Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Buzz in the Meadow

I just finished reading A Buzz in the Meadow, Dave Goulson's latest book.  (He wrote A Sting in the Tale several years ago, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading last December.)  Goulson is a biology professor in England who has done some excellent research on bumblebees;  he is the founder of the Bumble Conservation Trust.  I was really looking forward to reading this book, especially as it was about the run down French farm Goulson purchased about a dozen years ago and his efforts to restore it to decent biological/ecological health. That resonated with my efforts to restore decent biodiversity on our 10 acres in Kansas, so I was curious to see what sorts of results a "professional" had had with the process.

At first I was a little disappointed.  His descriptions of the early years at the farm were fine, but they didn't spark me. In his introduction, he'd described how he'd organized the book into 3 sections, though, so I kept reading.

Things picked up as I read a bit further - some of the natural history relationships that he describes almost seem like the stuff of science fiction or legend, but they are processes that occur every day in the normal course of events.  Do hairstreak butterflies in Kansas have the same weird move, just prior to landing, that hairstreaks in Europe do?

This is the gray hairstreak, feeding on aromatic aster, in my fall garden a couple years ago.  I'll be watching hairstreaks as they land to feed now.

How long do OUR dragonflies stay coupled during the summertime - as long as European dragonflies do?  If so, why have I never noticed that before?

Can U.S. newspapers REALLY affect sexual development in European bugs?

WHY would some flowers evolve to be warmer than their surroundings?  (Remind me to check magnolia blooms in early spring, would you?!)

Apparently in Europe, treating a flower filled grassland with chemical fertilizer (even just for a year or two) will cause the flowers to disappear as the grasses go absolutely berserk and choke the forbs out.  Does the same thing happen in the American prairie???

There are also a few species of wildflowers in Europe that act as partial parasites on nearby grasses, so meadows with those flowers in them tend to have more species diversity as the grasses get kept "in their place" more effectively.  Does that happen in the prairie???

As you can tell, there were many things to think about as I read further into this book.

Then I got to the 3rd section. 

If I'd had one disappointment in A Sting in the Tale, Goulson's earlier book, it was that Goulson didn't seem too hot and bothered about neonicotinoid pesticides and their effect on bees.  I don't remember him saying much at all about colony collapse disorder.  Since he was a bumblebee researcher, this seemed like a huge omission.

Apparently a lot of other people were wanting him to weigh in on the subject, too, so he did what any REAL scientist would do: he decided to study the issue himself.   Then he wrote about what he learned in Chapter 13:  "The Disappearing Bees". This chapter gives a brief history of the issues, then goes into the research that he did on the topic of neonicotinoids' effects on bumblebees, what it revealed, and what happened after that research was published.

It's eye-opening.  If you use pesticides in your yard or garden, if you counsel people about whether they should use pesticides - I highly recommend that you read this chapter, even if you read nothing else in this book. I found my jaw dropping at times.

(Obviously I must be developing facial tics, after re-reading that last paragraph!)

Finishing up the book, the final chapter was so interesting that I read it out loud to my husband.   Talk about historical perspective! Goulson even worked the "hobbit people" in there!

Hobbit people or not, the book had important and interesting things to share.  Reading it left me feeling that I could make a real difference anywhere I lived by creating a small refuge of biodiversity in my yard and garden.  Each of us will change the world, at least a little bit.  I like to think I'll leave the world a little bit richer for my having passed through it.....

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A New Chapter Begins "Down South"...

I haven't been blogging lately because we're in the middle of a big transition - moving from the prairies of south central Kansas back to the Gulf Coast, this time to Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.

John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans," and that sentiment fits this move to a T.  Our first grandbaby is due any minute now (literally), and we are moving down here to help with childcare, since both of his parents are active duty in the Air Force.

It's very hard to leave our little bit of prairie...but it's also enjoyable to have a new challenge greeting me.  I'll be bouncing back and forth between the two places for a while, but I'll try to be clear which one I'm talking about in my blog posts.

