Dwarf fritillary butterfly caterpillars on passion vine
In 21st-century California, it is increasingly a luxury of kingly proportions to have a yard of one’s own, especially within one of the state’s major metropolitan areas. As such, container gardening is the only option for many of us, a type of gardening that presents its own set of challenges, not the least of which being watering, as even the most drought-tolerant of plants will require much more watering in a container than they would in the ground. Maintenance reservations aside, I bit the bullet some months ago and started transforming the fire escape/balcony we have here in Oakland into a pollinator garden that is ideally groovy to look at and hang out in as well. To these ends, I planted, among other ‘tings, three kinds of passion vine back in April, hoping to attract the dwarf fritillary butterfly, whose food of choice is the passion vine. Well, as of a month ago, I discovered tiny orange eggs on the vines, and then two weeks ago, these eggs hatched into the tiniest of caterpillars. Since then, the caterpillar children have eaten to their hearts’ content and grown exponentially bigger by the day.
It would be a cliche to say that these are uncertain times we are living in, but, well, the cliche rings true. And in such uncertain times, inviting wildlife intro your landscape in whatever way possible can be a tonic to the lunancy about, serving as a small beacon of hope. What’s not to marvel over that a tiny butterfly would fly around and somehow locate a little patch of passion vine in the middle of dense, urbanized Oakland and decide to make that small patch of green home for its butterfly kids? It is marvel-worthy indeed.
Lounging and observing the laboratory
The occasional sad reality of doing landscape design is that not all landscapes you create will survive long-term. Ownership can change, and maintenance can be spotty. At the very least, you can expect that some plants will die or be less successful than planned due to circumstances outside of your control, and the result will be a landscape different than what you had envisioned. In our case we never could have anticipated the bumper crop of rabbits that seemed to emerge in Minneapolis in the summer of 2009, or how that bumper crop would subside by 2014. Nor could we have anticipated how much the monarch and honeybee populations would dwindle during that same period. Fortunately, we’ve had a living laboratory of sorts in which to observe all of these phenomena long-term and to see what plants are bunny magnets, and which are monarch and bee magnets.
Here is our run-down:
Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ / Walker’s Low catmint: Blooms for at least a month (reblooms after a mid-summer haircut), with the bees (bumble, honey, and solitary, not to mention hoverflies, hummingbird moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds) on it from sunrise to sunset
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Very good late-summer nectar/pollen source
Solidago speciosa / showy goldenrod: Also an ideal late-summer nectar/pollen source
Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’ / Butterfly bush honeysuckle: Bumblebees love the little yellow flowers; lightly cut back after blooming for a second bloom
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Longin’ / ‘Longin’ Russian sage: Bees of all varieties love this plant, and it blooms from July virtually til the end of summer
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ / Autumn Joy stonecrop: Amazing late-summer nectar/pollen source
Liatris ligulistylis / meadow blazing star: They bloom, and the monarchs come. . . in droves; it’s as simple as that
Eutrochium purpurea / Joe Pye weed: Huge, tall, and full of monarchs once they bloom in July
Verbena bonariensis / Brazilian verbena: An annual that blooms from June (depending on when you plant it) until the end of summer and thus provides a very consistent nectar source for monarchs, which flock to it
Echinacea purpurea / purple coneflower: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2013, have replanted new ones and caged them
Panicum virgatum / switchgrass: Ultimately disappeared after two years and space taken over by other plants
Sporobolus heterolepis / prairie dropseed: Initially took a huge hit from the rabbits but now seems to be doing better now that it’s been in the ground longer (maybe rabbits don’t like crusty old grasses?)
Koeleria macrantha / June grass: Suffers some damage by rabbits each year in the spring, becomes less attractive to them by July
Rudbeckia hirta / gloriosa daisy: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2012; some that had self-sown in cages around other plants managed to survive, and now the landscape is full of them again (but there are also fewer rabbits now)
Liatris spicata / dense blazing star: Caged them and the rabbits have since kept away; landscape now dense enough that the plant has self-sown here and there, and the seedlings seem to be protected by other plants (that is a very loose hypothesis based on casual observation)
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Some were gnawed down to the ground and died; remaining ones caged and are now thriving and self-sowing with a bit too much aplomb
Liatris ligulistylis / prairie blazing star: A choice meal of rabbits of all shapes and sizes; the plants need cages around them if they are to survive a rabbit’s dinnertime whims
Just to be clear and in layman’s terms: bee and monarch magnets will bring you happiness; rabbit magnets, without the proper protection, will bring you sadness.
A bug hotel in Hoofddorp, Netherlands
We like to think of how bug hotels might become contemporary artifacts. If many generations from now someone came upon this structure, in the middle of a clearing – or perhaps amidst woods, if we know anything about plant succession – it would be in some state of decay, with plants growing within and out of it, and they would have to deduce what it meant and what it was for. If they did their sleuthing well, they would surmise that despite a propensity for humans at that time to work against the forces of nature, there were perhaps a small few who in their own odd and idealistic ways tried to push the tide in the other direction, and so they created these structures, to house the little critters being crowded out by so many greater forces. Or perhaps by that time these critters had won, and thus this bug hotel was only a remnant, a thing they no longer needed, as the world had once again become theirs?
One of the biggest shifts in landscape design and creation in the past decade has been a move away from creating spaces that are exclusively for humans or exclusively for wildlife and towards making spaces that accommodate for both. Enter the bug hotel, or bug wall (shown above). These structures not only serve as sculpture and structure within the landscape but double as habitat for all manner of bugs, amphibians, and other little critters. They also give the effect of a new kind of human artifact that says much about the turbulent but hopeful times we are living in. For an exhaustive look at bug hotels around the world, click here. For information on construction, click here.
The prevailing wild, somewhat unkempt, style of the wildlife-friendly landscape
“I get immensely frustrated with the notion in the Phoenix area that a garden that uses a healthy dose of native and/or desert-adapted species must be planted in a naturalistic style. It certainly does not, and although that is a fashionable and certainly pleasing style, it is only that – one style.” – Mary Irish
The prevailing opinion amongst so many proponents of the wildlife-friendly landscape is that the landscape must look “wild” in order to be wild. However, what we know about attracting wildlife to a landscape – particularly pollinators – is that these critters have few opinions regarding design and aesthetics. We take native bees and their tastes as a case in point: they don’t like pavement and they seek diversity, namely a diversity of pollen sources. That diversity of sources can be arranged in a grid, in rows, or along another such geometric pattern. Or it could be a hybrid of a more rigid and a more relaxed structural approach. Whatever the case, the bees ultimately don’t care as long as they have plenty to pick from and from spring through fall. In this way, wildlife-friendly, or pollinator-friendly, is not an aesthetic or style but rather an approach to landscape creation. The style, on the other hand, is the personality one infuses into that landscape. Wild and rambling is a style; gridded and modern is a style. Neither is more valid than the other and each and everything in between could be merged with a wildlife-friendly approach to landscape creation, with the end result being the same: wildlife in your landscape.