Category: Naturescaping

Raggedy garden.

My butterfly garden is a small affair. And, as it is transitioning from spring to summer it is also a ragged affair. The spring plants, which do well in the cool are looking weedy and brown. The dill is going to seed. And if I don’t give it constant attention, it threatens to be overwhelmed with grass.

The other day I was about to get that seedy dill out of my garden and I noticed something on it. A closer look revealed that it was the chrysalis of a Black Swallowtail butterfly. So, the weedy seedy dill remains. And I wait and watch. I am excited.

The summer plants will have to wait.


I haven’t been out too much this week.

For one thing it has been finals week at my school and I have been in full prep mode to wind down the year. For another the wet warm weather we have had this year has made for a bumper crop of fleas in the yard. Fleas see me coming from a mile away and pack their bags to travel from neighboring yards to my person when ever I am about. Today has been all about doing war with them. I have brought out the big guns. Both Raid flea killer which makes me gasp even if does nothing for the fleas and diatomaceous earth. Raid is like the first strike. It gets the adults and any eggs that might be around but it has a short life span. I don’t believe the 4 months thing they say on the can. I followed this with a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth. This is a fine white powder that is made from the shells of bazillions of diatoms that died and fell to an ocean floor eons ago. It is non toxic to me and my family but it cuts the cuticle of the chitin shell of the flea and causes the flea to dehydrate. It goes down for the long-term. To help keep anything that does hatch from surviving long enough to breed. All the bedding went through either the dryer and the washer/dryer on high heat to kill what ever might be lurking in there to nosh on my tender flesh. This deals with the inside territory but doesn’t get me out side again.

To address that issue I have powdered all the yard near where I garden with the diatomaceous earth. This will kill fleas, cockroaches and other things we have an unnatural dislike of but it will also kill some of the things I want, in the same way, so I use it judiciously. I don’t put it in my garden beds, for example, so I don’t hurt any of the caterpillars that might pupate there. I also don’t want to harm the spiders and other such beasties who populate my garden. They kill many insect pests I don’t want and are important to the ecosystem.

Thinking about how the fleas in my yard have driven me inside got me thinking about how we tend to hide from discomfort in nature and in our lives in general. I reached a point where I’d had enough but, if it had stayed safe to stay inside, if the fleas had not hitched a ride on my shoes and socks from those times when I was out watering and such to invade the inside of the house, I might have not gotten past the talking part. I might have found a cozy nook and holed away for the summer, waiting for the time when the weather got cold enough to send the fleas packing for the winter.

There are a lot of tools out there, like diatomaceous earth to deal with unwanted pests in your yard. Another tool are predatory nematodes. A microscopic worm like creature that will eat anything insect it finds. Put it down where you want to limit insect activity but not in butterfly gardens. Like Diatomaceous earth it can be harmful to things you want to keep so use it with deliberation. Because I plant for wildlife I avoid broadcast toxins because many of them transport up the food chain. You can learn more from your local master gardeners clubs but, do be aware that because they are part of the local agricultural extension offices of the USDA they do tend to the chemical solution. If you are clear that you want to avoid such things Master Gardeners will help steer you in that direction.

Don’t let the insect pests keep you inside.

Saving Butterflies

Two articles from Science Daily inspired me to focus on butterflies this week. Article on focused on the difficult winter that Monarch butterflies faced in their wintering grounds in Mexico, this year. The weather was cold and wet. This, along with habitat destruction threatened the overwintering butterflies. The second article focuses on creating butterfly oases to help their north/south migrations.

One of the greatest threats to all wildlife is habitat destruction. The same forces that affect large wildlife affect the insects as well. Suburban sprawl, increased pesticide use to maintain that perfect monoculture lawn, along with loss of small farms and an increase in insect resistant crops is taking their tolls on insect populations.

The good news is that the suburban landscape is a the perfect place to build butterfly oases. Butterflies don’t need a lot. They need nectar bearing flowers. They need nursery plants on which to lay eggs. They need to be able to have a pesticide free life. That’s it. The reward we get for planting these oases is beautiful flowers, some with stems, some with wings. The other good news is that it is a great “connecting with children and nature activity”.

