Monday, July 27, 2009

Even native plant gardens need maintenance

Even native plant gardens need maintenance. All too often I see native plants advertised as "low-" or "no-maintenance". Although it is true plants native to your area will require less maintenance than conventional, generic plants (that is, those not suited for a particular climate or locale), they do require some maintenance in a garden setting. As I often remind people, it is "xeri-scape" not "zero-scape".

Inherently, periodic care, cultivation or just maintenance defines a "garden" and distinguishes it from a natural area. Perhaps instead of "maintenance free", native plant gardens should be thought of, and referred to, as "less resource intensive". This is probably a more accurate, and appropriate descriptor, since, in their native environment, native plants do not need soil amendments, fertilizers, pesticides, protetction from hot summers or cold winters, and additional water (once established), but they do require care.

I think that the lack of attention people pay to native plant gardens does a disservice to promoting native plants as landscape alternatives, especially when the aesthetic is a departure from the accepted norm. The norm being the French or English garden of a manicured lawn, and a few specimen trees. As I have mentioned in past posts (read: ranted), native plant gardens need to be thoughtful and consider the same design elements as any landscape. Having a native plant garden is not an excuse to to have an unkempt garden.

Maintenance for a native plant garden may be for a variety of reasons including: aesthetics, "tidiness", to promote undergrowth, to deadhead and prolong the bloom (though this is not very effective in our climate since we do not water), to maintain diversity of plant species and structure, or so some flowers don't set seed.

As far as letting flowers go to seed or restricting them from seeding, I do a combination. I like to leave a lot of seed heads on plants for birds, and insects but not necessarily all of them. For example, showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus), three-vaned fleabane (Erigeron subtrinervis), and hairy golden aster (Heterotheca villosa), and others are prolific seeders, and without management they would probably end up dominating the garden. So, in certain areas of the garden I cut them back to limit their spread. However, they are easy to grow, beautiful flowers, so I many places I am not too disappointed if they take over. Others, like blue flax (Linum lewisii) and bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), I manage more intensively (see "What is a weed" and "Shades of blue" posts for more information).

Seeds of blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata), and many aster and erigeron species (I can't necessarily tell many of them apart), get eaten by pine siskens late in the winter. Some seeds, like balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and narrow-leaf collomia (Collomia linnearis), get eaten almost immediately by beetles and shield bugs.
This evening I did a lot of, what I call "non-technical" pruning. I cleared out several paths (see photos above and below) that had be overgrown by flowers, and reshaped many plants to provide depth, and diversity to the landscape. To me, this is the fun part of gardening- reshaping and redefining spaces. Plus it is fun to just experiment and "putter" about the garden.

Below is an example of hairy golden aster stems, flowers and seeds I use as a mulch. I placed the seed heads and flowers of hairy golden aster cuttings over soil in a area I just planted as a base layer of mulch. This will help hold in soil moisture, retard weed establishment and seed the area with hairy golden aster. I will add a thin top coat of shredded bark mulch to complete the planting. I have tried this a few times with hairy golden aster and it works well.
After pruning, you are left with a lot of trimmings (see photo at the top of the post) and what to do with all the plant material can be an issue and daunting. Any leafy plants, I just compost, but plants with tough or nearly woody stems I just add to the brush piles in the yard we keep for wildlife. Apart from the benefits to many wildlife species, brush piles are wonderful features in the garden to contain the surprising amount of biomass even a small xeri-scaped yard can produce.

Friday, July 24, 2009


I live in a green home. My home is not special, nor was it marketed as an example of “green” building. Like hundreds of houses in Missoula, it was built in the 1940's using durable materials (intended last 100+ years). Its construction contributed to the local economy and was made from locally available, sustainable materials. The wood was harvested by local workers from local forests and milled locally. It is small by today’s standards, but it is a great, useful space and occupies a small footprint, and we do not need bigger house.

I do not have an on demand water heater, fiber cement siding, photovoltaic panels, solar hot water (though I’d like to), low VOC paint, bamboo flooring (I could rant about this greenwash sometime), sustainably harvested exotic wood decking or all the other trendy “green” building products. However, when I moved into it, my entire home was 100% reused.

