Killing Our Lawn

This guest post written by my wonderful husband George McRae is very timely as California’s long-term drought worsens and it becomes more critical for people to conserve water.

Killing Our Lawn: Or, How We Made the Transition to a Wildlife Refuge, by George McRae

When Heidi and I moved into our house, I saw gardening as a selfish endeavor: vegetables, fruit, flowers were for the enjoyment of humans only. I even installed a lawn, from seed. Then I got involved in local environmental issues in El Cerrito. Creek restoration was at the top of the list, as a branch of Baxter Creek was at the back side of our home. Not wanting to get involved in a “lawn-envy war” with our neighbor, I roto-tilled our parking strip. I terraced it and planted what started out as an English cottage-style garden, but has evolved into a wildlife habitat. The photo on the left is our neighbor’s lawn, our native garden’s on the right.

Front lawns

I started to read National Wildlife Federation literature about how local back and front yards, and even apartment balconies, are the best hope for many endangered species considering how much habitat is being destroyed by development.

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

I began planting native California plants everywhere I could fit them in. Our philosophy evolved into, “if a local critter eats it or needs it, we’ll plant it.”

California grape

We registered as an NWF wildlife habitat. We provide food and water.

Squirrels at feeder

Also required: shelter and places for critters to raise their young. We’ve been rewarded many times over by birds, in particular hummingbirds, raising families here year after year.

Hummingbird mother on nest

And insects galore! Monarch, Swallowtail, Skipper, Red Admirable (Admiral), Painted lady, Dragonfly…. an endless list of species, come here to lay eggs on the plants we provide them.

Anise swallowtail butterfly laying egg on fennel

Other benefits? With the abundance of California native plants, our water bill is extremely low. We use no pesticides or fertilizers, so we’re not adding downstream pollutants to the biosphere. We evaluate any weed as a possible food source. If not, we hand pull. We use no herbicides, as they are proven amphibian killers. We rarely use power gardening tools, reducing our addition to air and noise pollution and global warming. We prune our trees and weed carefully and during seasons when we won’t upset nesting cycles of birds, insects and mammals.

Towhee eggs in nest

Towhee eggs in nest

W H A T  C A N  Y O U  D O ?

1) Plant local native plants in as many varieties as possible, from grasses to flowering trees, like ceanothus. California bunch grasses have deep roots and hold soils together, preventing erosion and drawing deep moisture to the surface for other plants. Many butterflies use them as larval food sources. Grasses are the basis of a sound ecosystem.

Some local nurseries to learn more and buy natives:

California Native Plant Society (East Bay), Native Here Nursery

Watershed Nursery

Bay Natives Nursery

Honeybee on fennel flower

2) Before you prune, thin or remove trees, shrubbery or other plants, make sure you’re not disturbing nesting sites or life cycles for birds, insects or other critters making a home there. Late August through late November is best, but be aware that hummingbirds can nest all year long!

3) Certify your garden as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation

Early Summer Garden

Welcome to June-time in our garden. As the roses fade we have some other wonderful flowers blooming. The stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea) is a California native orchid. Here’s a closeup; the flowers are only about a half inch.

Epipactus gigantea

The flowers of the Soap Plant (Chlorogalum) are also extremely small. Bumble bees love these; I’m always amazed to watch the fat bees light on and weigh down the delicate flowers.

Soap plant flower

A trill from our guard-hen, Maureen, alerted us to a visit by Bambi. He was waiting in our neighbor’s yard for us to leave so he could graze on George’s delicious flowers and plants. Last week he ate nearly every leaf off our poor peach tree. Guess the fruit wasn’t ripe enough for him, he left us those.

Young deer

Anise swallowtail butterflies, probably the ones that we raised and released in the past few months, have returned to lay eggs on our fennel. We caught this one flitting about, and I managed to get a photo of her leaving some eggs.

Anise swallowtail butterfly

Finally, the hummingbirds are back, and happily visiting our flowers and feeders.

Hummingbird

What’s growing in (and who’s visiting) your garden this summer?

The Cycle Begins

Over the last few weeks more than ten of the anise swallowtail butterfly chrysalises that we’ve been sheltering in our butterfly nursery have emerged. These three beauties emerged in one day. We waited for the weather to improve, and took them out to the deck to release them. You can also see two batches of chrysalises still waiting to emerge. For some reason, possibly protection, they sometimes make their chrysalises right next to or on top of one another.

DSC_3545b small flat

Anise swallowtails can remain in the chrysalis stage for years, and some of the ones that emerged have been gestating for more than two years. Every time we release a female I ask her to come back to our garden to lay eggs.

Anise swallowtail butterfly on George's hand

The native plant that anise swallowtails lay their eggs on is called yampah. George has some yampah in a pot, but it grows very slowly. A couple of years ago we were thrilled to find some eggs in our yampah. Here’s a picture I took. The egg is the tiny yellow dot near the center of the picture.  It’s about the size of the head of a pin.

Since yampah is very hard to find in the wild around us (not much wild left hereabouts  …), the anise swallowtails in our area have turned to the fennel plant to lay their eggs and as their larval food source. Fennel grows prolifically in vacant lots and along the highways. Many people cut it down as it gets rangy later in the summer, which is too bad, because they’re killing hundreds of swallowtail eggs and caterpillars. Anyway, to the point of this post .. drum roll please … I found three eggs on our fennel this morning! Here’s one.