I’ll begin an intermittent series on butterfly gardens with a focus on Monarchs. Monarchs butterflies feed on the nectar from a variety of plants like zinnia, lantana and milkweed. The nursery plant for the monarch is the milkweed. Butterflies lay a single egg on the underside of a leaf. When the egg hatches it will begin its life by eating the host plant. The sap of the milkweed plant gives the monarch butterfly protection in the form of a bitter toxin that birds and other animals learn quickly to avoid. In a few weeks the caterpillar will find a place to create its chrysalis so that it can complete the final stage of life before becoming an adult.

The babies that were hatched in my yard have grown and flown. I like to think that they will pass through again, this September, on their way back to their wintering grounds in Mexico. I look forward to the next crew. The milkweed and lantana in my yard are ready and waiting.

To find out more information about how to plant a butterfly oasis go to Monarch Watch ( You can receive a way station kit that will help you build the best habitat for your monarchs. The kits include seeds for milkweed and other nectar plants.

Migratory bird day is typically observed on the second saturday in May, that would have been yesterday. This is a convenient date for the North Americas because this is the height of the migration of birds to their breeding grounds. The event is now promoted by Environment for the Americas (link at the end of the post). According to their web site they have removed the month and date from their promotional events to focus on the year. Everyday is Bird Day, they say. This give people freedom to celebrate the birds at the time that it is most appropriate for their region allowing the event to become more international in its approach.

As I am writing this post, I am torn. There are so many issues facing migratory birds and it is tempting to focus on them. This year, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, happening at the height of the migration and the beginning of the breeding season for birds in the Gulf, is at the center of world-wide attention. Across the globe, Iraq is dealing with the drying of its wetlands putting great pressure on birds migrating north from Africa. I could make a post full of links that document pressures to bird from loss of habitat such as the Iraq article, or environmental disasters, such as the Gulf oil spill but I am not going to. At least not today. Use Google news search and you’ll find dozens.

I have decided instead to focus on what is good and positive and builds relationship rather than pity and, potentially, frustration. To celebrate “Every day is bird day” there are a number of things you can do. Let’s focus on food. As I said in an early post, a simple hopper style feeder is how I started. I was living in a second floor condo southwest of Denver. I bought a simple hopper feeder  and some inexpensive seed from one of the box pet supply stores and hung it from a hook on my entry porch. I was a hit with the house finches. One day I noticed a chickadee trying to eat from it. I went out and bought a chickadee feeder, some black oil sunflower seed, and hung another hook. I only got a few chickadees, the habitat was too barren for them, but a few of my house finches did learn how to eat like a chickadee, a source of great amusement. By the time I sold the condo I had moved up to good bird seed and a pole feeder that accommodated many feeders, all from Wild Birds Unlimited.

Now I live in the coastal bend area of south Texas and I am blessed with a beautiful mesquite in the front yard. The tree attracts a variety of birds and enables me to see birds that eat insects rather than seed. My current arrangement is several tube feeders, a hopper feeder, some hummingbird feeders and the scattering of seed on the ground for the ground feeders.

My primary guests, as of this writing are:

  • White Winged Doves ( I think I have every WWDV in the county)
  • Inca Doves
  • Mourning Doves
  • Eurasian Collared Doves (non-native)
  • English House Sparrows (non-native)
  • Pairs of nesting Northern Cardinals
  • Cowbirds
  • Golden Fronted Woodpeckers
  • Grackles: Common, Great Tailed and Boat Tailed.

These are the regulars to the diner.

This spring I have scen:

  • Dicksissel
  • Common Yellow Throat warbler
  • Summer Tanager female
  • Ruby Throated Hummingbirds
  • Black Chinned Hummingbirds
  • several Warbler species I couldn’t name
  • Wood Thrush
  • Ash Throated Flycatcher
  • Several species I couldn’t identify at all
  • Coopers Hawk

This may seem like a short list but this is what I have seen at my feeders or tree in spite of the fact that I leave for work, most days, before 7 am and miss the times when most birds are most active.

I have begun experimenting with seed and feeders to attract diversity and reduce pest species, like the White Wing Dove and Red Winged Blackbirds, that devour everything they see and keep other birds from the feeders.

