Posts

Black Swallowtails

Protect Your Dill and Parsley

by Sandy Swegel

I’m very proud of my mama.  At 80+ and on oxygen 24 hours a day, she’s still making valiant efforts to keep her brain functioning.  She led a busy life, but now that’s she’s older and can’t get around easily without oxygen tanks, she is learning to observe what is in front of her.  Today she called me very proudly and announced that she had found five huge caterpillars on her dill plant in her tiny courtyard garden down in New Orleans.  She was never a gardener but at this point in life she loves watching butterflies through the window and had watched over the last few weeks wondering why the butterflies were all over the dill plant.  She called because she wanted to know what would happen next and what she should do or not do.

I pretty much said do nothing except maybe to make sure the cat kept the birds from eating those fat plump caterpillars.  And then I googled and found these great pictures of what’s going to happen.  She’s going to have to look around because the butterflies might make their home on some sticks or weeds or even under a tiny fountain.  She’s promised to take pictures…but photographer Bob Moul made a great website about what you should look for if black swallowtails are all over your dill, parsley or fennel. http://www.pbase.com/rcm1840/lifecycleofblsw  It only takes a few weeks from huge caterpillar to new butterfly!

Usually, it’s the very young and the old who have the wisdom to notice nature’s miracles like butterflies…but I’m going to check the dill and parsley too. If you don’t have time to stalk your dill plants, here’s an awesome time-lapse video of caterpillar to butterfly!  The first part of the video is all about frenzied eating.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrowLvvmmds

How to get your Neighbors and Friends Interested in Pollinators

Saving the Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You have finally come to understand how important pollinators are and why we need to protect them.  One of the challenges we who value pollinators face is how to get your neighbors and friends interested in pollinators too.  Unfortunately, we’ll start to ramble about how bad chemicals are or how GMO crops harm the environment and if we pay attention we’ll notice our listeners’ eyes are glazing over and they’re looking for a quick exit.  Even with other people interested in the same topics, it’s not long till people get that bored “You’re preaching to the choir” look. When you’re passionate you want other people to be passionate too, and maybe take to the streets in pursuit of your cause…but that rarely happens.

So what can you do to educate others about protecting pollinators?

I’ve learned a lot from watching Niki, a member of our garden group, over the years.  Over time she had inspired many people to put in pollinator habitats or at least to stop pouring chemicals on their lawns.  And she did it without preaching.  So taking inspiration from her over the years, here’s an action list on how to gently inspire others to protect pollinators and the environment.

Make a demo garden in your front yard.

It was a slow start for Niki.  She lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and her decision to turn her front yard from perfect green grass to a xeric native habitat caused some upset in the ‘hood. At first, people thought she was bringing property values down with all those weeds.  But she kept the garden tidy and explained every plant she grew to anyone who stopped by.  She invited the kids over to watch butterflies.  She explained to people who asked why she was doing what she did.  Her friendly attitude and a “come pick out of my garden anytime” attitude built relationships.  Neighbors on their mowers noticed they were out doing yard work every weekend and she wasn’t.  Then she started to tell people how much money she was saving by not watering the lawn and using chemicals.  That changed a few people’s minds. She added in the info that you could protect your trees without the expensive sprays the tree companies wanted to do. Soon the whole neighborhood was just a little more pollinator friendly.

Teach the kids

Kids have open minds.  Have an inviting garden with butterflies everywhere, and kids will stop to look around.  They’ll ask questions and they’ll tell their families about the cool stuff they learned today.

Give away free stuff.

It’s pretty easy to collect seed from native plants or to put seed you have in little envelopes to give away.  People in the neighborhood learned they could get free seeds for lots of low-water flowering plants if they stopped at Niki’s.  They also learned they could get free plants.  She started seeds in her living room or dug up self-seeding plants and put them in tiny pots and gave them to anyone who would learn how to take care of them. Soon, that’s native food sources up and down the block.

