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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?

It was right out there, hanging in the sky at sunrise like a fantastic fractal tapestry. Another storm cell passing through as an early Pacific low comes ashore. Last night we had an amazing thunderstorm with some of the heaviest rain I’ve seen in years. The weather patterns have definitely shifted, at least for this week.

Ah! It was so beautiful to sip hot coffee and watch the display evolve.

You can see much more of this excellent natural show with nice big pictures over at clear display blog.

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.

At the beach at San Gregorio, on the northern California coast, the driftwood zone extended far into the sandy upper beach. Here there was a huge old log, partly buried in the sand. At the big end there was a hole, and in the hole, there were spider webs.

No one will ever know the type of spider, the number of them, or their prey.

This sheltered little nook, surrounded by rocks, is in full shade most of the time. During one of the rare times when the sun reaches this corner, the camera caught these sweet little liverworts in the process of covering the damp ground.

Liverworts are among the most primitive land plants on the planet. They first grew on land some 472 million years ago, during the mid-Ordovician, before the first animals crawled out of the water. The Wikipedia article has lots of fascinating details.

Little more than flat sheets of cells, these ground-hugging, bright green shapes are not actually leaves, although they may look like them. Each “leaf” is called a thallus, a word for a more or less undifferentiated plant body. Together, they are called thalli.

In the above close-up, you might be able to make out the fine, stippled texture of the surface of the thalli. The tiny raised dots are the reproductive structures. When there is liquid water, the plants release motile male cells, which swim through the water to the waiting female ova. The liverworts also reproduce prolifically by vegetative division and growth, rapidly covering the ground in good conditions.

A nearby rock has some patches of nice green moss and some light gray lichen thalli. Both are also quite primitive. The moss is more advanced than the liverwort, bearing leaflike bracts on tiny stems, while the lichen is a symbiotic combination of algae and fungus.

Look around in sheltered, moist undisturbed parts of your garden. Are there any liverworts? They are a sign of a healthy micro-ecosystem.

One of the interesting features of the ecogarden under construction at Elizabeth’s place is the presence of chickens.

Aside from being a steady source of manure, they also roam the yard frequently, scratching around for worms and beetles and such. You can bet this activity will have a huge impact on the garden’s ecosystem!

Frankly, this is a challenge. As an ecogardener, I take great delight in undisturbed micro-landscapes. Sweet carpets of leaves or moss are just plain impossible in a chicken zone.

I can’t exclude the chickens, but I can introduce design elements that restrict their influence.

It’s pretty hard to scratch around in the ground when there are lots of angular rocks. With hills and valleys including rough stone walls and piles of rocks, they can be restricted to a smaller part of the garden. The crevices in the rocks will turn into unique, dynamic little microgardens.

Some of the flatter areas can be liberally sprinkled with rocks of many sizes, once the basic shape of the landscape has been created. I see irregularly shaped areas of densely scattered rocks, conforming in some way to the shape of the landscape. Will the chickens prefer not to scratch among so many rocks? Delicate, interesting plants might survive there.

Isn’t she a pretty girl?

Another design element is the choice of planting. We can experiment with different kinds of tough-seeming plants, expecting the birds to tear up some or all of them. What survives, builds the new ecosystem.

The end product would be a kind of shrubby, rocky meadow with hills and valleys marked off by low stone walls. The undisturbed crevices in the walls feature lots of interesting plants. There can be an open pile of rough rocks, where many kinds of creatures can take shelter, plus a log pile where a different collection of animals can live. The chicken’s scratched-in dirt depressions would be visible under the bushes in the flatter areas, contributing to an overall rough, lived-in feel.

Template for a chicken-resistant zone?

It is essential that the chicken’s freshly dug dirt holes must fit seamlessly into the overall artistic effect. It cannot be contrived – the chickens must be allowed to create the art, while we plant, design, and build around them. Eventually there will be areas where they do not go. Where they do scratch around, the local flora will be adapted and healthy by natural selection.

What kinds of California native plants do you suggest for this part-shade shrubby meadow with rocky hills and valleys, where the chickens roam free? Please add your ideas in the comments!

Next: after a summer break, we return to Elizabeth’s garden

This post is part of a series documenting the design and installation of an ecogarden at Elizabeth’s place. Here some previous posts in the series:

Elizabeth’s new ecogarden

taming the giant lavender

putting in a redwood walkway