Take Care During Fall (and Spring) Garden “Clean-ups”

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The last of the warm, dry fall days are upon us
and it seems like a great time to be puttering around the garden. But this time of year is actually not a good time to be “cleaning up”—that is, removing fallen leaves and woody debris from bare soil, pruning standing plants, and making your yard look somewhat like a victim of a gardening magazine makeover. Leaves and other plant material that fall to earth are part of nature’s systems that nurture wildlife and enrich and protect the soil.

Bedtime for bugs
Leaving fallen leaves on soil is one of the best (and easiest!) things you can do to support wild ones such as birds, amphibians, and small mammals in your garden, as well as myriad invertebrates, including bees, butterflies, spiders, beetles, and worms. Leaves provide food for unfathomable numbers of microbes, as well as the macroscopic consumers and recyclers that feed on decaying plant matter. Further up the food chain, many creatures—ground-feeding birds, for example—rely on nature’s soil cover to provide for those they need to eat, which they find under leaves and downed wood (fallen twigs, branches, logs, and the like).

Fox sparrow

A fox sparrow finds dinner under leafy cover.

If we zoom in a bit, we might see small organisms, such as syrphid fly larvae depending on plant debris for a sort of blanket to help them through the cold, wet winter. As things warm up in the springtime, some kinds of syrphid fly larvae will consume enormous quantities of aphids and leafhoppers that can harm our edible plants. Adult syrphid files (also called “hover flies” or “flower flies”) are important pollinators; spring through late summer there are quite a variety of them in my garden because I prescribe a healthy dose of fallen leaves on the ground in autumn.

Leaf “litter” also encourages other pollinators to get through the winter. For example, as pollination season shuts down and bumble bee workers (females) and males perish, newly crowned bumble bee queens (technically “gyne,” an impregnated queen who has not yet founded a nest but will establish a whole new generation of bumble bees next year) live on. Queens find refuge by digging a shallow tunnel in loose soil—known as a hibernaculum—that’s often tucked under leaf litter. And, many species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) overwinter under fallen leaves as eggs, larvae, pupae, or adults. If we disturb their slumber or blow them away, they and the ecosystem will suffer. Essentially, they and their habitat need to simply be left alone if we want them to grace our gardens next year!

Pupa Western Tiger Swallowtail

Western tiger swallowtail pupa waits out the winter.

Don’t cut back
Fall pruning isn’t a good idea because it may stimulate a plant to put on new growth, which could be sensitive to low winter temperatures soon to come. Another important reason is that branches and bark—particularly of native plant species—may support butterfly pupae, or chrysalis. Swallowtail butterfly pupae pass the winter attached by thin threads to woody material—disguised as dried up leaves or old bits of wood to fool predators—until the warmer temperatures of spring stimulate their metamorphosis into adults. While some non-native fruit trees need winter pruning and it’s good to remove diseased and dying annual vegetable garden plants to prevent the spread of disease to next year’s kitchen garden, in all other parts of the yard, if you must clean up, approach it the following spring, and as late as possible.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane) seed head. When viewed closely, seed heads can be fascinating in their complexity.

Moreover, although they may look dead, the seed heads of noninvasive or native perennials like coneflower, fleabane, fescue, and lupine provide food for seed-eating birds, while their stems or stalks—pithy or hollow—provide shelter and/or cavity nests for beneficial insects. And, allowing fading plants to stand during winter provides structure and form. On cold, frosty mornings they can be magically transformed into silvery jewels.

Protect and nourish the soil
Down at soil level, besides providing a haven for overwintering organisms, fallen leaves and woody debris protect the soil, which can degrade and erode fairly quickly from excessive rain, sunlight, and wind. In nature, soil is protected and mimicking the way it does that will help your soil stay healthy. And, over many years, leaves decompose into layers of organic matter that feed plants naturally and gently, improve the condition of soil, and store carbon with the help of mycorrhizal fungi. The other day I relocated a plant to a spot in my front yard that’s been collectively accumulating dozens of inches of leaves for the past 15 years. To my delight I found the result of their decomposition: A couple of inches of soft, dark, rich organic matter that wasn’t there a decade ago. 

Even when we’re being careful, though, it’s easy to cause disturbance. A few autumns ago I moved a small amount of leaf litter to another area, inadvertently uncovering an overwintering queen bumble bee. I felt terrible as I watched her stumble around, obviously weak and awoken from a sound sleep. Luckily it was a warm, dry day and eventually she flew off into the sunshine. But clearly the awakening had been a rude one, because just a little while later she returned and burrowed into some loose soil covered by leaves, just a few feet from where she had been. After she was safely underground, I gingerly placed a couple of particularly interesting rocks several inches from her tunnel’s entrance, as well as some oak leaves on top of the soil to remind myself of where she slept.

Basically, the more we clean up and work towards a neat and tidy garden, the worse off beneficial birds, bugs, and countless other life forms will be. If you tend to be a neatnik (like I am), try to catch yourself every time you start moving into manicure-mode and getting overly tidy—especially in the wilder parts of the yard where wildlife may visit or set up house. It just doesn’t make sense to risk losing them for the sake of neatness. If you have piles of leaves that have been rakes off hardscape or lawn, here are additional ways to use them in your garden.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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A Little Bird Tells Us About the Necessity of Native Plants

Chickadee with larva
It’s often noted that native plants and animals depend on each other
because the two evolved specialized relationships together over thousands of years, but that’s a basic explanation that doesn’t offer any details. I’ve often wondered about individual animal species and to what extent native plants are essential to them. I watch ladybugs devouring aphids on native perennials, warblers foraging for insects in various shrubs and trees, and black-capped chickadees bringing squirmy larvae to their hungry nestlings, but how much do they really benefit when we choose to grow natives?

To my delight, a new study that focuses on one insectivorous bird species—the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)—was recently released in Biological Conservation. Chickadees—whether they’re Carolina, Black-capped, or Chestnut-backed—are fairly common backyard species that, like most birds, don’t reproduce on seeds and fruit but instead eat and feed insects to their young. The study’s authors evaluated regional native plants, but also those that originated outside North America to see if they were a limiting factor for this particular species’ ability to effectively raise young. Their results prove that non-native plants reduce the quality of habitat for Carolina chickadees by not providing food for breeding.

Insects are crucial
It is the living environment—including insects—that sustains us and every other species. Herbivorous insects make up more than a third of the world’s animals, and their role is indispensable: By converting plant material to protein, they are nature’s only way of getting plants’ energy into animals who don’t eat plants directly, and into animals who eat the ones who feed on insects.

Most herbivorous insect species are called specialists, meaning they can’t choose what they eat. Their menu is short; they must rely on only certain types of plants (that they evolved with) which have certain chemical compositions that support them, and can’t exist where those plants don’t exist. A well-known example is the monarch butterfly—an insect whose larvae can only feed on native milkweed plants—but there are countless others. If you already recognize the charms of regional native plants and have witnessed how growing them attracts more wildlife to your yard, all of this comes as no surprise. Native plants host and support more native herbivorous insects and, consequently, more birds and other wild ones.

Egg cluster for Baby

In addition to insect larvae, occasionally parents feed adult insects or clusters of insects eggs (shown here) that are most likely found in native plants.

The study
During the study’s two-year survey in the Washington, D.C. area, the research team correlated the birds’ diets to the plants they forage in. Using 97 suburban yards, they determined the species and origin of each tree and shrub, then checked the leaves of 16 plants at each site for caterpillars while tracking which plants received the most foraging visits from chickadees. Nest building in and near each yard was also examined through- out the chickadees’ breeding period, roughly April to early June on the east coast. Data revealed that these birds were more likely to nest in yards with native trees and shrubs than in yards with ornamentals that evolved outside North America. The native trees used the most included oaks, elms, cherries, and maples due to their ability to support the larvae of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and sawflies, which are essential for rearing young chickadees. Baby chickadees (and other birds) need a lot of food to survive: Previous research has shown that these busy parents need to collect 5,000 to 9,000 bits of food (depending on the clutch size of the brood) per nestful of chickadees, plus feed themselves!  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “during a lodgepole needle miner [an insect that can kill trees] outbreak in Arizona, one chickadee was found with 275 of the tiny caterpillars in its stomach at one time.”

