Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Maintaining Composure while Decomposing

Plants are like people in many ways. They are "born", they age, and they die. Along the way, they slowly decompose. Like people, some plants age gracefully, and some seem to decompose overnight. According to the The Free Online Dictionary, the word "decompose" means "to separate into components or basic elements", "to rot or decay", "to break down (organic matter) or (of organic matter) to be broken down physically and chemically by bacterial or fungal action; rot".  It also means "to break down naturally through the action of biological agents". All things decompose sooner or later.  Some things like plastics and all of our consumer wastes filling our landfills will take years, if not many centuries to do so. 

Hostas and ferns decompose very quickly. 
By spring there will be no sign of their leaves in the garden.

These geraniums will provide green and then bronze groundcover until midwinter, then they will start to decompose in preparation for new leaves next spring.

This Russian Sage will hold its stature and brown leaves through the winter, for structural interest until late spring, when the dead leaves will fall, and the new leaf buds appear.

Upclose of Russian Sage frost bitten leaves, and sturdy stalks.

Lavender Cotton (Santolina) will hold its leaves all winter, whereas the leaves of the Coneflower (Echinacea) have already started decomposing for the season.

Our gardens are perfect places to allow Mother Nature her way of plant decomposition and soil renewal.  Nature has thousands of biological agents to help do the job in a most efficient manner.  In a previous post on Earthworms, I brought up many of the reasons to let nature do this for us, instead of us trying to clean the gardens.  If a plant will be decomposed by the springtime, and give back to the soil naturally, why on earth should we clean it up?

Gambel Oak leaves fall naturally into these gardens, where they will stay till spring, slowly decomposing and providing a thermal blanket at the same time.  In the spring they get a trip to the compost pile.

Ants will look for food here in preparation for the winter.

But what if we want some composure in our gardens while still allowing decomposition of last year's plants?  Can we have it both ways?  That depends on how willing you are to compromise.  Some types of plants do better when you cut down their stalks, to prevent diseases from moving into their roots or bulbs.  Asiatic and Oriental lilies are good examples.  I cut the stalks down after they have turned brown, and put them in the compost pile.  The resulting garden looks a bit neater.

Lilies in between lavender will be cut down now.  They have stored enough nutrients in the bulbs for next year and the stalks will grow anew from the base.

Many shrubs and grasses look best when left unpruned for the winter. Their flowers and leaves make for interesting compositions, and provide the eye with the stark beauty of the plants' forms not seen when the leaves are green and the blossoms are colorful.

Blue Mist Spirea holds its seed heads gracefully all winter (this is not invasive where I live!)

Siberian Iris leaves provide winter interest as well as food for the deer

Autumn Joy Sedum seed heads will also look beautiful all winter. Who wants to look at a flat garden for 5 months of the year?  Not me.

Decomposition in the woods is an easier thing to let happen, since it looks very natural that way. Mother Nature doesn't have a person come through and cut down dead grasses, diseased plants, or dying trees.  The wooded area surrounding our house is left alone in the fall, and by spring the grasses will grow up through the nutrient rich piles of decomposing plant debris from last year. 

This wood pile has been "decomposing" now for about 5 years. It is used by the foxes and other wildlife for shelter and security, eaten by ants and bugs, and pecked on by woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other birds.

By spring these native grasses will fall gracefully back into the earth, and new blades will start again.

Thinking about how things decompose, it's helpful to understand what factors help speed or slow the process. Fungi, bacteria, heat, moisture, temperature, and light all play parts in how fast any living thing falls apart. Take our skin for example. Lack of moisure results in dry, cracked skin, which is more prone to itching, and thus provides a way for bacteria to enter, causing disease and/or decay. Too much moisture, and our skin starts to sweat, get oily, and need washing to keep the bacteria at bay. Too much light, and our skin becomes sunburnt and and shows its' decomposing age quicker. Too little light, and fungi thrive, spreading disease.

Plant leaves and stems react similarly. Areas with lots of humidity and moisture tend to have plants that decompose very quickly, often in a slimy, gooey mess. Not a pretty sight. On the other hand, decomposition of plants in the desert takes a long time, and shows up as mostly shriveled leaves. So, keeping composure in the garden depends a lot on where you live.  Do your gardens "age gracefully"?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Picture This Photo Contest: It Really Means The End of the Line

End of the Fisher Towers trail, outside of Moab, Utah. 
Beyond this rock is a very long next step!

