At Mariposa, we have a particular way of working with plants that is geared toward understanding and honoring the nature of each species. It can take a long time to learn each plant, but a few tips on ways to “listen to plants” can help all gardeners become more skilled in the art of pruning. When we say “listen” what we mean is to observe them and the way they grow closely. This practice means you don’t necessarily have to read a book on how to prune each plant (though that is also very helpful and highly recommended--especially for fruit); instead, you can find patterns in the way certain plants grow that can be applied to a number of species.
There are some general rules of pruning, however, and this post covers the basics that you can use to get started on pruning most of the trees, shrubs and perennials in your garden.
The Rules of Pruning
To prune properly, when you cut a plant’s branches or stems, always cut a little bit above a growth node, where the bark tends to get squishy or shows a bit of a ring. Just above that bark change is where the cells on the bark can generate a healthy cover to the wound. Growth nodes are the points on the stem where buds, leaves and branching twigs originate. They usually look like little brown, green or reddish nubs just poking out from the stem. Cuts should be made at a 45 degree angle and angled away from the node or bud, so that water can shed away from the plant. The drawings below show you how to cut depending on whether the plant has buds that alternate on the stem, or are opposite to each other.
The first rule of pruning is to look for the 3Ds: dead, diseased or damaged. Depending on the health of the tree or shrub to be pruned, this work can range from a small amount of clean up, to taking out a lot of material, especially if the tree or shrub has been improperly pruned in the past. If you have a tree or shrub that is congested with dead growth, that may be your main pruning task.
If your tree or shrub has minimal 3Ds, you can move onto the next phase, keeping in mind the second rule of pruning: Never take off more than ⅓ of the tree or shrub. If you take off more you can damage or even kill your plant.
Once you have taken control of the 3D’s, and you have some live plant left to work with, you can start removing crossing branches. This is particularly important for fruiting varieties, roses, and other trees and shrubs that need good air circulation. You want to focus on the branches that cross, especially in the middle of the plant, because they can invite pest and disease issues in the spot where the branches touch. This spot tends to decay, as if it is damaged or dead, which opens up an environment for pests and disease to move in.
If you have a lot of crossing branches in the middle of your plant, you will need to take the branches down to the Point of Origin (or the POO). Sometimes, the POO is at the base; sometimes the branch comes into the trunk or a to a main branch, stemming from the base. Either way, taking branches back to the POO discourages the build up of more branching in the middle of the tree or shrub, which is how plants get congested and how extreme dieback occurs.
If all of the 3D’s are taken care of, and there are no crossing branches, it’s time to start shaping. This is a more complicated aspect of pruning, and requires some experience in the cause and effect of cuts. A typical shaping issue involves a branch or branches sticking out into an entrance or a walkway. Our instinct is to cut the overreaching branch back to where we want it to be. However, said branch is likely to sprout several other branches on the nodes directly below the cut, creating an even more congested feel once those branches start to mature. Again, the POO is the rule. Taking the branch that is overreaching back down to its POO eliminates the threat of branches emerging from the lower nodes. It also gives the tree or shrub an opportunity to put more energy into branches that are growing at a more desirable height. So, when shaping, consider the entire branch, and the effect the cut will have on the future growth of the plant. Every cut has a consequence.
Basic botany: how pruning works to stimulate plant growth
Just like most living organisms, plants have hormones that determine their growth patterns. We can control how a plant grows by understanding how to stimulate plant hormones with careful pruning.
Cutting back lower branches or stems stimulates the hormones that control the upward growth and the height of the plant. If you want a plant to grow taller, or to produce more main stems from the base, remove the lower branches or branches at the base and the remaining stems or branches will grow taller, rather than bushier.
If you want a plant to grow in fuller, use tip pruning, which means cut back the tips of branches or stems. Tip pruning stimulates growth on the nodes that are just below the cut. Some plants will grow heavily in the 2-3 nodes below the cut, some plants will show stimulation down the whole branch. Either way, a tip prune promotes bushy growth.
Where you cut will be determined by where you want the growth to be concentrated. For example, if you have a “lopsided” tree or shrub with uneven bushiness on one side, you might be tempted to cut back the full side, in order to give the thin side a growth advantage. However, a hard prune like that on the bushier side is only going to promote more branching and more growth. In this case, we need to take a very counter-intuitive approach and do a harder prune on the thin side, knowing that each cut will increase the branching below the cut. The heavy side may get a few select cuts on branches that are large, or on branches that are smaller but grow too close or in the wrong direction. These cuts are taken back to the POO so they won’t create side shoots.
