Perennial Plant Transition

Over the last year I’ve experienced a subtle shift in interests and activities that has led to me blogging less and getting out and enjoying nature more. I still garden as much as ever, but just haven’t felt the need to share so many updates here. My organic kitchen garden is what it is and I still get produce and enjoyment from it in equal measures, but except for a couple of new-to-me crops I’m growing this year, there isn’t much to report. Instead I may be sharing more of my nature explorations, some of which I’m hoping will happen in my own urban perennial garden at an increasing rate.

When I discovered iNaturalist last year I had already been photographing the interesting flora, fauna, and fungi I’d encounter in my explorations. Having a place to share my finds, obtain or confirm identifications, and learn more about the organisms I encounter motivated me to spend even more time out looking around. As I began finding more and more flowering plants in shady habitats I started thinking about how I could incorporate them into the shady urban gardens around our home.

Photo Jun 26, 6 28 22 AM

Over the nearly thirty years I’ve been dragging the gardens back from the neglected wasteland they used to be I relied heavily on ferns and hostas to fill space and create some interesting contrasts in texture and color. At one point I had nearly ninety varieties of hosta, most of which are still going strong. Patches and specimens of native and exotic woodland plants, especially spring ephemerals round out the plantings and mostly provide flowers only early in the season. While they do attract pollinators, especially bumble bees, during their blooming period, hostas don’t produce a lot of flowers for the space they occupy. Since I’ve declared the garden a pollinator habitat I’ve been paying more attention to which plants bees and other insects are visiting in the woodlands and savannas in our area. The removal of some trees in a neighbor’s yard have opened up the canopy more so I’ve started experimenting with adding more floriferous and taller natives.

Photo Jun 26, 6 28 02 AM

I started slowly, first purchasing a single plant of a cultivar of Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium cv.) which did poorly at first because we were out of town when it really could have used some watering. Then I started seeing more about nursery plants being treated with neonicotinoid pesticides which, by design are harmful to insects. While the different interested parties go back and forth over the level of threat they pose in this application, I decided just growing my own plants from seed was probably the safest approach. I’ve had a full semester course in plant propagation and years of experience propagating my own plants by various methods, including from seed.

poke milkweed

The first species I wanted to try was Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) which I encountered dangling its clawlike flowers in the woods of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve where I often walk. I purchased seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery and sowed them shallowly in a single pot that I left outside over the winter to simulate natural conditions.

Photo May 20, 12 12 23 PM

I think nearly every seed germinated this spring and after they’d grown a few true leaves I transplanted them into individual pots. To keep them safe from the squirrels who sometimes dig in my plant pots I kept them inside the propagation cage I built from recovered deck wood. As they’ve grown and I’ve started pots of other species, I realized I was going to run out of squirrel-proof room so this weekend I took up another construction project.

Photo Jun 26, 6 26 33 AM

For years an unused trellis(?) has been laying behind the compost bins. It’s a simple frame of 2x2s with a layer of chicken wire that I realized would be a good size for another propagation box.

Photo Jun 26, 6 26 42 AM

I put together a wooden frame with a slatted bottom and hinged the trellis to the top for a lid to keep squirrels out but let the sun and rain in. I did find chipmunks can get through chicken wire but they rarely do and don’t do as much damage as the squirrels. It’s only 9” deep but that’s sufficient to get plants started and then they can be moved to the taller cage if they need to grow on more before transplanting.

DSC_0594 (2)

One of the next plants I would like to grow is Early Figwort (Scrofularia lanceolata) as it produces a lot of nectar for the size of its flowers. The specimen above was growing in an open prairie, but I’ve seen it in shadier edge conditions and believe it could thrive in my garden.

My list of seeds to obtain for this garden transition has been growing and I’ll be spending some time this summer deciding which species to focus on next. My goal is to have a long season of bloom with no interruption in nectar sources for the pollinators I’m fortunate to have visiting the small oasis I hope I’m creating for them.

Photo Jun 26, 6 29 50 AM

Do you consider pollinators when you select plants for your garden? I would appreciate hearing about your successes in the comments below, especially with native plants that grow in partial shade to shade.

Hello, Spring. Goodbye, Bees.

Photo Apr 03, 2 05 22 PM

Today was the first time we’ve gone up to our community garden plot this spring. There are a few signs of green besides the occasional weed, including those healthy looking chives. I’ve dropped by a few times over the winter, but today we actually did a little bit of work, mostly clearing away last year’s asparagus stems. We found shoots!

Photo Apr 03, 2 03 12 PM

Out of all the plants, I think this might have been the only female and I’m wondering if there’s a correlation between it’s sex and that it’s the first one out of the ground. More likely it’s just the best-protected plant.

Photo Apr 03, 2 05 05 PM

These scallions that I left in last fall are going to be ready to harvest soon. I need to make a note to grow them over the winter again. They’ve done well.

Photo Apr 03, 2 03 24 PM

In another Allium area we found the garlic looking great. I did a quick scan of the anal-retentive grid I planted them on and it looks like every bulb I put in survived and has emerged.

