Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Hedging for Amphibians

Published in the Hoopa People News, Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell

Slugs are gardeners’ worst nemesis here in Northern California. Amphibians, there for, must be our best friends. Salamanders, frogs, and toads can eat nearly their own weight in slugs on a daily basis. With friends like this working for you for free, the population of the slimy hoards will soon be on the decline. All amphibians expect decent housing and a source of moisture year around. Think Japanese garden sculptures, English boxwood hedges, and European garden fountains and you are on the right track.

Years ago my grandmother’s Dixon backyard was a haven for amphibians, birds, and other creatures that benefited the garden. Her yard was hedged in a mix of shrubs that provided habitat, food, and nectar. Growing amphibian habitat can be a pleasant side venture that enhances the landscape and attracts a number of delightful creatures to the garden. Grandmother’s yard did not feature ponds, fountains, or sculpture. But if you got down on your belly and peered under the shrubs you would find cracked bowls and pots arranged to catch water and to form shelter for her hard working toads.

The best plants to create habitat for these beneficial creatures are broad leaved evergreens. Think of plants without prickles or thorns, which stay green all year, and grow from a central stalk or trunk and branch out close to the ground. You may want to choose a number of different types of plants, to keep your hedge interesting, and to provide for a diversity of habitat and food sources. A well thought out hedge provides some food and visual appeal to the household, while it provides shelter and food for birds, beneficial insects, and our amphibian friends.

In choosing plants, we want to consider several factors. A selection of shrubs with a combined long bloom time will do wonders for populations of predacious insects. These insects will help patrol your yard looking for pests. Here are some suggestions to provide year around nectar, which will also provide amphibian habitat.

Coyote bush, a native shrub common in our area, provides nectar during winter as well as greenery for toads and salamanders to hide beneath. It has small soft green leaves, reminiscent in shape to holly, but with out the prickles. The flowers are not showy, but I often see pollinators and other beneficial insects visiting the ones in my yard. There are several cultivars available, from those forming ground covers to those that grow up to 5 feet tall. Read descriptions to be sure you are getting the right plant for the spot you have in mind.

Ceanothus, or California lilac, also has a number of cultivars available for home gardeners. They generally have small to medium sized glossy dark green leaves, and they bloom from late winter through early spring. Flowers are available in various shades of pink, blue, and white. Ceanothus are available as ground covers, average sized shrubs, and small trees to 15 feet tall. There are also varieties that loose their leaves in winter, so be sure to ask your nursery person if the plant description is not clear.

California coffee berry is a colorful shrub, often decked out in green, red, and purple berries as well as small insignificant flowers. Its main bloom time is mid- to late spring, but it often continues blooming throughout the summer and fall. Coffee berry has attractive long narrow grey-green leaves. The berries attract birds, but don’t think about brewing coffee from them yourself. These plants are a close relative of Cascara Segrada, and the brew was once used as a remedy for constipation. From all accounts it was quiet effective and unpleasant. Miwok Indians are reported to have told miners in their area that it was their coffee, as a joke. A joke the miners then perpetrated on each other.

Toyon (also called Christmas berry) will carry your nectar from mid spring to early summer. The orange to red berries these bright green shrubs produce are edible and are actually high in vitamin C and bioflavanoids! They can be used to make jelly or jam, or even eaten out of hand. However they are tart enough that most folks would prefer them brewed into tea with a dollop of honey. Sweetened they are tasty and provide your winter time vitamin C early for free. The berries ripen right about Christmas, just in time for winter arrangements, and remedies for colds and flue. These shrubs grow from 8 – 12 feet. The cultivars have been selected primarily for berry color, so keep that in mind when selecting your plants.

There are a few varieties of monkey flower, particularly Sticky Bush Monkey Flower that produce flowers over a long time during the hot summer months. Monkey flowers bloom in showy tubes of yellow, orange, and apricot. These lovely flowers attract hummingbirds. And they grow to form small evergreen shrubs. Be sure to read labels, because there are monkey flowers that prefer moist shade and others that thrive in the hottest spot you can provide. There are also monkey flowers that are annual bedding plants. While they may be fun in a border, for amphibian habitat you will want the shrubby forms.

Fall Asters will bring your bloom full circle. Bush Asters are available from low growing mounding plants to small shrubs that reach up to three or four feet tall. They prefer a spot with full sun and good drainage; however, they do need to be watered regularly during the hot dry parts of the year. Many varieties are available in nearly every color of the rainbow. Check labels to make sure you are buying a perennial that will provide habitat and nectar for at least a handful of years.

To round out your plantings here are some more suggestions you can take a look at when you visit the nursery: Look for box wood, Gunnera, Hebe, mountain mahogany, and Salal for an interesting mix of leaf types. Choose shrubs with interesting flowers such as, Abelia, bottlebrush, camellias, flannel bush, and gardenias to give your plantings some color and fragrance. Shrubs with interesting fruits or pods make nice additions. Check out barberry, carob, guava, pyracantha, and magnolias. Be sure to talk your selections over with your nursery person. Some of these plants have deciduous varieties or those that will not be happy to be trained as a shrub. If they don’t have any of these varieties available, they can probably make other recommendations that will work for you.

Growing a shrubby border is a long term proposition, and those dang slugs are out there eating up the garden right now. What on earth are we going to do in the mean time?

You can arrange some temporary shelter while you wait for the shrubs to grow. Artful arrangements of mossy branches, stones, and water worn pieces of bark can make attractive garden statements as well as provide homes for amphibians. Fall and winter walks, especially after high winds or storms are sure to provide a bounty of materials you can attractively arrange. (And you might even find some hungry amphibians that will be happy to make their homes in these fancy new digs.) Also check out second hand stores and flea markets for interesting sculptures, bowls, and pots. Some of these can be arranged to form houses, and others to catch rain fall and summer irrigation. These tiny ponds will keep your amphibians from dehydrating, and can easily be dumped out if they become infested with mosquito larva. Whether you call your collection art or habitat it will work just the same.

Find more information on beneficial insects to control slugs at the links below:

Empress Trees and Ground Beetles

Sex and Magic in the Garden

More on Slugs:

And Beneficial Insects:

1 comment:

Harvest said...

Reptiles are also helpful with many garden pests, here's one little tip to encourage them . . . They like piles of rocks and also sticks .. . I used to save sticks and slender boughs that had a "C" or an "S" curve to them and arrange then in the garden--so they found a sort of informal low fence. The lizards loved them. It got them up away from the moist ground, and into the sun where they could bask, yet provided them runways to dart back into the cover of the vegetation when needed. The bamboo trick for the earwigs really works. It is amazing how many earwigs will pack them self into the space . . . .