Offer Free Public Classes

Soon the neighbors had all the free seeds and plants they could use.  So the next step was to offer free classes to the public. Our library offers meeting rooms for public groups for free so soon Niki was offering 2-hour Saturday classes on “Chemical-free gardening” or “Make your own natural cleaning products.” Another 2-hour Saturday project was the free Seed Swap in January which invited everyone to bring their extra seeds and swap with one another.  Gardeners meeting other gardeners is often all it takes.  Lots of people came to classes because they wanted to save money or have a safer environment for their kids.  They all left with that info and with an understanding of why chemicals can really hurt bees and other pollinators and how there’s an easier way to do things.  Not preachy…but well-researched information.  A heartfelt story about the impact of pesticides in Kansas on monarch butterflies all over the world helps people want to do the right thing.

Be generous with your time to talk to others

Soon gardeners and community members learned Niki and now her gardening circle friends would come to talk to their neighborhood association or school about native bees and butterflies.  Or they’d look at your suffering tomato plant and suggest a natural home-made remedy.  Everyone got on an email group together and ended up teaching each other about natural gardening and making homes for pollinators. Local media people saw the library classes and now had someone to call when they needed a radio show or newspaper article.

Bats are Beautiful!

Why We Need to Love these Pollinators

by Cheryl Soldati Clark

There are so many misconceptions out there about bats. Bats are not evil, blood-thirsty creatures that fly  around at night trying to get caught in your hair. Bats are graceful and fascinating nocturnal creatures, which benefit humans by pollinating plants, dispersing seeds, and feeding on insect pests. In fact, we have bats to thank for pollinating over 300 species of fruits that we eat, such as, bananas, mangoes and guavas to name a few. These aerial mammals fly from sundown to sunrise, visiting flowers in the darkness and ingesting their sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen. They are also excellent pest managers eating up to 1,200 mosquitoes in one hour. A long-lived mammal, in the wild, bats can live for up to 20 years.

As pollinators, bats are attracted to green, purple and dull white flowers with very fragrant, fruit-like odor. They are also attracted to musky, fermented smelling flowers because they have an excellent sense of smell. They choose to feed from large, bell or bowl-shaped flowers (1-3.5 inches) that are open at night and have copious amounts of dilute nectar. The bat forces its head into the flower, trying to reach the nectar with its long tongue. Several species of night-blooming cacti are perfect candidates for bats to pollinate. Bats may eat the pollen, stamen and anthers of certain flowers while at the same time carrying large amounts of pollen on its face and coarse fur from flower to flower. Bats travel long distances every night thus making them effective cross-pollinators of plants that are widely spaced.

Bats can be found in almost every part of the world except in extremely hot and cold climates. They live on all continents except Antarctica. You can find more species of bats where the weather is nice and warm. Bats like to roost in groups in dark and humid environments.  They also roost in different structures, such as, the underside of bridges, in caves, inside buildings, in cracks in between rocks, in mines, and in tree hollows.

Unfortunately, due to disease as well as human misunderstanding, many bat species are endangered and some have already gone extinct. Through the misuse of pesticides and habitat destruction, in the United States alone, nearly 40% of the native bat species are endangered. It is our job as human beings to protect these important pollinators by educating our children, friends and neighbors about the importance of bats and trying to eliminate the fear factor associated with these nocturnal mammals. Pollinator Week is a great time to start!

Great Bat Links:  A great video on how to safely & humanely remove a bat from your home

Build your own Bat House! Bring a Bat program into your School Other Bat links Beautiful Bat photos Bat Coloring Pages

Bat Facts

Connecting with Wild Nature

Get Out and Take a Hike

by Sandy Swegel

Our gardens are grand places to be.  Assuming we don’t worry too much about weeds. Here are our favorite flowers to make us happy. And over there our favorite tomatoes are thinking about ripening.  We may cultivate some wildness by planting a pollinator meadow but for the most part, our own gardens are cultivated and maintained…a good thing.

