Native Landscaping for Birds, Bees and Butterflies in Deer Country

My wife Ann and I have been avid organic gardeners for about 25 years now. We also believe completely in the wisdom of using primarily a palette of plants native to our area which in our case is Texas. The plants we use have roots going back thousands of years here and they survived that long without any help from people, thank you very much. That means they are used to long, hot and humid summers, infrequent but heavy rains, rocky gumbo thick clay soils mated to winters where it routinely gets down into the low teens. We live in a creek bottom and when the nearby big city of Austin is at 35 degrees it is usually 20 degrees or less at our place fifty miles north.

We live in a wildlife cooperative which means that the deer have this place marked with five Michelin stars for accommodations and Zagat's top food rating, too. The last count put our white tail population at 2.5X what our area should have. We bow hunt, but that doesn't seem to keep Bambie in check. We also enjoy a healthy number of coyotes, racoons, cotton tail and jack rabbits, all types of raptors, owls and song birds and anything else you can imagine. Neighbors regularly report seeing a panther in the area. Our 21 acre parcel has a creek and a year round pond, too which make it a big draw to the wildlife. Reliable water is a major wildlife attractor anywhere but especially where it's hot and dry.

Our yard sounds like an aviary.  There is constant motion too with birds visiting the many feeders to eat and the water features with moving water to bathe. The hummers zip around your head like so many little Jetson's cars eating and fighting as they go from one patch of red flowers to another. In case you haven't heard the noise that a humming bird makes when it goes by your head at high speed, it makes a sound just like the sound the Jetson's car makes. It's really weird the first time you hear it. A kind of a warbling, high pitched whistle with a vibrato to it.

At last estimate we have about 2,000 to 3,000 plants in our 3.0 acre garden. Most of them are long blooming perennials. Trying to replant annuals in these numbers would take a landscaping crew. About one quarter of them are native prairie bunch grasses and about 15% are cactus's, agave's and yuccas of all kinds. We planted in large beds with big swaths of color. For our yard a planting of only 11 of one kind of plant is a small grouping.

We have a lot of salvia greggi in every color, along with Mexican oregano, every kind and color upright or trailing lantana, skullcaps, germander, rosemary, Blackfoot daisy, Crepe Myrtle's (34) of all sizes and colors, yaupon hollies, Russian sage, golden ball lead trees, flame acanthus, Texas yellow bells, heliopsis, lions tail, skeleton leaf, hamelia/Mexican fire bush, indigo spires, Mexican mint marigold, copper canyon daisy, yarrow, salvia darrcii, bird of paradise, desert willow, jimson weed/datura and on and on. These are mixed in with clusters of lindheimer muhly, gulf muhly, several types of miscanthus, Mexican feather grass, big and little blue-stem, Indian grass, bamboo muhly, and more all planted in groups of at least three grasses each time. Then we just had to use red yucca, twisted leaf yucca, big blue agave, havardi agave, sharkskin cactus, squid cactus, Spanish dagger, Texas nolina, prickly pear cactus, bunny ears cactus, and a bunch more that I can't remember now.

We also did a lot of hard-scaping. We use a lot of very large landscape boulders, native rocks, and wrought iron sculptures. We also invented a new (at least we've never seen anyone else do it) type of garden art. We call them "Crystal Trees." We located a local source for large chunks of translucent colored glass. I'm talking about chunks from softball size (five pounds) up to basketball sized (thirty or forty pounds) each. The glass is translucent so the sunlight shines through it and makes it look as if each crystal has LED lights at its heart. The glass comes in red, pink, blue, yellow, green, purple, orange and some that look like big cats-eye marbles! We went out into our woods and found big, gnarly cedar tree trunks from 8 feet to 15 feet tall and harvested them. We then drilled holes in them about six inches deep and inserted two foot lengths of 3/8" rebar spaced about two feet apart vertically. We then wrap galvanized wire around each crystal and hang the glass crystals from the rebar like so much multicolored fruit ready for harvest. The effect when the sun shines on them is beautiful and ever changing.

