Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Cat of the Year...

Alex named 2009 Cat of the Year at Marler-Schmetterling Household!

Alex (pictured above, humbled by the honor, with June in the background overcome with joy, and cheering him on).

He won by a unanimous vote, trouncing Natalie,
and June. Never one to take anything for granted, Alex was astonished by the honor of this award. When told of his victory, he humbly acted like he did not even know what we were saying. His lack of pretentiousness is refreshing. He does not expect much in life, probably because of his modest beginnings.

An innocent victim of an animal hoarder, Alex was surrendered to the Bitterroot Humane Society a few years ago, where he was promptly shaved and treated for various ailments. As a bald, adult cat who does not purr, he did not get much attention at the Humane Society. After seeing many of his peers get adopted during his year at the shelter, he withdrew and suffered from depression. He was placed in foster care where he received special attention. We fell in love with his picture on line and adopted him soon after.
Unflappable, Alex is the glue that keeps the cat family together: he likes all three of his housemates and does not buy in to the often petty politics and resentments so common in housecats. Beneath his calm demeanor, Alex enjoys classic games like "Chase" and "String." He is a little bit of a renaissance man. He can play Chase by himself, or with the other cats, even if they don't know they are playing a game.

Alex is a Turkish Angora cross, and we think he feels a little ostracized by our registered Himalayan (Squeak) and purebred Persian (June). However they were both rescued from shelters, too, so we don't understand why they have such snobby attitudes. He is not the biggest cat (Natalie is nearly twice his size), not the oldest cat (Squeak, at 16, is 8 years his senior), not the newest cat (June). He is not the fluffiest (Squeak), nor is he the fanciest (June and Squeak are tied). As a result, many of our friends forget about him. Nevertheless, he has important jobs- he greets everyone that comes into the house, he eats anything yet does not beg for table scraps (I hope June is reading this). We are glad to take this opportunity to recognize his achievements.
Alex has put together a remarkable year: he was our least expensive cat this year (Natalie's synthetic body wall surgery will keep her ahead in that department for a while), was a great sport about June joining the cat family, and carried out his aforementioned duties without a single complaint (it is almost as though he doesn't even know he has these jobs).

June did pretty well in the voting, too, but her litter box habits are not going to win her any prizes.

Visit your local humane society or donate to ours! in Missoula and in the Bitterroot.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Backyard birding: a year in review

Having wildlife in my backyard is one the greatest rewards from native plant gardening. One easily quantifiable indicator, of the "success" of our garden is the number and diversity of species of birds that use our yard and variety of uses they have for our garden.

Although it is obviously difficult to ascribe the abundance and diversity of birds using our yard to native plant landscaping (their are no controls or replicates in this study), I look back to our previous home just five blocks away- a house we rented, and did not landscape. There we were only able to attract a few species; house sparrows, pigeons, house finches and European starlings. Our current home is in the same neighborhood, same ecotype, same proximity to natural areas, etc...but we have landscaped our yard with wildlife in mind.

Compared to the past few years, we changed little in our garden in 2009, the exception from a backyard birding standpoint is that we have been feeding less and less (click here for my feelings on this). We have cut back and stopped feeding black sunflower seeds- they tended to draw in undesirable species like house finches and squirrels (read more about squirrels here), and instead the only feed we provide is suet (click here for our conventional and unconventional feeders) and hummingbird feeders seasonally.
Here are a few highlights from 2009:
  • 40 species of birds used our yard this year. In total we have had about 60 species use the yard over the last 10 years (here is the list). Some exceptions this year were red polls (haven’t seen them in a while, and not since a "cold" (read: normal) winter, blue jays (don’t know why), and many species of warblers (though I might have missed them between building our greenhouse and training for a couple of marathons).
  • American robins were the first to return (Feb. 16) and the mountain chickadee (Dec. 14) was the most recent arrival.
  • One new species to our backyard bird list- the Brown creeper. Though not an uncommon bird, we had never had one in our yard before.
  • Black capped chickadees had two clutches. Though this happens every year, I still love it.
  • Northern flickers had a clutch. The noteworthy thing about that this year was the the male was a hybrid of two morphs and the female disappeared early on, leaving him to raise the nestlings.

