Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Non-traditional hummingbird plants

It is really starting to feel like spring here (until the little blizzard today) and with spring comes the arrival of hummingbirds. In April two really interesting hummingbirds, the Calliope (the smallest hummingbird species in North America) as well as the Rufus (the longest distance migrant of all North American hummingbirds) arrive in our garden. Although the Calliope does not travel as far as the Rufus, which may fly 2,000 miles, both species spend most of the year traveling from their winter locations (as far south as Mexico) to their breeding areas, and that is what brings them to the intermountain west, Montana, and our yard.

Both species follow the Pacific flyway north, following plants as they bloom on the way to their breeding grounds. The timing of the blooms determines the rate at which they migrate, but year after year their returns to a location fall on remarkably similar dates (though getting earlier with climate change). Hummingbirds rely on the presence of these plants and their flowers for survival- they feed on the nectar, and in turn the plants get pollinated.

Many gardeners like to attract hummingbirds to their yards, and why not, they are some of nature’s marvels; them, and my cat, Squeak. Conventionally, many think of hummingbird plants as ones with showy, red, tubular flowers, but that is really not the only case. In fact, many of those flowers are probably not native where you live and may do little to attract hummingbirds to your garden. For example, where I live, hummingbirds arrive in early spring and stay around to nest nearby. The most activity we get is from April- early June and then again when they head back south as the summer ends. When they arrive in early spring they are looking for something to eat. We do set out feeders (see the Calliope on our feeder, above), but it is really the plants that keep them in our yard.

The best way to provide food for hummingbirds and to attract them to your yard is to mimic what is flowering when they arrive. In my area, the arrival of these little travelers coincides with some very non-traditional looking hummingbird plants. However, early spring is crtitical for providing food for hummingbirds. Habitat loss and loss of native plants and the conversion of many of these habitats have reduced their natural foods.
The first to flower here are wax currant (Ribes cereum), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), golden currant (photo at the top of the post, Ribes aureum), Oregon grape (photo above, Mahonia repens), hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), and Jacob's ladder (photo below, Polemonium pulcherrimum), and even shrubby penstemon (photo at the bottom of the post, Penstemon fruiticosa). Not coincidentally, these same early flowering plants (wax and golden currant, serviceberry, and hawthorn, in particular) are important to other birds for their early producing fruits. Because they are the first to flower they are the first to fruit. The fruiting is timed to the nutritional needs of many birds nesting and caring for their nestlings.
Although adults will only feed their young nestlings insects and worms, the adults need the nourishment and easy foraging that fruits provide. Thrushes, robins, spotted towhees, northern flickers and the ever more common blue jays will eats golden current berries in our yard. The fruits of the hawthorn never last long on our tree, and the serviceberry fruits are checked daily by many species of birds for their ripeness, and they are devoured as soon as that point is reached.

Understanding the ecology of plants and animals in your area is the key to successfully attracting and providing for the needs of wildlife. For example, you could plant a grouping of firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) in your yard to attract hummingbirds. But if you live where I do, they will flower in the summer, when hummingbirds are long past. Since they are not native, insects that use the plant are not here, and thus, their utility for wildlife is reduced. If you did live in a place, like near a stream, or in the wooded mountains, where hummingbirds are in July, hummingbirds would use that exotic plant, but they would also like use anything that is flowering, including native plants, and the rewards for wildlife by using native plants are far greater. To plant one plant for a single species of bird or butterfly is ineffective. Think of your yard holistically, and provide a diversity of plants and structure and you will be rewarded with a diversity of wildlife visitors.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ecology of Quaking Aspen in our Yard

The quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) performs diverse and intricate ecological roles in our garden and might be the most important plant for wildlife in our yard. In the wild, quaking aspen occur in a wide variety of habitats ranging from riparian areas to dry hillsides, and in the garden, aspen can be planted in a variety of locations especially if it receives partial shade or water. In our yard, they thrive in the absence of supplemental water- in its place we planted them where they will receive some shade.

In the wild, quaking aspen provide important breeding, nesting and cover habitat, and forage for a variety of birds and mammals. Quaking aspen is host to a variety of insects, some of which are important foods for other animals including woodpeckers. Wildlife species consume nearly every part of aspen at one time of the year ranging from the roots, to shoots to bark and catkins. Because of this, in the wild, it is truly a keystone species in many habitats.

Quaking aspen are native to the Missoula area, though they are probably at the edge of their range. This location can cause stress and make them susceptible to a variety of pests.

Though a beautiful tree, quaking aspen are maligned by many urban foresters because of their tendency to sucker, and for their predisposition to borer beetle infestations. However, borers are just one of the many insects that use the aspen.

