Insects: Pest or Partner?

Ladybug on ragweed, chowing down on the aphids.

Finch Frolic Garden has been insecticide-free since it was first planted. It is a wildlife habitat as well as a food forest, and there are no chemicals at all used. Instead we rely on that habitat to create an integrated pest management system.

Western fence lizards are in and out of all of our veggie beds. We use no fertilizers other than compost, so they are safe.

The abundant frogs and lizards balance out most of the insect populations, and the birds, particularly bush tits and the other smaller gleaners, do their share.

A surprise visit from a skink! Welcome, little bug eater!

It may seem counter-intuitive to invite in and create habitat for insects when insects do the most damage.

A Baja California Treefrog, a.k.a. Pacific Chorus Frog (Pseudacris hypochondriaca hypochondriaca), clinging to the PVC pipe in the beet bed. He’s keeping the bugs in check while being cute.

But like humans, bugs are bug’s own worst enemy. Bring in the native insects!

Observation plays an enormous role in successful pest management; what better excuse for sitting in your garden looking at flowers?

Mexican Bush Katydid (Scudderia mexicana) on fennel.

For that is where you’ll see most of the beneficials.

A tiny jumping spider (family Salticidae) on yarrow. Spiders eat a lot of insects. The nectar draws in the bugs, and the spider waits.

In dryland areas everything is smaller: smaller tree canopies, smaller predators, smaller prey, and smaller insects. There are over 300 species of bee native to San Diego alone. None of them produce honey -there are no native honeybees to North America – but they are very important and very overlooked pollinators. Planting native plants, which have adapted over time to provide the best possible food sources in the most attractive packages, will be optimal for a native garden. Allowing non-natives that are also attractive to good bugs go to flower, along with the natives, is good too. For instance, dill, mint, basil, fennel and carrot all produce clusters of tiny flowers.

Blooming cilantro next to peas: both are good non-native small insect food sources.

Take a good squint at them and you’ll see very tiny creatures dining out on the pollen and nectar, and possibly each other. 

This scary-looking character (Chrysoperla rufilabris) is a wonderful friend, voraciously hunting many kinds of insects in adult, larval and eggs forms.

Lacewing larva are ugly ducklings that grow into lovely — and equally predatory — fairy-like adults.

Keeping a food supply for predatory insects is important to keep them in your garden. People buy ladybugs — most of which are non-native — and release them into a garden hoping they’ll linger and take care of any insect problem that might come up. Well, those poor bugs who survive packaging are hungry and thirsty. If there aren’t drops of water to sip on or aphids to munch right away, they have to go looking for them to survive. So leaving patches of plants with small infestations of aphids or other insects is important, as hard as that may be to do.

Recently while installing more raised pallet beds in the vegetable garden I was about to pull out a batch of ragweed.

Ragweed covered in aphids.

Its a native here, but an invasive one as it travels via underground runners and by seed. This batch was covered in aphids. Miranda, with her good eyesight, luckily stopped me. She saw dozens of ladybug larvae happily munching on all of those aphids.

Ragweed chock full of hungry ladybug larvae and hatched adults. They cleaned the plant of aphids and went to work on the rest of the garden.

There were adult ladybird beetles as well, but the number of larvae was incredible.

Nom!

The ragweed stayed. Eventually it was sprinkled with white aphid carcasses sucked dry by ladybug larvae. In a couple of weeks, the aphids were gone, the plant looked absolutely clean, and the ladybugs had had successful reproduction and had flown off to work in other areas of the garden and possibly in my neighbor’s yard. You are welcome. Then I pulled out the ragweed. We have plenty of it elsewhere for future ladybug mating sites.

Inspection of native plants at a friend’s house which were besieged by scale and aphids showed two things: one, that Argentine ants were farming insect on the leaves of the plant, and needed to be controlled, and that these plants also had the local rescue squad on hand. Thanks to Miranda again, she saw many types of native predatory insects feeding on the invaders.

hoverfly, beneficial insect, integrated pest management, Pseudodoros clavatus

Hoverflies or flower flies like this Four-spotted Aphid Fly (Pseudodoros clavatus) are not only our most common generalist pollinator, but also an important predator of plant-sucking insects such as aphids and thrips.

Larvae of Pseudodoros clavatus feasting on Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii). Oleander Aphids are commonly found on milkweed.

We didn’t want to sprinkle food grade diatomaceous earth on the leaves or do anything to kill off the good guys, so we put borax ant bait in protected containers around the base of the plants and left them alone. The ants would die off and stop farming the bad guys, and the good guys would have great meals and be healthy and hardy enough to reproduce on site. The plants would recover and the natives would win.

Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, integrated pest management, beneficial

The worst gardening policy is the ‘squish first and ask questions later’ one. Although this long-haired cutie might look like the dastardly mealybug, it’s actually the larvae of the Mealybug Destroyer beetle (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri), a naturalized predator species that saved the California citrus industry once upon a time and which continues to covertly lend a hand in orchards and gardens every day.

Plants communicate in many different ways, and one of the ways is through scents that we cannot detect. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released for various reasons and detected by surrounding plants. Native plants will release an alarm VOC when being attacked by insects that other natives pick up on, and they in turn release VOCs that attract the native predatory insects that will eat the pest. Having lots of native plants integrated in your landscape benefits your non-natives by calling in the rescue squad when the bad guys show up. Non-native plants, of course, release VOCs as well, but they are speaking a different language; their chemicals may not be recognized by the other plants, or they are signalling for beneficial insects that don’t live in the area. By providing good habitat – bird boxes, sources of water for birds, lizards, frogs, toads and insects, having mulches and native bee nesting boxes around the property, allowing some plants to flower, and of course, not using insecticide, you’ll have a balanced ecosystem full of wildlife in no time.

bird, integrated pest management, orange-crowned warbler

Industrious Orange-crowned Warblers (Oreothlypis celata) can be seen poking through bushes, trees and even tall lush grass prowling for small insect prey.