Photo Apr 03, 2 05 38 PM

This Allium, which I thought might be Korean chives, has come back strong. I am curious to really identify it, if possible, now that I’m reading Around the World in 80 Plants.  There are so many edible Alliums! It sounds like even experts have a difficult time telling some of them apart. Which reminds me, back in the perennial garden at home my ramps, a.k.a. Allium tricoccum are up. I hope this year I can get some seed from them.

Ramps

I need to find an unobtrusive way to mark where they are planted so I don’t accidentally dig them up during this summer’s planned garden update. Maybe a circle of stones.

Hellebore 1

Elsewhere in the perennial garden the hellebores are stealing the show. After yesterday’s on again/off again snow and sunshine—seriously, it was a weird day— I got out to look around and admire a few blooms.

Hellebore 2

Hellebore 3

Hellebore 4

Hellebore 5

Niger

This clump of Helleborus niger var. macranthus is starting to look a little beaten-up. No surprise since it’s been blooming for about a month and has been snowed and sleeted on several times.

Birdhouse

The H. niger is under the cherry tree where I replaced the trashed cigar box birdhouse (thanks for nothing, squirrels!) with this one I scavenged from my late father’s shed last fall. There is already some nesting material hanging out of the backyard wren house so I thought I’d better get this one out.

Which brings me to the other animal housing update…

Bee Blocks

Here are the deserted blocks that, until last weekend supported my beehives. A couple summers ago I discovered the hard way that I’ve developed an allergy to honey bee venom. (The emergency room just over the hill here is very nice.) Since then, I just haven’t felt comfortable around the hives without being fully suited up. Consequently, maintenance of the garden has suffered. I recently made the hard decision to give up the bees and turned them over, along with all my equipment to my beekeeping partner to liquidate. Helen, the last hive I had has survived through two winters so he’s going to attempt to make some splits. They should be rather desirable on the local market. I’m going to miss watching the annual cycle of the hive and caring for the honey bees. They’re fascinating creatures I’ll always appreciate. In their place I’ll be caring to the extent I do to the native bees and other pollinators around my home gardens and in our community garden plot by providing food plants and housing opportunities for them.

Scilla

The food, of course, includes my nemesis, the dreaded Scilla. I’ve given up trying eradicate it from the back garden and hope just to keep it from invading the front. It’s still a noxious, alien weed in my eyes, but knowing it provides food for so many kinds of bees has changed my opinion of it, but only grudgingly.

Trilliums

This is my favorite time of the year and it coincides with the blooming of one of my favorite genera of wildflowers, the Trilliums.  Over the years I’ve gathered a diverse collection of these beauties and right now they’re all flowering beautifully.

T cuneatum

Trillium cuneatum, a.k.a Whippoor-Will Flower, Cuneate Trillium, Large Toadshade, Purple Toadshade, Bloody Butcher and Sweet Betsy is the largest of the eastern sessile species. Mine is being invaded by some Bloodroot that needs to be pushed back a bit.

T erectum

Trillium erectum, a.k.a. Red Trillium, Wake-Robin, Stinking Benjamin, Stinking Willie, Purple Trillium, Squawroot, Birthwort and American True Love can have very distinct local populations and a high degree of variability. For example…

Trillium erectum var. album is a white form of the species which when I purchased it the seller was calling it a “beige” variety.

This Trillium erectum var. album is more distinctly yellow. See the Buddha watching over the beehives in the background? I haven’t noticed if the honeybees visit Trilliums.

T flexipes

Trillium flexipes, a.k.a. Bent Trillium or White Trillium can look enough like T. erectum var. album that I need to key this one out to see if I really got what I was paying for.

T grandiflorum

Trillium grandiflorum, a.k.a. White Trillium, Great White Trillium, Large-flowered White Trillium and White Wake-Robin is probably the best known and loved species. Some of the forests around here have patches carpeted with their white blooms each spring. I have several plants throughout my garden and they show a range of size in the plants and flowers.

T luteum

Trillium luteum, a.k.a. Yellow Trillium, Yellow Toadshade and Wax Trillium is another large species with upright flowers. This species hybridizes with T. cuneatum in the wild so I’ve been thinking about trying to cross them on my own and see what I get.

T recurvatum

Trillium recurvatum, a.k.a. Prairie Trillium, Toadshade or Bloody Noses (!) was the only species in the garden when we moved here way back when. The flowers are nice but I think I’d grow it even if it didn’t bloom just for that fantastic mottled leaf.

T sessile

Trillium sessile, a.k.a. Sessile Trillium, Toad Trillium or Toadshade usually has darker flowers than this but the other characteristics are right so I think it might just be a paler variety.

When I started collecting Trillium I purchased Frederick and Roberta Case’s excellent monograph on the genus. That is where I got some of the information, especially the different common names above. If you’re growing Trilliums or thinking of getting some I highly recommend it as a reference. It helped me, for example, save myself the heartbreak of trying to grow the incomparable Painted Trillium, T. undulatum here where conditions are completely unsuitable.

Do you have Trilliums in your garden? I can’t say enough good things about them if you’ve got a shady, woodland setting.