Alien Invader to Home Defense

While Cedar’s busy with Real Life, let’s talk about a topic that she and I often geek out together: biology, gardening, and the wider implications on terraforming!

Looks like we’re going to be dragging Laura Montgomery into our extended geekery sections on the incredible utility of fungi, why we really will have to import spiders to new worlds (as if we could keep them out), and the utility (even if we hates them with a burning passion, my precious, yes we does) of mosquitoes in the food web. I’m not alone on that one: my Calmer Half is very anti bird’s nests on the house, but the barn swallows are cute, determined, and… his antipathy has noticeably abated after I pointed out that the little things eat their body weight in mozzies a day.

Check this out!

Are any of you also doing gardening and yard work with an eye to larger utility than what goes on the plate?

38 thoughts on “Alien Invader to Home Defense

  1. We pretty much stopped using broad-spectrum bug sprays around Redquarters some years ago. Black Widow spiders do get sprayed, as do wasp nests, but not the plants. We use a soap-blend on aphids. Otherwise we plant for butterflies and native bees. To our mild surprise, honey bees appeared two years ago and came back last year. Someone has a hive, but is not telling the neighbors.

    1. For the last few years I’ve had one bee. One. This year I’m up to four bumblebees (unless it’s the same two racing from back yard to front yard with me), several small bees, and that loner American bee who keeps riding off into the sunset. They like the wood aster, goldenrod, and golden groundsel, which is on the very verge of blooming. It’s driving me crazy with anticipation.

    2. This year I have decided that the solution to the arms race is quantity. So instead of one lonely dill plant getting eaten by caterpillars no matter how I fend them off, I’ve planted 3 dill and 4 bronze fennel. So the swallowtail caterpillars can be removed from dill to fennel, and leave me dill – and with triple the dill quantity, perhaps I can grow it faster than they can eat anyway.

  2. Talk about serendipity. I was actually trying to find the podcast Cedar did on Authors and Gardening just now and then found you linking me in my in-box.

    I started with the soil food web, and have found fascinating such charmers as Teaming with Microbes and Teaming with Fungi. Excellent books, but amateur terraformers really only need the first one. The whole things with the plants, caterpillars, birds, bees, et al. is much more fun. And less invisible.

    How have I missed you two on terraforming? Where do we meet? And when?

    1. *giggles* Three makes a quorum in a small enough writing group, right? Watch out, when Cedar’s not swallowed by Real Life, I’m going to start posting links to really cool biology instead of wordcount. Muahahahahaha!

  3. There are only a few bloodsucking mosquito species, all of which spread serious disease and nasty parasites in both humans and animals. There are many species (reportedly about 3000) that don’t suck blood. I see absolutely no reason why one would *want* the bloodsucking varieties on your new planet, when there are plenty of harmless ones.

    As soon as honeybees appear, set out a shallow pan of water where you’d prefer them to gather (with a floating stick to rescue drowners, and perhaps with a little sugar in it)… early bees are hungry, and that can make them mean, especially once the queen starts to age.

    Dunno what the heck baby swallowtails eat around here… I see occasional adults on my flowers, but no caterpillars.

    1. They *really* love fennel, and *really like* dill, and will grudgingly survive on parsley. Hmmm. Snowmageddon killed the large overhang of honeysuckle that burst forth from the neighbor’s side of the fence and was trying to swallow my woodpile. I’ll be short on flowers, this year. Might have to get an ornamental to fix that.

  4. I am so far down the other end of the spectrum that I am trying to figure out how to garden FOR the plate in the middle of my wildlife sanctuary.

    When you have carefully built a layers of plant life to feed and shelter a prey base to support the raptors, bocats, and coyotes, and have habitat for bees and bugs and arthropods… It is hard to keep them from devouring your new food garden. We are on year 3 of trying to get a useable food crop. On the other hand, the wild “food forest” is significant. We would not starve here, come TEOTWAWKI.

    Team Fungi (I identify Ascomycetes) is rooting for you!

