Habitat-Building and a Mystery Solved

Photo of garden path with stick fence

 

I cut back the old lilac that came with my property. It may be fifty years old, and had gotten leggy, ungainly, sparse below the crown, barely blooming. Old-fashioned lilacs are basically a one-act shrub, pretty and fragrant in spring, offering little the rest of the year. They typically (that leggy habit) aren’t dense enough to shelter birds for nesting, they don’t produce food for wildlife, and they don’t have fall color.

But the trunks and limbs of this one gave me material to finish out the above section of my stick-fence border.

Reusing fallen and pruned off debris does great things for habitat-building. The stacked wood makes instant shelter for your insects. Ants will gladly colonize here—and ants are huge consumers of insect eggs, newly hatched worms and grubs, slug eggs…pretty much anything they can eat as individuals or en masse. Our healthy ecosystem depends on the work of ants, which in turn are food for important bird species, like the Pileated woodpecker, and for many other creatures, including bears.

As the wood at the bottom of the pile breaks down, it provides the best slow-release fertilizer of all. The elevation of the pile, slight as it is, creates a lee side, sheltered from wind and temperature-moderated, making for a microclimate where plants appropriate to your zone thrive, and outliers may survive. The height of the bed also lets perennials planted there put down deep roots. And all of the bed’s material feeds the trees nearby.

Finally, spongy soil and leaf cover make their immediate environment water-retentive. Water-retentive means, in good time, water independent. And that is the crux of restoring habitat, of reversing severe drought patterns in our changing weather.

 

 

Photo of hickory sapling

 

For years I had a good stand of milkweed growing along my garage wall. A couple of summers ago, the milkweed started to deform, becoming stunted and yellowed, and dying off, to be replaced by goldenrod. Goldenrod is wind-sown, as is milkweed, so where the wind blows against a wall is a where you’ll find volunteer wildflowers (and trees).

The above hickory sapling (squirrel sown) was one I’d been cutting off when it reappeared each year. I can’t dig the roots because they’re tucked under an old yew trunk. But I thought keeping it cut back would kill it in time. Instead, it steadily built roots and shot up four feet tall this year. But that solves the mystery of what was killing the milkweed.

Hickories are related to walnuts, and their roots produce juglone. If you have a big lawn and want to covert it to habitat, hickories and black walnuts are fine to plant, both important native trees in eastern oak/hickory forests, which are declining. You just need to pick a corner for your hickory patch, and look up surrounding plants to install that are unbothered by juglone.

However, if you get hickory seedlings sprouting in your flowerbeds, or along any walls, ditches, fencerows, that you want nature to plant for you, it’s a good idea to root them up quickly.

In other tree news, my sweetgum is showing the full range of colors, from dark burgundy, to red, to yellow, that sweetgums are famous for. All these years, it turned only yellow in the fall, and I’d even surmised it was a cultivar that just didn’t color up. The answer must be that the Bradford pear growing next to it, which I had cut down this year, was taking up nutrients the sweetgum needed. Another good reason to replace a Bradford pear with something nicer!

 

The Time Is Now

Photo of springtime flowers in circular planters
Photo of emerging crocus

 

A few cheerful pictures from my old garden. I’d forgotten how nicely the trout lilies (Erythronium) spread themselves. I haven’t grown them for years.

And that is my theme today. As I said in an earlier post, I had two trees cut down, a dead ash and a Bradford pear. I have space now to add new trees, and I’ve ordered several shrubs, mostly native to the midwestern U.S. Here are the ones I’m adding: Red-twig Dogwood, Blue lacecap Hydrangea, Smooth Sumac, Elderberry, Nannyberry (viburnum), Clethra, Blueberry, Aralia, Ilicium, a climbing rose called Fruity Petals, and an arborvitae called Tater Tot.

Of trees, I’m planting two apples. I had an apple tree in my old garden. I didn’t spray, so the apples were scabby and coddled (bored by the larvae of the coddling moth), and attacked by apple maggots. But they were usable, if peeled and cut free of brown spots. I put bags of apple chunks away in the freezer, to make pies and cobblers with.

