Monday, October 28, 2013

The Garden Team Gets a Shout-Out!

guest post by Lynn Hassler, Tucson Audubon Garden Team Captain

The wildlife garden in front of the shop at 5th and University was had a long history, but after its most recent big upgrades (raised pathways, new plants) in 2006, there were no provisions set for maintaining it. While teaching a class on bird gardening at Tucson Audubon a couple of years ago, it became clear to Lynn Hassler that the space needed help. Overrun with Bermuda grass and overgrown with plants placed too close together and never pruned, Lynn pitched the idea of volunteering her time to improve the look. 

It took some time to get a reliable team of volunteers in place, but I am now very fortunate to have some true all-stars:   MARCIA BECKER, KEITH ASHLEY, and JULIA ARMSTRONG.  All are passionate about plants and gardening, enjoy being physical, have keen minds, and like to laugh.  I try to teach them what I know, but also make sure that we have fun.  Whether they know it or not, they are learning simply by being around the plants throughout the seasons.  Impressive has been their perseverance for gardening through the long hot summer months—testimony to their commitment.   We share plants and seeds, and we’ve taken a number of field trips off site—to a local wholesale nursery, Mt. Lemmon for summer wildflowers, Empire Cienega for birds and for the greened-up grassland experience, and to Tohono Chul for a plant sale.

MARCIA (middle right): Volunteering in the TAS garden has provided me with the opportunity to learn from the best, Lynn Hassler-Garden Queen  and birder  extraordinaire . Helping to create and maintain a place of beauty as well as enjoying the  camaraderie of my fellow gardeners, makes my time in the TAS garden a genuine delight.

KEITH: I knew I had landed in the right place when Lynn gave me a first tour of the garden, carefully explaining the wildlife benefits of each species--from larval food sources for butterflies to nectar hot-spots for hummingbirds.  She patted the top of the bamboo muhly as if it were a favorite pet. I find it much easier to remember plants' personalities, and how to care for them, when I have the chance to work with them regularly like this, under the guidance of someone who clearly loves to garden.

JULIA (right): It has been very gratifying working with the garden, it was a neglected space and now it is looking wonderful! I’ve been friends with Lynn for a long time and she asked me to help. I love plants and birds, and it’s been a great experience.

Two weeks ago we put in a number of new plants, many to increase the butterfly and other pollinator diversity.  Eventually we hope to have plant I.D. tags.  The donation of a bird bath by Pete and Betty Bengtson  has been a real plus.  Cynthia Pruett donated an irrigation clock which has made a huge difference in terms of the watering; it used to be turned on manually, which wasn’t happening very often.  
Getting ready to plant under the dappled sunlight
Another volunteer, ALICE KENNEDY, kindly provides supplemental plant watering.  She used to garden with us on Wednesdays, but has since gone on to a paying job.  One of Alice’s claims to fame is that she single-handedly dug up a number of those tenacious queen’s wreath tubers. 
Most recently the YMCA building manager agreed to let us begin work on the landscaping on the west side of the building so that we can extend the wildlife habitat.  You will be seeing some changes there, although they will be gradual.
A friend recently asked me:  When will the garden be done?  Well, the answer to that is “never” because all great gardens are ever-evolving. 

Lynn has been a gardener her entire life and worked at the Tucson Botanical Gardens for 14 years in a variety of capacities:  Nursery Manager, Volunteer Coordinator, Newsletter Editor, Director of Education, and Director of Horticulture.  She has  written several  books—Birds of the American  Southwest;  Gambel’s Quail;  Roadrunners;  Hummingbirds of the American West; The Raven: Soaring Through History, Legend and Lore; and Hot Pots: Container Gardening in the Arid Southwest.  For the past 12 years she has written a bird gardening column for Bird Watcher’s Digest.  Lynn has previously served on the board of directors of the Arizona Native Plant Society and Tucson Audubon. She currently teaches classes and leads trips for Tucson Audubon, Tohono Chul Park, and Desert Botanic Garden in Phoenix.  Check out Lynn and her Tucson garden in a new book by Bill Thompson III, Bird Homes and Habitats, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Find her in the section entitled “The Birdy Backyard All-Stars.” 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fall Colors in the Sonoran Desert

Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

It was great to be back at Tucson Audubon's North Simpson Farm habitat restoration site on Wednesday. I helped Restoration Manager Jonathan Horst, crew members and volunteers plant grasses in an attempt to make the western part of the restoration area, where it meets up with the low-lying land along the Santa Cruz River, a native grassland.

Crew member Dan Lehman demonstrates a grass-planting strategy

And then we got to work, since there were a lot of grass "plugs" to plant.

Several species of native grasses waiting to be planted

After planting some grasses I took a few minutes to walk around and take photos, since I hadn't been out there for a while. The vegetation at the site is not typical of the iconic Sonoran Desert Uplands, with their ironwoods and saguaros. This is previously farmed dusty flooplain of the Santa Cruz River. It's now getting revegetated with a variety of plants, the most dominant of which is saltbush.

In autumn the abundant seeds on healthy four-winged saltbushes turn yellowish.

Four-winged saltbush (Atriplex canescens) turning yellow

Realizing that there might be other indications of fall, I looked around a bit more. Another species of saltbush, called quailbush (Atriplex lentiformis), was also turning color. But instead of typical fall colors the seeds on this plant, small lens-shaped ones, sometimes turn purplish.

Quailbush seeds

Then I ran across a whitethorn acacia (Acacia constricta). As the seed pods of whitethorns start to dry out, they turn red. It's a beautiful red.

Acacia constricta pods, and white thorns

And if you want some more traditional fall colors, well, you're almost out of luck. But here's the very top of a cottonwood tree, sticking out from the trees along the river. It was starting to turn yellow. 

