A porcupine, a turtle, and a dragonfly went into a bar . . .
Oops, wrong characters, wrong story. Let me try that again: A porcupine, a turtle, and a dragonfly crossed paths with me yesterday, and I was reminded once again why I enjoy living here in my rural subdivision despite the dirt roads and scrub-brush and towering half-dead pine trees and the somewhat marshy, shallow lake. This place is a regular wildlife refuge! In my six years here I’ve seen deer, moose, skunks, racoons, snapping turtles, painted turtles, pileated woodpeckers, blue herons, loons, and a fox. Some people claim to have spotted black bears. Red-winged blackbirds abound in the cattail marsh up the lake aways. Bass and pickerel haunt the water. Three winters in a row we had an owl hooting in the pine just in back of our house. I’ve seen dragonflies in every shape, size, and color among the yellow waterlillies and purple pickerelweed lining the shore.
But yesterday was notable for the sheer variety of creature sightings. Watching the porcupine try his hardest to get out of the road, into the brush, and under an overhanging rock, I wondered if maybe a quilly mating season was underway. Waddling across the road must be an effort for these stout, short creatures who carry an arsenal of daggers everywhere they travel, and I imagine it must take some strong incentive–food or sex–to tempt them from one weedy ditch to the other.
The painted turtle, thank goodness, was on the side of the road and not in the middle where I might have run her over. As I passed, she stopped, craned her neck, and took a good look right back at me before going on her merry way. Where was she going, so far from the water? I’ve seen tribes of them sunning their shells on the dead, bleached tree stumps up at the far end of the lake but never in the road. Was she looking for a good spot to lay her eggs? Hunting frogs in the swampy depression at the foot of the wooded hill? Do turtles even eat frogs?
After a long day of community activities and square-foot garden planting, I sat down in the late afternoon to drink a cup of coffee on my front steps, and there on the cement walkway was the first dragonfly of summer! He was an unremarkable color with a single pair of wings, but he was a reminder of the hot, sunny days just ahead. Dragonflies are beneficial insects, along with ladybugs and bumblebees and many more.
Sipping my coffee and contemplating my winged companion (could it be that the myth of faeries was inspired by these delicate, winged creatures?), I began to think about the web of life and how we are all part of a vast ecosystem that connects such varied creatures as porcupines, turtles, dragonflies, and people. There are the creatures we don’t even see–the underground insects, the beetles beneath the bark of a tree, dust mites, bacteria. Everything works together, sometimes coming unbalanced but then righting itself again sooner or later.
The kind of landscaping and gardening we do can either fit into this ecosystem or work against it. A fairly new approach to designing human habitats is permaculture. Permaculture design is based on the idea that everything works together and has multiple purposes. Everything is connected, so the idea is to take advantage of those connections to create beauty, function, and usefulness. For example, when you raise a few chickens in your backyard garden, you can feed your kitchen scraps and weeds to the cluckers (waste management), harvest the eggs (food), and use the resulting manure as compost for future gardens (soil building). The chickens will also hunt for insects that might otherwise harm your plants (pest control).
Another example of permaculture design is the concept of garden guilds. A guild is a plant community where each plant benefits from the other. Native American peoples developed a plant guild that is known as the Three Sisters. Corn, pole beans, and squash are planted together. The corn acts as a trellis for the beans, the beans (a legume) help add nitrogen to the soil for greater fertility, and the squash acts as a natural mulch to keep down the weeds that might steal nutrients from all the plants.
Another guild is an apple-tree guild. I learned about this one in an awesome book called GAIA’S GARDEN: A GUIDE TO HOME-SCALE PERMACULTURE. I took this book out of the library and decided to buy it about five sentences into the introduction. It has not just theory but also practical suggestions and guidelines for using permaculture principles in your home landscape.
The apple guild is definitely one I am going to try. I was already planning on installing a couple of apple trees into my landscape, but now I will also plant a ring of daffodils at the distance where the trees branches will end at full-growth. The bulbs will inhibit the growth of grass beneath the tree, so there will be less competition for nutrients and less need to fertilize. Deer and gophers do not like to eat daffodils, so planting them at the edge will keep those creatures from damaging the tree. Within the circle of bulbs can be flowers and herbs that attract beneficial insect pollinators like bees, or that can be used for food or medicine by humans. The author of the book, Toby Hemenway, mentions things like yarrow, comfrey, dandelion, clover, and fava beans. Some of these also work as mulch plants and nutrient-adders. Everything works together, making less work and headache for the gardener while also creating a beautiful environment that mimics what Mother Nature does. You don’t see entire fields of corn growing up spontaneously, but you do see tiny understory plants growing beneath trees in the wild.
A flicker of blue outside my window just caught my attention. A jay is making a call at my garden boxes. Guess I’ll go see if any of the new tomatoes and peppers need a drink. Maybe I’ll scooch down for a look at the teeny-tiny ants that have colonized my lawn and think about the interconnectedness of nature. Or maybe I’ll just make myself a cup of coffee and read some more of Hemenway’s book.
Have you ever practiced companion planting in your gardens? What animals or insects have you observed recently? Share you experiences, join the circle, celebrate connectedness right here . . . Outside the Box.