Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Bitterroots (Lewisii rediviva) have begun flowering in our yard. Whereas the sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus) signals the beginning of spring, to me, bitterroots flowering begins summer. Bitterroots, the Montana state flower, are a beautiful, showy, and easy to grow plant, but they can be pretty tough to showcase in your garden.

Many gardeners fear bitterroots are difficult to grow since their flowers are so large, and delicate looking. However, they are surprisingly tough plants and the main way to kill them is to water them too much (they need none, if planted in Missoula) or plant them in too fertile, rich soil. They enjoy the well-drained, rocky, gravelly soils found here. As my wife says, "they thrive on neglect".
The flowers, though large and striking are essentially on the ground, though the plants are long-lived, the flowers are short-lived, and they open and close with the sunlight. This last feature is especially irritating, since when I go to work in the morning the flowers are closed, and when I return from work in the evening, they are closed. I was able to get home a little early today and caught them in the act (they probably started flowering a few days ago). By the time they flower, their leaves have disappeared, and once the flowers fade, there is nothing to see until November when they begin to push their succulent, needle-like leaves through the soil. The leave flourish in early spring, and begin to fade as the buds appear in June.

It is important to remember where you plant bitterroots, since they are not above ground for much of the year. Also, you don't want to place them near other plants that might crowd them out. So many things to consider. Nevertheless, bitterroots are beautiful, striking flowers, the plants are easy to grow from seed, and they are such a wonderful part of the history, culture, and ecology of the prairies that used to cover the Missoula valley.

Calligrapha beetles

Above and below are pictures of a Calligrapha beetle (Calligrapha sp.). These are stunning beetles that look similar to huge ladybird beetles and are aptly named. The beautiful, black, intricate markings on their wing cases resemble the strokes from a calligraphy pen. I have only found them on our mountain hollyhock (Iliamna rivularis) leaves (they are leaf eaters). There are several species of Calligrapha beetles and each species is loosely associated with a host plant, commonly on dogwood (Cornus spp) and willow (Salix spp). The markings and coloration on many of the species are truly astounding- and are much more beautiful in real life than these pictures do them credit.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Flicker fledging forthcoming: forecasted for Friday

Actually, they will probably fledge sooner, maybe even Monday, but where is the alliteration in "Monday"? They began hatching on June 1, and they usually start fledging after 23 days.

Above and below are two of the female nestlings, there are at least three nestlings, two females and one male. There might be as many as five nestlings, though.
At the top of the post is another picture of the male you have seen photographed on this blog several times- a yellow-shafted x red-shafted hybrid (you can see his red neck crest here). The female, as not been around in the last 7-10 days and he has been doing all the feeding. The nestlings will be all right, but I am sure it is a lot of work for him.

In other nesting news, the chickadees have begun incubating their second clutch- a whopping, and previously unprecedented (in our yard), six fledglings resulted from their first clutch.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Goldenrod aphids

I was so excited to find aphids on some of my goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis)- my garden is all coming together.

Every gardener knows a thing or two about aphids. They are usually green or dark-colored and are one of the most common garden pests. They have sucking mouth parts, and their mortal enemy is the ladybird beetle (Coccinella spp.), aka ladybug.

Less known is that most native aphids are host-specific, that is, they only feed on one or a group of closely related plant species. The neat thing about the aphids in my photos, Uroleucon nigrotuberculatum, is that they are red (so they are easy to spot on a goldenrod stem). This is a relatively rare aphid that feeds on tall goldenrod species.

In the literature, this species is well studied because it demonstrates some important theories of predator-prey relationships. As the patch size of the host plant gets bigger, the rate of predation on the aphids goes up. I guess in our yard now we have patchy goldenrod, and thus a great home for these aphids and the native ladybird beetles they attract.

On garden plants the wingless females are the first ones that are visible, but as their population grows or as pressure from predators increases, individuals are induced to produce wings and fly off to colonize new areas.

Delighted with these aphids appearing on a few goldenrod stems, I looked them up on the Internet to find other gardeners which which to share my delight. There must be many already delighted gardeners out there, I thought, with the proliferation of wildlife gardening, pollinator gardens, green gardening, and so on. However... I was socked at what I found. Cue the scary movie music and read on.

There were, indeed, a bunch of websites with information about goldenrod aphids.... (wait for it)... and how to kill them! Even the gentle methods destroying them and their kin with earth-friendly (not aphid-friendly) biodegradable, free range, organic, etc... insecticidal soaps.

Here is a typical thread:
Question- What are these ugly red bugs?

Answer- Aphids. You had better kill them before they kill you and your family

Question- I knew it, they looked gross. I will kill them, but how? How can I kill them without using chemicals? I am a green, earth-friendly, holistic gardener.

Answer: Use a hose and spray them off

Question: Will that kill them? I don’t want them out there, doing damage to other plants, I want them dead, after all I care about the environment and all the creatures in my garden.