Pruning fruit trees
At this time of year, we focus on pruning fruit trees. Fruiting trees can also be summer pruned, but the most popular time of year for pruning fruit trees is winter, before the buds break. Here in the Bay Area, because of our wet rainy winters, we like to wait to prune until as late in the season as possible (the exact timing depends on the fruit). Rain and moisture on a fresh cut can increase the possibility of fungal diseases. That said, waiting too long, after the buds have begun to break can also be hard on fruit trees.
The important thing to know, when pruning fruit trees, is whether they are tip bearing or spur bearing. Some trees produce their flower buds and fruit on the tips of branches, right at the end, instead of on fruiting spurs situated along the branch. Some fruit trees, such as apples, have both tip bearing and spur bearing varieties. Most fruit trees found in local nurseries are spur-bearing, as shown in the picture below, but it is important to be able to tell the difference, because the pruning techniques are quite different. Pruning a tip bearing tree in the wrong places will reduce its fruiting capacity.
In a spur bearing tree, cut the branch leaders by one quarter of the year’s growth, to an outward facing bud. In addition, prune strong lateral branches down to just 4-6 buds, to encourage fruiting spurs.
In tip bearing trees, cut the branch leaders by one quarter only, also to an outward facing bud. The remaining side shoots should stay unpruned, unless badly damaged, as they will bear the fruit for the coming year.
Now is the time
February is a great month to prune your trees and shrubs so they'll be ready to grow vigorously in the spring and summer months ahead. It's a good time to add organic amendments such as compost, mulch, and worm castings to the soil, too, to feed your garden's green inhabitants as they get ready for the latest cycle of growing, flowering, and creating fruit and seeds.
With the onset of global warming, weather patterns have become erratic. According to Time magazine, July of 2019 was one of the hottest on record across the globe. Here in the Bay Area, our past winter rainy season was wet and long, but it still did not pull our region completely out of the long drought we’ve experienced over the last decade. As a result, our annual fire season is becoming more extreme each year.
In spite of the rainfall we received last winter, in general the entire West Coast is experiencing longer, warmer dry seasons, with significantly less precipitation during the rainy season. While we need to be concerned about drought, we should also be concerned about heat, and about the drying out of the landscape. Low winter rainfall and high summer temperatures combine to lower the groundwater table and create dry conditions in the soil. Once soils become dry, they not only cannot provide water for plants, but they also cannot provide nutrients because microbial activity, which is what feeds the plants, is also dying or dead. Water is essential to build life and fertility in the soil.
During these years of drought, one of the primary targets of water use reduction efforts has been for our local municipalities to advocate for reducing or eliminating garden watering. Homeowners are being asked to conserve water by letting their lawns die out; “Brown is the New Green” has become a catchy but simplistic slogan used by said municipalities.
But green is the color of nature.
The Movement of Water
Green, growing things play a critical role in supporting the earth’s water cycle. Reducing water use by allowing our gardens to brown and dry out will only escalate our drought and escalating fire problems.
Transpiration, the release of water through plant leaves, stems, and flowers into the atmosphere, is crucial to the health of the planet. During transpiration, moisture condenses and contributes to the formation of clouds, which carry precipitation. Rain falls from the sky to the earth and this moisture keeps soils healthy and capable of supporting plant life. The water cycle needs to be able to repeat itself in order to keep our planet green and therefore cooler.
Without adequate plant cover, transpiration is reduced, in effect robbing the water cycle of potential moisture and leading to less rain. Less rain means less access to naturally clean water. In the absence of a thriving layer of plants, any water captured in the soil moves further down into the ground, where it may be stored for thousands of years but won’t be available to the plants and other living things above.
Not watering our gardens results in the loss of green plants. This reduction in lush green plant life contributes to the warming and drying of the planet. We can see the effect of this loss at a large scale in our forests in California, where long years of drought have contributed to deadly firestorms that feed on the build-up of dry plant matter and dying trees that go up like matches when a PG&E power line sparks.
The water cycle is an amazing recycling system. Water is cleaned and purified when it passes through plant roots and soil. Encouraging the natural water cycle in our gardens offers us a far more effective response to drought conditions than simply reducing water use and letting our lawns dry up.
Encouraging the Water Cycle in the Garden
With this in mind, responsible gardeners should look to nature as a guide when designing, building and maintaining landscapes and managing water. Growing and watering green plants in our gardens—especially in urban areas—helps to cool the environment and prevent our suburbs and cities from becoming “heat sinks” that only make the problem worse.
Harvesting rainwater and installing greywater (sometimes spelled graywater) systems are two excellent ways to keep our gardens green without using additional potable water. Directing water into swales or habitat depressions, using permeable surfaces, and collecting rain from rooftops are a few of the methods used to keep rainwater on site and make it available for plants. Contouring the land to capture water as well as switching from non-permeable surfaces, such as concrete, to surfaces like decorative gravel and soft-set stone pavers that absorb water, also help to accomplish this goal.
