Gardening on the Land

Last August, a native plants and wildlife gardening buddy, Deb, sent to me a link to a New York Times article which I’d somehow missed in my own subscription. Written by author and podcaster, Margaret Roach, the article profiles landscape architect Darrel Morrison’s gardening philosophy, developed throughout his remarkable career. Roach also highlights Morrison’s knitting of ecological diversity with traditional design elements, as well as a thorough description of his “four principles” of landscape design.

The first principle involves planting for “natural diversity” to lessen water and chemical use in the garden and to mitigate climate change. Morrison suggests that a variety of plants native to a region offers the best outcome to achieve a diverse garden. Avoiding the use of invasive non-native plants is paramount to achieve this goal.

Morrison’s second principle promotes an “experientially rich” garden, one with active pollinators and other wildlife. Additionally, gardening with plants of differing structures and growth habits adds life and movement, enriching the garden community.

The third principle is that a garden should reflect where it is. My garden in Austin, Texas should look, feel, and smell different than one situated in Eugene, Oregon or Madison, Wisconsin. A garden should be of its geographic place.

Morrison’s final principle is that of change. A garden should be “dynamic,” changing with time and seasons, which is opposite to the typical American outdoor space of expanse of green turf and pruned shrubs which looks the same year-round. I like Morrison’s quote on this particular point: “Painting is two-dimensional; architecture and sculpture, three-dimensional,” he said. “But landscapes are four-dimensional, with time being the fourth dimension.” Seasonal change, and planning for it, is important.

In my garden, I’ve mostly followed these principles, though I’ve never assigned names to them. While I am a native plant enthusiast and grow quite a few, I’m not a purist. Most of my non-native choices are Mexican, as these are all excellent pollinator plants and hardy in Central Texas. Other non-natives provide for structural and/or evergreen appeal. Some non-natives have an emotional connection, as they originally came from my parents’ garden or as pass-along plants from friends.

Early on in this garden adventure, I developed some guiding principles of my own. I knew that I wanted a garden of mostly native plants, chosen for their beauty, resilience, and variety. I also wanted plants that require little supplemental irrigation. In short order, I recognized that planting natives meant that a whole new world of wildlife soon followed. In brief: if you plant them, they will come. My garden is alive with movement and life–in the air that surrounds and on the ground that supports.

For me, design elements are least important, though I recognize that it’s a more attractive garden if there is a conscious blend of evergreen and deciduous, a deliberate pairing of soft form with structure, and glorious pops of color throughout the year, changing with light, time, and temperature. Whimsical or elegant, non-plant items also enhance a garden and add a human touch. Pathways allow experience of the garden.

My garden is different today than it was five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago. The back garden was once full-sun, but oaks grew it to mostly shade. With recent freezer-burned thinning of the trees’ foliage, it now straddles those two extremes. The front garden was shady; going forward, the Texas sun will shine on it for years to come, until a small oak tree grows up and eventually casts its form over the garden.

Garden creation requires experimentation and mistakes are part of that process. Garden creation also requires patience and observation.

At the conclusion of the linked article about Darrell Morrison, the author recounts a story about how he began his work on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin:

For Mr. Morrison, ever the willing pupil, every place has something we can learn from, especially the natural areas.

In 1992, when he was engaged by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, nine miles from downtown Austin, he borrowed a sleeping bag and tent, and spent the first night camped out on the 42-acre site.

“It’s a good thing to do: to see the sun go down, smell the smells of the junipers, hear the morning birdsong,” he said. “I think you do know the place better for it.”

Apparently, that got the former first lady’s attention. Years later, Mrs. Johnson was receiving guests at a reception. She had suffered a stroke and her eyesight was diminished, so when Mr. Morrison reached the head of the line, he reintroduced himself: “You may remember me, Mrs. Johnson. I’m Darrel Morrison.”

“Of course, I remember you, Darrel,” she replied. “I tell all my friends how you slept on the land.”

I garden in a moderately sized urban lot in a large city. While I’ve lived here a long time, I’ve never slept on my land, aside from some lazy afternoon snoozes in the swing chairs. But I have watched this space. I’ve observed the sun and shade, seen sunrises and sets, and felt the breezes. I’ve noticed the insects and birds, and lived with plants from seed to compost. The garden and I have experienced triple digit temperatures, snow and ice, and floods and drought.

