Winter months are an important time in the garden. The shorter days bring a regeneration period for plants and the pollinators that will also emerge in spring. As we tend winter gardens or wait for the spring thaw, there are things we can do now to encourage healthy wildlife, come spring. Here are a few facts and tips gleaned from Master Gardeners across the state.
Pollinators need visual cues
As you plan your spring garden, try to imagine it from a bird's eye view. Pollinators are attracted to large swaths of color. Arrange butterfly and bee-attracting flowers in clusters. Introducing a mix of ground-level and taller plants helps provide shelter and wind-screen for beneficial insects. Cut out the pesticides, if possible, and opt for California native plants. An important example is narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis). Researchers have found that the brightly colored tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) can carry a debilitating parasite that endangers native monarchs. Migrating species, especially monarch butterflies, are best adapted to native flora: https://monarchjointventure.org/.
Leave some “litter” for the guests
Though we can't observe them, many native bees spend the winter dormant in the garden. Both mason bees and bumblebees nest underground. Carpenter bees and other insect allies burrow in wood during colder months. With this in mind, it's a good idea to keep some areas of “leaf litter” and dead wood on the property. If well managed, small brush, tree stumps and snags (dead trees) can be a benefit, rather than an an eyesore or hazard.
Butterflies need TLC
Butterflies are with us through four cycles of their lives: egg; larval; pupa/chrysalis and adult. Many species over-winter in the garden, hidden amid the foliage. If you've discovered a chrysalis in the garden, you've seen an example of nature's delicate processes. Adult butterflies need water, but because they can't drink from an open water source, gardeners will sometimes create “mud baths” by irrigating the soil near their flower beds. A more contained water source can be made of a bucket, filled with sand. Bury the bucket to the rim, and top-off with water. In springtime, add some sticks or leaves that the butterflies can use as perches, and watch who comes to drink.
Do hummingbirds stick around all winter?
Recent studies show that some varieties of hummingbird stay in Southern California, rather than flying south, in winter. Experts who once advised that we remove nectar feeders around Labor Day, now say it's okay to provide food all winter. Anna's and Allen's hummingbirds now stay year-round, and they may even nest in the colder months. To fill feeders, boil and cool a 4:1 mixture of water and sugar (skip the dye). To keep feeders mold-free, clean them weekly with white vinegar, or warm, soapy water. Citizen science projects help researchers track bird migration patterns. Gardeners can join these efforts, like the Audubon Society's Great Backyard Bird Count, set for February 15-18: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/.
Thirteen Ways to make a Pollinator Garden: https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=27516
For more on native plants, including milkweed, visit Theodore Payne Foundation: https://theodorepayne.org
Seeds are ripe when they shake in the pod, are easily removed from the plant, and/or are turning dark in color.
-- from Seed Collection Guidelines for California Native Plant Species, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, by Michael Wall, Seed Conservation Manager
Fall is seed-gathering time in the mountains. Over the past few years, San Bernardino Master Gardeners have begun to highlight seed-sharing, both as part of the Master Gardener mission, and our service to communities. With its hub at Chino Basin Waterwise Community Center, in Montclair, the San Bernardino County Regional Seed Library (SBRSL) also has satellite libraries in Yucaipa and the San Bernardino Mountains. The mountains seed library, still in its infancy, was created with the idea of connecting mountain residents through a shared love of wild-scape gardening.
Native Seed Propagation Propagating native plants can be tricky, because special conditioning is sometimes required to mimic nature's processes. Some plants, for example, need weeks of cool weather before germinating. Others require fire. Some plants prefer being ingested by birds, bears or other critters. A process called stratification is needed for some varieties. This involves storing seeds in a damp, refrigerated environment (33 - 38°F) for 60-90 days, before they're ready to go into the soil. Other seeds require scarification, or the breaking down of husks by acid-washing, hot water baths, sandpaper rubs, or other processes. In talking with Master Gardeners I've heard both success stories, and mixed reviews when it comes to propagating native seeds. Master Gardener/ROWIA member Cori Edwards, of Crestline shared a plan to use pine needles as kindling over a container of fire-start seeds. Mountain gardeners' seed-germinating experiments can be off-beat and interesting, and they always make for good storytelling.