Remember that even if a product is from plant sources – such as neem oil or pyrethrum, doesn’t mean that it isn’t powerful. No insecticide will kill the target species and leave all the good guys alone. Scorched earth policy is never the best way to go in nature. Sprinkling food grade diatomaceous earth just where the bad bugs are and not liberally spreading it around, or using a soap and water spray on infested leaves, can help. Just look first and see if there are signs of beneficials already there working for you. 

beneficial, integrated pest management, Bracon celer

This female braconiid wasp’s tail-like long, thin ovipositor is a weapon of population regulation. She uses it to inject her eggs into the bodies of her prey — fruit flies in this species — and her maggots eat their hosts from the inside.

Remember too that if you purchase plants that have been treated with insecticide, particularly those with systemic insecticides (which means they work internally throughout the plant), they will kill anything that takes a bit out of them. The poison goes through the pollen and nectar as well. So birds nibbling the leaves, pollinators and beneficial predatory insects having a meal, butterfly caterpillars, and the insects that eat all of the above, will all be poisoned. If that milkweed you bought to feed the Monarchs don’t have aphids on them, be suspicious. Those tags at the big box stores that say the plants have been treated with insecticide – neonicotinoids – that are safe, are excluding facts about what else they effect. Systemics stay in the plant, possibly for the life of the plant. They don’t go away. GMO seeds have had their DNA modified to accept the use of chemicals, both herbicides and insecticides. Glysophate, a derivative of Agent Orange, is now found in mother’s milk, in human and animal tissue, and in most soil. We have to stop using chemicals for the health of ourselves and our ecosystem. So buy plants and seeds from sources you can trust. Just because the big box stores offer a good return policy doesn’t validate their products. You are buying inferior plants that are toxic to beneficial insects. That bug-free milkweed plant will kill the Monarch caterpillars feeding on it. The more you demand and support chemical-free plants, the more suppliers there will be. On my Resources page under Shopping I have listed many wonderful sources for plants and seeds online, but look locally first.

minute pirate bug, integrated pest management

A minute pirate bug (Orius tristicolor) scans the deck of this native Dove Weed (Croton setigerus) leaf for any of the mites, thrips, aphids and caterpillars it makes its vittles from. No prey, no pay, and dead bugs tell no tales about this tiny but deadly predator!

Get to know your native insects. Have a seat by the flowers and take a good look – with a magnifying glass if necessary – and be amazed at the hundreds of little workers you didn’t even know that you had.

 

Building and Filling Free Raised Beds

I grew vegetables in raised beds made of old bookshelf wood for many years. Then several years ago we buried that wood along with other biodegradable material in the vegetable garden and grew in the earth This is the best method of growing vegetables. However, the ongoing drought caused plant scarcity and otherwise manageable wildlife then foraged in desperation. Gophers began an onslaught of our vegetables and being a no-kill garden (except for Argentine ants) we tried many kind methods of discouraging them. Finally this year after a dry warm winter, anticipating more animal depredation, I took a friend up on their offer of free used pallets. 

We sorted through stacks of pallets and found those stamped with the same name. These pallets are untreated raw pine and of a manageable and portable size. I cut each pallet in half and then nailed and screwed them together. One raised bed needed three pallets. We then covered the bottom with hardware cloth. The areas where the raised beds were to go were leveled and in several cases, de-Bermuda grassed. The pernicious weed had infiltrated our good soil and so shovelful by shovelful we turned and picked. The stolens were unceremoniously tossed into a trashcan which will solarize in the burning hot summer to come, and will then be used in compost. 

On top of the leveled ground we placed cardboard. This provided a grass and gopher barrier to the bottom of the bed. Although the cardboard will break down over time, it will in the short run discourage gopher tunneling and weeds. The new pallet bed was placed on top of the cardboard.

Here is one of the tricks of having a raised bed in a hot climate: insulate it! Anything raised above soil level in hot climates are quickly heated and dried out. Raised beds notoriously have dead zones around the edges where the heat cooks the soil, killing microbes and sucking water out of the bed. Lining the inside of the bed with thick cardboard is one way to help insulate the bed, as well as planting cascading plants on the southwest side, or bushy herbs in the ground outside of the bed, or even fastening flakes of straw around the outside. With the pallets we had room to not only line the inside of the bed, but stuff cardboard down into the gaps all around the bed. We repurposed a lot of cardboard.

To fill the bed, we began with old sticks, limbs and logs as we had them. We layered these items as they were available, making sure that earth was touching each layer, and balancing green plant material with the brown as you would in a compost situation: dried tomato vines, fresh passionvine prunings, cut back rose canes, sycamore leaves, heavy clay taken from a new asparagus bed, silt from the rain catchment basins, kitchen scraps including bags of orange rinds after juicing, poopy chicken dirt from inside the hen house, poopy newspapers from the cages in which we kept sick hens indoors (crop binding), decomposable trash such as used tissues, paper towels, cotton ear swabs, junk mail (not glossy or plastic), hair, cotton balls, old cotton T-shirts, and more. As we built the beds, we’d take our time filling them as we produced ‘waste’ materials, and threw them in. When the bed was filled (and understanding that the contents would settle) and watered in with rainwater from our 700 gallon tank, we topped it with microbially rich soil from the garden beds (making sure there weren’t any grass bits hiding in it). 

I stuck pieces of old 1′ PVC pipe evenly along the sides of the pallets prior to stuffing with cardboard, so that if needed I could insert wood or bamboo pieces and either build an upright sturdy trellis for climbers, or even make arches from bed to bed on which I can grow vines.

For irrigation, I connected each bed to its own set of overhead sprinklers. Each bed has its own shut off. The pipe is resting on the opposite pallet as support, and the joint where it els across the bed are threaded pieces, so the entire length can be raised and pulled out of the way so working in the bed can be easy. The irrigation is hooked up to our well water and is on the irrigation timer for a brief shower every other day. With a lasagna garden, once saturated water will be held in the organic materials that make it up, so after initial regular watering for seed sprouting or hardening off transplants you won’t need to water as much. Roots will grow very deeply.

