Nature abhors a vacuum

Gardeners fill a vacuum
By Jean English | Oct 02, 2011

You know the old saying that nature abhors a vacuum?

That was certainly true for the Japanese beetles in Carole Whelan’s Hope garden this summer. The insects arrived just after a 500-person garden tour at her Birds ‘n’ Bees Farm (landscaped to support birds, pollinators and to feed the Whelans). In three days, the beetles denuded the Virginia creeper over her deck.

Virginia creeper berries reportedly feed some 35 species of birds. One W. L. McAtee reported in the July 1906 edition of Auk, “On account of the climbing habit of this vine the berries escape being covered in winter and thus increase in importance to the birds with the severity of weather. Through all the cold, zero or below, through periods of sleet and snow and ice that sealed up everything on or near the ground, the writer has observed several species of birds feeding upon these berries.”

Among the birds visiting Virginia creeper on the campus of the University of Indiana in winter, McAtee listed bluebirds, flickers, robins, tufted titmice, juncos, white-breasted nuthatches, red-headed woodpeckers, blue jays, chickadees, cardinals and chewink (towhee).

Whelan’s visiting sister saw the mess the Japanese beetles were making of the Virginia creeper and on the deck, got out the Shop-Vac, and regular vacuuming with that took care of most the beetles — better than twice-daily flicking of beetles into buckets of soapy water. The beetles must have abhorred the Shop-Vac, but no one else did.

I tried a small Dirt Devil vacuum on my own plants and found that it barely held enough charge to make it out the door; and certainly lacked the power to suck up beetles. (The vacuum did come from a yard sale...) So the vacuum created here consisted of holes in grape leaves, but nature produces so many grape leaves that the plant eventually filled that vacuum.

Here’s a different sort of vacuum story: At Ocean Glimpse Farm in Northport, gardeners Judy Berk and David Foley had hybrid poplars growing on their land when they moved there. When the short-lived trees died some time ago, Berk and Foley cut them back to stumps about 2 feet high and inoculated them with spawn of the edible oyster mushrooms. The stumps now produce a tasty crop for the couple regularly. A poplar vacuum, filled by gourmet food!

This summer saw no vacuum of white admiral butterflies. We had to proceed carefully down our driveway to avoid hitting half a dozen or so each time we drove in or out. In my garden, these butterflies (and a few kinds of bees) flocked to the fragrant inflorescences of ‘Ruby Spice’ clethra (summersweet, sweet pepper bush) from mid-August to mid-September. Plant this superb landscape shrub, and you too should have no absence of pollinators.

An orchard mason bee house that I saw at Thuja Gardens in Northeast Harbor this summer didn’t appear to be occupied by those native pollinators. Also called blue orchard bees (Bob!), these insects normally nest in reeds and other natural holes. Maybe Thuja had enough natural cavities that the human crafted house wasn’t needed — but I bet some Bobs will fill that fabricated vacuum yet.

In my little orchard, our two mason bee houses had holes that were plugged with mud this summer, indicating that a female bee had laid eggs in the holes. Orchard mason bees are important in helping to fill the vacuum left by declining populations of honeybees. Mason bees are excellent pollinators.

What had been occupied one evening at Thuja Gardens made for a great story. A large ornamental urn strikingly decorates part of the garden. When the caretaker came to close the garden gates one evening, he found that a woman had filled the urn with water from a nearby hose and was bathing in it. Naked. Just filled that vacuum of an empty urn with her own body.

Whether inoculated tree stumps, mason bee homes, pollen- and nectar-filled flowers, or urns, if you garden, your creation can add a bounty of diversity to an ecosystem.

Jean English lives in Lincolnville.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.