If you are hoping to collect and propagate native seeds, look to the advice of RSABG and the California Native Plants Society and follow some simple guidelines:
- identify plants first (if possible, use both common and Latin names)
- make a note of the conditions in which each plant thrives (what type of soil, sun, and other conditions do you find?)
- always have permission before harvesting seeds
- be sure there are plenty of seeds left on site – use the 5% rule
- do your research to know what special treatments may be needed (should I stratify, scarify, or just go ahead and sow?)
- share! (don't forget to pass on some seeds, along with tips on how to get them started)
San Bernardino County Regional Seed Library (SBRL Facebook Page) https://www.facebook.com/sbrseedlibrary/
Rancho Santa Ana Seed Conservation Project https://www.rsabg.org/conservation/seed-conservation
California Native Plants Society, “California Native Plant Propagation,” by Matt Teel, Jan, 2018 https://www.cnps.org/gardening/california-native-plant-propagation-4014
Heaps Peak Arboretum, Rim of the World Interpretive Association https://www.heapspeakarboretum.com/
Encouraging healthy bee populations has long been part of the Master Gardener mission. In our study of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), we learn that chemical pesticides can do harm to entire food chains, from plants to insects, and other wildlife. With bee colony health very much in the news, many gardeners are surprised to learn that in addition to the European honey bee, California is home to hundreds of species of native bees, many of whom reside in solitary nests, hidden in plain sight around our gardens. On a recent walk through a local apple grove, I was excited to identify four – maybe five types of native bee hovering in the blossoms alongside the honey bees. We know that plants and bees rely on one another for their existence. Recent studies published by the UC Cooperative Extension can help us recognize our native species, and help raise awareness about preserving bee habitats.
How do we identify native bees in the garden? The 2009 report Native Bees are a Rich Resource in Urban California Gardens presents findings of a UCANR study done in collaboration with the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign and the Xerces Society. Over three years, scientists surveyed bees in seven urban areas across the California, including La Cañada-Flintridge, near Pasadena. Of an estimated 1600 native species currently known in California, 60 to 80 species were observed, along with the plants that attract them. The study shows which native bees are likely to show up in our gardens.
Of the species counted, the most common was the ultra-green sweat bee (Agapostemon texanus). To spot this bee it's important to look closely. With its smooth green body and slender shape, the sweat bee can be mistaken for a fly. The photos from the UC study by Rollin Coville (©2009) show a female ultra-green sweat bee (above) and a male (below) as they feed on native blooms.
Another common visitor, the leafcutting bee (Megachile perihirta) has a distinctive mandible designed for chomping stems and leaves.
The digger bee (Anthropora edwardsii) is prevalent in Southern California and is specifically adapted to the tiny flowers of the native manzanita (photo at top of article) (Arctostaphylos sp.). Like many native bees, the digger bee is solitary. The female prefers dark quiet places to lay her eggs, and makes her nest in dead wood, or in the ground.
Unlike the male of most bee species, females have specially formed hind legs made for gathering pollen. During springtime's brief blooms, native bees can be seen going from flower to flower loaded up with the golden powder. This solitary bee (Svasta obliqua expurgata) is a muli-tasker, as she simultaneously sips nectar and collects pollen on a coneflower (Echinacea pupura).
The native bees to look for in our gardens this season include those counted in the study: mining bees (Andrena angustitarsata); digger bees (Anthrophora); and three bumblebee varieties (Bombus), California, black-tip and yellow-faced. Others bees found include carpenter bees (Ceratina); gray digger bees (Habropoda depressa) and long-horn digger bees (Melissodes), as well as squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa); cuckoo bees (Xeromelecta californica); large carpenter bees (Xylocopta tabaniformis incompletes); leafcutting bees (Megachile); mason bees (Osmia coloradensis); and the blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria propinqua).
Learn More About Bees
The Xerces Society's The Citizen Scientist Pollinator Monitoring Guide was created to help communities as they survey pollinator populations at the local level. The user-friendly guide (see link, below) helps gardeners learn the basics about bees, identify different varieties, and track their activities, over time:
The UCANR publication, Native Bees are a Rich Resource in Urban California Gardens is available online. It details some of the native plants that attract native bees, and help them thrive (California Agriculture 63(3):113-120 (2009)):
All photos are by Rollin Coville (© 2009), used by permission of the Regents of the University of California.
Information on Native Bees:
North American Pollinator Protection Campaign
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation