Wednesday, August 26, 2009

8th Street Pocket Park

The 8th Street Pocket Park is a small neighborhood park that uses native plants and landscaping to provide education and outreach to neighbors and students that my wife and I have been working on for the last couple of years. Because of its small size and out of the way location, this little piece of ground was neglected, growing only knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) and dog waste (no Latin binomial necessary). Located between an irrigation ditch and the intersection of 8th and Grant streets, the entire "park" was located in the city's right of way. A few neighbors saw an opportunity to work together and develop a wildflower garden, providing beauty and benefits to the nearby school and surrounding neighborhood.

Our goal was to build and maintain this pocket park as a little piece of wild Montana on the corner of 8th and Grant, by using plants native to the Missoula valley and to provide education & outreach to neighbors and students and a little wildlife habitat in our neighborhood. Our hope was that this park will be enjoyed by passersby, and provide a chance to stop and learn about native plants, and wildlife. To that end we developed and installed interpretive signs (see below), paths to interact and view the landscaping and installed benches to help turn this once weed patch into a destination.

In 2008, we completed the south portion (pictured in this post)of the pocket park (with significant help from a $2,000ish neighborhood grant) and we obtained a grant to complete the park this year by expanding the project by landscaping the east portion of the park. We also hope to continue the strong partnerships and neighborhood cooperation that made the first phase so successful.

The aspect of this project I was most concerned about was that as a public park, I wanted the plants to thrive, for weeding to be minimal, and for it to be a good example of native plant landscaping. My hope was that this would give people ideas for this type of landscaping in their own yards, so as a demonstration garden, this needed to look good. To that end, site preparation was essential, and we spent a lot of time on this.

The first step involved getting rid of noxious weeds through hand-pulling and herbicide treatments. The next step involved using a sod cutter to remove the "grass" (read: dog poop, quack grass, lawn, and dandelions). We installed lawn edging around the perimeter (see photo below), then removed all the sod, waited a few weeks, dug out or pulled everything that germinated, repeated this step again, brought in screened top soil, and compost mix to form hills, planted the area and covered it all with 6" of shredded cedar bark mulch.

From the time it was planted until the end of the growing season, we watered the little park every other day heavily. Since October 2008, we have not irrigated it, and have had only one weeding night. The plants have thrived and I think this has been a great public garden example.

Below part of the park is shown, August 2008, after the area was planted.
Below is a picture of the same area in August 2009, after just one year of growth.

Below is just one of several interpretive signs...Again, the same location one year later.This is one of the only "before" pictures we have. Again, you can never take too many pictures before you begin a project- I never take enough (see my lament here). Below, volunteers are installing lawn edging and laying out the split rail cedar fence, in spring 2008. This picture was taken after we removed noxious weeds, so it actually looks like a lawn here- seeing the area as a lawn, in itself, was a lot of work and represented a lot of progress.This picture is taken roughly the same location in early spring 2009, and if you look closely you can see a black-capped chickadee on the nest box. This spring a pair excavated this box and raised a clutch- success!Below is roughly the same location in August 2009- plants thrived, despite no irrigation in 2009.
Since education and outreach were our primary goals of this project, we installed several interpretive signs in this little park. These signs provide information about the history of the park, the partnerships, as well as natural history of the area and specifically about native plants and wildlife found in the park. Below are examples of two of the six interpretive signs.
Also pictured above is a National Wildlife Federation wildlife habitat sign. This park is certified as Backyard Wildlife Habitat because it incorporates the following elements: food, water, cover, places to raise young, sustainable gardening practices, native plants.

Our neighborhood is deficient in parks and open spaces. Landscaping this site transformed existing public space from an unusable state into an attractive pocket park. While the final product of this effort meets a community need (more park space), the process of creating the native plant landscape also meets community needs.

My wife has been working with the local elementary school through the Flagship Program, an after school program for neighborhood children, and has lead field trips for dozens of children to this little garden. She has gone to classrooms to teach kids about native plants, has had them grow plants that we later transplanted to the park, and has had children help pant and weed this park for the last couple of years .

This project was also shared goal of the Montana Native Plant Society and the University of Montana's natural areas integrated plant management program (my wife's program) to provide education and outreach about native plants and their conservation. Despite the small size of this park, it has addressed multiple community needs, and it is a long way from its former state of knapweed, dog waste, and neglect.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Build a suet feeder in five minutes

If you have about five minutes to spare, here are instructions for building a suet feeder for birds this fall/winter. As part of the native plant and wildlife gardening workshop I taught at BOW a couple of weekends ago, I built these simple suet feeders with the class and people really liked them. It is a very simple feeder I have been using for 10 years or so, and it is the main feeder we use in the winter. Although I do have mixed feeling for bird feeders (click here for more information and more thoughts on bird feeders), I'm pretty comfortable using this one. The lack of perches and the placement of suet holes deter non-native birds like house sparrows, European starlings, and house finches. Those species like to perch on something while they eat, but native birds feed on suet and in the cavities and crevices of trees are "clingers" and are used to walking up and down trees.

These feeders are very easy to build (a great project for kids), and they are surprisingly effective for a variety of native birds including chickadees, nuthatches, brown creepers, many species of woodpeckers, and even juncos. I think the reason these feeders are so effective is that they mimic the trees (since they are, in fact, made of trees) that many native birds use for natural foods like insects and spider eggs. So, it is no surprise that birds have the search image of a log with treats inside.

Pictured below is everything you need to make one of these suet feeders- a log , a screw eye (I use #6), a drill bit to pre-drill the hole for the screw eye, and spade bit to drill holes for suet (1"- 1 1/4" ), and a drill.

