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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Bee, box and rain gardens

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Winter clouds

At dusk on January 24th I was walking along the side of the road. There was a lull in traffic and it was wonderfully quiet. Immersed in my own thoughts, this metallic buzzing chirp somehow entered my head. It came from the open overgrown pasture behind trees. I paused and counted up to fifteen weird chirps before they ended. A minute or two later I heard a faint twittering chip chip whistling sound from high above descending to earth. Seconds later the whistling stopped. At ground level from the hidden field came subdued but excited bird talk. It quickly hushed.

I had just heard, not seen, the sky dance of the woodcock. The male puts on a spectacular courtship display to impress his lady. This guy tried to first catch her attention by issuing piercing peents, launched high into the sky before circling down chirping as wind whistled through his flight feathers, then apparently landed near her and had tried to strike up a conversation. “What’s a timberdoodle like you doing in a place like this?” He started to repeat the entire process again, but four widely spaced trucks drove past as darkness settled. By the time the noise had ceased, it was dark and still.

The woodcock (Scolopax minor) goes by many curious names: timberdoodle, big-eye, mudbat, bogsucker and night partridge. It is a shore bird that has come inland to live, like the Killdeer. The bird, about the size of a robin, is disguised in russets, browns and blacks…natural camouflage. These hardy birds have long thin bills since they like to slurp down earthworms. Woodcocks are part of the natural food chain, they themselves eaten by hawks, owls and other predators. Unfortunately, their populations are in decline as habitats are being destroyed…. by us. Fields sprayed with herbicides and fertilizers to support cattle, tainted water sources and development (houses, roads) are all culprits.

The perfect lead-in to “Gardening with the Experts” held January 25th at Gordon Cooper Tech Center. The 22nd annual program was presented by the Shawnee Community Beautification Committee. Master Gardener Tom Terry introduced the first speaker, Dr. Yoon Kik Kim, bee savior of “Urban Landscaping for Pollinators.”

What affects honeybee populations? Small hive beetles make a gooey mess of honey and bees abandon their hive. Varroa mites, comparable to ticks, feed on bee body fat and cause deformed wings and disturbed immune systems. Genetically modified corn and soybean pollen often kill bees. The herbicide Glyphosate (we saw pictures of rats riddled with tumors) destroys the gut bacteria in bees and disrupts their navigation systems. Bees can travel up to three miles from their hive. Dr. Kim noted agricultural chemical researchers for Bayer test adult bees, not the eggs or grubs.

In the Dec/Jan 2020 issue of Mother Earth, Jonathan Lundgren said many pesticides don’t kill bees outright, but affect genetics, hormones and microbial allies. Agriculture is reshaping biological communities too fast, and the honeybee is one of the casualties. Lundgren feels no approach will succeed unless agriculture itself is reformed. Healthy soils make healthy plants.

Beekeeper Kim knows all too well the ups and downs of the bee world. He lost most of his bees last year to small hive beetle.

Solutions: Diversify plants to scatter bloom times through spring, summer and fall. Maples bloom February and March, black locusts April to May, alfalfa and Vitex May to frost, white sweet clover April to July (yellow sweet clover later May to July), persimmons May to June, cotton July to frost and buckwheat late summer to frost (buckwheat honey is dark sweet ‘axle grease’ ). Do not mow when plants are blooming and producing nectar. Don’t create “green deserts” by mowing everything. Develop sustainable environmental laws in Shawnee. Healthy plants make healthy bees.

“Gardening in a Box” with Larry and Letitia Pierce is an easier way to garden. Benefits: no weeding, boxes are portable and the automatic watering system saves up to 70% in water usage. The gardening boxes seem to encourage robust plants. Larry demonstrated the basic layout of the gardening box. He revealed the false bottom, plastic shelf with two wicking holes, white water tube and overflow hole in side. A small box with float valve controlled the water level of boxes which are linked by tubes.

Leticia knows how important bees are to flowers and proclaimed she was a ‘secret stalker’ of Dr. Kim! Beautiful color pictures were shown of the January 2019 pepper harvest, Bloody Butcher and Japonica corn, enormous tomato plants and huge cabbages.

The talk ended with this quote by Alice Walker (The Color Purple): “In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.” A sentiment shared by many. My mother’s father always raised a garden. She loved azaleas and patio plants. I go for trees.

Dr. Qing Lana Luo spoke about “Rain Gardens for Naturally Resilient Communities and Sustainability.” For 17 years she was a park designer of public open spaces and is well qualified to discuss gardens that cleanse and encourage water to infiltrate into the soil. Rain gardens may be in-ground, raised beds, wet, dry, oval, round, free form, with or without curbs.

Rain gardens must have level basins with inflow and overflow components. They are designed to receive runoff from the roof or impervious surfaces and planted areas. Placement must be 10 feet away from a building or house foundation, 100 feet from a wellhead and not in an area with a high-water table.

So, how well does the soil drain? A percolation test can be easily done. Dig a hole 6 inches deep and 6 inches wide, fill with water and measure how fast it drains in 24 hours. Excellent time is 1-6 hours. Passable is from 6-16 hours, but if it takes over 24 hours, find another spot.

Rain gardens act as sponges that mitigate the soil. In a natural system there is 10% runoff and 50% infiltration. Urbanized areas have 55% surface runoff and only 15% infiltration. Rain gardens are important in sustainable stormwater management since they reduce flooding and improve water quality. OSU Fact Sheet HLA-6454 “Sustainable Landscapes: Designing a Rain Garden for Residential Property” gives the whys, how-to-dos and right plants for the job.

The program finished on a high note. Twenty-four cool gardening ideas had been submitted by attendees. Top tips:

For simple plant food, save the veggie water from lunch or supper (no salt please) and put on plants or garden.

To prevent mosquitoes, add some drops of veggie oil to your birdbath or rain barrel. It will form a protective film over the surface of water. Oil floats.

For the physically impaired gardener who wants to extend or make a new plant bed, consider the Lasagna Garden. Begin with cardboard over grass, cover with leaves, compost, more leaves, aged manure and topsoil.

Some amazing door prizes were given away. The seed swap ended the informative morning. National Seed Swap Day is always the last Saturday in January.

Bee gardens, box gardens, rain gardens. Landscape with nature in mind. Choose one or all three. Spring is coming, so twitters the timberdoodle.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.