How time flies. The fresh new breezes of spring were beginning to blow — three whole months ago — when I painted the shed door green and started the herbaceous phase (as opposed to the woody phase, which has proceeded via occasional tree plantings over the last decade) of the TBRP. It has been a delight, usually, and an education always, following its evolution. I have been meaning to file a progress report for some time. For now I will focus on one component, the “butterfly patch”:
The experiment has proven to be a microcosm of the workings of ecosystems generally, revealing clear evidence of both bottom-up and top-down control. For the uninitiated, this is the geekish ecological jargon for control of the biological community’s health and composition by resources (such as water and light — nourishing plants at the bottom of the food chain) versus feeding by animals (influence cascading from the top of the food chain), respectively.
Everybody knows about bottom-up control, particularly if you live in a place where you get the sort of beastly hot summers, with associated dry spells, that we do here. The may apples couldn’t hack it (despite growing wild in the woods not far away from here — go figure), nor the little native orchid I planted. Alas.
Then, a few weeks after getting the plants in the ground, after carefully nurturing my little charges and watching them grow, pulling the grasses and red maple seedlings threatening to choke them, coming out every day like a proud papa to encourage them and check their progress, one day I walked out into the fresh morning air to find a scene of devastation — thriving plants reduced to shorn stems, leaves gone, broken stems hanging forlornly. Top-down control, slinking in stealthily in the dead of night. I’m guessing groundhogs (or whistle pigs as we like to call them), which are quite common around here, and we see them regularly snuffling around in the yard. I used to think they were cute.
It was a rude awakening. But what’s to be done? It’s supposed to be natural. And, happily, closer inspection revealed that several of the plants were untouched, where others had been more or less devoured. So I decided to let the critters participate in the project, eat what they want, and to allow the natural succession to take its course, with those plants that are defended in some way allowed to prosper. The blue aster I’d bought at the native plant sale got hammered repeatedly, and never bloomed (although now, in early August, it’s looking like the forlorn stems have rallied yet again and may just flower for the first time if they can escape the villains’ attention for another week). On the other hand, the black-eyed Susans, of at least three varieties, have fared very well, as have several attractive little wildflowers that came up from the packs of (mostly, as I discovered to my annoyance after planting them, non-native) wildflower seeds the NASA people were giving away at Earthfest.
The Joe-Pye weed I got from the native plant sale also got stripped and its prospects looked grim. But it came back with a vengeance and is now thriving, with big clusters of dusty rose-colored flowers. The wild quinine (that’s the one with white flowers on right side of the photo above left) has also pulled through and proved its mettle, flowering abundantly.
These latter two plants especially have proven to be an amazing draw for a wide variety of insects. And that is the really cool thing about this little project — what an unexpectedly rich font of biophilia it’s blossomed into, if you’ll pardon the pun. This tiny patch of wildflowers, maybe a square yard, is astonishingly rich in life. Almost every day we see insects we’ve never before noticed on the property (partly, no doubt, because I am paying a lot more attention to them). The plot is swarming with small, native bees of at least four species, one with a metallic green body (see photo at right, from here). Beautiful little ermine moths sucking at the tiny flowers. Big zebra swallowtails, tiger swallowtails, one of the dark swallowtails, and several other butterlies and skippers fluttering about the flowers. In the last few days we’ve had several buckeyes (a species I’ve just now identified — see photo below by Bill D) fluttering around the Joe-Pye weed all day, right outside the window. A juvenile preying mantis guarding the same station faithfully day by day. Even our resident hummingbirds have sampled the butterfly bush a few times. This is way better than going to the zoo. It sure beats the same old crap on television, it’s probably as good for your karma as meditation, it’s free, and it’s interactive!
The cool thing is: almost anyone could do this. The plot literally takes up a square yard — though now that the experiment has proven successful I am keen on extending it, making this the first step in the gradual conversion of our relatively sterile suburban lawn to low-maintenance, environmentally friendly, biodiverse, wild and woolly pseudo-prairie. Anyway, all you need is a bit of dirt, some native plants, and literally a few minutes a day. I installed a 50-gallon rainbarrel under our downspout and have not used the hose for
gardening ecological engineering since.
Finally, based on the admittedly minimal sample size of one, I can also report that the patch has caught the attention of local kids (OK, kid singular). He has developed a tolerance for my stopping to crouch down and see what’s going on in the patch every time we walk by. He even joins in occasionally (“Look Dad – one of those green bees!”). Then, of course, it’s back to the baseball statistics . . .