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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?

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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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.

The first nasturtium bloom of the season is open, blazing in crimson glory in the morning sun. The photo does not begin to do justice to the velvety richness of the actual flower.

It’s not visible in the pictures because it ran away down into the neck of the flower when I surprised it, but there is a yellow crab spider here too. The flower has only been open a few hours, and already the little spider has found it – a perfectly matched flower to hide in.

Nasturtium flowers are edible, with a sharp, peppery flavor. They are great in salads. But don’t chop up these gorgeous little beauties! They need to be strewn on top, or added as a colorful garnish alongside. Throw in some blue and purple pansies for a true work of edible salad art!

While this amazing flower was posing for the camera, another bright red being came along. A spotted lady-beetle stopped by to lay some eggs on the bean sprouts. They are welcome there, because her babies are incredibly voracious aphid gobblers.

The presence of small critters like lady-beetles, aphids, and crab spiders is a good sign that a garden has a healthy local ecosystem.

Bring on the aphids, this garden is ready!