Greywater is water that has been used in your home for bathing or washing. Greywater is considered safe to use in the garden as long as it is handled properly. Rerouting water from washing machines, bathroom sinks, and showers into the landscape instead of the city sewer is good for the garden and lessens the load on the municipal system.
There are several innovative ways to capture and use greywater. Washing machine water is the most accessible, and routing it to your garden is a simple DIY project that most homeowners can do. Online resources and irrigation vendors, such as The Urban Farmer in the Bay Area, provide information and instructions. Many public utilities have developed rainwater and greywater harvesting guidelines for consumers. San Francisco’s water and sewer utility has published a comprehensive instruction manual that will guide you through the process of building a greywater system of your own; you’ll find a link to these and more in the resources at the end of this post.
There are many ways of designing a greywater system for your garden, and they vary in complexity. Applying water from your washing machine directly at the base of well-mulched fruit trees is the simplest way to do it. A more complex action is to filter greywater through a constructed wetland where soil and plant roots clean the water like they would in nature. At Mariposa, we call this a Living Fountain.
After plant roots and soil have cleaned the water, it’s routed into a drip irrigation system in your garden. The living fountain has the additional benefit of “bio-invigorating” water by removing soap, salts, and other chemicals and adding beneficial microbes that improve the health of your soil. Water from a Living Fountain builds life both above and below the soil, causing plants to become healthier and more resistant to pests, disease, and drought.
Living fountains increase the overall health of your garden by supporting a diverse plant palette in the garden, including those that thrive in wet conditions. In turn, plant diversity attracts a more varied array of beneficial insects and contributes to the development of a garden ecosystem that helps control pests and diseases.
These are just a few of the ways to rethink the way we source and use water in our gardens. As our climate continues to warm, I encourage all gardeners to learn more and to start using water recycling practices in the garden.
Yes, it’s time to reduce how much water we use - but it will never be time to contribute to the drying out of our planet. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. We hope it never happens to anyone, but as the danger of deadly wildfires increases, a healthy garden with green, well-watered plants provides a buffer zone helping slow or even stop fires from reaching your home. And by finding a way to collect and recycle water, we’re on the path to balancing the water cycle, one garden at a time.
If you want to learn more or start implementing some of these practices in your own garden, there are many non-profit agencies and for-profit businesses that are ready to help you, including Mariposa. As a bonus, many bay area county water districts offer incentives and rebates for implementing greywater systems in your garden.
Mariposa Gardening & Design Cooperative, Inc. is an award-winning design-build landscaping company with a strong commitment to creating beautiful, ecologically minded gardens. Founder Andrea Hurd and her team promote water conservation with their innovative approach to replicating natural systems.
The Urban Farmer Store has locations in San Francisco, Mill Valley, and Richmond Annex. Check out their online library of resources, including information on greywater and rainwater harvesting.
Greywater Action is a collaborative of educators who teach residents and tradespeople about affordable and simple household water systems that dramatically reduce water use and foster sustainable cultures of water. On a policy level, they work with water districts to develop codes and incentives for greywater, rainwater harvesting, and composting toilets.
EBMUD offers its East Bay customers information and support for being “watersmart” in the garden, including how to replace your lawn with plants that thrive in our climate, rainwater harvesting, firescaping, and more.
Valley Water in Santa Clara County offers a wealth of greywater resources including how-to videos, resources on finding equipment and installers, maintenance tips, soap and plant health, workshops, and more.
Access the Graywater Design Manual and other valuable information from San Francisco Water Power Sewer at www.sfwater.org, search: Graywater.
Secret Sources of Free Water
Do you want to know how you can protect the earth and your community at the same time? Become a steward of the land by planting an ecologically and biologically diverse habitat garden. While this may sound very complicated or technical, it can really be quite easy and even fun. The following steps will help you on your way.
Build life below the soil and above the soil
A garden thrives when we encourage biological diversity both above and below the ground. At Mariposa, we choose plants and combine them in a way that maximizes biological diversity in our garden. So too we feed the soil with compost and organic matter such as turned in cover crops and organic fertilizers including bone meal, feather meal, blood meal, worm castings and manure, to maximize biological diversity below the ground.
These additions break down because they are food to a myriad of microorganisms that live in the soil. The “digestion” of this material causes the microorganisms to release enzymes that feed plant roots. The greater the diversity of organic amendments, the greater the diversity of microbial activity. In turn the microbial diversity feeds the larger decomposers such as beetles and earthworms. With proper care, this environment helps the plants in your garden become healthier and more resistant to drought and pests. In other words, biologically diverse soil is the foundation for a resilient garden.
