Jun 30, 2005

Jewels on the Wing

[Note: Verdance clients originally received this article in May, as part of our free monthly newsletter on gardens and gardening. To subscribe to the newsletter yourself, please register at our site.]

Recently I read that the number of monarch butterflies migrating from North America down to Mexico has fallen an astonishing 75% -- even after 75% of their population already was lost to a freeze on their overwintering habitat in 2002. At this rate, monarch extinction seems likely in years, not decades or centuries, raising the gloomy prospect of a future when our children or grandchildren never get to delight in these winged jewels.

Studies of why butterfly populations are declining indicate a complex web of causes including deforestation, climate change, and pesticides. Whatever the reasons, though, we each can still do small things to slow the decline.

The best way to attract adult butterflies is to plant a garden that includes the vital milkweed plus sunflowers, zinnias, marigolds, phlox, petunias, butterfly bush, black-eyed susans, lilies, cosmos and daisies. Even without such an intensive habitat in our yard, most of us can integrate a few of these plants -- and collectively create a butterfly garden that spans acres.

It's also important to encourage butterfly caterpillars. The Sunset Western Garden Book lists plants whose foliage is good caterpillar food; there is a broad palette to choose from (broccoli -- who knew?), and it's easy to tuck a few into any garden. If you would like suggestions on butterfly plants whose foliage or flowers will complement your existing landscape, it would be my pleasure to help.

Perhaps the most important step you can take is to avoid using pesticides -- even "natural" ones such as Bacillus thurigenesis (B.t.) -- that kill indiscriminately. Always try the most benign and pest-specific solutions first: for instance, a sharp jet of water knocks aphids off of leaves and flower buds, and non-toxic oils of neem, garlic, mint or clove discourage ants, mosquitoes, leafhoppers and thrips.

And above all, appreciate the graceful acrobatics and fragile beauty of every monarch, anise swallowtail, and mourning cloak you see. Currently a spectacular migration of painted ladies is making its way through the Bay Area; taking the time to notice them will create a warm place in your heart that will endure long after the last butterfly has fluttered by.

[Update: there are quite a few swallowtails floating around, and on 6/10 my client in Berkeley reported, "Amazingly we have hundreds of Monarchs hanging out in our neighborhood this year. First time we have seen it since we have lived here. Has lasted three days so far. Kind of cool."]

Jun 27, 2005

A Fungus Among Us

One of the Pistacia chinensis (Chinese pistache) trees planted in the parkway in front of our home has been in a bit of a slump. Last year it lost a few leaflets a little early; this year it's been losing a lot more — a lot earlier.

At first I wondered whether maybe the tree was just a little stressed (aren't we all?). Then, I thought, maybe its roots were bumping into the remnants of the allelopathic Juglans nigra (black walnut) that used to live there; but that didn't make sense, because that tree was long gone even before it was taken out. Then I came across a diagnosis that, unfortunately, fits: verticillium wilt.

Now, I knew that Verticillium could be a problem here. Every nursery carries "VFN" tomatoes and strawberries, for instance, bred to resist Verticillium and Fusarium fungi and nematodes. And I've already had first-hand experience with Verticillium, which is steadily taking out one of our Schinus molle (Brazilian pepper) screening trees (even though the tree is putting up enough of a fight that every year I hope this might be the year it impersonates Lazarus). But come on now... our street trees?! That's just not fair.

This is the problem with urban soils: they have been so heavily used, and so poorly managed, over the years that there's just no telling what has taken up residence in them. Our neighborhood, for instance, used to be a pear orchard; so it's actually not surprising when our apples and pears (fruiting and ornamental alike) wither and brown from fireblight, or our strawberry plants turn to dust seemingly overnight from Verticillium.

Worst of all, there's little evidence on the surface as to what lurks below. Not 10 feet from our infected pepper tree, a patch of volunteered strawberries is thriving. And once the fungus is there, it's there to stay. That's why I decided to include soil testing among Verdance's suite of services, so we can know what to expect before we call for that specimen Aristocrat pear (or that all-important curtain of Schinus... darn).

I'll keep crossing my fingers that our pistache is simply stressed after all. But frankly, it's not the only one.

Jun 25, 2005

Fruits and Labors

With the summer solstice past, it's a strange time of year: the days are still warming up and there's light in the sky well past 9:00 pm, yet there's a primal tickle in the back of our brains reminding us that we're now closer to autumn than to spring.

I harvested most of our Santa Rosa plums this week, and even though it was a light crop (apparently this happens in alternate years), the fruit is as amazing as ever: tart, almost bitter, skin, with unbelievably sweet and juicy flesh all the colors of a tropical cocktail. Last year our crop was much heavier, so I was able to put up a few jars of plum jam; this year, the bumper crop is in the blueberries, which — despite being grown just in pots — are almost keeping pace with our appetites for them. (By some miracle, the birds haven't noticed yet... maybe they're still freaked out from the flash tape last year?)

So it's time to kick back in the garden and enjoy this bounty... yet there's still so much to keep us busy. The ErigeronErigeron obviously is in desperate need of a hard shearing; the roses are overdue to be deadheaded; and now that the warm weather seems to be ready to stay a while, it really would be a good idea to add a layer of mulch and adjust the irrigation schedule. I did get the apple tree about halfway thinned out; but I also have about half a dozen plants still stuck in their nursery pots, gasping for water and pretty much convinced they'll never make it into the ground. Unfortunately, they're probably right.

Yes, there's a lot to do, even as the days are getting shorter. In the end, though, it's not so terrible to waste valuable gardening time slurping the juice from a perfect plum. After all, aren't those the pleasures we design gardens for in the first place?

Jun 24, 2005

So this is the Blogosphere. Needs some green.

It's funny: when I developed our Web site last quarter, I considered writing a section called "What?! No Blog?!" with a little essay on why Verdance does not need and would not have a blog.

And here I am writing a blog.

I just wasn't quite sure what I would write about. (And in fact, I'm still not.) But I am a little more confident that no matter what shows up here, someone like you will find it interesting, or at least provocative.

I also have faith that you will tell me what you want to see here. Want to know more about the inner workings of a landscape design firm? Sure. Tips for reducing your dependency on lawn? Gotcha covered. How to develop cool container gardens? Comin' right up. And in the meantime, here's some fertilizer for thought: our philosophy on landscape and garden design.

Let me know what you think, won't you?