    1. I have never been able to plant a good food garden–too much shade in the back and too many deer in the front. I do have a lot of natives, but I’m clearly going to have to get rid of a number of invasives as my first steps. The pond is clearly feeding frogs to the hawks nesting high above our bedroom window.

  5. I currently have an approximately 400-500 sq foot “back yard”. It is almost completely shaded by the neighbors’ magnolia tree. I’d love to be able to plant foodstuffs, but I’m restricted to containers for the time being. I can put them down the side of the house and next to the back door. But when the wasps reappear in the side area under the bricks (about 50′ by 4′ between rowhouses) it’s war. We spray for the wasps and then I put down borax to kill the remaining nesting spots and weeds. Such is city “gardening”.

    My goal for when we move is to get a house that has yard areas that get sunlight and plant a vegetable garden.

    1. I’ve discovered that the best discouragement for wasps is… WD40. Spray the nest and they’re too busy gagging to come after you, and they won’t nest in that spot again. (Maybe never. One formerly-popular spot in my porch has been wasp-free for five years now.)

      Useful predators, yeah, but some of ours are aggressive, we have WAY too many of ’em, and they get in everywhere. And if you’ve got honeybees… well, if you have wasps, you HAD bees. They’ll take out whole hives.

      1. Ours get in under the bricks that were badly laid out in the side yard. My neighbor gets them too, but he doesn’t kill them. So, we’ve made our side of the fence a dead zone for them.

  6. I’ve been building soil for twenty years and turned 1/4 acre of hardpacked clay into topsoil from an inch or so deep to ten to twelve inches in other sections of the yard. Feed the soil first and it will feed you. Soil building lets you garden effectively. Don’t build your soil and you’ll get nowhere.

    I compost everything, starting with all the neighbor’s leaves. I made a deal with a local landscaper and he brings me pickup truck loads of shredded leaves mixed with grass clippings from his fall lawns. I pick up those big brown Kraft bags of yard waste in the fall and add them too. No one — including a state trooper cruising by — has ever asked me why I’m loading someone else’s bales o’leaves into my car.

    The series I’m writing is based on terraforming and soil building! Did you know we could conceivably terraform Mars (if we could solve the issue of no magnetic field to trap the atmosphere being stripped off by the solar wind)?

    Seed the planet with carefully selected and genetically modified spores, molds, algae, and fungi. Stand back and wait for 100 million years and success! It could be less though.

    In the meantime, I plant trees in my municipality, I catch every drop of rainwater that falls on my property, and I’ve got a border of wilderness all around the property to shield me from the neighbors.

    As for critters and your garden: nothing and I mean nothing beats a German Shepherd/terrier mix patrolling regularly to kill groundhogs and chase off rabbits, squirrels, opossums, and the like. Muffy (42 pounds) liked killing groundhogs and she got at least six by our count. Many more stayed away from our yard, I’m sure.

    1. You’re so right about the soil. I’ve been working on mine for years and find the soil food web fascinating. It was still a surprise to find that the same principles apply above ground.

      There’s a microbiologist in Florida, Dr. Jose Lopez, you might have heard of? He talks about microbes for space settlement:

      There’s a struggle for what I call a terraseeder in my 3d Martha’s Sons book. I’d love to know when you publish your terraforming Mars story.

      1. Um. What does this guy with his concerns about contamination by undesirables plan to do about fecal matter? which is up to 90% bacteria by weight.

        Or where I went hard-clang against The Martian… buddy, you’ve got a whole gutful of bacteria and you shit some out every day, and second, if there’s no organics in the dirt, there’s nothing for ’em to live on let alone break down to make nutrients available. (Good adventure, but clearly neither biologists, farmers, nor cooks were consulted. Why are you hauling around all that needless weight when you could have precooked and freeze-dried your potatoes??)

