As at Sea While on Land

Posted July 24, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens, Wildlife

I went outside this morning with my journal planning to sit in the garden for a while. Thinking that I might see a ladybug, I brought my camera. The Lost Ladybug Project has been on my mind lately. Perhaps I could get a picture to upload to the project.

Of course when you go looking for one animal, another one shows up instead. This morning it was spiders.

Garden Spider in the dogwood.

Garden Spider in the dogwood

Right outside the door I looked under the deck for the grey house spider whose web is tucked up against the house where she can hide beneath a shingle. Instead I brushed against  a new web that seemed to be suspended in the air, parallel to the back wall of the house. A tiny reddish garden spider clung to the center which was undulating in the morning breeze.

Leaving it be, I went to the back corner of the yard which involves ducking beneath the maple and serviceberry and then brushing aside the long-reaching branches of red-twig dogwood. The scent of sage was overwhelming. A giant salvia, planted to provide hummingbird nectar summer to late fall,  has reached its full size.

Honeybees were making regular pit stops on the purple blooms. I tried to take a picture but the breeze was too strong, keeping the stalks in constant motion. Stepping out of the branches, I discovered that I had picked up a rider. A dark round spider with legs three times the size of its body was clinging to the bottom edge of my t-shirt. I tipped it off  into the shrub where it settled safely on a lightly bouncing leaf.

Going back to my table at the other side of the dogwood to make some notes I discovered another tiny garden spider. Its web was spread in the partial shade between several dogwood branches and one of the myrtle.

I haven’t had any more luck taking pictures of spider than I have with bees but I took a few shots anyway. Trying to take pictures of insects has led me to two discoveries. The first is that the viewer on a digital camera is useless for judging the quality of pictures when the focus is on something no bigger than a centimeter or so. Second, even on days I consider still, the leaves and branches of plants are really in perpetual motion.

My attempts to take pictures of bees, spiders and butterflies mostly yield a focused image of one leaf or section of branch surrounded by a blur of green with possibly an unidentifiable fuzzy dark spot. Like a man at sea, even when they themselves are still, spiders and insects are almost always moving. Currents generated by whatever breeze there is, abetted by the the passing of creatures large and small, keep the flowers and leaves they visit or attach their webs to in perpetual motion.

Later inside I was pleased to find that I had managed to capture the garden spider, legs unfurled and ready to run along the web. Since its web is on the north side of the shrub,  protected from all but the strongest winds, it must have been my movement that sent the web vibrating enough to cause alarm. Was it anticipating a meal or ready to flee if I came any closer?


Bees, Busy or Not?

Posted July 18, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens, Wildlife

Busy as a bee. I don’t remember the first time I heard that expression but I do remember enjoying the onomatopoeia of the expression when I was quite young. Back then I enjoyed the actual creatures less and always from a distance. Like most children, I was afraid of getting stung.

Since I began gardening I have become more comfortable with bees especially the gentle native bees such as sweat bees, mason bees and bumblebees. I can comfortably hold still while the former land on me.

Having watched these insects in my garden for a number of years, they do not seem the least bit busy. The overall impression they give is that of being out for a stroll in the sunshine.

For the first time this summer, I can imagine how the phrase came to be. In April a local beekeeper put two hives in my yard. Impulsively, I offered my yard as a location for two hives while discussion his expanding business at the Farmer’s Market last fall.

Bees in the hive

Over the winter I went back and read the postings on Neil Gaiman’s blog about his hives. I considered what it would be like to have hives in my tiny yard. I especially considered what effect the bees would have on the native bees. Would the honey bees displace the natives?

Now, two months after the hives were installed, I can say that the hives have not had any impact on the native honey bees that I can discern. While I haven’t taken an actual count, there seem to be as many bees as in previous summers.  If anything there may be more bumblebees a particularly happy situation given their decline in population since the early 90’s.

No, the honey bees haven’t chased the natives away but watching them has made me more aware of the natives and their unique behavior. Bees leaving and returning to the hive create an air space that would drive an air traffic controller crazy. Focus on one individual and you will notice that its path is directed and purposeful. It leaves knowing exactly where it intends to go and returns without getting distracted on the way.

By contrast the natives are wanderers. Their flight is slower and they move from bloom to bloom seemingly at random. Yet the native bees must do everything to survive that that hive bees must and for the most part on their own.

The honey bees can fly directly back to their hive protected as it is by sheer numbers, as many as sixty thousand bees in a single hive box. Solitary bees or those that belong to a smaller colony must protect their nest by preventing its detection. While there are certainly a number of these nesting in my yard, I have only once witnessed one entering its ground hole.

