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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Leaving Leaves

Yesterday I finally got around to the yard leaf cleanup. I’d been putting it off until the majority of leaves had fallen. Having oak trees around means that’s comparatively late and with a vernal witchhazel that holds its leaves all winter it also means I’m not going to get everything. But no worries! The leaves aren’t really  going anywhere anyway.

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Years ago it occurred to me that I was wasting a LOT of time raking leaves and either putting them on the curb for the city to pick up or shredding them into the compost bins. For the free organic matter I wasn’t sending away I was putting time and effort into speeding up a process that would happen eventually on its own. So I stopped. I only clear them off the paved surfaces and the very small lawn in the back yard. There is no lawn in front. Over winter some of this free, natural, organic mulch tends to shift around and leave bare spots so I like to pack one of the compost bins with dry oak leaves to replenish those areas in spring.

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Because my gardens are all in varying degrees of shade I’ve relied quite a bit on hostas to fill up space. Until I stopped raking I had problems with slugs chewing on the leaves. Conventional wisdom is that getting rid of that organic matter discourages slugs. When I started leaving the leaves the slug damage stopped. I can’t be certain why, but I suspect it’s either that they had more to eat at safe, moist, ground level and left the hostas alone or that this healthier habitat for invertebrates encouraged slug predators that are keeping them in check. In any case, my hostas look great all season.

Habitat Signs

Not only are my plants healthier now, this lazy approach to gardening has helped make it possible to certify the yard as a wildlife habitat and to provide resources for pollinators as well.

Recently I’ve been coming across articles encouraging leaving fallen leaves for wildlife like these from The Xerces Society, The National Wildlife Federation and Habitat Network. How do you handle your autumn leaves? I encourage you to do some reading and, if you’re able, consider leaving them in place. Wildlife and your back will thank you.

Hello, Spring. Goodbye, Bees.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Pollinator Tour

I was vacillating about going on a pollinator tour yesterday at a local land conservancy. We had been to an opening/tour of a distillery on Friday and then Saturday we braved the heat again for the urban horticulture field day at the agricultural research station.  In the end I decided I’d probably regret it if I skipped it. I’m so glad I went!

Susan

While the tour started with a general introduction to pollinators and their importance, the main focus of the event was bumble bees. We learned about their life cycle and got some helpful tips on how to photograph and identify them. The presenter encouraged us to submit our sightings to Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science project I started looking at earlier this summer but hadn’t gotten around to submitting anything to. If you’re in North America I suggest you check it out and consider getting involved.

Bumble Bee on Echinacea

The weather has been on the dry side lately so there hasn’t been as much nectar available for bees. The purple coneflowers were popular. That’s where we saw this Brown-belted Bumble Bee, or at least that’s what I think it is. I’m not too sure of my identification skills at this point but hope with time and seeing more bees it will become easier. Bumble bees can be tricky to identify because the queens, males and worker females can all look different within a species and there are variations even within a sex.

Bees Gathering Pollen

The coneflowers also attracted these solitary bees who were busy collecting pollen for their brood.

Yellow Bumble Bee

In all we saw five species of bumble bees in the three hours we were there. This one in the jar is a Yellow Bumble Bee. Our guide was catching bees for us to see up close, first with a net, but then just by walking up to them and placing the jar over them. They were all released unharmed when we were done looking at them.

Monarch Caterpillar

Along with the bees we saw a few Monarch Butterfly caterpillars like this one. It seemed to be lost exploring a nodding onion stem rather than its usual milkweed host plants.

Solitary Bee on Mustard

It was cool to see so many people turn out for an event like this. There were even a couple of young boys in attendance who were really into it, asking good questions and having a great time finding bees. We all came away with information and suggestions of resources to help us continue our studies of bumble bees. Now I need to get out and see more bees before it’s too late. The flowers I associate with autumn, goldenrod and asters are starting to bloom and before we know it the bees will have tucked themselves away for winter.

Fascinating But Annoying

I was just outside on the deck and noticed something flying around the mason bee hotel. Since the tubes are almost all occupied I was curious who might be looking for a place to live. As I watched I saw a small wasp climbing around on the outside of the bamboo carefully inspecting them with her antennae. Then she assumed a rather arched posture and I assumed the worst.

Ovipositing

Yup, somebody’s laying eggs! If you look closely you can count her six tan feet versus one black, evil (if you’re the poor, parasitized pupa inside) ovipositor.

Bamboo Crack

When I looked around the other side I could clearly see the crack she had discovered and was exploiting. It’s a flaw in the fortress that will probably cost more than one mason be his or her life. Bummer. Yet it’s fascinating. This makes me think I should be changing out the bamboo each year. Replacing it will not only lessen the occurrence of vulnerable cracks, but also reduce the buildup of parasitic mites.

Seems there’s always something going on.

Trouble in the Onion Patch

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I pulled the first onion today! It’s a good size and the top had definitely fallen down which is what I take as a signal to harvest. Lots of onion leaves are toppling.  Whether that’s a good thing, I’m in the process of looking up right now.

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There’s something that looks like a fungus attacking the leaves of the onions. It seems to be spreading from one area making me think it’s something that’s spreading by spores helped out by the near-daily showers we had in June and the cool weather that’s been hanging around. Preliminary investigations are leading me to believe we’re not going to be eating our own onions for a full year like we have been until now.

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I also took a leek in the garden Winking smile Every year I’ve been ignoring them until they’re big monsters so I’m making an effort to eat them as the season goes along. Fingers are crossed that this disease won’t attack them, too.

There was insect activity today, as usual. I’m slowly working at learning what some of them are and, more importantly, who’s a friend and who’s a fiend.

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An obvious friend was this bumble bee hard at work pollinating the tomatoes. Look at that load of pollen!

Bee on Cilantro

This little solitary bee was one of the critters feasting on the cilantro flowers. First, I hadn’t realized how pretty cilantro flowers were until I started looking at these pictures. Second, see her cute little tongue probing the bloom?

Bee on Cilantro 2

Here’s another angle so you can see how she carries pollen on her leg hairs, not all packed in a ball like the bumble bees and honey bees do.

Fly on Cilantro

This fly was visiting the abundant cilantro flowers, too. I can tell it’s a fly and not a bee because its eyes meet at the top of its head.

Bug on Cilantro

I almost didn’t notice this bug on the plants nestled between unopened buds. There were several of them just hanging out. I saw one on a pole bean tee-pee, too.

Grasshopper on Squash Leaf

This little grasshopper, on the other hand, was easy to spot on a squash leaf.

I’m really enjoying observing and trying to photograph the insects that I’m encountering in the garden. Discovering the burst mode on my phone’s camera has helped a bit in photographing them. It also means I have dozens more images to sort through to see if anything is in focus. There was an amazing fly with a ridiculously long nose working the cilantro blooms that I just couldn’t get because it was moving around so fast. That will be the next challenge to overcome.

For the time being I’m back to researching onion diseases. My fear is that they won’t keep as long as they would have otherwise or, even worse, they’ll need to be discarded right away. Wish me luck!