In addition to organic amendments, it is important to keep soil evenly moist. If your soil is dry it will need to be reconditioned to support life again. “Hydrophobic” soil actually repels water and can no longer absorb it, much like a dry sponge that repels a cup of water. It takes a lot of water to rescue soil from this condition. There are a few signs you can look for to know if you have hydrophobic soil:
Just like a sponge, soil can be reconditioned to absorb water. Healthy soil, with plenty of organic matter such as compost and a thriving microbial environment, will wick a drop of water evenly, rather than repelling it, as it falls. To encourage microbes, supplement your soil seasonally (3-4x per year) with organic amendments such as compost or manure, and monthly with fish emulsion or compost tea.
Building up a healthy ecosystem in your soil supports a healthy ecosystem in your garden.
More diversity means more resiliency
Ecologists consider the number of species in an ecosystem the best way to measure its health. The more different types of plant and animal species exist in an ecological system, the stronger and healthier it becomes. When a network of species develops together, they learn to depend on each other for survival. In a biodiverse system, there are many producers, consumers, and decomposers that all work together to mutually benefit the success of all species in the system. When species diversity starts to decline in an ecosystem, the system becomes unbalanced. That is when pests and diseases can come in and wreak havoc.
Human societies are not so different. In a community or a nation, when one individual or ideology dominates, others who are not part of the ruling group may suffer from oppression or lack of opportunity, or worse. When there’s a diversity of voices within any organization, the tendency for egalitarianism increases.
Similarly, the less diversity of plants in a garden, the more the chance a “bully” will take over. In an idealized version of the 1950’s suburban backyard, there might be a concrete patio, a large expanse of lawn, and possibly a border of shrubs along the fenceline with a few flowering perennials or annuals mixed in. This landscape is uniform and controlled. The atmosphere around the yard is neat, orderly and tight. But there’s no welcome or place for butterflies, songbirds or pollinators to flourish.
This clean and minimal landscape provides little food, water or shelter for pollinators, and does not allow for a diversity of species. What you see in this type of garden are yellowjackets, wasps, and other garden pests. These “bully” species are scavengers: they feed on the waste of humans, and can find shelter in human structures. They will also rob honeybee hives and will feed on other beneficial pollinator species.
By bringing in a diverse array of plants, in the right combinations, we can attract the desirable insects that prey on the “bullies” and keep their numbers under control. When the garden is opened up to a diversity of plant species growing together and mixed in a way that supports a diversity of insects, garden pests such as yellowjackets are not able to crowd out other species.
Create habitat for birds, butterflies, and pollinators by providing food, water and shelter.
Earlier this year we wrote two posts covering this topic. Follow the links to read about:
Adding Food for Pollinators to the Garden
Adding Shelter and Water for Pollinators to the Garden
If you follow these simple principles, you’ll have a healthy, thriving garden. Then you can enjoy watching the diversity of bird and insect species that visit your garden grow!
"The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration." – Claude Monet
For centuries, people have been designing gardens for residences and public spaces. As a result, the field of garden design offers us a wealth of styles and information to turn to, keeping gardeners busy learning how to create the perfect outdoor paradise.
Gardens give us pleasure, they calm our senses and they help us to slow down and relax. Gardens provide beauty and inspiration and can help heal the sick. Gardens provide sanctuary, solace and a peaceful place to return to our connection to the natural world. It is this final perspective, helping our clients find their connection to nature, that we embrace in our designs. In order to foster those connections, we are intimately focused on how nature works from both an ecological and an artistic perspective.
The beauty of nature can be felt and it can also be interpreted. Nature in and of itself can seem chaotic, but within the seeming-chaos lies a tremendous amount of mathematical order. Studying natural systems has allowed designers over the ages to discover certain mathematically-based patterns. Once the order within the chaos is understood, a whole world of design potential opens up. Playing with the idea that there is order within the chaos of a garden gives the gardens we design a sense of harmony. Within the spectrum between wild and tame lies the sweet spot in our designs. Mariposa’s gardens and our designs gain strength from observing the patterns of nature and then replicating those patterns in the garden during design and construction.
Some of the patterns we use in our designs include symmetries, fractals and spirals. Repeating these patterns when laying out hardscapes or placing plants is one of the ways we replicate natural systems in our designs.
Symmetries: There are several kinds of symmetry. In nature, bilateral and radial symmetry are common. Bilateral symmetry means an object has a left side and a right side that are mirror images of each other - most animals and insects demonstrate bilateral symmetry.
Radial symmetry, like the form of a daisy, is common in flowers even when the rest of the plant exhibits little or no symmetry.
