midges, gnats, and mosquitos in the world, but only about half of them are known and described. All belong to the order Diptera (Wikipedia article), whose name means “two winged.” The only insect order with more species is the beetles.

There are many species of green bottle flies (Wikipedia) that look very similar. All belong to the family Calliphoridae (Wikipedia), also known as blowflies. That family contains roughly 1,100 species. It is a huge, complex family whose internal relationships are disputed. Some entomologists think there may be several separate lineages in the family, from different origins.

Like many blue or green animal colors in nature, the shiny luster of these flies comes from light diffraction through tiny structures in the surface of their body, not from any kind of pigment. As a result, the color can change depending on the angle of the light. Blue jays, peacocks, and Morpho butterflies also get their blue and green colors from diffraction of light.

Blowflies in general, and green bottles in particular, are incredibly sensitive to the smell of dead flesh. They are often the first insects to arrive when an animal dies. Forensic entomologists can estimate the time of death of an animal or human by looking at the life stages of blowfly maggots and other insect larvae within the body.

The little beauty shown here bopped around the garden for almost an hour while I was photographing all sorts of stuff. I kept finding it basking in the sun. The rock must have been especially warm, because it hung out there for a long time.

How curious and strange, that this beautiful green-gold work of art spent its early life completely surrounded by a dead animal’s rotting body.

Not long after our green friend flew away, a different beauty showed up. This syrphid fly (flower fly / hover fly) was uncharacteristically just sitting there among the Bacopa flowers. Usually they are seen hovering almost in place, or darting from one flower to another.

The family Syrphidae (Wikipedia) has even more species than the Calliphoridae, numbering more than 6,000. Most of the adults eat pollen or drink nectar. The larvae have more varied food – some of them are valuable predators, eating aphids and other small insects found on plants.

Two flies, just hanging out in the sun. Who wants to fly around when you can just soak up some rays on a nice green leaf or rock?

Here’s another post about interesting flies.

Even though many of the plants in my eco-gardens come right up out of seeded eco-compost, it’s good to start certain kinds of seedlings separately, to get them going well. Rather than spend money on peat pots (and aren’t peat bogs a precious eco-resource?) let’s use these short sections of cardboard tubes from the center of rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.

Arrange them on a slanted tray, fill with planting medium, and add some seeds. Water with a fine mist until the tubes are all fully soaked top to bottom, and there is a persistent puddle at the low end of the tray. Keep it moist – a layer of saran wrap is a good idea if the weather is warm and dry.

In this example, the tall, strappy yellow-green seedlings are Swiss chard. The broader leafed ones at the front are radishes.