Here is how it often goes…In our yard, it might begin with the bald-faced hornet looking for nesting material. The hornets chew the aspen bark, and mix it with their saliva to create their papery nests. The holes they create in the aspen bark allow the aspen borer beetle (see photo above), to easily open up the cambium to deposit the eggs (more on this later…). Bald-faced hornets are big and mean looking, and often mistaken for yellow jackets. Bald-faced hornets are truly beneficial in your garden, and they even pollinate flowers as summer goes on. One of their main prey is yellow jackets and they even lie in wait for them near food sources. You have probably noticed the two species near a food source, but, watch closely, and you may see the bald-faced hornets ambush and kill yellow jackets. Frankly, I am not a huge fan of yellow jackets, so this is pretty neat and gratifying to see.
Back to the borers. Once the adult borer lays its eggs in the bark of the aspen (see photo above, and notice all the pock marks on the aspen bark from bald-face hornet gnawing), the cool stuff really starts to happen. The aspen borers are a type of long-horned beetle (named for the very long antennae in adults- not for horns, unfortunately), and the one we have in our yard is Saperda calcarata, (also called Poplar borer). Some of these insects may reach two inches long, and are very well camouflaged mimicking the texture and colors of aspen bark and fungi (see photo below). The entire life cycle (from egg to adult) takes about three years in our area.
The borer's eggs typically hatch within two weeks, and the newly emerged larvae chew through the bark, where they spend the first year. As the larvae grow, they eat and tunnel through the wood deeper into the heartwood and sapwood for two years. This tunneling produces the bulges and lumps you see in the trunk. All the while, they force coarse shavings, like sawdust out the holes. In the summer, you can literally watch this happen – just look for fresh sawdust at the base of an aspen at follow it up and you will see saw dust emerging from holes in the trunk. If you look closely enough, you may even see the larvae. The chewing and tunneling weakens the tree and allows the invasion of canker and fungi.

The accumulation of saw dust and borings beneath the aspen is home to the chrysalis of several moth species in our yard including the five-lined sphinx moth. Whereas butterfly caterpillars often pupate in a chrysalis that is suspended beneath a leaf or twig, sphinx moth caterpillars burrow into loose, dry duff to pupate. The loose, dry wood shavings the borer larvae produce is perfect for sphinx moth caterpillars to excavated and pupate within. The chrysalises are dark brown to almost black and look nearly dead. If you do find one when you are rooting around, if you watch carefully you might be able to see it move. Just place it back into the ground.

The five-lined sphinx moth, or commonly called a hummingbird moth, caterpillars are specific hosts of the Oenothera flava (yellow evening primrose) in our yard. The giant caterpillars have marking on them that mimic the shape of the narrow, serrated leaves- fantastically camouflaging the 4” caterpillars (see photo below).
As a result of the larvae boring though the tree, the holes “bleed” or produce sap you can see running down the sides of the aspen. This sap is a great food source for a variety of insects, including butterflies. In our yard, the mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa, the Montanan state butterfly) is especially fond of it, and sap is its primary food. The mourning cloak only lays its eggs on twigs or in the shallow cavities of the quaking aspen, or related species, where the adults and caterpillars feed. In addition to butterflies, the sap attracts a variety of other insects from ants to yellow jackets and ultimately bald-faced hornets, which prey on the insects, and the cycle continues.

The presence of the aspen borer in the tree further weakens the aspen making it susceptible to more invasions of aspen beetles. These stresses on the tree also cause it to sucker- which is good because at this point the aspen is on its way to dying (though it make take 6-20 years for the initial trunk to truly die and by then a sucker is there to replace it). Quaking aspen seldom occur individually, and having a cluster of them is not only more natural and more beautiful looking, but it is also a way to provide for its longevity and succession.

In the fall, after about two years of growth, the larvae will move shallower- just beneath the bark, where they pupate during the winter. In February, in our yard, downy woodpeckers will drill into the bark looking for these pupae. In doing so, the woodpeckers drill holes that will create small cavities for insects to hide, lay eggs and even for adult aspen borers to deposit the eggs of a new generation. Once fully developed, the adult aspen borer beetles emerge through a hole in the bark, and spends its adult life mating, and dispersing is eggs to host quaking aspen.

The cavities and holes left by the borers create wonderful places for a variety of insects and spiders to raise their young. In turn, insect eating birds, like warblers, chickadees and others scour the aspens gleaning insects, spider eggs and others from the trunk, crevices and cavities of the aspen.

