Monday, February 14, 2011

Habitat Concepts 101

layers and layers of habitats         

This is a photo of  (mostly) undisturbed habitats at Nygren Wetland in Northern Illinois-late October. You can't get to this spot on your own because we distrust unsupervised humanity in
♪ ♫Nature♫♫ these days, so I will give you a brief tour and identify a few of the sexier habitats that can be adapted to attract ♫ ♫ Nature♫ ♪ to your garden.

Begin at the sky and step down....very tall trees, then an understory of shrubby plants, below that, plants and grasses, mud and water.  Here is amazing wealth: every level supports thousands of interrelationships between birds, insects, mammals, plants and each one essential to the welfare of them all.  It's a lovely system; the best sort of garden...needing nothing from us.

The first habitat lesson to adapt to your home garden:  diversity in everything beginning with the height of the plants.  A garden ecosystem is vertical too, with some species of birds or insects, butterflies/moths preferring different "altitudes" for breeding, feeding and resting. 

a frog finds a habitat to nap in

Hang a basket or provide a trellis for vines to vary habitat heights in your garden. Be grateful for your neighbor's maple tree even while you're cleaning the seed from the gutters.  The Dragon Wing begonia in the photo above provides water in the leaf nodes, lots of secret spaces to hide in as well as a sunwarmed platform for camouflage.

Don't stop at a nectar or seed feeder for birds.....provide sheltered nesting space.
The purple finches nest in this prickly blue spruce every spring.
a landscaping nursery is excellent habitat....huge diversity of species; there's something for everybody
There's not much in a conifer for finches to eat, but it's excellent shelter for babies while the parents prefer the open branches of deciduous trees for lookout.

And remember this: before you can have a butterfly garden, you must have a caterpillar garden.  The monster above is the scary  hornworm who can reduce your tomato or pepper patch to nothing but sticks and twigs almost overnight.  But if you run screaming for an insecticide, you will never have this:
What a hornworm becomes if you don't kill it.  A Sphinx moth, nocturnal pollinator
The Sphinx moth imitates a hummingbird except that the hummingbirds are home in bed when the moth comes out for breakfast.  The Sphinx moth caterpillar is another kind of habitat himself.  If you see one that looks like this:
Sphinx moth caterpillar as habitat for somebody else 
...he is doomed.  The monster is full of parasitic wasp larvae eating him alive.  (Yes, I can manage a sympathetic cringe for the poor thing, but only briefly.  He got this fat on my sweet red peppers.)  The hornworm is now habitat for our organic bioweapon pals.  Leave him here to provide food and shelter for the parasitic wasp who will be waiting for the next generation of bad boys. But while the larvae require live meat to develop, Mama Parasitic Wasp has a gentler appetite....the wise gardener will provide something like this for her:
Native New England Aster-late blooming high nectar habitat plant
The asters will  provide a rich seed source for winter birds, shelter for many beneficial insects and a high energy meal for migrating butterflies like the Monarch.  Some gardeners see this as messiness in the landscape even though it's actually a highly ordered ecosystem with each species that uses the patch occupying an essential niche.  That's a habitat rule that you may have to adapt your eyes to see and value; complexity=diversity=health. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Best Gardens Grow in January

A privet shrub in a neglected hedgerow
This doesn't look like a garden to most people, but I have a gardener's eye on this privet; in my January garden, it is the beginning of a hedge that when it flowers quietly some June night, will mystify the neighborhood with an intoxicating scent.  I intend to make cuttings of this one as soon as  the weather breaks, but for now, it's a part of all the gardens that I grow in January when everything is still possible.
 The Victorians used to call this "castles in the air".
An actual January Garden

We are encouraged to think this way by seed pornography, cocaine to a junkie....which began arriving in my snail mail box the week of Thanksgiving.  After a couple of decades of January gardening, I have some advice to offer.