Because we allow some vegetables to go to seed, we had to transplant vegetables from the ground where the raised beds were placed, into the raised beds. We have a forest of beets, fennel, perpetual spinach, onions, peas, arugula and lettuce in what is still in the ground, and have transplanted selections from these into the beds along with planting seeds. Fortunately we love beet greens, which don’t taste like beets and are more mild than Swiss chard. 

Into one bed we’ve planted potatoes in good soil at the bottom, and are gradually filling in with straw as the plants grow. We used leaves in the soil mix, but no woody bits or other lasagna garden materials because we didn’t want to dig potatoes out of piles of old wood, nor burn the potatoes with composting materials in the shallow soil layer.

I am not a good carpenter. I however am great at figuring out what should have been done after I’ve done something. Here are some tips on building pallet beds:

I had thought about placing them on top of flat pallets to be raised off of the ground, so even less susceptible to gophers and grass, but I fortunately nixed that idea before it was enacted. The reason is that that space would be a wonderful habitat for mice or rats, or even snakes. Much as we welcome non-venomous snakes into our garden I really don’t want to startle one with my feet as I’m leaning over a bed. Of course, they would take care of the mouse and rat problem, so maybe it would be a good thing.

I had several bags of 16p galvanized nails given to me years ago, a rescue from a construction dumpster. I mean, kitchen trash-sized bags. I can’t move them, and they sit in my large shed. I opted to use some of them for this project. It was difficult hammering them into the knotty wood of the pallets, and often the holes had to be pre-drilled. Nailed wood also can pull apart, so braces across the width of the pallet to prevent bulging would have been a fantastic idea. For the last two I resorted to screws, which are far easier to both install and remove. Perhaps the nails will have to go to Temecula Recycling. If I can lift them.

We needed to build the beds quickly, as planting season bore down on us here in San Diego even earlier than usual. Here at the beginning of April we are far behind because we haven’t planted out tomato, squash, melon or cucumber seeds yet. Whew! So the beds are not beautiful, but they are functional. You can pretty up pallet beds by attaching wood around the outside, or straw flakes, or other material, and by putting wood around the top. Especially if it is repurposed wood. If you have mouse problems, then try attaching chimney flashing or other wide strips of metal around the base of the bed so that they cannot climb up the sides. 

My entire vegetable patch is surrounded by a chicken wire fence, so bunnies can look but they cannot touch. We don’t have squirrels anymore in the garden because California ground squirrels like to see all around them, and our dense food forest is much too scary for them to be comfortable.  Using a mild shock wire around the beds or garden fence, using metal flashing to prevent climbing, or enclosing a small garden with wire would all be ways to prevent squirrels and rats from feasting.

We covered the surrounding ground with cardboard and topped with free wood chips, for sheet mulching. This cools the soil, prevents weeds from emerging, helps choke out the Bermuda grass, and also keeps the gopher at bay. He or she must push droppings out of the hole, and if they hit cardboard, or have a shower of bark come down on them, they will go elsewhere.

Because we used non-sterile garden soil as a topper, we’ve had some weed seeds germinate but also some pleasant surprises. We planned on planting dill but found it popping up in our polyculture planting. We had several potato bits sprout, so they needed to be moved into the potato bed. Purslane, which is a weed but also one of the most nutritious greens you can eat, loves the beds so we are harvesting it regularly for chicken feed, personal use and also for making green smoothies as liquid compost for our citrus trees. Because we don’t use chemicals of any sort in the beds, there are a number of native western fence lizards loving the heck out of the beds and helping with our integrated pest management.

Some crops such as corn and tomatoes will need to go into the soil; so far gophers haven’t eaten corn, and the tomatoes can go into gopher cages up against fences or around the property on trellises or trees. The strawberries, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish seem safe in the ground as well.

Our raised beds are working beautifully already, and the dirt and organics inside of them will be building good soil month after month until it is gorgeous compost. Except for labor, wire and a few PVC parts, they were free to build and free to fill. They can be topped off with good compost after a season, or even given another layer of old  tomato vines and dried plant scraps topped with compost for the next planting season if needed. But it shouldn’t unless the height of the soil needs building, because the soil inside the bed is improving all the time.

Give it a try, and make it more attractive, and you’ll have wonderful, safe vegetables and no green waste at all.

What a Difference Mulch Makes

Two years ago friend sheet-mulched her very hard, dry dirt yard using cardboard and newspaper topped with  very large chunk free wood chips. Last year into this were planted a scattering of California native plants. Most of them have thrived, even surviving a frost and many 100F + days. These have been minimally watered. This week in March, after very low seasonal rainfall, we set off to plant more natives. What we found under the mulch was amazing. That light brown dirt was now moist, worm-filled soil. Under what was left of the cardboard were beautiful fungal hyphae breaking down the under layer of bark chunks into a fine surface compost. The shovel slide through the newspaper and into the ground making for very easy digging. The soil smelled good and felt alive.

Then we wanted to enlarge the planting area past the mulched area, and it was as if we were digging on  another property. The shovel barely entered the dirt, and then hit hardpan within an inch of the surface. We had to chop and scrape holes to plant in. Once we did, we heavily sheet mulched around the plants. 

Both of these areas, separated by a foot, have had the same rainfall and temperatures, but the mere existence of a thick layer of sheet mulch caused moisture and coolness to be retained, caused protection from hard rain, frost, high heat and dryness, compaction and wind. Just this easy combination of waste materials – wood chips and cardboard – made an incredible change in the soil structure and water retention.

Last summer when the outside temperature was in the 90’s we dug into a pile of bark chips. On the top the wood was almost hot. Three inches down, it was cool and moist even though it hadn’t rained for months. A difference of night and day. This summer I’ll obtain a compost thermometer and take readings. 

