A blog for eco-friendly landscaping

My name is Katelin Gaeth and I am an educator, student and scientist of ecology. I became interested in urban ecology, specifically the plants and animals found in residential yards and city parks, as a graduate student in a biology masters program with Miami University and the Denver Zoo. As an instructor of school programs at the Denver Botanic Gardens, I have gained an understanding of and love for native Rocky Mountain plants, and the ways that plants shape and build habitat for other species.sunflower

The purpose of this blog is to provide people in Denver, Colorado and beyond with
information about gardening and landscaping with native species in mind. I will post stories about my experiences gardening in Denver, as well as resources for native plants, xeriscape and ecologically friendly landscaping. Please contact me with any questions about using native and water smart plants in your own yard – if I do not have an answer I can connect you with someone who does!

Why a blog about ecosystem-friendly landscape? Throughout Colorado, many urban and suburban communities continue to favor non-native plants in landscape designs; water-dependent turf lawns and exotic annual flowers dominate the majority of Denver neighborhoods (Xeriscape turf & alternatives n.d.). According to the Plant Talk organization, part of the Colorado State University Extension, the most abundant plant species per area used in Colorado landscaping is Kentucky bluegrass, or Pro pratensis, which is native to Europe. Non-native Kentucky bluegrass not only takes land area away from native Colorado plants, but also requires supplemental watering and chemical application in order to thrive in this climate (Reid & Oki 2008). According to a study by Robbins and Sharp (2003), the use of lawn fertilizers/pesticides has increased among residential homeowners, even those who acknowledge the risks to water quality and human health associated with chemical use.

While xeriscaping is becoming a more popular trend in Colorado as a means to reduce water use and maintenance costs, many practices do not necessarily benefit native species. The trend of hardscaping, or replacing bluegrass with rocks, mulch or other non-plant mediums helps to save water, but if native plants are not incorporated then opportunities to help wildlife are lost (Xeriscape turf & alternatives n.d.). Many backyard gardeners do not realize the importance of their role as ecological stewards (Tallamy 2009). Through this blog I hope to show urban homeowners that they have the power to create vital habitat for native species! 

References:

Reid, S., & Oki, L. (2008). Field trials identify more native plants suited to urban landscaping. California agriculture, 62(3), 97-104. Retrieved from http://www.lib.muohio.edu/

Robbins, P., & Sharp, J. T. (2003). Producing and consuming chemicals: the moral economy of the American lawn. Economic Geography, 79(4), 425-451.

Tallamy, D. W. (2009). Bringing nature home: how you can sustain wildlife with native plants. Timber Press. Retrieved from http://www.google/books

Xeriscape turf & alternatives. (n.d.). Colorado State University. Retrieved from http://www.ext.colostate.edu/ptlk/1912.html

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Much Ado About Weeds

What makes a weed a weed? A dandelion by any other name would smell as sweet. Shakespeare references aside, the ways we deal with weeds can have big impacts on local wildlife.

Dandelions

Dandelions are food for pollinators

Apart from noxious weeds, it is our perception of a plant that determines if it is a weed or not. Any plant growing somewhere that it’s not wanted can be labeled a weed. Dandelions, for example, are often considered weeds when they pop up in turf lawns but they are also grown as a cash crop for their nutritious leaves and roots, and even for latexDandelions are an important food source for pollinators in early spring, so if you don’t mind having them in your yard the bees will be very grateful! I recommend you do not spray dandelions and other backyard weeds with pesticides, as this can be harmful to wildlife, pets and people. Simply remove the spent flower heads of these pollinator-friendly plants before they go to seed by hand pulling or using a mower and you can keep them in check.

bindweed

Alice in Bindweedland

Bindweed, on the other hand, can do more harm if left to its own devices. Invasive bindweed chokes out native plants and can decrease biodiversity, especially in already threatened habitats like wetlands. I took the photo “Alice in Bindweedland” as part of a portfolio on grassland conservation issues. Aggressive hand-pulling (make sure to dig up as much of the root as possible!) can help manage this weed in your yard. I’m also trying out a “green” herbicide mix on it that has worked well in our flagstone patio area on other weeds.

Green Herbicide Recipe
1 gallon white vinegar
1 cup salt
1 tablespoon liquid dish soap

Directions: Combine all ingredients in a spray bottle, shake to mix and spray generously on weeds. This mix is not great to use in a lawn because it will burn your grass. I am also going to experiment with adding lemon juice and will report back. Use this mixture on weeds during the middle of the day or a particularly sunny time to maximize results.

Weeding with Roo

Roo likes to “help” pull weeds around our patio area after we spray them

Welcome Spring with Citizen Science

Happy Spring Equinox! Here in Denver the last week of winter brought a few inches of snow as well as a myriad of colorful spring blooms such as daffodils and dwarf iris. A few species of bees have been taking notice of these early flowers as it is an important food source for them.