Here is the list of birds in 2009:

Year-round or resident bird species
American Crow
Black-billed Magpie
Black-capped Chickadee
Cedar Waxwing
Dark-eyed Junco* (*fall-spring resident)
Downy Woodpecker
House Finch
Northern Flicker
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Sharp-shinned Hawk
2009 bird arrivals to our garden
Mountain chickadee December 12
Pine siskin October 4
White crowned sparrow October 3
Yellow rumped warbler October 3
Dark eyed junco October 3
House wren August 22
Olive-sided Flycatcher August 16
Hairy Woodpecker August 1
Northern Oriole May 28
Warbling Vireo May 27
Western Wood Pewee May 24
Yellow Warbler May 24
Wilson's Warbler May 23
Western Tanager May 21
American Goldfinch May 20
Gray Catbird May 20
Chipping sparrow May 18
Lincoln's sparrow May 16
Dusky flycatcher May 14
Black-chinned hummingbird May 12
Rufous hummingbird May 10
Ruby crowned kinglet May 2
Calliope hummingbird May 2
Golden crowned kinglet April 29
Bohemian Waxwing March 27
Varied Thrush March 26
Song Sparrow March 22
Brown Creeper March 16
Mourning Dove Feb. 21
American Robin Feb. 16

Monday, December 14, 2009

Where garden projects come to life

With 10” or so of snow blanketing the garden, thoughts have turned toward projects for next year. Looking back on pictures of the backyard (like the one below)- it seems impossible that the garden will look like that again. I do enjoy the different seasons, and despite and smaller color palette, I like all the seasons in the garden. A lot of the reason I enjoy our garden so much outside the somewhat lush spring is because of all the structure and structural elements. There is always something to look at, and even poking up through the snow. Many of these structural elements are natural like the standing or fallen snags, the brush piles, hills, and even seed heads. All this structure is critical for wildlife and adds visual interest year round.

However, a lot of the structure in the garden are projects I have built, for function (like the raised beds, or greenhouse), to define space (like the clothesline screen, arbors and trellises), to benches and chairs to better enjoy the garden or nest boxes for birds to roost in the cold winters and raise their young in the spring.

Though typically in the background of many pictures, my shop (shown above, perhaps the last time it was clean!) is where I spend a lot of time building and planning things for the garden. The shop itself is a prominent element in our backyard, and it carries its share of the native plant and wildlife garden. Affixed to the south side is a red bat house, on the east side is the black capped chickadee house, and covering the north, west and east sides are trellises for climbing native western white clematis (Clematis ligusticifolia).
On the north side of the shop (not pictured) is an arbor that surrounds the overhead door, which a clematis has devoured. This dense thicket is where song sparrows and dark eyed juncos roost in the winters. The roof of the shop supplies water to the rain barrels that provide irrigation to vegetables in the raised beds in front of the shop. The south wall of the garden super-heats the raised bed in front of it where our tomatoes grow.

The shop also creates shade, and even some micro-climates in our native plant landscape. Because of the shade on the east side, we can plant a greater diversity of plants than would otherwise be possible, since we do not water any of our landscape. Some plants that are more water loving, like orange honey suckle (Lonicera ciliosa), side flowered miterwort (Mitella breweri), shrubby penstemon (Penstemon fruiticosa), violets (Viola canadensis), wild lily of the valley (Smilacina stellata) or fern species (I have no idea what species we have) thrive in the shade- a surrogate for water.
Susan, the Bike Gardener inspired me to post some pictures of my shop after seeing her beautiful woodworking shop, and our ensuing discussion on shop heating (you can see the heater aglow, below).This is where most of my gardening takes place this time of the year, and watching the wildlife using our garden from its windows.

Monday, December 7, 2009

winter in the wildlife garden

It is cold and getting colder. Temps are predicted to be around -20 degrees F (not including wind) and highs are forecasted to be in the low single digits for the next few days. And, on top of that, there is the wind. It is below zero now, and it is only getting colder. This is an important time to think about wildlife in the garden.

While working in my woodworking shop yesterday (where it was very warm, by the way), I spent a lot of time watching birds and what they were up to in the garden. It was a lot of fun and gratifying to see the wildlife garden in action. I even braved the cold and -20 degree wind-chill to take some pictures (maybe “brave” is too strong of a word).

Winter roosts
The northern flicker in the photo above has been spending the night in the nest box to escape the cold. This is the same male that excavated the nest box this past spring and raised a clutch in our yard (he has a distinguishable nape crest). Although it is important to clean and fill nest boxes annually, especially ones that you fill with nesting material (see here for information), it is important to leave these boxes empty for the winter and not refill them until February.

