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 Value of Gardening

 

If you’re a gardener, you probably know:

Echinacea/Coneflower, Dianthus/Carnation, Salvia/Sage, Digitalis/Foxglove…

In short, you have a mental database of botanical Latin and common name combinations. You can probably, given only a Latin name, identify a plant’s characteristics: tomentosa (hairy), lutea (yellow), glaucous (covered in a bluish “bloom”, as the skin of a blueberry), etc. You know dozens of tools and their uses, and each one’s superiorities for particular jobs. You know the components of healthy soil, and what various additives do to improve bad soil. You know seasonal harvest and flowering times; you know “winter interest” plants, such as red-twigged dogwood. You know design rules, as employing the color wheel, and using odd numbers. You know plant diseases and infestations, and the debating points about how to deal with them. (I am in the leave it alone, and get rid of the plant if necessary, camp.) You know how to start seeds, make cuttings, which plants divide well and which don’t. You can probably solve problems calling for the construction of fences, drainage channels, even small storage buildings. And you know a lot about habitat, what you need to add, of native plants and features, to make homes for wildlife. You can identify several bird species, and routinely consult references to be sure of new visitors. (And you have an entire sub-database of where to look up things you don’t know.) You know reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. You keep up with what’s coming out in the new planting season, in perennials, shrubs, and annuals. 

Of course, gardening involves physical workouts and being outdoors in the fresh air. As we get older, we think about ways to stay healthy and retain our brainpower. Aside from the push to save the planet, that has inspired so many new gardeners, there is this all-around “staying in the game” that gardening provides.  Which makes us better Earth citizens, and better agers.

 

 

This is not a dead log, but a mini-habitat, with its own population of fauna. It has lichen, moss, mushrooms. It probably has insects, in the crevices of the bark, and certainly bacteria everywhere.

That’s why nurse logs (and junior nurse logs) are important in creating a replication of the natural forest environment, as nearly as we can in our yards.

 

 

From last summer. This is poison ivy. Some tiny bug has turned the leaves into these crumply pimpled things, demonstrating that all residents of an ecosystem use and are used, and even nuisance plants and animals belong.

 

 

I bought this succulent at Walmart, and I don’t know what it is. But it started dropping leaves, and each leaf had roots coming out. (See the not-very-focused photo below.) Wherever the plant is native to, it must rely on this alternative reproduction, either when it reaches a level of maturity, or when it feels stressed. 

 

Snowdrops

Photo of snowdrop bloom
Photo of ice on tree
Photo of raked-off flower bed

 

Our weather was icy and snowy for a week or two; then, this Wednesday (2/24), the temperature got close to 70F. The forecast, going ahead, calls for 40s and 50s well into March. If nothing changes, that means we’re still having a warm winter, with only a handful of nights in the single digits, and no daytimes with the high in the teens.

For gardeners, the holiday (or celebratory) season is approaching: Time to Start the Seeds. But it needs holding off until the end of March, since the bigger the seedlings get, the more room we run out of indoors. Plus, the tenderest annuals aren’t safe planted out until late May. Last May, we had a nasty mid-month cold snap. I subsist meanwhile on YouTube gardening videos, and plant catalogs, of which there are fewer than there used to be.

This year, I’m trying a bunch of things that I’ve never found seeds for in the past. Pelargoniums, Hens and Chicks, Begonia, Sarracenia (pitcher plant) and Ginseng. Then, all my usual favorites. I’ll blog later on about the success or failure of the odd ones. As seen above, I tried snowdrops this year for the first time, and they’ve come up to bloom in February, as advertised. The second picture shows some of the magical sparkle of the ice storm in bright sunshine, but the camera couldn’t showcase the effect altogether.

The third picture shows a chore that needs doing as soon as the bulbs nose up, and perennials put up their first leaves; if, like me, you let nature shelter your beds with tons of free mulch. Even though we might have more winter weather, frigid temps at night, and snowstorms (looking less likely, though), it’s important to get the leaves raked down to a nice thin layer. Once they begin to decompose, they will stick tight to each other and make a mat that keeps off light, water, and air, so most leaves need collecting and composting in late February/early March. But your perennials and hardy bulbs are adapted to cold, so they will get on with the business of growing, once you’ve exposed them to the open air.