All this can happen around a quaking aspen in your yard, or, you could use a few types of insecticide and kill the borers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cats and wildlife gardening

"My cats are angels", "they are harmless", "they don'tbother wildlife", and "they don't use the neighbor’s garden as a litter box". These are common remarks people have for their cats, and unfortunately in most cases, at least one the claims is untrue. The only way to ensure your cats are not killing songbirds and defecating in the neighbors raised garden beds is to keep them indoors.

Currently domestic cats are a topic of discussion in Missoula where I live. Although the city ordinance addressing nuisance cats is largely ineffectual, recent discussion has served to bring up conservation and quality of life issues related to free-ranging cats.

Domestic cats that are allowed to roam outside can be a nuisance to neighbors, live shorter, unhealthier lives, and are a threat to wildlife.

There is a misconception that cats must be allowed to hunt and roam free, and any alternative would be cruel to them. Cats are pets and family members to their owners, but to someone other than the owner they can be a nuisance. It is true that not everyone's cat kills birds. Some are inept hunters (I used a have two cats that would run in horror at the sight of a mouse in our house and were traumatized by birds in our backyard), but in a suburban or urban setting, cats can be a real problem. Because of this, our cats do not go outside.

What makes a pet a nuisance?

I think anytime one enters my yard without permission.
People need to recognize that once their cats leave their own home or yard they can be a pest, regardless of whether or not they kill an endangered bird. For example, my neighbor's cat uses the area near my backdoor as a litterbox and the stench is so strong behind my house, it is disgusting to use my backdoor. Furthermore, because of our landscaping, neighbors' cats hunt in our yard. Last fall I saw someone's pet cat kill a flicker.

Indoor cats live longer, healthier lives.

Although the actual numbers vary between studies, an indoor cat lives an average of twelve years, whereas an outdoor cat’s life expectancy is less than five. Apart from the risk of getting hit by a car or killed by a predator (including a neighbor's dog), cats that spend time outside are exposed to a variety of diseases including leukemia, immunodeficiency virus, and rabies.

Pet longevity and general health are reasons enough to keep cats indoors. But as someone that keeps his cats inside, the issue for me is the cumulative effect of all the cats outside on wildlife and what I call neighbor's quality of life.

Conservation problems stemming from cats are not limited to unaltered, feral cats. Spayed or neutered domestic cats are having an enormous, detrimental effect on wildlife in this country. Many have heard the staggering statistics, including:

  • Cats kill an estimated 39 million birds/ state/ year
  • Nationally cats kill over a billion small mammals/ year (these figures do include mice, rats, and other "pests")
  • With the exception of habitat loss, globally, cats are the single biggest cause of the extinction, local population extirpation, and decline of bird species
  • Although results from several studies range widely, a individual cat can kill over 1,000 wild animals per year
  • Only 1 out of 10 free-roamuing rural cats did not kill wildlife in a series of studies
  • Cats effect native predators. Because they can occur in high densities, and are supported by hosts (people) cats can reduce the availability of prey for animals ranging from hawks to weasels
  • Free-ranging domestic cats also transmit diseases to wild animals creating huge conservation issues. Domestic cats have spread feline leukemia to mountain lions and recently infected the endangered Florida panther with domestic diseases.

What can you do?

Keep your cat indoors. Two common strategies declawing or using bells, just don't work. Many declawed cats are still effective hunters, can still climb trees and it is just not a nice thing to do to a cat- especially an outdoor cat. De-clawed cats that are allowed to go outside are at a greater risk of being injured or killed by other animals. Bells are even less effective. Many cats learn how to stalk without making the bell ring, they can get out of their collars, and even if the bell rings, that is often the last sound a bird will hear. If cats must be allowed outdoors, consider using some sort of raceway or fenced enclsure. If you let your cats roam outside, talk to your neighbors, and see how they feel about it- they are likely affected by your decisions.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Avoid straight lines, a simple design tip

Here is an example of a simple design element having a pretty big impact. The photo on top shows the concrete walkway going straight from the house to the garage, bisecting the yard. The problem with a straight path is that your eye follows a straight line really quickly and moves automatically to the end, ignoring everything along the way. This path originally went back to the alley making the problem even more exaggerated, but we removed it a few years before these photos were taken.

By changing the straight path to a simple curve you can add a lot more depth and even a little intrigue. Below it is the same concrete path broken, and rearranged, in a slight curve. The final photo show the landscape a couple of years later, after some plants matured.

It is amazing how simple it is, but how much it adds to the landscape. Plus, supposedly evil spirits will have a harder time getting to your house.

Ant hills and flickers

Wildlife gardening is not just about birds and butterflies, but about other insects that are often ignored or thought of as “pests.” Today I watched a couple of northern flickers excavate one of our ant hills apart looking for ants (see photo above of excavated ant hill). In the late winter, flickers dig up the nests and eat the cold ants . When it is cold the ants move slowly and offer little resistance against predators.