The native connection
Chickadees are generalist foragers, meaning they’ll look for food nearly everywhere, not just on certain plants. They will forage in non-native plant species but won’t find much, since few host the food they need. In my experience, black-capped chickadees also feed their babies a few adult insects and the occasional spider (which may be found almost anywhere), but in native trees such as oaks, a diversity of larvae can be found, and large numbers of them can often be found quickly. Douglas Tallamy’s “Lepidoptera index,” which ranks different types of plants by the diversity of caterpillars they promote, corroborates this. That same research found that woody plants apparently support many more Lepidoptera species than herbaceous plants do. Whether that is because “woody plants in general are both longer lived and larger than most herbaceous plants and thus may be easier targets for insect herbivores to exploit,” or because “herbaceous plants are underreported as lepidopteran hosts because they are more difficult to identify and less conveniently searched by collectors,” we ought to grow more woody plant to maximize biodiversity, if only to give the benefit of the doubt (and provide birds more cover!). And, as I reported two years ago, another study confirmed

Chickadee young are fed by their parents for several weeks post-fledging.

Young chickadees need to be fed by their parents for several weeks after fledging.

that relatives of native trees (i.e., scarlet oak, a distant cousin of the west coast’s Oregon white oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that non-native trees that have no native relative in a region provide next to nothing. Yard after yard of ornamental, introduced species effectively destroys insect diversity.

 

 

So, now we have more compelling evidence that growing natives can improve the human-dominated landscape by supplying numerous ecological advantages, beauty, and the ability to support the entire life cycle of insectivorous birds. Whatever benefits the chickadees will also benefit other species, and increase biodiversity overall. The Douglas-firs in the back of my yard and the towering elms in the parking strip on my street nearly always have birds in them. Besides chickadees, I see woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, kinglets, bushtits, and more. The chickadees simply tell us what they all need.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Cultivating Compassion in the Garden (and Beyond)

painted turtles

Whether they’re hidden within fur farms or factory farms or other atrocious places—mistreated and maligned for profit—or in plain sight and struggling within unraveling ecosystems that disappear a little more each day, the suffering of non-human animals due to our expansion and behavior is everywhere. On an ecological level, the most devastating consequence of our ubiquitous presence is the disappearance of wild species that just need to be left alone. They want to live on, and in peace, just as we do. They have just as much right to exist without harm and suffering as we do.

Habitat destruction (including that caused by climate change) is not painless and is the main threat to most wild flora and faunas: Less than four percent of original U.S. forests remain; oceans are dying; waterways are heavily polluted with toxics; a new study shows that in the past 20 years we’ve managed to destroy a tenth of the earth’s wild areas. Half of North American bird species are predicted to go extinct by the end of this century and some especially sensitive amphibians are already there. We’re the most invasive, destructive, and over-consuming species ever to walk the earth, and it’s costing us the earth, as well as our health and happiness.hermit thrush

Our big brains are burdensome as we thoughtlessly invent things that damage and destroy, but they’re also an asset when we realize our obligation to protect and sustain. Habits of exploitation can be broken. We can stop pretending that everything is fine or beyond our control, and realize that we are very much a part of nature. We don’t have to, for example, conform to having manicured, high maintenance, lawn-dominated landscapes that require massive chemical and fossil fuel applications just because other people have them. We can make choices based on caring what happens to those downstream, just as we wish those upstream would to do to us.

When our species was young, we weren’t separated from nature. Even now, within our bubbles that disconnect, we enter this world not with a fear of natural processes and wild creatures, but with an intense curiosity. But as kids we learn to be fearful—we’re taught to fear the proverbial “big bad wolf,” and trepidation of wildlife and natural processes continue throughout many people’s lives. Education can help change that, and even awaken us to the awe-inspiring, interconnected layers that nature has fashioned over eons of evolution.

Courtesy Predator Defense

Photo courtesy Predator Defense

Just as essential is empathy for other species (that is, looking at their world from their point of view, with compassion). It may be our most important capability and what is sorely needed to bring some balance to the earth’s members. When we allow empathy to guide our choices and practices, we act selflessly and gain empowerment along the way. Changing our ways isn’t always difficult and some changes can be very simple; it just takes some thought and a little motivation. With compassion we can defiantly say “no” to synthetic toxic chemicals crafted by mega corporations that discriminate against other species and seek to control the natural world, “no” to wasteful monoculture lawns, and “no” to merely decorative plants with zero wildlife appeal. We can say “yes” to planning gardens that not only look pretty but also benefit and sustain other species,  “yes” to keeping Fluffy and Fido away from birds, “yes” to keeping outdoor lights off and making windows visible to birds, and “yes” to initiatives and politicians that seek to preserve and protect natural areas. There are, of course, countless other ways to express compassion for the planet outside the garden.

It’s easy to think that the war against wildlife—from the microorganisms within degraded soil to persecuted predators trying to survive on a human-dominated planet—is happening somewhere “out there.” While a huge percentage of wild lands are dominated by livestock ranching that has “caused more damage than the chainsaw and bulldozer combined,” urban and suburban spaces—including the roughly 40 million acres of land that’s currently lawn—offer an important conservation opportunity and a way for us to personally provide for others right at home.

It’s equally easy to be pulled down by the ticking extinction clock, but once we turn our backs on conventional gardening, we become part of a conversion—or revolution, if you will—that is proactive. Learn how healthy, balanced ecosystems function; watch native plants (especially when grown with others that co-occur in the Native bumblebee on Vancouveria hexandraarea) attract and support a diversity of native insects and other creatures; recognize the  bees and the flower flies and the birds that depend directly or indirectly on those plant communities; discover their life cycle and how to keep them healthy and protected. Plant trees, let the leaves do their thing, allow the dead wood to stay, and forget about pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. If we do all that we’ll find ourselves more connected and caring even more about what happens within the dwindling, wilder ecosystems on this beautiful planet, and wondering how even more beautiful it will be if more of us empathize with others’ lives.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Attract Ladybird Beetles (“Ladybugs”) to Your Northwest Garden Humanely

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The Western blood-red ladybird beetle (Cycloneda polita)—one of about 90 species throughout the Pacific Northwest and about 6,000 species worldwide—is tiny (4 – 5 mm), but like most others in the Coccinellidae family, is a voracious consumer of aphids, scale insects, and mites (a few species eat fungi). Revered for centuries due to their role as a pest controller, ladybird beetles at one time were even thought to have supernatural powers. The “lady” for whom they were named was the “Virgin Mary.” Once you have these native predators in your garden you’ll want to keep them, and there’s an easy way to do that.

But first, a little about these endearing little insects, the vast majority of which are beneficial: The most obvious ladybird beetles (often called “ladybugs” in North America, although they are not true bugs) evolved a brightly colored shell to exhibit what biologists call aposematic (warning) coloration, which functions to repel and warn predators that they taste awful (they produce toxic and unpalatable alkaloids). The “eyespots” on their pronotum (that covers the thorax) are a form of mimicry, possibly to further fool a predator by appearing dangerous, or by adding to the inedibility factor. Their actual face is the tiny black and white portion with brown antennae that you can see in the photo above. The Western blood-red ladybird beetle is plain and without spots, but some species have remarkable color patterns that vary greatly and make identification difficult. Other species lack dramatic coloration.

Life Cycle
Adults are commonly seen on plants in spring and summer, foraging for small invertebrate prey (often aphids), although they will eat nectar, water, or honeydew (the sugary secretion from insects like aphids and white flies) when food is scarce. They overwinter by hibernating in large clusters, often spending the winter under leaf litter, rocks, downed wood, or other debris. If they get into your house in autumn as temperatures plummet, please don’t kill them. Since they need cool temperatures and moisture during the winter (which our homes lack), gently place them back outside. In hard to reach places (like ceilings) I suggest fastening a piece of lightweight fabric (perhaps a lightweight sock or piece of nylon stocking) onto the end of a vacuum cleaner hose with a rubber band, so that an inch or two of fabric protrudes into the hose. Then, with the power turned down low (if possible), quickly suck them into the fabric, gently remove the fabric and beetles, and release them under a pile of leaves outdoors. To help prevent future interlopers, caulk cracks and crevices around doors and windows and repair any damaged siding that’s allowing them to get in.

