Tuesday, July 17, 2012

a lifestyle garden

Several years ago, our house was on a garden tour sponsored by a local nursery. We were very flattered to be a part of this tour. The organizer of the garden tour and owner of the nursery wrote a description of each garden, including a title and a blurb summarizing the garden and the experience. He called our yard a “Lifestyle Garden”.

I had never heard this term before nor have I seen it since. Initially I was puzzled by the term and thought it was almost an insult or relating to us having an “alternative” lifestyle or something.
However, the more I thought about it, I thought this title was really fitting and since then it has really stuck with me. I was proud of this title, and it seemed like a really unique label for our garden and what we were trying to accomplish. I liked it. I also thought this title must in some way be a reflection of how unique my wife and I are.
But we are not unique, nor anymore unique than anyone else. However, we have done what few others do, that is really personalize our garden by trying something different and something that reflects our interests, beliefs, and yes, our lifestyle.
 After some more thinking, I thought that every garden is a "lifestyle garden". But is it? Since that time, I have come to realize that is exactly what is wrong with many gardens and why people want to change them- they didn’t reflect the lifestyles of their owners.
Too often, gardens are a reflection of something or someone else, and some other person’s lifestyle, or an interpretation of what someone’s garden should look like. That is one of the reasons many gardens look the same despite climate differences, regional differences, and certainly the differences in the owners.

Before my wife and I first meet any of our garden coaching clients, we ask them to fill out a survey to help them articulate what their goals are and what they want to do in their garden. Through this process we can begin to understand the clients’, as we say, “wants and needs”, and ultimately help them to create a garden that suits them. In essence, what we try to do is make everyone’s garden their lifestyle garden. I think the best gardens capture someone’s personality and by creating a garden that is a reflection of you and your lifestyle and you will enjoy it, use it more, and feel at home.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Our Garden on the Evening News

We are excited to have our garden featured on this week's Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Outdoor Report. These brief videos are weekly news reports about Montana's great outdoors. This segment is a little different than most, since it is about backyard gardening, but we think Winston Greely did a great job making the connection between your landscape and nature. We thank him for putting together a great video introducing people to the concept of using native plants to create wildlife habitat in their own yards.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Insect collection update: the year of the Bombus

Indiscriminate cuckoo bumble bee (Bombus insularis)
Last year I started an insect collection in order to document (and learn) all the insects visiting our garden. This project has been so much fun and such a rewarding endeavor.  I am constantly amazed by the abundance and diversity of insects using our garden, and I am always fascinated by the ecological interactions going on in our little yard.

Last year I was obsessed with bee mimics- a variety of species, genera, and families that mimic bees and wasps.  The ecology of these animals, and deception they employ, are really fascinating.  This year, I am fascinated by bumble bees (Bombus species)- the gentle giants of Hymenoptera. 

There has been a lot written about many pollinators, and even bumble bees in particular.  Many species of bumble bees have declined for a variety of reasons- and many of them are the usual suspects- habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, etc… but another thing that intrigues me about bumblebees and their conservation is their nesting requirements.  This relates directly to conventional landscaping.  Bumblebees nest in the ground in underground burrows, so, more than anything, they need access to the ground: bare dirt they can burrow in to. This behavior puts them at odds with lawns, which cover most landscapes.

Bumble bees are not alone in being affected by lawns, indeed most of our native bees (over 75%) nest in the ground. However some species nest above ground in hollow cavities- holes formed by woodpecker drilling, from other insects boring into trees and even in hollow stems of plants like milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). These are the cavity nesting bees, like mason bees (Osmia species), that nest in bee boxes. For our other native bees (like bumble bees), bare ground is what they need. But unlike most of our native bees, which are solitary nesters, bumble bees are social and live in colonies.

The original mason bee box
Everyone likes bumble bees, and along with ladybird beetles and butterflies they are probably the best known insects in the garden (and most liked). But I realized I knew very little about them, despite that they are large, colorful, and easy to observe. Surprisingly, bumble bees can be hard to identify, and this speaks to their social nature and community structure. Within a species, males, workers and queens are often very differently colored, and are even present at different times of the year. Combined with the fact that there are local variations and over 20 species in west-central Montana, even though they are large and easily observed (and captured) they can be tough to identify.

So far I have collected and identified 12 species in our garden. Most of these are pretty common species, perhaps with the exception of the western bumble bee (B. occidentalis). Though locally common, the western bumble bee is in decline throughout its range and has even been locally extirpated, making it a species of concern throughout its range now. Historically they ranged from the Pacific coast east into Rockies and south to New Mexico.

Although several guides and resources are available, there is no one guide that is perfect for species found here in Montana.  As a result, in order to identify bumble bee species  I have been using a combination of guides including this key from Discover Life,  a guide to Bumble Bees of the Western United States by the US Forest Service, a guide to bumble bees in North America by bumblebee.org  and other online resources, like bugguide.net.  Even with all these resources I still have some questions, and I still have a couple of specimens I have yet to satisfactorily identify.  This is not to scare people off- it is a lot of fun learning about them and identifying them and many are actually quite easy to identify.  One of my best references has become my own insect collection.