In our yard we have a couple of ant hills that are home to a unique species: the thatching ant. They are common in the forests and grasslands around Missoula but few people know how interesting they are. Thatching ant hills get up to almost 3 feet tall and may be used for many years. Ants build their hills under trees or shrubs like sage on the prairies, where they are protected from weather.

On hot days, you will see the colony busy with many ventilation holes open. This allows hot air to escape so the hill stays cool inside- just like people do to cool off their houses in the summer. This keeps the larvae and the queen from getting too hot.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Native plant gardening for wildlife and biodiversity

Here is a great new paper from Conservation Biology and a wonderful book for native plant gardeners Bringing nature home: how native plants sustain wildlife in our gardens by D. W. Tallamy .

Both share a common and inspiring theme (and a common author): native wildlife is tied to native plants and by gardening with native plants in your yard, you can have a beneficial effect on native wildlife. This sort of theme is refreshing, with invasive species, habitat loss, and climate change it is easy to get discouraged. But as the authors describes, you can make a difference in your backyard and it is just another reason for native plant gardening

In the paper, Impact of native plants on bird and butterfly biodiversity in suburban landscapes by Burghardt et al., the authors quantified the effect of landscaping with native plants vs. conventional landscaping on six paired properties (as small as 1/3 acre) in suburban Pennsylvania. The landscapes that used native plants had significantly more caterpillars and caterpillar species and significantly greater bird abundance, diversity, species richness, biomass, and breeding pairs of native species than the conventionally landscaped properties. The authors concluded that landscaping with native plats is an effective tool for promoting biodiversity in suburban or otherwise anthropogenic modified landscapes.
The book is equally hopeful. In Bringing Nature Home, the author explains the power gardeners have in improving biodiversity and providing homes for native wildlife, as habitat loss continues elsewhere. The author thoughtfully and thoroughly explains the intimate relationship between native plants and their native host insects. When native plants get replaced by exotic species, you lose native insects and ultimately the birds and other animals that depend on these insects for food. However, as the author describes, by incorporating native plants into your landscape you can reverse this trend, and he provides many examples and explanations on how to garden with natives.

A great purchase

After reading a few reviews, I bought a pair of Felco #2's. Once I got them out of the box from an auction I won on eBay, I was surprised by the quality of these barely-used pruners. I walked around my house for a few minutes remarking how solid and comfortable these pruners are, remarked about their replaceable blade, and questioned why I had not bought them sooner. The quality of these pruners is the one thing I think every gardener agreed upon in blogs (very rare). I guess I have not invested in high quality pruners (or other garden tools) because I have never thought of myself as a "gardener", I enjoy growing native plants and vegetables, not pruning roses or grafting things, like gardeners do.

Before I knew it, I was outside pruning away (without gloves- not a bright idea, pruning wood's rose and hawthorn), but I couldn't help myself. I probably ended up pruning too much, I really flattened our yard. I didn't plan on any pruning today, but the Felcos made me. Besides, the dark-eyed juncos were very grateful for the new brush piles that now fill my backyard (see photo above). In the end, I made room for the greenhouse I'll be building as soon as the ground thaws, and it is nice to visualize the space it will occupy. I am really excited about these pruners, and now I am wondering what other garden tools have I been living without?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The inconvenient truth about wildlife gardening: squirrel control

This post is intended for wildlife gardeners in the western U.S. or in other places where squirrels have been introduced and have displaced native squirrels and native birds. Eastern fox and gray squirrels are both native to the mid-Atlantic states and west to the eastern part of South Dakota. Both species eat a variety of foods ranging from seeds and grains, to buds and fruits, insects, birds' eggs, birds (both nestlings and adults) and even reptiles.

Both species have been introduced outside their native range over the last century. Populations continue to expand coinicidental with developemt along the urban interface and developemnt of wild areas. Changes in land use and cover, including fire suppression, planting trees, and alteration of flow regimes in rivers, have increased forests and woodland corridors, especially along riparian areas west of the Mississippi. In addition to range expansion following development, non-native squirrels have also been purposely introduced into cities and towns in the western U.S. and even into Europe. Both non-native species are tolerant of humans and developemnt and thrive in urban and suburban settings. In these new environments, there are no natural controls and squirrel populations quickly expand (especially thanks to bird feeders).

Although they thrive around human development, they don't just stay in town. Their populations expand from urban centers out to the urban fringe or interface zones, and utimately into natural areas. Introduced squirrles are more then a nusience, they are a real conservation problem. In their introduced ranges they threaten and displace native squirrels (the western gray in some western states and the red squirrel in western Montana) and non-native squirrels are a huge problem for cavity nesting birds.

