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How Does Your Garden Grow?

This article is excerpted from a presentation that will be given by the author at the South Texas Border Chapter of Texas Master Naturalist’s June 20 meeting at 6:30 p.m. Meetings are open to the public on Facebook. Like our page to get notification when we go live.

Published June 18, 2022, in the McAllen Monitor.

Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist, South Texas Border Chapter

It’s not silver bells and cockle shells, as the old nursery rhyme goes, but the whole gamut of diverse and somewhat disparate critters that help make up a growing garden – perhaps not critters on the A-list of desirables, but important, nonetheless.

Whether a butterfly or pollinator garden or just a group of pretty flowers, it’s important to understand the role other things play. For instance, many people aren’t happy to discover an opossum in their garden, perhaps because they don’t know how useful they are. Opossums are scavengers and omnivores; most notably, they eat ticks – which can cause illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. They also eat roadkill, meat, vegetation, snails, grasshoppers, mice, rats and bugs that inhabit a garden. Active dusk to dawn, their food-hunting range can encompass a two-mile territory; you’re very likely sharing an opossum with your neighbors.

Opossum. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Other night creatures are owls. We may only discover they are visitors or residents in our yard by what they leave behind, like owl pellets. These findings are indigestible materials from what the bird has eaten, including feathers, teeth, fur and bones. Owl pellets are not scat because they have not passed through the owl’s digestive system; rather, the owl’s weak digestive enzymes can’t break down those materials and they get stored in the owl’s gizzard. When the gizzard gets full, the owl will stretch its neck up and forward, open its beak and eject the pellet without retching. The discovery of owl pellets may be the only clue there is an owl close by. Rodents make up a large percentage of an owl’s diet. Large owls also prey on skunks and rabbits.

Great Horned Owl pellet. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Barn Owl pellet. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Snakes might not be something we actively entice to our gardens, but the Texas indigo snake is special: it eats rattlesnakes. Indigos are the largest harmless and non-aggressive snake in Texas; their primary habitat is South Texas. They have shiny black scales, can grow six to eight feet in length with a four-inch girth and can live to 40 years. Texas indigo snake is listed as threatened in Texas and cannot be hunted or killed. They are active during the daytime; their diet includes rodents, birds, turtles and other snakes. Ranchers make their land hospitable to the Texas indigo snake by providing out-of-the-way brush piles or hollow logs camouflaged by leaf litter.

Texas Indigo snake. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Smaller than snakes, and just as creepy to some people, are caterpillars. Butterfly and moth caterpillars can be as colorful and interesting as the beautiful, winged insects we enjoy watching. Caterpillars eat leaves, mostly; they eat a lot and leave a lot; small green or black pellet-like droppings found on leaves are called frass. Frass is harmless and doesn’t mean a plant is diseased. In fact, frass falls to the ground and becomes an excellent fertilizer. Caterpillars do not kill their host plants. Leaves, flower buds, flowers and seedpods are regenerated by the plant. In the cycle of life, caterpillars provide important food for birds raising a brood of chicks.

Bordered Patch butterfly caterpillars leave black frass on Turk's Cap leaves. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)


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