I’ve gardened on the land.

What a Bum

A Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata, has finally arrived in my winter garden!

Most years I begin observing winter warblers in November. This migratory season, I’ve spied a zippy, hard-to-photograph Ruby-crowned Kinglet (a few times) and a female Orange-crowned Warbler, who is now making daily visits to the the peanut and suet feeders. But the Yellow-rumps have been tardy, or maybe just elusive.

This Yellow-rumped is a Myrtle Warbler, easily identified because of its white throat. During breeding and nesting season, Myrtle Warblers tend to spend time East and North, the Audubon species hangs out in the West. In winter, I’ve seen both species in my garden, but usually, it’s the Myrtle that is more common. I also think this one is a fella bird, given the little dab of yellow on his head. He isn’t yet in breeding colors, so perhaps he’s a hatch year dude, not quite out of his juvenile stage?

But he does rock that yellow rump. What a cute bum!

I’m glad to see the yellow rump flashing in the trees and hope that, instead of being a flash-in-the trees, he’s a daily visitor and that some of his butter-butt buddies will join him.

No Rest for the Honey Obsessed

Winters here in Central Texas are mild, punctuated from time-to-time by cold snaps which typically don’t last long. This winter has been historically warm and the honeybees have remained busy with their obsessive collecting of nectar and pollen for the hive. Before winter made an appearance last week, there were still a few blooms available and the bees were all in. These little gals are collecting pollen from the pretty pink flowers of Purple Heart, Setcreatsea pallida.

At the last blooms of Forsythia Sage, Salvia madrensis, these two are sipping nectar, using a process called nectar stealing or nectar robbing. This is a foraging activity where an insect doesn’t crawl into the flower to nectar, but instead bites or pokes a petal and sticks its proboscis through, directly sipping nectar and bypassing pollination. Interestingly, until this year, I hadn’t seen honeybees on this sage, only native bees, particularly the Horsefly-like Carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis.

Before the sage’s bloom cycle was ended by the blast of cold last week, honeybees, alongside one or two Mexican Honey wasps, Brachygastra mellifica, and a couple of small skippers, were the main pollinators visiting these yellow lovelies.

The blooms are gone now, the plants freezer-burned and dormant. In my garden, there is little for the bees to forage on. Honeybee activity slows during winter, but they still need to exit the hive to pee and poo and they’re driven to forage for whatever they can find in this flower limited period of the year.

When we last checked the hive in mid-October, Bo-Peep’s second (top) brood box was honey-bound and its honey box (the top-most box) had several frames of honey, but it wasn’t full. That’s probably enough honey until spring, especially given the protracted blooming in autumn and winter. Even so, I always fret in winter: do they have enough to sustain through winter and when do I add some supplemental feedings?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to open a bottle of honey and let the bees have at it. It took them one full day and part of the next to clean up the trays where I’d poured the gooey goodness, but like good girls, they cleaned their plates. That’s a quandary: should they get dessert? After honey, what would that be?

You might wonder about the sticks on the platters. I place sticks across the honey so that the bees have something to crawl on as they’re eating. Otherwise, at least a few drown in the gooey goodness. Sad, but at least they die happy.

For January and February, once a week or so, I’ll be mixing a bottle of sugar water (a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water) as a feeding supplement. If the hive was larger and more established, I probably wouldn’t bother, but I suspect Bo is just young enough to need some extra feeding during this time before the first spring blooms appear. I won’t feed more often than once per week because I don’t want to encourage the queen too much, so that she decides its time to get busy with new brood and ramps up for spring egg laying. That’ll come, but I prefer to delay that until mid-to-late February. That said, the queen will do what weather conditions and her DNA demand and she probably won’t consult me about her decisions.

By the time I got around to taken a photo, Bo’s bees had emptied the bottle.

With cooler temperatures, I finally covered the bare ground of the bee ‘yard’ with a thick layer of newspaper, topped with an equally deep layer of pea gravel. Going forward, when we check the hive(s) after a rain, we won’t come away with mud-bound shoes.

Instead, there’s always at least one rock wedged in the treads of my shoes.

It’s always something.