Ladybird beetle larvae are long and flat and are usually covered with little spines, spots and stripes, and resemble tiny alligators. They are sometimes mistaken for pests, but they are completely harmless to humans. Usually found in or near aphid colonies, they feed voraciously on insects for several weeks, then pupate on leaves. Some species produce several generations per year, while others have only one. During the summer, all stages may be seen.

How to Acquire
The best way to get these hungry predators into your garden is not to purchase them, but to provide native habitat and not use insecticides. The food that they need comes from native plants that naturally attract insect herbivores. In my yard I notice Cycloneda polita (pictured) feeding on lupine (Lupinus spp.), western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), and this year for the first time, aspen trees (which are also attracting birds like bushtits and kinglets who love aphids).Western blood-red ladybird beetle

In the early 1900’s, literally tons of Asian beetles were collected and shipped to agricultural fields. Tragically, over half died during shipments and most of the rest quickly dispersed before the wretched experiment finally ended. Today, ladybird beetles are again popular, but beware the ramifications. According to Judy and Peter Haggard, authors of “Insects of the Pacific Northwest” (Timber Press, 2006), the commercial exploitation of ladybird beetles involves collecting them while they are hibernating, which can be devastating to their populations. “Those innocent-looking mesh bags … in the local garden shop actually represent a cruel and unconscionable practice: Ladybird beetles sold in retail stores are usually exposed to high temperatures, low humidity, and no food for weeks. Even if they survive until bought and released, they are often so weakened, they die soon after being released.” And the ones who do survive usually quickly disperse to areas other than your yard. Bottom line: Don’t purchase them.

To add to the destruction, beetles sold commercially are usually not native species and, as such, are a serious threat to native insect species including native lady beetles. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, “Even species native to North America but collected outside of Oregon should not be released because they may carry diseases and parasites not found in Oregon.”

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Manage Stormwater at Home for Clean Rivers and Habitat

rainwater mitigation with trees

It’s another one of those exceptionally rainy days (with more to follow) and I don’t want to do laundry or even take a bath. Why? A few days ago the city’s sewers overflowed into the river, and I’d rather not add more water to an already overtaxed system that results in raw sewage killing and polluting the habitat of wild species downstream. It’s not just the abundance of rain that’s the problem: It’s our infrastructure.

Generally, the unaltered earth is perfectly capable of soaking up or directing the moisture that nature doles out to natural waterways or floodplains (seasonal flooding is normal and natural). But our urban and suburban environments, with their ubiquitous and impermeable roads, walkways, roofs, and parking lots—as well as shortage of erosion-controlling plants—cause runoff that carries toxic pollutants like oil, fertilizers, and pesticides during heavy rains. In older parts of cities, pipes and tunnels that take away domestic and industrial waste combine with water collected from surface runoff. Under normal (not too wet) circumstances, the sewage and runoff is diverted to sewage treatment plants. But when too much storm water or snowmelt can’t soak in, it overwhelms the system, creating combined sewage overflows (CSOs) that cause raw sewage and other pollutants to spill into rivers, lakes, or coastal waters. People may be told not to have contact with the water, but wildlife suffers silently. Essentially, polluted sediments build up in waterways, increasing water temperature and turbidity and lowering oxygen levels, resulting in deaths.

In Portland, where I live, the city is investing in stormwater management projects that (sort of) mimic nature, in an attempt to mitigate stormwater at its sources. There is a plethora of work going on and CSOs are reportedly decreasing in frequency, but even one is too many.

How to help keep water clean

We can help manage and reduce stormwater pollution and overflows, starting at home. Here are some tips; some will have immediate effect, while others will take some time and effort:

Protect existing conifer trees and plant new ones (preferably those that historically grew in your area). A mature evergreen tree can intercept more than 4,000 gallons of rainwater each permeable hardscapeyear, about 80 percent more than deciduous trees. They also provide habitat, beauty, shade and cooling and help stabilize soil.

Renovate or construct new walkways, driveways, and patios with interlocking stones or other permeable paving, rather than concrete.

Disconnect your home’s downspouts when feasible and install rain gardens or swales in landscaped areas. They help prevent flooding by allowing water that falls on your roof to slowly infiltrate into the ground, lessening the burden on sewer systems when it is most important. Simply disconnecting spouts and allowing water to run down a driveway or walkway and into the street defeats the purpose. Additional rain garden guides: here and here.

swale from disconnected downspout Use only organic fertilizers when necessary (excess can be washed into waterways), and don’t use pesticides.

Grow native plants that help control erosion. Some examples (that naturally occur in many parts of the Pacific Northwest) include vine maple (Acer circinatum), madrone (Arbutus menzeisii), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), salal (Gaultheria shallon), nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), sword fern (Polystichum  munitum), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra).

 Employ rain barrels to collect rainwater runoff from building roofs for irrigation during dry weather (if you can’t disconnect a downspout).

Conserve water simply by taking very short showers, never letting the faucet run unnecessarily, and fixing any leaks (just as you would during droughts!).

Collect “graywater” and use it onsite to reduce sewage discharges year round. Beware: this takes some ingenuity and planning!

 Never dispose of chemicals (like anti-freeze) by pouring it on the ground or into storm drains. Even drops of oil that seem relatively contained in your driveway can easily be swept into local waterways by rain. If you get an automotive oil leak, catch the oil in a pan and get it fixed ASAP.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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What Makes Leaves Change Color?

Populus tremuloides (quaking aspen)

I’ve written quite a bit about the importance of leaf “litter” on the ground, so here’s a little info on how it gets there and what conditions make for the most vibrant leaves. While it’s understandable to think that it is the cooler temperatures of the fall season that bring about color change, there are several other factors. Besides temperature, sunlight and soil moisture influence the quality of autumn leaf color. But the process that instigates the show is actually more of a chemical process brought on by less daylight.

Darkness rules

Most plants are quite sensitive to each day’s length of darkness. In early fall, when nights begin to lengthen, the cells near the joint of the leaf and stem in deciduous trees and shrubs are triggered to divide quickly. This corky layer of cells (the abscission zone) begin to block transport of essentials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch, as well as the flow of minerals from roots upward to leaves.

When plants are actively growing, green chlorophyll is constantly produced in the leaves. But in autumn, when the connection between the leaf and the rest of the plant gets more and more obstructed, chlorophyll replacement slows and then stops completely. This is when autumn colors are revealed: Normally masked by chlorophyll, yellow pigments called xanthophylls and orange pigments known as carotenoids become visible when chlorophyll shuts down. Red and purple pigments come from anthocyanins which are created (in some species) from sugars within the leaf and it’s speculated that they are a defense mechanism that helps some plants fight herbivores like aphids.

Spiraea betulifolia var. lucidaAs fall moves forward, the cells in the abscission layer become drier and weaker and leaves eventually part company with the plant. Many trees and shrubs lose their leaves when they are still colorful (making for some gorgeous mulch), while some retain the majority of their foliage through much of winter, though their leaves lose color fairly quickly. Like chlorophyll, the other pigments eventually break down in light or when frozen. The final pigments are tannins, which look brown.

Recipe for color

Low temps (but above freezing) and ample sunlight following formation of the abscission layer cause quick destruction of chlorophyll and promote the formation of bright colors in some species. Stress from drought during the growing season can sometimes trigger early formation of the abscission layer, resulting in leaf drop before they have a chance to develop fall coloration, so a growing season with ample moisture that is followed by somewhat dry, warm, sunny, calm fall days with cool, frost-free nights provides the best recipe for bright fall colors.

Plant natives!