All of this has made me wishful that I had paid more attention to the bees in earlier years. I believe that there are as many native bees as before but I have no data to back this up. Maybe there seem to be more because I am looking for them more mindfully?

Recently I became aware of a particular citizen science project called the Great Sunflower Project.* The purpose of the project is to better understand the native pollinators and where they are working. My sun flowers haven’t bloomed yet but once they do I plan on collecting data about what bees visit the bloom.

* See the link to the right

Toddlers and Teens

Posted June 9, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Uncategorized

Like animals, plants have a life cycle and like animals some play out all the seasons of their life in just a few of our seasons. Others have a life expectancy similar to that of a human. Some live far longer though it is rare to have a tree like Llangernyw Yew or even the Endicott Pear Tree in a place where you can see it daily.*

Lately I have begun to identify plants by their ages. Some are toddlers. One of the key differences between babies and toddlers, besides the toddling, is that toddlers have mostly lost baby proportions and begun to look like real people.

In a similar way young plants can be babyish. Take the Sitka Mountain Ash I purchased almost three years ago now. It arrived during winter, wrapped in brown paper, two spindly dormant six-inch branches poking out of the center of the dark soil filling a quart container that seemed too large.  For two springs leaves formed at the end of each of the stems, leaves that were small and yellow-green. They resembled the pictures in my reference books in shape only. During this time, neither of the branches grew more than a few centimeters.

Sitka Mountain Ash

Sun-dappled Sitka Mountain Ash

This spring, when I finally made my way out the back corner, I didn’t recognize it at first. Each of the original branches is closer to a foot long and there are smaller stems growing off each. The leaves are a darker blue-green shade and twice as large as those last summer. I may have to wait another year or more for flowers and berries but now it is perfectly identifiable as an ash.

If the human transition to toddler is marked mostly by appearance and action, the one to the teen years is almost always described as a change in mood.  Plants are more pleasant. Plant teens bloom, literally. This year two of the native plants in my garden officially became teens.

The thimbleberry was first. It’s another one of the plants that went in during the year after I took the Habitat workshop. For two summers its maple-like leaves have waved in the breeze. Even a crow swooping through on its way to the rooftop can set the large soft leaves undulating. This May little buds formed in bunches at the end of several branches. Last week, one by one, they opened to delicate white petaled flowers heavy with pollen and holding court for the bees.

Thimbleberry in bloom

Thimbleberry in Flower

Now that the flowers have shed their petals and the pollen has been carried off by insects and the wind, it is time to wait again. Will I get my first taste of thimbleberry this year?

Just as the last blooms were fading on the thimbleberry, the Woods’ rose caught my attention. Planted during the same time frame, the rose has been healthy. Its expanding needle covered stems have grown to provide a formidable barrier between the bird bath and the neighbor’s cat. Until this year it hasn’t lived up to its name. One morning last week, the cloudy gloom was brightened when I discovered tight dark red buds topping off most of the branches. A few had swollen leaving tiny slits exposing the pink wrapped inside waiting to emerge.

Woods Rose

Wood Rose budding

Thimbleberries in the summer and rose hips in the winter. So much to look forward to!

* Both of these trees are listed in the wikipedia list of the oldest trees. The Yew lives in a churchyard in Wales. The pear tree is in Danvers, MA where I spent a lot of time in my early adulthood. I never knew that that oldest living fruit tree in the US was so close by.

Writing Workshop

Posted May 30, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens

Call it synchronicity or just the ability to pay attention to the threads the run through your life, sometimes it sure seems like someone is trying to tell you something. My friend Janine absolutely believed that we all have a unique purpose and that life acts as a sort of herding dog running around us pushing us closer and closer to what we are supposed to be.

When I wrote about the Sit Spot challenge put out by the Wilderness Awareness School a few weeks ago, I wasn’t thinking at all about the writing workshop that I had signed up for at the Burke Museum. I was just reporting on an interesting item I had discovered on a site I check out sporadically.

Last weekend, as I drove over to the University for the Environmental Writer’s Workshop at the Burke Museum, I had no expectations other than to spend the day with other people who are interested in writing about the environment.

During the afternoon I took a session given by Lynda Mapes. I switched to her session because I was impressed with the organized and entertaining way she presented her biography [I was] and because she spent her youth in the same part of the country I did having many of the same experiences. [Another interesting bit of synchronicity, this the second time recently that I have been reminded of those days running wild in the green spaces of the Northeast.]

