AN INSECT GARDEN IN NEW MEXICO - 1
by David B.
When I was very young I read a book that would influence my future. The book was written by a nature writer named Edwin Way Teale, who later became famous for his series on American seasons, starting with “North with the Spring”. The book in question, however, was about observations made in an insect garden cultivated in an old apple orchard on Long Island, New York. This golden book was called “Near Horizons” and I literally devoured it. It confirmed the already growing interest that I had developed by the age of five in the six and eight-legged creatures around me.
Sunflowers and native grasses in the Insect Garden.
Since Teale several other people have written about insect gardens, notably Eric Grissell and John Alcock. Teale was also preceded by Jean Henri Fabre in his famous (to entomologists) harmas at Sérignan in southern France. All of these people were fascinated by the lives of insects easily visible, but often very puzzling, in their own backyard.
I was born in the same state that Edwin Way Teale worked in, but on the Niagara Frontier completely across the state from Long Island. However, by the time I read his book I was living in Yuma, Arizona—probably one of the hottest and driest (little rain, though plenty of humidity from the Colorado and Gila Rivers and the more distant Gulf of California) cities in North America. I had no real land on which to place an insect garden. However, despite the fact that even being outside during the heat of a Yuma summer was often excruciating, I often was out in that very heat hunting my tiny quarry along the Colorado River, agricultural fields or the sandy desert! After many years and a Ph.D. in invertebrate zoology I eventually settled in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I finally had enough land available to me to develop such a garden. My wife had a number of vegetable beds dug and in addition I started first one and eventually four wildflower beds where I hoped to eventually have time to record the resident tiny creatures. Now, after 14 years the gardens are now maturing into a collection of tiny, roughly “natural” (some might say messy!) areas beloved by wasp and grasshopper, as Fabre would have said. Seeding and planting of short and mid grass prairie grasses, chocolate flowers, cone flowers, Datura, sunflowers, evening primroses and Liatris , augmented by occasional Tithonia (Mexican sunflower), plus a fifth bed of desert cacti and agave, have provided numerous habitats for arthropods, not to mention numerous birds. At last I am getting some time to examine the results of my “careful” planning (actually no real plan at all, but a survival of the fittest with my hand used occasionally to tip the balance one way or another.)
The exact location of the garden is in an unincorporated suburb called Mesilla Park, between and to the south of Las Cruces and the nearby township of Mesilla. The ground on which I garden was once part of the Mesilla Land Grant from Mexico City to people who did not want to be in the United States after the Mexican War. The town of Mesilla was founded about 1849 and despite their intentions, Mesilla (a name that means “little mesa” in Spanish) became part of the United States under the Gadsden Purchase in 1854 when the transfer was officially made in the still extant town square. A number of relatively important historical happenings marked the town's history including its capture by the Texas Confederates in 1861 (it was made the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona) and the trial of Billy the Kid. The area is primarily a flood plain of the Rio Grande and thus is rich in silt, clay and sand.
As I noted, making and keeping an insect garden is a mix of some planning and mostly just letting things happen. I prepared the ground by spading up each roughly rectangular bed, leaving paths between so that a hose could be threaded through beds for watering. No fertilizer was applied. Seeds and occasionally plants were acquired from various sources, including a bag of native grass seeds from a local nursery, gifts of chocolate flower (a native composite whose flowers smell like chocolate!) and packets of wildflower seeds. The seeds were scattered either in the fall or early spring. Upkeep is relatively simple. Occasionally I have to intervene to keep some weedy plant (such as silver-leaved nightshade or Maximilian sunflower) from taking over, but mostly I leave it alone. I do usually burn off at least part of the garden under permit each year and this has let native grasses take over parts of the area, smothering the horrible Bermuda grass (really an African species) that would take over completely, if given the chance. We usually water once a week, plus we spot water plants that need more moisture (such as purple cone flower). If we get reasonable rains during the summer we can cut back a bit on the watering. As noted, we never fertilize, but the ash from the burn usually helps the new grass growth. Most of the garden could actually be called a mixed prairie garden, but on one additional very dry area near our fence (the fifth plot) I established several cacti and agaves. I am now trying to add some more typical Chihuahuan desert annuals and perennials and plan to enlarge this bed in the next year.
How well does this all work? We do have a very diverse fauna for the size of the“wild” area (less than 1/10 acre) including various butterflies (depending on the season and how successful the species were in producing progeny that year), moths, bugs, beetles, dragonflies, ant lions, lacewings, ants, wasps, bees, mantis, grasshoppers, katydids, leafhoppers, treehoppers and aphids, plus numerous spiders and isopods. We have found that the Mexican sunflower is a magnet for butterflies, drawing gulf fritillaries, monarchs, queens, painted ladies and even black and two-tailed swallowtails on occasion. Again the number of butterflies varies drastically from none to dozens at a time. We can usually count on cabbage whites or checkered whites and a few blues.
The Insect Garden, showing sideoats grama grass and blooming Datura.
I will summarize the insect fauna in my next article and then the non-insect arthropods in the third and final installment. The latter are my favorites because I am after all a professional arachnologist. I must say, however, that any one of the garden inhabitants could easily provide a lifetime of work.
I believe that much of the work on systematics, faunal surveys, behavior, and general ecology involving arthropods will be taken up mostly by amateurs in the future, as it was in the 19th Century. Much of this is the result of shrinking funding for such endeavors in the scientific community, as biology turns more and more to molecular studies. But the dedicated amateur will have to be prepared to take on this work, which will be at least as important as that done by similar dedicated amateurs in such areas as astronomy and paleontology. The back yard may then become again an important laboratory for those in the know. As Fabre said, the close to home “garden” has many advantages for the study of insects in that it does not require large sums of money or long hours of travel to make a lasting contribution to knowledge. Available close focus binoculars, dissecting and even occasionally compound microscopes, as well as 35-mm film and digital cameras, make observation and documentation much easier. However, the best equipment one can have is an enquiring mind and the ability to use it. Even very minimal equipment can produce good observations and bring pleasure to the insect aficionado.
Comments to the author, David Richman, are welcomed.
Alcock, John. 1997. In a Desert Garden: Love and Death Among the Insects. W. W. Norton, New York.
Grissell, Eric. 2001. Insects and Gardens: In Pursuit of a Garden Ecology. Timber Press, Oregon.
Teale, Edwin Way. 1942. Near Horizons. Dodd Mean & Co., New York.
Teale, Edwin Way (ed.) 1949. The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre. Dodd Mean & Co., New York
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