Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why Native Plants?

A recent post in the Orlando Sentinel by Tom MacCubbin posed a great, thought-provoking question.

Why only plant natives?

In my own garden and landscape, I find that I am somewhat undecided on this question. Here's my response to Mr. MacCubbin's question.

While I’m not sure I advocate planting solely native plants, they are without a doubt worthy of consideration, as is the idea of solely planting them. When chosen correctly for a site, native plants offer not just their loveliness, but they appeal to birds, insects, and other wildlife that have developed simultaneously with them over the course of thousands of years. Introduced plants may fulfill a similar role, but the often invasive quality of these plants, along with their short high-maintenance lives can outweigh their benefits and attractions when compared to those offered by native plants.

An increase in birds, insects - or even fish - most likely would mean a decrease in mosquitoes or other pesky creatures for humans. Native plants suitable for a site often require less water after the first year (like any new perennial, natives need a good dose of watering to get settled initially), which in these drought-ridden times is ideal. Likewise, a native plant can be perfect for a spot that receives a deluge of water during storms or showers but is otherwise dry. This kind of hardiness lessens the amount of water that enters storm water drains, and the penetrating root systems often associated with native plants helps hold soil in place to lessen erosion.

Native plants well chosen for a site do not require additional fertilizers or pesticides. The soil they are placed in is suitable for them nutritionally from the start, and they often do well even in highly disturbed sites. Well-adapted already to their location, they are quite capable of fending off disease and pests that would be daunting to an introduced species.

Clearly, a number of introduced or non-native plants could fill some of these same roles. However, given the issues of invasive plants, i.e. garlic mustard, kudzu, etc., to name just a few, native plants feel like an easy and obvious choice. Less watering, whether at home or for a municipality seems ideal. Reduced use of fertilizers and pesticides is cost-effective and good for our environment that includes humans as well as birds, bees, and other critters. Plants able to withstand tough conditions of a roadway median (hot, parched, and sunny) that bloom throughout the season with less maintenance allowing city crews to focus their attention elsewhere also seems like a no-brainer. And certainly the idea (not broached here, but one worth considering, I think) of replacing grass (short-rooted, super-thirsty, must-be-mowed stuff) with beds of well-planned out native plantings is also logical.

When considering a new bed or any plant for the garden, it is imperative that the site characteristics, (sun, shade, wet, dry, clay, or loam soil) be taken into consideration, along with the gardener’s other objectives, such as no mowing, attracting birds and/or butterflies, or encouraging season-long blooms. The wrong plant, whether native or not, will not do well, and disappointment is sure to run high.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gardening for the Birds

It's freezing cold today - below zero - and I see a couple little winged friends moving about, but that's it. I'm glad we filled the feeders yesterday. In winter it seems obvious to me why we're attracted to birds as gardeners. We can't be outside as much as we like, because in some ways there is less to do. Yes, I could review my garden plan from last year and work on next year's. I could go through the seed catalogs and choose things that are outside my garden plan and more than my garden can handle. (Happens every year. I might as well be honest about these things.) I can read gardening books.

While all of these are delightful, birds are a connection to the outdoors that I love and the space I work in when the weather is warmer. Other than the first green shoots of bulbs, birds are lively companions that help me enjoy winter, make me laugh with their antics, and offer a sense of wonder that such a small thing is able to survive what I find are bone-chilling temperatures.

Birds are relevant to the garden because they eat the pests that eat my flowers and vegetables. (I like to share, but I have my limits.) I picked up some interesting facts this morning from Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. "In an afternoon, one diminutive house wren can snatch up more than 500 insect eggs, beetles, and grubs...More than 60-percent of the chickadee's winter diet is aphid eggs."

So, not only are they snacking on pesky mosquitoes in summer, but in winter they're busy eating those aphids that gave my tomatoes the business this past summer. It seems like a feeder or two about the yard offering an extra snack, along with a little bit of water, is a fair trade.

Useful sites that talk about attracting birds to the backyard abound.
Helpful Gardner
talks about gardening for birds and yourself, while About.com offers a some garden designs and other bird information for gardeners. Gardens Alive also offers some good tidbits for attracting birds to your garden.

Native plants (I like Wild Ones definition) are a good bet for attracting birds, too. The birds have evolved with the plants, and so they help pollinate, eat the fruit, and spread the seeds. I'm working on a perennial bed in my garden that incorporates native plants like bee balm and Joe Pye Weed with the iris and tansy. I've also started a small bed of natives outside the garden to attract bees, moths, butterflies, as well as birds to help my garden.

Audubon offers some great resources for learning more about native plants and attracting beneficials, as does Wild Ones. (Here's my confession: I'm a member of my local Wild Ones chapter, and a big advocate of native plants in general.)

Finally, after you get your feeders filled and out, and have added bird friendly plants to your backyard landscape, you can check out this bird map. Just click on the map and see what's happening in your region.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Another Great Bird Site

A good friend of mine has a fantastic blog site about birds and digiscoping. The pictures are stunning, and very well done. And he's quite passionate about his subject matter. Bird Digiscoping is worth checking out, to say the least.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bluebird on My Shoulder

It's cold here in Michigan, thank heavens, and there's some snow on the ground. This time of year I turn not just to the seed catalogs and my garden notes from last year (yes, I'm a geek), but to the bird feeders I've got around the yard. I try to pay attention all year long to the birds as they come and go, as I know that they are integral to the health of my garden as well as the little universe here I call home.

I just took a great little audio quiz at the good 'n planty blog by Abby Poulette, the Assistant Web Editor for Organic Gardening.com. I stumbled on her blog today from a little newsletter they send out. It's always a delight, and I would recommend both the site and the blogs they showcase.

(And I'll confess, there isn't a bluebird on my shoulder, but I did spot one hanging out on a sumac branch on my way into work yesterday!)

Monday, January 7, 2008

Fertile Thoughts

I've just been reading some great posts on composting at Gardening Anywhere, and thought they were worth pointing others toward.

Composting always seems intimidating to newcomers to the idea, at least it was for me, but once I got going there was no turning back. We have two bins down by our garden. One is the one in use (where we empty the compost bucket under our counter every day or so), and the other is the one settling and manufacturing the tasty treats my 2008 garden will delight in so very much. We throw in all kitchen waste with the exception of meat and dairy stuff. Tea bags, coffee grounds and filters, egg shells, tofu that's gone bad, etc., all lands there. If the chickens don't eat it first (hard to tell our girls no when they look so picturesque on top of the pile and when I know their leavings are as good as gold, too), it breaks down with the leaves and grass clippings I plopped there over the summer and fall.

Ours are built out of old wood palettes - one on the back and two for sides - with boards that we attach to the front to hold things in as the pile grows. We don't do anything fancy except rotate the piles in the spring, and I put in a perennial bed on the side closest to the garden. Native plants - common milkweed, yarrow, blanket flower, and butterfly weed - should keep the beneficials happy for the season.

I wouldn't trade our compost bins and the goodies they produce for anything. Chemicals - fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides - negatively impact my garden, soil, and water not to mention the beneficial critters I count on to help my tomatoes grow and my zinnias bloom. Not to mention the negative impact on my pocketbook when my kitchen scraps and lawn bits are either free or make my investment at the grocery store and farmer's market go that much further.

How to do it? It seems like there are a million and one ways to make compost bins, the majority of which are incredibly easy. Purchasing one is fine, too, but not really necessary, if you ask me. Once upon a time, I thought it was the only possible way to have one, but it really could be as simple as just making a pile. Check out the books listed here and see what they suggest.