Start with selecting a log. Any size will work (at least 8" long), the taller the better and at least 4" in diameter. It is nice to have a variety of sizes in your garden, some small ones that will only accommodate little birds like nuthatches, and some larger that will satisfy big woodpeckers.

Drill a pilot hole in one end for the screw eye.

Install the screw eye. Now you are almost done!

Then, bore out holes for the suet. Place as many as you'd like, and drill them about 1" deep. Try to keep the upper holes at least 4" from the top, so non-native birds won't be able to perch on the top and reach down into the holes.

Load the cavities with suet- it is easiest, but messiest to do this when the suet is room temperature.

Install and watch for birds- let me know how they work.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Time series and change in our back yard: garden design workship

It is always amazing how quickly things change in the garden. I routinely make the same mistake and don't take enough "before" pictures. It is always fun and educational to look back on how the garden has changed, and I thank Nan Ondra at Gardening Gone Wild for this opportunity to reflect on changes in our garden. This month's Garden Blogger Design Workshop is titled "Time in a Garden" and the idea is to examine the effect of time on your garden. If you haven't visited Gardening Gone Wild, this is a great opportunity. It is a fantastic website/ blog covering a lot of information and has really interesting posts.

The photo at the beginning of this post and the one immediately below are taken of roughly the same location, nine years apart. Both are looking to the northeast corner of our back yard, and to me really show the dramatic change in our yard. It also is a reminder of how I need to take more "before" pictures. Even this "before" picture was after we removed a dog house, cut down waist high weeds and began removing lawn and installing native plant garden beds.
Below I have a series of pictures from 2000- 2009 from two angles.

June 2001 - The first angle is looking north from our backdoor. By the pose and the proud look on our faces, I think we thought we were done landscaping, and we were eager to just sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor. It is too bad we did not take any pictures before this- we had lived in the house for two years by 2001, and had done a bunch of work in the back yard. We installed the vegetable garden, reduced lawn, added native plant garden beds, and more. Nevertheless, there are plenty of changes in the photos that follow.

May 2004- I guess we did not sit for too long. Here you can see we added raised beds to the vegetable garden, and expanded all our native plant garden beds.
June 2004- We expanded some beds more and realigned the path. Click here for a post on how to build an urbanite path of your own.

June 2005- The changes here included replacing a lilac with a hammock stand in the back part of the yard, and expanding some beds even more. July 2008- We kept expanding the garden beds and made the lawn even smaller.
July 2009- Building the greenhouse was the biggest change, but we continued to expand the garden beds and shrink what little lawn we had left.
April 2000- This view is also of our backyard, looking to the northwest, and primarily shows our vegetable garden.
May 2004- We added raised beds and a grape arbor, started more native plant beds, and removed more lawn. July 2005- We expanded the native plant beds, and painted our house, garage and bat house.
July 2009- More native plants and a more mature landscape.
A lot has changed in our landscape over the last nine years, and it was all done incrementally, and even some areas, installed, and reinstalled over that time. I hope this inspires some of you to tackle your own projects- just remember to take some pictures before you begin!

Monday, August 3, 2009

A new chapter in the quaking aspen and longhorn beetle story

The longhorn beetles aka aspen or poplar borers (Saperda calcarata) have hatched and lots of animals are after the larvae before they burrow deep into the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). This is just another chapter in the fascination ecology of quaking aspen and longhorn beetles. In order to determine how long it takes for the eggs to hatch, I labeled the places where female aspen borers laid their eggs (click here for more information), and I have been periodically checking back in on the egg masses (yes, this is the kind of thing I wonder about).

It turns out, it takes about 2.5 weeks for the larvae to hatch (which is consistent with the literature). I first noticed they hatched when I saw ants congregating around the egg mass locations, pulling the newly hatched larvae out (see photo below).All this activity on the aspen did not go unnoticed. Soon, bald-faced hornets moved in, displacing the ants, feeding on the larvae. And, if you recall, this is where the whole story began, with bald faced hornets chewing bark to mix saliva to make their nests.

It did not take long before any of the surviving larvae burrowed deeper into the cambium, protected from ants or bald-faced hornets. However, still shallow in the trunk or branches of the aspen, they are easy prey for woodpeckers. Last night a hairy woodpecker showed up. You can see in the photo at the beginning of the post and below this male hairy quickly drilled a hole into the aspen and spent the evening eating the borer larvae.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

BOW Native Plant Gardening workshop information

Thank you all that were in my class today at Montana Becoming an Outdoor Woman (BOW) summer program. I hope the native plant gardening class was useful and inspired all sorts of gardening and wildlife landscaping ideas. As promised, here are some of the books and references I talked about in the class:

The Magic of Montana Native Plants: A Gardeners Guide to Growing over 150 Species from Seed- Sheila Morrison

Bringing Nature Home- Douglas Tallamy

The Not So Big House series- Sarah Susankah
- Examples: Creating the Not So Big House, Inside the Not So Big House, and all the others

Fine Gardening Design Guides
–Example: Gardening in Small Spaces

Best of Fine Gardening Series
–Example: Garden Rooms

Shrink Your Lawn- Evelyn Hadden

Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards- Sara Stein

Paradise by Design, Native Plants and the New American Landscape- Kathryn Phillips

The Forgotten Pollinators- Buchmann, Nabhan, and Mirocha

Landscaping Ideas of Jays- Judith Larner Lowry

Gardening with a Wild Heart -Judith Larner Lowry

Also, here are links to some posts on this blog that we discussed int he class

It was wonderful to see such a diverse group attending Montana BOW this year- it is a wonderful program. At breakfast and lunch I was really impressed by what a great time people were having and I really enjoyed everyone's enthusiasm for the workshops they participated in .