Monday, April 27, 2009

Greenhouse construction update

Building this greenhouse was actually the motivation for me to start this blog. Today, I am finally getting around to an update of the progress of its construction- mainly with some pictures.
I have written a few posts about the greenhouse; a general description of the green house is here, plans for the greenhouse can be seen here, and my plan for heating the greenhouse is here.

In general, I am constructing this greenhouse out of recycled materials, and I have designed it to be energy efficient with the site and our latitude in mind. Our plan is to grow hardy vegetables in the greenhouse all year long, and use to it start plants and extend the growing season by a couple of months for warm weather vegetables (read: hot peppers).

It has been a really fun project, learning about greenhouses, designing the greenhouse and accumulating all the pieces. Since it is almost all made from recycled or reused materials, accumulating the parts has taken a while

Site preparation was slow- I had to remove and pot up all the plants that were in the greenhouse footprint, including 50+ bitterroots. This was compounded by my eagerness to begin the project this spring and the reality of having to wait for many species to come up.All these potted plants filled up our nursery and even filled up space in all our raised beds. We will grow these plants for another week, and transplant them to our front yard- where we started a little makeover project- more on this in another post.
Also, we will probably donate some of these plants to the Clark Fork Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society's annual native plant sale- at the Missoula Farmer's Market on May 16th. Depending on the quantity and diversity of plants he have left over, we might even have a plant sale of our own at the Missoula Farmers Market in late May or early June. Below, all the plants are removed from the greenhouse area.

Initial grading and 8" compacted gravel base, onto which the treated 4x6 foundation was installed, and secured to the ground with lengths of 36" re-bar.

After a lot of deliberation, and a lot of advice, I finally decided to use just a compacted gravel base and pressure treated wood foundation for the greenhouse. I considered almost every iteration of building a foundation. My friend Barry finally convinced to me to build it this way (if it goes wrong, it is his fault). Actually Barry is a fantastic carpenter and builder, so I totally trust him.
Below is the compost furnace before going into the ground. It is a 30" x30" x 36" deep box, insulated from with ground with 2" rigid insulation. I installed it on top of 4" of cobble/ gravel for drainage. You can read about the compost furnace here- if it works it will heat the greenhouse in the winter. If it does not work, we will have great storage in the greenhouse- either as a root cellar or as my wife puts it, a place to store sweaters in the summer.

Below is the compost furnace installed, notice the 2" rigid insulation over the part of the greenhouse that will be covered with brick flooring.
On top of the insulation I laid down landscape fabric and 4" of compacted gravel (see below). The insulation should keep the floor warm and restrict heat loss to the ground. Below, you can see the greenhouse floor and the separated part to my left is for a raised bed (on the south facing side of the greenhouse).

The next step is to lay down 1" of sand and install the brick flooring. The brick is 100-year old salvaged Missoula brick. It should make a really nice floor.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Native plant photo contest: one of my favorite flowers

Gardening Gone Wild has a photo contest- a picture of a native plant in a garden setting. The prize- eight agastaches from High Country Gardens! This contest gave me the opportunity to look at a bunch of pictures and think about a lot of plants in a different way.

I fanally settled on this picture of a false dandelion (Agoseris glauca). It is one of my favorite wildflowers, and one of my favorite native plants for the garden. It is very drought tolerant- it grows on the west and south face of Missoula's Mount Sentinel, which gets hotter than the sun in summer, and it is easy to grow. It produces a showy large flower on top of a 2' tall stalk and it blooms continually from late May through July (and even beyond if you were to give it additional water). It is a prolific seeder, and readily volunteers, but since this is one of my favorties, I don't think of this as a bad thing.

In the picture above it is shown growing with (and towering above) an understory of prairie arnica (the darker yellow flowers; Arnica sororia), nodding onion (the little purple flowers; Allium ceruum), and a ground cover of hairy golden aster (Chrysopsis villosa).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Spring in our little prairie: what's flowering this week

Spring is coming slowly this year, and it is just a reminder of the importance of species diversity in our yard. Beginning with the sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus) on March 14, we have plants that flower nearly all year.

Although it was snowing this afternoon, we have had flowers in bloom for over a month now, long before tulips will spring up in gardens. Spring is slowly arriving, but a few species are flowering and a lot more will be coming in the next weeks. Since only a hand full of species are in flower it is easy to keep tabs on them.

This first flowers are small (though structurally very diverse) but provide a sharp contrast to the otherwise dormant, winter-like appearance of Missoula. Above is the shooting star (Dodecatheon conjugens), and below is the pasque flower also known as the prairie crocus (Pulsatilla patens). The pasque flower will often flower in the snow.

The sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus), the first to flower (below), and because of the cold and short days, it flowers for nearly a month. In the foreground of this picture (bottom, left) are leaves of the false dandelion (Agoseris glauca), the flower I picked for the Gardening Gone Wild photo contest.

