Monday, July 14, 2008

How green is your pet?

So maybe by now you're conserving on gas (these days, who isn't?), turning out the lights when you don't need them, using summer's heat to dry your clothes, using fewer pesticides and herbicides, composting, and lots of other "green" ideas you've been hearing about.

I know I have. And yet every time I feed the herd of cats we've acquired and I toss yet another aluminum can in the recycling, or scoop out the cat boxes into old plastic grocery bags and toss the bags into the trash, I wonder if there's not a better way.

Well, wouldn't you know it. Of course there is. has a whole page on How to Green Your Pet, from spaying and neutering to prevent pet overpopulation problems, to keeping cats indoors so they don't continue to decimate the wild bird population (or keep them behind safe fencing, such as The Purrfect Fence), to cleaning up after them properly.

Want to go a step further? I've wondered if there's something better I could do with those bags of kitty waste I've been dumping, especially since I've been using canvas bags for grocery shopping and my supply of paper and plastic bags is running low. True, we're not supposed to compost the stuff and put it on our veggie gardens, for fear of parasites and diseases. But it can be composted, using a pit composter which you can build yourself or even buy ready made (or see this model).

I'll be investigating the possibilities of composting pet waste, as I have some questions still. For example, how concentrated are the nutrients coming out of the composted poo? Could I, for example, plant some shrubs around it or a tree near it? Would that supply a steady stream of fertilizer, or would that be too strong for the woody plants? I may just have to try it and see.

The little guy with his tongue sticking out is our Edison, last summer when he was still little. Now he looks like this:

except his back leg is all shaved now because he had orthpedic surgery to correct some congenital problems in his ankle and knee, poor guy.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Review: Noah's Garden

Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

As interested as I am in gardening for wildlife you'd think I would have run across this a lot sooner. Noah's Garden is the narrative of the author's work to restore her 5 acre lot in upstate New York to something resembling native vegetation. It turns out that restoring a habitat involves a lot more than just planting some native species and calling it good. Habitats are interactive systems, and having the right native species for the area in the right numbers and the right combinations are all important.

Once the critical mass is reached, however, Stein herself discovered that if you plant the habitat, they will come. In this case, "they" consisted of plant species that she'd not planted herself, and she watched in amazement as a rare bit of endangered ecosystem self-assembled over the course of several seasons once she had the right woody plants in place.

Noah's Garden is not a scolding rebuke against "foreign" plants in the landscape, nor against any particular type of landscaping at all. Most of the book chronicles the author's personal discoveries on her own acreage and around a tiny vacation cottage. The author does go into why the typical suburban blandscape is so hostile to wildlife. Sprawling suburbs have, in fact, been enormously destructive, as native habitats are replaced by monocultures of lawn and a small selection of nonnative "easy care" shrubs and trees.

Can suburbs and native habitats co-exist? They can, according to Stein, if one is willing to be neither a pure nativist nor an intolerant lawn jockey. Pocket woodlands featuring native trees, berry-bearing hedgerows with native shrubs, wildlife-friendly ponds, backyard meadows created with native grasses and flowers (not the weedy "Meadow in a Can" products) can all contribute to a more varied, more naturalized landscape. Stein also suggests ways in which neighbors with adjoining back yards (or builders who create those adjoining yards in the first place) might cooperate to create islands and corridors of woods and shrubs that are more wildlife-friendly.

And what would be the benefits? Why bother with the work of re-creating habitat when we already know how to do the lawn-shrub-barkdust routine so well? Because the varied habitat can actually help us garden better. A healthy habitat supports birds and predatory insects that feast on garden pests and keep pests from overpopulating in the first place. Water features can harbor toads, a gardener's best friend. And let's face it, wildlife watching is just plain interesting.

When I travel to large cities, where the suburbs sprawl beyond the horizon, I'm often dismayed at the vast artificiality of it all, and at the prospect of anyone attempting to garden for wildlife in the midst of so much wildlife-hostile territory. One yard out of thousands with a hedgerow and a butterfly garden isn't going to restore a habitat. But if that one yard inspires one more yard... and that inspires one more yard... perhaps something wonderful might come of it. (Registering your backyard habitat with the National Wildlife Federation and putting up their official habitat sign is one way of educating and inspiring the neighbors.)