Leaving the soil bare is like going out in all weather unclothed. Your skin will burn and you’ll become dehydrated in summer; you’ll freeze and also become dehydrated in the cold. In heavy rain and hail you will try to protect yourself by becoming as small a target as possible. Although the soil isn’t cowering, it is being pounded down and de-oxygenated under the onslaught of weather. With no air in the topsoil water runs off rather than sinks in. Soil bakes and there is no microbial life in the desert of the uncovered topsoil. The soil freezes and frosts, and microbes are killed; the moisture in the soil evaporating with the coming of spring. All of this damage is preventable by the application of several layers of mulch, or sheet mulch. You wouldn’t think of being outside for a long time in harsh weather without clothing, so protect your soil the way nature intends, with a carpet of organic matter.

The cardboard had gone on top of weeds. No additives were used in planting, such as gypsum, fertilizer or compost. Watering is done on an as-needed basis with a hose.  I am always thrilled and awe-struck when, over and over again, I see proof of what simple soil conservation efforts have on soil building. 

California poppies seeds had been planted in the planting holes the year before, and their seeds have rooted in the bark mulch. Their roots will hold the mulch together and also help change it into soil, as poppies are colonizers helping repair disturbed soil. For the price of a packet of seeds, our friend now has the beginnings of a wildflower meadow filling out the spaces between native flowering plants. 

Good soil begins the food chain, beginning from what science can so far tell from microscopic mycrobes and ending in this property at least perhaps at the nesting red tailed hawk in the nearest tree, or perhaps the largest local predator, the coyote. Meanwhile the butterflies and other native insects, and all the song birds, will be on display for our friend’s enjoyment.

The sheet mulching will continue on over the slope, and as we plant we mix in pieces of old wood, we plant in shallow depressions in the ground to capture moisture and coolness, we dig a small fishscale swale above the plant to capture flowing water, and we sheet mulch heavily. It will be fascinating to keep checking that poor dirt as it regains microbial and fungal life simply through the protection of sheet mulch.

Rebuilding Our Habitat Pond… Again

Here in Fallbrook, CA, in San Diego’s north county, we’ve had 3 1/2 inches of rain in the past eleven months, and that came overnight several weeks ago. Last year we had a historic 20+ inches of rain which no one was prepared for, as our average is now about eight to ten inches. This year, the plants and animals are in trouble already. The days are hot and dry, with no rain in the forecast for our three rainiest months. I’ve heard people say that they never recommend a pond in a drought, but they can’t be more wrong ecologically speaking. The animals and insects need your help to survive, and they will help your yard with integrated pest management, pollination, soil building, and so much more.

Many years ago my daughter and I tore out this big juniper in front of our dining room window and dug a pond. I received a used pond liner, flagstone and some rocks for free from a source that didn’t want them. For years I had a lined pond, and I reconfigured it and the flagstones three times over the years. I’ve built new muscles lifting and hauling large, thick pieces of flagstones. With the success of our large unlined pond (blessed with thick clay at the bottom of the property) I wanted to make this little one unlined as well. The benefits would be that I could grow water plants in-ground, and better aquatic creatures could thrive in it. The problem was that up top by the house there is a lot of decomposed granite, which is porous. So I spent many a day digging up clay from various areas on the property, pushing the buckets or wheelbarrow uphill through mulch, lugging it over and lining the pond with it. Miranda hauled clay as well. Six inches of clay still didn’t seal it. I’d been refilling the pond every few days with well water, but the level would change dramatically and the Pacific Chorus Frogs that used to come to the pond in great numbers, sing deafeningly in January and February, lay eggs and then go off to eat more bugs in the yard, weren’t coming anymore. The low pond water allowed watercress and other plants to fill it up as well. Now it is frog breeding time, and there is little habitat for them.

So a few weeks ago I purchased new pond liner. My daughter and I pulled the pond apart, fed the watercress to the hens,

dug up clay and hauled it back down the hill (used it in raised beds) (best traveled clay anywhere),reshaped and enlarged the pond giving it plenty of edges, cushioned it with newspaper, 

relined it, moved around the flagstones yet again, transplanted a water lily from the big pond below into a sunken pot, transplanted creeping red fescue and a few green lilies around the edges, and installed a circulation pump which allows water to flow through a bird bath. We were finishing the work today, on this balmy, dry, 85F February 1, when Miranda noticed frog spawn attached to floating pine needles.

Over the last week while the pond had been full, the magic had already worked! So she corralled the pine needles – fallen from a newly deceased huge beautiful pine in our driveway that died because the neighbor randomly cut its roots in the heat of summer – into the shallow end to keep the spawn safe. Miranda cut some floppy dwarf cattail stems and stuck them into the submerged water lily pot so the frogs could attach their spawn to something stationery. We’d overlapped the edges with flagstone so there were plenty of sneaky places for frogs to hide out. We also have edges of different depths, for different sized birds such as the white crown sparrow below to bathe in, and they have been enjoying these areas immensely. We should charge a dirty bird spa fee!

Within half an hour of us finishing outside, while we ate a very late lunch, we had many diverse avian visitors coming in for a drink. The sound of water carries very far and will attract birds better than food sources. Even a female phainopepla, one of our few crested birds, enjoyed the new running water source. 

Followed by a mockingbird,

this wonderful thrush 

a scrub jay 

and more. Pond visitors today were also house finches, bushtits, a pair of mourning doves, bluebirds, crows, Western bluebirds, Anna’s hummingbirds, a tanager, Lincoln sparrow, and more. 

Then when the sun was about to set, the male Pacific chorus frogs gave out a practice singing session, just to see who was in the game for after it got dark.  

MVI 1937

Pacific Chorus Frogs sounding each other out around the upper pond before dark. Its breeding season!