The interesting thing is all the diversity that is out there, and all the interesting behaviors and ecology.  And all this can be found in your own backyard, provided you remove some lawn, plant some native plants, and take a look at what happens. So, last year, for me it was all about the mimics, and this year, bumble bees have my interest. Fortunately, there are hundreds of more species in my garden to keep my attention for years to come.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Some other things flowering in the garden

Grand collomia (Collomia grandiflora)
The garden is both nearing its peak of blooms and drying our from the hot weather that is normal for this time of year.  As I've mentioned, we don't water anything in our garden- except our vegetables (we only water food), so as a result, the garden is ever changing and always seems appropriate and in-line with what is going on around us.  That is, as the hills around Missoula dry up and turn a beautiful golden, so do parts of our garden, and it is nice. It feels and looks natural and appropriate for our climate and sense of place.
A sweat bee (Agopstemon sp.) gathers pollen from a three-veined fleabane (Erigeron subtrinervous)
Nevertheless, between March and October, there is always something flowering, and a lot of interesting things going on in the garden.  And certainly a lot more interesting and natural than an emerald green lawn in the middle of July.
Blue harebell (Campanula rotundafolia)
Here I try to document a few of the things in flower now- but this changes pretty quickly, too.  All too often I have tried to write posts about what is flowering now, but I abandon them when I realize they are quickly out of date!  So, here is a look at what is flowering now in the garden, or at least a few days ago!
Blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)
Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)
The grand collomia and the back of the potting bench match
Grand collomia and a fleabane
Evidence of leaf cutter bees (Megachiladae)- they are stealing our Wood's rose (Rosa woodsii)
Leaf cutter bees are busy taking parts of our leaves for their nests.  This is not truly herbivory, since they are not eating it per se, my wife calls it Herbo-kleptocism.
Blue harebells, Erigeron and nodding onion
Nodding onion (Allium cernuum)

A sweat bee (Augochlora sp.) pollinates a fleabane.
A mason bee (Osmia spp) in one of the waning Wilcox's penstemon (Penstemon wilcoxii)
Happy 4th of July!  A two tailed swallowtail enjoys a  rest on a goldenrod in our garden (Photo credit: wife of Wildlife Gardener)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Progress on the Project List and Pictures from the Garden

I crossed another project off my list a couple of weeks ago, by extending an urbanite path past our hammock and our tool shed out to the alley (on the left side int he photo above).  Frankly, even though I had this on my list, I never really expected to do it this year. 

I think this and the potting bench really improved this part of our garden. Below is a picture before the urbanite path and the potting bench.
And, this picture shows the difference- the potting bench really separates the rooms and the urbanite path directs your eye to what is around the corner.
The path out to the alley (and the tool shed) is much better defined and interesting now.
Our little cat Junebug (if you recall the reigning 2011 Cat of the Year) even helped.  In her last days, I took her outside to enjoy some sun while I worked on this.  Junebug, like all our cats, was an indoor-only cat, and when she'd go outside with me she would just sit by me and sleep.  I think in her own way, she enjoyed being out in the sun participating in a garden project.
And speaking of garden projects, check out my friend Amber's blog- watch as she converts her lawn and yard into a native plant garden and beautiful vegetable garden.

So, to recap, here is my list of garden projects for 2012:
  • Make a three bin composter-
    • Done- here is a link to  more information about the composting station.
  • Prune the white clematis on the arbor behind the shop 
    • Done!
  • Install a nest box camera inside the nuthatch box.
    • Done!
  • Move the apple tree to the north east corner of the vegetable garden so its gets more light and water.
  • Moving the apple tree will require relocating the rain barrel and path, then a little re-landscaping in the new and former location
  • add a little fence or wall between the outdoor dining room and the hammock area 
  • Continue my insect collection
    • Ongoing, and still enjoying the heck out if it.
  • Connect the urbanite path in the back all the way to the alley. 
    • Done!
Still to do in 2012
  • Install power out to the greenhouse.  This has been on my list for a few years, whether I write it down or not.
  • Add some more shrubs to the front of the house- I've been working on this for a couple of years and I think it is starting to come together.
  • Replace urbanite in front of the greenhouse and on the side yard that has settled too low. Replace it with larger chunks. It became painfully obvious last year that these low spots were too annoying to live with (it turns out, it was easier than I thought it would be to ignore this!)
  • Build a fence in the front yard- I keep forgetting this.  Kind of a big project, maybe I'll save it for the Spring 2013.
While working in the garden, I do take some time to look around and see what is going on. Here are just a few pictures of what's blooming in the garden now. We are probably a week away from things being at their peak, and right now a lot is flowering.
Yarrow (Achellia millefolium) and hairy false goldenaster (Heterotheca vilosa)are starting to bloom- I think of these as summer (or late summer) flowers.
Showy milkweed (Aesclepias speciosa) is starting to open- one of my favorites.
Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) is beginning to show itself
It's been a big year for Clarkia (Clarkia pulchella), in our garden but also on the hills around Missoula.
The fleabanes (Erigeron speciosus and E. subtrinervous) are really starting to bloom

Everyone enjoys a fleabane including this scarab beetle (Trichiotinus assimilis)- a bumble bee mimic.
For whatever reason our mountain hollyhocks (Iliamna rivularis) are blooming their heads off- it is quite a show, but I also wonder if this might be these plants last big hurrah.

Our green roof provide us with striking, if not unexpected, views from inside the house.