Saturday, November 19, 2011

Make your own native plant suet for the birds in your garden

Making your own suet for a backyard suet feeder is a fun project for the fall.  Suet, by the way, is animal fat, and it is a popular winter bird food. You can buy suet for bird feeders in the store, and often they have berries or insects or nuts mixed in.  "Suet" technically refers to the animal product (fat) but in the context of bird feeding, it refers to the fat plus whatever else is in there. More on fat later.

With the holiday season coming, homemade suet combined with an easy to make suet feeder is a great holioday gift for your bird-loving friends, or a holiday gift to the birds in your garden.  Plus, it is great way to use an otherwise unused product (tallow aka fat).

I am not a huge fan of bird feeders (click here for some thoughts on why), but I do set out a few suet feeders in the winter.  The main reason I don't like bird feeders is that they are not really effective if your goal is to get a lot of diversity.  Of the 60 species of birds that use our garden, less than 20% use the feeders.  Birds come to the garden for the structure, for the native plants and for insects, seeds, and berries, not the bird feeders.  However in the winter, the birds we are likely to encounter in the garden eat suet and need the high calories and fat it provides, and winter is an important time to consider your wildlife garden.  Suet is a natural food that in the wild (before backyard feeders were invented) comes from animal carcasses- either as a result of natural death (old age),winter kill or predators.  This is a seasonally importatnt source of food for a variety of birds ranging from little nuthatches and chickadees to ravens and magpies (and bald eagles, though we don't get them in our garden).

My favorite suet feeder is a rib cage.  It might look odd, but the birds recognize it!  Click here for more information)

Making your own suet is easy, and free, especially if your hunt or have access to suet.  A word about suet- there are many kinds of animal fat, and here I use the term "suet" to describe tallow, or the thick, chalky, white fat found just below the hide on an animal that provides them with insulation.  This is the least palatable of the fats and is discarded when butchering game.  Tallow covers the back and hind quarters and the rump of animals.  This is different from other types of fat, and is not "trim" which contains meat that you might get from a butcher to mix in with ground meat for burger.

If you butcher your own animals, you know what this is and you have a source for it, but even if you don't, or don't have a friend that hunts, you can still get this from the butcher (it is really cheap).  Just make sure to explain what you are looking for and what you are using it for.  You don't want to get anything that has meat on it.

Anyway, back to the bird food.  Below are all the ingredients we used today, and I got these from a quick lap around our garden- blue elderberries (Sambucus cerulea), rose hips from Wood's rose (Rosa woodsii), and mountain ash berries (Sorbus scoulina).  All native plants.

This brings up another reason I don't like conventional bird foods and mixes you get in the store: they contain plants that are either not suited to the native birds you might be trying to attract or there are weed seeds in the mix.  By using native plants you are guaranteed weeds won't be spread around.  Rose hips and elderberries are some of ther last berries to get eaten- birds seem to rely on freezing to make them more palatable.

If you don't have any berries or seeds in your garden, this is a great opportunity to get outside and look for what is available in your area.  And while to are out there, see if you can find a log for a suet feeder (see below).

This is what the tallow looks like.
The next step is optional.  I like to run the tallow through a grinder through a coarse grinding plate.  This breaks it down to uniform pieces and makes the rendering go quicker and smoother.
Here is the coarsely ground tallow.
The key to rendering the tallow is to melt it over a low heat.  You just want to melt the fat, do not boil it or cook it.  Stir it frequently, and, as is liquefies, and add more.  Once it is all rendered you could skim the top to get out any dirt, meat or cartilage, or if you really want, you could run it through a sieve, strainer or cheese cloth.  I don't think it is really necessary, though.

Add the nuts or berries to the rendered tallow and mix it thoroughly.  Again, you don't need to cook it, just make sure it is mixed and smooth.  There are many suet recipes that suggest adding flour or corn starch, but I don't think it is really necessary.