You can make a small pond in a cattle waterer or other metal container, or suspend a big soda bottle over a concave dish and pierce a small hole in the bottom so that it very slowly drips. Provide some shelter for the animals around your watering hole, and you’ll be helping the wildlife get through these extremely dry days. They will respond by eating your bad bugs, building soil, pollinating and so much more. Be sure to watch the action, through a window or via a wildlife camera! Its better than TV, and no commercials.

(Photos Diane and Miranda Kennedy)

Projects for the New Year

Take on one project this year that will help improve the earth. Just one. If you can manage more, fantastic. However make sure that you are fully mindful of all aspects of your project so that is it done as well as it can be.

For instance, decide to use greywater. If you can physically and legally connect your household non-toilet water pipes to a water composting system and use it to irrigate plants, then do so. If piping is impossible, then hand-carry the dishwater, shower water, bath water and cooking water out and dump it on your plants as often as you can. Make a smoothie for yourself, then clean the blender by filling it with water, blending it, and pouring that nutrient-rich residual around your plants. Yet that is not enough. Use environmentally friendly soaps. Be aware of the plastic content and chemical treatments for fireproofing or insecticide of the clothes you are washing. Plastic is in synthetic fleece, in microdermal skin treatments, in polyester bedding. You don’t have to not use greywater if you are washing synthetic fabric, but you should be mindful of what you buying. Avoid microbeads. Avoid glitter and mosquito-proofed outerwear. Choose your purchases with open eyes, thereby reducing your usage of these toxins. Build good soil to help clean the toxins from the water. 

Compost. At the very least, use blender compost.    That means, take a handful of soft kitchen scraps, put them into a blender, fill with water, process, and pour the very liquidy mixture around your plants. Don’t throw away any food scraps, egg shells, leftovers, sour milk, moldy refrigerator mysteries, paper towels, tissues, paper napkins, cotton Q-tips, cotton balls, cotton dental floss, hair, or anything biodegradable. If you can’t blend it up and pour it onto the earth as fertilizer, then dig a small hole and bury it, or make a pile and compost it, or layer it in a raised bed or in a lasagna garden. What leaves your house in the form of trash should only be recyclables and undecompostable items. Your garbage disposal should be rarely used if ever. Put this raw fertilizer into the ground, not into the dump. Be mindful of what you are buying and whether it can be composted or not. 

Plant trees. If you are in an area with too much rainfall, you need the trees to take up the water, hold the soil and buffer the onslaught of the weather. If you are in a dry area you need trees to shade the ground, to capture ambient moisture and rain it down, to cover the hard earth with leaves. All areas need perches for animals. All areas need the oxygen supplied by the trees converting carbon dioxide gasses. All areas need reforestation with natives that thrive in indiginous locations. Be mindful of what kind of landscape you are planting. If you choose non-native trees that offer no food for animals and harm the native flora, then you are not helping. In San Diego, if you plant eucalyptus, ficus, Washingtonia palm trees, Brazilian or California peppers (not from California, but Peru), or many of the sterile fruitless versions of ornamental trees, you are taking away from the landscape rather than adding to it. I can’t begin to count how many neighborhoods I’ve been in with old plantings of ornamental plants and trees, and the area is so sterile of animals that they are like wastelands. Only survivor crows and sparrows (and loose cats) can be seen. Instead, areas with native trees are rich in many species of birds, and the insect population is under control as well. Water use is low, pollinator habitat is high, and the neighborhood feels alive and well, especially if the cats are safely tucking inside where they belong, as mine are.

Recycle. I am constantly stunned to see recyclable bottles and cans thrown into regular waste. The percentage of what is recycled that actually processed is low, too. So choose glass over plastic. We bought camping utensil sets to carry with us, refuse straws, and this year I’ll work on bringing containers for leftovers when we eat out rather than take a clamshell plastic container or Styrofoam one. I already wrap banana peels, leftover pastries, apple cores, and whatever is biodegradable in a paper napkin, bring it home and compost it. If you have a plastic water bottle, soda can, glass bottle, or anything recyclable, please put it in the appropriate container. Recycling has been around since I was a schoolgirl, and I can’t believe everyone still doesn’t do it.

Switch makeup. My daughter is particularly good at finding vegan, Fair Trade and non-GMO skin care products for reasonable prices. Neither of us use many cosmetics, but the lip and cheek color, eye color and moisturizers we use, as well as our daily soaps, are ethically and environmentally sourced. Why rub harsh chemicals into your eyes and mouth? The choices grow every day, and the prices lower all the time. Do your homework. Be mindful of what you pick up in the store. Remember that what you put on your skin is also washed down the sink and into the water table, or into your greywater. Support the businesses who have ethical business practices. This goes for men, too. Shaving cream, after shaves, toner, scent, hair products, etc. Your skin will be healthier for the change.

Shop local. Pick one or two local businesses that you know practice sustainable, ethical and conscientious business practices, who give back to their community, and give them all of your support. Buy from them, advertise for them, befriend them, give them moral support. Rate them highly on Yelp, Google, or other rating systems. Watch out for them to be sure that they can succeed. Work for them if possible. Adopt them so that they have success.

Go animal and dairy free at least one day a week. I cannot go into the scope of the damage to the environment and the horror of the treatment of food animals here. Dare yourself to find out for yourself. Read Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Find out what happens to cows and their calves in dairies, and the heartbreaking lowing of the cows -always kept pregnant to produce milk- as their young are hauled shrieking away to be slaughtered for veal. If you think that fish and shellfish somehow have no nerves or instincts, then think again. Lobsters who are by nature competitive being held in freshwater tanks, their claws bound, among their competition, starved, and then boiled alive. If you shrug and turn away from the suffering from others, then perhaps you should analyze your food sources more. You condone practices if you support them with your wallet. So set aside a meatless and dairy-free day once a week. If  the entire U.S. did not eat meat or cheese for just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road. The UN  has said that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from the worst effects of climate change because of the heavy environmental impact of raising livestock. Not to mention the health benefits that come from a plant-based diet; diabetes, cancer, hypertension, high blood pressure and so much more is rooted in diet. Make a Meatless Monday, or a Vegan Wednesday, or whatever, and avoid pouring cheese sauce all over some steamed veggies and calling it a good meal.  Have a curry, a Turkish Eggplant Stew, a dairy free mushroom stroganoff, spring rolls, veggie lasagna, heavenly steamed eggplant, a portobello sandwich, stir-fry, bean and avocado burritos, try some non-GMO meat substitutes like those from Gardein (particularly their fish!) (no product placement, just a recommendation), or make your own seitan. Make your own vegan butter. Let your body and the environment have a break for a day.

