I just finished reading “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas W. Tallamy. It is a sobering description of our wild spaces and the plant and animal species that populate them. Biodiversity is an intricate part of our well being. We need the plants for our own survival just as our animal friends do. But Tallamy confronted me with grim statistics. He estimates that we have converted between 32 and 40 million acres to suburban lawns in this country (Milesi et al. 2005) — as much as 62,500 square miles! That is an area more than eight times the size of New Jersey dedicated to alien grasses. Take four million miles of public roads, add parking lots and driveways, and you have 43,480 square miles of blacktop all over the lower 48 states (Elvidge et al. 2004). So the consequences for biodiversity are staggering. You see it in the many small mammals that succumb everyday on our suburban roads. In addition, we have removed food and nesting sites needed for most species to survive.
We, as humans have an innate love of nature. It sustains us. As gardeners, we can shape our own spaces — our own little biospheres– to provide ideal conditions for species to survive. I felt the need to spring into action by increasing the size of my planting beds and creating “rivers” of vegetation. I concentrated on native trees, shrubs and perennials. I offered water sources and areas for composting. Most important of all, I followed organic practices in the garden that bar pesticides or chemical fertilizers. All these measures facilitate a healthy biodiversity that promotes a wildlife habitat within each of our gardens.
“Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw” Henry David Thoreau.
I am a great fan of composting. If you have a large or small garden and composting is a viable option for you, do not miss the opportunity of turning all your organic materials into “Black Gold”. Gardeners refer to compost as black gold because it has the ability to improve soil structure, increase the fertility and the water holding capacity of your soil.
There are many composting bin options in the market today. Really, all you need is a good spot to start a simple pile. My first compost pile, was a circle of chicken wire, about 3 feet in diameter, and 2 feet tall, which I placed in between some trees. I started adding all the materials collected during my routine gardening chores, it certainly helps to cut everything in smaller pieces and make sure there was a mixture of dry or brown carbon rich material and green nitrogen rich clippings and kitchen waste. When it was full to the top, I just turned it a few times in the following months and did not fuss too much with it. By the fall I noticed that the material was nice and brown and there were very few recognizable pieces of the original components. I was hooked! Today, I have expanded to a three bin system and a plastic commercial composting bin.
Three bin system. The first bin was recently harvested.
The four main components in composting are organic matter, moisture, oxygen and bacteria. Organic matter is a mixture of plant materials and some animal manure. Plant materials are divided into brown carbon rich materials (dry leaves, wood clippings, manure) and green materials (kitchen scraps, grass clippings, hedge cuttings). Brown materials supply the carbon and green materials supply nitrogen. Moisture is needed to aid the composting process. The pile should feel moist but not wet. Oxygen supports the breakdown of the material by bacteria. Bacteria and other organisms are the real workers of the composting process. By providing all other components, you aid the bacteria in the breakdown of plant material.
Anytime of the year is a good time to start a compost pile. In the winter, cold weather can slow the process, but as the leaves come down we are rewarded with a bonanza of material for the rest of the year. Leafmold is an excellent mulch. Leaves do take a bit longer to decompose if not clipped in smaller pieces but the final product is a rich light material that holds moisture well and insulates plants.
“Take care of the earth and she will take care of you”.
Euonymus alatus in fall
From one week to the next, it seems, the trees explode in their fiery show of extravagant color. It is nature at its best. A walk in the woods amid cool temperatures – surrounded by flying leaves of red, orange, yellow and brown – evokes a feeling of exuberance and sadness, knowing that all will soon be gone.
The great color explosion coincides with another miracle of nature – songbird migrations. The trees and vines are full of ripe fruit just waiting for the birds to broadcast their seeds far and wide. Could the show of color be a call, a notice if you will, or an advertisement? Come check me out, I have tasty treats!
Parthenocissus quinquefolia or Virginia Creeper
One of my favorites is the Virginia creeper vine. Its fruit is almost too small for us to notice, but its foliage is bright red. The birds take notice. Even poison ivy offers scores of seeds in the fall. This year, I also noticed that oaks have had a record crop of acorns. This spells a bonanza for our small mammals that depend on acorns to make it through the winter.
“…If I were a bird I would fly around the earth seeking the successive autumns”. George Eliot.
It is sad to see the perennials turn yellow and enter dormancy. I keep looking outside knowing that the cleanup must begin. Hostas, Ferns and Peonies are all yellowing. I would like to collect the foliage before it turns completely brown and add all of it to my compost pile. While the leaves are still green, the nitrogen and water content are higher and will help balance the carbon rich compost pile. The large leaves of Hostas and stems of Peonies may need to be cut into smaller pieces, in fact, I believe that the pile benefits from all materials being chopped a bit. I keep adding to the pile and turning. If it is dry, a good watering helps move things along. Oh, just think of the wonderful composted soil I will collect in the spring! Black gold!
We still have a window for planting trees and shrubs. There is time until the hard frost sets in, for the roots to develop into the soil before they enter dormancy. It is important to cover each planting with a generous amount of mulch and give it a couple of deep waterings a week until frost.
“Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn”. ~Elizabeth Lawrence
This girl is still here, I have been watching her for the last two weeks, with a certain foreboding of the day when she will decide that it is time to start her migration. From time to time, I have seen her fight off visitors; who are they? I think females from the North are passing by and taking a rest at the feeder. Males hummingbirds started their migration in August. Only adult and immature females remain. From here, they face a 3,000 thousand mile trip to Central America! There are still plenty of flowers in the garden to keep them busy. And, since I have an all organic yard, there are plenty of insects about. She is still visiting the feeder quite frequently. I would keep all feeders clean and fresh for migrating birds.
Check out this great site. I received it in an e-mail forwarded from a friend: Hummer Nest ’05. It is an unusual series of pictures that follow a nest until the birds fledge. Probably the only wild nest I will ever be able to witness. It is several pages long so keep clicking through.