There are many books and web sites that claim that if you simply feed squirrels they will leave you, your birds and your bird feeders alone. Do not believe it. This just creates more squirrels and just creates a larger problem, especially for birds. Squirrels do not just eat bird food set out at feeders by well-meaning gardeners, they take nesting cavities, nesting places (see picture above of squirrel in flicker nest box), displace birds, kill nestlings and monopolize ground foods for ground feeding birds.

Dealing with squirrels is not a part of wildlife gardening that most people look forward to. Nevertheless, it is necessary to control their numbers. Notice I say “control their numbers” not “eradicate.” It would be impossible to eradicate them, but with intensive management you can control their densities and limit their effect on other species. Controlling non-native squirrels will improve conditions for bids and other small wildlife in your yard, and in your neighborhood. Since reducing the number of squirrels in our yard, we have a lot more ground foraging birds, and they spend a lot longer in the yard.

How to control squirrels
The first step is to reduce or eliminate anything that is benefiting them. Make sure your feeders are squirrel-proof, and there are a variety of ways to do this. Also, look around your neighborhood and see if any of your neighbors are specifically feeding squirrels, or if they have feeders that might be feeding squirrels. Talk to neighbors and try to get a concerted approach to this- it will be more effective and a great opportunity for education and outreach. Removing a source of food and nesting areas may be enough to reduce the density of squirrels in your area. Unfortunately, it might not be, and you might have to take more drastic steps.

How to remove squirrels or reduce their density around your yard. The best thing to do is kill them. This is not fun, but it is necessary. If you live in a city or urban area, there is probably an ordinance that prohibits shooting, even with a pellet gun or BB gun. If you can shoot squirrels legally, use a .22 or a shotgun. A pellet gun is quiet, but a .22 is not much louder, and much more effective for a quick, humane kill.

In any case, I think it is best to use a live trap (like this one). This is what I use. You can easily bait the trap with peanut butter on a small piece of cardboard. Place in an area where squirrels congregate like under a bird feeder. Once you set the trap, you will need to check it at least twice a day. It is imperative you do not leave the squirrel trapped for too long- the shorter it is trapped the less stressed it will be, and more humane. Occasionally, dark eyed juncos will get trapped in the cage, but they are easily released unharmed. This is another reason for checking the trap frequently.

Once you have caught a squirrel in the trap, the next step is to kill it. There are a few methods here all are quick, and humane. You can drown them- this sounds awful but it is remarkably quick. Another approach I have not tried is to use carbon monoxide. You can place the trap (with the squirrel still in it), in a bag and attached the bag to your tailpipe. This sounds like of strange and elaborate, but evidently the squirrel will fall asleep and die in minutes. Surprisingly, drowning takes much less than 1 minute. If it is legal to discharge a firearm in your area, the best thing might be to shoot the squirrel in the head with a pellet gun while it is in the trap.

Once you have a dead squirrel, what do you do with it?
You have a few options (I have tried a combination of most of these at some point):
  • Eat them
  • Allow birds and insects to eat them
  • They make great nesting material for chickadee nests (see here)
  • Compost them
  • Donate to raptor rehabilitation (or similar) in your area
It is amazing how many squirrels there are in a small area. To give you an idea, the first year I started trapping squirrels, I killed over 230. Last year, I only killed 26. Although as I mentioned, this is really not the fun part of wildlife gardening, but it is really important and it really does benefit native wildlife, and you can have a significant difference.

It is remarkable how the birds have responded to having fewer squirrels in the yard. Ground feeding birds are much more common and they spend more time foraging, like white-crowned sparrows, hermit thrushes, song sparrows, and northern flickers.

In closing, remember that while squirrel control is not the most fun aspect of wildlife gardening, but it is a part of making a wildlife haven in your yard. The non-native squirrels are yet another human impact to the world that decreases native species’ chances at survival.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Birdhouse basics

Spring is almost here and in this part of the world, February is an important time to think about birdhouses. February is when birds begin courting and looking for nesting places. Having a bird nest and raise its chicks in your yard is very gratifying for wildlife gardeners. Now is the time to install bird houses and to do seasonal maintenance on them (see below).

Although it is fun to see birds nest in your yard, there are many things to consider before hanging a birdhouse. Know what species of bird you want to attract and have reasonable expectations. Birdhouse need to be designed for a specific bird species to be successful and to not foster exotic, invasive species (like European starlings and house sparrows in much of North America, including Missoula). Generic bird houses that are sold all over actually encourage nesting by exotic birds, and this make life harder for our native birds. These houses infuriate me because people buy them thinking they are going to help native birds. Actually, the opposite is true.