But deep down, we human beings are also wild animals, yearning to connect with the Wild Nature of ancestral memory.  I went this week on a wildflower hike, just minutes from town, to be reminded of what plants looked like before they were tamed.  And maybe to feel like what humans felt before they were tamed.  I like to do a little nature hiking because unlike in my tended garden, in the wild I don’t know the name of every plant.  And I don’t think about how I have to pull the weeds when I’m walking in the wild. And plants don’t grow in shade or sun gardens but where happenstance put them — sometimes on the side of a boulder wall or the edge of a precipice.

I found this particular hike through meetup.com.  No matter where you live, if there are Meetups in your area, a search for “nature” meetup will provide you with some great opportunities to explore wildness near you.  Our meetup guide in Boulder, Lauren Kovsky, took us on a public trail and while she did the basics of any wildflower hike of naming flowers, she clearly had great fun teaching us to interact with nature by using all our senses.  We learned to identify the ponderosa pine trees by smelling their butterscotchy bark. We learned to look at shapes and feel textures of flowers to remember their names.  Mouse-ear chickweed did look like a bunch of mice in a circle looking up with ears perked.  Pussy toe ground covers felt soft just like cat toes.  After heeding admonitions never to eat wild plants without knowing exactly what the plant is, we formed strong memories of wild onions by biting the seeds and recognized the Earl Grey tea taste of wild bergamot. Mints reminded us of summer iced teas and wild mustard flowers felt hot and spicy on our tongues.

Lauren’s philosophy of why we were on this hike made good sense.  She told us that people often go off to far-away oceans or jungles to experience nature.  They swim with dolphins and feel one with the sea.  But then they return home and once again feel disconnected with the natural world.  She recommends finding little wild areas near your home and experiencing them with all of your senses. Learn how they taste and feel and smell. If you watch how the high water flows in Spring and feel how the harsh wind blows in January and taste the tiny wild raspberries in Summer, you will remember that you are part of nature and that no matter where you go, you are always connected.

Name Your Garden!

Gardens Name Themselves

by Sandy Swegel

A friend told me years ago that everything should have a name, even inanimate objects. She was helping me garden one year and within just a couple of weeks, everything we might ever have a need to refer to had a name. The big orange wheelbarrow, of course, was “Pumpkin.” The red bargain shovel was “Scarlet.” My little hand shovel was “Scout.” Soon my old truck had a name (Zohar) and it just went on and on from there. Her premise was, that if you’ve named something, you take better care of it. This must be true because I lost my good pruners that season, most likely because they were anonymous.

I love gardens. In the past few months, I’ve become so infatuated with making my garden look as amazing as humanly possible, and I’ve even managed to get my friends doing the same. Just the other day a friend of mine had new composite fencing installed by Ecomposite, whose fences are made from recycled plastic and wood. However, out of all of my friends, none of them have the passion for gardens that I do, to the point where I even have names for the gardens that I see.

Gardens just begged to be named. They even name themselves. The wild area with the chokecherries and wild roses is “The Thicket.” A client’s garden that is full of lavender and has the best mountain view in town is “The Anti-Depression Garden.” The part of the yard with two apple trees and a cherry is “The Orchard.” My names aren’t particularly clever sometimes, but they either convey the essence of the garden to me or they are a convenient way to talk to other people. Or most other people. A gardener who happened to be an engineer left me a message once asking me to weed in the “Ovate” garden. The what? I said. But ovate was very clearly the proper technical name for the shape of the bed.

You get the idea. You can name your garden after the plants that live there or the shape of the bed or the emotion the garden evokes. Garden writer Lauren Springer coined the phrase “hell strip” years ago to describe the space between the sidewalk and the street. Everyone knows what you mean when you say “The Hell Strip.” For years a favorite area at the Denver Botanic Gardens was the Red Garden…every plant, every foliage and bloom, was red.

Other gardens I’ve named are the grassy area in the back where I threw the wildflower/grass mixture, “The Meadow.” The small bed near the entry door to my house is “The Nursery” where I heel in all the plants I acquire but don’t know where to put them. My very friend Rosemarie’s garden beds are very practical and organized like the busy engineer and supermom she is. Her favorite bed though is a small strip we named “The Diva Garden” where she can plant outrageous purples and reds and those “OMG I have to have that plant” purchases to nurture her wild side.