It's unfortunate that Sara Stein has passed away since this book was written. It is fortunate that the book lives on as a testimony to what one person with a little determination can accomplish for this earth.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Save the Bees -- eat ice cream!

Bees, as you may have heard, are in trouble. Many hypotheses have been forwarded as to why honeybees populations have been dropping, including pesticide use (the most obvious), bee mites, lack of forage, and even cell phones. All these hypotheses have some evidence to back them up, and the problem may be a combination of them all.

Some people plant bee gardens, just as one might plant flowers for hummingbirds or butterflies. This helps by providing nectar and pollen for foraging bees, and can support all kinds of good worker bees besides honeybees.

If you're wondering, "Is there one more thing I can do for bees? Just one small thing?" Hagen-Daas has an answer for you. Check out their Help the Honeybees website, an interactive site done in Flash. They have more information on bees, tips for helping bees, info on what the company is doing for bees, and a cute little bee-maker so you can email animated bees to your friends.

You mean I can help bees by eating more Hagen Daas? Sweeeet!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Garden in July

I'm rather overdue on posting these pictures, since many of these flowers have faded already. The California poppies are still going strong, and the Columbine are hanging in there, but the true poppies are gone, and some strong winds took the last of the petals off of the Lincoln Constance climbing rose today:

The crabapple that it's climbing on is dead and must be removed, but that would leave my rose without support. I'm considering -- and one of the older ladies who walks around the neighborhood a lot concurs with my idea -- of cutting out the smaller branches and leaving the main trunk and a few strong branches for the rose to clamber over.

The former ugliest corner, now transformed into a veggie garden, is coming along. Later on, as the pink geraniums bloom more profusely, the front bed will look even better.

Columbines came up in many spectacular colors this year. They tend to wander all over my garden. I didn't get a good shot of the native Aquilegia formosa, which is small and bright orange, before it faded, but the others that turned up are here, starting with the blue and white:

Here's a solid blue:
A dramatic coral pink, with yellow highlights in the center:

A dwarf red-and-white named variety, "The Hobbit," which alas, did not set seed:

And my favorite this year, a shell-pink Columbine with heartbreakingly delicate shading:

California poppies can come in more colors than blazing orange. Here are some in pink:

And a sweet vanilla white:
This pretty annual lavender poppy came from seed sold by one of the historical gardens in town. I made a point of saving seed for it this year for seed exchanges.

I also saved seed from this pink double poppy that appeared all by itself.

Local eating: cherry time

You start with some of these, fresh-picked from a local orchard;
Take the pits out using a cherry pitter, if you wish -- or leave them in as my grandmother did to add a hint of almond flavor (and you never have to wonder if a cherry has a pit in it because they all do):

Sometimes you get some "help" with the pitting. This is The General, having a fruity snack:

Load the cherries into jars with some hot sugar syrup (1 part sugar to 4 parts water for light syrup), leave about 1/2 inch air space, wipe the tops, put on new lids, screw on the rings, and put them in a canner -- in this case, my new steam canner, which uses a lot less water and a lot less electricity than my old water bath canner, and won't endanger my glass-top stove:

And after processing for 25 minutes and tightening the rings, voila!

Today's score: out of about 19 pounds of cherries, I canned up 28 pints of dark cherries and a few left for fresh eating. All but two of the pints sealed. I may reprocess the failed two, or just eat 'em now. Tomorrow I'll wash the jars and put them away for the winter.

It's such a good feeling to have glistening jars of jewel-bright canned fruit filling the pantry shelves. You feel like you're heading into winter ready for anything. As a bonus, home-canned fruit tastes ever so much better than store-bought, especially peaches. Store-bought canned peaches are bland, peach-flavored plastic. Home-canned peaches, put up at the peak of ripeness, are pure ambrosia.