This month's Picture This Photo Contest at Gardening Gone Wild is entitled "The  End of the Line".  Well, you can't get any more end of the line then the picture shown above.  Last month I posted about Canyonlands National Park, and the Moab area in the post "Canyonlands National Park - One of Mother Nature's Ultimate Rock Gardens". I had the great fortune to visit Moab again a few weeks ago, and did lots of hiking with my son.  One of the hikes we took was to Fisher Towers, along the Colorado River north of Moab and Arches National Park.

The Titan, a 900 foot high tower, and the largest in the group.  To get to the place I shot the photo is about a 2 mile hike one way.

The Fisher Towers area lies along the Colorado Riverway, or Utah Scenic Byway 128.  To get to the trailhead you drive on a dirt road about 2 miles.  Then the trail itself winds along the base of the rock towers, up and down ladders, rock trails, and open slickrock trails.  We saw a total of 6 people on this trail, including two nice folks who took our picture at "Trail Ends".

Trail Ends here - we are standing on a little "rock island"
which you climb up onto to see the drop-off.

The colors of the rocks are very close to the colors in the pictures, and Moab is the ultimate "Red Rock" country.  Not much grows here, although along the Colorado River there are a few farming areas, a Ranch, and even a vineyard. 

Tiny Aspen tree growing at the base of a large rock outcropping

Desolate growing conditions for sure!

Colorado River Scenic Byway, near Fisher Towers

The trail back includes walking at the base of the towers, on this little trail.  It is about 2 1/2 feet wide, and then drops down again.  It is hard to see here, can you pick it out? 

Trail is along the cliff, walking for about 1/4 mile

On our way back to the car, we saw several climbers on the Tower.  There are 3 of them, traversing the side.

The climbers are in the left third of the picture, do you see them?

If you ever get a chance to visit Moab, Canyonlands, and the Red Rocks Area, don't miss this hike, as it is truly beautiful, peaceful, and majestic!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Fox, the Vole and the Garden

Red fox taking a snooze in the pine needles

What do foxes, voles and gardens have to do with each other? Well, foxes are great predators, and voles, moles, and mice love to eat plants, roots, and bulbs, so what if we let the foxes eat the the voles to help us in the gardens? I am lucky enough to live in an area that has lots of wildlife, including foxes, coyotes, deer, black bear, mountain lions and various small critters. We also have rabbits, mice, voles, and squirrels, none of which are welcome in my gardens.

This one is sleeping next to the window well - they are very much at home in our area, sometimes too much so. They drink out of the dog's water dish, and come up on the deck.

Voles love to eat the roots, plant stems and bulbs. They also love to reproduce, and are very prolific once they make their home in your yard. A single set of voles can create between 100 to 2000 voles per half-acre. That's an astounding number, and you wouldn't want to have it happen to you. I have seen client's yards that are covered with vole holes, vole runs, and ruined plants. Not a pleasant sight.

The foxes we have in our area are Red foxes or Vulpes vulpes, which live in most of North America, and are native to some of it, including the Rocky Mountains that I call home. Foxes are not the same as coyotes, and in general only prey on small animals such as mice, voles, moles, rabbits and such. They are omnivorous, and depending on their location feed mostly on insects, worms, mollusks, and crayfish. They are territorial in nature, and will mark their area frequently. Each year, there are new sets of baby foxes (kits) on our block. They come into the yard, and also have hunting lessons at night, when you can hear them calling to their mother, and her calls back to them. Sometimes they sound like people screaming, it is very eerie.

Short video of fox "kits" in the backyard, taken from second story window.

Creating a habitat in which the foxes are welcome is easy once you make the commitment to do so. Foxes need places to make dens and create hiding places, so don't clear cut your shrubbery or low thickets. Eliminate pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that could harm the foxes. Don't poison the mice, moles or voles, since the foxes will ingest the poison. I have caught voles in mousetraps, and then thrown the dead vole on the ground. Usually it is picked up by the fox within an hour or so. Foxes like to chase prey, so let them do their job. Unfortunately for those of you who have domesticated rabbits and chicken, they will chase and kill those also.

Leaving understory in part of your yard is a great way to attract many types of birds and wildlife, including foxes.

Finally, please don't feed foxes hard boiled eggs, dog food, or anything else to try to "attract" them. They have survived for 1ooo's of years using their natural predator instincts, and will frequent your yard and garden if you provide them the correct natural habitat.
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