Birds and Blooms Blog

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Drought Tolerant Garden: Water Harvesting Tips

Did you know that a 1/2 inch of rain falling on a 1,500 square foot roof can yield 500 gallons?

What if we could collect some of that water and use it for our garden?  The good news is that you can harvest some of the rain that falls on your garden.

“Water harvesting is the practice of collecting water from rainfall or diverting storm water to where it is needed”.

There are many benefits of harvesting rain water in your garden and you don’t have to live in a desert to be able to enjoy the benefits.  Harvesting rain water is practiced throughout the U.S. including by those who live in the rainy Northwest and the humid Southeast.

water channeling by contouring

Water harvesting by contouring the landscape so that storm water pools around plants.

First, let’s look at the benefits of collecting rain water:

- Rain water is free from salts, minerals and chemicals that is present in our tap water, therefore it is better for plants.

- Harvesting rain water helps to decrease problems with flooding and erosion that can come with heavy rainfall.

- Using water from rain fall helps to conserve water, which is especially vital in drought prone areas.

- Rain water doesn’t cost anything!

rain barrel

Cistern / Rain Barrel

Now that we know how beneficial rain water is for our garden, let’s now look at different ways we can collect rain water:

1. Harvest the water from your roof using a rain barrel or cistern.  Let’s face it, the rain that falls on your roof is not doing anyone any favors.  It simply flows down the rain gutter runs off to the storm sewer.  By connecting your rain gutter to a rain barrel or cistern, you can collect a lot of rain water that you can store and use later to water your garden.  This method also helps to reduce the flooding that can occur in your garden.

You can buy rain barrel kits in many gardening centers or make your own, like my fellow blogger, Jill did.  You can click here to see how she did it.

2. Contour your landscape to trap rain water.  If you don’t have a rain barrel, this is a great alternative to collecting water in certain areas of your landscape.  Instead of allowing the water to run off the driveway into the street, you can direct it toward your landscape by creating shallow depressions nearby trees and plants so that they will be watered.  (The depressions should be shallow enough that water will soak into the soil within 24 hours or mosquitos can become a problem if water is left standing for longer).

This method also helps to flush out the salts in the soil left behind by our tap water that we normally irrigate with – plants do not like growing in ‘salty’ soils.  (You can see an example of this type of water harvesting in the first photo, which is commonly practiced throughout the Southwestern United States where rainfall can be scarce).  *Another benefit from this method of water harvesting is that is allows the rain to replenish groundwater supplies instead of heading toward the storm sewer.

rain garden

Rain garden in Minnesota.

3. Create a rain garden.  Are you wondering what a rain garden is?  Basically, it is a shallow depression with drought tolerant plants surrounding it.  If you have ever stepped into a puddle of water after rain has fallen, then you can understand this concept.  Rainfall collects in the depression and slowly seeps into the ground.  This allows the plants to soak up a good amount of water, enabling them to weather periods of dry weather that occur between rain storms.

Rain gardens can be beautiful areas of your landscape that don’t require supplemental water – they survive on rainfall alone because they are planted with drought tolerant plants.  There are some guidelines to follow in creating a rain garden that you can read here.

Irrigation Seep Water Harvesting

An ‘irrigation seep’

Harvesting rain water is becoming more mainstream as sustainability becomes a goal that homeowners as well as commercial entities are striving for.  In the photo above, rain water is collected from the roof of this college building and stored in large cisterns underground, which is then pumped into the ‘irrigation seep’, (pictured above), which slowly releases (seeps) water that flows down the shallow channel, watering the drought tolerant plants along it.

Collecting rain water benefits us all, whether you have a drought tolerant garden or not. Do you harvest water in your garden?  What method(s) do you use?

Finding Warblers in Costa Rica

Rob Ripma

When many people think of warblers, they only think about the species that migrate through the US as well as those that breed here. What they are forgetting are the many amazing species that don’t quite make it this far north. While traveling in Costa Rica over the last few weeks, I encountered several incredible warbler species that either rarely or never occur in the United State.. A few of the more tropical species that I saw, such as Tropical Parula, Golden-crowned Warbler, and Rufous-capped Warbler are seen in the US from time to time are quite rare. I’ve seen both Tropical Parula and Golden-crowned Warbler in the Rio Grande Valley but it was really fun to see them in their more usual habitats.