Help Out. Choose a local charity, or a needy neighbor, and provide what they need. Don’t just give them what you want to get rid of , or what you think they should have. Often people just need reassurance or a friend to talk to, or possible solutions, or a hand for a day. Donate what your charity needs, and if that is money then do it. Help with a fundraiser. Volunteer your time. Do something to truly help someone else out, without asking for praise or cosmic bonus points in return. Don’t be a pain; be a blessing. Volunteering and helping out make you feel worthwhile and surrounds you with like-minded people who can become your friends.

 I have found many of my closest friends through volunteering.  Be aware of large, nation- or world-wide charities who use most of your donations for salaries and infrastructure, and very little on what they are supposed to be supporting.  Don’t let the big names fool you. Use your money to help honest charities in your area, or by just sending money to people who need it, anonymously.

Whatever you choose to do, do it mindfully. Pay attention to the details, to where products come from, to the business practices of the charities and stores you support, to how animals and people are treated in the making of the products, of what is in what you handle every day. You don’t have to, nor can you, take on the world’s problems, but you can focus on one thing and stick with it; make it part of your day-to-day until it is habit. Then move to a second choice. What you do, what you buy, what you say and how you spend your time cause ripples across the earth, and being mindful of your influence will send out help rather than harm.

Happy New Year. Be healthy. Be kind. Be happy. You matter.

Inspiring Successful Earth-saving Projects

We can help the planet re-vegetate and reverse climate change. Here are three large projects that have had success and one which is still in the making because it is so vast. Watch these and be inspired, be hopeful, and plant native trees where you live:

Africa’s Great Green Wall:

China’s Loess Plateau:

Jordan’s Greening the Desert:

Shade

In drylands there is a noticeable lack of trees. This situation is kind of a Catch-22. The hotter and drier it is, the less water there is in the ground to provide for plants that can attain height, and the more the leaves of the existing trees must adapt (become smaller) to prevent transpiration and sunburn. Yet the very lack of trees and their extensive root systems, and the shade and habitat they create, and the transpiration that allows humidity to keep the air moist for pollen to survive, is one of the causes of desertification.

So how do we stop this cycle?

First, work on a manageable area. If you have a large property, then start on the area closest to your home or where you need water the most, or where water settles. As in the Annie Lamont title, Bird by Bird, you work on a piece a little at a time.

  1. Put in earthworks to harvest rainwater. Simple swales or rain catchment basins, perpendicular to the water flow and on contour with your property, will harvest hundreds of gallons of water each rain. You can do them with tractors, you can do them with shovels, you can do small ones with trowels above small plants. Just do them.
  2. Bury organic matter: hugelkultur. Do you have old wood laying around? Palm trees that are growing and being a fire hazard? Old untreated lumber full of nails? Branches? All of this can be layered into the ground. Bury organic matter downhill from your swales. If you cannot bury, then pound sticks vertically into the ground. The important thing is that you are adding organic material back into your depleted soil. It will hold rainwater, it will activate soil microbes and fungi, it will open oxygen and nutrient channels, it will sequester carbon and make it available to the plants. Our soil is mostly just dead dirt. By layering organic material with dirt you are doing what nature does, but at an accelerated pace. If your soil is unmanageable, or you can’t dig, then layer on top of the soil. Its called, among other things, lasagne gardening. Lay out newspaper, top it with fresh grass clippings or other greens, top that with dried grass clippings, dried leaves or other ‘brown’ materials, and depending upon what you want to plant in this, you can top it with mulch or with a layer of good compost and then mulch. Then plant in it! You create soil on top of the ground.
  3. Mulch and sheet mulch! Protect your soil from the heat and wind, and from pounding rain. A thin layer of bark will actually heat up and accelerate the evaporation process: add several inches of mulch to the ground. Better yet, sheet mulch by laying cardboard and/or newspaper directly on top of the weeds and layering an inch or more of mulch on top. This can be free mulch from landscapers, old weeds, grass clippings, animal bedding, softwood cuttings… just cover the soil to keep it moist and protected.  Thick mulching alone will help keep some humidity in the air and begin soil processes, as well as reduce evaporation by reflected heat that comes from bare earth or gravel
  4. Plant native plants. They thrive in our soil. Grow trees that filter the sun and don’t like a lot of water, such as palo verde, or those that take minimal additional water such as desert willow, California redbud, valley oak, or others. Grow tall bushes such as toyon, lemonadeberry, sugarbush, quailbush, ceanothusor others. Use these wonderful plants to invite in birds,butterflies, lizards and other wildlife that will begin pollination and help activate the soil.
  5. Design your garden for what you want to grow besides natives. Fruit trees? Vegetables? Ornamentals? They can be arranged in your mulched area in guilds to grow cooperatively. 
  6. Grow shade. Fast-growing trees and shrubs are invaluable for protecting – ‘nurserying in’ – less hardy plants. Acacia and cassia are both nitrogen-fixers and will grow quickly to shade your plants, can be cut for green waste in the fall and also attract pollinators. Moringa is completely edible and is also an excellent chop-and-drop tree. There are many others. You need to protect what you plant from the harsh summer sunlight, and using sacrificial trees and shrubs is the most productive way to do it.
  7. Protect your tree trunks from scorching by growing light vines up them, such as beans or small squash.