Bloom times are also important to scientists across the country, and you can help them collect data! If you have a smartphone and access to plants, all you need to do is create a Nature’s Notebook account and download their app. Become a phenology expert in no time by exploring their website and reading through the information under the Observe and Learn to Observe tabs.

Even if the term phenology seems a bit unfamiliar to you, I bet you have already observed a ton of phenological events. The return of certain birds to your backyard feeder, that smell when suddenly all of the neighborhood lilacs are in bloom, or even that week last fall when the front range was filled with migrating painted lady butterflies are all examples. Phenology is the study of the timing of seasonal  or cyclical events in nature, and data that has been collected on certain species (lilacs, for example) is helping us to better understand threats such as climate change. Follow this link to learn more about it from Project Bud Burst.

If you’re local and want to practice your observational skills at a site where all the plants have been identified for you, add Denver Botanic Gardens to your “Sites” on the app and come for a visit. You can also download and print Phenology Trail maps and other info from the DBG website. Plant species you can study at the gardens include lilacs, ponderosa pine, aspen, yucca, columbine and more. You can also set up a site for your own yard or the park across the street, adding species as you go. While my own focus is on researching plants, you can add animal species to your observation deck, too. This can also be a fun activity to do with kids especially if you spin it as a treasure hunt – I’ve found that they often notice things that I miss at first glance. Feel free to reach out with any questions or to share any cool observations with me. Cheers to spring!

21st Great Backyard Bird Count

 

In just under one month the 21st annual Great Backyard Bird Count will be underway! Starting on Friday February 16th and ending on Monday February 19th, the 2018 GBBC offers an easy and extremely important opportunity for any and all wildlife lovers to help collect valuable data on birds. Across the globe, birds of all types are often an indicator of the overall health of ecosystems and habitats, allowing scientists to quickly gauge if an area is successfully sustaining wildlife or if the species in that area may be in peril. All you have to do to participate as a citizen scientist is log in or create an account at the GBBC’s site and commit to just 15 minutes or more of bird watching.

The Great Backyard Bird Count will provide you with local bird guides and options to download the eBird app, making it easy to enter all the birds you see at your chosen spot. According to the Audubon Society of Denver, some winter birds you may see in the area include merlins, hairy woodpeckers, Bohemian waxwings, mountain chickadeees, and northern harrier hawks.

There are many awesome native trees and shrubs that can attract birds to your yard all year. Check out PlantTalk’s site for some suggestions, such as Rocky Mountain juniper, serviceberry, dogwood, and chokecherry. The Audubon Society also recommends xeric flowering plants such as coneflower, sunflower, and milkweed to provide food and other resources to native birds.

Leave the Leaves

As autumn turns to winter, you might be thinking that it’s high time to finish getting your yard ready for snow. If you’ve been putting off raking up and bagging all of the fall leaves that have accumulated under your trees, you are in luck! Rather than hurrying to clear these leaves out, it is beneficial for both wildlife and your lawn to leave the majority of them in place. According to the National Wildlife Federation and the Xerces Society, there are many nature-friendly reasons to leave the leaves in your yard alone.

There are lots of organisms that benefit from leaf litter in urban and suburban settings. Many species of butterflies, moths and bumble bees overwinter in piles of leaves, and other small mammals and reptiles benefit from this shelter as well. Leaf litter is also a source of free mulch! You can gently pile it around trees, shrubs and other plants to insulate them from cold temperatures and improve soil quality. A light layer of leaves over your turf grass can help reduce your need for fertilizer or other inputs next season, resulting in a naturally healthier lawn (make sure it’s a thin layer though, too much coverage can kill your grass). When the snow melts come spring, you can use piles of partially decomposed leaves as fertilizer for garden beds. Just make sure not to disturb the piles until later in the spring so that all of the critters who have benefited from them have time to move out! #leavetheleaves

Aspen grove

Fall Bulbs, Spring Blooms

Late September is the perfect time to plant bulbs for early spring blooms. Bulbs (a term that generally also includes corms, tubers and rhizomes) should be planted before the first hard freeze of the season in well draining soil. Check out the CSU Extension Fall-Planted Bulbs and Corms fact sheet for more information on how and when to plant.

While many of the bulbs available to gardeners are non-native, there are quite a few species of plants in the Iris and Lily families that are native to the Rocky Mountain region. There are about thirty species of irises native to North America, all of which are beardless varieties as opposed to the bigger and more commonly seen bearded iris. Native varieties such as Iris missouriensis , or mountain iris, and Erythronium grandiflorumor snow lily, can be found in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Even non-native bulbs in these plant families can provide important resources for our native wildlife. Early spring bloomers are especially important because they provide nectar and pollen to pollinators before many of their other food sources are available. Crocuses, hyacinths, fritillaria and kniphofia (or torch lily) are all beneficial for our local bees and other pollinators.

Summer Growth

After a few months of growth, the perennials we planted back in May have taken off! The hyssop, yarrow, blanket flower and penstemon have been blooming nearly all summer and many of them have more than quadrupled in size. Hummingbirds, butterflies and several species of bees have been regular visitors all season.