I took this photo of a Tropical Parula in the Rio Grande Valley but also saw many of them while in Costa Rica.

I took this photo of a Tropical Parula in the Rio Grande Valley but also saw many of them while in Costa Rica.

In addition to those species, I found several warblers that were new birds for my life list and are not found in the US! My favorite new warbler was Collared Redstart. This species is extremely friendly and hangs around people that in Spanish the bird is called “amigo del hombre” which means “friend of man”. Some of the individuals were so used to people that they would come inside the bar at Savegre Mountain Lodge when the door was open and catch insects that were inside!

The Collared Redstarts were extremely cooperative for photos at Savegre Mountain Lodge!

The Collared Redstarts were extremely cooperative for photos at Savegre Mountain Lodge!

Other warblers that were new for my list were, Flame-throated Warbler, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Black-cheeked Warbler, Buff-rumped Warbler, and Slate-throated Redstart.

Big Eyes in the Butterfly Garden

Jill Staake

“My, what big eyes you have!” I say this nearly every time I encounter a Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) caterpillar, like the ones shown below. Those aren’t eyes, though – that’s just what the caterpillar wants me to think. Instead, they’re a clever form of defense known as “eyespots”, and many caterpillars, butterflies, and moths use them.

Eyespots in the Butterfly Garden

Jill Staake Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) caterpillars use eyespots for defense in the butterfly garden.

Eyespots are pigmented areas on an organism’s body designed to look like big eyes, in an attempt to fool predators into thinking a creature is much larger than it really is (Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars are sometimes known as “snake caterpillars”). The actual eyes of those Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars are about the size of a pinpoint, and are located lower down on the head, closer to the mouth. The eyespots are much bigger, and when the caterpillars are on a leaf of the same green shade as their bodies, the eyespots are the first thing a predator will see. With any luck, it will cause them to back off and seek a meal elsewhere.

Eyespots in the Butterfly Garden

Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) butterflies are only a couple of inches across, but their eyespots can make them look much bigger to predators.

Adult caterpillars and moths use eyespots too, but they display them on their wings instead. Large eyespots can fool a predator into thinking they’ve disturbed a bird as large as an owl, rather than a small a relatively defenseless butterfly. Even if they don’t avoid the butterfly or moth entirely, the predator may be fooled into attacking a wing instead of the body, injuring the insect but still leaving it able to fly away and live another day.

Eyespots in the Butterfly Garden

An up-close look at the eyespot of a Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus).

Have you ever spotted any “big eyes” in your butterfly garden? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Drought Tolerant Garden: 10 Ways to Save Water


Water is vital to a garden.  However, areas throughout the entire United States has been affected at one time or another with periods of drought.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your garden could weather dry periods with little impact to your plants?  It isn’t just possible, it is part of a movement toward more sustainable gardening, which includes strategies for conserving water while still having a beautiful, drought tolerant garden.

As a native Californian who now lives and gardens in the desert Southwest, periods of drought are not unknown and I have learned some helpful tips that have allowed me to enjoy a beautiful garden by following these helpful hints:

1. Water in the early morning.  Believe it or not, the time of day you water can make a difference in conserving water.  By watering in the cooler period of morning, there is less evaporation occurring.  Avoid watering in the afternoon, when much of the water can be lost to evaporation.  It is also wise to avoid watering in the evening when the moisture can foster fungal diseases.


2. Mulch around your plants.  Once you water plants, water begins to immediately evaporate from the soil’s surface.  By adding a layer of mulch, you help to limit the amount of water lost to the atmosphere.  In addition, mulching helps to keep the soil moister longer while keeping soil temperatures down in summer and warmer in winter.  Organic mulch such as shredded bark, leaf mulch and pine needles also adds nutrients to the soil over time.

3.  Use native plants when possible.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a garden filled with plants that needed little to no supplemental water?  Native plants are specially adapted to survive on natural rainfall amounts.  In times of drought, they may need some supplemental water, but not as much as those that are not adapted to your local climate.  Another bonus is that native plants are generally more pest resistant, need little to no fertilizer and are lower-maintenance then those that aren’t native.  If you decide to plant some non-natives in your landscape, be sure that they are well-adapted to your climate without needing excess amounts of water.

For a list of native plants for your area, click here.

A bed of drought tolerant aloe vera.

A bed of succulent, drought tolerant aloe vera.