    2. Oh, yes on the soil. I sold Calmer Half on a mulching lawnmower with the idea that he wouldn’t have to struggle with the yard clippings, but my primary concern was making sure the vegetative matter went right back on the ground to nourish the hard-pack clay. When it gets too tall, I run the bag attachment… and use the clippings to make ground cover on bare hard-pack clay. In a few years I’ve shrunk the hardpack, soil-stripped, lifeless clay patches to about half its prior size, and the rest of the back yard is slowly improving. (The more grass I have to work with, the more lawn clippings I’ll have to mulch.)

      While the scrub trees that were a threat to the foundation of the house and the fence have been removed, I kept the large mulberry tree, and it’s a fine shade tree. Next year, I want to get an arborist to make a good opinion about how best to trim it from recovering from “trash tree with a dog chained to it that nearly girdled it” to “neatly groomed, well enjoyed shade tree.” And the trimmings? Hugelkultur and a raised bed.

      Due to injury and illness in successive spring seasons, I have not yet gotten to that raised bed, but I’m getting closer every year.

      1. No, I haven’t heard of Dr. Lopez. I’ll look for him.

        I have heard of Allan Savory. He’s done extensive work about the need for livestock to rebuild soil, as long as they are more ‘natural’. That is, to summarize excessively, mixed critters who move around a lot to avoid predators. I use many of his ideas in my writing.

        I’ve published two Steppes of Mars books already as Odessa Moon. I’ve got two more in the pipeline.

        What’s also interesting about Mars is that it has NO fossil fuels. No peat, no coal, no oil, no natural gas. How will that effect colonization? I have my ideas and they tend to be feudal.

        1. Part of the Savory System is High Intensity Short Duration (HISD) grazing, which mimics how bison grazed. By forcing the cattle to eat everything, it keeps both the “cows love it” species and “cows are not so fond of it” species healthy, and keeps things like thistles, yucca, and other problem plants from taking over. By moving frequently, no one area is over grazed, which 1) reduces erosion and water pollution, 2) makes for a healthier biota since you get less dead plant matter build-up and 3) the land manager has to keep a closer eye on the land and thus can see problems faster and sort out what to do about them before “hmm, that spring’s looking a little low” becomes “we have no water.”

          [Full disclosure: I read several of his books while in grad school for my MA and PhD.]

          1. Savory has a good half-hour presentation on the Tube that covers the basics.

            I’ve personally seen this at work in the SoCal desert. So long as the big commercial sheep flocks (~5000 head) came through and did their thing a couple times a year, we had good growth of native grass and wildflowers. After they stopped coming, within about 3 years weeds and bare ground predominated.

            Grass evolved to be grazed, and what the anti-grazing types forget is that before ranching, there was roughly TWICE as much grazing pressure from the native ruminants. (About half again more bison than we have cattle today, and bison are enough bigger to need twice the feed.) Natural healthy pastures and riverbanks are grazed down, not overgrown.

            Oh, and as to “but cattle kill desert tortoises!” … er, no. Tortoises don’t eat plants, they eat dung. Eliminate grazing and they starve.


      2. Mulching lawnmowers are fabulous and when I go out and talk to the public about lawn improvement, I always bring them up.
        The other suggestion is to set your lawnmower at its highest height. This does not mean you mow the grass less; you should never remove more than 1/3 of the blade at a time. It means you have more of a shag carpet effect.
        Why should you do this? The taller the grass, the deeper the root system. Deeper roots allow the grass to reach water and nutrients more effectively. In addition, taller grass tends to cool the ground better.
        While I’m on the subject, if it’s green and can be mowed, it’s grass.
        Go for a downhome lawn sprinkled with clover. The clover is symbiotic with the grass. Clover sets nitrogen which grass needs. Up until the mid-1950’s, grass seed mixes came with clover seed mixed in.

        Then one of the big lawn product companies (Scott’s?) developed an herbicide that ALSO killed the clover. So clover became bad, but if you’ve got it in your lawn, it’s not bad. It should be encouraged.

        1. I currently have my lawn sprayed with herbicide – I wish I didn’t, but if I don’t, the goatheads proliferate quickly until it’s uninhabitable. And I’m very unfond of picking thorns and spikes out of my feet, especially if I was wearing tennis shoes and they got through anyway. They proliferate despite the spray, and my neighbor has a lawn that manages to be a spiky enough reserve, it discourages children from being on it, to say nothing of the cow pasture upwind.

