Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mystery in the Garden

Last summer I noticed that the edible landscape on one side of my yard was plagued with harlequin bugs and cucumber beetles, while the other side had very few pests. Over a number of weeks I tried to determine the reason this was happening. I was hoping that I could encourage whatever it was that was discouraging my pests.

First I examined what was growing on each side of the yard. I had a number of similar plants in both locations. The few differences didn’t seem to account for the disparity. Next I looked for predators. The side with the larger pest population actually had more spiders and lizards. That wasn’t really what I expected to find. Although it makes sense – the predators were living where the hunting was good. Then one morning the answer to the mystery came to me, completely by surprise.

I was standing on the front porch leaning against the rail, absent mindedly looking over the garden and making a mental list of things that needed done. Feeling kind of lazy, I wasn’t moving much, just enjoying the early morning air. That’s when a flock of birds swooped into my neighbors pine trees just for a moment. Next they dived down into the blackberry hedge that runs along the edge of the yard. From there they darted into the parsnips and Queen Anne’s lace that had gone to seed at the far edge of the garden, right in front of the blackberries. At least a dozen little birds began feasting on the seed heads that just moments ago I had been thinking of chopping down.

Every so often one of those little birds darted into my kale and cucumbers, quickly snapping up bugs and then darting back to the dense stalks and seed heads. The mystery was solved. The neighbor’s pine trees, the blackberry hedge, and the ripe seed heads all served to attract the birds into the garden. Birds need to feel safe from predators; the blackberries and pine trees provided cover. The abundant seeds located close to the hedge offered a ready source of food. Once they felt safe and were engaged in their feast, the movement of the dastardly insects was more than they could ignore. They quickly snapped them up. This accidental arrangement of trees, hedge, and food source - provided the birds with exactly what they needed. They were taking care of my pest problems, on one side of the yard. With some planning and patience we can all get the darting darlings to dine on our pests and leave us a little fertilizer in the bargain.

First let’s take a look at providing the cover birds need to feel welcome and safe in our gardens. Pine trees or other evergreens provide year round habitat. Tall varieties near the north east of the garden will help provide the safe retreat and staging area that birds favor, without overly shading your plants. You can situate new gardens to take advantage of existing trees in your or your neighbor’s yards. Or, if you are patient and have the room, trees can be planted that will provide this benefit.

When choosing pine trees you might want to keep a few additional uses in mind. Some pines offer edible seeds when they mature. Many have decorative cones that can be used for holiday wreathes and centerpieces. A few have long needles that can be used for weaving pine-needle baskets. Below are some choice varieties that provide edible seeds, attractive cones, and that have long needles when mature:

California Grey Pine (Pinus sabiniana) is native in our area and is the source of our pine nut beads. It has long grey-green needles and very heavy cones. You won’t want those cones falling on your buildings or vehicles so give some thought to where you plant it. Hardy to zone 6; it will thrive in our valleys and lower mountain elevations.

Chir Pine (Pinus roxburghii) is native to the foothills of the Himalayas. It has bright green 9-12 inch needles; light brown medium sized cones, and is hardy to zone eight.

Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) provides the traditional pine nuts of European cuisine. The long needles are borne on upward reaching branches and the cones are brown, medium sized and very attractive. It is hardy to zone seven. (I have a young Italian Stone Pine in my yard in Hoopa, where it has lived happily for several years.)

Korean White Pine (Pinus koraiensis) has 2 – 4 inch needles, small brown cones, and is hardy to zone four.

Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) is a native of western North American. It has long yellow-green cones, 3 inch long needles, and is hardy to zone four.

That’s it for the pine trees that produce edible nuts and are adaptable to our region. The next step in attracting the darling little bug snappers is to provide an understory or hedge of shrubs, vines, or bushes. If you have a conveniently located black berry patch or an existing hedge that’s great. I don’t recommend planting black berries. We have plenty of wild ones and there are lots of other choices; a couple that you might like are listed below:

Serviceberries (Amelancheir sp.) make nice hedges, shrubs or even small trees. They are hardy at all elevations in our area and they have lots to offer the gardener. In early spring they are covered with a profusion of white or pink flowers. The flowers are followed by abundant edible berries that range in color from blue, through purple, to almost red. Then in fall the leaves put on a show of their own, turning various shades of crimson. There are a number of varieties of serviceberry available. They offer a range of tart to sweet berries and different ripening dates. They also are available in a range of sizes from small to large shrubs, all the way up to a medium sized tree. Be sure to read the plant descriptions in your catalog or on the plant label so you get exactly the right plant for your needs.

If berries are not to your liking, you might want to explore the filbert and hazelnut offerings. These nuts all belong to the Corylus genus and will happily grow in our area. Corylus have what are known as imperfect flowers. That means they have two separate types of flowering structures. The female flowers are the ones that form the nuts, while the tassels or catkins bear the pollen. Corylus sport rather small flowers, but they appear in late winter when any new color or texture in the garden is a sight for sore eyes. They are also available in a range of sizes from small shrubs to large trees. Some varieties offer spring color in the form of yellow or red new growth. A very few varieties hang onto the new foliage colors for a good part of the summer, offering a respite from gardens that are overly green.

The last thing necessary to attract birds is a source of seeds near the shelter of the shrubs, hedges, and trees. Bird feeders installed on poles are a good option. You can keep stocked year around. You can also sow seed bearing plants that will provide your garden with color and texture through the seasons. Besides the parsnip and Queen Anne’s lace I have observed the birds feasting on the seeds of kale, onions, and mulleins in my yard. These plants are all easy to grow, and once you get them started and allow them to run to seed they will come back year after.

Check your local nursery or favorite catalog for plants and seeds. If you don’t find what you are looking for, Forest Farm carries all the trees and shrubs mentioned above. They also have a number of ornamental onions listed in their perennial section under “Allium.” There are a few mulleins listed in the same section under “Verbascum.” Plants are reasonably priced, and available on their web site: http://www.forestfarm.com They have an extensive catalog (its $5.00). Call (541) 846-7269 for more information.

Previously Published in the Hoopa People News

Copyright 2007, Harvest McCampbell


Garden seeds said...

Thanks for the post mate you have written it very well.

Harvest said...

Thank you Baker Creek--love your catalog and your seeds!

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Harvest said...

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