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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Harvesting Rain: Rain Barrels, Cisterns and Storage

A rain barrel stores some of the roof runoff at Mother Nature's Backyard

This is the last in our series on ‘Harvesting Rainwater’, which covers harvesting water from the roof (and other impermeable surfaces) and rainwater infiltration techniques. While aimed primarily at gardeners from dry climates, the ideas in this series may be useful to others (see postings from January through June, 2013).

Storing rainwater is an old idea that’s regaining popularity as precipitation becomes less predictable.  The concept is simple: rainwater is stored in a holding tank until it’s needed.  In some parts of the world, rainwater collected in large underground cisterns provides water for much of the year.   A number of U.S. counties and municipalities are advocating a less ambitious goal; the small-scale storage of rainwater for use in home gardens. 

The idea of storing rainwater may not appeal to all, particularly those gardeners living in urban or suburban areas.   Saving rainwater requires purchasing/constructing tanks or barrels to hold the water, connecting these to the water source and then maintaining the barrels/tanks.  All this takes a little time, money and effort.  And unless you use large cisterns – or get rain throughout the year -  you can’t store enough water to make a dent in your water bill.   Small-scale water storage is not going to save lots of money, particularly if you live in a dry climate with seasonal rainfall.

On the other hand, any water saved is useful water.  Stored rainwater is great for watering sensitive plants (including container and house plants) and for crafts like natural dyeing.   Once you have a rain barrel or cistern in place, collection and use is fairly easy.     So you may want to consider saving rainwater in conjunction with the other water management strategies discussed in the past few months (‘Harvesting Rainwater’ series: January to June, 2013).

A rain barrel/tank is generally fed by a downspout from a section of roof gutter. If you haven’t read our post on ‘Harvesting Rainwater: Gutters, Downspouts and Rain Chains’ (February 2013) you might want to do so.   Even in dry climates, the roof collects a lot of water. A general rule of thumb is: for every inch of rain that falls on 1000 square feet of catchment area, a little over 450 gallons of water will be collected. This amount takes into account loss due to friction, evaporation and spillage.  If you only intend to fill a single barrel, that can be accomplished with as little as one-tenth of an inch of rain.

Water from roof gutters is directed to the rain barrel.  Overflow
drains directly into the dry swale ('French drain') 

You can purchase rain barrels and collection cisterns at many hardware, home improvement and garden stores. They are also available through internet retailers, but beware of shipping costs.    The most common sizes are 35-40 gallon and 50-60 gallon, although other sizes are available.  Most are made of plastic (some of recycled plastic) and they come in an increasing range of colors, sizes and shapes.  Prices for a 50-gallon barrel range from $80 to over $200 (U.S. dollars).  Some kits include the needed hardware (or are pre-assembled); others require you to purchase a separate hardware kit.  We suggest you read the resources at the end of this posting before considering your options.

When shopping for a rain barrel, some features to look for include: a spigot that can be connected to a garden hose; a fully screened intake to keep out mosquitoes and debris; a linking system to connect additional barrels; and a sufficiently large overflow hose so that excess rainwater can be carried away. A rain barrel should  allow the user to customize it for their specific needs and should work dependably.

Thrifty homeowners may want to construct their own rain barrel from a recycled food barrel or a sturdy plastic trash can.  Many good resources on constructing rain barrels are available on the internet.   We found these to be particularly good:

Rainwater storage requires a few additional considerations.  First, a filled rain barrel is heavy (up to 400 lbs); it needs a firm, level foundation and should be tied to a wall or post to prevent tipping.  See the resources below for more on this topic.  Second, untreated stored garden rainwater should not used for drinking.  Many municipalities require rain barrels to be labeled: ‘Do Not Drink – Untreated Rainwater’. 

Be sure to check local regulations before purchasing or installing a rain barrel or cistern.  Many municipalities allow homeowners to store rainwater in small rain barrels without a permit; larger cisterns require a building permit in most areas. Los Angeles County has a 4-tier system that covers everything from small-scale rain barrels (Tier 1) to larger storage facilities.  To learn about Los Angeles County regulations see:


Water conservation must become a way of life as our climate changes.  Along with rainwater infiltration, rainwater storage can play a role in maximizing our scarce water resources.  Excellent internet and print resources are available, covering all aspects of rainwater storage - many specifically written for the homeowner.  We suggest you read more before deciding whether rainwater collection is for you.