Anise swallowtail butterfly egg on fennel

We released this female last Tuesday, maybe they are her eggs?

Anise swallowtail butterfly

Have you seen many butterflies in your garden yet? Do you plant milkweed for monarchs or other plants to attract and feed butterflies?

California Native Plant Society – 2011 Native Plant Fair

Leopard lily, Mt Tam

Leopard lily, Mt Tam

The East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society presents the 2011 Native Plant Fair on Saturday, October 1, from 10 am to 3 pm, and on Sunday, October 2 from noon to 3 pm at the Native Here Nursery, 101 Golf Course Road, Berkeley, in Tilden Park across from the entrance to the Tilden Golf Course.

20,000+ plants, including bulbs and ferns, will be offered for sale.  Come for  a wonderful selection of local native plants, seeds and bulbs, lectures, books, posters and gifts — as well as to see local photographers and craftspeople with their native and nature-related arts and crafts.  Free admission!

CNPS Plant Fair - Garden Delights

I will be there both days — please stop by my table to say hello.  I’ll bring a great selection of my original nature-based arts and crafts works, including many prints of native plants, butterflies and insects, my fabric art, tile boxes, cards, silk scarves, and much more!

Bay leaf mandala

Bay leaf mandala

This event is a major source of funding for the East Bay CNPS.   Over twenty people volunteer regularly at the Native Here Nursery, open year round to benefit the chapter through sales of local native plants.  Click here for more information about the Fair, including a catalog of plants that will be for sale.

CNPS Plant Fair

Anise swallowtail butterfly from 2006!

I think I’ve mentioned here before that anise swallowtail butterflies don’t emerge from their chrysalises on a set timetable, like monarch butterflies do. George thinks that it’s probably to ensure better survival, so some of the adult butterflies will emerge pretty quickly – in a couple of weeks, but others hang out for much longer.  You can tell that they’re still alive by touching them gently – they move.

This photo collage I did for the butterfly exhibit in the El Cerrito Library shows the caterpillar getting ready to become a chrysalis (pupate) – that’s the top left. The bottom left and top right show how different the chrysalises can look, some bright green, and some drab brown. The bottom right one shows what the empty chrysalis looks like after the adult butterfly emerges. Anyway, we were so excited to see that the beautiful female that emerged today became a chrysalis way back in 2006!

She must have come out sometime during the night, because she was ready to go this morning. Since the weather is so nice, we put her outside on a yampah plant, that’s the native larval food source for anise swallowtails. While she was resting happily in the sun, I got this photo of her from the side, showing her head, including her eyes, proboscis (that’s what they sip liquid food through), and antennae.

We always hope that the females we raise and release will remember the plant and come back to lay eggs, so we can continue the cycle.

NATURE + ART workshop

Join me in this hands-on workshop to inspire and teach you basic and advanced techniques to enrich your artwork with natural objects and images, including flowers and plants, and animals and wildlife.

I’m limiting enrollment in this workshop, and molding it to the interests of the participants. We can cover topics such as improving your nature photography, using nature in mixed media art, how to find natural subjects or attract them to your garden, and much more.

Masdevallia orchid box

Masdevallia orchid box

No equipment is required, but if you have them, bring along your digital camera and/or laptop computer (including iphone or tablet).  Or bring your favorite paints, pencils, pastels, etc.

Sunday June 19, 2011, noon to 4:00 p.m., $60 plus materials. At the El Cerrito Canyon Trail Park Art Center.  Pre-registration is required. If you have questions, or to register, please email me at heidirand@gmail.com

And click here for the complete list of my upcoming classes.

Swallowtail butterfly eggs!

The wheel turns, another cycle begins …  Just last week two of the butterfly chrysalises that we’ve been sheltering emerged.  They’re anise swallowtail butterflies.  The first one was a male – if you can get a good close look, one set of the black lines on the male’s wings is thicker than on the female’s —

Anise swallowtail butterfly

Anise swallowtail butterfly

We let him go quickly because the weather was really nice.  The anise swallowtails can remain in the chrysalis stage for years.  We’ve had some for more than two years.  You can tell they’re still alive because if you touch the chrysalis gently it will move.  It’s very different with monarch butterflies — the timing for the stages monarchs go through from egg to emergence are always the same.

A day or so later another one of the swallowtails emerged – this one was a female.  As we released her I said what I always say to the lady butterflies: “Come back to our garden and leave babies!”

So, as for the cycle of nature turning — today I found three eggs on the fennel in our garden!  The native plant the anise swallowtails lay eggs on is called yampah.  This great online resource,  CalFlora.org,  has lots of information about yampah and other native plants.  We have some yampah in a pot, but it grows very slowly.  Here’s a picture I took last year.  The egg is the tiny yellow dot near the center of the picture.  It’s about the size of the head of a pin.

Since yampah is very hard to find in the wild around us (not much wild left hereabouts  …), the anise swallowtails have turned to the fennel plant, which grows very easily here, to lay its eggs and as its larval food source.  Fennel grows in vacant lots and along the highways.  Many people cut it down as it gets rangy later in the summer, which is too bad, because they’re probably killing hundreds of swallowtail eggs and caterpillars.   Here’s a photo of an egg on fennel:

This is roughly three times larger than life size.  These last 2 pictures are from a series I did on the entire life cycle of the anise swallowtail butterfly.  You can see all of the photographs on my smugmug gallery.

What butterflies have you been seeing your garden?   Do you plant milkweed for monarchs or other plants to attract and feed butterflies?