Here I describe houses and pertinent information for four common, easy to attract species in the Missoula area: red-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, house wrens and northern flickers. Where I live these can all be enticed to use nest boxes in your yard. Even in our small lot, we have often have chickadees, nuthatches and flickers nesting simultaneously. Although this information is tailored toward Missoula, I suspect that this information may be appropriate to a lot of wildlife gardeners.

Nest boxes
All four of these species are cavity nesters (that is, they nest in hollow spaces in dead trees), so they require box-like houses that simulate tree cavities. The reason I encourage people to cater toward cavity nesters is that these birds are having a tough time, from habitat loss, loss of snags (nesting sites), to competition from invasive birds (typically secondary cavity nesters). Chickadees, nuthatches, and northern flickers prefer to excavate the cavity themselves, because this assures a clean home free of pests and predators (see video below, I find this adorable). House wrens, on the other hand, will only use empty boxes.

Plans for a chickadee, nuthatch or wren box are identical and northern flicker boxes are much larger. Here is a link for nest boxes for both houses.

Unless you live near a large expanse of open space or prairie or see bluebirds regularly, I do not recommend you build and install bluebird boxes. More often than not these get used by European starlings and house sparrows. Again, it is really important to know what birds you are targeting and have realistic expectations.

Although northern flickers are common, they are declining across much of their range. Northern flickers are incredibly important species since they are the largest, most abundant primary excavator and they occupy a wide variety of habitats. The ability of flickers to create cavities is crucial for the survival of many other secondary cavity nesting birds. Birds that use abandoned flicker nests range from chickadees to American kestrels.

A nest box for chickadee sized box has an opening that is 1 1/8” diameter- an opening bigger than that will encourage starlings and house sparrows. Do not use a perch for any of thee species- they do not need them. In addition, perches encourage exotic birds, and since few native birds need them there is no reason for a perch.

Chickadees, nuthatches and wrens will add nesting material for their nest. Chickadees use animal hair, fur, and moss. Nuthatches will shred up bark into various layers of increasingly soft bedding, and they also smear sap on the outside of the hole to discourage insects and parasites from bothering the nestlings. It is really fun to watch them do this. You can help chickadees by providing fur (see picture below- one of the best uses for a squirrel, more about squirrels in a post to follow), animal hair or sphagnum moss in your yard for them.

Flickers will nearly completely remove all the wood chips for the box and they do not require any nesting material. Another benefit to having he house filled, is that is discourages use by non target birds like house sparrows and starlings, which will not excavate. However, once the flickers excavate their nest box, often European starlings will follow. It is crucial to remove the starlings, their nests (they bring in nesting material), or otherwise dissuade them from taking the flicker’s nest box.

General box information

  • I recommend using western red cedar for the box construction, a naturally decay- and insect-resistant wood, which needs no protection from the weather it should last for many years. Fill and pack it with fine wood chips or coarse saw dust each year. I fill my boxes with Douglas fir (typically chips from my thickness planer), but you can use any species except cedar, teak, or mahogany. These species contain oils that prevent rot and insect damage but the dust can irritate nestlings.
  • Place the box from 6- 15’ from the ground and face the hole away from prevailing winds and weather (usually east).
  • Place the house in an area where you can easily observe it.
  • Install the house by February, but the earlier the better- you will be amazed how quickly birds discover it and return to it.
  • Clean out the box after the breeding season. A good time to do that is in early fall. I like to leave the box empty in the winter- birds will use them as winter roosts.

Nest box selection times
Red-breasted nuthatches are the first to begin excavating their selected box- they begin excavating in early to mid February (between February 5 and 21 at my house) and they are usually complete by the first week of April (April 1-9) when they begin to fill their boxes with nesting material.

Black-capped chickadees start excavating about a month after nuthatches, with peak excavating around first week of April (from March 25- April 4), until middle April when they bring in nesting material (April 11-15).

Northern flickers are on a similar schedule as chickadees and they begin excavating in late March – early April (March 24-April 8), but they search for nesting locations in February and may do some exploratory excavating as early as the beginning of February.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

How to remove a lawn

Why remove some lawn? Here are a few thoughts and statistics…
Lawns are now the number one irrigated crop in the U.S., covering over 40 million acres, three times the land area covered by corn and more than wheat. That is a pretty startling fact. We have gone from a nation of growing food crops to ornamental grass. The statistics on water use, maintenance costs and materials, fertilizer, and other resources for lawn care in this country is even more astounding.
For example, in the U.S.:
  • 800 million gallons of gas is burned in lawnmowers every year
  • 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on lawns
  • 238 gallons of water/ person/ day is used during the growing season
  • Outdoor watering accounts for more than half of municipal water use in most areas

From a wildlife perspective, the lawn is a barren wasteland- a monoculture that supports very little insect and animal life. The only animals and insects that do use the lawn are referred to as pests, and most are invasive, or non-native, and people in the U.S. spend millions annually to control them. Certainly, deer, robins and some other wildlife species will feed in or on a lawn, but the reason is often that there is little else left for them.