Below is the yellow bell (Fritillaria pudica), a spring staple of the short grass prairie. Most these these early flowers typically have short lived blooms, and even their foliage may disappear soon. As a result they are great to accompany other plants, or hardscape features in the garden, as opposed to being a focal point, nor will the carry your garden. When they do appear, though often briefly, they are wonderful little surprises and reminders of the summer, full of flowers, to come.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nesting update

The northern flickers are done excavating their box and the female (above) has been in the box for the last day or so. It is possible she is incubating eggs, but it seems like it might be a week early.
The really interesting thing this year is that the male (above) is a hybrid- a cross between a red- shafted northern flicker (the morph that is common in the western US) and a yellow-shafted northern flicker (the morph that is common in the eastern US). This male displays characteristics of both the red- and yellow-shafted northern flickers, which include a red malar (moustache) seen in the photo above (the yellow-shafted have a black malar).
He also has a red nape crescent (see photo above) only found in yellow-shafted flicker.
Though there is a well documented north flicker hybrid zone, which in the US roughly follows the a band on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, this is the first hybrid I have seen in Missoula, and it is further west then the hybrid zone would indicate. Though hybrids are said to be common through the range of northern flickers, I do wonder if the yellow-shafted, once confined to the eastern US and bounded by the Great Plains, is expanding westward.
This expansion is common in several other native and non-native species, including Eastern fox squirrels, and is due to a variety of reasons ranging from climate change, to urbanization, and conversion of prairies to forests. Since northern flickers use dead trees for nesting, 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, this could lead to the yellow shafted penetrating further west (or the red-shafted going further east). Anyway, it is kind of silly to infer too much from seeing one hybrid.
The black-capped chickadees are nearly done excavating their box and soon will begin filling it with nesting material. We set out sphagnum moss and squirrels for them that they use to build their incredibly soft, warm nests. Click on the short video above to see the early stages of their excavating from last week.

If you watch you can see them take beak-fulls of sawdust from the box and fly off with it. They do this to scatter the excavated material so they to not attract pests or parasites. Nevertheless, I always enjoy watching them excavate!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Build a brush pile for wildlife

Building a brush pile is a really fun project that will benefit many species of wildlife. Spring is a great time of the year to build a brush pile, since most of us will be pruning, trimming, cutting and otherwise preparing our yard for the growing season. It is a fun time to tidy up the yard and a brush pile is a great use for of all the garden “waste” that is hard to compost and might otherwise be destined for the landfill or burn pile.

Brush piles are important habitat for a variety of species, for a variety of needs, throughout the year. Brush piles provide shelter and protection from predators and inclement weather; they offer a source of nesting materials, nesting places, and feeding places.

What sort of animals will use a brush pile?
Realistically, in our yard, we will not get rabbits, quail, and turkeys, but if these are animals in your area you might be able to attract them. In our yard, brush piles are used by a variety of small animals for nesting, feeding and for nesting material.

Warblers, spotted towhees, dark eyed juncos, gray catbirds, white crowned sparrows, house wrens and many other birds will use the brush pile- investigating its nooks and crannies almost immediately. But birds are just some of the wildlife that will use brush piles. This sort of “wild” structure is usually the first element to be removed from managed-landscapes yet it is the most familiar to many species of wildlife.

Brush piles are wonderful places for butterflies. These landscape elements are often forgotten in butterfly gardens, but butterflies use brush piles for protection for their critical chrysalis stage, and even as a hibernacula for butterflies that over-winter as adults. Around Missoula, two common butterflies, the mourning cloak and the tiger swallowtail both use brush piles to over-winter. The morning cloak over-winters as an adult, whereas the tiger swallowtail over-winters as a chrysalis. Beyond just offering a place for over-wintering, brush piles over great protection for butterflies to spend the night or to escape cold, or unfavorable weather.

Ants will also make use of the protection and shelter the brush piles provide. Thatching ants, for example, use the shelter from the elements under which they build their large hills.
Brush piles are a great way to keep a lot of stuff in your yard that might be valuable to birds but might be messy to look at. For example, last year’s stems, stalks, and foliage make great nesting material for American robins, and house wrens.

Mice, chipmunks and other small rodents will use the brush piles. This may be a good or bad thing, so consider the location of the brush pile before you build it. You might not want it right next to your house if you are concerned about mice.

Start with a good location
To build a brush pile, first select a location- this is important- by placing a brush pile where animals naturally congregate or along natural travel corridors, it is more likely it will get used. For example, don’t locate it in the middle of a lawn, but rather off to the edge of your yard, along a fence, near shrubs, trees, or birdbath or feeders.
Build the foundation
Use large rock or logs to build a base, and then add progressively smaller materials to the top. It is kind of like building a campfire; you want to create some spaces in the bottom or middle for animals to have room. Make it large enoug; the bigger the better, but this will probably be dictated by the size of the garden and the aesthetic.