Besides offering the most ecological benefits, some native species grown in their native ground offer wonderful fall color that rivals that of nonnative plants. Here in the Pacific Northwest, some of the most vibrantly colored leaves occur on natives such as paper birch, black hawthorn, Oregon ash, quaking aspen, golden currant, vine maple, serviceberry, and red-twig dogwood. Enjoy!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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New Study: Non-native Plants Reduce Insect Diversity

Acer circinatum (vine maple)

Natives like vine maple (Acer circinatum), trump nonnatives for restoring biodiversity


As if we need further proof
, a new study published recently in Ecology Letters demonstrates that native plants are much better at supporting local insects than nonnative species, and that nonnative plants are exacerbating biodiversity loss with their inability to support many insect herbivores.

The authors, Douglas Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) and Karin Burghhardt, planted test gardens with both native and nonnative tree species and collected data over a three-year period. They measured the insect herbivore species and communities that were using the plants, and compared native trees to nonnative trees of two types: Those with close native relatives in the region and those that had no close native relatives.

They found that nonnative trees with a native relative (in the PNW, think nonnative scarlet oak, which is related to the native Garry oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that few of them were unique to that species of tree. The result was even more striking with nonnative trees that had no native relative in the region (such as golden chain tree, a European species).

The study also found that young insects, which are most supportive of an ecosystem, were found on the native trees. Adult insects, on the other hand, may be found on plants, but for various reasons—to rest, to warm themselves, breed, etc.

Essentially, when the diversity of insect herbivores—which are the basis of the food web—plummet, so too do all the species that rely on them for food. If you’re not particularly fond of insects, think of them as baby food: In spring and early summer, when insect eggs are hatching and larvae are feeding, most birds are wholly dependent on insects to feed to their young, as well as to keep their own strength up. And most other wild species rely on insect herbivores in one way or another.

So, this is more evidence that natives are the answer for restoring biodiversity, while most nonnatives are problematic. When selecting plant material—even in an urban area—choose plants that help the environment and its community members. Go for the native oaks, pines, maples, willows, etc., with their plethora of insects. There’s almost always a native option!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Late Summer to Fall

Late season pollinator plants

Scientists know that bees are dying for a variety of reasons—pesticides, habitat destruction, drought, climate change, nutrition deficit, air pollution, and so on, which makes us the obvious perpetrator. We can help give back to them (and other pollinators) by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that step in when a native plant isn’t available or feasible), with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. To provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees to syrphid flies, hummingbirds, and beetles—offer a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat Here” sign). Fragrance is also important for attracting insects to flowers and guiding them to food within the flower, and aiding an insect’s ability to efficiently learn particular food sources.

Below are some native perennials and one shrub that offer food for pollinators from mid or late summer to fall in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades. There are more candidates, but I chose these species because they naturally occur in fairly large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, and are not too hard to find at nurseries (although you will likely have to call around for availability). I’ve listed them alphabetically with some very basic care guidelines. It’s best to plant them in the fall, just before or as the rain returns.

As always, plan ahead and choose species that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas, and add flora that would likely have grown in your area historically, if possible. You can also check a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil and water conservation district. No fertilizer is necessary and please don’t use any pesticides. Keep them adequately hydrated—by watering deeply and infrequently to promote deep roots—until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis (Yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers (pictured below) bloom through late summer. (Not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium). Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly everlasting): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Likes moist soil with good drainage, but can tolerate drought once established. Pure white flowers are often used in dried flower arrangements. Besides providing nectar, it is a host plant for painted lady and skipper butterflies.

Baccharis pilularis (Coyotebush): Evergreen or semi-evergreen shrub. 5-8 feet tall x 6-8 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Tolerates poor soils (but needs good drainage) and is drought tolerant. Flowers aren’t showy and are borne on separate male and female plants (male flowers creamy white; female pale green). Excellent wildlife habitat plant but is deer resistant.

048_Campanula rotundiflora sRGBCampanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist to dry, well-drained soil, preferably with a good amount of organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell-shaped, bluish violet flowers typically bloom through late summer. (pictured left)

Gaillardia aristata (blanketflower): Perennial (short-lived). 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to light shade. Tolerates a variety of well-drained soils; drought tolerant when established. Spreads by seed. Colorful yellow and reddish orange flowers bloom well into fall, especially when dead-headed. Deer resistant.

Solidago canadensis (Goldenrod): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Solidago canadensisTolerates wide range of soils; prefers moisture but tolerates drought when established. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Bright gold, fragrant inflorescences typically bloom well into fall. (pictured right)

Symphyotrichum subspicatum (Douglas aster): Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Does best in moist soil that is rich in organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes. Lavender-blue daisylike flowers bloom until mid fall. (pictured below)

 

 

Douglas aster

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Attract Butterflies with Northwest Native Plants and More

Red admiral butterfly

It’s so delightful when a lovely butterfly (is there any other kind?) floats into our yard. Each year, as soon as June rolls around, I catch glimpses of gorgeous Western tiger swallowtails and orangey Painted ladies flitting here and there, as well as the occasional Mourning Cloak in the vicinity of our octogenarian American elm tree, one of its host plants. This summer I’ve noticed, for the first time, a Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) gliding in now and then. This species is reportedly rather territorial and will stay in one area for days or even weeks, so I hope to see her again. She’s apparently attracted to the heat radiating from the rocks on the west-facing side of our veggie garden, as well as the white trellis that supports our cucumber plants, and this morning she surprised me by landing on the white shirt I was wearing. She was near some native wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) plants growing nearby, but I’m not certain she used them.

Red admirals aren’t very fussy about habitat, but for food they prefer sap from trees, fermented fruit, and bird droppings—yes, you read that right—from which they obtain nutrients, such as amino acids and salts that are necessary physiologically, behaviorally, and ecologically. Many butterfly species and some other insects consume droppings as well, and don’t get me started on the fascinating spider that masquerades as bird poop to hide from predators. Flower nectar is actually a second choice for red admirals, who only forage at flowers—such as aster, milkweed, penstemon, fireweed and wallflower—when sap, fruit, and droppings aren’t available.

But as you may know, butterflies need much more than food to survive and reproduce; they also need plants on which they can lay their eggs. These can’t be just any old plants; they need to be the kind that their larvae can feed on (as their ancestors have done for millennia) as they grow into pupa (chrysalis), that awkward metamorphic stage before adulthood. Some butterflies aren’t terribly picky and may be able to lay their eggs on four or five different plant species, but others, like monarchs and red admirals, can use only one species.

My butterfly reference tells me that red admirals lay their eggs only on plants of the nettle family (Urtica spp.), something I’ve never grown. Uh-oh. As I began pondering where the heck in my yard I could grow it, I suddenly remembered a wonderful nettle soup that I had at an equally wonderful villa on the west coast of Sweden some years back. It’s not only edible; it’s one of those “super foods” that are extremely rich in nutrients and purportedly very cleansing.

So now I’m on a mission to grow some native stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)—a bit for us to eat, but mostly for the butterflies. It turns out that the Satyr comma butterfly also uses only nettle as a host plant, although they are reportedly rather rare in parts of their range and it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever see one in my urban yard. I prefer to grow it myself, so that the wild stuff in wilder places can be left to the butterflies. But first I’ll have to carefully figure out where to plant it … and buy some stinger-proof gloves. Or maybe I should just stick with providing for species that don’t need such outrageously prickly plants.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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10 Great Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Summer

Bombus vosnesenskii

In honor of National Pollinator Week, let’s zoom in on the bees and other hard-working pollinators whose lives are dictated by weather, season, and the availability of food, nesting habitat, and overwintering sites.

Nature has provided pollinators with unique ways of gathering nutritious pollen and nectar for their young, and they’re enthralling to watch. But bees and other pollinators are in terrible trouble worldwide due to our presence and actions. We can give back to them by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that are especially attractive to bees, like lavender and sunflower) with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. But don’t forget to provide for them during all their life stages—leave the leaves, dead wood, and spent flowers to make sure they can get through the winter and have habitat to raise their young!

If you’ve already included some native plants in your yard, you’re well on your way to providing for a wide variety of wildlife. Offering a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat” sign) will help provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees to syrphid flies to hummingbirds to beetles to thrips. Below are some Pacific Northwest native perennials and shrubs that offer food for pollinators from early to mid or late summer in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades.