Janine would tell me, and I can hear her still though she’s been gone for almost five years, that I was meant to be in that session because Lynda had us do an exercise she called immersion reporting. The basic activity is to go somewhere in nature and let “nature do the talking”. At its core this is the Sit Spot exercise. The only real difference is that because the purpose it to report on what you observe, note taking is an important part of the activity. We actually practiced for an hour in the Union Bay Natural Area.

As with many experiences, the learning continued after the exercise was over. Just today I managed to tease out one insight that has been niggling at me since the class. I have been feeling a subtle pressure to turn more of my yard over to food production. Some of the pressure is very real and comes from a neighbor who is creating a real urban farm in her yard. Next to her organized vegetable and fruit beds and simple cut flower beds, my yard is exuberant and overgrown.

With the downturn in the economy the local version of keeping up with the Joneses has moved on from authentic Arts and Crafts remodels to self-sustaining agriculture. I do have a little bit of the yard, outside the back door, dedicated to vegetables and fruits. But the primary purpose of my garden has been to provide backyard habitat.

As I left for work this morning, some bird was thrashing around in the wild back corner where my little writing table is surrounded by a nearly impenetrable ring of native trees and shrubs. Back there the plants need no supplemental water even during the hottest days of the summer and maintenance is simply turning leaves and twigs into the dirt. It is my own little wild place where I can be in nature when there just isn’t time to get in the car and get away.

Real Estate for Birds

Posted April 22, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Wildlife

When I was getting ready to buy my first house, I took a class in home buying at a local continuing education program. As first-time home buyers most of the students were concerned with financing and inspections. The instructors spent considerable class time teaching us how to evaluate the finer points of a potential purchase. How much traffic went buy at various times of day, which rooms get the morning sun, do the neighbors put out their garbage at night or in the morning?

To create a tempting house for wildlife you can’t just get the structure right.  You must imagine that you are a bird or a bat or a frog. I tried to do that when I put up the bird house I received as a gift. I selected a sturdy protective tree and hung the house so that the opening faced the back of the yard away from the house. I figured that having their entrance away from the activity of the yard would feel more secure.

Bird house in maple tree

Bird house relocated

I hung the house in late winter and as spring approached I put out a basket of twigs, bits of string and dog fur to provide a ready source of nesting material. Sure enough, a few weeks later, I saw a pair of birds flitting in and out of the opening. A few weeks later however it was empty. Over the summer I puzzled over the problem. What had caused the pair  abandon their work and move on?

While reading the message boards on a garden site, I may have found my answer.  My back yard is south of my house so I had positioned the bird house with the entrance facing south. The prevailing winds in Seattle blow almost exclusively north so whenever the wind picked up, it was blowing right into the house. I could definitely see where that might be a problem trying to sleep and even worse for fragile eggs and nestlings.

In February  I  brought the house down. Pivoting the disc in the back  to expose the clean-out , I dumped out the old nesting materials and made sure that nothing else had taken up residence. Then I went back up the ladder and found a secure place to hang the house with the opening pointed northeast.
The other day when I got home from work I noticed a bit of twig in the doorway. Today it wasn’t visible. I will be watching over  the next few weeks to see if new residents are setting up house.

Mindfulness for Naturalists

Posted April 10, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Wildlife

Two years ago I did an 8-week program on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction [MBSR]. It is a great program, the core of which is a daily mindfulness meditation practice. Once it was over, though, I never did any actual meditation again. I just couldn’t find time to commit yet another daily activity. The while checking out one of my favorite web sites today, I found a mindfulness program for those of us who would rather be outside in nature. Wilderness Awareness School is running a 30-Day Sit Spot Challenge from April 10 through May 10.

Sit Spot is one of the core pieces of their Kamana Program. The Kamana program is an intensive program to become a naturalist. Like learning another language or really learning to play guitar, it is something I would dearly love to find time for. Unlike learning French, it doesn’t really have a 10-minutes a day program or so I thought until I found the Sit Spot Challenge.

The idea is simple. For one month you commit to going to a spot in nature and just sit there for twenty minutes observing. It is just like MBSR except instead of focusing on the breath, you focus intensely on one spot in nature.

While their ideal spot is someplace wild, it seems to me that for those of us trying to create a little bit of wild habitat in our own yards, this gives us the incentive to sit back and really pay attention to the wildness that is there right now.

To make it easier to stay motivated, the school will be sending daily reminders to those who sign up. They also have a forum where people can discuss their experiences with the challenge. To find out more or sign up go here:

If you sign up, put a comment on this post. I would love to hear about other people who are doing the challenge.

Going Underground

Posted March 11, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens

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!