Answer: Use organic soaps, rub the soap into their soft bodies, and even squish them with your hands. Don’t let any get out of your sight, they can clone themselves and they may have already laid eggs, so plan of several treatments.


You should not just go around killing things. Try to understand the biology and ecology of animals and pests, first. These aphids, like many other aphids on plants in your yard, will not affect any other plants other than the ones they are feeding on, in this case goldenrods, and their effect on goldenrod is negligible. Furthermore, since they attract ladybird beetles and their larvae, the aphids are probably a very beneficial pest in your garden.

Speaking of ladybird beetles, commercial ladybird beetles sold as bio-controls for aphids is a booming business. Using for aphids and other pests is often thought of as a better, safer alternative to other control methods. However, as a result of their popularity, several of the common ladybird beetle species in North America are actually invasive species from Europe or Asia. These were introduced to this country as bio-controls, by well- intentioned gardeners. Some species of non native ladybird beetles are now the most common ones in the mid-west and elsewhere in the US.

Let me close by saying that I do squish aphids on my vegetable plants, but not because I'm afraid of them going to my goldenrods.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Shades of blue in our garden

This post is for my wife- she has been commenting on the many shades of blue in our garden. There are blues from different species, and there different shades of blue within each species as the flowers age, and there are different shades of blue depending on various micro-climates in the yard. The yellow flowers are starting to show themselves and soon we'll have lots of yellow in the yard, like prairie arnica (Arnica sororia), hairy golden aster (Heterotheca villosa), false dandelion (Agoseris glauca), and blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata).

Below are some examples of what's blue at our home today.

Wilcox's penstemon (Penstemon wilcoxii)
Small-flowered penstemon (Penstemon procerus)

Shrubby penstemon (Penstemon fruticosus)
Wilcox's and small flowered penstemons
Rocky mountain iris (Iris missouriensis)

Blue flax, small flowered penstemon and Wilcox's penstemon

Wilcox's penstemon

Blue flax (Linum lewisii)

Blue columbine (Aquilegia coerulea)

Squeak, our 15-year old blue-point Himalayan.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The chickadees fledged while I was at work today

The black-capped chickadees fledged today while I was at work, so I missed their first flights. It is always sad to see them go- the black-capped chickadees are such a big (though small, in stature) part of our garden for so long. Once they fledge however, the adults leave with their little fledglings ("chicklets", I like to call them), and don't return for a while. They do come back after a few weeks, and typically they will have a second clutch. But it is surprising how silent and absent they are from the garden until they return.
In other news, the northern flicker chicks (flicklets?)are getting louder.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Nesting update: flickers hatched, chickadees close to fledging

The northern flickers have finally begun hatching. I think their first clutch of eggs failed. As far as I can tell one hatched yesterday (June 1) and another hatched today (June 2). If anyone has ever had flickers nest in their yard, you will know that until the eggs hatch, the flickers are every easily disturbed and very easily irritated. Watching the two flickers sit on their eggs for the last month, without anything hatching, has been stressful to me, and I am sure both the adults, too.

The black-capped chickadees, on the other hand, are right on schedule- I think there are five nestlings now, which is about typical for their first clutch. Based on the nestlings' plumage (similar to adults now) and their tiny voices (starting to sound like chickadees), they are pretty close to fledging.
In our yard chickadees will often have two clutches, not common in chickadees, but not really rare. The neat thing is that the young from the first clutch will often help with the second clutch. Since it has been a cool spring and various things are delayed (flowering, fruiting, bird arrivals, etc...), it will be interesting to see if they have a second clutch.

Monday, June 1, 2009

How to build an urbanite path

Paths are very important features in the landscape. Paths guide visitors but also guide the eye. As a result, they are very strong design elements that must be considered in landscape and garden planning.

As with any path, the more uniform and straight the path is the easier it is to navigate. Knowing how the path will be used is essential.

Paths in a garden can be composed of many different surfaces depending on the aesthetic and intended use. Paths can be formal (wide and uniformly surfaced, like poured concrete), or casual, (small and uneven, like stepping stones). For a garden setting, varying the texture, size and construction of paths can be a useful tool. By varying width, straightness, evenness you can guide visitors through the yard, at different speeds. In a garden it might be important to move slowly and interact with your surroundings, whereas a sidewalk, uniformity, transportation, and safety are important.
In our front yard, the urbanite path is the only way to our front door, so it is a wide, gracious, level (relatively), and easily negotiated path (constructed following the steps outlined below). In contrast, in our sideyard (see above) and backyard, in areas that receives less traffic, the paths are narrower, more uneven, and are less formal. In keeping with the casualness, we placed soil between the concrete to allow yarrow (Achillea millefolium), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and hairy golden aster (Heterotheca villosa) to grow, which we then mow or transplant. This has not been super successful, but not bad either.

Building an "urbanite" path
I resisted using the term “urbanite” for a long time, it seemed kind of trendy and pretentious, instead I like to call it broken concrete, but, alas, I have given in since that is what everyone is calling it now.