Brush piles, bird nesting boxes, snags and rock piles are such important features for a variety of wildlife species in the garden. These elements allow birds and other animals to escape conditions that would otherwise be inhospitable and unavailable in a "clean" yard- that is a yard with only a manicured lawn and some nicely pruned specimen trees.

We don't feed very much, even in the winter by most standards (click here for more information). Our primary feeder is our garden- the seeds, berries, insects and others results of our garden design. For example, downy woodpeckers are spending a lot of time drilling our aspens looking for borers (click here for the fascinating, never ending borer story), and flickers are emboldened by the cold to excavate our anthill in search of cold weary (and defenseless) ant. These are the most reliable and most diverse feeders we have.
Pictured above is a song sparrow sitting on one of our fallen snags eating seeds from an aster. We do feed suet in the winter (click here for directions to build an easy one), and black sunflower seeds though not the latter for some time. Just having suet available for winter birds, seems to attract the fewest pest species.
Knowing what species are likely to visit your feeders is important in determining what to set out as food. Generic “bird food” usually end s up unused or wasted, or attracted non-native or pest species (like eastern squirrel species, European starling, house sparrows or house finches). In our yard, the primary winter birds include black capped chickadees, red breasted nuthatches, northern flickers, dark eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers, and others.
One unconventional feeder that is really effective is a natural suet feeder. Though this might look a little odd to some, a deer, elk or antelope carcass is just what lots of birds love, including chickadees, nuthatches and magpies. This is what store-bought, conventional suet feeders try to imitate. After butchering game, I will usually hang a ribcage in the backyard for birds to peck at and feed on. Yesterday as I watched, the chickadees and nuthatches never went to a typical suet feeder, but rather spent all their time feeding on the deer ribcage. Consider hanging your ribcage for the birds, or if you don’t hunt, and you are interested in adding a conversation piece/ feeder to your yard, stop by a wild game butcher, I am sure they will give you a ribcage.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Greenhouse weatherization, and germination report

The greenhouse has been doing well, especially since we've had a relatively mild fall so far. It has been a lot of fun extending the gardening season- before the greenhouse we would have been long done vegetable gardening by now. Despite the relatively mild fall I have been keeping busy with winterization tasks. I built another cold frame for the other half of the ground bed (see photo below), installed the solar pool cover for insulation (but not how I expected- read below), and activated the compost furnace.

Frankly when I got the solar pool cover I didn't really have a plan to install it. I had only read about them on blogs and greenhouse gardening forums, and it seemed like if you have a greenhouse in Zone 6 or further north, you had better get one. So I did.
To make a long story short I ended up just making storm windows from the pool cover- easily removable and installable panels for the roof (see photo above). I installed the bubbles facing out (with the pool cover installed on the inside of the greenhouse). I purchased a diamond clear 12 mil pool cover, essentially really heavy duty bubble wrap. I chose the 12 mil for a good balance between light transmission and insulation (negative relationship there, unfortunately). As far as I can tell the R value of this cover is about 3 (regular bubble wrap R value is around 1/ inch of thickness). I like this storm window design so much I think I'm going to make frames and install the shade cloth this summer the same way, rather than on the outside like I did last summer- it is really nice and easy to install and looks tidy.
I finally activated the compost furnace, read: filled it with leaves. With just leaves and some water, it is already close to 120 degrees F, and providing heat radiating up into the greenhouse. Ultimately, we are going to try for a C:N ration of about 30:1 to produce more heat. Maybe though we will get closer to 15:1. The leaves we have on hand from street trees will make up the bulk of our Carbon load (along with sawdust from my woodworking shop), and I am on the lookout for some hot manure, chicken, or llama, or something.

All the plants are growing well in the greenhouse, and already we have planted a second and third round of salad greens, and radishes. Also, a new item for the greenhouse is cat grass for our burgeoning population of elderly, slightly defective, used, house cats. Although our newest cat, June (see below, and yes this is a cat, and yes that is a real picture), likes to lick cardboard, I thought I could grow her something more enjoyable to chew. Perhaps next week we will have fresh salad greens and so will our cats.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Greenhouse Winterization, part 2

The transition to the winter greenhouse garden continues....

We removed most of the cold intolerant plants, but kept a few Thai pepper plants that had some flowers and fruits on them, and they are still doing great. Frankly, I was happy to get rid of tomatoes for the year. My wife transplanted the broccoli and brussel sprouts into the ground bed that I started in flats, and she filled the rest of the ground bed with spinach, lettuce, carrots and radishes.