To me this is the best way to promote “green” building: buy a home that is already in place. It is surprisingly simple, yet in much of the green literature this view is not expressed. I think the first step in green building should be “build nothing”. But that probably won’t sell too well.
Inherently, buying, remodeling or renovating an existing home, is less impactful, less resouce intensive, and more sustainable than new construction.

I was very disappointed to read a story about green building in a magazine at the airport recently that was devoted to the topic. One article was devoted to questions and answers about how to build green. This question caught my eye, it went something like this, and I will paraphrase:

Question: Can my existing home be green or can I green it?

Answer: Maybe, but you will probably be better off building a new one and incorporating all the green features you desire.

After catching my breath and counting to three, I have to allow that, in fairness, there is some molecule of truth to this. Some things are more cost effective or practicable with new vs. existing construction. And there are a lot of limitations (read: opportunities or potential from my perspective) with my old house. For example, the walls are only 2x4 construction, location on the lot does not provide a great location for PV panels or solar hot water, when poured, my foundation was not insulated, and these things are difficult to change.

However, because of decisions we have made and our lifestyle, our home is energy efficient and “green”. Compared to other homes, we use very little water, gas and electricity and every year we strive to and do use less and less. We make improvements to the efficiency to reduce your demand, and it has been working.

As we have remodeled we have tried to be thoughtful about our choices for building materials and energy efficiency. We recently installed a metal roof after eking out all possible life from the existing roof, replaced the worst leaking windows and those on the south face of our home with efficient low e glass. We even painted our house rather than installing new siding, since our ugly siding was in perfect shape and will probably last forever (unfortunately). Throughout our remodeling projects we use reused and recycled materials whenever possible, and from local sources. We have been slowly upgrading to all energy efficient appliances, as our budget allows and as the appliances that came with the place succumb to old age. Our biggest remodel is our basement; will be mostly made from reused materials.

Obviously green building is a business, and it is a concept that is selling now. For many, building green has nothing to do with sustainable living, but is a way to justify living unsustainably. The bottom line is building and living green does not have to be expensive. We can make simple choices and thoughtful decisions, most of which require no money but often require difficult changes. I am sure many of you live in green homes, too. The biggest things you can do to green your home or life are often free.

And don’t forget your native plant garden for local wildlife.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Greenhouse in the heat: greenhouse operation update

It was 100 degrees today in Missoula, summer is here, and the greenhouse is fairing well. I installed a shade cloth a couple of days ago (see photo above), to help moderate temperatures, but mainly to reduce the intense, glaring sun, rather than for cooling. Actually, despite the high temperatures, the greenhouse is staying relatively cool. By relative I mean less than 120 degrees, and this maximum has not changed in a few months.

I was curious how the greenhouse would do in the summer, and in May we were already getting temperature in the 110's (yes, I do monitor the temperature daily, hourly in fact, with a wireless thermometer that uploads data to my computer). These temperatures are at about 7', most plants are actually cooler, growing from the floor of the greenhouse.

I designed the greenhouse for the winter, and for the low winter sun. The roof angle is pretty steep to intercept the low sun, and the west wall is not fully glazed. The north wall, and north facing roof is conventionally framed and insulated (click here for more information).

Because of the steep roof angle, and glazing only on one face, thermal gain in the greenhouse in the summer (when the sun is higher in the sky), is not as much as you'd expect and a lot less than with a lower pitched roof, or with a conventionally designed greenhouse or commercially available or kit greenhouse.

Since windows on the west and east sides are set pretty low, in the afternoon in the summer the west side provides shade. In the winter, because of the low sun angle and the sun's position further south, the sun won't even hit much of the west wall and only for a brief amount of time.

Cooling greenhouses in the summer is normally a bigger issue than getting it hot enough. As a result, I planned on venting the greenhouse with a solar louver vents on the gale ends, a solar window opener on the east end, and a thermostatically controlled exhaust fan. After the results for far, I am not sure the exhaust fan will be necessary, though I will have to look a little more at my temperature data as the summer goes on.
So far so good. I have been really happy with my design, but we'll see what happens in the winter and how well the compost furnace works. Although I am really into the design, operation and construction of the greenhouse, my wife is more interested in using it and enjoying it.