Once it is all mixed, ladle into a form that best fits you suet feeder.  My favorite suet feeder (apart from a rib cage) is really simple to make and is really enjoyed by the birds.  Click here for more information on how to build it, but all it is is a log with some 1-2" deep holes drilled into it.
Because of these cavities I like to put the suet into ice cube trays.  Each hole in the suet feeder is about the size of an ice cube, so it makes the kind of messy job of filling the feeder, easy.
Set the suet outside to cool , and then fill up and install your suet feeder.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Spontaneous Construction

Yesterday our team (Butterfly Properties- our garden coaching business) spent the day participating (or as our friend and teammate Barry would say "competing") in Spontaneous Construction.  This is an annual event at Home ReSource that is all about creative and adaptive reuse.  It is a wonderful event and fun for kids and adults.  Contestants have six hours to build anything from materials found in Home ReSource.    This year was our first time in the building competition and we built a mobile garden cloche (little greenhouse).  

Abe Coley, contest registrar, registers a contestant 
Our little mobile greenhouse (actually 3 items in 1- see below), was selected as one of the contenders for the grand prize.  The prize determination will be revealed at a benefit auction on November 10th at the Missoula Winery.  At the auction, among other things, you'll be able to bid on our mini greenhouse and all the other top pieces that were built yesterday. All of them will be on display at Home ReSource (1515 Wyoming Street), until November 10, so you can stop by and check them all out.

We wanted to build something for the garden that was functional and beautiful that was made from from  discarded building materials.  All the wood for the greenhouse was painted redwood (you'd never know it from the paint) deck balusters, and the frame was built out of an ugly steel fence.  The glazing was single pane glass- and there is always tons of this at Home ReSource, ready to be cut up and put to use.

Six hours is not a lot of time. For maximum efficiency, we divided up tasks- Barry did the metalwork, I did the woodwork and glass cutting, and Marilyn did the site cleanup and all the painting.
We dressed up the cart with some shelf brackets and even garden shears for the handles (below).

The greenhouse (displayed in front of the proud team, Barry Cummings, Marilyn Marler, and me), is actually three items in one.  It can be used as a mobile greenhouse (as is), you can remove the greenhouse and use it directly on the ground as a cold frame, and then you can use the cart as a very study, heavy-duty garden cart.
The cart features 20" solid rubber wheels, and is made with 1" square steel tubing, expertly welded and fabricated by Barry.  The floor of the greenhouse is expanded steel for drainage.

Home ReSource is a wonderful place thanks to all the hard work, vision and dedication of its staff and supporters in the community.  Below is Lauren, the co- founder and co- director, his wife Aimee and father Larry.

Simon, the longest tenured of the many dedicated staff members.  Staff at the store are more recognizable now with the new, handsome uniforms.

And Matt Hisel (addressing the contestants, going over the rules for the contest), the other Home ReSource visionary- the co-founder, co-director and organizer for this years' event and fundraiser. 

It was a fun time with activities for all ages and creative interests (art, music, community, ice cream and more).

I hope to see you on November 10th for the Benefit Auction!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Brown Roof; a Green Roof Update

Apparently brown is the new green.  This isn't really surprising though, and the golden grasses look appropriately colored for this time of the year.  After a wet and unseasonably cool spring and early summer, it's been hot and dry for weeks and it looks like the same is in store for weeks to come.

Everything is dormant now, in the hills and prairies around Missoula, and in our native plant garden, too, save for some goldenrod (Solidago rigida, and S. canadensis), blanketflower (Gaillardia arristata),  fleabane (Erigeron spp.) and hairy golden aster (Heterotheca villosa)

In my last update about the green roof on July 5, I said I'd water it once a week to get it established.  I didn't.  I guess that is one of the downsides of planting things on a roof is that they are easily overlooked. It is a little startling to look back to the first week of July and see how much the roof has changed- I'd forgotten it was so lush (see photo below).  And that happens every year.

I think the plants are fine, though.  If you look closely through the brown of the roof, a little life is showing itself.

