Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

Design: TJ’s framework drawing for pool and landscape. This is the third post in this series. You can read the first post here.

Bucking the trend of right angle, manicured modern design, we decided to go with organic shapes to soften the landscape and align with the natural shape of the plants. Have we waited long enough for this to come back into vogue? That has yet to be seen, but, of course, it’s a moot point since we’re designing the yard for ourselves (and then, ultimately, pollinators too!)

It’s worth noting that every pool designer was only offering rectilinear pool designs. In fact, our pool builder said he had not built a freeform pool in about a decade. Fortunately for us, TJ is a true landscape artist and provided a framework that we loved.

Landscape Framework (tjfitzloff@gmail.com)

On the left side of the drawing is the North Side yard. As previously mentioned, this area was defined as a xeriscape with walkways, with a strong need for privacy in the east corner, and a requirement for water retention and control for roof runoff.

On the right side is the South Side yard, which was defined with oasis elements around the pool, a strong need for privacy at the south wall, and a requirement for water retention and control for roof runoff.

I added drip irrigation infrastructure in four zones:

  • South side yard
  • North side yard
  • North side along the house
  • Cacti and succulents

The final implementation of this plan varied from the foundation drawing, as is often the case with the best laid plans. Considerations affecting change included:

  • A 3 year plan for privacy, which required choosing faster growing plants at a higher density than shown in the drawing
  • Plant availability – I don’t have a landscape license so couldn’t buy wholesale, but did almost all of the purchasing and planting. Some plants called out in the drawing were not practical to procure and plant given the desired size or function.
  • Cost, of course. As anyone who has planned and completed large projects is likely aware, you can cost, labor and time, but not all three at once.

Coming up next: Planting, Phase 1

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Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

Design: North Side Yard

Welcome back! This is the second installment in this series – in the previous post I presented the history of the project and the design considerations for the South Side Yard – you can view that post here.

The side yard on the north side of the house has two separate microclimates. The area near the house gets sun in the summer, including late afternoon sun, but during the late fall until early spring, no sun hits the landscape because it’s shaded by the house. Selecting plants for this area can be a challenge, but with some judicious selections the summer sun can be moderated. This area will also be responsible for retaining and controlling water runoff from the roof.

Towards the block fence the sun exposure is more consistent, especially for taller shrubs and trees. The goal here is to have a xeriscape and walkways, similar in design to a botanical garden.

Northwest Side Yard

On the west end of the side yard there is a mild need for privacy screening, but a much stronger need for shade since the late afternoon summer sun comes blazing over the front gate. You can almost feel the heat radiating from the dirt in this early afternoon picture. So we’ll be using trees and shrubs to create some microclimates for plants and people.

Northeast Side Yard

The east end of the side yard has two large 2-story homes, both with second story balconies, so privacy is a big consideration. Screening will be accomplished with trees and shrubs.

Coming up:


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Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

Blank Slate

Landscaping a bare earth tract home backyard into a taste of paradise, then evolving it to support pollinators and the web of characters that support an ecosystem. This is the first of a series of posts to share the story of discovery and a labor of love.

It’s 2019, and after 9 months of searching for a resale home, we ended up purchasing a new tract home further out than we wanted, but availability and price aligned to a relative sweet spot, and we made the leap.

(A View from the Rearview Mirror: A great bit of luck, that leap. Who knew a pandemic was on the horizon, and home prices would begin to see upward price pressure that was unimaginable. In fact, when the pandemic first hit, the developer began discounting homes due to lack of demand.)

We had just moved to Phoenix from the midwest and I had taken some landscape classes at the Desert Botanical Garden to learn about plant selection, irrigation and water conservation, so this project would put the newfound knowledge to good use.

I wasn’t, however, yet aware of the importance of native plants to support pollinators in the yard. So the foundational landscape that we designed and planted was focused on a botanical garden style xeriscape with oasis elements. Tuning the landscape for pollinators came later, after the pandemic hit and I became involved with the MetroPhoenix EcoFlora iNaturalist project (more on that later) and the Maricopa Native Seed Library.

South Side Yard Design

South Side Yard (A/C wall of house faces 191 degrees South)

A blank slate can be daunting, as shown above in our initial “scorched earth” yard. This side yard faces slightly off from 180 degrees south, so it gets lots of winter sun. Because of the way the sun travels, however, it also gets late afternoon summer sun, which is the hardest on plants.