Here’s an example of how we used radial symmetry in the design of a stone wall:
Fractals: A fractal, according to Merriam Webster, is “any of various extremely irregular curves or shapes for which any suitably chosen part is similar in shape to a given larger or smaller part when magnified or reduced to the same size.” If you look closely at the picture of romanesco broccoli below, you’ll notice that the same shapes and curves are repeated over and over in smaller and smaller sizes.
Fractals occur in many places in nature. They are essentially repeating patterns that course through an organism. For example, fern branching patterns start with the leaflet pattern as it goes down the stem. Then, the leaflet itself matches the pattern of the branching form.
Trees also repeat their branching pattern from the trunk out to the newest branches. The branches grow out from the trunk and then fan out in a similar pattern throughout the tree. Each tree has its own sort of fractal pattern.
One of the ways we use fractals in our designs is by repeating patterns within our stonework or in our patios. We also use repeats in our planting layouts. For example, we may repeat the same groupings of plants throughout a bed.
Spirals: A spiral is defined by Merriam Webster as “the path of a point in a plane moving around a central point while continuously receding from or approaching it.” Spirals are all around us: the center of a sunflower is a complex spiral, as are the plates of a pineapple. Vine tendrils spiral around the objects they cling to, helping the vine to climb. The DNA double-helix is a spiral; our Milky Way galaxy is a spiral; hurricanes, water going down a drain, nautilus shells, snail shells - even your fingerprints - all spirals.
This post by blogger Sam Woolfe offers a fascinating look at why spirals are so common in nature, and why they have been seen as a mystical and sacred form by so many civilizations over the centuries. Mr. Woolfe’s blog offers an introduction to “Fibonacci spirals,” which are logarithmic spirals based on the Fibonacci Sequence, and which adhere very closely to “the Golden Mean.”
The Golden Mean, also known as the Golden Ratio, is a mathematical concept that is expressed in nature’s patterns. It is another way we use the mathematical order found in nature to complement how we lay out our garden designs. Otherwise known as the Golden Ratio a+b is to a as a is to b. This mathematical ratio is found in the way that ferns unfurl, roses bloom, seashells form, petals are arranged on a flower, pineapples grow and on and on. The wave in the picture below demonstrates the Golden Mean proportions.
Examples of the Golden Mean are endless in nature, and mathematicians have given us the tools to understand natural proportions so that we may recreate them in our work. The ancients used this ratio when building some of the great works of architecture. Artists often use the ratio to create pleasing proportions in their art. In the garden, we can lay out hardscapes and other elements within the garden using the Golden Mean to great effect. At Mariposa, we design our lines in the landscape, the shape of planting beds, the proportion of planted area to hardscapes to this mathematical this proportion. Our “Seed” sculptures and fountains are designed using the Golden Ratio of 1:1.61. Our “Seeds” are often seen as “eggs” or “beehives” or various other forms seen in nature that follow this same proportion. Using the Golden Mean in design is a way of bringing order to the chaos.
The Golden Mean is closely associated with the Fibonacci Sequence. This sequence of numbers is useful when thinking of how to pattern stonework and other hardscapes. It can also be useful in plant layout. For example, when we want to add an element to a stone seed sculpture, we use the Fibonacci Sequence of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 to determine where to add the decorative element. In the sculpture shown below we created the pattern of light and dark layers using the Fibonacci Sequence.
Using rhythms and repeats in plant layout is a good way to engage the garden visitor. Laying out repeats with the sequence in mind is a way of creating order within the chaos that may not be consciously perceived, but is felt. It is the element that makes the garden sing. We use the sequence to determine how much space to leave between plantings too. If we have five very colorful red flowers that we want to incorporate into a garden area, we lay them out with the amount of space between each plant coordinating to the Fibonacci Sequence: two at 1 foot apart, the next at 2 feet apart, the next 3 feet apart, the next 5 feet apart, and so on. This spacing provides a rhythm that creates a feeling of order, even though it may look random. Because this mathematical sequence is seen all over nature, it is familiar, even when we are not consciously aware of it.
Next time you visit a public garden or landscaped parkland, whether the garden is formal or informal, spend some time observing how the design uses rhythm and pattern to bring order and beauty into the space. Or when you take a walk in a forest or on the beach and look for symmetry, fractals, and spirals. We think you’ll be amazed at what you see. If you try this exercise, please share what you find in the comments!
At Mariposa Gardening & Design Cooperative, our philosophy of garden design, creation, and maintenance is based on what we call the Mariposa Method. When we think of gardens at Mariposa, we think of dynamic ecological systems that encourage life on the planet, both above and below the soil. We take our design cues from nature, following her patterns, her rhythms and aesthetic and blending that with our human desire for order. This sweet spot, between the chaos of life and the order of the mind, is where our designs flourish and grow.
