06 July 2014

Pruning with Compassion



Pruning is part of gardening. As the saying goes, we must prune to make things grow. So we deadhead flowers. We cut back unruly growth. We manicure our spaces to clean things up a bit and encourage growth the way that we want it.

The problem is, there's a community of living beings that depend on those plants that we choose to clip, and this is doubly or triply true if we have created gardens with native plants.

There are finches that grab seeds from echinacea and sunflower heads held aloft on black ugly stalks. There are giant swallowtails that love parsley that is past its prime for our palates. There are hawkmoth larvae on the coral honeysuckle. Lizards hunting for bugs on the kidneywood. Hummingbirds whose very life depends on getting enough nectar from the patch of turk's cap in the back corner.

This afternoon, I decided that it was time to cut the spent yucca stalks in my front garden. The beautiful cream colored flowers typically bloom in late spring, and they are long done. In their place stood spindly stalks reaching 8 feet or more high, slowly turning brown from the top down. They are ugly at that stage, and perhaps could give the impression that our garden is not, in fact, gardened, but has been left to wild abandon.

I garden for wildlife, so it was really no great surprise when I noticed mid-prune that the stalks were giving shape to the lives or other creatures, namely spiders. There were webs spanning the stalks between yuccas, and I found at least one beautifully grotesque pearl-colored spider hiding in the space where leaf meets stalk.



Now, I'm not a super huge fan of spiders, but I respect their existence. Who am I to swoop in and destroy their life and livelihood with the snip of a pruning shear, for no reason but my since of aesthetics and need to keep up appearances?

I recently noticed that I've developed a habit over the years that I've decided to call "pruning with compassion." It's a practice where I prune, but leave the pruned bits laying around the garden, so that any critters depending on those parts have time to either make their way back to the mother plant or find some new place to do their thing.

I can't do this every time I prune, but it's just an awareness that I try to have of the lives of creatures that I am altering by my actions. And full disclosure here: I do not profess in this post to be able to adore and save every creature. I've been known to squash bugs, throw snails across the yard, and pinch aphids. But sometimes, it just doesn't feel right to do so.

Take the grotesquely beautiful spider hiding in her yucca this afternoon. I became aware of her in mid-snip. Rather than stuff the yucca stalk and spider both into a compost bag, I snipped off the section of stalk in which she was spending her day and left it laying in the garden. When she wakes up to get her hunting duties started this evening, her home will not be the same, but at least she can wander off and figure something new out.

Likewise, when I snipped the coral honeysuckle vines that had overgrown our walkway, I left the cuttings there on the ground by the origin plant. There could be snowberry clearwing moth eggs or even tiny first or second instar larvae on those leaves that I can't see. If I leave them there for a while, those little lives might have a chance to find living plant parts to use. When I cut the parsley, I'm sure to shake it off into the remaining bunch, so any swallowtail caterpillars might fall off and find their way forward.

I'll go back later and grab those parts, or even better, leave them in place to compost naturally.

Like I said, it's hard to be completely aware of every life around me (I mean, do I really care about aphids? Not so much), but it's just a way of looking at things out there in the garden ecosystem. Our whims - like cutting a pretty flower and bringing it to a vase indoors - can complete destroy the life and habitat of some beautiful creature out there depending on it.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, when we garden, we create spaces for other creatures to breath, be born, struggle to survive, mate, raise young, grow old, and die. Just something I try to keep in mind when I'm out there with the pruning shears...

08 June 2014

When American Germander Takes Over


The American germander is starting to bloom with gorgeous repetitive whitish pink flower spikes.

This plant is taking over the front corner of the front garden, an is threatening to take over the entire garden.



I'm too busy (ahem, lazy) to keep it in check, so what will? Well, eventually something will, I'm sure of it. Perhaps some other plant (goldenrod) will start competing with it, or the ash tree will die or we'll cut it down and it'll be too sunny. Or it won't be moist enough for it (we don't water it and it likes moisture, so it's happy this year).


Above is the view of the germander creeping into the main garden space from the edge, starting to crowd into the sedge. There's a datura poking out from the germander mass, too.

26 May 2014

New Screen to Cover the Compost Zone



John got the gumption recently to build a screen to block one of our back utility areas, and I couldn't be happier.


Though it's way in the back corner of our back garden, the compost bins have always driven us nuts, and the back chainlink fences that we share with neighbors are forlorn. The screen is a good way to create a visual block without having to spend a bunch of money and time on a complete fence.

Plus, it creates a "behind the scenes" space where we can toss compost, tree limbs and etc while we figure out what to do with them all.

Here are a few process photos:






For anyone interested in implementing something similar, we used 4x4 rough cedar posts and 2x2 rough cedar for the slats. We decided not to cement this in, because it's not a weight bearing structure, and we might have to remove it someday if we do any other bigger projects out back.

It should hold up just fine for a number of years.

10 May 2014

Coneflowers and Firewheel

The purple coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea, and firewheel, Gaillardia pulchella, are beginning to show their stuff. 

I've collected and spread seeds from the Echinacea all over the garden over the years, so it has become rather prolific. Purple coneflower is beautiful, relatively shade tolerant, and a great butterfly nectar plant.


Firewheel might be one of our most under-rated native spring bloomers. Everyone goes nuts for the bluebonnets, which I love too, but big fields of firewheel are pretty darn amazing.

21 April 2014

Spring in the Pocket Prairie


This is the second growing season for some of the plants in our tiny front yard pocket prairie. Last year, we planted grasses like sideoats grama, little bluestem and blue grama.


We also planted firewheel, purple prairie clover, antelope horn seedlings, and standing cypress. Many of these are filling in and some are just about to bloom.



There are also some plants coming in that I can't yet ID. One might be a Black-eyed Susan. Remains to be seen. We did have some Rudbeckias out back several years ago that never took. Perhaps this is seeded from that - with some delay.



It's a stretch to call this a pocket prairie. Prairies are large complex grass-dominant ecosystems. This is just a wild planting using some prairie plants. It's our one little spot of sun, and I'm using it more like an experimental plot than anything. Just seeing what makes it.

Here's a gratuitous shot from the other side of the world, deep in the shady part of the garden.

08 April 2014

Texas Blue Grass

I have a small stand of Texas blue grass, Poa arachnifera, and it is just amazing right now. If I wasn't such a fan of biodiversity, I'd plant my whole yard in this grass. It is a cool season grass, remaining green all winter, only to shoot up these fantastic fuzzy, soft flower heads that wave in the breeze.