The list is just a sampling, and the species were chosen because they naturally occur in large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, aren’t too hard to find at native plant nurseries (although you may need to call around for availability), and attract their fair share of native pollinators. I’ve listed them alphabetically with some basic care guidelines. Fall planting is best, as winter rains begin. (If you’re reading this in springtime, don’t worry—you can plant now, but you’ll definitely need to keep an eye on their water needs during the first summer, at the very least.)

As always, plan ahead and choose plants that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas and add flora that likely would have grown in your area historically. You can also search for a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil & water conservation district. Growing them with associated species that evolved alongside them in nature will help them thrive. No fertilizer is necessary and please don’t use pesticides, but do keep them adequately hydrated until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

◊ Achillea millefollium var.  occidentals (yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers bloom all summer. (not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium).

Asclepias speciosa or A. fascicularis (milkweed): Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist, well-drained soil, but can handle some drought when established. Rounded clusters of soft pink, fragrant flowers. (pictured, right)Asclepias fascicularis

Campanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Well-drained, moist to dryish soil. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell shaped blue-violet flowers.

Ceanothus velutinus (snowbrush): Fast growing evergreen shrub. 6-12 feet tall x 6-12 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Rich or poor soil; very drought tolerant. Dense pyramidal clusters of tiny, fragrant white flowers.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane): Perennial.    2 feet tall x 2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Well-drained, moist to dry soil. Abundant daisy-like, bluish lavender blossoms go all summer. (pictured below)

Erigeron speciosus

Holodiscus discolor (oceanspray): Fast growing deciduous shrub. 8-16 feet tall x 8-12 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Drought tolerant when established. Lavish, feathery plumes of creamy-white flowers. Nice for hedgerows.  Controls erosion.

Lupinus polyphyllus (large-leaved lupine): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-4 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Moist soil preferred but will tolerate short dry periods. Tall spikes of bluish-purple, pea-like flowers. (pictured, right) Lupinus polyphyllus

Sedum spathulifolium or S. oreganum (stonecrop): Perennial. 1-4 inches tall; spreads slowly. Sun to part sun (afternoon shade is welcome). Well-draining, gritty, lean soil. Bright yellow star-shaped flowers. Nice for rock gardens. Not a ground cover for foot traffic. (pictured below)

Symphoricarpos albus (snowberry): Deciduous shrub. 4-6 feet tall x 4-6 feet wide. Sun to mostly shade. Moist or dry soils; tolerates heavy soils. Drought tolerant when established. Tiny, paired, pink, bell-shaped flowers. Eventually forms a thicket. Controls erosion.

Tiaralla trifoliata (foam flower): Perennial. 8-14 inches tall x 1-14 inches wide. Shade to part shade. Spreads very slowly by rhizomes or seed. Moist, well-draining soil rich in organic matter. Panicles of white to pale pink flowers bloom from late spring to late summer. More details here.

Sedum spathulifolium with syrphid fly

 

Copyright 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Growing Bear Grass (Xerophyllum tenax)

X. tenax up close

When I mention bear grass, people familiar with the plant usually light up as if its creamy blossoms were right in front of their face. I’m lucky to have one in full bloom right now in my backyard (yes, just one—I have more, but they’re too young to bloom). Bear grass typically takes many years to flower, so I am savoring this one as much as possible. En masse in nature they are quite a vision, and even when not in bloom they make a lovely, luminescent, soil-stabilizing ground cover. But don’t you dare even think about taking even one plant from the wild.

X. tenax on Larch MountainBear grass, a common name for Xerophyllum tenax, comes from observations that bears like to eat the young fleshy stems, although many other species use it for food or cover: from bees and beetles to rodents and elk. Though not a true grass, other common names include Indian basket grass, squaw grass, deer grass, elk grass, and soap grass (not sure where the latter came from!).

The botanical name comes from the Greek xero (dry) and phyllon (leaf), and the Latin tenax (tough or tenacious). It’s an evergreen member of the corn lily family, a group of flowering perennial herbs native to the northern hemisphere. I’ve included bear grass in my book even though it’s not terribly easy to grow. When it does establish, it spreads (very slowly) by forming offsets and by seed.

Long, skinny, and rather wiry leaves arise from the rhizome in clumps. Their edges are rough and finely serrated and it’s their toughness that helps the plant minimize water loss during periods of drought, as well as insulate it from frost.Xerophyllum tenax (foliage)

Flowers open from the bottom up, so that the inflorescence, which ranges in height from two to five feet, takes on many different shapes as it matures. Flower fragrance varies; one study reported that one-fifth of bear grass flowers in their sample had a sweet smell like cultivated lilacs, while the others smelled “musty-acrid.” The one now blooming in my yard is, thankfully, the former, although not as sweet as lilacs.

After the blossoms fade away the flowering plant dies, but the long-lived rhizome lives on and offsets bloom when they are mature enough. Its fruits are three-lobed dry capsules, about ¼ inch in length, that contain 6 or 7 beige seeds, which may be eaten by migratory birds prior to fall flights. They may be sown in fall or early spring and need at least 12 weeks of cold stratification.

How it grows
Bear grass grows naturally in a variety of conditions—in cool, moist meadows and bogs, and mixed-coniferous forest openings in most of western Washington and Oregon, coastal areas of northern and central California, northern Idaho, parts of British Columbia and Montana, and a snippet of Wyoming. I’ve come X. tenaxacross it on hikes in the Oregon Cascades near trees such as Douglas-fir, Western hemlock, or mountain ash, and among smaller species like huckleberry, bunchberry, fawn lily, star-flowered false solomon’s seal, inside-out flower, foamflower, and woodland strawberry.

It’s often found growing on slopes (in soil that’s not particularly rich) that are moist during winter and spring and well drained the rest of the year. I grow mine on a south-facing slight slope, in partial shade. The soil’s a bit rocky and has been amended with leaf compost. Large rocks nearby help keep roots cool and moist. During very warm and dry periods I give supplemental water, especially when they’re young.

Conservation

For centuries, Native Americans valued bear grass and used it sustainably for basketry and decoration, and ate the roasted roots. Today bear grass is having a very tough time surviving with our myriad modern threats: Logging and other habitat loss, introduced forest pathogens and insects that affect associated species, fire suppression, and the floral industry that recklessly collects it for lucrative commerce (much of it is exported). If you know of a florist who uses bear grass, ask them where they got it and explain the disastrous ramifications if necessary. Never take this plant (or any other native plant) from the wild.

Bear grass is a fire resistant species that is often the first plant to grow after a fire. Like many other native plants, it needs periodic burns for strong new growth. Following a light fire that increases light, growing space, and soil nutrients, bear grass sprouts from its rhizomes, which lie just under the soil’s surface. But when fires are suppressed—often due to timber industry management—the result is fewer but much more intense fires that kill rhizomes, making it impossible for the plants to come back.

X. tenax closeWildlife value
All these perils affect not only the species directly, but also its pollinators—nearly 30 species of flies, beetles, and bees, and possibly some butterflies, moths, and wasps. Besides pollinators, bear grass also provides food for rodents, deer and elk, and even mountain goats at higher elevations, as well as other habitat components, such as nesting material for birds, mammals, and insects—all of which are essential, interconnected ecosystem members. More info on conservation here.

Beargrass’s only close relative, X. asphodeloides, grows in the southeastern part of the U.S.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Anna’s Hummingbird Babies: From Eggs to Empty Nest

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 19

As I wrote last month, we were extremely fortunate to have a little Anna’s hummingbird build her tiny espresso cup-sized nest in a rhododendron shrub in our front yard, just steps from a window. In February, binoculars and camera in hand, we watched and photographed as she finished the intricately woven and structurally sound nest, carefully and lovingly camouflaged with lichen. On February 20 it appeared that her beautiful nest was complete and egg incubation had begun.