We also made water available in our yard for the wildlife. There are two bird baths with water dripping out of an elevated container, down into a big concrete bird bath with gently sloping sides and a maximum depth of about two inches. I set the drip rate at about one drop per second. It seems to be plenty to attract the attention of everything in the yard and keeps the water use down to about three gallons per bird bath per day. We let the water overflow all day onto the dirt and it makes a small puddle and a big wet spot that small animals and insects who can't get into the troughs like to drink at. The butterflies also like to come and get a drink from the surface of the damp clay soil, what they call puddling in the butterfly world. Evidently butterflies rarely need to drink water! They get most of the liquid they need from the nectar they consume. They do need a wide range of minerals so they often drink from wet dirt or shallow still water. That's why you've seen butterflies gathered on a patch of wet dirt. They are drinking the water to obtain the minerals the water has dissolved from the soil. Isn't nature interesting?

By the way, have you ever thought that butterflies are misnamed? Ok, the "butter" part makes no sense at all. They don't look like butter, they don't make butter and they eat butter. I have thought for a while that they should be called: "Flutterby or Flutterbies in the plural." Yes, flutterby. Thinks about it. When they fly past you they don't "soar" like a hawk or zip by like a barn swallow. They flutter by you. So, I'm starting a movement to start calling butterflies, flutterbies.

Then we also have two big six foot long two foot deep galvanized water troughs we bought at Tractor Supply for the bigger animals. To be sure the birds can use them and to ensure that no little animals drown (that happened many years ago before I fixed the design) I have a big 2x12 rough cedar board (reused scrap from a deck that I built) that sicks out at one end about a foot and it is resting on the bottom. The birds jump on it and hop down to a depth they like and little animals get in and bathe and then use the big rough board like a boat ramp to walk out safely.

We used to mulch, mulch and then we mulch more. We once mulched up to about 3". Recently we discovered that too much mulch can be a bad thing. Too much mulch and it starts to pack together and decay. It also gets so thick that most of the light and moderate rains are absorbed by the mulch and don't even get down to the ground. Now we only mulch an inch or two deep at the most.

We have told our local electric utility, Pedernales Electric Coop, that when they are in our area trimming trees away from the power lines, they can dump the ground up trimmings on our place at any time. This is a great source of cedar, oak and elm mulch and it's free! Because our yard and garden is so large we usually end up also buying one or two 12 ton truck loads of rough ground cedar every spring, too.

For fertilizer we don't do much. Native plants don't need a big regular feeding. We usually buy a yard of Dillo Dirt. That is a composted waste product produced by the City of Austin from the "solids of the municipal sewer waste" and the tree trimmings of the city electric utility and the grass clippings from the parks. They mix it, compost it to over 180F, turn it and compost it again, then do it over for a third time. It is wonderful, high nitrogen mulch and fertilizer in one. I spread it about 1/8" thick over the beds in the spring. You can use Dillo dirt for your yard or garden, but they (the City of Austin) are hesitant to recommend using it for food gardens. Austin's waste stream is pretty clean (we don't have any heavy industries) so the analysis of the Dillo Dirt is clean, but the city wants to avoid any potential liability. It has no smell by the way except for that sweet, good dirt smell that any properly produced compost has.

Then two or three times during the summer and fall I do a foliar feeding with John's Recipe, which is composed of fish emulsion, seaweed, horticultural molasses and aerated compost tea. I apply this mix from a hose end sprayer, wetting all of the foliage. It gives a nitrogen boost, the seaweed has over 100 micro-nutrients and minerals, the molasses feeds the soil micro-organisms, the aerated compost tea has millions or billions of healthy soil microbes, and fungi to feed the soil, too.

If you don't know about aerated compost tea, you need to get into this stuff. Organic gardeners have always said, "Fee the soil and it will feed the plants." Well, this stuff is how you feed your soil! Soil is an active, living thing. When you make aerated compost tea, you grow a culture of billions of all of the good living things in healthy soil. When you spray or drench this on to your soil, you inoculate it with these good living bacteria and fungi. Add some molasses and you feed the new workers so they can get to work in your soil feeding your plants. You make aerated compost tea by simply taking a five gallon bucket of water and adding a shovel full of your best organic compost. Place an aeration stone from a typical home aquarium into the bucket and attach it to an aquarium air pump. This will keep the water aerated and allow your tea to brew in an oxygen rich environment. After two days, you simply dilute the tea and spray it with a hose end sprayer, two gallon pump sprayer or dump it on your plants. It is miraculous stuff! I add all of the extra organic stuff and put it all on at once.

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