Neighbors and endangered leafcutter bees swarm local grower’s untamed garden

STORY AND PHOTO BY DANA HUCH

Local grower Phil Muller’s home is bursting at the seams with stems and seeds. Every time he latches onto a new plant curiosity, the garden gets a bit more crowded — flats of displaced plants block backyard paths, and his flower cuttings find their way onto bookshelves and neighbors’ kitchen tables.

In his defense, Muller said that spreading tiny seeds always seems harmless in the moment.

“Next thing you know, they all come up and I’m like, ‘I can’t kill them; I’m just going to pot them and see what happens,’” Muller said. “Well, what happens is I end up with twelve flats spread out … and now you have to kind of tiptoe to get to the office.”

Muller was fascinated from a young age by the natural world and its floral gems, especially the ones with “little faces” like violas and pansies, which he would always select on nursery outings with his father.

He now brings his own daughter to nurseries, where she decides apple varieties and loads the cart with parsley plants.

The garden Muller’s father maintained was a strictly controlled environment. Nightmares of mowing the grass in two directions as a kid banished lawnage of any sort from Muller’s current home garden, where he opts instead for a “let the garden go” approach.

An untamed garden is a peephole into the natural order for observational learning; Muller keeps a close eye on the creature demographic of his garden and the ways it balances itself. The endangered native leafcutter bees (the most effective pollinators in California), warrant special observation, photography and research.

“The reason why they’re better at pollinating is because of the way they carry their pollen,” Muller said. “Her underside is all hair. She’ll go up to the sunflowers and literally do a belly rub, trying to get all of her body covered. Whereas, honeybees pack it on their knees. ‘The bee’s knees,’ right?”

A leafcutter bee. (courtesy Phil Muller)

Most of Muller’s learnings have come from dedicated observation, but he occasionally consults a bee Ph.D. for expert — albeit dryly analytical — responses identifying species, decoding behavioral patterns and once explaining bee house construction.

In Muller’s experience, the gardening community is responsive and enthusiastic to lend not only experiential knowledge, but also connections to other local green thumbs. Muller said locality is such a determining factor that some niche answers can only come from other gardeners in his area.

The community is also a dangerously exciting source of new projects when, for example, the American Fern Society offers up spores.

“I’m like, ‘Oh! How do you grow a fern from spores?’” Muller laughed. “I just all of a sudden get geeked out, but then I have to [remind myself], ‘No no no, wait.’ … I was just going to be down the road and inundated so I pulled back the reins.”

Muller returns the favor to the fellow home gardeners in his neighborhood by offering them his heaps of productive seedlings and fresh flower cuttings.

“When you have 20 flats or more of plants in the backyard, there’s not room for anything else,” he said. “So, I need them to go. It really comes down to: I planted too many.”

During the pandemic’s shutdown of nurseries, Muller fashioned a driveway nursery as a way to unload his bounty of plants, which ended up becoming a beacon of hope for home growers and flower-loving families. Neighbors could pick up any plants for free, while Muller and his daughter watched excitedly from the window.

“Every time we put something out, it all goes,” Muller said.

The driveway nursery debuted a folding table full of young sunflowers ready to be planted. Within four hours, the table with a “Free Sunflowers” sign had cleared, restocked and cleared again.

One frenzied customer was apparently a bit too enthused and snagged the folding table itself, prompting a “Please return my table” sign in the vacant driveway.

“Everyone knew that my table was missing,” Muller said. “So I would be out here watering and even the mailman asked, ‘Did you ever get your table?’ … It’s kind of an inside community joke.”

In response to his nursery, Muller received thank you notes, three pots of bearded iris and lots of questions from neighbors he had never met before about how to grow the plants they had picked up. Connecting with his community through a shared passion “breaks a barrier,” he said.

The driveway nursery’s popularity begged the question from Muller’s family: “Why don’t you sell the flowers?”

But to Muller, turning his flower cutting hobby into a business would take the lightheartedness out of it, introducing stress and expectations. For now, his early mornings in the garden followed by stealthy flower deliveries to a sleeping, bee-averse daughter’s room are all he wants.

But Muller said he is far from ruling out the idea of selling flowers altogether. He and his wife, Leda, have already visited properties in Washington to consider for a Dahlia farm. The flower farm would be two to five to 20 acres, depending on who the answer is coming from (Muller or his wife).

For the sake of maintaining the peaceful personal value of a home garden, Muller keeps a humble vision for the flower business as a stand selling cuttings in town.

“[The garden] centers me,” Muller said. “It’s a place [in any season] I can come out and cycle through. I can come out and watch that leafcutter for five minutes and all of my troubles aren’t really as bad as they could be, right? Because she’s trying to get the next generation to survive and then she’s going to die. I feel kind of connected to it.”

To home gardeners just starting out, Muller offers these words of advice:

“Be fearless but also grow the right plant in the right place,” he said. “…Basically find the conditions you have and get plants to grow well in it. Don’t worry if you see anything considered a ‘pest’ to the gardening community as these pests are considered food to other insects such as ladybugs. We can’t have one without the other.”

And like the tree Muller first planted as a tiny seed, a new gardener’s skill can grow little by little — barely noticeable at first — until it’s 15 feet tall.

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