Despite the temperatures in the mid 90's, the days are shorter, the nights longer, and and soon rubber rabbit brush (Ericameria nauseosa) will flower, and that takes us into fall.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Garden "weeding": preparation for fall planting

The culprit: a Wilcox's penstemon too close to a path. A good plant in a bad place.
 A question I get asked a lot is how much time I spend weeding the garden.  This is a really interesting question and it brings up all sorts of issues from "what is a weed", to people's notion of what maintaining their landscape or yard means.  Unfortunately, to many homeowners, maintaining their yard is a chore that only involves mowing, watering and weeding- most of which are detested by their owners.  So, when you see our garden, people notice that I don't mow, probably recognize that I don't water it, and so the only thing left for me to do must be to weed it. Weeding a lawn or garden is often the only way people interact with their landscape, and this saddens me a little, but it is a really interesting concept, too.

The time I spend maintaining our landscape is not work, or drudgery or something I dread.  Instead, in the native plant garden, it is an activity I love.  I look forward to it.  It is a way of exploring, discovering, and working on the aesthetic.  Seldom do I mow or "weed".  Well, I do weed the garden a lot, but weeding is probably a different activity than people think.  A "weed" is simply an unwanted plant (click here for more information).  In our garden, most of the weeding I do is to remove native plants that are coming up in the "wrong" place. Typically it s usually a tall plant that ends up coming up in a place I want a short one, like next to a path.  Or plants that sprout where I just don't want them.

 It is actually rare that we have non-native garden weeds.  This is surprising to many and it is probably the result of our site preparation, the fact that we don't water, and by removing all of our lawn, we have limited the source of non-native weeds.  What we are left with though is a strong source of native plants.

My typical strategy is to dig up the young plants, pot them up and put them in our "nursery" for a couple of weeks.  There I baby them- water them daily and take good care of them (both of which don't happen in the landscape!).  After a couple of weeks, I'll plant them out in the garden in their new location.  I try to do this when the weather is favorable and if possible, try to time it around some rain.  Usually this is the main activity of mine in the spring, but fall is another great time to plant, and in preparation for September, I am digging stuff up and putting it in the nursery now.
Our nursery full of weeds.
It is not much to look at now, but in a few weeks they will be looking good and ready to get out in the garden.  Lots of new, free, desirable plants, no longer "weeds".

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Community Native Plant Garden Volunteerism: International Edition

A guest post by David's wife.
We just got home from a week in Glacier & Waterton Lakes National Parks. Together the parks have been designated an International Peace Park because of efforts to manage the landscape cooperatively, and because the shared boundary between the parks (Glacier in Montana, USA, and Waterton Lakes in Alberta, Canada) is the longest stretch of unprotected border between the two nations. It's a nice feeling. The parks are completely breathtaking. We did a lot of hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing, and of course, we volunteered at the native plant garden in the Waterton townsite.

Yes, that's right, there is a beautiful native plant demonstration garden right in downtown Waterton. And because we were on a charmed trip (staying in the Prince of Wales Hotel for a few nights, backpacking back and forth across the Canada-USA border, spotting 11 bears on the trip, seeing not only two white-tailed ptarmigan on the Carthew Ridge, but also TWO pomeranians- Chester and Sadie) it worked out that we were there in time to participate in the weekly volunteer sessions. Can you believe it? I know!

When we found out about the volunteer night at the garden, we were all over it. Volunteer nights in the garden are fairly new (Friday from 3-5 pm), and are led by Parks Canada Interpretive Specialist David Musto. Lois from Lethbridge is a regular volunteer in this and other plant restoration projects in Waterton (both are pictured below). We enjoyed visiting with them, exchanging ideas about community garden projects.

We loved the garden. It surrounds an old cottage-y style government building and has huge swathes of goldenrod (Solidago spp.), fireweed (Epilobium angustifolia), asters (Aster spp.) and blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata). Penstemons (Penstemon confertus, and other P. spp.) and dryas (Dryas octopetala) were in seed.

We spent some time weeding familiar things like black medic and cheatgrass. I was just getting set to go after some quackgrass when it was already time to go.

It's a wonderful project and I hope that people will participate as part of the outstanding interpretative programs offered in the park.  If you are going to Waterton, stop by and check it out! 