About 18 days later (on March 8), I saw her perched on the edge of her nest, apparently regurgitating a mixture of nectar from nearby native currant flowers and partially digested insects or spiders (high in protein) into her babies. I couldn’t actually see them at that point since the nest was about eight feet off the ground and they were so small. At this early stage she would feed both nestlings (hummingbirds almost always have two), fly off, and come back with more food within 60 seconds. After she and the nestlings had been fed adequately, she’d return and stay on the nest awhile, since they were nearly naked and in dire need of warmth.

Later that week we saw her offspring for the first time, with their dinosauric heads and just the start of future feathers. Even at this age, still completely helpless and blind, their instincts are strong: They were able to wriggle their little bottoms toward the edge of the nest and squirt a little poop outside of it, keeping the nest clean.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 7

Anna's hummingbird and one of her babies, around Day 7

 

Later, about ten days after hatching and when the nestlings’ barbs began to look like feathers, Mom no longer stayed on the nest—during the day, anyway—most likely because they were rapidly filling up the tiny nest and she was not too keen on having her underside poked by pointy bills!

Ann's hummingbird and her babies, around Day 12

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 13

 

We continued to watch her feed them, first pumping food up into her throat, then aiming her long bill into their gaping orange mouths and straight down their throats. She resembled a sewing machine needle as she repetitively pushed food into them, never spilling a drop. Ouch!

Anna's hummingbird feeding her babies, around Day 18

 

References state that Anna’s hummingbirds fledge within 18 to 23 days after hatching. On the morning of what I believe was Day 23, I watched as one of them sat on the edge of the nest and flapped his/her wings with such gusto that I thought the time had come. A rainstorm came and went, but they remained in the nest, sitting with their bills pointed directly upwards, nearly vertical; occasionally they’d shake off raindrops but maintained their pose. Brave and undaunted, they also endured fairly heavy wind and a short but pounding hail storm.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 22

 

On what was probably Day 24 I saw one of them, for the first time, venture out of the nest and onto the branch right next to the nest. Surely they are leaving now, I thought!

Anna's hummingbirds babies, around Day 23

 

They left the nest on Day 25. I could be wrong about the day they hatched, or perhaps they loved Mom’s meals and enjoyed watching the world go by from their safe little nest so much that they stayed an extra day. Or the experts are wrong. When they left I was, disappointingly, in the shower at the time. Just before they left I noticed them preening their breast feathers meticulously, perhaps to make themselves more aerodynamic—notice the fluffy white down feathers in this photo, the last I took of them.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 23

 

Experts say that Mom feeds them for several days post fledging, so they are on their own by now. I still look for them in the garden and high in the trees, but it’s hard to say who’s who—fledglings are smaller than adults and have no red on their throats, but they may almost resemble adults by now. Reportedly, the siblings often stay together until autumn, and then they separate for good (they are not social birds). Have a good life, sweet babies!

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 20

UPDATE: March 29, 2017
It’s been two years since I wrote the above post. This year a mama Anna has again built a nest in the same shrub, although the nest is harder to see as it’s a little higher up and has more leaves partially blocking our view. I’ve watched the nest as best I can, and judging by what looked like pumping (feeding) movements, I believe at least one of her babies hatched on March 6. Photographing them has been very difficult due to the nest position, and the plague of unusually cold, wet weather. In the early part of March I watched her as she searched for insects everywhere in the yard and she spent more time away from her nestlings than the mom two years ago did. This made me wonder if she might be having trouble finding protein (in the form of little insects and spiders), which are essential for the babies’ development, as well as her health. Sugar water or flower nectar alone is completely inadequate.

After about 10 days had passed, I could just barely make out a beak in the nest reaching skyward toward Mama, who was ready with food. I never saw more than one mouth at a time, which I thought to be a little odd, and wondered if both eggs had hatched. At Day 12 my husband, Rick, managed to get some photos of Anna feeding them, and there is evidence of two mouths, although one is in poor focus and looks like it may not be fully open, even though Mama looked ready to deliver. I was relieved to know that there were two hatchlings, but I continued to see her feeding only one at a time; this worried me because two years ago both of her young were highly visible during each feeding (as the photos above show).

A week later, on March 25, Rick was again photographing the nest and grew concerned when he repeatedly saw her feeding only one baby. He put his cell phone on a stick and held it horizontally above the nest while Mom was away and managed to get a short video of the nest. I’m very sad to report that there was only one baby present; the other must have died from lack of protein due to the shortage of insects during the non-stop cold weather. I do not know if the mother, sensing that one was weak and knowing she couldn’t feed them both adequately, chose to stop feeding the weak one so that one would survive, or if the baby was too weak to gape and receive food and eventually died. It’s also slightly possible that the baby was stunted from the beginning (possibly due to too small a yolk). It’s impossible to say for sure, but regardless, it was heartbreaking for this animal lover to realize that someone starved to death right outside her house. I do accept that nature can be harsh—especially during the winter—and I’m glad that the baby didn’t die due to direct human disturbance, but this is just another reason to grow native plants that supply drastically more insects than non-native species.

As I write this, the brave little baby that’s endured so much cold still sits alone in the tiny nest that should be filled with a brother or sister. Mom no longer stays on the nest, but she still feeds him/her about every 20-30 minutes. Waiting is the hardest part … waiting for the day that s/he feels strong enough to take to the air and discover the world. I hope I get to see that flight, and I hope it’s on a warm, sunny day.

The baby fledged the very next day, which was a fairly warm, dry one. The following day, curiosity got the best of me and my husband. With a ladder we inspected the nest since no one would now get distressed at our nosing around. Sure enough, there—at the bottom of the little nursery—was the baby who had died, a dried up little body barely an inch long. Since then I’ve noticed a smallish single hummer in my yard on occasion, and once, while I was walking around the back yard with my little cat in my arms, I stopped to watch this particular bird feeding at blueberry blossoms. S/he grew very interested and circled around us, just 18 inches away from our faces! 

Anna’s hummingbirds typically have 2 or 3 broods per year, and there is another Anna’s hummingbird nest now in a neighbor’s small tree close to a stairway that leads to our back yard. I can’t be sure, but I think it is the mama who nested in our yard, doing her best to raise another couple of healthy chicks.   —ES


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Ban Neonicotinoids in Portland

painted lady butterfly

The most widely used pesticides in the world, neonicotinoids (often called neonics) are a highly toxic, pervasive, relatively new class of insecticide. Following massive bee die-offs from neonic applications in the U.S. and Canada, last year Eugene became the first U.S. city to ban the use of neonics from city property. Similar bans in Seattle, Sacramento, and Spokane quickly trailed, and now Portland’s City Council is considering comparable—and crucial—affirmative policy at the local level, since higher government continually fails to offer protection from this growing environmental threat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year to phase out neonics in its wildlife refuges, making it the first federal agency to restrict neonics, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to act.

Hundreds of studies indicate that neonics are wreaking environmental havoc: They not only disastrously kill or debilitate native bees, honeybees, and other pollinators like butterflies and moths, but also other ecosystem members such as birds, aquatic species, and mammals. Neonics are systemic, taken up through a plant’s vascular system and exuded in the pollen and nectar. Even miniscule amounts adversely affect central nervous and immune systems, cumulatively and irreversibly. If a victim such as a bumblebee isn’t killed outright, its failed immune system will succumb to ostensibly “natural” parasites and pathogens like Bombus bifarius on Aster foliaceusfungal, viral or bacterial infections. Birds—the majority of which consume and feed their young insects—may be poisoned directly or go hungry due to a lack of insect biomass; scientists predict widespread reproductive dysfunction in birds due to neonic exposure.

Since neonics are water soluble, they are very prone to runoff and groundwater infiltration where they accumulate and persist for any years. Aquatic contamination has reached toxic levels in some areas and is expected to cause serious and far-reaching impacts on aquatic food chains.

The cumulative, persistent, and irreversible nature of neonics ought to raise some serious red flags. Human children may also be at risk to this neurotoxic class of pesticides due to their developing bodies and immune systems and tendency to be exposed to problematic substances while playing outdoors.