4. Group plants with similar watering requirements together.  A drought tolerant garden will have higher water use plants grouped together toward the house where they can be watered easily.  Toward the outer areas of the landscape, more drought tolerant plants are planted next to each other.  For a list of drought tolerant plants, check out “40+ Drought Resistant Flowers and Plants”.

5. Use compost when adding new plants.  In the planting hole, mix 1 part compost to 1 part native soil.  The compost will help the soil to hold onto water for a longer length of time while not allowing it to become waterlogged.  Compost also adds nutrients to the soil.

Making your own compost is easy to do or you can purchase it at your local nursery.  Here is a great resource to get you started, “DIY Compost Bin”.

6. Allow grass to grow longer.  By letting your grass grow to a height of 3 inches, it will shade the roots thereby decreasing the amount of evaporation.  In addition, a higher mowing height will also help keep weeds from growing.


7. Decrease the amount of grass in your landscape.  A lawn uses a large amount of water – an average of 55 inches a year.  Beds filled with perennials will use much less water and provide a welcome spot of color in the landscape.  If you opt to take out your entire lawn, there are countless ways to create a beautiful garden that needs little to no supplemental water.  I recommend the book, “Lawn Gone” by Pam Penick, which is filled with landscapes that will inspire you along with guidelines on how to get rid of your lawn.

8. Use porous materials in your landscape such as gravel or sand-set step stones instead of concrete.  Rain water is able to seep through these porous materials, thereby watering nearby plants.

Drip irrigation

Drip irrigation

9. Install a ‘smart’ irrigation controller and/or drip irrigation system for plants that require supplemental water.  Wouldn’t it be nice if your landscape received supplemental water only when it needed it?  ’Smart’ irrigation controllers uses real time weather data and only waters your plants only when they need it, which can save 30 – 70% of water used for supplemental watering.  The Irrigation Association has more information about smart controllers and where to purchase one for your garden, which you can find here.

In addition to a ‘smart’ irrigation controller, a drip system is the most efficient way to get water to the root zone of plants right where they need it without wasting water.  Small drips of water permeate the soil without any water lost to runoff.  This is also the best way to water plants deeply, which is best for plant growth.  The roots of plants that have been watered deeply grow down deep into the soil where it is moister and cooler.  Hand-watering can be inefficient because water can runoff before it can penetrate the soil deeply.  If you don’t have a drip-irrigation system, you can water individual plants via drip by creating your own drip irrigation system using an empty milk jug.

10. Harvest rainwater.  When rain does fall, it is important to harvest and direct it toward our garden instead of allowing it to runoff.  There are a variety of ways to harvest rainwater including creating rain gardens and using cisterns or rain barrels.  On Friday, we will look at different methods for harvesting rainwater for our gardens.

Question: How do you save water in the garden?

Bird Photography at Nature Pavilion in Costa Rica

Rob Ripma

This morning, I visited a property in Costa Rica called Nature Pavilion. It’s extremely well known as a bird photography spot but many birders just pass it by. It’s really unfortunate because it’s an amazing place for both photography and birding. We arrived early this morning and got to work shooting some great images!

After a while, I decided I needed to see what other birds might be around so I hit the trails. It didn’t take long before I came across some incredible species, Green Ibis and Gray-necked Wood-Rail. Just before lunch, we tool another hike across the creek to a small island. We found some awesome birds including this Laughing Falcon!

This Laughing Falcon was trying to get some type of prey item out of this tree. It didn't succeed and we never did see what it was after.

This Laughing Falcon was trying to get some type of prey item out of this tree. It didn’t succeed and we never did see what it was after.

We spent the afternoon watching birds from the Nature Pavilion’s beautiful observation decks and taking many more photos. Towards the end of the day, Activity really picked up with many hummingbirds zipping between the feeders and a number of birds actively feeding the surrounding trees. My biggest highlight of the day was seeing both a Snowy Cotinga and a Long-tailed Tyrant from the observation deck late in the afternoon!

Here are a few other photos that I took today!

Green Honeycreepers are really beautiful birds! They were very common at the feeders at Nature Pavilion.

Green Honeycreepers are really beautiful birds! They were very common at the feeders at Nature Pavilion.

The hummingbird feeders were quite active! This White-necked Jacobin was quite cooperative.

The hummingbird feeders were quite active! This White-necked Jacobin was quite cooperative.

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