And now for the important, local segue...

If you aren't going to be in Waterton, there is a similar awesome volunteer opportunity for you just south of the border here in Missoula.  This Thursday August 18th from 6:30-8:00pm we're having a volunteer night at the 8th Street Native Plant Pocket Park.  Tasks include collecting seeds, pulling some bindweed, and a general cutting back of things (for aesthetics). Here is the link to the Facebook event:

and of course we want you to go to the new Facebook Fan Page for the Pocket Park and "Like" it.

See you there, or right here on the blog. Happy Late Summer and best wishes to our international friends working on urban native plant gardens.  We just found a like minded project in Chile thanks to the wonders of Facebook. We're happy to see people everywhere embracing their native species in urban areas. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

BOW Native Plant Gardening Class Wrap-up

Thanks so much to all the participants in today's Montana BOW Native Plant Gardening Class and Garden Tour. It is always wonderful to meet so many interested and enthusiastic people. I wanted to especially thank Liz Lodman and Barb Furlong for continuing to organize such a wonderful program.  I look forward to teaching again at a Montana BOW workshop in the future.

Here is a link to the presentation I gave:  
Click here to download the presentation
Below are some links to blog posts I covered in class or referenced in discussions.
Below are some of the books and references I talked about in the class:
  • Prairie-style gardens- Lynn Steiner
  • The American Meadow Garden- John Greenlee
  • Front Yard Gardens: Growing more than grass- Liz Primeau
  • The Magic of Montana Native Plants: A Gardeners Guide to Growing over 150 Species from Seed- Sheila Morrison
  • Bringing Nature Home- Douglas Tallamy
  • 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

Another opportunity to learn about native plant gardening!
The Native Plant Garden at 8th and Grant
Also, I forgot to mention in the class today, but you all are invited to join us for more seed collecting and to learn more about native plant gardening.  On August 18, from 6:30-8:00 pm, we are having a gardening night at a small neighborhood native plant garden my wife and I installed and have been maintaining (see the photo above).  Stay tuned for a blog post about this upcoming event, but, if you can't wait, you can RSVP to the event via the Facebook page for our business, Butterfly Properties, or "like" the new Facebook Page for the neighborhood garden, the 8th Street Native Plant Garden, or click here for more information.

Thank you all again for attending the class- I look forward to hearing about all your garden projects!

Friday, July 29, 2011

These are not the Hymenoptera you are looking for

In May I started an insect collection.  I simply wanted to document all the insects in our garden.  Apart from our vegetable garden we have landscaped our yard with plants native to the Missoula area, we have over 100 species, and we don't water any of it.  More than 60 species of birds have used the yard, and annually three species of birds nest in our nest boxes.  I figured with all this diversity, it would be interesting  to collect, document and learn about all the insects that come here too.

I got my inspiration from this from various sources, including Douglas Tallamy's papers and books, and my friend Jen who is starting the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium.  

I have taken a couple of entomology classes in college (aquatic and terrestrial) and I thought I knew the deal.  I was wrong.  I had no idea how much diversity there was, and how interesting so many of these insects are.  I have now refined my collection to mainly flies (Diptera), bees, wasps and such (Hymenoptera), beetles (Coleoptrea), some moths (Lepidoptera),  bugs (Hemiptera), and grasshoppers (Orthoptera).  I'm not even really collecting butterflies (I'm not that great at preserving them), dragon and damsel flies (Odonata- I'm not very good at catching them), really tiny things (not good at mounting them), and nocturnal insects (I'm diurnal).  Despite these various limitations and restrictions, I have collected well over 150 species of insects, and the summer is only half over.

Through all this, the thing that has stood out as the most interesting is all the mimics.  Beetles that are hairy and imitate bumblebees, flies that mimic wasps, moths that mimic yellow jackets, bees that mimic wasps, and so on. So far, I have collected over 20 genera of these mimics and as the summer continues I am sure there will be many more.