As far as projects to transition to the winter greenhouse, I installed two 55-gallon metal drums filled with water to act as a heat sink and thermal mass, but also to provide water for our watering needs. It was gratifying to fill these from our rain barrels, and this begins the winterizing of our rain barrels and their transition to downspouts for the winter.
Unlike the plastic olive barrels we use for rain water harvesting, the barrels we re using in the greenhouse are metal (for thermal conductance), black (for solar gain), and also act as good shelving and work surfaces. These are reused drums (clean) and are about $20 from Axmen

We’ll see how these work, only having 110 gallons of water will not provide nearly enough BTU’s to maintain the greenhouse above freezing alone, but coupled with other features, hopefully it is enough to provide benefits. Water, though a good heat sink, would need to be in a volume close to 500 gallons, based on the square feet of glazing and insulative value of my greenhouse, to have a significant effect if that was the only thing I was relying on to keep temperatures moderate. If nothing else, however, the metal drums do act as shelving and storage for water.

Other changes for the winter:
I disconnected the solar window opener on the east window, and covered the east and north window with 2” rigid insulation, the silver film will also reflect a bit more light to the greenhouse.
I installed a cold frame over 1/2 of the ground bed (see below). This is essentially a greenhouse inside the greenhouse. We'll see how it works, and I'll probably cover the other half of the ground bed- but right now it is an experiment- stay tuned for temperature data.
Left to do:
Install solar pool cover to south facing glazing
Install storm door
Activate the compost furnace

More posts coming soon...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Western Montana deer resistant native plants

“What can I plant that the deer won’t eat?”
I am commonly asked this question, and I usually try to avoid the topic. Typically when I give talks about wildlife gardening and native plant landscaping, I structure the talks to town-dwellers with urban-ish lots who are looking to turn their little corner of the world into a wildlife heaven. I encourage gardening with nature and with wildlife, not against them.

Inevitably though I am asked how to keep deer and other animals out. Since our own house and garden is right in the middle of town, we don’t have “problems” with deer or visits from bears like many of the residents in Missoula that live adjacent to the forests and hills around town. Frankly,I get pretty annoyed by people who want to keep deer and the other wildlife out of their yards. After all, it is usually the wildlife, and the remoteness of their home that attracted them to the area. Too often though development along the wildland-urban interface leads to struggles with how to exclude wildlife, deal with wildfire and so on. Here in Missoula, the cost of solving these problems ends up being paid by all taxpayers. Living on the urban fringe and working to exclude nature is antithetical to responsible, sustainable living- it is better to live in town, close to services, and let the wildlife and their habitat be. This crap pisses me off.
But, I digress. So as a result, I have not wanted to go there with the question “what can I plant that deer won’t eat”.

Despite my reluctance to broach this topic, I understand the value of learning about deer resistant plants. As deer move further into urban areas, like in Helena or Missoula, deer are longer a problem for the wealthy or those on the urban-wildland interface. So having information for homeowners is a good idea, despite my previous philosophical objections.
After searching through a number of sources, cross referencing recommendations, and based on my observations, I have complied a list of native deer resistant plants. I was amazed by the diversity of plants and how, in general, I have already been preaching the use of these plants. Most of my favorite native landscaping plants are deer resistant. Notable exceptions include quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) and Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis).

The two photos in this post occur elsewhere on my blog (I just used them in a post recently) and are not really special but they illustrate how many common native plants are deer resistant. In the photo above of our front yard, bluebunch wheat grass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), blanket flower (Gaillardia arristata), nodding onion (Allium cernuum), blue flax (Linum lewisii), and shaggy fleabane (Erigeron pumilis), dominate the view and these are all deer resistant. Similarly, in the photo below, the flowers in bloom are goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis), showy milkweed (Aescepias speciosa), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosis) and three-nerve fleabane (Erigeron subtrinervis), again deer resistant.

This list is by no means comprehensive- that is, there are plenty more species and genera that are deer resistant, but this is a good start and covers many of the common (in nature and in commerce) species or genera.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Greenhouse Transition to Winter

With temperatures expected to be around 6° F in the next a few days (yikes!), it is time to transition the greenhouse from summer to winter. Right now, the greenhouse is over filled with Thai peppers, eggplants, basil and tomatoes - all plants that are not too cold tolerant. Some of these plants are in the ground beds in the greenhouse, some are in pots that we had growing outside this summer.