For example: all gardeners know that gardens need water to look good. However, the past several years of on again and off again drought in California have encouraged, even required, cutting back on the amount of water we use in our gardens. Many cities and counties have incentive-based programs to encourage homeowners to water less. Those of us in the landscaping field here are all too aware that we may soon be facing water restrictions. As a result, many gardeners are coming up with ways to cut back on watering. However, even in drought, we still need to irrigate our gardens. Gardens contribute to the cooling of the planet, and the transpiration of plants produces clouds. (A new study shows that “...lack of water vapor in the atmosphere has caused a global decline in plant growth over the past two decades, resulting in a 59 per cent decline in vegetated areas worldwide.”) In addition, more plants create cleaner air, and reduce the amount of toxic carbon in the air Plants that are the most beneficial to our environment because they provide food or shelter or both to our native pollinators, need water to survive. Limiting our plant choices, creating arid gardens, and taking away the elements that create life in the garden are not good ways to improve the health of the environment, or of ourselves.
Our approach is different. The key to building a really beautiful garden that conserves water, and does not require the addition of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides is in using an ecosystems approach to design. In other words, the Mariposa Method does not work with single-focus simplistic solutions such as using drought tolerant plants; instead we look at how we plant and what we plant with an eye toward creating a thriving garden ecosystem. We consider whether the plants we choose provide food or shelter for pollinators, and how they co-exist with other plants to increase the diversity of flora and fauna in your garden. The overall design and planting plan support the larger cycles and systems of nature - especially the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle.
When each element in a garden ecosystem is working with all the other elements, complex associations begin to form. The garden becomes healthier and more able to resist pest and disease problems. The soil teems with life and provides nutrients and healthy interconnections between plants and plant roots, so less water is needed to keep plants healthy and resilient to pests and diseases.
We focus on following the natural forms and rhythms of nature, designing with an eye toward creating both beauty and ecological diversity. This framework that allows us to bring together all of the separate factors that go into creating a garden and weave them together into a garden that will thrive in our area and provide habitat value to the birds, bees, and butterflies who live among us. That way, when the garden is finished and we are relaxing with our friends and family outside, we can feel more connected to the natural world around us.
Did you know that, with just a little effort and the right plant choice, you can be part of helping our Western Monarch (scientific name Danaus plexippus plexippus) and other butterfly species survive and even flourish, after years of population declines?
The Monarch is beloved because it’s big and showy (have you ever seen a eucalyptus grove full of monarch butterflies? If not, take a look at this video.
The news on western Monarch populations has been bad for a while. “Monarch Butterflies Drop Stuns Scientists” was the SF Chronicle front-page headline on January 17, 2019. The story covers the results of the winter 2018 monarch count in 213 forested groves in California this last winter. The results are alarming: the count showed an 86% drop from a year ago, a 99.4% drop since the 1980s, and “...an all-time low for the Pacific Coast, where an estimated 10 million monarchs once blanketed trees from Marin County to the Baja California peninsula…”.
Eastern Monarchs overwinter in Mexico and migrate north through the eastern United States. They had a much better year. The number of Monarchs that overwintered in Mexico was more than twice as large as the prior year. Something to celebrate, certainly, but the long-term trend is not as rosy. The total population is still only about ⅓ of what it was two decades ago.
It's not just Monarchs that are threatened; many other butterfly species have seen steep population declines or even gone extinct in the recent past. Dr. Arthur Shapiro, Professor of Evolution and Ecology at UC Davis, is one of the world’s leading butterfly experts. He’s been monitoring butterfly populations in California since 1972. In this interview, he notes that what is happening to Monarchs is also happening to many species in our state, due to the “...large loss of habitat and habitat connectivity, and the [landscape] is increasingly becoming more butterfly-sterile.”
Among the Lepidoptera species that have seen steep population declines in the past 10-20 years are the beautiful blue-and-black Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor), the Callippe Silverspot (Speyeria callippe callippe), the Mission Blue (Icaricia icarioides missionensis), the San Bruno Elfin Blue (Incisalia mossii bayensis) and the Bay Checkerspot (Euphydryas editha bayensis). Battus philenor, for example, has nearly disappeared due to loss of habitat for Pipevine (Aristolochia species), its larval host plant.
But there’s hope! Thanks at least in part to active efforts to create habitat corridors, Eastern Monarchs had a much better year in 2018 than Western populations. The number of Eastern Monarchs that overwintered in Mexico was more than twice as large as the prior year. The total population is still only about ⅓ of what it was two decades ago, but human actions have made a big difference in the sustainability of Eastern Monarchs over the last few decades.