The tree was a Golden Delicious. The flavor of home grown apples is always above comparison to store bought, although store bought have improved a lot in the 21st century. Golden Delicious used to be sold at the grocery, but I feel like I haven’t seen them for years. Anyway, 2022 is a fine year to plant those things that require waiting for. If you’ve been wanting fruit trees, or blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, grapevines, whatever, it won’t help to put off planting them. You’ll only wait that many more years for a harvest.

Also, slow-starting perennials with worthwhile flowers, like peonies, or plants that naturalize and look beautiful in swaths, like Virginia Bluebells, will only get to their high point if you give them a start. Also, and most imperative, your habitat project, if you’ve been planning one.

Our world has had tough times, and the future is uncertain. In the garden at least, it’s time to get the ball rolling, so you can be pleased with yourself in two or three years, and in the meantime look forward happily.

 

Old and New Ways of Gardening for Nature

This year I’m getting a great display from this fancy daylily, the variety name of which I’ve never noted down. Now that I’m writing about the garden, I’ll have to be more meticulous in labeling, so I can share that information. 

I made this watering place with the first intention of keeping deer away from the bog tubs. I don’t mind if they drink out of them, but they do some clumsy damage wending through my container plantings, knocking pots over. What I have is a ceramic tub, with an upside-down 12-pk of planting cells, such as are used to start seeds, and then a concrete paver on top. One thing I hadn’t expected is that the concrete would saturate. Tiny insects have been landing on top of the paver and drinking from the surface. With an arrangement like this, mosquito larvae can be dumped and the tub refilled.

With the bog tubs, and their mini-ecosystems, I don’t do anything about mosquitoes. The tubs only support about two inches of water above the accumulated soil mass, and the sparrows pick the larvae out of the shallows to feed on. Birds we like, swifts, martins, our endangered migrants, orioles and warblers, etc., eat mosquitoes, either adults, larvae, or both, and depend on them to a degree.

Did you know that honeybees and wasps drink water? So do several other beneficials.

Now, going back to the 90s, when I started gardening, the organic world still touted pest control as an unquestionable thing. If you saw caterpillars, you wanted them gone—as you were taught. The magazines featured pests of the month and how to eradicate them; the catalogs that sold organic supplies offered poisons to kill insects, chemicals to destroy fungi…in those days, even glyphosate was sometimes recommended as a herbicide. Little rings containing Bt, bacillus thuringiensis, were and are sold to place in tubs and ponds. Bt is fatal to moth and butterfly larvae; there is not much evidence that it kills bees, though adults drinking water from Bt-containing ponds must be thought to carry it back to the hive. [From Bee Culture magazine, a good survey article on mosquito control and threats to bees.]

Aside from changes of water, duckweed is another poison-free method for controlling mosquitoes. If you wonder what’s wrong with duckweed, other than aesthetics (I think it looks fine, myself), it consumes oxygen at night, and can deplete a pond where fish are kept (but in rare circumstances). On the other hand, goldfish and koi will eat duckweed. If you have a large pond, an aerator will keep the surface too choppy for the mosquitoes to lay eggs, and aerators that run on solar are easy to find. 

And since we don’t know what’s drinking out of our water features, and we want to supply water to as many creatures as need it, no kill methods, leaving out even treatments said to be organic, are best.

A book I’m reading, and recommend, if you want to make your backyard a habitat. The author explains both why and how to design a native planting scheme, which you can adapt to your preferences and inherited plants. (I’ve written about my callery pear, its good, bad, and weird points. But it belongs to the yard, and the wildlife gets a lot of use out of it; the huge oaks, however, are the real anchors to my patch of the natural world.)

Tallamy’s contention is chiefly this: that each of us who has a piece of this land is already empowered to link it to a national habitat, each little patch doing its work to sustain what America no longer has the human-free areas to guarantee without our help.