Don’t dangerous animals hide in tall grass?

Some people worry that if they garden with plants too tall and dense to see over or through, their yard will become a haven for snakes, scorpions, rats, and other unwelcome critters.

(In fact, some homeowners in Arizona fear that they will attract snakes and scorpions by eliminating their water-guzzling lawns in favor of desert-style landscaping with almost no plants at all. Change is scary.)

The idea that natural yards harbor rodents can be dispensed with quickly: rats and mice are attracted to human habitation. Regardless of what is growing in your yard, they are not interested in searching for food among the plants. Instead, they will scavenge in garbage cans. And while it may be true that rodents will nest in brush piles, providing no shelter for them in the yard simply means that they will find a place to nest in the house. The bottom line is that it’s impossible to get rid of mice, and anyway we shouldn’t want to: humans and mice live in the same kind of habitat, and if the mice can’t survive somewhere, it’s probably not a great place for us either.

As for snakes and scorpions, it depends where you live. In some areas, there are small, hard-to-see creatures that can deliver a nasty bite or sting. On the other hand, in Wisconsin, there are no venomous animals, and no predators larger than coyotes (which, contrary to popular belief, only very rarely carry off pets or small children).

Part of the preparation for establishing a natural yard is understanding what kinds of wildlife live in the area, whether they are actually dangerous to people, and how we might gently discourage them from coming too close to the house. Often, the best solution may simply be to watch our step. After all, they were here first – and while we can stick to pavement or indoor areas, they may have nowhere else to go. It is our responsibility to be respectful of our non-human neighbors.

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Don’t dangerous animals hide in tall grass?

How do you get rid of geese?

An earlier post on That Blog explained why lawns don’t function as habitat for very many species. They do, however, function as excellent habitat for Canada geese. This is because lawns provide two things that geese need: food, and safety.

Canada geese are relatively small grazing animals. They like to spend their time in areas with low-growing vegetation, where they can eat the plants and keep an eye out for danger. Conversely, they avoid areas where the plants are too tall for easy snacking, and where they can’t see any predators that might be trying to sneak up on them. In other words, geese see a big lawn as a great place to relax and have a meal.

In the early 20th century, Canada geese were actually near extinction across North America. Today, their numbers have rebounded to well over 3 million. This is in part due to active efforts to increase their population – for example, by moving birds to other areas to start new flocks. But mostly, the Canada goose’s recovery was caused by habitat restoration. As people planted lawns in their yards and on golf courses, they inadvertently created perfect goose habitat, and geese promptly multiplied to fill the available space.

As we create habitat in our yards, it is wise to think about who we are creating habitat for. Wildlife will show up to use the resources we provide, and it may be the case that not all species are welcome visitors. We can edit the guest list by mindfully not providing for the needs of animals we don’t want nearby. For example, if we don’t want geese hanging out in our yard, we can simply garden with tall plants that don’t provide the geese with food and sightlines. As they fly over, the geese won’t see anything they like, and they will go elsewhere.

By understanding the needs and preferences of different species, we can invite in the ones we want to see more of, while discouraging those we would rather not have around.

How do you get rid of geese?

What does “overgrown” mean?

“Overgrown” means that a plant is bigger than someone thinks it should be. Like “weed”, it is a completely subjective term. Objectively, plants do not get bigger than nature intended them to be. A plant that is growing enthusiastically is a healthy, happy plant.

Getting bigger than nature intended does happen to people. We call that obesity. Though the obesity rate in the US is now 35%, many of those who are not obese mistakenly believe they are. Persistent exposure to images of supermodels has caused us to mistake malnourishment for a healthy weight, and to see a healthy size as obesity.

Similarly, persistent exposure to lawns has caused us to see a system in which grass is no more than an inch or two tall, and shrubs grow in tight, compact forms, as just right. In fact, outside of areas with especially harsh conditions, like deserts and high mountains, such a system is seriously undervegetated.

We live on a planet full of life – not just some life, but abundant life. Nature squeezes life into every available space. When we visit a healthy prairie, forest, or wetland, we see plants of all shapes and sizes fitting together to fill the entire area.

By changing our frame of reference to recognize abundant plant life as just right, we can fill our yards with healthy vegetation, and stop fighting with plants to prevent them from growing.

What does “overgrown” mean?

What is the best way to water plants? (Where?)

We often think of watering plants by pouring water over the top of them. Plants, in fact, don’t like this. They need water at their roots, and can be harmed by water on their leaves, since the dampness can invite mold and other diseases.