Here’s where you come in. Read on for actions you can take to help our Monarchs survive and maybe even rebound.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international nonprofit organization that protects the natural world through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats, tracks monarch populations. They offer a Western Monarch Call to Action plan to help the monarch population bounce back:
Visit their web site to read more about this plan and learn how you can get involved if you want to.
There are some steps you can take in your own garden to help Monarchs survive:
If you do plant milkweed, be aware that not all milkweed is alike. Native California species such as Narrow-leaf and Showy Milkweed go dormant in the winter. This encourages the butterflies to migrate as they normally would. Tropical Milkweed does not go dormant, blooming through the winter. This can encourage Monarchs to stick around (hey, plenty of food here, why take that dangerous journey?)
When Monarchs don’t migrate it can cause build up of a bacterium that weakens the developing insect as it transforms from caterpillar to butterfly. OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) is a protozoan parasite that infects butterflies in the Danaus species group, those that host on milkweed. In the US, OE affects Monarch (Danaus plexippus), Queen (Danaus gilippus), and Soldier (Danaus eresimus) butterflies. When butterflies don’t migrate, OE within the population can become quite high. As a result many caterpillars are infected and the adult butterflies are weakened or even killed.
To make a long story short: it’s preferable to plant native milkweeds. If you do plant tropical milkweed in your garden, be sure to cut it back in September. Keep it cut back until the spring, to encourage Monarchs to migrate south during the winter months.
To make a long story short: if you’re feeling blue about the environmental news that we’re bombarded with every day, there’s no better cure than to get into action to help make our own piece of the planet a little bit healthier. Monarchs, and all the other pollinators, need our help so they can continue to bring us fruits, vegetables, fibers, and a host of other plant-based products that bring pleasure, nutrition and healing to our lives.
Find sources of milkweed
How to grow milkweed
In an earlier post we talked about including food for pollinators to your garden. Along with making food available, one of the best ways to make sure your garden is pollinator-friendly is to incorporate shelter by adding grasses and host plants -- trees and shrubs -- planted in a layered fashion, as in the picture below.
Pollinators can find shelter in grasses planted with perennials, debris piles or decaying logs, and in trees and shrubs. Choose mostly native grasses and plant both cool and warm season varieties. Wait until late spring to cut them back, to allow pollinator and butterfly eggs to hatch. The meadow shown here is planted with different varieties of grass to make sure some are always green, no matter what the season.
The picture below is a great example of a pollinator habitat garden spot, with many flower shapes, grasses, and dry-stacked stone that offers nesting and hiding places.
If you need to remove a tree, it can still add value to your garden; just use the wood in your landscape for pollinator habitat. You can lay large branches or the trunk into a garden bed as a feature; you can also make a debris pile from the smaller branches in back areas where they won’t be visible. Both will be much appreciated by native bees, lizards, and other beneficial garden inhabitants.
Last but not least, make sure fresh water is available to pollinators at all time. Water is life! At MGDC we make water available to pollinators in ponds, dragonfly ponds, muddy and wet garden areas, stacked stone fountains, and the Living Fountain greywater purification system.
Be aware that the slippery surfaces in bird baths are not usable by most butterflies, birds and bees. A bowl of pebbles in water is an excellent way to make water available in your garden!
Provide food for bees, birds, and butterflies by incorporating plants that offer them nectar, seeds, berries, and pollen. The first thing to think about is adding flowers; flowers are not only beautiful, they also offer food for native pollinators, birds and butterflies. Flower shapes that attract pollinators include:
Compositae - daisy-shaped flowers - because the center of the blossom is actually several individual flowers that they can gather nectar from all at once. The flowers in the picture below are Layia platyglossa, commonly known as tidy tips.
Flowers with “landing pads,” known as a Umbelliferae, are similar to Compositae in that they have many small flower clusters to drink from. “Landing pad” flowers include yarrow, lantana, verbena, and milkweed. The picture below shows several varieties of yarrow.
Pollinators also like the umbrella-shaped flowers from plants such as dill, parsley, carrots, and Queen Anne’s lace.
Trumpet-shaped flowers like Penstemon and Mimulus allow butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to seek nectar from deep down in the throat of the flower.
The focus of our next few posts is on pollinators and how we can help them thrive. The transfer of pollen in and between flowers of the same species leads to successful seed and fruit production for plants, ensuring full-bodied fruit and a full set of viable seeds. Loss of pollinators means many plants can’t reproduce at all, with catastrophic consequences up and down the food chain.
The economic cost of pollinator loss is also high: globally, the annual value of global crops directly affected by pollinators is between US$235 to US$577 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations. According to the USDA, “Three-fourths of the world's flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world's food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce.