A two story home with a second story balcony, and a next door home that’s close to the fence, guided us to design for privacy along the fence line. Another design element would be a pool to make the summers more enjoyable and to add an oasis in the desert aesthetic. We also wanted walking paths to give the yard a botanical garden feel.

And of course, water conservation is a necessary and practical aspect of the design. To efficiently deliver water to the plants I decided to use multiple zones of drip irrigation, and since rain water (hopefully the monsoons will return in 2022!) is the best hydrator for plants, the design will incorporate swales to retain water shed from the roof, which drains along the wall with the A/C unit.

Coming up:


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The Lifecycle of Butterflies

A comparative look at a few southwest species

It’s early May in Phoenix and we’re starting to see lots of blues, and more and more Monarchs, Queens, Yellows, Whites and Skippers. But in my yard there has been an interesting lag the past couple of years – I’ll observe an early generation of butterflies in March/early April, then for a few weeks hardly any butterflies.

Is this cycle unique to my yard, or perhaps it’s related to the natural lifecycle of our butterflies? An early generation becomes active (or migrate in) in March, mate and lay eggs, then a few weeks later the next generation begin to show up in the yard. Let’s look at the lifecycles of some of our butterflies.

Gulf Fritillary

We had a mild winter this year and I’ve seen Gulf Fritillary caterpillars on the passion vine without stop. They are cold blooded though, so cold temps will slow down their metabolism.

Lifecycle: Egg to Adult in 4 – 5 Weeks
Egg stage – 4 to 8 days
Caterpillar – 2 to 3 weeks
Chrysalis – 5 to 10 days
Butterfly – 2 to 4 weeks

Monarch

The Monarchs develop from egg to adult in about 4 weeks:

  • Eggs hatch in about 4 days. Females lay one egg on a plant; in their lifetime they will lay 100-300 eggs.
  • Caterpillars go through five instars in about 14 days. When they first hatch, caterpillars eat the egg shell for nourishment. Similarly, they eat shed skin after every molt.
  • Chrysalis stage is about 14 days

The overwintering generation lives about eight months due to a biologic change that stops reproductive behavior during their migration south. The summer generations of the butterfly live only three to five weeks.

Great Purple Hairstreak

Great Purple Hairstreak

Lifecycle: Egg to adult in 5 – 8 weeks

  • Egg – 4 to 6 days
  • Caterpillar – 3 to 4 weeks 
  • Chrysalis – 10 to 20 days
  • Adult – 4 to 10 days

Painted Lady

Lifecycle: Egg to adult in 4 – 8 weeks

  • Egg – 4 to 14 days
  • Caterpillar – 2 to 4 weeks
  • Chrysalis – 7 to 14 days
  • Adult – 6 to 20 days

Milkweed Bugs: Friend or Foe?

What are those reddish-orange and black bugs crawling all over your milkweed, and are they harmful? Like many elements in an ecosystem, the answer fits into the gray zone.

Large Milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) and Small Milkweed bugs (Lygaeus kalmia) love your milkweeds as much as the Monarch and Queen butterflies, and they exist together as part of the natural ecosystem. Although their common names are similar, large and small milkweed bugs differ in more than size.

Large milkweed bugs (LMBs) are herbivorous – they feed on the leaves, stems, and seeds of milkweed using their long proboscis. In general this is not harmful to the milkweed plant, although if there is a large population boom, LMBs can stress the plant and cause misshapen seeds and lower seed production.

Large Milkweed Bug: note the black band across the wings and red face mask

Small Milkweed bugs (SMBs) are mostly herbivorous, but can occasionally be scavengers. These insects have been reported feeding on a wide variety of other insects, such as honey bees, monarch caterpillars and pupae, and dogbane beetles. While it may be disappointing to see monarch eggs, larvae or pupae preyed upon, this is all part of a vibrant milkweed ecosystem, and this predatory behavior is likely most common when their preferred food source is scarce.

Small Milkweed Bug: note the reddish-orange pattern forms an “X”

Milkweed bugs protect themselves by ingesting, then storing, cardiac glycosides from the milkweed, and as a result don’t have an issue with natural predators. The reddish-orange coloration is a warning to predators to stay away.