What we can do

We can voice our support for the proposed ordinance—which also recommends that local retailers label plants, seeds, and products containing neonics—by contacting Portland’s mayor and commissioners by March 31. Personally, I’d love to see this ban go further, as would Commissioner Amanda Fritz, but a ban on city property is a good first step.

We can also take action at home by eliminating pesticides and growing beautiful wildlife-friendly gardens. Besides chemicals, another major threat to wildlife is the lack of natural foraging areas. In our own yards we can attract and feed pollinators by including a variety of nonhybridized—preferably native—plants that will collectively flower from early spring through fall. Native plants that naturally occur in our region are best for all indigenous fauna because they supply the food and shelter that wild species require to survive and they need no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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A Native “Shamrock”: Oxalis oregana

Oxalis oregana

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

The shamrock legend can be traced to the 5th century saint who used a three-leaved plant—possibly white clover (Trifolium repens)—to demonstrate the concept of the Christian trinity. Today, oxalis cultivars, or any plants with tripartite leaves labeled as shamrocks, are sold as houseplants or outdoor plants.

Our Pacific Northwest native Oxalis—sometimes called wood sorrel—is a ground cover for mostly shady areas (but also more open, shrubby areas) at low to middle elevations. It has edible leaves high in oxalic acid (like spinach), and forms a lush carpet in moist to dry woodlands.

Three wood sorrel species that occur naturally in the region are Oxalis oregana (wood sorrel or Oregon oxalis), O. suksdorfi (western yellow oxalis, which occurs only in southwestern WA and Oregon at low elevations), and O. trilliifolia (trillium-leaved oxalis).

Wildlife value
Oxalis is a pollinator plant, offering its charming small flowers to native bees, syrphid flies, and butterflies. Like most flowering plants that grow under low light conditions, its blossoms are white or light colored to enable pollinators to be able to easily see them. Later in the year, Oxalis seeds may be eaten by seed-eaters like sparrows and small rodents. Its leaves serve to protect and enrich the soil.

Try it at home
Grow it in the shade of tall trees like Douglas fir and with other native woodland species such as Vaccinium spp. (huckleberry), Mahonia nervosa (Cascade Oregon grape), Gautheria shallon (salal), Polystichum munitum (sword fern), Prosartes spp. (fairy bells), Trillium ovatum (western trillium), and others.

Give it moist, acidic soil (pH 5 to 6.5), preferably rich in organic matter. While morning sun is welcome, it typically won’t do well with scorching midday or afternoon sun. In full shade and once established, it is a drought tolerant plant. Be sure you like it, though, because it will spread—enthusiastically, in the right conditions—to protect the soil.

Oxalis oregana

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Hummingbirds Nest in Native Gardens

Photo © Richard P. Weber 2015

As I looked through our living room window about two weeks ago, I caught sight of a female Anna’s hummingbird as she zipped by and landed on a tall rhododendron shrub ten feet away. As my eyes focused, I realized this was no ordinary perch: It was a nest, barely the size of a demitasse cup, that was apparently in the final stages of construction.

This exciting revelation reminds me of why I garden: For life! I had known, of course, judging by the number of hummingbirds feeding in our area and their relatively small territories (males defend about a quarter of an acre) that they must raise their families close by, but I had never actually seen a nest in our yard and I never went searching for one, for fear of causing disturbance.

Without delay, my husband began to document her nest building, keeping out of her flight path and with a powerful lens. The first photos show a nest perhaps an inch tall; less than a week later she had clearly added on more material to its height. Through binoculars and for several more days I Anna's hummingbirdoccasionally watched as she pressed on the exterior and stomped on the interior building materials—plant fibers like moss, bits of leaves and lichen, silk from spider webs or insect cocoons, feathers, and fur—with her impossibly tiny feet. The silk is strong, sticky and stretchy, and helps make a nest that is flexible and able to accommodate rapidly growing babies. The latest photos show that extra lichens were added as a finishing touch for camouflage (although I like to think that she added them as a charming decoration as well!).

One day I realized she was spending almost all of her time on the nest, leaving only for 20 to 60 seconds to grab a bite to eat. Incubation had begun! For the past 14 days she’s been patiently incubating her two eggs, which should hatch in as little as a day or two (incubation periods range from 14 to 19 days for these hummingbirds). MAJOR UPDATE: Baby pictures are here!

Hungry mouths
Anna’s hummingbirds eat nectar from many flowering plants, including native cascara and black hawthorn trees, currant, gooseberry, and manzanita shrubs, and many introduced species as well. Our little Anna’s timing was impeccable: Ribes sanguiniumShe chose to place her nest within 20 feet of two native red-flowering currant shrubs that had just begun to bloom. Besides currants, other native early bloomers important to hummingbirds include Indian plum and Oregon grape. Later on they’ll be attracted to the flowers of native huckleberries, ceanothus, twinberry, serviceberry, elderberry and salal shrubs, honeysuckle vines, and perennials like camas, goatsbeard, delphinium,  penstemon, tiger lily, columbine, and milkweed. But these solitary birds reportedly eat more protein-rich animal matter than other hummingbirds, consuming a wide array of small insects and spiders, plucked mid-air or from spider webs, shrubs, trees, and crevices. Occasionally they’ll lap up tree sap leaking out from holes made by woodpeckers, and I’ve seen them sip the sweet juices leaking from overly ripe figs.

A Little History
Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) was named after a 19th century Italian duchess, Anna De Belle Massena, by René Primevère Lesson, a French surgeon, naturalist, ornithologist, and herpetologist. Such an appropriately aristocratic name for a sparkling little bird.

Historically a Pacific slope species from San Francisco to Baja California, Anna’s are now fairly common year round in urban and suburban settings as far north as British Columbia, as well as wilder places such as open woodlands, chaparral, coastal scrub, and oak savannas. Since the change in range was relatively recent—only since the 1970s—and not a result of evolution,  it’s believed to have resulted from folks in the northern areas leaving sugar water feeders up year round.

Conservation
While Anna’s hummingbirds are not considered endangered or threatened and can survive fairly comfortably in marginally developed areas, they are susceptible to many threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, predation, window collisions, harsh winter weather, and sugar feeders that have gone bad (it only takes a couple of days in the right conditions!). Natural flower nectar is greatly superior to white sugar/water mixtures because it supplies micronutrients and spoilage is never a concern.

Because these birds (and other species) eat a large quantity of insects, always avoid using insect traps and pesticides that lessen the amount of forage available for them. Spider webs, which hummingbirds collect food from and use as nesting material, should be left intact whenever possible.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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City Birds, Country Birds: Who Lives Longest?

American robin (juvenile) © 2014 Richard P. Weber

A study published recently in the journal Ecology reveals that some birds actually might live longer in urban or suburban settings, which ought to persuade those of us living in such areas to continue or strengthen our welcome of wild species in our yards.

Researchers used data collected over a 12-year period by “citizen scientists” to determine whether some species fared better in rural areas vs. much more heavily populated ones in the vicinity of Washington D.C./Maryland. Some native birds, like American crows, and nonnative species such as rock doves and house sparrows have long been known to flourish in urban areas. But for most bird species, the extensive loss of natural habitat and the increase of human disturbance generally cause profoundly negative effects on their lives.

In this study, four species coped better than their more sensitive country cousins. Gray catbirds (rarely found west of the Cascades) and northern cardinals (found mainly in the eastern half of the US) were found to live longer in urban areas than rural, whereas American robins and song sparrows apparently live longer in suburban spaces than rural. Three other east coast species studied showed no difference in longevity in the various habitats.

The study’s authors acknowledge that further study is necessary. For one thing, longevity doesn’t necessarily mean that the birds are successfully breeding and are without stresses; the study didn’t investigate the fecundity of the birds (reproduction often declines due to constant city noise and the acoustics of human-made hard surfaces, both of which make it difficult for birds to communicate), and the birds they studied are those that have adapted, to some extent, to the presence of people and our machines, impermeable surfaces, and lights. Needless to say, the multitude of species that need quiet, undisturbed habitat, or have very specific needs can’t be studied in populated areas since they typically wouldn’t be found there.