          I miss Alaska’s lawns. There, as long as you were vigilant on thistles, and stinging nettles, and devil’s club in your hedgerow, it was all good, even if the low green was rarely actually grass. Unfortunately, moving from a cool, well-watered place to a semi-arid land means now everything native but the gramma grass defends its leaves with vim and vigor.

          1. I found the best way to control goat heads was just to pull the damn things up. And I managed to completely eradicate them from 10 acres of high desert, and am getting down to dregs here in Montana, only still get a few because the deer drag ’em in.

            The seedlings emerge too late to get nailed by the way we usually spray herbicides, and keep coming up all the way through late summer. Spray and spray and still miss the fuckers.

            So… get familiar with what they look like at every stage. Get that little yellow flower in your brain as an automatic drop-everything target. Learn what the seedlings look like (they’re distinctive), and pull ’em up by the roots (they’re shallow, and so long as you get the knot at the surface they won’t come back. Hook fingers tightly under the branching bit, don’t grab and pull. You need to get the whole plant at once.) They grow in groups … if there’s one, there’s more, and you’ll get a later crop in the same spot, so make regular patrols.

            And BAG and dispose of the remains — the seeds keep maturing after they’re yanked up, even if they’re still almost too small to see, and I’m not so sure fire kills ’em. (My neighbor burns his and it doesn’t help.)

            First year in the desert, I filled five 50 pound feed bags with their packed remains. Next year I got a bucketful. Third year — none. No spraying. (Desert weeds regard 2,4-D as fertilizer anyway.)

      3. Around here (Silicon Valley), I’ve seen some use of live mulching lawnmowers, aka sheep or goats, to cut down on weeds. They set up temporary fencing (sometimes with a guard dog), have them eat everything in that area, and then move to the next. And, of course, this helps reduce the risk of a major fire when it gets hot and sparky.

    3. Our yard was already rather good soil, though thin– problem being, it’s Iowa soil. Getting the grass out to do anything was …not working.

      But we had all these huge boxes from moving….
      Now (2 years later) we have a decent sized garden area without identifiable paper, but a lot of very happy worms, and I put double-layers along the edge of the yard where there’s too many branches to mow, hopefully in a few years of I-have-no-time-to-garden gardening we’ll get the anti-deer flowers established.

      1. I don’t know what part of the country you’re in, but the deer don’t eat my golden groundsel or wood aster, and they’re native to the U.S. so they support the local bees,caterpillars and butterflies. There are native mints that might deter deer if planted near other things you like. That’s the theory, anyway, and I’ll be testing it this year to see if the deer will finally leave the viburnum alone.

        1. Iowa, currently.

          I cheated and got the big bag of “deer deterring” flowers that was promoted by the local Butterfly folks. (I also have milk weed doing that sit in the cold and damp before planting thing, in our fridge….)

          Since i have trouble keeping mint alive, this is unlikely to work very well. 😀 We did get a lot of squash one year!

      2. Try adding coffee grounds – my co-worker with the best orchard saves all the coffee grounds from work to put into his soil – he says the worms love it.

  7. Clears throat

    Ascension Island.

    When man found it, it had ferns and nothing but ferns. Now it is a thriving ecosystem with cloud forest and others. And how did they do it? Why they just dumped a bunch of plants from various places.

    (Yes, some of the ferns went extinct, and they have trouble with some of the species. But there are bound to be problems with any terraforming regime.)

  8. I’ve long thought that Earth’s biggest export to the solar system, once we have non-Earth supplies of construction material, will be dirt.

    1. Not dirt! Never dirt!
      Soil. Yummy, rich, life-filled, chocolate-cake-crumbly soil that holds moisture and air and a host of microscopic critters to feed the plant roots.

      1. The most recent season of The Expanse had a character mentioning “live soils” as an Earth export. It was an exciting moment. Someone in TV-land knows a little something.

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