Good resources for homeowners

More detailed resources on saving rainwater



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also e-mail your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com 


We welcome your comments (below).  You can also e-mail your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com 




Friday, June 14, 2013

Citizen Scientist: 2013 Mother Nature’s Backyard Home Garden Pollinator Survey

A team completes the 2013 Pollinator Survey in Mother Nature's Backyard garden

Your garden a science laboratory?  Improbable as this may sound, it is.  Interesting questions abound -  and gardens are sometimes the best place to answer them.  You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to conduct scientific research or to help collect useful information.  You don’t have to worry about being too young or too old to make a contribution.   What you do need are the qualities that make a good scientist:

  • Curiosity about the natural world
  • Good observation skills
  • Ability to carefully record your observations
  • A little patience – it takes time to collect scientific information

If you have these qualities, you may want to consider becoming a ‘citizen scientist’.  Citizen scientists around the world are collecting information on birds, butterflies, insects and spiders, the time certain flowers bloom and many other topics. As our climate changes and more questions arise, the efforts of citizen scientists become ever more important.   

If you have a garden with one or more of our 2013 Garden Pollinator Survey plants (all California natives) we’d like to invite you to participate in our 2013 Mother Nature’s Backyard Garden Pollinator Survey.  The garden needn’t be your own – you just need to be able to visit it and make observations.  You can even come and survey in Mother Nature's Backyard garden (we're open once a week).  Insect surveys are a great activity for young people and we encourage children and their parents to participate.    The survey will help us learn which California native flowers attract the most garden pollinators.   Data will be compiled and the results posted on Mother Nature’s Backyard blog.

The survey will run from June through October, so you have plenty of time to participate.   You can do the survey once or as often as you wish (no more than once a week).   You can survey a single species (list below) or do all eight if you can.   Once you’ve completed your survey(s) you will e-mail your results to us at: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com.

The plants we’ve chosen for this year’s survey all grow in Mother Nature’s Backyard garden.  They are common native plants used in Southern California gardens.  Some are also grown in other parts of the world.  If you have access to one or more of these plants in a home or local garden you can participate.  The 2013 plants are:

  • Western Yarrow Achillea millefolia
  • Narrowleaf Milkweed Asclepias fascicularis
  • California Buckwheat - Eriogonum fasciculatum
  • Red Buckwheat – Eriogonum grande var. rubescens
  • Globe Gilia – Gilia capitata
  • Torrey’s Rush – Juncus torreyi
  • Cliff Aster – Malacothrix saxatilis
  • Purple Sage – Salvia leucophylla

Pictures of the plants (as well as the groups of pollinators we are surveying)  are available at: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/pollinator-plants-id-sheet.  Larger photographs are found at: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/home-garen-survey-flower-pictures-large.     

You can choose 1, 2 or all eight plants for your survey.   The more plants the better; it’s fun and you’ll learn a lot about your garden’s pollinators.   If you don’t have any of the 2013 plants – but still want to learn about garden pollinators – use our form and survey methods on several plants you do grow.  You might choose a vegetable plant and a flowering plant.  Or compare a plant native to your area with a non-native plant. 


Instructions – The 2013 pollinator survey form is available at: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/2013-pollinator-survey-form-home-22932478 or on the ‘2013 Pollinator Survey - Form’ page (on right of screen).  Fill in the date, time, city/state/country in which the garden is located and weather details on the day of the survey.  Location and weather can affect your results, so we need that information.   Choose one plant per species to survey – all observations will be based on a single plant of the species chosen.  Write the name and number of the plant in the recording box before starting the survey.   

Sit/stand quietly by the plant for 2-5 minutes, or until the pollinators return.    Then observe the plant for 1 minute.    Make a rough count of the numbers of bees, wasps, butterflies, flies and other insects that visit the flowers during the one minute.   You can use the blank spaces on the form to tick off the insects as you see them.  We suggest that you begin by recording one pollinator type at a time.  Once you’re experienced – or if there aren’t many pollinators – you can record all of them at once.  Count up the numbers and record your observations by circling the correct number on the form. 

When you have completed your observations for the day, scan your results and e-mail them to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com .  Or ‘copy’ the ‘2013 Home Pollinator Survey – form’ (page on right of screen) and paste it into a Word document.  You can then edit the document to enter your results and e-mail it as an attachment. If you prefer, you can also mail your survey forms to:

Friends of Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve, Inc.
P.O. Box 2211
Gardena, CA 90247-0211

Attention: Pollinator Survey – Dr. Vadheim


We hope you participate in the 2013 Mother Nature’s Backyard Garden Pollinator Survey.   You’ll be helping scientists understand the pollinators active in California gardens.  You’ll likely be surprised at the number of pollinators.  You may even note patterns in the time of day or weather conditions associated pollinator activity.   Certainly you’ll find the survey process interesting and fun.

To learn more about pollinators see our post on ‘Life-friendly Gardening: Planning for Pollinators’ (June 2013).
Here's another opportunity for citizen scientists interested in pollinators:  http://www.nhm.org/site/activities-programs/citizen-science/zombee-watch

Questions?  E-mail us at: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Life-Friendly Gardening: Planning for Pollinators

European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) approaching Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla)

Bees, butterflies, moths and other insects – we see them among the flowers but give them little thought.  In fact, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.  Without these helpful creatures, our gardens would be devoid of flowers and our tables empty of food.   Insect pollinators – along with a handful of birds and animals - are ‘keystone species’, without which many living ecosystems would collapse.

Flowering plants have a unique challenge – getting the pollen (microsporangium/ male gamete or male sex cell) to the egg (ovule/ female sex cell; located in the plant ovary) where fertilization can occur.  But plants are stationary and ensuring  fertilization is no easy matter.   In fact, most plants need a little help moving the pollen from the anther (where it’s produced) to the stigma (the female organ that receives the pollen).

Some flowering plants – mostly grasses and conifers – are wind-pollinated; the wind simply blows the pollen from an anther to a stigma.  For a very small number of plants, water accomplishes the pollen transfer.   But the vast majority of flowering plants depend on living organisms – living pollinators – to ensure that fertilization occurs.  

Eighty percent of the world’s food crops are pollinated by animal pollinators.  Crops as diverse as apples, cotton, peanuts, soybeans and squash are pollinated by insect pollinators. Without flowering plants our lives would be less colorful, less fragrant – and hungrier.   Imagine a world without 80% of our most common agricultural and garden plants!

Several years ago, beekeepers noticed a decline in the number of European Honeybees used to pollinate crops.  You may have noticed similar declines in your own garden.   ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’, as the Honeybee die-off is called,  serves as a wake-up call to all of us.  Pollinators are vital to life on earth – and we all must do our part in keeping them safe. By taking a few simple steps (like providing food, water and places to raise their young), home gardeners can help insure there will always be enough pollinators to provide their unique services.

Bumblebee (Bombus vosnesenskii) approaches
 Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla)

Who are the Pollinators?

The range of pollinators may surprise you.  Most common are the bees, flies and wasps. Native bee pollinators range in size from large bumblebees to bees hardly visible with the naked eye (over 400 species in Los Angeles County alone). Flies and wasps pollinate many native, agricultural and garden plants; butterflies and moths are also important.  Many of these pollinators have special adaptations (hairs; pollen sacks) that make them efficient ‘movers of pollen’.   If you observe a native plant in bloom, the majority of the insect visitors will be bees, wasps and flies (though it may be difficult to tell them apart).

Beetles, true bugs, ants and hummingbirds are less common pollinators, but their services are vital for certain types of plants. In our area, hummingbirds play an important role in pollinating the trumpet-flowered species we think of as ‘hummingbird plants’.  All pollinators are important; many plants are pollinated by several different pollinators.  This is so in the wild, in agricultural fields and in our gardens.

Tachnid Fly (Archytas species) on Western Yarrow
 (Achillea millefolia)

Why Do Pollinators Visit Flowers?

The pollinator’s primary foods are pollen and nectar (the sweet syrup made by flowers to attract insects).  Flowers attract pollinators with color, scent and other cues.  The pollen transfer is often unintentional – a consequence of the pollinator coming in contact with flowering parts in the course of feeding on pollen and nectar.  Pollination is actually a by-product of the pollinator’s main task - finding food for themselves and their offspring.   The interaction of pollinators and plants is a good example of a mutualistic relationship because both parties benefit from their interactions.

Can’t Honeybees Take Care of Pollination?

