Archive for March 2010

Going Underground

March 11, 2010

There’s a clump of zebra grass planted at the corner of my patio directly in front of the basement door. It screens the storage area under the deck and prevents people attempting the large step up to the patio at a place where the unwary are likely to smack their head on the corner of the deck. Each year the zebra grass grows to its summer height of eight feet or so and every spring I cut it back. In between fall and spring, it sheds foot-long strips of beige leaf that blow around the yard. When the mood strikes me I gather up a handful and toss them into the compost pile.

Last Saturday with the dog finally winding down from a long session retrieving, I starting to pick up the bits that littered the area around the back door and found myself in a tug-of-war with the earth. I yanked a piece up and went for the next one. Same thing. So on the third I crouched down to see what was up. One end of the blade was embedded in the packed dirt. Taking a small shovel I scraped around the edges. The piece of grass went straight down like a knife blade plunged into the ground. Digging some more I couldn’t find any sign of the responsible party though my guess is ants.

Ant Work

One shorter piece was bent and pulled into the ground right in front of a cobble area by the house. Since every stone that gets regular sun seems to have ants hanging out beneath it, I am sure there’s a whole colony there. I am going to leave that one piece alone and see how long it takes to get pulled fully under.

More of the grass was strewn around the raised bed beside the patio. The leaves there had been moved as well but the responsible party was much more obvious. The grass was  vanishing into the same holes the snails return to each morning as the sun is rising.

When I added the bed to the patio it was meant to add a decorative touch and to discourage people from stepping off the downhill side of the patio. What I didn’t know, and what the landscaper who installed it didn’t think to tell me, is that cinder block walls surrounding fertile dirt with a southern exposure creates an ideal snail condo.

Snail Condo Entrance

In the cool damp mornings of late spring, after we’ve shifted the clocks forward and darkness has taken over the dog waking hour again, I need a flashlight to walk along that side of the patio. Otherwise I inevitably step on at least one of the mollusks making their way back home after a night spent feeding in my garden.

The discovery was a reminder of something that we learned in the backyard habitat workshop. One simple way to invite wildlife into your yard is to leave it just a little messy. The health of any habitat is dependent on all its denizens being healthy. At the lower end of the food chain that means that the same cycle of death and decay that takes place in great piles of debris on the forest floor, also needs to happen on a smaller scale in our own yards. If it also gives me an excuse not to stress when I don’t finish that last bit of clean-up, so much the better!



March 5, 2010

It was such a little bit of spring green that I might have overlooked it. In the almost two years since I planted the eight-inch stem of Orange Honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) behind the Oceanspray, I had given up looking for it to climb the shrub the way it does in the wild.  The vine didn’t die or even look particularly unhealthy, it just remained a small wisp of vine clinging to the willow stake it came tied to.

Honeysuckle on oceanspray dried flower head

First spring leaves

Now in February, leaf buds were opening on a pale vine twining around the trunks of the oceanspray to as high as four feet off the ground. I know that perennials grow slower than annuals. The longer lived plants take time to establish a healthy root system. The last two summers have been usually hot for longer periods of time and then last winter we had more snow that is usual. Perhaps those conditions conspired to slow the plant’s development. Or it could be that two years is the typical time for native honeysuckle to establish itself.

Orange Hineysuckle

Pacific Northwest Native Honeysuckle

According to Pojar’s the name of the plant in several Coastal Salish languages translates to ‘ghost’s swing’ or ‘owl’s swing’. Perhaps this summer I will discover from watching my own plant what led them to give it that name. If not at least there will be hummingbirds joining the butterflies in that bit of the garden.