If you’re reading this from New Mexico, the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge Grand Opening of Visitor Center and 10th Birthday is on Saturday, September 10th, about a month away. I hope you’ll join us!
I’ve dedicated more time to nocturnal critters this summer. It’s super rewarding to check the porch lights for moths and find a new one. So many cool insects hang out at night if you go and look.
There are plenty of diurnal critters too. Wasps (yes, wasps!) in all sizes and colors and a few new native bees for my yard list are among the highlights. It is lovely to sit outside with my camera, surrounded by nature. I enjoy watching bees collecting pollen, wasps hunting for a meal, and hummingbirds chasing each other.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
I am happy to introduce some fantastic flying critters, from popular to obscure. In my suburban Albuquerque yard, I have recorded over 120 species from tiny fairy bees (Perdita) to noisy, showy cicada killers. I hope you will go find some in your neighborhood. Take time to appreciate them and upload the pictures to iNaturalist.org, which is a fantastic community.