So should you be concerned about milkweed bugs in your garden? In general, no, they are part of the balanced ecosystem. However, if there is a large population boom, you may elect to reduce feeding pressure by culling some of the bugs, although this is a contentious subject 😉

Resources:

On Farming Metal From Plants and Intelligence Beyond Humans

Basking in our industrial and technological successes, humans have proudly flaunted their superiority over the natural world. But now the true cost of that hubris is coming to light – is it too late?

The answer will likely only make itself available in hindsight, but it’s not too late to learn.

In James Bridle’s Guardian article we a glimpse through the clouds at natural intelligence that has surrounded us, unnoticed until relatively recently. Read the story here.

There is so much intelligence on this planet other than ours. Realising that will be key to adapting to climate breakdown.

If we can farm metal from plants, what else can we learn from life on Earth? James Bridle

And how a slime mold, which is a creature somewhere between fungi and amoebae, can solve the “traveling salesman” problem faster than any supercomputer. The problem at hand: A salesman must visit n cities, going to each city only once, and then return to their starting point — what is the shortest possible route that they can take? Read the Science News article here.

And how cows, sheep and dogs appear to anticipate earthquakes better than any sensor or algorithm. Read the Scientific American article here.

And the octopus, whose distributed nervous system illustrates a different way of thinking. Read the Scientific American Mind article here.

Or how about spiders offloading cognitive tasks to their webs? Read the Quanta Magazine article here.

And not to leave out our often overlooked neighbors, how plants talk to each other through their roots. Read the Guardian article here.

The Ladies and a Gentleman

Painted Lady, American Lady, West Coast Lady and Red Admiral Butterflies

Brush-footed butterflies belonging to the genus Vanessa, the name of the genus may have been taken from the character Vanessa in Jonathan Swift’s poem “Cadenus and Vanessa,” which is the source of the woman’s name Vanessa. In the poem Vanessa is called a “nymph” eleven times, and the genus is closely related to the previously-named genus Nymphalis (Wikipedia).

Painted Lady

The Painted Lady, Vanessa cardul, is the most widespread of all butterfly species, and, like the Monarch, has an amazing migratory story to tell.

Distinguishing features include 4-5 submarginal spots on the underside of the wing, and a white outline at the outer edges of the top of the wing near the white spots.

Larval host plants include Arizona Thistle, Desert Cotton, Globemallows, Western Betony, Mexican Sunflower Bush, Yarrow and Western Mugwort. Adults feed on nectar.

Males perch on shrubs or hilltops and patrol for females. Females are generally larger than males.

Females lay eggs singly on the top of host plant leaves. Caterpillars are solitary, living and feeding in a nest of leaves tied with silk. Adults hibernate in mild winters.

West Coast Lady

The West Coast Lady, Vanessa annabella, are the least ranging of the Vanessa species in the continental U.S. In fact, it’s typically limited to the Western part of the country.

Distinguishing features include an orange patch at the top outer edge of the wing on the top side and 4-5 submarginal spots on the underside.

Larval host plants include Globemallows, Hollyhocks and other plants in the mallow family. Adults feed on nectar.

Males perch to watch for receptive females. Females lay eggs singly on upperside of host plant leaves; caterpillars eat leaves and live in a silken nest. Adults hibernate.

American Lady

The American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis, reside in the Southern United States and temporarily colonize the northern states.

Distinguishing features include two large eye spots on the underside of the wing, and a white spot in the orange field on the topside of the wing.

Larval host plants include Globemallows, Western Mugwort, Sonoran Everlasting and Groundsel. Adults feed on nectar.

In the afternoon, males perch on hilltops or vegetation to patrol for females.

Females lay eggs singly on the top of host plant leaves. Caterpillars are solitary, living and feeding in a nest of leaves tied with silk. Adults hibernate.

photo by justmarys on iNaturalist

Red Admiral

The Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, is wide ranging from Mexico up to Canada, but cannot survive cold winters so most of the northern U.S. is recolonized each spring by southern migrants.

Markings are quite easy to distinguish from the Ladies. Red admirals are territorial; females will only mate with males that hold territory. 

photo by burkardleitner on iNaturalist

Larval host plants include New Mexico Hops and plants in the nettles family.

The Red Admiral has a very erratic, rapid flight. Males perch, on ridgetops if available, in the afternoon to wait for females, who lay eggs singly on the tops of host plant leaves. Young caterpillars eat and live within a shelter of folded leaves; older caterpillars make a nest of leaves tied together with silk. Adults hibernate.