But wait. Aren’t plants watered in nature by rain falling on top of them? Yes! Plants have evolved to deal with this by developing various strategies for moving water off their leaves and down to their roots. These strategies also work pretty well when the water is coming from a hose, sprinkler, or watering can, rather than from rain.

But this is a case where we can do better than nature. We can water plants directly at their roots, keeping their leaves dry.

It might seem intuitive to do this by watering at the base of the plant’s stem, but that’s not quite what the plant wants. When plants water themselves by moving rain off their leaves and down to their roots, that water doesn’t end up next to the plant’s stem. It falls along a circle defined by the plant’s outermost leaves. That circle is called the drip line.

Pouring water on the ground in a circle that approximates a plant’s drip line is the most efficient way of putting the water where the plant can absorb it.

What is the best way to water plants? (Where?)

What are cultivars?

An important distinction in natural gardening is between native plants and non-native plants. A native plant is one that has evolved in the region where it is planted, and which typically has developed important relationships with other plants and animals in that region. A non-native plant is one that is planted far from where it evolved. It often contributes little or nothing to the local community, because the animals in its new home cannot eat it, or may not recognize it as a potential food source.

cultivar is a type of plant that didn’t evolve anywhere. Rather, a cultivar is the plant equivalent of a domestic animal. The same way that modern cows never existed in the wild and are the result of careful breeding, cultivars have been bred from wild plants to bring out desirable characteristics.

The characteristics that are desirable to people, however, are often of no value to wildlife. Double-flowered cultivars, for example, are considered especially attractive in a garden. These flowers are worthless to pollinators, though, because they are mutant plants that have a second row of petals instead of having the structures that produce pollen and nectar.

Nativars are cultivars of native plants. Well-meaning gardeners seeking to support wildlife are often tripped up by nativars, which are advertised as native plants, but which can be as useless to pollinators and other animals as cultivars of non-native species.

Cultivars and nativars can be recognized by the names on their tags. Plants should always be labeled by their scientific names, which help gardeners ensure they’re getting the right species. A plant that has a second, English name in quotes after its Latin name is a cultivar or nativar, not a true species.

What are cultivars?

What is a rusty-patched bumble bee?

The rusty-patched bumble bee recently became the first kind of bee to be added to the endangered species list.

Image result for rusty-patched bumble bee range

This bee used to range widely, from Minnesota to Maine, and as far south as Georgia. Now, it’s only found in isolated pockets.

One of those pockets is in Madison, Wisconsin. The Arboretum reports that they still have rusty-patched bumble bees, though many fewer than in the past.

The fact that there are still some left, though, means that residents of Madison can help the bees, allowing them to increase their numbers and begin to spread back into areas where they used to be found.

Unlike some bees, which rely on specific kinds of flowers, bumble bees can gather food from many different plants. Adding plants to your yard that flower throughout the season, and avoiding the use of pesticides, can help bumble bees. Rusty-patched bumble bees also need a little bit of bare soil in which to build their underground nests and lay their eggs.

Bumble bees are different from honey bees, which are a non-native, domestic species. Many well-intentioned people who are worried about pollinators try to help by taking up beekeeping. As some have put it, being concerned about pollinator decline and putting a beehive in your yard is like trying to address declining bird populations by getting some chickens. Adding more hives of honey bees to an area can actually decrease the quality of the local habitat for native bumble bees, because it increases competition for the resources that bees need.

“A Ghost in the Making” is a short documentary about the rusty-patched bumble bee. A segment in the middle of the film focuses on Madison’s Arboretum.

What is a rusty-patched bumble bee?

How does noise affect birds?

Birds are the easiest kinds of animals to observe in our yards. They’re numerous, colorful, active, and loud.

In fact, birds are louder than they used to be.

Sound is important to birds – they use their calls and songs to communicate and attract mates. They also listen for predators and for prey, to find food and avoid becoming someone else’s meal.

Studies show that suburban noise – including traffic and lawnmowers – is making it hard for birds to hear each other. Birds are coping with the challenges of a noisy environment by becoming louder.

They’re also changing their songs, often shifting to a higher pitch that can be heard over the lower-frequency sounds produced by engines. In some cases, the variety of birds’ songs is decreasing, as individual birds converge on a song that their audience can hear.

Other studies have found that noise makes it difficult for birds to find food, because they spend more time looking for predators and less time pursuing their own prey. Noise can also cause birds to give up on an area altogether, and travel somewhere else in search of quieter surroundings. While that kind of mobility is usually not a hardship for birds, during migration, needing to travel further before stopping to rest and feed can threaten a bird’s survival.

Noise isn’t so great for people either. By turning the volume down in our yards, we can create a more pleasant environment for our neighbors, human and non-human alike.

How does noise affect birds?