Having arrived in Ft. Walton Beach right as summer really took hold, I'm not doing much more than observing what is growing and living in our new digs.  Our new yard is much smaller - a bit less than half an acre backing up to a small, but picturesque, manmade, freshwater lake.  The soil in our yard is VERY sandy and there are good-sized trees, giving a rather savannah-like effect.

As far as plant material goes, for starters, we have 6 sand live oaks (Quercus geminata).  This species is THE major tree in the local area. Visually, however, it is less important in our yard than in the general area simply because our individual sand live oak trees are rather plain.  Here, in contrast, are a couple sand live oak trees in our daughter's yard, about a block away....

Back to our yard, there are also 3 reasonably large southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), ....

...and 3 hickories that I'm pretty sure are bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis).

The native plant material essentially comes to an end there.  Obviously the previous owners were not native plant buffs.  We have camellias and azaleas, all carefully hacked - oh, sorry, "pruned" - into "manageable" sizes and shapes; ...

...and multiple Loropetalums (a large shrub/small tree that likes to top out around 12' tall) carefully planted in front of windows that go almost to the ground.

Finalizing the majority of the plant palette, there are Indian hawthorns pruned into green meatball forms, variegated Pittosporum, a couple Sky Pencil hollies that don't look too healthy, African iris, and Lily-of-the-Nile.

For those of you in areas where these plants aren't common, this array of plants is basically an almost complete list of "non-native shrubs every homeowner finds at Lowe's or Home Depot and plants to make their yard look like everybody else's yard."  The only plant missing is crepe myrtle.

Okay, I exaggerated.  There ARE a couple native shrubs - 2 (remaining of 4) yellow anise trees - planted right below our picture window in the kitchen.  Yellow anise trees naturally grow to about 20' tall and wide and these definitely like their spot, so they're doing well.  Therefore, they've had to be squared off into a 4' tall hedge, neatly nestled right up against the house.  A hedge that has, by the way, grown at least 6" just since the end of May, making sure we can't miss it as we look out the window.

All in all, this is a classic "challenges and opportunities" yard in which to make a garden.  The view to the water is fantastically picturesque without us needing to do anything except (maybe) mow our lawn.   There is a sprinkler system already installed (although it needs a lot of TLC). Drainage will absolutely not be an issue, between the lightly sloping land and the sandy soil.

On the challenge side of the site, did I mention that the soil is VERY sandy?

There is a flat, low area right beside the water, set off by "sea walls".  The soil there is pure sand.  The entire area is overgrown with brambles and weeds.  Obviously some thoughtful landscaping is in order.  However, we have to be careful about inadvertently creating "snake spots" while designing that landscaping.  Cottonmouths ARE a real thing here and, much as I like snakes in general, I don't want sudden surprises with poisonous ones if I can help it.

The neighbor to the west of us has an OLD chainlink fence half hidden with vines and shrubs in a wild area formed from benign neglect.  I don't mind wild areas, in general, but this one is full of popcorn trees and other weedy, woody, invasive plants that need to be judiciously removed.  Then I'll be able to see more clearly what's worth saving in that region.

The neighbors to the east have a gorgeous BLUE hydrangea right on the property line.  Friends in prairie places, eat your hearts out!  I'm more than happy to "borrow" this part of their yard, even if it isn't native.

Dewberries, a very thorny type of bramble, are coming up all over the yard, in the lawn and garden beds alike, so one of my first tasks will be weeding those out...for the first of many, many times, I'm sure.

There are lots of seedling sand live oaks and hickories, too;  I want to see if there are a couple seedlings I want to "save" to start regenerating the tree canopy, then weed out the rest.

And, of course, there are several species of greenbrier and lots and lots of gripeweed to go after.  Some plants seem to spring eternal in the modern southern yard.  In the photo above, taken under the magnolia in the front yard, is gripeweed lining the sidewalk, backed up by dewberry, and augmented with a small popcorn tree seedling.  This is supposed to simply be mulched ground between the two Indian hawthorns, those green meatballs towards the top of the photo.  Yes, I've got lots of work to do.

So wish us luck!  (And, incidentally, I'd welcome any design ideas or plant suggestions.)