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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 series of posts begins with pictures taken on August 28, 2012. A new client and a Big New Project! Let’s call it Little Yellow House… and please watch these pages for a continuing series of updates.

Above: the house from the street, facing north. Dominating the picture is an old silk tree (Albizia sp.) which is now reaching the end of its life. One of the most important early issues of this project is that this noble giant has to be removed, because it is seriously infected by a fungus that has taken advantage of the tree’s weakness during recent dry years after the automatic sprinklers failed some years back.

In the foreground a large wisteria bush forms a rounded hump to the left of the light pole. Like the rest of the garden, this wisteria has been allowed to fend for itself for many years. It has sent out dozens of long sinewy shoots that have twined together to form this rather large mound.

At the base of the light pole to the left of the blue mailbox, a small streetside strip contains agapanthus, sweet alyssum and red-flowering stonecrop (Sedum sp.).

As beautiful as it may be with its spreading form, the silk tree’s leaves are turning yellow. Not only is it doomed by disease, but this tree has seriously hampered the vegetation below by shedding vast quantities of its finely divided leaves and flowers which cover the plants below, preventing them from fully absorbing what light gets through its own foliage.

In nature, this habit of dropping leaves and flowers benefits the silk trees by suppressing undergrowth and creating a special ecosystem of leaf mould and decomposition critters, but here in this garden we want a much more varied ecosystem.

Yes, sadly, the silk tree must go.

Above: Looking north-northeast from the south corner, in front of the wisteria is a sweet little mugo pine. In front, purple daisies and some stray wisteria runners. Some serious pruning needed here, but this south corner of the garden will be one of the easiest areas to handle.

Above; looking west from the street end of the driveway, the wisteria bush is at the left edge of the picture in the background. Just in front of the wisteria but behind the front walkway is a wildly overgrown section containing some daisy bushes and a whole lot of grass, under which are some struggling decorative wild strawberries (Fragaria sp.) that are invisible in this picture.

Below the silk tree’s branches in front of the house is an area containing old, deeply entrenched clumps of agapanthus and butterfly iris, running from the right foreground into the center background. Both of these are species that can eventually take over large areas of garden space, highly drought-tolerant and unfortunately rather invasive if left untended.

In the larger center front section are lots of violets and various other plants adapted to the part shade of the silk tree. As we shall see, there are a whole lot of far more troublesome plants here that are yet to be revealed. Just wait until I get a chance to start watering!

Above: looking southwest from the end of the driveway. In foreground at right, healthy but highly invasive agapanthus clumps. Behind them, violets and more. Further back, the overgrown section with daisy bushes and grass in front of the wisteria bush. At left, extending back along the sidewalk in the early morning shadow of the parked car, two streetside strips. The closer one contains purple trailing lantana struggling to survive in the dry, sun-blasted conditions near the street. Other kinds of “weeds” and grass also compete for that space.

Above: at the base of the mailbox, a small streetside strip containing lush carpets of sedum and some white-flowering sweet alyssum with a few more purple trailing lantana. There is also more agapanthus in there too. In the back, the overgrown, grassy area in front of the wisteria and to the right of the mugo pine.

Above: a closer look at the overgrown area in front of the wisteria mound. It is early afternoon by now, and I have already removed a lot of the tallest grass stems. Wild strawberries are now visible at the base of the daisy bushes. At far left, an agapanthus in the front strip displays a tall stalk with white flowers.

Next: we visit the back yard.

Surprise! We have a new name and an exciting new company is born. At last, the ecosystem art gardening projects are coming together as one entity. “Deep nature gardens” describes who we are, what we do, and what we create.

By the way – the old name “one green stone” and its old URL will still work. But from now, the blog’s main URL is http://deepnaturegardens.com.

Stay tuned for more great new developments!

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?

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!

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.