More than 3,500 species of native bees help increase crop yields.”Most of the plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines depend on pollination to produce the goods on which we depend. Just a few of the foods and beverages produced with the help of pollinators include: apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds, and tequila. Without pollinators, our plant food options would be few and dull, just grains and greens.
Three-fourths of the world's flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world's food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. More than 3,500 species of native bees help increase crop yields.
Human survival is intimately linked with many species of insects, especially pollinators. Unfortunately for them, and for us, huge areas of pollinator habitat have been and continue to be destroyed due to land development and large-scale, corporate forms of agriculture. As human populations grow, we eradicate crucial food and shelter sources for pollinator species in order to build homes, shopping centers, schools, industrial parks and agribusiness - the business of agricultural production, which includes agrichemicals (fertilizers and pesticides), breeding, crop production, distribution, farm machinery, processing, seed supply, and marketing and sales. The reduction in habitat areas, especially over the past 20 years, has resulted in a large decline in pollinator populations all over the world.
Agricultural areas in particular have had a huge impact on pollinator populations. As small farms continue to be consumed by giant agribusiness corporations, loss of habitat occurs as corporate farms convert large areas of land from a mixed group of crops and plant cover into a monoculture where only one type of plant is allowed to grow. This lack of diversity in rural areas is detrimental to all kinds of pollinators.
Finally, the increased use of pesticides, as well as the increased toxicity of modern pesticides, further diminishes the ability of pollinators to thrive. The irony of this situation is that farmers need to pay beekeepers to move their bees onto the farms in order to pollinate food crops. Bees that travel across the country to serve as pollinators tend to be weaker. These weaker, stressed bees are believed to be a part of what is leading to colony collapse disorder.
Fortunately, it’s easy to incorporate pollinator habitat into our own gardens. By adding food, shelter, and water to the garden, we can improve conditions for pollinators, and help ensure that food sources are secure for future generations. We’ll talk more about how to add these things to the garden in the next few posts. In the next post, we'll talk about ways to add food for pollinators to your garden.
Water makes up about 70% of the planet’s surface, and approximately the same percentage of the human body. Water is everywhere. In order to survive, we need it to be available, and we need it to be clean.
During rainstorms, we’ve all seen our streets fill with water as it moves over the asphalt surfaces and runs into storm drains. Here in the Bay Area, rain water runs from our roofs, driveways and streets, down storm drains, and into the San Francisco Bay. Not so bad, you might think, the Bay needs water to keep it filled, right? The truth is, as the water flows over rooftops and paved surfaces, it picks up all of the pollutants that have accumulated on them, including dirt and dust, gas and oil from cars, and pesticides and fertilizers from our gardens and lawns. All of these sediments and poisons end up in the San Francisco Bay, polluting it every time it rains.
In a natural environment that water would stay on the land, filtering into the ground where it would be purified through plant roots and soil. A typical roof can catch thousands of gallons water every time there's a rainy day -- but we waste this valuable resource when we don’t create conditions that allow the water to remain on the land where it falls. And the pollutants carried in water that moves over impermeable surfaces before entering our waterways without first filtering through soil eventually affect the health of the entire local watershed and beyond - and our health as well.
Fortunately, there are many ways that we can harvest the water that falls on our property, and keep it there for a more ecologically useful benefit. The first way is simply to remove non-permeable concrete surfaces so that water can percolate back into the soil and recharge the groundwater in a healthy way. In addition, the water that we keep out of the storm drains makes the soil we garden on more saturated, and most importantly reduces the need to add water. Another way is to harvest the “greywater” that comes out of our washing machines, bathtubs, and showers.
Seasonal water storage is another way to harvest rainwater, and at Mariposa, we do seasonal water storage with a thing we like to call Dragonfly Ponds.
Dragonfly Ponds are one of our favorite ways to harvest water. These water features capture the rain that falls on your roof by redirecting your downspout to deposit rainwater directly back into the ground rather than piping it out to the street. By retaining this water, Dragonfly Ponds create a water source for pollinators, particularly dragonflies. Rainwater is moved to a depression in the garden that’s filled with drain rock and decorative gravel. Water collects in the depression, the pit fills, and over the next few days the water drains back into the earth. This action of filling and draining, paired with grasses planted around the pond, creates the kind of muddy grassy conditions that dragonflies like to lay their eggs in.
This dragonfly pond also serves as a fire pit.
The benefits of a Dragonfly Pond include the addition of another layer of habitat to your garden, which in turn attracts flora and fauna that need it. In addition, the water that would have flushed pollution into the Bay is now recharging the groundwater table, and keeping water fresh and clean for the health of future generations.
Next up: how to make your garden a place that pollinators will love