Cottonwood (Populus fremonti) beginning to turn

There's beauty in our world where ever you look. Thanks crew and volunteers for making this restoration site more beautiful and better for wildlife.

Field crew and volunteers

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Birds Watch as we Plant Mason Winter Garden

-Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

Today we planted winter crops in the Mason Food Garden. Birds watched from nearby trees in anticipation. More about that in a moment, but first a word about our food garden.

Last week volunteer extraordinaire Keith Ashley pulled dead corn stalks and the withering squash vines out of the Mason Food Garden to get it ready for our winter garden.

Keith Ashley prepping the vegetable garden

The Mason garden is a small demonstration area containing three Kino Heritage Fruit Trees, a few native culinary herbs and a postage-stamp vegetable garden. We purchased the fruit trees and culinary herbs from Desert Survivors Nursery ( last fall. Over the summer we planted corn, beans and squash.

Quarter-inch drip line with in-line emitters
When it rains, the garden gets a significant amount of moisture from a pipe that brings water from half of the bathroom roof directly into a French drain inside the garden (the gravel-filled trench visible in the photo above).

The garden has a drip irrigation system that we use when there isn't enough moisture from rain (which, for vegetables, is a lot of the time!). We just installed some new 1/4-inch irrigation tubes with in-line emitters every six inches. We're hoping this will be more water efficient than our old drip system and put water right where we want it. 

Seed packets
This morning we planted some fall/winter crops, including a sampling of carrots, Swiss chard, beets, lettuce, fava beans, mustard greens, onions and cilantro. Most of the seeds are from our great local heritage seed bank: Native Seeds/SEARCH (

As we planted I heard a lot of birds nearby, including Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Costa's Hummingbird and a Black-throated Sparrow.

It made me wonder if they knew what we were doing. Maybe they see our little plot as the Mason Bird Food Garden! If our summer garden was any indication, the critters are indeed watching. Somebody thought the beans we planted were pretty good because instead of twining up the corn stalks as we had planned, the bean sprouts simply vanished both times we planted them.

Planting onions
[Photo by Keith Ashley]
We don't mind if the birds help a little with the harvest. After all, everything we do is for the birds. But we are taking steps to avoid total losses, such as putting down an Agribon "frost blanket" to protect young plants from critters. (The blanket will also help prevent soil moisture from evaporating.) We're also sprinkling some diatomaceous earth around as a barrier to the leaf-cutter ants that seem to be working full time hauling off leaves of the pomegranate and chiltepin. These protections are in addition to the anti-javelina fence we put up around the garden.

Make plans to visit Tucson Audubon's Mason Center this fall, including our Harvest Festival and Mesquite Milling on November 9. If you are interested in Tucson Audubon's urban sustainability program, please go to and subscribe to our emails on "Gardening for Birds and Urban Sustainability."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival: Your Fantastic Field Trip Leaders!

-- Erin Olmstead, Festival Coordinator

The third annual Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival was a success thanks to the dedication of many in the birding and conservation community, locally and beyond. This one goes out to our outstanding crew of friendly and professional field trip leaders!

We are so grateful to these amazing ladies and gentlemen who so generously and enthusiastically lent their time and expertise to help people connect with birds, nature, and kindred spirits...

Brian Gibbons navigates the by birds on Mt. Lemmon
Matt Brooks shares a Regal Ringneck Snake found at Las Cienegas
Vince Pinto points out a barrel cactus near Patagonia Lake
Mike Sadatmousavi and Drew Lanham introduce beginners to Sweetwater Wetlands
Back at the Riverpark, Richard Fray and Chris Benesh review the day's results

There is something so meaningful (and fun!) about going out in the field with someone who exudes knowledge, loves nature, appreciates the thrill of discovery, and really understands what makes a place special...

To Jeff Babson, Chris Benesh, Andy Bennett, Matt Brooks, Jennie Duberstein, Richard Fray, Brian Gibbons, Paul Green, Matt Griffiths, Homer Hansen, Lynn Hassler, Steve Howell, Rich Hoyer, Drew Lanham, Jennie MacFarland, Jake Mohlmann, Michael O'Brien, Scott Olmstead, Sara Pike, Vince Pinto, Mike Sadatmousavi, Ronnie Sidner, Heather Swanson, Bonnie Swarbrick, Rick Taylor, Deb Vath, Sheri Williamson, John Yerger, and Louise Zemaitis:

Thank you for that 'special something'. Because of you, there were so many smiles, laughs, high-fives, lifers, and "Aha!" moments at the festival this year. We can't wait to do it all over again. 

Plant a Tree, Help a Bird

--Kendall Kroesen, Urban Program Manager

The cool season has arrived! Well, the cooler season, anyway. Mornings have been clear and slightly chilled.

With the lower temperatures, our fall volunteer habitat restoration work days have begun at Atturbury Wash. On Saturday September 28 we had about 40 University of Arizona students planting trees and shrubs. They also dug rainwater harvesting basins, spread mulch, and installed drip irrigation. They did a great job!

Come out and help with this project--located on the east side of Tucson at Lincoln Regional Park--on one of these additional volunteer days through December:

October 12, 7 - 11 a.m.
November 16, 8 a.m. - noon
December 7, 8 a.m. - noon
(Other's will be scheduled in January through March)

Contact Kara Kaczmarzyk to sign up:, 520-209-1811.

There are many other volunteer opportunities at Tucson Audubon--go to to learn more.

There will also be a free Tucson Audubon birding field trip at Atturbury Wash on Saturday, December 14. Contact me to sign up for that:, or 520-209-1806.