Resources

The Gulf Fritillary Butterfly

The Gulf fritillary or passion butterfly (Agraulis vanillae/Dione vanillae) is a bright orange butterfly in the subfamily Heliconiinae of the family Nymphalidae.

Females are generally larger and have more brown in their markings. Gulf fritillaries have a chemical defense mechanism in which they release odorous chemicals in response to predator sightings. As a result, common predators learn to avoid this species.

Gulf Fritillaries have several broods in spring and summer, and can survive winter temperatures as low as 21 degrees F. Adults overwinter.

Favorite nectar plants include Lantana, Butterfly Bush, Zinnia, Aster and Thistle.

Yellow eggs are laid singly on or near some species of Passion Vines like Maypops (Passiflora incarnata), Passiflora lutea and Passiflora affinis. Eggs gradually turn a brownish-red color.

Left: A Gulf Fritillary nectaring on Lantana

Suitable host plant species provide a good structure for larval host habitats which enables young populations of gulf fritillaries to be sufficiently nurtured and protected.

The driving factor behind what causes the female to oviposit on or near the host plant is most likely due to the certain chemical composition of the specific genus of the host plant. Once the female recognizes the chemical composition (by using the antennae), the female will oviposit.

Larvae may feed on all parts of the plant and can rapidly defoliate host vines.

Right: Caterpillar on Bluecrown Passionflower (Passiflora caerulea)

Gulf Fritillary and chrysalis

When the caterpillar is ready to create a chrysalis, it turns a grayish color and begins to spin a silk-like ball that it uses to attach to a surface.

The pupa is mottled brown and resembles a dead leaf.

Lifecycle:
Egg stage – 4 to 8 days
Caterpillar – 2 to 3 weeks
Chrysalis – 5 to 10 days
Butterfly – 2 to 4 weeks

Resources:

Butterflies at Home

University of Florida

Wikipedia

ButterfliesAndMoths.org

Monarchs Are on Their Way

Monarchs leave their Mexican roosts in the second week of March

For those of us in the South, Monarchs are already creating the 1st generation of the year, moving north from Mexico and laying eggs on milkweed plants. These Monarchs have had an incredible journey in their migration south in the fall, and now they work to create the generation that will recolonize the southern United States.

The Monarchs develop from egg to adult in about 30 days:

  • Eggs hatch in about 4 days. Females lay one egg on a plant; in their lifetime they will lay 100-300 eggs.
  • Caterpillars go through five instars in about 14 days. When they first hatch, caterpillars eat the egg shell for nourishment. Similarly, they eat shed skin after every molt.
  • Chrysalis stage is about 14 days

The overwintering generation lives about eight months due to a biologic change that stops reproductive behavior during their migration south. The summer generations of the butterfly live only three to five weeks.

Resources

Monarchwatch Migration and Tagging

Monarchwatch Biology

Great Purple Hairstreak

Family Lycaenida, Gossamer Wing Butterflies – Jewels of the Insect World

Also known as the Great Blue Hairstreak, Atlides halesus is one of the largest gossamer wing butterflies, but it’s solitary and uncommon. The caterpillars feed on mistletoes (Phoradendron spp.) and there are several broods during the year.

The best time to view the Great Purple Hairstreak is whenever Desert Broom or Seep Willow are in bloom, although I just observed on in the backyard enjoying the nectar of Desert Marigold:

Female nectaring on Desert Marigold in March
Male Great Purple Hairstreak (iridescent blue streak on the underside of the front wing)

Lifecycle

  • Egg – 4 to 6 days
  • Caterpillar – 3 to 4 weeks
  • Chrysalis – 10 to 20 days
  • Adult – 4 to 10 days

Caterpillars are unremarkable in color (mostly match the mistletoe host) and about 1″ long. The species gains protective toxins from their larval host plants that stay in their system into adulthood. Adult butterflies have their orange and black colorings to signal the protective toxins and even have a behavior of rubbing their wings together. This draws attention to the markings on their back wings that serve as a “false head.”

The larvae pupate in well-protected areas close to the base of the tree, under pieces of bark or fallen leaves.

In the spring, male butterflies compete for the right to occupy the highest point in a territory in order to attract a female.

Resources:

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Butterflies

Butterflies at Home

Wikepedia

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Arizonensis

University of Florida: Featured Critters