Removing all or part of your lawn and converting it anything else is one of the best things you can do for sustainable landscaping, increasing biodiversity, and fostering wildlife in your garden. The smaller your lawn, the less stuff you will need to maintain it- we get by with a small reel mower, that takes up little space, is quiet, does not need fuel, is inexpensive (compared to a gas-powered lawn mower) and is fun to use.

A lawn has its place in a yard- it is useful for a wide variety of activities, but it probably does not need to cover the amount of square footage as it currently does. We have some small lawn patches in our yard (see photo below), and they center on dining and entertaining areas, and though they are remarkably small, they can accommodate a lot of people. Also, the lawn patches are in areas of the yard that receive shade, so even though we do not water them grass grows pretty well. We have removed all the lawn from areas that receive full sun, or were otherwise difficult to grow turf grass. Examine your own yard and think of how little you could live with, and consider lawn as a luxury, indeed it is. a lawn once (and still is) a status symbol,for the aristocrats who could afford to have servants care and maintain it. Turf grass grew easily in the English climate of moderate temperatures and frequent rains. If you live in a climate that can't support a lawn without irrigation, consider the environmental effects of irrigating. Is that the best use for water?
Steps for successfully removing a lawn
Removing a lawn and keeping it away is not that simple, but not that difficult either. It takes care, prep work and patience. It can be done without herbicides or with a very limited amount of herbicides, or with a lot of herbicide if you are so inclined (though I am not). Below are several steps to ensure sucess.
Step one, cut a hole in the lawn (kidding).
Step one- Rent a sod cutter. If you have an area >100 square feet, I strongly recommend a gas powered sod cutter, if the area is smaller, you can get by with a kick style, manual sod cutter. The reason for using a sod cutter rather than a shovel is that a sod cutter removes the sod just below the rooting depth of the grass and removes very little- just a thin veneer of- soil. This saves (literally) tons of soil. Also, by using a sod cutter the sod is reusable (see below). Whereas if you were to just dig up the sod one shovel-full at a time, it is in a less desirable state for reuse. If you are really determined to use a shovel, use a square-bladed shovel and aim to just skim the sod layer off, as opposed to digging straight down.
Mark the area of sod you want to remove. Once it is marked, think about it for a few days, and probably increase the size of the new garden bed. I have never heard anyone say "I wish my garden beds were smaller", or "I sure miss mowing that part of the lawn over there." So remove more lawn than you think you will need, you will be happy you did.

Cut and roll up the lawn, and get it away. This is a very satisfying step- instant gratification.

A couple of notes here- do not try to “solarize”, cover, smother, or spray herbicide to kill the lawn. These methods take too long to be effective (if they are ever is effective at all). It just takes a small bit of grass root left behind for the lawn to come back. I am sure there are some situations where it may work, but I do not recommend it. In our climate, the lawn does not really ever die from covering it, maybe after a few years, but who really wants to spend that long. I suspect even after a few years, once it gets some rain, it will re-grow. Still if you do manage to kill it (either with herbicide or from covering it), then you still have to deal with the sod that is there- it is not like the lawn will just decompose to soil.

Once you have cut and removed the sod the best thing to do is to get rid of the lawn. I have tried composting it, turning it over, etc… It takes a really long time to break down and consumes a lot of space in the process. Even if you keep it in a covered pile, there is always the possibility it will start to re-grow.

People want sod and my advice is to give it to them.

The best thing to do is…put a "free" ad in the newspaper (so 1990’s) or Craigslist (so 2008) or MySpace (so 2009 if you under 30). People love sod, and it will be gone before you know it.

Install lawn edging to keep adjacent lawn from getting into beds (if applicable). Use the largest edging you can find (at least 5-6”).

