Last week on the other website I contribute to, I wrote an homage to November gratitude, wildlife gardening style. The post is essentially a soliloquy of beautiful moments I experienced over the summer of 2013 and my observations about the garden or ecological settings contributing to the beauty. One experience I forgot to mention is captured in the photo here of the NY native endangered flower species, Scutellaria integrifolia. “Helmet Scullcap” is a beautiful and obscure flower indigenous to New York state and tolerant of shade and wetland conditions. One day in late summer this year I was visiting a site where we’d planted some of this Scullcap last year and found a bumblebee in a deep pollen seeking trance. The bumblebee did not seem to notice my interloping proximity, he (she?) was so intent on visiting each lovely violet Scutellaria blossom and crawling in full body, like you would face first into a sleeping bag. I may have spent 15 minutes or more following the bee around, taking action shots. Apparently Scutellaria pollen or nectar is delicious! So, as other people fill their social network pages with sincere or contrived thoughts about gratitude, I concur that there’s much in this world to rejoice about. The fact that I find opportunity to be a part of the wild earth in quiet moments like with this drunken bumblebee is just unspeakably grand, and the only sane response is to have a grateful heart.
Momma’s habitat garden
Over the past several years, my mother (a pragmatic vegetable gardener for most of her life) has been learning about native plants and habitat garden development via Jessecology blogposts. Her initial curiousity bloomed into a real interest, and she’s been asking me for some time to help renovate the south side of her house into a habitat garden. Her patience finally paid off this past weekend when we got together and co-created “Momma’s habitat garden” for her and the neighboring wildlife.
The space we had to work with was about thirty feet long, adjacent to the house and narrow. The Irises had bullied their way into every inch and corner of the space, with their removal we had a lovely blank canvas to start from scratch for our habitat garden. The idea is simple: use native plants in the garden that are indigenous to this region only, and habitat restoration follows. An extra bonus for the organic vegetable gardener is all the extra pollinators that will magically appear with the addition of a native plant habitat garden, like winning the eco-lottery. Open pollinated fruits like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants will produce more individual fruits with the influx of pollinating insects, and the size of each fruit increases as well.
Scullcap, Scutellaria incana, one of my favorite plants, absolutely has to have a place in the new habitat garden design at my Mom’s house. In the future we may wish to augment the plant row with some shrubs or mass planting strategy (3-7 individual plants placed in clumps together, which is especially useful for butterfly host plants in butterfly habitat gardens,) but for now I wanted to give my Mom the opportunity to experience as much plant diversity as possible, and decide over a couple seasons what her natural favorite plants are. We used 18 different native plant species in 19 plants. (The duplicatation happens to be two Scutellaria.)
A portion of the habitat garden strip happens to parallel my Mom and Dad’s bedroom window. Their Monroe county home backs out onto miles of farm land and my parents have already successfully lured hummingbirds onto their property with their organic edible gardens and a series of hummingbird feeders. We decided to plant the native plants best loved by hummingbirds at the garden space paralleling Mom and Dad’s bedroom window to encourage early morning nectar flower visits from the local hummingbird family. Salvia lyrata is one of those plants, as well as Lobelia siphilitica or Blue Lobelia.
Even though the gardens in autumn don’t reflect a shadow of their spring and summer glory, fall is an excellent time to plant, arguably the best time of year. The author Benjamin Vogt describes the process of establishing a Nebraska native plant garden in his book, Sleep, Creep and Leap. This is a truly fine description, the premise that in year one native plants “sleep,” and establish their roots, in year two they “creep,” and start to fill in and look like something, and in the third year the native plants “leap,” and become the full, colorful, glorious spectacle that their meadow, prairie, wetland or woodland historical roots demand. Using native plants in the landscape can take patience (that’s why the native species are obscure and unavailable in big box stores); planting in the fall cuts through the first year’s “sleep” cycle. Gardens typically go dormant at some point in the northeast anyways, when we plant in the fall we get a shortcut into the native plants lovely second year of “creeping.” Momma’s habitat garden will be quite spectacular in July and August of 2014. I can’t wait to see it.
This time of year, people wear themselves and each other out with raking, leaf blowers and cutting every green, soft tissued stem they can find down to the ground. It really needs to stop. This incessant fixation on neatness and sterility is counter productive for our wildlife. Many species of birds overwinter in our cold region, and it’s often tough for them to make it through the freezing season with adequate food. Seedheads, as found on the above pictured Asclepias incarnata, can make all the difference in the world to a hungry bird. Spring is the right time to cut plants down, after winter is gone and the threat of starvation is over for our local wildlife. This is the eco-friendly landscaping method: wait til spring and take it easy with the leaves.
Lots of butterfly species use leaf piles to store their chrysalis. Salamanders reproduce in leaf litter. Leaf detritis is invaluable for our wildlife, if leaving the leaves in place where they fall is impossible for some reason, the next best practice for habitat is to put them in piles on garden beds or at an edge of the property.
Another benefit for a light touch with fall landscaping clean up is the fact that plant and leaf cellulose is the most perfect fertilizer where it falls and biodegrades- it’s free and 100% organic and complete. So, use fall as a time to fill in your gardens and landscaped areas with new native plants to expand your property’s habitat value, or just catch up on your relaxation. Ease up on the yard work: it’s just kinder.