The Crestone Eagle • August, 2020

Garden Guru: Achieving Balance

by Matie Belle Lakish

It’s dry out there. Clouds are starting to build in the afternoon, and maybe rain will follow. Let’s hope. But in the meantime, every gardener I know is complaining about the “critters” that want to eat their veggies. And fruits. And flowers, and even their grass and shrubs. What’s up?

I’ve been watching the birds a lot lately. Sitting on my deck nursing a broken hip has limited my trips around the garden and orchard, so I have been watching the wildlife that comes within my vision, and I am amazed at the variety of birds that have visited my garden. As I’ve watched them flying in, especially in the morning and late afternoon, I realize what I have done. I’ve created an oasis. Just as the proverbial oases of ancient caravans brought shelter and relief to desert travelers, my garden is offering a green, abundant habitat to birds and other wildlife—at my expense, of course. Unlike bubbling springs in the oases of old, mine comes with a Water and Sanitation bill. If all I wanted was food for the table, it would probably not be worth the cost. But then, what would the birds, bees, and chipmunks do? And what pleasure would I get from watching my trees and shrubs and the Rocky Mountain Bee Plants die of thirst?

The robins may be the most aggressive avian occupants. I recall a couple of months ago when a single male was sitting in the highest tree and working hard to attract a mate. Apparently, he was successful, for I watched a pair with their young ones under my currant bush, the adults bringing worms, moths, and young grasshoppers to the speckled-breasted youth who were sitting watching. A couple of days later I watched as they moved into the branches of low trees, then into the tops of trees where adults encouraged them to hop from branch to branch. Now they are flying around and harvesting my bush cherries, while dad sits on a branch and scolds me for coming too close.

It wasn’t that I intended to plant Hansen bush cherries for robins. I intended to eat them myself, or share them with the grandkids. Fortunately, I planted enough to share. One bush I have covered with netting, while the other is “for the birds”.

Robins are not the only winged residents. There are actually myriad birds drawn to my oasis. A pair of doves just circled through. Cedar waxwings come only to visit my Western Serviceberry bush. Much smaller birds are enjoying the small seeds on the blue Bachelor Buttons flowers, and even the colorful Western Tanagers have flown in to survey the insect offerings. I greatly appreciate how the Black-capped chickadees and the nuthatches groom the piñons and keep the insects under control. Hummingbirds move from blossom to blossom, especially enjoying the purple Bee Balm, or Monarda. In the evenings, the swallows come swooping over the yard, catching mosquitos on the fly.

But birds are not my only visitors. Many have four feet as well. Even though my garden is fenced, various-sized critters are drawn to the feast I have created. The smallest 4-footeds are the chipmunks. They really like my woodpile and the Silver Lace vine. Probably they eat a few bush cherries as well, and I have seen them in the Serviceberry. Other gardeners seem to have trouble with them eating young plants. So far, that hasn’t been a problem in my garden. Instead, it is the rabbits and Rock Squirrels that mowed down young plants this year. These two I would happily fence out. Rabbits, maybe. Rock Squirrels, no success. They climb my fence as though it weren’t there. And the biggest four-footed, the bear—to deter this friend from my orchard requires major fence infrastructure, including electric.

The third group of visitors, the insects, seem to be in retreat in my garden. Aside from the grasshoppers the robins are catching, I’m not seeing many of the pests that we had last year. Is the drought slowing down their reproduction, or did the cold snap in May set them back? Maybe all the robin activity has really impacted them. Maybe they’ll be here later. For whatever reason, the Blister Beetles, the Harlequin bugs and the aphids on cabbages are not around. Or just maybe, all those birds are eating all those bugs.

But to achieve true balance, the soil has to be healthy. I garden organically, using natural soil amendments like composts and manures, along with some additions like bone meal and an iron/sulfur addition to modify the pH when I am starting a new bed. There are other organic fertilizers that can help, and adding mulch on top of the soil increases humus and fertility over time.

I have been asked many times about bringing in topsoil when starting a new garden. Unless it has been sterilized, I prefer not to do that, because it usually comes with an infusion of weed seeds. One of the most obnoxious is White Top, an invasive species with long taproots that is almost impossible to eradicate without chemicals.

After a few years of adding various composts and manures, as well as introducing earthworms and soil microorganisms, my garden is no longer a sand dune, but is alive with microbe-sized critters, as well as fungi and bacteria. Some of those have been demonstrated to help gardeners maintain a positive mood, as well as feed the plants.

But it all hinges on water. Microbes, worm eggs, earthworms, plant roots, stems, flowers and seeds, grasshoppers, insects, robins and doves, mosquitos and swallows, piñons and jays, hawks and rabbits, bears and apples—it is all connected. Sometimes, as a human gardener, I may seem to be in control of this interplay. Most of the time, I am just an observer. And yet, it doesn’t happen without humans.

I am especially grateful this month to all those friends and relatives that have helped keep everything alive while I was unable to. To all beings, I am grateful.