Spot spray herbicide to any roots or things that the sod cutter missed (or dig them out). For example, sometimes the sod cutter will just knock the top off of a huge dandelion. At this point, it might be best to water the site, wait a week, and see if anything germinates, and then remove it or kill it (dig it up, apply herbicide, use a torch, or something), but often is nice to just proceed to the next step, and a lot more gratifying than having a large patch of dirt to watch for a week, while you are waiting for unwanted plants to show themselves. Add any soil amendments, if necessary – the nice thing about native plants here is you do not need this- though you may want to form hills, or raise the elevation of the newly stripped soil
Then, plant your plants- the fun part. Depending on your garden plan, I recommend adding a layer of some sort of weed mat depending on your garden plan. We like to use newspaper, or cardboard. When you lay down newspaper use several overlapping sheets and wet it with a hose to help conform to the contours of the landscape. The thing with newspaper that I like is that it will be around for a few years while things get established, but eventually it will decompose. Landscape fabric is more or less forever but it could be really useful in an area when you do not want any plants to grow (we have some under our clothesline). Finally, mulch heavily! Don’t skimp on mulch- go for an initial 4-6” application of some sort of mulch. Mulch is a really important step; mulch limits weed growth, retains soil moisture and eventually will break down (this can be good, depending on what your plan is). Some people have concerns about mulch, in particular cedar bark, acidifying he soil. I have not found this to be the case, and maybe that is due to our dry climate, but it does decompose in a few years in our yard. In our front yard prairie, we initially added a lot of mulch (see photo above), but this broke down and now you’d be hard pressed to find any (a good thing, see photo below). Mulch is critical for the first year or so to get plants established (even xeric species), and keep out weeds. Even though we chose native, drought tolerant plants, you have to plan on one season or a year (depending on when you plant stuff) in order to get plants established (that means watering and weeding), beyond that, we have not found a need to water. Mulch really limits the amount of time you will spend weeding.

Although there are many options for mulch, I recommend shredded cedar bark. This is a lumber by-product, and because it is shredded, it stays where you put it. Cedar (western red, in this case) takes longer to decompose than many hardwood mulches. In many cities, you can get free mulch from tree removal services or city arborists that chip and shred trees. In general, this sort of mulch is pretty low quality, filled with a lot of leaves, and small particles. It breaks down quickly (may blow away in a wind storm) and compresses really quickly, but for the right application, it is usually free (a great price) and it is a great use for local materials. We have rented a chipper/ shredder to grind up some shrubs and trees and used that mulch as a base layer, on to which we added shredded, cedar bark mulch. This is a good use for free, low-quality mulch.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

How to create space in a small yard

Small spaces are comfortable

One of the fun and challenging aspects of gardening in a small space is to make the space more interesting and larger feeling than it really is. Conventionally, people view "small" in a negative way, and this leads to problems when designing garden spaces, interior design, or construction. Small can be good. 

Space needs to be appropriately scaled to feel comfortable. If spaces are comfortable, you will use them. The same tenent holds true in archetecture, interior design or landscaping. People need rooms or spaces to be on a human scale,and with a sense of enclosure (like how a small window seat or breakfast nook is inviting), and a sense of protection. In designing garden rooms or spaces in your yard, think of the sizes of comfortable rooms in your house. Ideally, the rooms should be suited for a particular need, but as in a small house, the reality is they will probably be relied on for multiple tasks, but this is a good thing, because it will ultimately increase their utility.

Don't give it all away

One of the most common mistakes is to reveal the whole garden at once- to give it all away. There is the misconception that if you can see the whole expanse of your yard it will seem bigger. In fact, it has the opposite effect. If you can stand anywhere in the yard and see the whole thing, there is no reason to go anywhere, no reason to explore. You mind establishes the boundaries, and understands the scale and extents. Whereas, if you use some thought, and divide the space, and obscure the views, it creates intrigue- your mind can only guess what is behind a row a trees or shrubs, and you get the feeling of needing to explore. By dividing spaces, you can make spaces seem much larger than they are.

Try to create views in the yard- both glimpses into other rooms or ones that accentuate vastness of the yard. Diagonal views are the only way to see all the rooms in the yard at once- these are the longest views and thus make the yard seem much larger.  In our yard we have a series of rooms, and few are truly visible from the next.

We can handle a surprising number of people in the yard at once, and we host a lot of parties and barbecues. It is really interesting to see people interact with the landscape and move through the yard. The most common thing people want to know is what is behind the screen in the yard (a clothesline).

By hiding it from view, people need to know what is behind it, and a couple of small informal paths lead to (in this case) the boring answer- our laundry. with this example, if the screen were not there, people would ignore that part of the yard.

Lead your eye through the yard

Once you have divided the spaces, you will need a way to access them. Create a way to connect the spaces, so you and your eye can move through them. Use a combination of paths and focal points. A focal point can be a lot a different things, ranging from a snag, to a bench, or a birdbath. Paths do not need to be the same material or width. Use narrow paths and less formal or irregular materials to slow down how someone moves through,or experiences, the space. The more interest you add to the yard, the more we are intrigued by it and the more we want to experience it.