Four flicker fledglings feasting...

...on service berries, chokecherries, dogwood berries, and, of course, ants. All the fledgelings have been traveling as a group and feeding together. It is a riot to watch them. They spend a lot of time eating service berries in our yard with a robin (I think it is the same robin, but I have no idea really).

In other fledgling news, as I tweeted the other day, the chickadees fledged while I was at work. This seems to be how the year is going, between the flickers fledging, the first clutch of chickadees fledging, the bitterroots flowering and now the second clutch of chickadees all fledging when I am at work.

To outsmart the little chickadees, I recently got a mini wildlife camera and I hoped to get it running before they fledged, but I didn't. The main reason for the nest cams is to mount them inside nest boxes and I'll do that this winter- one in the flicker box and one in one of the chickadee/ nuthatch boxes. I will have a link on the blog for streaming video. More on this in the winter...
As I predicted, the second clutch fledged much quicker than the first. The second clutch only took 17 days from hatching to fledging. Normally the first clutch fledges about 20-22 days after hatching.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Quaking aspen, longhorn beetles, and the wildlife that love them

Based on searches directing people to this blog, adult aspen borers (Saperda calcarata) are very active in people's yards and on their quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) trees right now. The insects themselves are fascinating, beautiful and downright crazy-looking. And although I love the intrinsic value of having the borers using the trees in our yard to complete their life-cycle, the complexity of their relationship to other species is enormous. As I have mentioned, aspen are probably the most important plant species in our yard for attracting and providing the needs for diverse species of insects and birds.

The photo above is of an adult Lorquin's Admiral (Limenitis lorquini) in the picture it is feeding on the sap from the damage the larval borers cause. Likely it is also drawn to the aspen to lay eggs; Populus species are the host plant for Lorquin's Admiral caterpillars.
Adult borer activity probably peaked in our yard a week or so ago, but a few adults (see below)can still be found mating and gravid females laying eggs (like the one above). I have received some wonderful comments from people (some on some blog posts and some via email), that are finding a new appreciation for these animals.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Chickadee second clutch update

The black-capped chickadee's second clutch hatched on July 5, so in 2-3 weeks the young will fledge.

Although having two clutches is common behavior for black-capped chickadees in our yard (they have two clutches almost every year), in general, it is not common for black-capped chickadees. This behavior has been reported for related parids, including Mexican chickadees, and tufted titmice.

Usually, the second clutch is smaller, and fledges sooner, than the first clutch, usually closer to 14-16 days, rather than the 20- 23 days it typically takes the first clutch to fledge. Interestingly, this year, the adults re-excavated the box and removed the nesting material from the first nest- they usually just build right on top of it.

Having a second clutch with fewer chickadees makes sense, since fecundity or clutch size
is related to fitness. After the adults raise their first clutch, they are pretty worn out. That is why it is a bit unusual for black-capped chickadees to have another clutch. The reason for the second clutch might speak to the relatively easy living conditions the chickadees find in town or the result of a behavior that is learned.
Often adults will have a second clutch if there are few fledglings from the first clutch or catastrophe of some sort happens, but this is not he cases with these- there are six fledgelings from the first clutch (this is a lot- normally there are 4-5).
Soon the young from the first clutch will help collect food for the nestlings from the second clutch. This behavior may be reason the adults can have two clutches- that they are getting assistance in raising the second clutch. Though right now the adults are doing all the food gathering, and the young are following them around, picking and pecking at random things mimicking the activities of the adults.

Though a little more esoteric, the large clutch size from the first clutch, which is typically in our yard, is the result of chickadees that excavated a nest, rather than reused a cavity or nest in an already existent cavity (as a secondary cavity nester would). Unlike other parids (including the mountain chickadee that also occurs here), black-capped chickadees, will, and in many cases, prefer to excavate their own cavities for nesting.

