Tag Archives: butterfly bush

Sad Side Yard Transformation

I have truly struggled with my southwest-ish facing side yard. It’s where my two compost bins are located because the afternoon sun really heats things up and it’s a convenient trip from the kitchen to dump scraps.

My first attempt to bring some life and color to this space was a series of butterfly bushes. Epic fail. After the first year I lost one of the bushes. I replaced the lost bush, but by the end of year two all of the bushes were dead. I cut them to the ground and let the bed lay barren for a year while I thought about what I wanted to do.

My second thought was to build a hop trellis and grow some hops for my homebrew. My recent reduction in beer drinking and the subsequent stoppage of homebrewing made that an irrelevant idea. Back to the drawing board. Here is what I was left to work with:

Sad Side Yard

Why not vegetables? Since vegetables are generally annuals I would not need to worry about losing plants to the inevitable winter wind. It’s not a bed that people spend a lot of time looking at, so the aesthetic value of flowering bushes is diminished. Hmmm…..

The first challenge was removing the god damned river rock and landscape fabric. Seriously, this stuff is the worst. The rock just retains heat and provides no benefit to the plants other than keeping weeds down. The landscape fabric actually lets water run off rather than percolating into the soil and it traps dirt on top where weeds eventually take root making the landscape fabric irrelevant. Ugh.

With that dirty, dusty job done things went pretty smoothly. The dirt in the bed was fairly rich, but I still amended it with heaping handfuls on compost and coconut coir. In went three cherry tomatoes, three paste tomatoes, two sweet peppers, two hot peppers, two edamame plants, and four cauliflower starts. A thick layer of shredded cypress mulch on top finished everything off:

Happy Side Garden

What was once a barren and sad side yard has become a vibrant little garden. The picture above is a somewhat dated as the tomato and pepper plants are really taking off with the perfect mix of rain and sun we have been getting in eastern Iowa this spring.

Now imagine how much food we could grow if every house in America just converted one neglected bed alongside their home into a small vegetable garden. Amazing potential.

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Taking Stock of Winter’s Losses

This past winter was harsh. There were long stretches of frigid temperatures. Snow and ice clung on longer than I can remember in a while. And the landscape has paid a price.

Granted, it did not really warm up until this week with temperatures last week falling to near freezing at night. With some heat, humidity, and rain it is time to take stock of what damage the weather caused. It is not pretty.

I was really excited when I planted my dawn redwood. Now it is dead:

Dead Dawn Redwood

This is a great spot for a tree, but it obviously needs to be something hardier if climate change means we are going to end up with harsher winters. Or wetter springs. Or drier summers. Who knows?

The loss of the butterfly bushes was not so surprising since I lost one of the bushes last year as well:

Dead Butterfly Bushes

I am kind of bummed out because this was going to be my pollinator garden. I keep thinking that this might be the perfect spot for a hop trellis. I figure that I can fit four to five vines in the space that should provide enough fresh hops for a couple of batches of wet hopped beer. If you have ever had a well-made wet hopped beer it is a treat because the flavor is so distinct. To avoid winter kill, I could bring the rhizomes in once they have gone dormant and store them in my keezer, which stays a cool 38 degrees all the time.

What really surprised me was how bad the lilacs got brutalized:

Hurt Lilac

Normally, these are some very hardy plants but this exemplar is struggling to fully leaf out. Granted, it is alive where other plants have died so I have to cut it some slack.

Much to my wife’s chagrin this means I am going to be spending some time at the garden center this Memorial Day weekend. Any suggestions on plants?

DIY Mason Bee Homes

Mason Bee House Closeup

Pollinators are in trouble.  Colony collapse disorder has devastated bee populations.  Our national love affair with pesticides and insecticides has been a veritable holocaust for beneficial insects.  As a homeowner, part-time gardener, and all-around concerned person I felt it was my responsibility, perhaps duty, to build a habitat that was inviting to these insects that do so much for us humans.

The easiest thing that people can do to help out is to stop indiscriminately applying chemicals to our landscape.  Just because your lawn may be inhabited by ants and grubs is not license to conduct chemical warfare.  As a matter of principle, we should cease applying chemicals on our landscapes entirely because it is so wasteful.

Next, you can create inviting landscapes through the use of desirable plants.  I am a sucker for butterfly bushes and other showy perennials that butterflies and bees seem to love.  These plants tend to be drought tolerant and suited for my eastern Iowa climate, so all the better.

Lastly, I decided to create some homes for mason bees.  Mason bee is a generic name for a genus of bees (Osmia) that contains hundreds of different species.  In North America, according to Wikipedia, there are over 130 species.  Mason bees, unlike the more well-known European honeybee, are solitary and do not sting unless physically provoked.

One way to encourage mason bees to inhabit your yard is to make a “house” for these garden helpers.  You can search the internet and find hundreds of variations of mason bee house construction from painfully simple to bizarrely extravagant.  I am going to hew closer to the simple side of the spectrum with my construction because I prefer that aesthetic in my garden.

I started with a scavenged piece of 4×4 dimensional “white” wood lumber.  One key thing to remember when constructing your mason bee house is to avoid treated lumber at all costs.  You do not want to create an environment that actively kills the mason bees seeking to build a home in your yard.  I suppose you could use cedar or some other fancier wood to construct a house, but I liked the idea of using a scrap piece of wood.  My guess is that this was originally spruce or fir because of the smell when cutting the blocks and the lack of sap, which seems to be so prevalent on pine lumber.

I cut blocks that were approximately 8” tall and had a 10 degree slope cut on one end for the attachment of a board to act as a protective overhang:

Mason Bee Blanks

Again, I utilized a scrap piece of 1×6 pine dimensional lumber to construct the overhangs.  I simply nailed the overhang to the block with a trio of small nails.

Somewhere in my research, please let me know if anyone has a source, I read that a 5/16” hole is the perfect diameter for mason bees.  I do not know if this is true, but I am going to roll with the idea this time and see what happens.  Lacking a drill press, it took some time to drill all of the holes necessary for the house.

I was going to have more holes per block.  However, I quickly discovered that it would have weakened the wood block considerable.  So, I cut the number of holes in half and staggered them across the face of the block to create the environment for my soon-to-be garden friends.

Scavenging through my parts box and a friends bin of leftover plumbing supplies from many remodels of pre-World War II houses in eastern Iowa produced the perfect mounting system.  I kind of wanted a more industrial look to the houses than a simple wood stake would provide.  A pipe flange screwed to the bottom of the mason bee house and a two foot long piece of threaded black pipe were an ideal solution:

Mason Bee Flange

My hope is that over time the pipe rusts to a nice patina and I can easily reuse the pipe/flange combo by simply unscrewing it from the bottom of the house.

Amidst the butterfly bushes on my west facing garden bed these little houses look perfectly at home:

Mason Bee House Garden