Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

7June22 Plants in the garden, and sharing plants from the neighbor’s garden

Most urban and suburban lots are small relative to the natural tracts of native habitat, so there are limits to what we can plant, both in size and variety.

And, it turns out, putting your yard into context with the nearest forage/host area is quite important because many insects are limited in how far they can travel for food and lodging. To some, a football field of length can push limits of mobility.

So if you are close enough to a natural area that you can leverage it’s resources, fantastic! Add one or two specimens of various native plants can still get you to critical mass if considered as shared resources with the natural area. Same goes for sharing other resources, like water and nesting habitat.

Similarly, you can view the plants and other resources in your neighbor’s yards as something to be shared by the pollinator web of animals.

The neighbor behind us has a large Sissoo tree (not a tree that I would recommend), and the birds love the height and cover it affords. Good thing, because our backyard is only 2 years old, and even our fast growing mesquite and palo verdes need a bit more time to become truly comfortable perches.

Other neighbors have citrus, hibiscus and Arizona Yellow Bells to share. Let’s look at how some of the plants in and around the garden are looking on this 109 degree day.

Desert Willow in our garden is loving the heat
Rush Milkweed in our yard is a great nectar source this time of year
Peacock Flower in our garden has come back from a cut-back in the spring
Hopbush is a great low water screening plant in our garden
The Brittlebush finished their late-winter and spring flowerings, providing much needed food
Firecracker Penstemon is still showing a will to flower, but has mostly gone to seed
Desert Marigold is in its second bloom period. Finches love the seeds
Peaking over the fence, a beautiful hibiscus (thanks neighbor)
Another shared resource, loved by hummingbirds, host to Painted Lady and Gray Hairstreak
Arizona Yellow Bells, another great nectar plant (thanks neighbor!)
And Sunflowers have turned out to be a great addition to the vegetable garden

I’ve found some interesting bees on the sunflowers, but no butterflies so far. On the non-pollinator side of things though, the sunflowers attract a wide array of insects from lace bugs, psyllids, long legged flies, assassin bugs and lady beetles! Oh, and birds eating the insects off of the leaves.

Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

7June22 Blood-colored Milkweed Bug, Tarantula Hawk Wasp, Queen Butterfly, Ceraunus Blue Butterfly, Great Horned Owl

The beauty of a pollinator garden is a two-edged wand:

  • The reward of knowing you are contributing to the health of the ecosystem that you inhabit
  • The treasure hunt of discovering the web of characters that visit your paradise

In the previous installments of this post I presented the blank slate layout of our garden along with the ideas that drove the implementation of the garden. In these next installments I’ll be sharing the visitors to the garden, and in the process also showing the plants and structures that define the spaces.

Blood-colored Milkweed Bug on Desert Milkweed

There have been discussions about whether milkweed bugs are a friend or foe in the garden, but personally I haven’t found them to cause significant harm and I consider them part of the self-balancing ecosystem of the garden.

Although it may appear that your garden has only one or two varieties of milkweed bugs, closer observation is likely to reveal more diversity. Our garden also has Large Milkweed Bugs, Water Small Milkweed Bugs and Southern Small Milkweed bugs.

New World Tarantula-hawk Wasps on Desert Milkweed

These wasps can be quite intimidating, flying like military helicopters in the garden, but they take little interest in humans. They do seem to love the Desert Milkweeds (Asclepius subulata) and Desert Willows. As the name implies, these wasps hunt tarantulas, and there must be a lot of tarantulas around because the garden is currently a-buzz with these wasps. I love tarantulas, so I’m keeping the faith that eco-balance is holding steady.

Queen on Desert Milkweed

So if there is any doubt about the versatility of milkweeds in the garden, it should be apparent at this point that they serve as more than host plants for Monarch and Queen butterflies.

Queens are aptly named, so regal and beautiful! Last year I “rescued” a caterpillar right before a cold snap and raised it indoors: The Making of a Queen.

Ceraunus Blue on Baja Fairyduster

Blues are tiny wonders in the garden, and you need to be up close to appreciate their beauty and differences. The top side of the wings are blue for males, but females vary from blue to silvery-blue to brown. Host plants for the Ceraunus Blue include legumes like Mesquites and Acacias.

Great Horned Owl in a Sissoo Tree

Also known as the “tiger of the air” this owl primarily hunts rabbits and hares, rats and mice, and voles. One look at those talons and it’s clear this is a very capable predator, and it will hunt whatever it can overtake.

I was very excited to see this owl swoop into the tree during daylight hours, and even more fortunate to have camera at hand. Local nesting birds were pestering the owl, trying to protect their nests I would guess, but the owl was unflappable and stayed in the same spot for hours.

What are those white “eggs” all over my Cascalote?

Also described a “salt deposits” or “sugary specs” and followed by yellowing leaves, black mold spots and defoliation. What’s going on?

Freysuila dugesii (Jumping Plant Lice)
Generally host-specific, and appearing in late spring

Sometimes called jumping plant lice, psyllid feed on a variety of plants. Both adults and nymphs feed by piercing the leaf surface to extract cell sap, and excrete “honeydew”, a sweet sticky residue that may attract ants or mold. When I first saw these white deposits, they appeared to be insect eggs, but others have described them as a crystal-like sugar deposit.

You may be familiar with the term honeydew as related to aphid infestations, a sweet excretion loved by ants. In fact, it’s believed that ants protect and cultivate aphids in order to harvest the honeydew. Psyllids are part of a group called Sternorrhyncha that includes aphids, scale insects and whiteflies.

Leafhopper Assassin Bug feeding on Mesquite Psyllid

Controlling Psyllids

Although a psyllid infestation is rarely lethal for the tree, it obviously takes its toll in the form of leaf loss, virus infections and, well, reduced garden aesthetics. Here are some measures you can take to control the infestation:

  • Spray the leaves daily with water to knock off honeydew and psyllids. If performed diligently this can minimize the infestation, but psyllids can fly away and come back.
  • Spray the complete tree with Neem oil. Psyllids hide in between branches and nymphs like the back side of leaves, so complete coverage is best. Neem oil is practically non-toxic to birds, mammals, bees and plants. Neem oil is slightly toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. Azadirachtin, a component of neem oil, is moderately toxic to fish and other aquatic animals. It is important to remember that insects must eat the treated plant to be killed. Therefore, bees and other pollinators are not likely to be harmed.
  • Biologic control with parasites and predators. Important natural enemies of psyllids include lady beetleslacewing larvae, predaceous bugs, Leafhopper Assassin bugs, and tiny parasitic wasps.

For more information:

Pollinator Web: Arizona Bark Scorpion

Observing the cast of characters that comprise the pollinator web ecosystem in the low desert in Phoenix Arizona.

Although this scorpion does not seek to attack humans, it will sting if threatened, especially if its young are threatened. The bark scorpion is able to climb vertical surfaces that are sufficiently rough, and can enter a dwelling through cracks as small as 1/16″. They are nocturnal and can be found under rocks, wood piles or bark, as well as on rock walls or in trees.

Arizona Bark Scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus)

The Arizona bark scorpion is the most venomous species in North America; potent enough to cause severe symptoms, such as severe pain, numbness and vomiting in adults.

But of course, the Arizona bark scorpion plays a critical role in the ecosystem, as both predator and prey. They consume beetles, spiders, crickets, cockroaches, other insects and other scorpions. And they are a food source for pallid bats, birds (especially owls), reptiles, spiders, snakes, peccaries, rodents and other scorpions.

The pollinator web ecosystem is well balanced, and even characters that we may find scary have their place.

For more information:

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.