No – and for several reasons.  First, there are often not enough honeybees to do the job;  native pollinators must supplement their services to maintain adequate levels of pollination.   Some native pollinators can even work when it’s too cold, hot or damp for honeybees.  Native pollinators are well-suited to pollinate plants that cannot be pollinated by honeybees – for example, a number of ‘hummingbird plants’ and other plants that need specialist pollinators.  Finally, native pollinators provide an important backup system; if something happens to the honeybees (like Colony Collapse Disorder), other pollinators can take over.   For all these reasons we need to attract a range of pollinators to our gardens.  

Pollinating wasp (Sphex lucae) on 'Island Pink' Western
 Yarrow  (Achilliea millefolia 'Island Pink')

Where do Native Pollinators Live?

The majority of them live in natural places (nature preserves; parks; other natural areas), but native pollinators also live in gardens.  Where ever food plants, water and nest sites occur, pollinators will live.  As natural areas become more scarce, gardens play an increasingly important role in providing pollinator habitat. When you provide pollinator habitat, you help conserve native pollinators – and also benefit from their services.   Your vegetable garden and fruit trees will be more productive as a result of native pollinator visits.

Umber Skipper (Poanes melane) on Purple Sage
 (Salvia leucophylla),  a member of the Sage family

What can I do to Provide Pollinator Habitat?

1.   Choose plants that provide quality pollen & nectar. Just follow these simple principles when choosing plants for your garden:

§  Choose CA native plants when possible.  They have pollen & nectar specifically formulated for our native pollinators.  In addition, local native pollinators love them;

§  Choose plants with many small blooms.  Often the best have white, pink or yellow flowers;

§  For non-native plants, choose herbs, stone fruits, apples, citrus, berry bushes, melons/squash – or flower/vegetable plants noted as being ‘open-pollinated’ or ‘heirloom’ varieties.   When choosing bedding plants, visit the nursery on a sunny day and choose the variety that attracts the most pollinators.

§  Choose plants from the following groups:

o   Sunflower family (Asteraceae)

o   Mint family (Lamiaceae) – mints, sages & many common kitchen herbs like Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Basil and Lavender.

o   Native Phacelia species

o   Rose family (Rosaceae)

o   Buckwheat family (Polygonaceae)

o   Carrot family (Apiaceae)

o   Buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae) including Ceanothus, Rhamnus, Frangula

§  Strive to have something blooming from spring through fall – pollinators fly nearly all year in our mild climate;

§  Plan for flowering area of at least 3 ft x 3 ft per species.  In general, the more flowers – the better.  Group flowering plants like perennials.

§  Choose trees, shrubs, vines/climbers and annual wildflowers to provide pollinator habitat. Vines, hedge shrubs, trees and espaliers  provide many blooms in a small space.  A well-chosen tree or shrub can be an important pollinator habitat plant.

2.   Provide nesting sites – only the European Honeybee nests in a hive.  Most native pollinators are solitary and nest either in the ground (need a patch of bare ground) or in holes in dead trees.  You can purchase or build your own bee houses (search ‘bee house’ on the internet).

3.   Provide a source of water – a damp patch of ground, a bird dripper or saucer of water with gravel will do.  The water must be shallow enough that the pollinators can easily and safely access it.

4.   Limit use of pesticides – most insecticides kill the good insects (including butterflies and other pollinators) along with the bad.  Consider using Integrated Pest Management (see our brochure on ‘IPM for the Home Garden’).

5.   Encourage your neighbors to garden for pollinators.  Our small yards make it impossible to provide adequate pollinator habitat; it takes a neighborhood to create a ‘pollinator haven’. 


Other Ideas for Supporting Pollinators
§  Celebrate National Pollinator Week (3rd week of June).

§  Take photographs of pollinators in your garden.  It’s fun and a good way to get to know them.

§  Participate in our ‘Garden Pollinator Survey – June 2013 posting

§  Read our ‘Butterfly Gardens’ posting – June 2012

§  Tell your children and friends about pollinators.
Learn more about pollinators at:

§  Xerces Society:

§  UC Berkeley Urban Bee Gardens Site - http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/

§  Pollinator Partnership - http://www.pollinator.org/pollination.htm

§  U.S. Fish & Wildlife – Pollinators Page http://www.fws.gov/pollinators/




Please feel free to comment below or e-mail your questions to mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com