Once you have done this process in one area, then move on to the next, like a patchwork quilt. These areas should all be planted in accordance with a larger plan that covers your entire property, so that you plant what you want in the best possible place. However, the earthworks, hugelkultur and mulching can be done everywhere.  By following these guidelines, and working one small area at a time, you’ll have success, have trees, shade, food and be helping reverse desertification, one plot at a time.

Creating Rain with Canopy

Even if we don’t receive a lot of rain in drylands, we might have fog, sprinkles and other degrees of ambient moisture. This moisture can burn off with reflected heat from hard-packed earth, from gravel and hardscape, and from buildings.  It is too irregular and thin to make the use of mist nets feasible.  However, a much better way to collect that moisture and turn it into rain is the method nature uses: trees.  The layers of a plant guild are designed to capture, soften and sink rainwater, so why not just let them do it? Many trees are dying due to heat, low water table, lack of rainfall and dry air. Replacing them with native and drought-tolerant trees is essential to help put the brakes on desertification.

Please take five minutes, follow this link and listen and have a walk with me into Finch Frolic Garden as this 5-year-old canopy collects moisture and turns it into rain:

Plant a tree!

Turtle Recall

Howdy there — it’s Miranda popping in from the Facebook page to bring you a cool update. It’s been quite a while since my last post on Vegetariat: I mostly leave all the easy-peasy blog work to Diane while I’m concentrating on the excruciatingly complex and tiring Facebook stuff. I know, I’m a saint. Hey, did you know old Shakespeare the Bard invented the name Miranda? — it’s the feminine form of the Latin gerund mirandus, meaning “worthy to be admired”; so really I’m Saint Admirable of Vultusliber. (One in there for the dead language folks, thank me in the comments — or, you know, not.)

Today I want to tell you a story about some ponds, and some turtles, and some recollections. No elephants.

Those who visit us on the Facebook page may already know of our glee last April when a pair of Southern Western Pond Turtles (Actinemys pallida) appeared in our big pond.

The Western Pond Turtle group which our Southern race (I think species status for pallida is still under study) belongs to, Actinemys marmoratais an IUCN Red List “Vulnerable” species. This listing is due mostly to late 1800s to mid-1900s overharvest for food and extensive, continuing destruction and alteration of habitat. We simply don’t have wetlands anymore. They also struggle under pressures from invasive species such as Red-eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) — which will eat small pond turtles and usurp pond turtle habitat niches — and many other trials from the cornucopia of threats we offer our native species. Actinemys pallida‘s conservation status hasn’t been updated since 1996, and probably warrants at least the more critical status of “Threatened” by now.

Soooo, we were pretty excited to see not one, but two, apparently male and female judging by size, actual pond turtles in our pond. We’ve had visits from Red-eared Sliders, certainly, and captured and relocated them to sites which already have established slider populations that aren’t going anywhere. I’m afraid we haven’t the heart to kill them, so although we’re not reducing the problem, we are working to maintain an exclusive pond turtle club in our own pond.

Red-eared Slider

Adorable but sadly very destructive invasive species here in California.

We were even more ecstatic when the pond turtles stayed. We’d catch glimpses of one or both of them all summer, until in the fall only the small one seemed to still be around, popping up on the duck raft to catch some sun in the warm afternoons. As it got colder, we saw him less often, but every now and then, we’d come round by the pond and there’d be the quiet “ploop” of a small scaly body slipping into the water.

The April pair, however, were not actually the first pond turtles we’d ever had on the property.

Back in July of 2011, our big pond was still under construction and was just a big dirt bowl with water in it, and lots of other activity was under way around it as old building materials were being moved and the garden being shaped.

As you can see, the early pond had no habitat fit for anything except a pair of loons.

As you can see, the early pond had no habitat fit for anything except a pair of loons. (June 18, 2011)

We were quite astonished, therefore, when Jacob Hatch (of Hatch Aquatics) who was managing the installation discovered a small turtle hiding in a stack of boards behind the pond. Delighted and bemused by the appearance of this usually wary and probably quite squashable reptile near our stark pond, around tractors and trucks, we examined it for injuries and to determine what species it was.

Examination

A comparison with the images and info. on the wonderful CaliforniaHerps website confirmed the stripeless turtle as a rare native Western Pond Turtle, and probably a female from the apparent concavity of her plastron (‘belly’ half of shell).

The most cursory examination, however, immediately revealed the turtle’s startling absence of a left front foot.

Mrs. Sabatini

The wound was old and well-healed, and the turtle was admirably (Miranda-ishly) sprightly and seemingly unperturbed and unhindered by her partial flipperlessness.

Of course, we instantly dubbed the gimpy, watery, gimlet-eyed fighter ‘Rafael Sabatini’ (author of such famous swashbuckling tales as The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood). When we determined it was, in fact, a she, we respectfully redubbed her ‘Mrs. Sabatini’.

The second real Mrs. Rafael Sabatini, née Christine Dixon, I imagine to have been a person of some intelligence and depth of feeling, due to the fact that she had Rafael’s tombstone inscribed with “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”, the poignant first line of his novel of the French Revolution, Scaramouche.

Gimlet-eyed

Our Mrs. Sabatini was certainly full of a sense of madness — at her unjust captivity! — so we quickly released her in the only place that seemed suitable and safe on the property: the small pond at the front of our house.

Je suis libre

And that, despite our warm feelings of companionship and our admonishments to stay safe and show her face now and then, was the last we saw of the delightful Mrs. Sabatini.

Mrs. Sabatini, last seen

Life went on, as it does. And we gained that pond turtle couple last spring, so maybe-maybe we might end up with baby turtles here down the line. A distinguishing trait of a Shakespearean comedy (rather than a history or other) is that it ends with marriage, which implies future babies: it ends in the expectation of life. And I think Mrs. Sabatini would rather like the turtle story she was involved in to be a comedy — ‘gift of laughter’ and all. I can just imagine her rusty, grudging little whistly cackle guffing out as we fade to black.