As a reminder, below is a photo of what the space looked like right before planting as well as a shot of a newly planted 4 inch tall yarrow plant.

The perennials in the above picture as well as the bed shown below are now watered by drip line, and another layer of mulch is currently being added. Once the flowers fade and the leaves begin to die back we will do a bit of pruning, though I like to leave some dried flower stalks and seed heads for winter interest and texture. In another area of the yard we spread a Rocky Mountain native wildflower seed mix that has also been very successful. The annual seeds sprouted this season, and the perennial ones will likely come up next year or the year after.

Pollinator Month

Did you know that June is national pollinator month? In Colorado alone there are over 950 species of bees and 250 types of butterflies, but pollinator populations across the globe are declining. With just a few days left to celebrate here are tips on creating pollinator friendly habitats that last year-round:

  • plant native flowers in your yard – look for a seed mix at your local garden center
  • make seed bombs with native seeds, like wild sunflower, and throw them into empty lots or barren stretches along roads
  • avoid using chemical pesticides and herbicides (neonicitinoids and glyphosates) that may harm friendly insects, birds and more
  • provide shelter and food for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and bats – make a native bee hotel, hummingbird feeder, or butterfly puddler
  • visit the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife site for more inspiration!

If you enjoy having flowering plants and trees or eating fruits, veggies and honey, go thank a pollinator!

Practically Perfect Perennials

For Mother’s Day we ordered a few plant packages from High Country Gardens and the whole family has been busy prepping garden beds and getting the new perennials planted. The plants arrived in various boxes which we sorted through based on where we wanted them – High Country Gardens also sends layout options with planting maps and info on each plant to help you select the best location for them in your yard. We started by amending the soil in a few areas and building up beds, adding a mix of top soil and organic compost. Then we laid out the plants, making adjustments and swapping them around until each one was in the perfect spot. After digging a hole for each plant  we would add a few handfuls of compost and a spoonful of re-mineralizing plant booster, then break up the roots of the plant a bit and secure it in its new home. Before giving them all a good soak we added a layer of bark and wood mulch to retain moisture and reduce weeds.

The plans that High Country sent are easily adaptable  to various yard areas of all shapes and sizes – we chose to follow our own design and added plants into existing garden beds. Many of the perennials and shrubs will grow a lot in the next few seasons so the beds may feel a bit empty at first. We bought and spread a wildflower seed mix in some of the bare areas between plants. Here’s a list of some of the plant collections we put in:

  1. “Some Like it Hot” collection: Salvia May Night (May Night Meadow Sage), Penstemon pinifolius (Pineleaf Penstemon) and Achillea filipendulina Coronation Gold (Coronation Gold Yarrow)
  2. Hummingbird Attracting Collection for the West: Penstemon davidsonii, Agastache cana Rosita or Zauschneria canum v. latifolium Northfork Coral, Agastache rupestrisPenstemon mexicali Red Rocks
  3. Drought Resistant Collection: Agastache rupestris, Stachys Maxima, Hidcote Blue Lavender, Artemisia Powis Castle, Helichrysum tianshanicum

Check back later in the summer for updates and photos of the new plants!

Spring Plant Sale!

Spring has sprung and if you’re ready to add some new native or xeric plants to your yard – or maybe grab a last minute perennial present for mom – look no further than Spring Plant Sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens! Admission to the gardens is free on Friday the 12th and Saturday the 13th, BYOW – bring your own wagon. New this year there will be water symbol stickers on the drought tolerant plants, making it easy to select the perfect array of water smart varieties. Horticulture staff and knowledgeable volunteers will be on hand to answer all your gardening questions.

Ice plant

Flowering ice plant ground cover helping out honey bees

No Yard? No Problem

If you live in an apartment or townhouse it may not seem like you have the space or resources to become a backyard habitat steward. Maybe you do have a yard or green space nearby, but the landscaping decisions are made by your landlord or the complex owners, etc. There are several space saving solutions you can implement in order to grow xeriscape and native plants around your home! Hanging Garden

The hanging garden pictured here was planted by elementary students during a camp I taught over spring break. I purchased a hanging shoe organizer from Target (here’s an even fancier bamboo one for under $19) and we filled the pockets with potting soil mix and herb seedlings. This project could easily be adapted with native grass or wildflower seeds (pollinators will thank you!), and can hang on a balcony or fence. You can trim off layers of pockets to best fit your space, or purchase a different sized shoe organizer. Make sure that it is canvas or a similar fabric material so that the soil can drain.

If you have space on a small front step or patio, pots and container gardens are a great option. Plant Select has a petites collection of water smart plants that are small in size and would be perfect for containers. Many of these tiny plants are used in rock garden designs at the Denver Botanic Gardens, such as Fire Spinner® ice plantSilverton® blue mat penstemon, and Blue Jazz® pinyon pine, a dwarf conifer.