Integrate he brush pile into the landscape
Locate the brush pile in, around, or on top of shrubs or plants that might grow through the pile. For example, I pruned several Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii) all the way back to the ground and placed the brush pile on top f it. This way the rose will grow up through the pile adding color and visual interest and making the pile become part of the landscape. This also works well with climbing or vining plants like clematis. The flowers of the clematis will offer color and interest to an otherwise dead brush pile. We use virgin’s bower (Clematis occidentalis) and white clematis (Clematis ligusticifolia) on or underneath our piles. Plus, this provides another opportunity for using vines in the garden.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Homeowners are integral to plant and wildlife conservation

I was recently inspired by a new paper in Conservation Biology by Tallamy and Shropshire (download here), which demonstrates the importance of native plants over exotic plants in home gardens for Lepidopteran (butterfly) species diversity. This work compliments previous work by Tallamy I wrote about a few posts back. The authors bring up a lot of great points, and of particular interest to me is the notion that homeowners are a hugely influential group, locally and nationally, for conservation of plants and animals in this country. This should be empowering and validating for those interested in native plant gardening and wildlife gardening for conservation values. I think it is now necessary that homeonwers get on board with native plant and wildlife gardening if there is going to be meaningful conservation of biodiversity in North America.

Collectively, homes across the landscape create an ecosystem. Though it is a highly managed ecosystem, it has the tremendous potential for conservation of our regionally-unique flora and fauna. Unfortunately, in the past, managed-landscapes across this country have been influenced by colonial and imperialistic notions of what gardens should look like. These ideals were often derived from the English and the French aristocracy and applied uniformly across our diverse, and beautiful American landscape.
The US has lost vast portions of its regionally distinctive flora and fauna to lawn-based yards. Lawns and traditional landscapes composed of relatively few ornamental plant species across the country have homogenized our nation. Landscape architects and installers across the country still use a limited palette of few species all over this country. As a result, these simplified landscapes resemble other climates and countries more then they do the US. As a result, yards in Maryland resemble yards in Utah, which resemble yards in northern Idaho.

Although many ornamentals commonly used in landscaping are not invasive, per say, the cumulative effect, as Tallamy and Shiropshire contend, is that they might as well be. Non-native ornamental species now cover the landscape as a result of commercial propagation and installation, so completely, and so effectively, that if you didn't know the cause of the spread, you would think they are invasive species. What is the difference between purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) or dalmatian toadflax (Linaria dalmatica) and arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) , hosta (Hosta spp.) , or even petunias (Petunia spp.) when you add up the collective acreage?

Tallamy and Shiropshire demonstrate that native plants support significantly greater Lepidopteran species richness than common, non-native landscape plants that evolved elsewhere. Furthermore, they way butterflies used native plants was different and more diverse than the non-natives. For example, native plants attracted egg-laying females and supported their larvae, over an order of magnitude greater than with common non-native ornamental plants.

I commonly hear people justifying the use of commercially available, and regionally homogenous, cultivars by saying that they are ecologically similar to natives. As I have mentioned before, this is not the case. By definition, native insects have little or no evolutionary history with introduced plants, and thus the plants are of little use to them beyond occasional feeding, typically by adults (one short-lived life stage).

For example, it is common to hear gardeners extol the virtues of a non-native species that is a great plant for butterflies, because they see them feeding on it (Russian sage [Perovskia atriplicifolia], for example), and yet these plants are also touted for their insect and disease resistance. Planting individual, exotic species for individual wildlife species should be a thing of the past and we should think about native species and plant communities that provide for multiple animal families.

In their paper, Tallamy and Shiropshire contend (based on conclusive data), that introduced ornamentals are very far from the ecological equivalents of native ornamentals. Butterflies are just one example, and a surrogate from many other species, and many higher trophic order species. Indeed, other researchers have found that there is a relationship between insect species richness and biomass, and bird species richness and diversity in urban or managed landscapes. Thus, the benefit of using native plants in landscaping transcends Lepidopterans, and continues through to birds. We need to reject the notion of "insect-free and homogenous" as being better than native plants. For years, landscapers and horticulturalists have selected for plants that are resistant to insect damage. And, as a result, many plants are labeled “pest free”. This may explain why Lepidopterans favor native plants. Remember, not all insects are pests, and in fact butterflies are insects!

Homeowners should embrace the unique characteristics of their climate, geography and natural history when designing their garden. Native plant communities should be embraced and celebrated, rather than removed and converted to a landscape that could be found anywhere. As a group, homeowners can have a profound influence on the landscape. We need to recognize this and educate others about the positive beneficial effects or native plants as a basis for yards and demand more from nurseries, and public landscapes.

Tallamy and Shiropshire envision a tipping point is near- a time for a paradigm shift, and I hope so. The current landscape aesthetic of a lawn and exotic ornamentals is unsustainable and contrary to many goals common to all gardeners. The price of gas last year topped $4 a gallon and evidently that is what it took for Americans to change their driving habits. Bicycle sales skyrocketed, predictions of decreases in diabetes were extrapolated, and all this good that could come from change.

Now, so called “recession gardens” are here. Sales of vegetable seeds have increased to unprecedented levels, and many first–time vegetable gardeners are converting their lawns to something edible and useful. People are re-evaluating how they use their own yards and demand more of the same from our elected officials. Even the White House house has a new vegetable garden (even though from this picture, it appears Michelle Obama should read my post on how to remove a lawn. It pains me to see them using rakes to remove the lawn!)

Perhaps the tipping point is near and people will recognize that they are part of the landscape and the natural world, for better or worse. How homeowners manage their gardens influences the conservation of plants and animals on the landscape.