However, in January this year, we began seeing multiple turtles in the pond again, rather than simply the lone male that had lingered into the fall. We became fearful that we’d been infiltrated by sliders again, as we’d see three turtles at once sunning on the raft — a new turtle maximum, and sliders are prolific and less picky about personal space. I had trouble getting good shots to check for the clearest field marks (the rounded vs. pointed shapes of the marginal scutes over the tail) so we were feeling rather turtle-scouraged, to be frank, a little turtle-glum. It’s difficult to catch a slider, but if we had them in the pond, as we had the grim feeling we did, they couldn’t stay or we’d risk all the balanced habitat we’d built up for our native species.

"Who am I? I'll never tell! Keh-heh-heh-heh-hui!"

“Who am I? I’ll never tell! Keh-heh-heh-heh-hui! (neck in, neck in)!”

Last night I decided to start catching up on my new year photo sorting. I take a lot of photos, and they all come off the camera into my ExternalHD Limbo on my desktop, where they’re eventually sorted and distributed to their homes in various folder nestings on my external harddrives. I’d managed to grab a few shots of the January turtles, and determined to examine them as best I could for slidery traits. It was time, I felt, to know for certain.

I pulled up a photo of a chummy pair of turtles I’d taken January 17th as they enjoyed the weak sunshine on the raft.

Turtles for the new year

The resolution was good, so I was able to zoom in on their faces with fair clarity. Happily, I couldn’t see any stripes, red or yellow, on the face that would indicate a slider, and their chins looked mottled-yellow as pond turtles’ do.

Looking for more clues, I panned down from the faces along the necks and shells-fronts and —

— and there it was. Or there it wasn’t.

For on the smaller turtle, who was relaxing under the friendly claw of its chelonian compatriot, where there ought to have been a small reptilian left front leg — there was none.

Mrs. Sabatini Returns

Mrs. Sabatini… had returned.

(Scaramouche, Scaramouche, she finds it difficult to do the fan-dan-go!)

“Faith, it’s an uncertain world entirely”! We certainly didn’t expect the same small, appendagially-impaired pond turtle to suddenly reappear in our pond after five years of absence.

Well, whether she’d truly been away or was simply being a lot more sneaky about using the pond so we never saw her, we’re exceedingly chuffed to know she’s back. She’s a jewel in our healthy, chemical-free habitat crown, and we’re pretty chuffed with ourselves for creating a safe, natural pond that she and her buddies — and so many other water-dependent species — can rely on.

If you build it, they will come — and come back!

Let’s keep making habitat for the small, wild, heart-pirating creatures in our lives, eh?

(Please direct Mrs. Sabatini fanmail c/o Finch Frolic Garden.)

M

 

Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture

3-26-13 009When set in motion the many parts of a plant guild  will create a self-sustaining cycle of nutrition and water.  By understanding the guild template and what plants fit where, we can plug in plants that fulfill those roles and also provide for us food, building materials, fuel and medicine as well as beauty.

Plant the appropriate plants for where you are placing them, for your soil and water use, and stack them in a guild with compatible plants that you can use.  The ground will be covered by a foliar density that will keep grasses and other weeds at bay and provide excellent habitat for a full range of animals and insects.  By stacking plants in a guild you are bringing life and abundance back to your garden.

Does it still sound so complicated?  Rather than try to learn the roles of all the plants in the world, start small.  Make a list of all the plants you want to plant.  List them under food bearing, culinary/medicinal herb, craft/building material, and ornamental.  Then read up on those plants.  What size are they at maturity?  Do they need full sun, partial or full shade?  If trees, do they have an upright growth so you may plant under them (stonefruit), or do they like to have their roots covered and don’t like plants directly under them (citrus and avocado)?

Citrus doesn't like plants under its canopy, but does like plants outside its dripline.

Citrus doesn’t like plants under its canopy, but does like plants outside its dripline.

Are they annuals, perennials or biennials? What is their growth habit: sprawling, rooting where they spread, upright bushy, do they need support and can they cling or do they need to be tied to a support?

Will the plant twine on its own?

Will the plant twine on its own?

Do they require digging up to harvest?  Do they fix nitrogen in the soil?  Do they drop leaves or are they evergreen?  Are they fragrant?  When are their bloom times?  Fruiting times?  Are they cold tolerant or do they need chill hours?  How much water do they need?  What are their companion plants (there are many guides for this online, or in books on companion planting.)

Do vines or canes need to be tied to supports?

Do vines or canes need to be tied to supports?

As you are acquainting yourself with your plants, you can add to their categorization, and shift them into the parts of a plant guild.  Yes, many plants will be under more than one category… great!  Fit them into the template under only one category, because diversity in the guild is very important.

Draw your guilds with their plants identified out on paper  before you begin to purchase plants.  Decide where the best location for each is on your  property.  Tropical plants that are thirsty and don’t have cold tolerance should go in well-draining areas towards the top or middle of your property where they can be easily watered.  Plants that need or can tolerate a chill should go where the cold will settle.

Once it is on paper, then start planting.  You don’t have to plant all the guilds at once… do it as you have time and money for it.  Trees should come first.  Bury wood to nutrify the soil in your beds, and don’t forget to sheet mulch.

Remember that in permaculture, a garden is 99% design and 1% labor.  If you think buying the plants first and getting them in the ground without planning is going to save you time and money, think again.  You are gambling, and will be disappointed.

Have fun with your plant guilds, and see how miraculous these combinations of plants work.  When you go hiking, look at how undisturbed native plants grow and try to identify their components in nature’s plant guild.  Guilds are really the only way to grow without chemicals, inexpensively and in a way that builds soil and habitat.

You can find the rest of the 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants, Plant Guild #6: Groundcovers, Plant Guild #7: Vines,   Plant Guild #8: Insectiaries .