Right now I am using:

  • millet sunflower blend that I am making (link for millet seed below) in the main hopper feeder and as scatter seed for ground feeders.
  • one tube feeder with safflower seed that I buy at the box pet store,
  • one with Scott’s brand colorful bird blend food (ditto on the source)
  • one with a fruit and nut mix for the cardinals and the woodpeckers. (see above)
  • a 4 door wire feeder for suet and seed block

I will let you know, as I learn, what birds favor what feeders. My current observation is that my regulars will eat at all of them if they eat at feeders at all. Migration seems a little thin this year. I am not seeing the variety that I have seen in the past.

In closing, I find birds fascinating to watch. Right now the White Winged Doves are holding a pool party in the bird baths. Make every day Bird day by setting up a feeder system to attract birds to your yard. Remember, not all birds are seed eaters. Additional birds will come to fruit and to insects. Most people start with seeds. I did and I am just now branching out. We can learn together.

What’s in your garden?


Environment for the Americas Bird Day site

Wild Birds Unlimited

Bird Seed Central

water, shelter, and food

These are the three elements to attracting wildlife. Most people begin with the food by putting up a feeder or two and food is a big attractant. Often the next step is adding a water feature. Water features can range from the complex and expensive to the simple and inexpensive.

I remember my uncle and I used to sit in his back yard. He had put in an elevated waterfall fountain where the water tumbled down like water in a mountain spring to a small sunken pond. On warm summer days when I went to visit, we would sit on the patio and visit. There was never a day when birds and squirrels would not come and drink and play. Birds and animals like moving water. Fountains like this are often over a thousand dollars to put in but they are very attractive. If you have that kind of time and money, they can be very restful.

At the other end of the spectrum is the simple and inexpensive. By inexpensive I mean up to about 25o dollars give or take. Within that range there are a variety of prefabricated bird baths. You can find all kinds of designs and imprints on these. This spring my local mega grocer was selling ceramic baths for about 45 dollars and they had small reservoir fountains for 100 to 200 dollars. My favorite local nursery was selling plain cast concrete, without any embellishments, for 45 to 65 dollars. Simple bird baths like this will weather and soften over time or they can be painted with a non-toxic paint to liven any garden. At 45 dollars each, it is not out of range for most people and you can easily arrange several bird baths at different heights to create a little oasis.

If you need to go simpler and less expensive than that, an 18 inch diameter terra-cotta pot tray on an up turned pot or cinderblock cashes out at about 20 dollars. It meets all of the requirements of a good bird bath. It is not too deep and not too shallow. The terra-cotta is not too slippery to walk on, unlike some of the fancier ceramics and glass. It is easy to dump the water out for cleaning because it isn’t too heavy. The rim of the tray is just the right thickness for perching birds to stand on for drinking. If it gets broken, it is crushable as pot filler for drainage and cheap to replace. To hide the simpleness of it, set several at different heights and plant around them to hide the bases.

What to look for in a good bird bath. It should be about 2 to 2 1/2 inches deep at the deepest in the center or it should have shallower tiered shoulders for small birds to stand on. Large birds, like grackles and pigeons, can handle water up to 4 inches deep but that is far too deep for the wee ones. It should have some texture to the material so that birds will not slip on the edges. Fancy glass bird baths  are lovely to look at but imagine having to balance on tiny feet along the sides and edge of one. A narrow rim for perching is good too. The larger birds don’t mind baths too near to the ground, other birds prefer a height of about 2 to 3 feet off the ground. If you have a ornemental bird bath that is deeper than a couple of inches in the center, you can place a brick or two or some river rock in the middle to make it shallower. Birds like moving water and mosquitoes don’t; for a little money you can buy attachments to your hose to drip water into the bath or solar operated vibrators that sit in the bird bath and cause disturbance to the water. This will bring the birds in and discourage mosquitoes from laying eggs. Finally, birds are territorial, placing more than one water feature in different parts of your yard will draw in larger numbers of birds.

Water is a major attractant to birds and wildlife. It doesn’t have to break the bank to have a simple attractive bird bath and frankly, the birds don’t care what it looks like. They just want the water.

What’s in your garden?