Anyway, I digress. It is pretty simple to make an urbanite path and it follows many of the same procedures as any sort of paver path. Since the procedures are the same, and covered in more depth and better in a variety of sources from landscaping books, to online sites, I am not going into too much detail about how to lay a path, but rather considerations for using urbanite and using paths in garden settings.

The real benefit with urbanite is that is it typically free, and is a great use for old unwanted concrete. The key lies, as in most things, in the preparation.


  • Determine how the path will be used
    (e.g., high traffic, formal, main approach to the house or a secondary path)
  • Aesthetic
  • Use the largest pieces tat you can. But since they are really heavy- you might want to have someone help, and consider using a hand truck or furniture dollies to move the big pieces around or even a compact utility loader (see below)
  • Major pieces should be no smaller than two square feet
  • It takes a lot of urbanite for a path, so don’t underestimate the quantity
  • Use 4-6” thick concrete- it is good balance between mass and ease of use, anything thinner is probably too weak, anything thicker may be too heavy
  • Consider adding a curve or two (see these tips).

Where to get urbanite?
Check Craigslist, free classifieds and look around your town for sidewalk replacement projects. Contractors may be able to deliver it to you free of charge or for a slight fee (it will be worth it, if they can deliver it). In many places contractors have to pay for disposal. In Missoula many contractors grind it up or pay to have it ground for road base mix- this is a great use for the material.

What if you have some urbanite on the hoof?
If you already have some concrete you’d like to break up and re-use, I use a sledge, but you can also rent a jackhammer (electric are lighter and easier to use, gas and pneumatic are beasts). If you do rent a power jackhammer, my advice to you is let the hammer do the work- guide it and go with it. It will beat you up. If you use a sledgehammer, you have to do the work, but it is a great stress relief. In any case, regardless of the method you use, wear hearing and eye protection.

If the concrete does not have re-bar or wire mesh, it will be pretty easy to break up. If your concrete does have wire mesh or re-bar, fade back and punt. If it has reinforcement, the problem is that the chunks will be large and unmanageable- you could rent a Bobcat or compact utility loader (these are a lot of fun and it might be worth it to rent one for the heck of it, and just move stuff around, because you can). Again, I digress.

I don’t know of an easy way to tell before you get into it, but typically if is is an old sidewalk, say older than 50 years, it will probably not have reinforcement. If you are unsure call concrete cutting contractors in your area for advice- they will know.

As far as preparation, roughly mark out the path- a garden hose is nice tool for for this. And mark it with spray marking paint. A typical path should be 4’ wide, but less frequently used paths can be as narrow as you like, but try to keep them wider than 1.5’.

How to prepare the site and install an urbanite path
Dig down to a depth that will give you the concrete thickness, +1” sand, and 4-8” of compacted gravel base (using 3/4 minus or road mix). If it is over well-drained soil, or if it is not in a area that is frost prone you can get away with a lesser amount of compacted gravel.
Once you have dug down to the depth, install landscape fabric to keep weeds out and to keep the gravel from working its way into the ground. Also, add edging to the sides of the path to keep the urbanite path from shifting and to keep lawn (if applicable) out of the path. You can either use lawn edging first or specially designed brick or paver edging you can install after the project is complete. Adding edging in advance of the gravel base makes screeding a lot easier and it will provide a constant edge and level line for the project.

The next step is to add the gravel base. Add gravel in 2-3 in lifts, that is, a few inches thick at a time, and compact it, and add another few inches until you have reached the depth of concrete thickness + 1” sand. Screed the gravel to get it roughly level (Finally leveling will be done with the sand and the individual concrete pieces). Set in approximately 1” of sand, and screed again.

Now the fun begins.
Start by setting the concrete chunks next to the path and roughly layout the path in 3-4’ sections. Set the large pieces first and fill in with smaller ones. Spend some time selecting pieces, and have fun with this part. You might have to fine-tune some pieces, and this is easily done with a 2- 3 lb. drilling hammer (also called a fist maul or little sledge hammer), and a cold chisel or brick chisel. For breaking larger pieces, use a 6 lb. sledge. I like a 6 lb. sledge because it is a good balance between precision (small hammer) and mass (big hammer).
Set a few pieces and make any final adjustments by adding or subtracting sand. A rubber mallet is very useful for setting the chunks of concrete. Check the individual pieces for level and make sure they align with one another. Take your time here.
Once all the pieces are installed, spread about ½ inch of sand over the entire walkway and sweep it into the cracks, add more sand and walk on it for a few days and reapply sand as necessary. If you are working with a large area, use a plate compactor to vibrate and set the concrete in the sand and to work the sand into the cracks. In any case, the pieces will shift slightly and sand will fill any voids. After a few days, sweep off the remaining sand and enjoy your project.
Urbanite paths can be a formal or informal (rustic) as you would like or as it suits the rest of your landscape and your personal aesthetic. The thing to keep in mind is that urbanite is just a paving material, and site preparation and planning are essential.