At the top of the post is one of my favorite yellow jacket mimics- it is actually a flower fly (Spilomaya sp.).  It does such a good job mimicking a yellow jacket that its deception is nearly complete.  It flies like a yellow jacket, in flight it extends its front legs- these have black fronts that make it appear to have longer antennae, like a yellow jacket.  The wings have a dark leading edge, that give it the appearance of a yellowjacket at rest folding its two sets of wings (like bees and wasps have), but it only has one (like any fly). 

The insect below is a moth- a poplar clearwing moth (Sesia tibialis) that mimics a yellow jacket.  It is very convincing- as its name suggests, its wings are clear to complete the mimicry.  I was fooled at first, too.  The first time I saw one in our garden, it was crawling out of the ground at the base of one of our decadent quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), and its wings had not expanded yet.  I thought for sure it was some solitary ground nesting yellow jacket or hornet, so I gave it its space.  I kept a eye on it, and the closer I looked, the more I realized it was not a yellow jacket at all, but a moth.

Adult poplar clearwing moths lay their eggs in the cracks or crevasses of stressed popular, aspen and willow species, and similar to the poplar borers in our garden (Saperda calcarata), the larvae of the clearwing moth bore into the tree- pushing out sawdust and feed for a couple of years before they emerge.

This is another fascinating chapter in the aspen ecology story I have been telling as I track the aspen in our garden (click here, here and here for more information.

It is really only when you see its face, you recognize how harmless the moth is.

Now that I am paying attention I see so much more than I ever knew was out there.  I have learned so much and have a new appreciation for insects, their life histories, and the importance your garden can have.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

New Grape Arbor

There is always room for another structure in the garden, and this was a this was a fun weekend project.
The materials only cost $14.40 from Home ReSource- it is all made out of reclaimed wood; redwood, and Douglas fir.  This is what it looked like when I started.

I used the existing fence posts for the posts for the arbor- a situation many people have in common. This arbor is an example of using a small amount of space for a big impact.

 By adding the arbor over the bench it creates a sense of enclosure, and the bench is more inviting- even a destination now.

The next step is to add a new grape plant- and that will happen this weekend.  Kathy from the Blackfoot Native Plant Nursery has about 25 grape plants and I am eager to try one of her varieties (a table grape, but I can't remember the variety).  So, in addition to being our favorite native plant nursery, Blackfoot Native Plants is also our newest grape supplier!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Scenes from the Garden: mid-July

My blog is simply a garden journal, and though I write a lot of how to articles or post information on ecology and wildlife int he garden, at its most basic, it is a place to simply depict what is happening in the garden.  This post is just about capturing what's going on in the garden now.  

It is a showy time in the garden, but I do look forward to when the grasses cure, and things die back quite a bit, and reflect the dry hot summers.
 This is the time of the year when we have an abundance of flowers, and have to prune our showy fleabane (Erigeron speciousus), goldenrod species (Solidago spp.), bee balm (Monarda fisulosa), and others on a near daily basis, just to maintain our walking paths- especially after our summer thunderstorms.

Even though our garden does not get any irrigation, it provides a wealth of flowers for wildlife, and cut flowers for the house.

 Inside the vegetable garden, structures like raised beds, arbors, and benches are prominent.  The vegetables are a focal point, too!
  My next garden project is to make another grape arbor to cover and shade the garden bench (below).

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and monarchs butterflies are in the news a lot these days, especially encouraging people to plant milkweed species in their garden for monarch conservation.  In the right location this is great and effective, and I think every garden deserves a native milkweed or 20.  Here, in western Montana, we are too far east and too far west for monarch butterflies (except the rare stray).  I love our native milkweed (A. speciosa), and the benefits of this plant and its beauty, are not limited to monarchs.
Our hammock finally succumbed to weather this year after eight years of being exposed to too much weather. It was a cotton hammock- I gave it to my wife as a present for our second anniversary (cotton is the traditional gift).  This year (our ninth anniversary) pottery is the traditional gift.  I have to think about that one.

I have a new hammock on its way- a more weather resistant one, made from recycled pop bottles.