There has been a hypothesis that clutch size was related to whether a bird excavates their own cavity and black-capped chickadees are the perfect subject for study since they may do either. The thought is that there is a caloric expense to excavation, therefore, the clutch size would be smaller for a primary excavator or a pair that excavates their own cavity, and larger for a primary excavator that uses an existing cavity. Obviously, you can't infer much from a sample size of one (the pair annually nesting in our yard), but it is pretty interesting, nevertheless.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Greenhouse update

It's been a little over a month since I built this greenhouse and my wife is really enjoying it. Here are some pictures showing the changes and growth over the last month. The garden has really filled in around the greenhouse, and if you didn't know better, you'd think it was here for a lot longer. It is really neat to look back on the progress.

Not surprisingly, the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and basil have grown a lot.

Probably the biggest difference we have seen between our vegetables grown outside the greenhouse and inside has been the basil and eggplants. We have already harvested a lot of Thai basil, and the plants have already grown new leaves and are ready to be harvested again.

Lots of varieties of Thai peppers are doing great in the heat (see above).

The interior shelves and organization has changed a lot since I built the greenhouse, and this is by design. It is really nice having adjustable and removable shelving to accommodate a variety of tasks and also to accommodate plants as they grow. The tomato and eggplant cage above has replaced a shelf, but in the winter, the shelf will go back and the tomato cage will be replaced by a cold frame.

Garden tool closet

Here are some pictures of the newest addition to our garden- a garden tool closet. It is smaller than a shed (about 2 x 3 1/2 feet), and occupies a tiny footprint, but has room to store a lot of garden tools.

I like the name "closet" because it speaks to its diminutive stature, and when I told people I was building a shed for the backyard, the response was the same "where are you going to fit it?". There is plenty of space in any yard to put such a small structure.

As you can tell, it bears a resemblance to its big sibling- the style and colors were inspired by the greenhouse (below you can see the closet looming over its kin's shoulder). The closet also acts as a focal point, drawing you into the back yard, especially if you need a shovel.

I used some materials left over from building the greenhouse, but mainly I just wanted another project to build. Excepts for one quart of paint, all the materials were re-used and just and all were from Home Resource. Including the can of paint, it cost $135, although this is a fraction of what the materials would have cost new, to me the real benefit is using materials for this project that are recycled- in some cases many times.

For example, I built the greenhouse roof using metal roofing I got at Home Resource. When I bought the roofing it was used before I got it. After completing the greenhouse, I took my leftover roofing to Home Resource, and then when I started building the tool closet, I went back and purchased it again (I have a few scraps left and I'll bring it back there for hopefully the last time- for me)! Josh, the manager, laughed that there was probably no carbon left in that tin roof.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

and the story continues...

I could hear their chewing from across the yard. Granted, we have a small yard, but they are small animals, too. The chewing I heard was the female aspen or poplar borer beetle (Saperda calcarata) enlarging a hole in the bark of one of our quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) to lay eggs of a new generation of long horn beetles. Over the last couple of weeks, the adult borer beetles have been mating in our yard, and the females have been laying eggs. One of our aspen, one we planted about nine-years ago is finally starting to succumb to the damage the borers are causing, and I am totally fine with this. Aspen are some of the most interesting and important trees in our yard, not because of the trees themselves but rather for the complex role they play in wildlife in our garden (read here).

Back to the dying aspen, ... I am actually looking forward to this aspen trunk dying (it is one of the largest trees in our yard) and becoming a standing snag (read here for more info). The diameter of this aspen is such that a black-capped chickadee or red-breasted nuthtacth could excavate a nest in its trunk, and there is already some progress to that end. As a result of the aspen borer life cycle, downy woodpeckers excavate the larvae in the late winter/ early spring when the larvae are close to the surface. The holes that the small woodpeckers create later become the beginnings of a cavity that chickadees and nuthatches will enlarge and excavate.
Even though this trunk is dying, this one has suckered and spread (a response to stress) and before long, a new aspen (or several will take its place). So by letting the borers do the work, we get several new aspen, a new snag, a lot of entertainment and wildlife habitat.