Jetting from coast to coast you can look out the plane’s window over Nebraska on a clear day and see flat fields. For hours. You might yawn, plug in the headset, and drift to sleep. But we like it here. So do millions of migrating birds who follow rivers north and west, stopping at wetlands and farm ponds to recharge. The same can be said for butterflies and other insects that brave the mid-continent gauntlet each spring and fall.
This summer it’s gauntlet plus. Last week’s forecast was 100 every day—just as it is for the next week. Sun and not a drop of rain. I’ve done prevention watering in my wildlife garden two times since May, once I see the clay cracking a few inches deep; I usually water just once in August. The plants are doing ok, but I hadn’t seen a bird in weeks.
That is, until I brought the hoses out into my wildlife garden. Goldfinches stood in the open or on liatris stems, ruffling their feathers in the artificial rainfall as robins stalked the soil. Then when I cleaned out the birdbath and refilled it, a miracle happened: kingbirds, gold and house finches, mourning doves, cardinal couples, blue jays, wrens, brown thrashers, northern flickers, chickadees, all coming for a drink…. And this was over a one hour period at dinner one evening. They don’t even come this fast when I put out seed.
In this drought it’s easy to think about watering trees and young perennials we planted in spring, but the same hope comes on feathers—it’s all part of the same ecosystem in the wildlife garden. Sometimes I take a minute or two and spray the garden in the morning and evening, wasting water of course, but thinking about the droplets that land on leaves or stones, ready to be sipped by some insect or amphibian. I give the cupplant and sedum leaves extra attention. Maybe I can bring the butterflies back from Canada since the garden has been 2D this year, missing their acrobatics.
It’s not quiet on the baptisia australis in my wildlife garden. My annual nemesis has returned—genista broom moth larvae. They defoliate a mature 4×4’ plant in a few days, seemingly doubling in number like a virus every 3 seconds. Does anyone else have these? Apparently they can overwinter in leaf litter and be worse the next year. The last two days I’ve squished 200+ caterpillars (I feel no guilt for this). I always start out just tossing them over the fence because they can’t find their way back, but after a few dozen I get angry and pop them like zits. It’s the one major interaction I have with the garden now, minus my sighing from behind a window in an air conditioned house.
And let’s not get started about squash bugs (lots of pumpkin blooms, not any pumpkins) and chrysanthemum lacebugs, the latter which are seriously stunting and killing asters, sunflowers, and goldenrods left and right as they suck out the leaf juices. My finger tips are getting chapped.
Most of my prairie perennials are doing ok in my wildlife garden, some blooming a month early and shorter, some on time and tall, all taking the drought in relative stride. I wonder if this uncommon year will be more common. I fear it. I think about moving north where it’s cooler and where the monarchs must be.
It’s too hot to garden, so I make a quick walk near sunset once or twice a week and watch the baptisia turn into a clump of green sticks. I let the genista larvae have the last leaves. Sometimes, you can’t win and just have to hang on. I think that’s what environmental change will be like, but with a native plant wildlife garden, I’m as ready as I can be.
(If you’re in Wichita, KS Tuesday 7/24 at 7pm, stop by Botanica Gardens and hear me speak about native prairie plants–and how to grow for insects, which are the key signal to a healthy landscape. Books, plants, seeds, and photos will be given away and for sale. As will the shirt I wear. You know, like a rock star.)
© 2012, Benjamin Vogt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us