First, the catalogues themselves.  Dear Reader, most of these are marketing tools, not horticultural manuals, and their text is not meant for you in growing zone 5 or 7 with a garden on the south side of an arborvitae hedge between a driveway and the crabby  know-it-all neighbor next door. (There a few exceptions to this-more about that later)  Someone with bills to pay knows that you are indoor crazed, color deprived, over watering your poor geraniums who are still trying to have a winter's sleep without wet feet, and that you are likely to believe any fool thing.  Consider the following recommendations:

*Most seed is grown by contracted farms-not necessarily a bad thing- and most of the seed companies obtain their seed from these growers.  So unless your chosen seed company specifically and clearly states that they developed and produced the  Super Amazing Envious Neighbors Tomato seed, they got it from the same grower that every other seed house did.  And you are likely to have the same results-really depends on you anyway- in your garden, no matter which company you got the seed from, or how pretty the seed packet picture is.  There are very few privately owned seed houses remaining in America  who still do their own research and sadly, many of the most familiar names can trace their behind the scenes ownership to the Big Agriculture Conglomerates.  So read the catalogue text and pay attention.  (I will fess up to my seed supplier recommendations later)

*Seed names are like paint color chips.....very romantic but possibly startling in the real world.  Just as it is a good idea to cover up the name of the paint for the dining room lest you fall in love with the idea of  raspberry pudding and silk ribbons only to find that you are stuck with pepto-bismo chalk and faded t-shirt pink, so it is wise to be cautious about seed names.  The seed is often named to invoke a narrative, a bed time story, not the sort of performance that you can count on when the July pests and diseases arrive:

     -A tomato seed named Mortgage Lifter may indeed lift someone's mortgage, but not yours.

     -any seed named Amish-fill-in-the-blank.  Why should you trust that a  18th century religious cult has a        wisdom inside their cocoon that is helpful to us in the New Millennium?

     -consider carefully all varieties with commercial food producer's names, ie-Heinz etc.  This means that the
     plant will produce a crop suited to industrial processing such as ripening all at once as in the case of the
      Heinz paste tomato, which is fine if you are planning a canning marathon or gassing green tomatoes,but  not so good if you want a few every so often for a pasta sauce.

     - seeds with foreign names always tempt me even though I know better.  Every January, I remind myself
        that nearly all the crops grown in America came from elsewhere...even our native varieties were
        world travelers, sent from the New World to Europe for an Old World fussing up before being
        marketed back to us.  Every new wave of immigrants brings their seed from home-thank you!-and
        now there are so many Asian plants to try-which I haven't the space for-that I sometimes grow the
       plants to give away so that I can evaluate them in a neighbor's garden.  And I still  have more fun

       writing the wooden labels with "rouge vif tempe"  even when I know that it's the same plain old
        Cinderella pumpkin.  (This pumpkin is not plain looking's one of the most beautiful crops
       you will ever grow- fat, glowing red and wanting only six white mice to illustrate a fairy tale)

After decades of seed catalogue seduction, I recommend:
     *Johnny's Selected Seeds   I first ordered from JSS in the late 1970's when
they were a brand new hopeful seedhouse and have ordered every season since.  They've grown tremendously, and have developed many new varieties that I try with total confidence.  The catalogue is a textbook in home and commercial growing and even if you never ordered their products, you should have it as a resource .  Lightening fast service and an excellent sales staff who seem to know everything there is to know and are happy to share.
    *Seeds Saver's Exchange    All open pollinated heirlooms here, each one with a story.  I grow a few heirloom veggies and flowers every year and save the seed to add to my own seed bank which is how I combat my despair about the future of the Humans from Earth.  Well, I think to myself on those grim midnights, there will be peppers, nasturtium, sorghum if there's anybody left to grow them.  The photographs are nearly garden pornography.  
    *Stokes   Stokes will educate you on every seed starting detail and is very honest about which varieties are recommended for  commercial growers or your Victory Garden.

     *Also, Seeds of Change, Sandhill Preservation (experts on Northern sweet potatoes and more) Southern Seed Exposure, Landreth Seeds, Native Seed SEARCH....all of these have hard to find heirlooms and open pollinated varieties, superb customer service.

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