Nonetheless, the results show that some species are more adaptive to our presence than others (such as the varied thrush that requires dark, peaceful, mature forests in which to breed). Although urban and suburban areas generally host more predators (dogs, cats, and raptors attracted to bird feeders), roads and vehicles, noise, reflective glass, and chemicals, the more adaptive birds may respond well to backyard bird feeders, artificial nest boxes, dead wood, and water sources, and the renewed interest in growing native plants in our yards. It’s highly likely that they are also able to live longer because most of their natural predators have been driven away or killed off.


© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Reflecting on What Makes a Garden “Real”

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American gardens are generally a mix of styles borrowed from other countries and cultures, many of which developed over centuries. Just a few that we’ve adapted: The romantic English cottage garden, the traditional Japanese garden, and the formal French parterre. This borrowing isn’t unlike our diets—I eat mostly ethnic or ethnically influenced foods for a variety of reasons, most of which revolve around flavor, nutrition, and ingredients that are plant-based. Ethnic cuisine can be wonderful, especially when locally grown ingredients bring it all home.

But landscaping with borrowed styles typically results in gardens that are decidedly unauthentic and typically do little to support life. What’s lacking is a relationship to local history, geology, ecology, and a sense of place (more on the latter in the book). When we use mainly local ingredients (that is, native plants and other elements), though, even exotic or “period” designs can be ecologically functional and feel like home.

Creating gardens that are enmeshed in their native surroundings, use indigenous materials, and reflect the natural world, then, are real. They are beautiful, but not just for the sake of mere decoration, and unlike Period gardens, they are designed to play a crucial role within the landscape. Their loveliness is functional, so that every species in the intricate, webby ecosystem has a good chance of being able to do what it’s supposed to do. Insects, for example, must be everywhere—to eat the foliage of plants that they share an evolutionary history with and subsequently provide for those higher on the food chain, to pollinate flowers, and to do countless other jobs.

The functional beauty that’s found in nature’s intimate connections can be in your yard, too. Even “average” backyards are host to amazing numbers of species, but when we add native plants, biodiversity skyrockets: Studies show that native species support 29 times the wildlife that exotic species do. Of course, some nonnative species do support some wildlife, so I don’t recommend removing noninvasive exotics that currently support wild species in some way (or provide food for you, or furnish an emotional connection).

Whether you’re ready to create new beds, replace dead or dying plants, or make over your entire yard, choose plants that belong in your area. Instead of a maple from Asia, consider our lovely native maples, vine maple (Acer circinatum) and big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Thinking about new shrubs? Look for natives that look similar to ones you admire but come from a faraway place (my book has some suggestions for native plants that resemble common, exotic garden plants). When adding ground cover, choose an assortment of native ground hugging plants that would grow together in nature. Essentially, choose plants that have evolved together and grow together in natural communities—known as “associated species.” If the conditions (light, soil, moisture) suit them, they are your best bet because they offer wildlife what they need, nurture each other, and increase the chance that they will thrive in your yard.

A garden’s propensity for diversity draws in both gardeners and visitors, generates appreciation and awe for natural processes, and furthers our collective ecological knowledge. In a hazelnut shell, “real” gardens stay true to the character, time, and culture of a place.

I need to stop now to get outside and enjoy what may be the last warm, dry fall weather, but I’ll keep sneaking you interesting tidbits now and then to make sure you don’t lose your appetite for more!

© 2014  Eileen M. Stark

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A Date with a Varied Thrush

Varied thrush

Male varied thrush perched in red-twig dogwood 


It’s unmistakably autumn
when the strikingly beautiful varied thrush begins appearing in Pacific Northwest yards, parks, and natural areas. That’s varied, as in Ixoreus naevius, though I’ve also seen various other thrushes—Swainson’s and hermit—feeding in residential areas from time to time. The scientific name given to this robin-sized bird comes from the Greek ixos, which means “mistletoe,” and oros for “mountain” and the Latin naevius, which translates to “spotted or varied.” If my math is correct, that adds up to “varied berry-loving mountain bird,” or some such.

Since reading the State of the Birds 2014 report I’ve felt a twinge of anxiety about whether or not I’d see them this year, as I have each fall and winter since I began creating our “real” garden. Sadly, the varied thrush is one of 33 species included on the list of “Common Birds in Steep Decline” that have lost more than half of their global populations within the past 40 years. But just a few days ago I spotted a female rummaging on the ground through the fallen leaves and compost in our vegetable beds, as if she had forgotten where she put her keys. She’d grab a dry leaf in her bill, toss it aside as she hopped backwards, and then search the ground. She was looking for dinner, of course, and apparently found some tasty morsels in the form of insects or slugs that were hoping to get through the winter under protective leaf “litter”. Varied thrushes also eat fruit and nuts (primarily acorns) during winter and I wondered when she’d return to find the rose hips, patiently dangling off my clustered wild rose (Rosa pisocarpa), as she (or her cousin) had done last year. Apples are also reportedly a favorite food in fall.

Male varied thrush rummages through fallen leaves.

Male varied thrush rummaging through fallen leaves.

Most thrushes wear earthy colors on purpose—so they can be difficult to spot—but this species can be especially tough to see since their gorgeous plumage is reminiscent of dappled sunlight or pumpkin-colored leaves on a forest floor. And they’re timid and wary of people, so you may be more likely to hear one than to see one. But hearing their call in a forest rarely helps locate one, since their ethereal, somewhat mournful voice seems to pervade the peaceful woods. Let’s honor their need to be left alone—sometimes it’s enough just to hear them to be struck by their beauty.

Birds of a feather
Fall through winter, varied thrushes gather together in flocks, collectively known as a hermitage—a fitting description considering their obligation to be concealed. I’ve never seen more than three at a time in my yard, so their flocks must be a loose assemblage. In the city they act slightly bolder, coming to within 20 feet of the house to feed, as well as perch and survey in leafless trees. Their range encompasses the boreal forests of Alaska and the Yukon,  southward along the west coast to California, as well as east to Alberta, Idaho, and western Montana. National Geographic records their winter range as “coastal Alaska to southern California and parts of northern Rockies,” but judging by this enthusiastic news account, sightings in southern California may be somewhat rare.

During the remainder of the year, varied thrushes retreat to mature, misty, hushed forests dominated by tall conifers and lush ferns, and dine on mostly insects and other arthropods. Many migrate north as the days lengthen. In spring, the female creates her nest in streamside shrubs or conifers, typically 5 to 15 feet above ground. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the nest resembles a robin’s nest: “The female gathers nest material and weaves an outer layer of fir, hemlock, spruce, or alder twigs. She adds a middle layer with rotten wood, moss, mud, or decomposing grass, which hardens into a dense cup about 4 inches across and 2 inches deep. Finally, she lines the cup with fine grasses, soft dead leaves, and fine moss, and drapes pieces of green moss over the rim and outside of the nest.” Two to six, blue, specked eggs are laid and incubated by mom but the hatchlings are tended by both (monogamous) parents; they fledge in about two weeks. They are fed arthropods, as are most land birds. Two broods are produced when possible.

Since these birds thrive in old growth forests, logging is having a profoundly negative impact on their numbers, as will climate change. Window strikes are also responsible for many deaths. Want to help them and see them in your yard?

◊ During fall and winter, don’t rake away the leaves, twigs, bark, and other dead wood that have fallen from trees onto the soil.

◊ If your yard was historically forest, grow the trees that likely once grew there to provide food and roosting or nesting sites. In coastal B.C., Washington and Oregon, choose Sitka spruce (near the coast), Douglas-fir, western hemlock or western red cedar; in northwestern California choose coastal redwood, Sitka spruce, and red alder.

◊ Thrushes are mainly insectivorous, so add additional native plants that would naturally occur with the trees to supply extra helpings of native insects and other arthropods.

◊ Include native plants that produce fruits, nuts, or seeds to provide additional forage. Depending on your location, madrone, cascara, garry oak, wild rose, huckleberry, elderberry, honeysuckle, salal, thimbleberry, and dogwood might be good choices.

◊ Be sure birds can see your window glass, not a reflection of the sky. Check out these tips to help birds avoid reflective glass.

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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