It is still very warm in the greenhouse during the day when the air temperatures have been in the 40's. Our goal is to grow hardy cool season vegetables in the greenhouse in the winter.

When the nights began cooling, I moved our potted eggplants and peppers from outside into the greenhouse and I also dug up and potted many of the Thai peppers we had growing in our outdoor raised beds. This totally filled the greenhouse.

It has been a great summer and start to the greenhouse life, and we are looking forward to more to come. The pepper and basil harvest is so much better inside the greenhouse that next year we probably won’t grow any outside or those that we do, we will grow in pots so we can bring them in when the nights get cool. We did this this year and we got several more weeks out of our peppers.

There is lots to do for the greenhouse for the fall/ winter:
I started seeds for broccoli and brussel sprouts already (see below), these will go into the ground bed, once the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are done. Next up (maybe tonight) I'll start spinach and lettuce that we'll grow in flats on the greenhouse shelves. Later, we'll plant radishes, carrots and the broccoli and brussel sprout starts in the ground bed. I will also make a cold frame for the in ground bed- this will add more insulation for those vegetables (about 10 degrees F, or about 1 zone). I also need to add a solar pool cover for insulation to the glazed south wall, and some metal 50 gallon drums to the north side for water and solar mass. Soon we activate our compost furnace - stay tuned for the results there.

Lots to do, the cold really snuck up on me this year.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I used to have a lawn...

Susan Morrison, of the wonderful Blue Planet Garden Blog, challenged garden bloggers to share their lawnless gardens in a post (here) , to bring attention to, among other things, her "ongoing quest to replace the Great American Lawn with garden". A noble cause. She teamed up with Susan Harris, of Garden Rant and The Sustainable Garden blogs (two of my favorite sites) and other outstanding gardeners to create Lawn Reform a new website that advocates for: Regionally Appropriate Lawn Species, Eco-Friendly Care for all Lawns, Design Ideas to Reduce or Replace Lawns.

This challenge involves a contest, with a prize I want. To enter, write a post on your blog that answers the question: "I used to have a lawn, but now I have…” So, here is my entry...

I used to have a (front) lawn, but now I have an interpretive sign explaining why I don't have a lawn (and, I guess, why you should not either).

Rolling up our lawn was the first thing we did when we moved into this house in 1999.
I used to have a (front) lawn, but now I have a short grass prairie with over 80 plant species native to the Missoula valley It is constantly changing, and interesting all year long.

I used to have a lawn, but now I have shooting stars and arrow leaf balsamroot (photo at the beginning of the post), I used to have a lawn in the backyard, too...
but now we have a vegetable garden surrounded by native plants...
with grasshoppers, and visits by over 50 species of birds.
I used to have a lawn, but now I have prairie crocus,
a greenhouse,
and a blog.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fall in the garden

While not technically fall yet, with nights getting in to the 30's and cottonwood leaves turning golden, fall will be here soon. For a lot of reasons, fall is my favorite time of the year, and it is one of my favorite times in the garden. This is the time of the year I really like our little prairie and the look of many of our plants.

It is easy to like flowers in the garden, everyone does, but this time of the year, the grasses are cured golden brown, and the textures of the different species dominate. It is this time of the year, a lawn-alternative garden is much more interesting to me. Some plants, whose flowers are delicate and beautiful, now looking sinister and uninviting like the wavy leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum, in photos below). In the summer their flowers draw our attention and the attention of butterflies, and in the fall and winter other insects and birds delight in their seeds.
This is a fun time to celebrate the dormancy of plants. Although there my be the temptation to water some plants, try to avoid watering and make a make a native garden something it is not, embrace the changes. This is a fun time of the year to prune, dead head and do some garden maintenance. It is a time to build brush piles for wildlife, and to leave seeds for birds to eats in the winter.
Some recent rains have given new life to some plants. The elkhorn clarkias (Clarkia pulchella) and yellow evening primroses (Oenethera flava) have returned from dormancy and begun flowering (see photo below), some blue flax (Linum lewisii), blanket flowers (Gallarida aristata), and asters (Aster and Erigerion spp.) have also started flowering again.
These small bits of color are made more extreme in contrast to the shades of brown. The browns, though, look and feel more natural this time of year, and give the garden a proper sense of place and season. Bright green irrigated lawns look that much more out of place in the west in autumn.
It is another season to enjoy the garden.