Your Garden’s Flowers

I will admit that I love flowers. I also love gardening. I am not the most proficient or the neatest of gardeners, and I have a taste for the less than manicured bed.

Why do most of us garden? I think there is a combination of an appreciation for the plants themselves and their attributes of beauty such as foliage, shape, stem color and, of course, their flowers. We wish to surround ourselves with the beauty of plants. We do so by in a sense, playing God on our little acre (or 1 /3 of an acre in my case). This is not altogether bad. But any time we pretend to be omnipotent, a little bit of humility is a good thing.

There are two aspects of our obsession with flowers that we have to think about: 1) do they bloom just for us, and 2) do the plants in our gardens exist in a vacuum separate from the surrounding environment? The answer to both questions is no.

The flowering part of a plant contains the sexual reproductive organs. Sexual reproduction allows for variation which helps plants fit in their environment and promotes the long-term survival of the species. Many types of plants reproduce sexually. Angiosperms, or plants which have a covered seed and often have showy flowers, appear in fossil records some 140 million years ago. There is no coincidence in the fact that the explosion of flowering plants about 100 million years ago corresponds closely with the rise of many of the colonial insects such as ants and bees. The basic fact is that the whole reason for producing those physiologically expensive showy flowers is to attract pollinators which will greatly enhance the plants’ chances of successfully reproducing.

So there you have it. As much as we may appreciate flowering plants and arrange them in our yard to admire their beauty, they do not flower for us; they flower for the lowly insects. What’s more, when the plant goes to seed, its seed form is often designed to attract animals to eat it, thus increasing the chances that the seeds will be dispersed to favorable habitats.

These facts lead to the answer of the second question: plants in our gardens do interact with their surrounding ecosystem to a very high degree. They provide structure both above and below the soil. They provide cover. And they provide food in their stems, foliage, flowers and seeds. If soil is an ecosystem’s foundation, plants are the backbone.

Everything we do in our yards has an effect. Because areas around towns and cities are made up of many small lots, the plants in those lots make up the structure for the local ecosystem. That is why it is so important to consider what we plant.

I have felt honored this winter with the daily visits to my yard by yellowrumped warblers and at least three species of sparrows. I have no bird feeders; instead, they come to forage on and around my plants. The cedars behind my house which once formed a farm fence line provide a nightly roost for many bird species and gray squirrels. The hummingbird moths that come each summer to drink nectar are amazing to watch. The importance of this backyard habitat in a time when almost every ecosystem and habitat in North America has been altered or fragmented cannot be underestimated.

As we labor in our gardens and walk in the stream valleys this spring we need to remember that although we appreciate the beauty of the flowers, they do not bloom for us. The plants are trying to complete their reproductive cycles and we are merely bystanders to the interactions between the plants and their pollinators, seed dispersers and their predators. However, as humans we shape our local environment to suite our desires. The choices we make can determine whether a species survives or goes locally extinct. So I urge you this year to fully enjoy the flora, but to also keep the fauna in mind while you dig.

Charles Smith, VNPS Membership Chair.

Do You Whistle At Your Birds?

It’s six-o’clock and I hear a rattling sound outside my kitchen window. Nerve impulse from ear to brain make an instant identity match with the Baltimore oriole.

He’s announced his arrival at my nectar feeder, giving a few clear notes of his whistle song before taking a long drink and departing.

I do a little victory dance.

Was it the bright orange feeder that brought him? Or the presence of American elm trees in my older suburban neighborhood? Maybe it’s the creek nearby.

Quite frankly I think it was the warrn welcome I offered him as I whistled back to his early morning songs while making large sweeping hand motions in the direction of my yard, “the feeder is over here.” (O.K. So I lied and told the neighbor who was watching me I was practicing Ti Chi movements.)

Most likely it is a combination of all of these elements that attracted this bird as well as others to my yard. Feeders are basic to my backyard birdscape equation, along with my many birdbrainy behaviors. I can share these openly with fellow Society members because I know I have a sympathetic audience.

The Society fills an important niche in sharing both an appreciation for birds and the encouragement to conserve habitat in the re-creation of natural spaces in our own backyards. As we become more urbanized, these tiny oases will play an important role in offering save havens for birds.

Further, these spaces are a means for us to maintain a spiritual base to our natural roots. This is, in my opinion, the more critical reason why people feed birds.

Creating habitat requires four basic elements: food, either by way of feeders, fruit bearing trees and shrubs, or flowers that attract a variety of insects; water; a place to take cover from the elements or predators, and a place to raise young.

Lawns, which tend to be monocultures, are costly to keep up and not practical in arid areas. Native plants are more resilient to drought and weather. They also can require less maintenance than ornamental plants. You need not convert your yard into “Wild Kingdom” to see results. Keeping the four basic elements in your overall plan is the key to attracting birds and wildlife to your yard.

Birds are the stuff of poet and painter. With their colors, songs and intricate displays, they appeal to our senses and imaginations. Take, for example, the American goldfinch in his yellow and black “knock-your-socks off” coloration. It’s hard to believe that his roller coaster “flight song” whimsically performed as he sails off your tube feeder and into a vivid blue sky isn’t directed at the one who fills the feeder. Blue sky? What of that bird whose translucent feathers bring the very sky within our grasp? To see a bluebird, particularly on a drab cloudy day, oh, how it shows like a swatch of rare cloth in the breast pocket of a conservative suit. Picasso never had a blue period piece like this one.

Summer is a special time, notably for those in northern climes who get a short and intimate glimpse of birds doing more than eating and keeping warm. Their lives are played out on a feeder ledge, like tiny actors on a stage. We learn to recognize them, marvel at them, applaud them, make them part of our yard. They help us to see our yard as a habitat, complete with food, water, cover and nesting. This reminds us on a micro scale of what conservation is all about. Most importantly they help us connect. If I understand my Eastern thought, Chi is about channeling positive energy. My oriole just stopped back at the feeder. That’s enough Chi for me.

Louise is a writer, a naturalist and runs a nature consulting and birdscaping business, Avian Brain.