words by ethel & paul

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A truly “natural” garden would be a patch of vigorous weeds. There would be some variety; weeds accommodate each other almost as much as they kill each other. (Like humans: Naturally hostile or naturally cooperative? Both.)

A natural garden looks like growth with no gardener, but the fact is, keeping a natural garden weed-free (or even only almost weed free) is much more difficult than pulling weeds from orderly rows of same-plants. The advantage--or desirability--of a natural garden is its provision for wildlife--both friend and enemy. Offer water year-round for birds (both for drinking and bathing) and natural fruits and seeds on-site, as best they can be provided.

Our garden is in old Salt Lake City, near Liberty Park. It is moderate, indeed, but for a near-downtown location--so important for feeding migrating birds attracted to the huge green of Liberty Park--it is generous.

The joy of the natural garden is avoidance of militaristic, rigid orderliness--square lines messing up a round Earth. A natural garden should be teeming with life--above ground and below and in the sky above--lifeforms competing with each other for survival and dominance. In our mothers’ gardens, many butterflies charmed the flowers; today, a butterfly sighting is a rare occasion. And we need mosquitos to lure the exquisitely lovely dragonfly.

Children delight in meandering paths, random stepping stones, having a choice of which path to take. An easy-to-provide and exciting surprise for children, is a “tricky-bar” or a good, substantial swing tucked in among the trees.

For birds? Give them what they need: Disorderly-ness that provides nest-building materials, cover, and tiny trash heaps that harbor and nurture bugs. They need dusty ground in summer; robins need worm-bearing bare soil.

The Yellow Warbler (the childhood “wild canary”) of the unbelievable trilling song needs dandelion seeds for its brilliant yellow feathers. Most small and tiny birds really like seeds of cornflower (bachelor button). (They re-seed readily.) Sunflower seeds, from wee to giant, get eaten, but we prefer “black oil” medium size rather than the hard-to-crack gray-stripe that are a major challenge to Chickadees.

Providing food for birds in winter may not be “natural” but the diminishing of bird populations is due to loss of habitat more than anything. There has to be an adjustment; the birds must become dependent or perish. In winter, nijer (“thistle”) seed will feed kinglets, siskins, lesser goldfinches, and ambitious chickadees. Millet is popular, and cracked corn--not too coarse--is more attractive than you would expect. Those reddish round seeds in mixes are milo and we have never seen any bird eat it, not even mourning doves. Jays like natural peanuts in the shell (or bare, but we think “natural” is better for them) and they eat sunflower seeds and cracked corn. Starlings are not equipped to eat most seeds, but eat juniper berries (as do many birds) and the mini fruits of flowering pears, bread, scraps, and peanut butter.

These feathered folk all love peanut butter. We get “natural” no-sugar peanut butter and smear it into the cracks of tree-bark. Many birds love suet, or beef fat not as fancy as suet, but beef is now taboo in our feeding program. There are times when we put out canned fish or cat food: A party in the garden is likely to be visited by yellow jackets (we tolerate them) and a smelly treat will keep them busy and the rest of us safe.

Early in pre-spring, Robins head for the bright orange berries still hanging on the Native Mountain Ash. Arnold’s Red honeysuckle (9-foot shrub) blooms before hummingbird arrival on Cinco de Mayo. Honeysuckle vines provide beauty and nectar through even cool seasons. We have a Russian Olive that has red fruits the birds really relish but often lose to decorate our path.

Early penstemon such as Eatonii carry the hummers to the summer treats--Monarda, Lucifer (red) Crocosmia, and later, Scarlet Runner Bean red flowers, and the no-water Zauschneria. They seem to shun Kniphofia (“red-hot poker”) after other small birds have raided it, puzzling us.

We have the wild-type grape called “Beta”, whose left-overs provide raisins with oily seeds in winter. The birds have a Himrod grape that is unbelievably tasty when we get a taste. Yes, we have paper-bagged the grape clusters. Jays removed the bags. We covered the bunches with foil (easier to do) but the Jays had fun right away removing that. We also tried, and try, to save the Black Monukka grape that ripens later. We had tried nets; one trapped bird ended that practice.

Our solution to fair sharing (it’s the birds who are not fair): we’ve had only one season to test, but so far remarkable success at keeping grapes and fruits neat--not pecked. The shiny, glittery CD discs, super-glued label-to-label, suspended in trees and vines. Always in motion and flashing vivid rainbows seemed to intimidate, not just repel, the birds. (Thistle-feeders were not affected.) After we harvested our share, we removed the “scare-disc” and let the birds have their share. (Saving fruits thus allowed us to take near-bushels of clean peaches and plums to the Weigand Center Kitchen--fruit that could have been ruined by enthusiastic pecking.)

But we save a corner, and elsewhere a strip, that are not natural at all. We till both, still unsure whether that is a good practice. As we age, we may be forced to “experiment” with non-tilled gardening.

In that corner, we manage to get the amazing zucchini, peppers, eggplant, and with considerable effort, we get our Walla Walla Sweet onions in before April One. (They bulb in the guidance of day-length.) The “elsewhere strip” is permanent fences that support a large variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and late-blooming Scarlet Runners for the hummingbirds as other flowers fade. (The astonishing Xeric Zauschneria, however, continues in lavish bloom long after the hummers are gone.)

We think the love affair with birds is as natural as our affinity for humans.

Ethel and Paul