I think the plants in the named beds do thrive better. Maybe it’s because once garden areas have a name, I have a relationship with them and take better care of them. I named my new pruners “Snippy” so I won’t lose them so fast this time. Now if only there were a way to link them to the ICloud so I could just hit the button “Find my Pruners” and they’d ring until I found them.

5 FREE Soil Amendments that you can Easily Find!

Creative Ways to Help Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

One of the problems with gardening is that you just can’t rush Mother Nature.  If you don’t get those tomato seeds planted early enough, there’s just no way to trick the plants into growing overnight. Compost is the same…you can’t just mix everything up today and use the compost tomorrow.  But there are things you can scavenge that you can add directly to your garden that help your garden a lot more than those sterile-looking bags of manure or compost they sell at the store. And they’re free!

1. Leaf Mold

Better even than regular compost for improving soil texture, leaf mold is what you end up with after a pile of leaves has rotted down to a dark earthy mix with only a few leaves still recognizable. This can take one or two years depending on how wet your climate is.  You can find leaf mold that’s been breaking down for months or years anywhere leaves collect:  where the wind blows them behind the garage or along the shady side of the fence.  Your neighbor’s yard is a good place to find it, or along stream beds or in shady woods.  Dig in to get the dark damp leaf mold next to the soil and leave the dry leaves for another year. Spread the leaf mold over your garden, at the bottom of planting holes, or along the trenches for your potatoes.  This is pure gold for your garden.

2. Coffee grounds

Coffee shops are often willing to give you their used coffee grounds for free. Starbucks packages them up for you in empty large coffee bags.  No need to do anything special with the grounds…just sprinkle them across your soil or at the base of plants.  The plants like the boost from caffeine almost as much as you do.

3. Weed Tea  

When I’m weeding, I keep two buckets with me…one for the green leaves (and roots) of weeds like dandelions, thistle, dock, lambsquarters and one for the seed heads or other garden debris I’m cleaning.  All those long tap roots that are so hard to dig out have been pulling up minerals and micronutrients from deep in the soil.  Once my bucket of green leaves is mostly full, I fill the rest with water and leave the bucket out to “steep.” After four days or longer, (ideally until it starts to smell bad), I use this nutrient rich water to water the garden. The leaves get thrown out or into the compost. Plants that get this water turn a nice dark green.

4. Grass Clippings

If you (or your neighbor) have a lawn (and you don’t use weed killer), the grass clippings are the perfect mulch for your garden.  Layer the clippings thinly on the surface of the soil near your plants. Keep adding it every week and it will keep breaking down at the soil line into compost.

5. Newspaper

Most newspapers are printed now with soy ink and safe to use in the garden.  Lay three or four sheets of newspaper over the soil in your walkways or between rows and cover with mulch.  The newspaper helps block weeds from coming up, and reduces evaporation.  Worms LOVE the taste of newspaper and will help break it down into rich soil.

Another Reason to Love Dandelions

We Aren’t The Only Ones Who Love Dandelions

by Sandy Swegel

I may never pull another dandelion again.  Well, at least not in my yard.  But it was an utter joy to learn something new about dandelions yesterday while enjoying my morning coffee and looking out the window.  We’ve had a very late Spring with heavy snows and everyone is worried about the bees having enough food.  Dandelions started blooming seriously last week and I sat drinking coffee and watching at least forty bees feed on the patch of dandelions in pasture grass outside my window.  And then came the delight. A tiny house wren…one of those little birds that live by the hundreds in tree or thickets…flew down and delicately started pulling on the puffball of a dandelion seedhead.  With great industry, the bird pulled off two or three of the seeds at a time (and dandelion seeds are tiny) and teased them from the hairy chaff.  He stayed pulling off the seed and threshing them for several minutes.  Naturally by the time I got the camera he was back in the tree chirping away.

There’s so much beauty and bounty around us every moment.  All these years I’ve been gardening and I never noticed how much little birds depended on finding weed seeds.

 http://www.birdsinbackyards.neth

Why do Leaves Turn Red in the Fall?

Myth or Science?

by Sandy Swegel

Because the Wind told them they were naked and they turned red with embarrassment.

There’s a Native American story that says it’s because hunters in the sky killed the Great Bear and his blood spills on the trees. (When the hunters cooked the bear, fat from the pot spilled and turns some of the trees yellow.

Scientists have a story that the trees stop producing chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is what makes leaves look green. When it disappears, the leaf’s true color (red or yellow or orange) shows through.

I’m at an awkward time of life when there are no young children in my life.  No one to tell me riddles. No one I can tease as my father teased us by telling us very tall tales that we never quite knew whether to believe or not.  No one to tell me riddles like the old Cajun guy who lived down the street who never answered a question with a straight answer but told a wild story about the bayou.

So if you know any kids or myth-makers or sacred storytellers….can you ask them why do leaves turn red in the Fall?  That chlorophyll story is a little hard to believe and kinda boring if you ask me.

Taking Care of the Bees and other Creatures this Fall

Planting Flowers for the Bees

What’s your favorite flower this year?  That’s the question our local gardening magazine posed to its readers this issue.  Many candidates came to mind, but I realized my criteria in Fall for a good flower is one that blooms late to feed the bees and other pollinators that are still around scrambling for nectar and pollen to sustain them or their babies through winter.

So my favorite flowers right now include the dandelions that have responded to our recent rains with a bloom worthy of Spring.  Every time I see a dandelion now, I don’t respond with a desire to pull it, but with a word of encouragement because it’s not a weed when it has a happy bee gorging in the middle of the flower.

Other favorites that are feeding bees and other creatures:

Cosmos are tough annuals, and still blooming despite some frosty weather.
Scabiosa has won my garden awards for several years for being the last flower blooming in November.  It’s one flower I keep deadheading instead of leaving the seed because I know it makes new flowers as long as it can.
Violas and Pansies planted now will make flowers to please me and the bees during warm spells this winter.

As always, there is one really important thing pollinators and especially bees need in Fall:

WATER.  At my house, the seasonal ditch dried up in August, and standing water is rare in our arid climate.  I keep water in the birdbath and in the flat little saucer with pebbles for the bees.  I notice signs that other bigger creatures like the squirrels and rabbits and field mice sneak water when I’m not watching from the bird bath top that I left sitting on the ground. I got pretty angry with the ravenous rabbit over-population this year, but when I see one lonely bunny hunkered down in the dry leaves under the trees, I can’t help but leave water out for her.  I know I’ll be rewarded with hungry baby bunnies in the Spring, but as the cold winds of Fall send chills through the gardener, my heart goes out to all the creatures who live outdoors during the long winter season.

Use Red to Make your Garden “Pop”!

Adding Color to Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

A friend is a marketing guru and always talks about wanting to make things “pop” whether its brochures, interior design or gardens.  Fall is a great time when colors pop. We naturally think of New England with its amazing Fall display. In fact, East Coasters coming to Colorado are often disappointed their first Fall. It is gorgeous here, but it’s pretty darn yellow. Yellow aspens are beautiful, but yellow and brown don’t pop as red does.

A neighbor has a wild red unkempt thicket of shrubs and trees along his fence that makes people stop in the road to take pictures. The key to its glory (besides the fact that it requires virtually no upkeep except watering) is huge shrubs and small trees…all with lots of berries: orange Pyracantha with blue Euonymous, intermingled with red viburnum berries. The whole thing is held together by a wayward Virginia Creeper vine that is one of the plants that does red here in Colorado.

Most of our gardens may be better organized. But a wild uncontrolled area that “pops” with bright reds and oranges is a joy to behold as the growing season winds down. Use red to make your garden pop! Then the regular yellows and golds and browns of your xeric garden or your fading vegetable garden look beautiful against their red backdrop.